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Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Travis Betz: The Dead Inside

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In the horror musical The Dead Inside, we meet tortured young lovers Wes and Fi, and while their love for each other burns strong, artistically their hearts have been locked in a box for years. Wes is a burned out photographer paying the bills by shooting weddings, and Fi is the writer’s blocked author of a series of zombie novellas called “The Dead Survive.”

When Fi begins to show signs of schizophrenia, Wes does everything in his power to help her get better. Strange behaviors and breathing patterns escalate; soon he discovers that darker forces lurk inside her. Afraid and completely lost, Wes has no choice but to imprison his girlfriend until he can figure out what to do with the evil that has taken over his true love.

Dread Central recently caught up with writer/director Travis Betz on the eve of his screening at the upcoming Shriekfest Film Festival in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 1st, at 9:30 pm to talk about his unique horror musical, putting a twist on the ever-popular zombie subgenre of cinema and his distinctive approach to storytelling.

Dread Central: Can you talk a bit about where you came up with the story for The Dead Inside, and had you planned to make it a musical from the start?

Travis Betz:Funny story actually. Both my girlfriend and I had been creatively dead for quite some time. We kept trying to get inspired, but nothing was clicking. One night I woke up to one of the creepiest sounds I can ever remember hearing. The woman I love was sleeping next to me, but it sounded like some horrible entity was trapped inside her and trying to communicate. She was making this moaning sound (no, not sexy moaning), and it was damn creepy. I shook her awake and told her. She shrugged me off and went back to sleep. The minute the Sandman reclaimed her, she was doing it again. Inhale. Moan. Inhale. Mooooan. This went on for almost a week. I had to sleep on the couch because I couldn’t get any sleep. Turns out it was a rare condition that occurs sometimes when people catch a bad cold, but damnit if it didn’t sound like a ghost was pushing on her lungs.

This opened up a conversation about possession, and the more we started talking about it, the more we realized that we were excited and inspired! Ideas began to flow, and I was putting the story together in my head…but it still wasn’t coming out onto paper (computer screen, the paper of the future!). It wasn’t until I saw my lead actress, Sarah Lassez, on stage singing at a karaoke bar that I realized I had always wanted to make a musical, and this had to be the missing piece. And it was! The minute I decided my characters would break out into ghostly songs is the moment I was able to start writing. From there, all went rather smooth.

Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Travis Betz: The Dead Inside

DC: With zombies being everywhere these days, was it tough to put your own twist on that subgenre in particular- which I feel like you succeeded at?

Betz:Thanks a million! That means a lot. I don’t think it was really all that tough, mostly because when you really step back and look at it, this isn’t a zombie film. This is a movie about three lost souls (two alive and one dead), and since the zombies live in the character’s head, they can do anything I wish them to do. In this case they are an extension of our leads.

The thing Romero always does so well is use zombies as a mapping device for other issues, emotions and characters. I think that’s when zombies work best. In the case of The Dead Inside, they represent our leads who feel dead and trapped.

DC: When you have a movie that’s just a cast of two, I would think it’s safe to say that you have to be very confident in your actors. Can you talk about what your casting process was like?

Betz:Since I knew when I started writing that it was a two-person story (two actors who end up playing three characters each), I immediately started thinking of who I had in my bag of actors that would rock these parts. I knew I wanted to use Sarah because I had worked with her in a previous film of mine, Lo. Not to mention I saw her singing when the final nugget of inspiration struck so I put her in my pocket while I was writing and I liked visualizing her as the story unfolded. She’s an actress who will bring everything she has to the table even if you are chaining her down to said table.

The male lead was a bit trickier. I had a lot of great actor friends I knew would knock it out of the park, but the problem was that many of them were not strong singers. At the time I was still answering phones at a management company, and the guy who ran packages for that company was an actor who just happened to sing. I had gotten to know him pretty well over the couple years we worked together and had even seen in him some stage shows. There was something about him that was very similar to the character I was writing. He was a good guy, a fun lovin’ guy, but a guy who was nonetheless in a dark place in his life creatively. I watched him for a couple weeks and decided that he was my man. Both actors said yes, and we pushed forward from there.

DC:I think it’s safe to assume between all your different projects that you have a very distinct storytelling approach to the horror genre, and I was wondering if you could talk more about that and what influences you as a filmmaker.

Betz:I grew up (like so many in my genre) with The Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London. Those two films alone educated my senses and told me that movies can be different. They can be fun and horrifying. They can be risky and have heart. They can even be rough around the edges. All I have ever done while writing or shooting is tried to tell a story that interested me. I’ve never cared for the demographics or the international market or proper structure of storytelling- those work for some people; I just don’t like ’em. I like being me. Sure I’m dirt poor, but damnit, I really like what I do. I try as much as I can to stay true to myself. That might cut me off from the general public, but it has given me a very amazing fan base of passionate people and artists. I could never honestly tell you where or how or why I tell a certain story; I know the types of filmmakers who I admire and that helps a lot.

But at the end of the creative day I just do what inspires me and whatever is in my head that has to get out.

DC: I know Lo ended up being a rather successful independent film for you. Were there lessons you learned while making that film that you were able to apply while making The Dead Inside?

Betz:Time management would be a big one. We shot Lo in five days, and in hindsight that was silly. I lost a lot of great shots in that movie because of our time constraint. With The Dead Inside we spaced it out over two and a half months on the weekends with no definitive end date, and our plan was that we would shoot until we were done.

DC: I noticed that you also do quite a bit of acting, too- is there a role (writer, director, producer) that you prefer more? Can you also talk a little bit about Dust Up with Amber Benson because I thought it sounded rather interesting.

Betz:Let me start off by saying that Dust Up is gonna blow your mind. I’m very proud that I was asked to be a part of that movie. I am not an actor by trade, but I do rather enjoy it. I am not trying to pursue a career in it ( I don’t have head shots and I do not audition), but if someone is kind enough to want me in their movie…well shit, let’s play!

Ward Roberts was that guy this time around. I had cast him in Joshua, my first feature film, and also in Lo. We also used to do improv comedy together in college so we’re very comfortable writing for each other. He gave me a super awesome part as a meth head desert rat named Herman, and we spent over a month in the desert shooting that thing. I have recently seen the locked picture…and it’s bad fucking ass. It’s a modern western/action/comedy with loads of fun violence.

All that being said, the role I enjoy most is the writer. I started off as a writer, and it has always been my favorite.

DC: Lo was another feature of yours that has been a part of the Shriekfest Film Festival- how good does it feel to be back with The Dead Inside?

Betz:It feels like giving an old girlfriend a booty call and then realizing that you actually really like her and maybe you two should get back together. We had a great time at Shriekfest two years ago, and we took home the audience award. I was thrilled when we were asked back with The Dead Inside. They really treat the filmmakers great, and I love that it’s in L.A.

DC: What’s coming up next for you now that The Dead Inside is making the festival rounds?

Betz:Lots and lots! I currently make one short film every week and post it on Thursdays on my YouTube channel. That’s been a blast as I get to write and direct a new story every week, but it’s also exhausting. I am also currently in pre-production on a pilot/web series I am creating that will be in the horror-comedy genre. Aside from that, I am just starting the new script for a sci-fi comedy I would like to shoot next year. I am busy as hell, and I kind love every minute of it…except when I don’t love every minute of it…but that is rare.

For more hit up the official The Dead Inside website!

Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Travis Betz: The Dead Inside

Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Travis Betz: The Dead Inside

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Hell Night Blu-ray Review – Mischief & Mayhem At Mongoloid Manor

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Starring Linda Blair, Peter Barton, Suki Goodwin, Vincent Van Patten

Directed by Tom DeSimone

Distributed by Scream Factory


1981. Prime time for the slasher film, when studios were more than content to pump out one after another since production cost was often so low. The downside, though, was that many wound up being formulaic and, eventually, forgotten. Time has allowed the cream to rise to the top of that crop and while Hell Night (1981) isn’t among the best it does stand out due to some novel choices made by director Tom DeSimone and executive producer Chuck Russell, the man responsible for some of the most consistently entertaining horror films of the ‘80s. A dilapidated mansion, oozing with gothic atmosphere, stands in place of a college campus or generic forest setting. Characters are dressed in formal costume; a stark departure from typical ‘80s teen garb. The film is half haunted house, half crazed killer and there is a not-entirely-unexpected-but-definitely-welcome twist at the end providing a solid jolt to a beleaguered climax. Fans are rightly excited to see Hell Night makes its debut in HD, though the final product is still compromised despite Scream Factory’s best efforts.

It’s Hell Night, every fraternity brother’s favorite evening; when new recruits are tormented in hazing rituals from, well, Hell. Peter (Kevin Brophy), president of the vaunted Alpha Sigma Rho house, comes up with the brilliant idea to have four pledges – Marti (Linda Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Denise (Suki Goodwin), and Seth (Vincent Van Patten) – spend the night in a decaying mansion. But this isn’t just any old house, as Peter regales a rapt audience – this is where former owner Raymond Garth killed his wife and three malformed children before hanging himself, sparing only the life of his son, Andrew, who was rumored to reside within the place after the murders. The pledges enter Garth Manor and quickly pair off, with Marti and Jeff getting intellectual while Denise and Seth take a more physical path.

A few hours pass and Peter returns with some of his bros, planning to initiate a few good scare pranks they set up earlier that week. The chuckles don’t last long, though, because Jeff and Seth quickly find the shoddy wiring and poorly placed speakers rigged upstairs. What they don’t know is that there is an actual killer on the loose, and he just decapitated one of the girls. Leaving the labyrinthine home proves difficult, with Marti & Jeff getting lost within the catacombs beneath the estate, evading their mongoloid menace however possible. Seth, meanwhile, has to scale a massive spiked fence if they hope to get any help way out here. Wait, didn’t Peter mention something about Andrew having a sibling?

The production team on this picture was a beast, and I’m convinced that’s the chief reason why it came out any good at all; specifically, the involvement of Chuck Russell and Irwin Yablans. I give a bit less credit to director Tom DeSimone, who up to that point (and after it) filled his filmography with lots and lots of gay porn; storyline and direction are usually secondary in that market. Hell, they even had Frank Darabont running around set as a P.A. which is just a cool fact because nobody listens to P.A.s on a film set. Music is just as important, too, and composer Dan Wyman is a synth master who worked with John Carpenter on his early films. His score here is reminiscent of those lo-fi masterpieces.

Solid atmosphere and rounded characters make all the difference. Instead of a roster of stereotypical sophomoric faces the bulk of the film focuses on four individuals with personality and a bit of depth. Blair makes a good turn as the bookish good girl type, while Barton is a charming match for her mentally, showing interest in more than just a drunken hookup. Denise and Seth are both superficial, and their interactions inject the most humor into the film. Denise continually calling Seth “Wes” is one example. A good horror film gets the audience invested in who lives and dies, and while I won’t go so far as to say these are exemplary characters the script does make them three-dimensional and not so paper thin.

The 1.85:1 1080p image is sourced from a 4K restoration of an archival 35mm print with standard definition inserts. This is a step up from Anchor Bay’s old DVD but not by leaps and bounds. Colors attain greater saturation and definition is tightened but the picture looks awfully soft too often and the jump between HD and SD footage is plain as day. The print displays vertical scratches and white flecks. Black levels are decent but there is clear room for improvement across the board. To their credit this is the best image Scream Factory was able to produce but fans should temper expectations going in because this is not a pristine picture by any means.

There is nothing wrong to be found with the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, which does a fine job of carrying the dialogue alongside Dan Wyman’s sinister synth soundtrack. Direction is limited and the presentation is routine, but no problems were detected and the track capably supports the feature. Subtitles are available in English.

Here is where Scream Factory does their best to make up for the shortcomings of the a/v presentation: a ton of extra features.

An audio commentary track features actress Linda Blair, director Tom DeSimone, and producers Irwin Yablans & Bruce Cohn Curtis.

“Linda Blair: The Beauty of Horror” – This is a recent discussion with the actress, who covers her run in the genre in addition to diving deep into this film’s difficult production.

“Hell Nights with Tom DeSimone” – Shot on location at the Garth Manor (actually Kimberly Crest Estate in Redlands, CA), DeSimone reflects back on shooting the film there over 35 years ago.

“Peter Barton: Facing Fear” – The actor offers up expected discussion, covering his career in horror and navigating the Hollywood scene.

“Producing Hell with Bruce Cohn Curtis” – This covers more of the behind-the-scenes work that went into making the movie.

“Writing Hell” – Screenwriter Randy Feldman offers up some insight into his process for creating the story and writing the script.

“Vincent Van Patten & Suki Goodwin in Conversation” – The two actors, who have not seen each other in quite some time, sit down together for a back-and-forth discussion.

“Kevin Brophy & Jenny Neumann in Conversation” – This is another chat conducted the same way as Van Patten & Goodwin.

“Gothic Design in Hell Night” – Art director Steven Legler talks about his process for turning Garth Manor into how it is seen on film; evoking the right chilling atmosphere.

“Anatomy of the Death Scenes” – Pam Peitzman, make-up artist, and John Eggett, special effects, scrutinize each of the film’s kill scenes and discuss what went into achieving them.

“On Location at Kimberly Crest” – DeSimone guides viewers on a tour of the “Garth Manor” as it can be seen today.

A theatrical trailer, two TV spots, a radio spot, and a photo gallery are the remaining features.

Special Features:

  • NEW 4K Scan of the film taken from the best surviving archival print
  • NEW interviews with actors Linda Blair, Peter Barton, Vincent Van Patten, Suki Goodwin, Kevin Brophy and Jenny Neumann
  • Audio Commentary with Linda Blair, Tom DeSimone, Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis
  • Original Theatrical Trailer & TV spots
  • Blu-ray Disc Exclusives:
    • NEW interview with Director Tom DeSimone
    • NEW interview with Producer Bruce Cohn Curtis
    • NEW interview with Writer Randolph Feldman
    • NEW – Anatomy of the Death Scenes with Tom DeSimone, Randolph Feldman, Make-up artist Pam Peitzman, Art Director Steven G. Legler and Special Effects artist John Eggett
    • NEW – On Location at the Kimberly Crest House with Tom DeSimone
    • NEW – Gothic Design in Hell Night with Steven G. Legler
    • Original Radio spot
    • Photo Gallery featuring rare, never-before-seen stills
  • Hell Night
  • Special Features
4.0

Summary

“Hell Night” overcomes being lumped in with standard slasher fare thanks to dripping atmosphere, unique production design, and characters that elicit some empathy. The a/v presentation leaves much to be desired but a plethora of bonus features softens that blow.

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Video: The Shape of Water Q&A with Guillermo del Toro and Doug Jones at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre

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This past weekend at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA betwixt a double screening of The Shape of Water and the classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the former’s director Guillermo del Toro (and star Doug Jones) sat down to discuss the latter’s influence on the film, Gill-man sex, “one sock movies,” his career in the genre, and more with moderator Jonah Ray, and we were there to film a portion of it.

Our sincere thanks to American Cinematheque general manager Dennis Bartok for extending the invitation.

For more Cinematheque screenings, visit the official website here.

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The Open House Review – Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

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Starring Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Patricia Bethune, Sharif Atkins

Written by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote

Directed by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote


Mere weeks, even days, after effusively beating Netflix’s original horror content drum (The Babysitter, Before I Wake, Creep 2), I’m here to confirm that The Open House is emptier than an vacant bomb shelter. Cold, unappealing and thoughtlessly plotted to the point where “generic” would have been an improvement. From the moment we’re welcomed into Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote’s scripted imprisonment, it’s nothing but loose floorboards and busted plumbing. The home invasion genre has rarely been navigated with such little attention to detail, asking for our suspension of coherent storytelling early, often, and without earning the right to be deemed mindless genre fun. Not even Ty Pennington could save this extreme renovation disaster.

Dylan Minnette plays Logan Wallace, a track star and student who must find closure after watching his father fall victim to a fatal car accident. It is his mother Naomi’s (Piercey Dalton) idea to spend a little time away from their suburban home – escape those painful memories – so they retreat to her sister’s luxurious mountain getaway. The catch? It’s in the process of being sold and open houses are on the regular, so Naomi and Logan must vacate their temporary premises on certain days. It’s after one of these very showings that Logan begins to notice slight changes around the house, and he fears that an unwanted visitor may be in their midst. Guess what? He’s right.

To understand how little The Open House cares about conscious blueprinting, just read the poster’s tagline. “You can’t lock out what’s already inside” – right, but you could have prevented them from coming in, or checked the house to make sure they weren’t squatting, or explored numerous other possibilities to avoid this scenario. The mansion’s realtor allows prospective buyers to come and go but it’s not her job to make sure no one’s hiding in the basement? Naomi can’t even keep track of the *single* visitor she lets look around the house? It’s infuriating to see so many people neglect safety out of forced coincidence because the script couldn’t rationalize the killer’s entry any other way – a confounding strike one.

This is also a film that admits no reasoning for why its own murderer has targeted the Wallaces, or why he stokes a violent fetish when it comes to open houses. We never actually see his face, just his imposing handyman-looking attire, nor do we savor any kind of tangible backstory (his family died during their own open house and he suffered a psychotic breakdown – just give me *something*). His undefined form never demands curiosity like John Carpenter’s “The Shape” once did, because scripting is nothing more than bullet notes for basic horror movie necessities. Here he is, your bad guy – too bad he’s introduced without fear, handled without originality and unable to characterize beyond torturous kidnapper dotted lines. He’s just, you know, a guy who sneaks into open houses and kills – COMPLETE WITH A FINAL PAN-IN ON AN OPEN HOUSE SIGN WHEN HE MOVES TO HIS NEXT TARGET [eye roll into infinity].

Every scene in The Open House feels like an afterthought. “Ah, we need a way to build tension – how about a senile local woman who lives down the street and wanders aimlessly into frame?” Overplayed and in no way suitable to most her inclusions, but sure. “Oh, and we need inner conflict – what about if the breaker-iner steals Logan’s phone and frames him for later acts?” I mean, didn’t Logan canonically lose his phone even before Naomi’s mid-shower water heater issues – but sure, instant fake tension. “How are people going to believe the killer is always around and never blows his cover – think they’ll just buy it?” No, we don’t. Worse off, his cat-and-mouse game is dully repetitive until a finale that skyrockets intensity with jarring tonal imbalance. This closing, dreadful end without any sort of redemptive quality. More abusive than it is fulfilling.

If there’s anything positive worth conveying, it’s that Minnette does a fine job shuffling around as a character with severe sight impairment. The killer makes a point to remove his contacts as a final “FUCK YOU,” just to toy around a bit more, and Minnette frantically slips or stumbles with nothing more than foggy vision. Otherwise, dialogue finds itself ripped form a billion other straight-to-TV Logo dramas about broken families, no moment ever utilizing horror past a few shadowy forms standing in doorways after oblivious characters turn away. You can’t just take an overused subgenre and sleepwalk through homogenized beats…case and god-forsaken point.

Even as a streamable Netflix watch, The Open House is irredeemable beyond fault. The walls are caving in on this dilapidated excuse for home invasion horror, benefiting not from the star power of a temperamental Dylan Minnette. I have seen most involved players here in far better projects (Minnette’s stock has rightfully been skyrocketing, Matt Angel in The Funhouse Massacre, etc), but this is bargain bin theatrics without a fully formed idea. A nameless villain, doomed nice guy (Sharif Atkins), woefully unaware plot advancement – all the worst cliches found in one rage-quit worthy effort. Anyone who makes it through deserves an award…or a dunce cap.

  • The Open House
1.0

Summary

Unless you’re irrationally afraid of cold showers, The Open House fails to deliver on a premise that can be summed up by no more than two lines of text.

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