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Horror Movies

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Mick Garris
Horror Movie Director and Creator/Director of "Masters of Horror"
Monday, October 31, 2005; 12:00 PM

Horror movie director/producer Mick Garris was online Monday/Halloween, Oct. 31, at Noon ET to discuss his new Showtime TV series, "Masters of Horror," and scary movies in general.

Garris has written or co-authored several feature films including "Riding the Bullet," "*Batteries Not Included," "The Fly II," "Hocus Pocus," "Critters2") and teleplays ("Quicksilver Highway," "Virtual Obsession"). He is currently completing post-production work producing and directing "Desperation," adapted by Stephen King and which will become a three-hour ABC feature for television.

"Masters of Horror" is an anthology series of 13 one-hour films broadcast on Friday nights which showcases the work of 13 horror movie makers.

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Mick Garris: Hi, and thanks for having me. Hope folks got the chance to check out the first MASTERS OF HORROR episode.

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washingtonpost.com: Mick Garris, welcome to washingtonpost.com. It's Halloween. Your Masters of Horror started Friday night on Showtime. How are things going and tell us a little about the series.

Mick Garris: It's a very exciting time for us. The show has been amazingly well received, even by a usually horror-hating mainstream press. The whole point of the show is to give the best practitioners of cinematic horror a place where they can tell the story they want the way they want it, and it seems to be that people are seeing and appreciating that. And it seems it could only be done on cable, where we don't have commercials or heavy censorship. We're doing things we couldn't even do in theatrical horror films, because we're trying to give a wide variety to the films we create, and not just mimic the popular teen horror films out there.

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Washington, D.C.: I have been a long-time aficionado of the horror genre and have been disappointed by the general lack of innovation in the American horror movie industry. By far, the most innovative movies in the genre seem to be coming from Japan (e.g., Ringu, Odishon, etc.). In fact, it appears hits like The Ring are directly imitative rather than innovative.

Do you agree with this assessment and if so, what do you think accounts for it?

Mick Garris: I think that there's a lot of great, imaginative film horror being created around the world, most especially in Asia. In fact, we have Takashi Miike shooting a MASTERS OF HORROR film in Tokyo for us right now. There are exciting cultural and storytelling differences that make for fascinating genre films for an American audience.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Horror movies always went more for the blood and gore than suspense movies, yet good horror movies have their suspenseful moments. Do you think there has been a trend in the use of suspense in recent years, or has it pretty much remained a constant?

Mick Garris: For me, the best horror films have always been more about the suspense than the gore. That said, an audience oft-times needs to raise the visual stakes over the years. But films like SIXTH SENSE and STIR OF ECHOES are great films that put story and character over gore, and they work brilliantly. Of course, the graphic horror in Miike's AUDITION gets a response equally as valid, but in a very graphic way.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: How hard is it for actors to break into horror films? Are most non-SAG productions? Aren't horror films a good place for a new actor to get a good start in a career?

Mick Garris: Personally, I have never made a non-SAG movie. If it ends up in a theater, chances are it has a Screen Actors Guild cast. ANY movie is a good place for an actor to get a start. Try auditioning for student films at a local university where they have a major film school, if you want to start amassing a collection of film work to show.

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Torrance, Calif.: What was it like working with all the really great directors for Masters of Horror?

Mick Garris: As you might imagine, this was a total thrill for me. I have known and been friends with most of these filmmakers for many years, but to actually be responsible for them making new movies in their own voices, and to be a part of the team making the films, is more than a dream come true. It's humbling and thrilling at the same time.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mr. Garris. I've been a fan of yours for a long time. Since you did "The Shining" a few years ago, there have been several horror movie remakes, like "Dawn of the Dead" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." How do you balance respect for the original work with the desire to update it for a brand new audience? And are there any other classic films you'd like a shot at remaking?

Mick Garris: The whole remake situation has gotten a bit out of hand, in my opinion. There have been good one, and mostly bad ones. The movies worth remaking are the ones with a great idea that might not have been successful, creatively or publicly, that could benefit from remaking. In the case of THE SHINING, we were going back to the book; I'm a big fan of the Kubrick film, but it was not King's book. And the author himself wrote our script and produced the miniseries. I'm curious to see what they do with THE WICKER MAN, which was near perfect, but has not been seen by a wide audience...

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Midland, Ga.: Why, in your opinion, are people so drawn to horror movies over the years?

Mick Garris: Horror has always been popular; Edison made the first FRANKENSTEIN movie back in 1910 or so. The wave of popularity goes up and down, but the horror cycle always returns. I think a lot of it has to do with playing tag with our fears, safely. Confronting them in a way that to me is great therapy. There... horror movies are GOOD for you! It's like the hoary old roller coaster analogy: you ride the coaster, it's scary, it seems dangerous, but you step off the ride safe and exhilarated.

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Washington, D.C. Remember how good the Creepshow movie was?

That 20-minute story timeframe seems sufficient to tell a good hair-raising tale and you don't need to fill time with fluff. Creepshow (and Twilight zone) would have 3-5 of these short stories, each well developed. Any thoughts?

Mick Garris: I've always loved the anthological format. In the 20-minute time frame, though, you are really sort of cornered into the O. Henry punch line story. It's been a problem with developing scripts for the one-hour MASTERS OF HORROR show. We've had to tell writers that we'd rather have a feature story compressed to an hour than tell a tale that relies on the punch line. Horror for me works best when you've had the time to invest in the characters and their story. Otherwise, you're on the outside looking in, which is not the best way to tell a tale of fear or suspense, in my opinion.

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Herndon, Va.: I've always been fascinated by the connection between horror and humor. Of many films two which come to mind are "Psycho," where Hitchcock gets you laughing almost immediately after a terrifying scene; and "Tremors," which is played more broadly, but again, you're scared by the "worms," then laughing again at the characters within a minute.

Mick Garris: There are some great practitioners of the art. John Landis's AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Joe Dante's THE HOWLING are probably two of the best. I love the idea that the filmmakers can set you off-guard with humor, then whip your head around with a shock. Both humor and horror go for the physical reaction: the laugh, the jump, the scream, and require similar techniques to set you up for the payoff. They can go very well together, but it's a very tight rope to walk. If either one fail, the whole thing drops dead.

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Arlington, Va.: Glad to know you are making "Desperation" into a TV movie. One concern: the ending to the book is really brutal. Did you change it at all?

Love King's work, and the unpredictability of his ending (the bad guys can win), but sometimes his endings are a real downer.

Just wondered how you handled it ...

Mick Garris: We actually finished DESPERATION in June, and as King wrote the screenplay, it is VERY faithful to the book. The film is quite intense, especially considering it's for commercial television (ABC). It will air, I'm told, in the all-important May sweeps.

The film plays very much as a desert noir; it's quite moody and set in the great surrounding, intimidating desert. It's got a really great cast (Tom Skerritt, Henry Thomas, Annabeth Gish, Ron Perlman, and a bunch of others).

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McLean, Va.: Have you seen Climate Mash ? What do you think about Web-based horror -- whether done seriously or (in this case) as a spoof?

Mick Garris: Not familiar with it.

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Alexandria, Va.: In your personal opinion, what is the best horror movie ever made? Also, what do you think about the "new wave" of Asian horror films?

Mick Garris: I don't really have any kind of list or anything. I have favorites in various moods, you know, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN for the classics, DEAD RINGERS for Cronenberg, AUDITION and TALE OF TWO SISTERS for Asian horror, AMERICAN WEREWOLF and HOWLING for horror and humor, a lot of the usual suspects: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and the like. And a bunch of things you probably haven't heard of.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think horror franchises like "Nightmare on Elm Street," "Halloween" or "Friday the 13th" hurt or help the horror genre? And why is that that aside from maybe the "Saw" films, no one's been able to launch a successful franchise in the past several years?

Mick Garris: Obviously a successful franchise helps, in that it shows that the genre can make money, and that begets more horror films. But it hurts, in that the studios then want to repeat their success, by doing the same movies over and over ad nauseum. It's really, really difficult to do something original and terrifying when it costs $20-40 million just to market a major film. I think an audience gets tired of the same film with different titles, and the audience seems to know more about horror than many of the studios. Thank goodness for guys like Lions Gate, who really know and love the genre.

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Torrance, Calif.: What will your episode for Masters of Horror be about? Who is in it?

Mick Garris: Mine is called CHOCOLATE, and it's based on a short story I wrote. It stars Henry Thomas and Matt Frewer (who're also in DESPERATION) and the French Canadian actress Lucie Laurier. It's about a guy who starts receiving flashes of somebody else's senses: taste, smell, sound, touch, vision. They're very brief, and very random, and he at first thinks he's hallucinating. He discovers that it's a woman, and, as he starts to experience her emotions from the inside out, begins to fall in love with her. But halfway in, it becomes incredibly dark and brutal and mysterious. And I won't give it away yet.

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Laurel, Md.: Isn't the decline in American horror due largely (perhaps almost entirely) to the current zeitgeist against putting women in terrorized situations, which was always the stock of most horror?

Mick Garris: Well, it has been a big part of the genre, because the woman in distress is almost always more sympathetic than a man in distress. But I would take exception that American horror is in decline. Unless, of course, you mean qualitatively. But someone always comes up with a new way to frighten us.

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Washington, D.C.: Have there been any recent horror films that you enjoyed? Any that really blew you away?

Mick Garris: There's a filmmaker named Brad Anderson who has done two films that I found really exceptional: SESSION 9 and THE MACHINIST. I think he's been able to make a couple films unlike the franchise films and teen horrors in the independent system, and make them work well. And, as has been noted in this chat, the Asian film communities have been incredibly prolific as well in giving us new ways to see. THE EYE was one that also really packed a punch for me.

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Southern Maryland: What are your feelings about psychological horror versus blood and gore? My scary favorites are Kubrick's "The Shining," the first "Blair Witch Project" and "Poltergeist." These movies rely more on the viewer's imagination and less on special effects.

Also, "Scream" and Mad Magazine have pointed out that the Friday the 13th/Halloween/Elm Street genre was sternly moralistic. Victims often met their demises after having sex, and the last survivor was typically a virgin. Why do you think that was?

Mick Garris: I think there are many ways to raise gooseflesh; some of them require explicitness and some of them don't. The term horror by its very definition implies transgression, something that isn't polite in the first place. I love POLTERGEIST and I love DEAD RINGERS; Cronenberg's THE FLY and Shyamalan's SIXTH SENSE. There are many ways to tell a story, and if it's done in a smart, original way, that's all I need.

The whole morality "teens have sex then die" sort of started with HALLOWEEN in 1978, when it was a shock to be in coital or post-coital positions and suddenly be killed. FRIDAY THE 13 and its offshoots made it a theme.

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Washington D.C.: What do you think about film/songwriter and producer Rob Zombie?

Mick Garris: I think Rob is great. We're trying to get him on our second season.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: I've heard that Masters of Horror is already picked up for a second season! Might you let a girl-director into your boys' club? Sue Corcoran, Katherine Bigelow, and Mary Harron all ROCK!

Mick Garris: We actually asked Mary to do one, but she wasn't interested. And Kathryn Bigelow was not available. I'd love to get a female master. Hm, not sure if that sounds right...

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Washington, D.C.: How about KISS Meets The Phantom for a Rock N' Roll horror flick?

Mick Garris: I know it was made for TV, but I never saw it.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I think all horror movies should be rated R, if not what's the point. What do you think?

Mick Garris: Again, there are different ways to chill the blood. But I agree that the PG-13 horror movies we've been seeing of late have not been very chilly. It's all a marketing strategy to be able to advertise to younger teens and at all hours (most R-rated films can only be advertised on television after 9 at night). It's not about making the best movie possible; it's all about the best and widest marketing campaign.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why would you say the original Psycho was scary, while the "shot for shot" remake has nary a single frightening moment? Was it simply because we all knew the ending, or did something get lost in the translation?

Mick Garris: It's hard enough to catch lightning in a bottle once. I actually did one of the PSYCHO sequels, so I was interested in what Gus Van Sant was doing, but what was new and innovative and frightening in 1960 is not exactly the same in 2000. The dialogue and rhythms and social and cultural touchstones for the audiences have changed in a huge way in the intervening 40 years. But it was an interesting experiment.

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Fairlington, Va.: Any advice for the aspiring horror writers out there? I wrote what I think was a really good horror novel, but its nearly impossible to find someone to even take a look at it.

I don't suppose you want to option it and direct a movie on it? I'm sure my word that it is "really good" should be enough ...

I'll be waiting by my phone for your call.

Mick Garris: Agents are your best bet. They know what people are looking for. Reading is the hardest part of producing MASTERS OF HORROR. There is always a huge stack of scripts, writing samples, and potential stories. It's why people hire readers to do the work. Again, an agent knows what he thinks will sell and to whom.

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Silver Spring, Md.: For what is it worth, "House on Haunted Hill" was the scariest movie I saw as a kid.

Mick Garris: I loved it too. I even like the remake. But if you go back to the original, you'll see how much has changed since it was first produced: the culture, the level of intensity and fear, and ourselves, perhaps most importantly.

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Parkville, Md.: Hello, Mr. Garris

Just wanted to write in to recommend to your readers one of my favorite horror movies of all time: "Jacob's Ladder" directed by Adrian Lyne with Tim Robbins.

I watched it last night and was balling like a baby at the end. If you've never seen the film before, it'll scare the pants off you (I guarantee it). But what surprised me last night was how well the movie holds up to multiple viewings. I hadn't watched this film in a couple of years, but this was probably the third time I'd seen it over-all, and while the film didn't really scare me all that much (horror movies are generally only scary the first time around) I was still deeply affected by this story of a Vietnam veteran trying to come to terms with the breakup of his marriage, the loss of his infant son, and the demons (literally) that haunt him amidst the post-traumatic stress and psychological scars of war. I actually think that the film holds up to multiple viewing better than "The Sixth Sense" to which it bears certain superficial similarities. It gets an A+ recommendation from me.

Mick Garris: It's a very imaginative and powerful film, I agree.

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Washington, D.C.: Did the ensemble's name and later the series title grew out of a self-effacing joke?

"There was a lady at the next table celebrating her birthday," recalls Garris, "and Guillermo stood up and told her, `The Masters of Horror wish you a happy birthday!' We all sang `Happy Birthday' to her, and thereafter, Landis would do joke headlines _ `The Masters of Horror Have Dessert!' or `The Masters of Horror Go Bowling!'"

Mick Garris: That's exactly how the MASTERS OF HORROR came to be. I'd organized a semi-regular series of dinners for directors in the genre, and that happened at the very first one. It was always just a joke name, since so many of the guys at the dinner had been crowned Masters of Horror by a recent documentary. The name stuck, and made it really easy to sell the series.

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Fairfax, Va.: Have you heard anything about the new Omen movie?

Mick Garris: I'd heard that they're remaking it, but I don't know anything more than that. If it was a horror movie and it was successful, they're remaking it.

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Mick Garris: Hmmm... This may be my favorite question...

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College Park, Md.: Do you have any feelings about Halloween? Is it a "holiday" you care about?

Mick Garris: I actually love Halloween. My wife and I have gone to celebrate the holiday half-a-dozen times in Salem, Mass, where they really take it seriously. It's what led me to set RIDING THE BULLET at Halloween. And I wrote HOCUS POCUS which was set in current-day Salem at Halloween.

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Alexandria, Va.: What is considered THE Halloween scary movie?

Mick Garris: I guess it would have to be the John Carpenter namesake, the original HALLOWEEN.

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Washington, D.C.: How were the ratings on Friday night?

Mick Garris: I dying to know. But it's a bit more difficult tracking that on premium cable, especially with Showtime, which has less of a reach than HBO. But we've already been renewed for another 13 films to follow the original 13 that we just finished shooting on Wednesday.

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14th and U Streets, D.C.: Just wanted to say that I loved THE STAND. Own it on DVD -- enjoy the commentary. Thanks!

Mick Garris: Thanks to you. That was a very long and difficult shoot, but a great one. And what a great book.

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Mick Garris: Thanks for all the questions, and I hope you enjoy the series of films. They're on Showtime every Friday night, repeating on Saturday and Sunday.

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