At this year’s Fantasia Film Festival we were able to talk to legendary director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Matinee, The Howling) and director/producer/genre maven Mick Garris (TV’s The Shining, The Stand, Masters of Horror) about their new anthology film Nightmare Cinema, which premiered at the festival. The film consists of five segments directed by Dante, Garris, David Slade (30 Days of Night), Ryûhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train) and Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead), with a wraparound by Garris starring Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler, Iron Man 2) as the sinister figure known as The Projectionist.
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“The dream was to take Masters of Horror and do something like it but shoot every episode in a different country with a filmmaker from that country,” said Garris of his initial plans. The idea grew out of the Masters of Horror series of near-feature-length episodes done for Showtime in the mid-2000s.
“On Masters we did one episode in Japan each of the two seasons. It worked great, so I thought I’d had so much exposure to film festivals around the world and seeing the different cultural approaches to horror and how vast they are and how incredible they are. Doing that on a weekly basis like we did with Masters of Horror was the original dream, but that idea was too ambitious for anyone who pays bills. So I thought maybe a series of 90-minute feature films that would come out under the ‘Nightmare Cinema’ umbrella. It was a course of years finding a formula that we could actually get funded and make. So it took the form of these five stories. One film, but all five of these filmmakers. The dream would be to have more money and continue doing it, but all the other four filmmakers were the first people I asked. I didn’t ask anybody else because I wanted it to have this cultural diversity and all these wildly different approaches to horror.”
“That was the great thing about this movie,” explained Dante, who first worked with Garris on the Steven Spielberg-produced 80’s anthology series Amazing Stories. “Much like the Masters of Horror TV show, the appeal was not the money or that you had a lot of time. The appeal was freedom, you can do whatever you want. Mick Garris is a very benevolent producer in the sense that he’s on the side of the filmmaker, something he learned from Steven Spielberg. Everybody within the framework of what they had to work with was able to do what they want.”
“There was no wraparound originally, I just asked these guys, ‘Do you have a story you want to tell?'” Garris said. “All of them were really different, so once we had those scripts the idea of the wraparound came to give it some sense of unity but not destroy the individuality we intended. So the order was very important. We knew Alejandro’s was going to be a crowd-pleasing opening. You think you’re watching an 80’s slasher, it’s got a sense of humor, and then it goes, ‘Wait… WHAT?’ Starting with that we go quieter after that with Joe’s segment. Right in the middle we go batsh*t crazy with Ryûhei’s ‘Mashit,’ the exorcism story where you don’t know where it’s gonna go. David’s is very disturbing, dark and serious, and then mine is a more mainstream, more traditional ghost story that’s very character oriented. More emo-horror, and maybe that’s a good way to go out.”
Dante’s segment titled “Mirare” involves a scarred woman named Anna (Zarah Mahler) who decides to do something about the ugly scar on her face she has an unhealthy preoccupation with. Encouraged by her fiancée so she’ll feel better about herself, she decides to go under the knife, with horrific results right out of the old EC Comics like Tales From the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear.
“I’m a child of EC Comics and Twilight Zone and all those short story formats,” revealed Dante. “In this case I thought because this is an anthology movie and a horror movie, and probably fairly gruesome in a lot of places, that it was important to have a female point of view. So I wanted to tell a story about a woman, tell the whole thing through her eyes, and then realize as the story goes on that everyone around her is completely insane, and that there’s no escape.”
Playing what turns out to be a psychotic plastic surgeon is none other than 1960’s and 70’s heartthrob Richard Chamberlain (Dr. Kildare, The Thorn Birds), who Dante cast deliberately against type.
“I always liked him, and I hadn’t seen him in a long time,” Dante said of Chamberlain. “When I was doing The Howling I had to cast the part of this werewolf doctor. I thought of Patrick Macnee, who was better known for The Avengers at the time. I thought, “I want a guy the audience already likes.’ That will help, because then the audience won’t realize until the middle of the movie that he’s a werewolf. The same thing applied here. Probably a lot of people don’t remember that he was ‘Dr. Kildare’ but that’s how he started. He’s a likeable guy and he’s a good actor and he’s not the guy you’d expect to play this part. The mistake you can make in a picture like this is to hire a Max Von Sydow, or someone who is well known for villainy and have them play the doctor.”
Both Garris (*batteries not included, Amazing Stories) and Dante (Gremlins and Gremlins 2, Innerspace, Small Soldiers) have worked alongside Steven Spielberg.Dante’s first big studio movie was actually another anthology movie produced by Spielberg, 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, which directly followed the record-breaking success of E.T. The Extraterrestrial. However, elements of E.T. and Gremlins actually grew out of an earlier screenplay by John Sayles titled Night Skies, which Spielberg originally intended to direct. Despite heavy development on Night Skies, including full-scale prosthetic aliens made by Rick Baker, the tale of a family in a farmhouse terrorized by aliens was later deemed too scary and brutal by Spielberg, who took the one good alien in the script and fleshed that out into E.T. We asked both Dante and Garris to speculate on how Spielberg’s career and the industry at large would have been different had Spielberg made Night Skies instead of E.T.
“If he’d done a gritty horror movie it wouldn’t have been as successful as E.T.” Dante suggests. “The reason Gremlins was successful was not because of the gremlins but because of Gizmo, which is the heart part of the movie. It’s always the heart part of Steven’s movies that sells them, and E.T. had the heart and Night Skies wouldn’t have had it. The industry would not be the same but it wouldn’t have been as good.”
“It was very dark,” says Garris of the aborted Night Skies project. “I think that E.T. side was such an important side of Steven that he would have exercised that next. That always would have been there. Would Night Skies have connected? In 1982 The Thing did not connect but E.T. did. They were both the same summer. They were both released within a month or two of each other. I was working at Universal in publicity at the time. I did The Making of The Thing documentary and worked publicity on E.T. so I was around and saw that stuff. I would love to have seen Night Skies but to tell you the truth… Spielberg once told me something that’s kind of profound. He said, ‘You know, I have so many dark ideas. I mean, I’ve got some ideas that would make Cronenberg shudder, but I can’t make them because of who I am right now.’ A profound statement that also made me incredibly sad, because if you’re Steven Spielberg and you feel that you have these limits put on you by the society around you and you’re capable of this other end of the art spectrum -of the happiness spectrum- that’s kinda sad. His philosophy was also for him to make things that were important historically like Schindler’s List and things like that. You have different priorities as an artist and as a human being, and you can’t fault anyone, especially a guy like Steven Spielberg who’s done so much for the world, not just in entertaining them but in personal ways as well. I would loved to have seen it, I don’t blame him for not having indulged them, but I would love to see what those ideas were. He’s still around!”