J.T. Petty’s newest entry into the genre is the horror comedy hybrid Hellbenders (review), a lightweight but surprisingly warm-hearted adventure focusing on a group of debaucherous exorcists who stay in a constant state of sin in order to trap demons more effectively before being sent down the elevator to hell.
Petty enjoyed some success with 2008’s The Burrowers, and it isn’t hard to tell that the same set of eyes was behind the camera for Hellbenders. The director spoke to us briefly about the film, which is now available on Blu-ray in glorious 3D.
DC:I remember first meeting you at Fangoria Radio years ago when you were promoting The Burrowers, which I first saw at Fantastic Fest back in 2008. That film was a genre twist on a western, and Hellbenders is a twist on religious horror. Is the fresh take on an old idea what first gets you excited about an idea? Would you not be as interested in doing a straight up and down, more traditional story?
JTP: Yeah, I guess that’s sort of my general M.O. I feel like if you’re going to make a horror movie, if you’re not breaking expectations, then you’re not doing what horror is supposed to be doing. It would have to be a really special movie. I love something like The Conjuring. It gives people such a straight ahead exercise on what we already know, and then it just comes down to your craft as a filmmaker. I’d rather always just go with the story.
DC: How does the writing process usually start with you? Did you sit down and do the 9 to 5 thing to come up with Hellbenders, for example, or did it come easier than that?
JTP: I’m writing all the time. This movie started, just from the basic concept, the way every exorcism movie does where you get down to the point where the exorcist is like, ‘I can’t throw this demon out so I’m going to free myself and kill myself.’ I feel like the Catholic church could have institutionalized it, and the idea of institutionalizing priests who are ready to be possessed so that they could kill themselves was hilarious. So, from there, it was just about working out the rules of how this organization works and all of the bureaucracy. The movie came together really fast.
DC: Was the 70s book Hostage of the Devil the start of the idea for Hellbenders? When did you first find and read that book about exorcism?
JTP: I read that when I was doing research on this. I found that book because that’s the one that William Peter Blatty references in The Exorcist novel. Reading it was just a total revelation. It almost makes you believe it’s real. It’s funny; I gave that book to Clifton Collins [Jr.] and Clancy Brown and said, ‘This is what it’s like to be an exorcist.’ Both of them read, probably, half the book. I think Clancy’s wife threw it out, and Clifton was like, ‘I can’t get into this shit. It’s too dark.’
DC: Speaking of Clancy Brown, had you stayed in touch with him all this time, or did Hellbenders become a chance for you guys to reunite? It’s great seeing him do comedy.
JTP: He’s a friend; he’s a good guy. I had him in mind right from the start. He is such a funny dude, and he is so good at cursing. So I just wanted to give him the opportunity to call a lot of people “cocksuckers.” He’s an old school geek, and he just loves this shit. He’s a good friend.
DC: Another favorite actor of mine is Larry Fessenden. Would you ever be interested in doing a “Tales From Beyond the Pale” radio episode about the continuing adventures of the Hellbenders if you could get Clancy and the rest of the cast together?
JTP: Yeah, that’d be fun. I do think that Hellbenders is kind of old-timey in a way. I was trying to make it, sort of, weirdly innocent, and yeah, I think it could fit into a radio interview kind of thing.
DC: With Hellbenders not being overly graphic, are you just saving all of your sick ideas for Faces of Death if that ever gets made? I know you did a new version of the script towards the end of last year.
JTP: Yeah, Hellbenders is a very innocent film as far as I’m concerned. It’s as much of a Saturday morning cartoon as it is a horror movie. With Faces of Death, there’s a lot of awesome stuff there. I like violence on screen, and I think a lot of people do.
Hellbenders is now available on Blu-ray and everywhere On Demand. Watch it!
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