Boasting an ensemble of the biggest names in horror and featuring gallons of blood and impressive graphic special effects, Death House is a horror fan’s dream come true. The film, written by Gunnar Hansen and Harrison Smith, has been in the works for the past several years and now Smith, who is also the director, has finally brought Death House to fruition as a limited theatrical release.
Recently, we had the pleasure of speaking with Harrison Smith, who took us on a journey inside Death House, told us what it was like working with such an iconic cast, gave us the scoop on sequels, and more!
“During an exclusive tour, a power breakdown inside a secret prison known as the Death House sends two agents fighting through a labyrinth of horrors while being pursued by a ruthless army of roaming inmates. As they fight to escape, the agents push toward the lowest depths of the facility where they learn a supernatural group of evil beings is their only chance for survival.”
Directed by Harrison Smith, Death House stars Bill Moseley, Kane Hodder, Tony Todd, Dee Wallace, Barbara Crampton, Cortney Palm, Cody Longo, Michael Berryman, and Sid Haig.
Dread Central: The late Gunnar Hansen wrote Death House before he passed away in 2015. The film feels like it was a labor of love, so to speak, and Gunnar even appears in the movie digitally. How does it feel to carry on Gunnar’s legacy through Death House?
Harrison Smith: That’s a great question. Gunnar was such a quiet, eloquent, and gentle man. It’s very funny that’s he’s known for Leatherface, such a brutal figure, when really he was closer to Santa Claus. When the project was brought to me, it had been at a standstill for a couple of years because of the script, and Gunnar knew that. The original plotline was, a group of documentary filmmakers go to an abandoned asylum and they go into the basement, and they find out that the inmates ended up going down there, so it’s not abandoned.
When he presented that to me I said, “No offense, but we’ve seen this kind of movie before. You’re going to put all these horror stars in it and what’s it going to be, an R-rated Scooby-Doo episode? Oh look, there’s Sid Haig. Oh look, there’s Tony Todd. They come on, they kill someone or they get killed, and you’ve got your cameo.” Gunnar said, “Harrison, this is the exact problem we’ve been having. In addition to that, I stink at dialogue and I need help with it. I want something artistic.” He was very, very adamant about that. He did not want just a slasher movie. He wanted something with thought and something that talked about the essence of good and evil.
Later I was sitting in a bar, because sometimes I like to write in a bar, and the preview for Jurassic World came on during the Super Bowl, and it hit me. I thought, why don’t we make it a prison? Death House is kind of like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs. Jurassic Park even alludes to the fact that there were other parks on other islands and there are other Death Houses. I even got into the whole MK Ultra experiments in the 1960s. Real horror to me isn’t stuff like The Exorcist; it’s the evil that we do to one another. A movie like Seven I don’t ever want to see again because that shit really happens. When you wake up and see the news every day and the awful stuff that happens, I don’t want to watch that shit. Give me monsters, ghosts, demons or zombies. That’s all good. There’s so much horrible shit out there that we do to each other, so I wanted to make that comment on it.
I think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a horror movie. I don’t think it’s a drama or a dark comedy and I don’t think it’s a satirical on society piece. The reason why is that I think Nurse Ratched is one of the worst damn villains ever to populate a motion picture. Nurse Ratched believes she’s right. It’s not that she’s evil; she believes that she is doing good. That’s what I fashioned Dee Wallace’s Dr. Fletcher on and the name Fletcher is a play on Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratched. There are a lot of easter eggs in Death House.
Dee watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a number of times just to study Louise Fletcher’s performance. Dee is very bubbly and very sweet, so she had to play something she isn’t. At the end, when Bill Moseley comes out and he says, “I am God, the great and terrible,” it was absolutely important that that’s his first big on camera line. He’s showing that everything you’ve just seen is a sham. You can’t eradicate evil. I wanted the 5 Evils to be five people that when you take them out of their restraining suits and put them on the street, you would never know. That’s the real evil that walks among us.
DC: The special effects are great in this movie. Most of the effects look like they’re practical and I’m wondering if they really are.
HS: All the makeup effects, like the blood and gore stuff, is all practical. The only visual effects are some clean up stuff. You know at the end with the gases and the phantom images flying all over the place and the lasers, that’s all CGI. All the violent effects are practical.
DC: The cast of Death House is a horror fan’s dream. What was it like working with so many horror icons all at once?
HS: Here’s a word that you probably wouldn’t expect; it was very nice (laughs). These people were so generous and just so easy to work with, and I’m not just saying that. They all said, “We’re here for Gunnar.” Every day was a pleasure. There was never a meltdown or a diva moment. They all joked and we laughed every day. We had a great time and all of them brought something so cool to the movie. I would sit and talk to Sid Haig. Sid is a wealth of information. He’s been in this industry for 50 years and he’s seen it change. I wanted to pick his brain. I wanted to know how he did low budget films and they still got theatricals. He loved it. I got to hang with Tony Todd. Tony’s got that voice that’s like butter. He’s like a cobra that could hypnotize you with his voice instead of looking at you. Kane Hodder overcame a lot and he’s still going strong. Every time before we would shoot, Michael Berryman would look up at the sky and say, “This is for you Gunnar,” and then they would all do it. There was a lot to get out of this shoot with all those people. That’s what it was like to work with them.
DC: I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but can you walk me through some of the comparisons between the nine levels of the death house and Dante’s nine circles of hell?
HS: Some people haven’t picked up on that, but the deeper they go down, this is an experience for all of them. In the end, with the nine circles, it’s really about the revelation of the self. At the end, Cortney and Cody realize they were victims of the Death House, too. The shower scene was really important. That scene was more than just showing off eye candy. It was about discovery because the tattoos on both of them are real, so I wanted to make the tattoos work. In the film, they don’t know how they got the tattoos, but the symbols and pictures all mean something. Once they’ve entered the Death House, it starts triggering it for them. Each level is turning it right back to the discovery of the self. When the one evil says, “You have done things also that would be considered despicable but that’s all been erased from your mind, but you did them.” Then we see brief flashbacks in the end where they did things. All these things were expunged, but yet they still committed them.
With the nine levels, I wanted it to be that from the moment they arrived, from the first level, they’re sinking down deeper and deeper to get to the end where the 5 Evils are for the explanation of it all to tie it all together. The nine levels are all tied together by Bill Moseley saying, “Everything is a sham. None of this is real.” That’s why he is the man behind the curtain. Bill Moseley could be anything, but outside of that uniform he’s still evil and he embraces that he’s evil. This is who we are. This is what we are and we make it all work. You have come to Hell in this ninth level.
DC: Last November, Dread Central reported on a prequel to Death House called Dawn of 5 Evils as well as a sequel called The Farm. I’ve since heard there may be as many as five sequels. Can you give me any updates on these projects?
HS: The producer, Rick Finkelstein, wants a prequel done, Dawn of 5 Evils. That’s a working title, but he wants an origin story of where the evil came from. It’s in the treatment stage right now. You’ve got to be real careful with that because I always look at Hitler as the template. With Hitler, if you start explaining him, you kind of open the door to forgiving him. That’s why I’m very wary of all these horror origin stories. Rob Zombie tried it with Michael Myers and even tried to generate a modicum of sympathy for him. Michael Myers is a tornado. He touches down in a neighborhood. He may hit your house or he may hit your neighbor’s house. It doesn’t matter. That’s when Michael Myers is scariest. If you start trying to explain Michael Myers with a drunk mother and an abusive father and all this other stuff, it convolutes everything. Sometimes evil is just evil and that’s it.
I thought that’s why John Carpenter did it best. Dr. Loomis does it best in that one scene where he says, “He’s evil. I looked into his eyes and I saw evil.” That’s it. You don’t explain why Michael gets up every time you shoot him and I don’t know how they’re going to explain it in the new one more than 40 years later. How is Michael still getting around? Shouldn’t he have a walker (laughs)? I really hope that one day there isn’t a Halloween where we have the obligatory laboratory scene where if they could just find out how Michael Myers regenerates, they could save millions of lives, that kind of garbage. We’re only one step away from that. If you start explaining him, then we start feeling badly for Michael and it doesn’t work.
I said to Rick that we have to be careful with the 5 Evils because if we start explaining, for example, what happened to Bill Moseley, it’s like a Batman thing. Was he dropped into a vat of acid? Then it turns into a bad superhero movie where we have to have an origin story for all the villains. That’s where we are with that. Death House 2 has a subtitle called The Farm and it’s a brutal movie. We talk about the farm in the opening of Death House with Tony Todd and then we close with him saying, “Welcome to the farm.” That’s where we will pick up with Death House 2. There’s a lot of stuff in Death House.
DC: That’s actually why I’ve watched Death House twice because the first time I was so freaked out that I felt like I needed to watch it again and take my time with it so I didn’t miss anything.
HS: I’m glad! That’s what we wanted. We designed the film to be seen multiple times. For example, you might go, “What the hell were those things in the room with the microphone?”
DC: Oh yeah! What the hell were those things? That was pretty insane!
HS: (laughter) Well, there is this bullshit internet story about the infamous Soviet sleep deprivation experiment. It never happened. It isn’t true. Supposedly, they gave this gas to these prisoners to keep them awake and the gas ended up mutating them. They rotted away, but they were still alive and it’s total fabrication. I kind of took that as an inside joke and thought (laughs) I’d put that in there. Death House has experiments so let’s put this bullshit experiment in and believe it or not, some people who have seen the film have tweeted to me and asked me if it’s based on the Soviet sleep deprivation experiment and I told them that’s exactly what it is. It’s so cool. There is a microphone hanging from the ceiling and the monsters are very skeletal, which is all practical by the way. We got these really skinny college kids.
The makeup is more than just a latex suit. This particular type of latex was created so that when it comes in contact with body heat, it shrink wraps. It just shrinks to the form of whatever it’s stuck to and that’s why I wanted it. I remember the interviews with Ridley Scott where he said when they were looking to make the alien, they wanted a creature where you couldn’t see the zipper where the guy got into the suit. I didn’t want monsters where people would say, “Oh, they’re just in a suit,” so we got this stuff that would conform right to their bodies. I told the casting director that we needed bony people, so she brought me three of the skinniest people I’ve ever seen in my life (laughs).
DC: Earlier you brought up the fact that at the heart of Death House is the battle of good versus evil. What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
HS: I think the real thing that I want people to walk away with is the evil that we do to ourselves. All this facility is built upon is torture, in the name of good, and that’s what Bill Moseley says at the end. There are other death houses and people like Dr. Fletcher think that they can perfect a good human being and you can’t. The universe wasn’t meant to be that way. I want people to walk out thinking, “My God, if we were just nicer to one another.” Look at Barbara Crampton’s character, Dr. Redmane. She’s so proud of what’s she’s doing and she’s kind of the humorous one to Dr. Fletcher. Dr. Redmane is just so damn proud. It’s transhumanism. She even says it’s better than human. No, it’s not. None of it is. You’re fighting against the laws of the universe. There will always be evil and there will always be good, and both of them need each other.
DC: Besides the prequel and sequels to Death House, are you working on anything else that you can tell me about?
HS: I’m working on a great supernatural horror film called The Mill and it looks like that’s going to be shooting in Puerto Rico in September. Then I’m working on another film called Poser, which is like a psychological horror thriller and I’m really excited about that one. I’m also doing an action film this summer called Killer Rose, and I rewrote the script for that one. I would really love to work for Jason Blum. I have my own process and I know he does, too. I just want Jason Blum to go, “Wow, look at all this guy’s done and Death House is out there and people like it.” He can throw me his worst project and see what I can do with it.
Death House is planning a theatrical expansion this month. Check out the Death House Facebook page if you’d like to create an event to request the film in your city.