While, for the most part, he is recognized for his editorial work, as Editor-in-chief for both Fangoria and GOREZONE, Chris Alexander is breaking new grounds as a filmmaker. With his 2012 debut, Blood for Irina, Alexander proved that it doesn’t require a big budget (or any budget) to create a work of art. The slow-burn, dreamlike film captured the eyes of many, prompting Alexander to produce a sequel, Queen of Blood. A thematic progression of Blood for Irina, Queen of Blood sees Alexander blossoming as a filmmaker, working out the kinks of his vision. Like many great works, Alexander’s films are not easily digestible. They feature nearly no dialogue and move at a slow place, forcing the viewer into an active role of participation. Those looking for an escape through art may not find solace in Alexander’s work, but if you are a viewer willing to invest yourself, his films will be sure to pay off. In light of Queen of Blood‘s latest run on the festival circuit, we discussed with Alexander his role as a filmmaker, what he aims to achieve with his work, and—in correspondence with our current issue focusing on Pregnancy horror—where he thinks his film fits in with the thematic subgenre.
Diabolique: When you were writing Blood for Irina, did you have Queen of Blood in mind?
Chris Alexander: Not in any concrete sense, but yes. The kinds of films and filmmakers I gravitate towards trade in motif, recurring themes and ideas. In order to appreciate the work of Jean Rollin or Jess Franco or Werner Herzog, you must appreciate the body of work, not necessarily a specific film. So yes, I always had the idea to create a series of films that use the concept of femininity, time, nature, and vampirism to explore themes and emotions. I knew that the character of Irina, as played by the great Shauna Henry, could be constantly re-invented on different canvases, in different times and places, and thus create a kind of mythology, something that might perhaps end up being, over the span of years, iconic even.
Diabolique: Where did you find Shauna Henry? Did you audition for the role, or did you write Blood for Irina knowing she’d play the part?
Alexander: Shauna is one of the most interesting people I have met. She is friend of Carrie’s, and I had known her socially and always enjoyed just watching her talk, move, react. She’s South African, so her accent was interesting and she has this mane of all-consuming hair, which gave her a distinct visual presence. When the wind blows, her hair comes to life, like Medusa. She also has a unique facial structure that, when studied, is like no other. She can be beautiful, angelic, frightening, strange…the greatest special effect is the face and hers is an incredible work of sculpted tissue. I wanted a physical presence for Irina, not an “actress.” I saw a few “actresses” before Shauna. It was never about that. I wanted an innocent, not someone affected or consumed by the idea of acting. Shauna is fantastic and I think once we make our next film, more filmmakers will be wanting to harness that unique power she has.
Diabolique: For those who haven’t seen Queen of Blood yet, in your eyes what is the main difference between the two films? Do you find it necessary that someone see Blood of Irina before Queen of Blood?
Alexander: I think that in order to appreciate Queen, you had to have seen, not necessarily liked, but have seen Irina. I have a deliberate style. I use music and sound a certain way. So there is a clear connection. Plus I am using the same cast, re-inventing their roles in a different landscape, a different time, and maybe a different universe. In Irina, she loses her child, she is tragic, a victim. Here, Irina is reborn as nature itself and is empowered…and of course, she now gets her child back in an odd way. The two films belong together as one. But both can still be appreciated–hopefully–on their own terms. The same concepts of nature, loneliness, motherhood, of inexplicable characters inhabiting spaces that are uncanny, familiar, and yet removed from reality, are the spines of both pictures. And, of course, the fetishization of blood swirling and staining and flowing…
Alexander: Not at all. Both films were beyond micro-budget. But Queen did have enough that I could afford a real costume designer, and my hero, Skinny Puppy legend, Nivek Ogre; who will be, I’m sure, my own Klaus Kinski as my work progresses—without the death threats and tantrums, I hope. But Queen looks bigger because, instead of confining the narrative into dark, sweaty spaces, we filmed almost entirely outdoors, using natural lighting exclusively in wide open spaces, ruined barns, and other magnificent areas of decay and beauty. If Irina was about the grinding final days of a woman’s life, Queen is about the birth of a powerful force of nature that fears nothing. It’s an epic, where the first one was a tragedy.
Diabolique: You mention having no budget, and you even used iPhones to shoot some of the film. Certain directors find them wholly un-cinematic, but they do offer a cheap way to completely make a movie. What place in the growing film world do you think gadgets like iPhones play?
Alexander: I love the cliche, and adhere to the idea, that it is not what you have, rather what you do with it that matters. I love the fact that the great Russian filmmakers built their industry on the fact that they used archaic equipment. Potemkin is all static shots, no dollies, Eisenstein’s cameras were monstrous. And yet, with editing and rhythm, he invented a language, forged a style. So much so, that when the industry could afford better gear, he resisted. Why bother altering the style that served as his creative identity? Necessity, the mother of invention. On Blood for Irina, we primarily used a cheapie digital camera and I dove in with my iPhone to get close up shots that we couldn’t stage or shoot otherwise, because of the limits of our tech, and the limits of our time, what have you. And the results gave the film its “look,” which often betrays a conventional, modern video sheen. iPhone is 1080p. It’s a useful tool. In Queen, our DP David Goodfellow (who also co-starred in both films) upgraded slightly to a Cannon Rebel for the principal photography, but I still used my iPhone. That phone captured some beautiful vistas, shots of fingers deep in necks, my recurring effect of swirling blood and colored chemicals are captured by the iPhone with absolutely no color correcting or post-production interference. This goes back to films I made as a kid, on the Fisher Price PXL 2000, a kids camcorder from the 80’s that shot on a High Bias audio cassette. It captured a fuzzy, black and white letterboxed imaged. But I found out, that when it was plugged into a VCR, and when the batteries were dying, it would capture high resolution images of the human face and would even cause the image to “melt”, creating nightmarish landscapes. I have seen others use the PXL 2000 camera since (including the David Lynch produced vampire film NADJA), but I have yet to see anyone do what I did. I was experimenting. I still am. Again, it isn’t the tech or the gadget that has meaning, it’s the person’s sensibility manipulating it. The very essence of cinema is experimenting.
Diabolique: There is an obvious nod to the European arthouse horror in Queen of Blood— and not to reduce the influence to a single source—but what is it that inspires you about filmmakers like Jean Rollin?
Alexander: Atmosphere. Sensuality. The poetry of an image held for a long period of time. The use of nature and locations. The use of water. The earthiness and the desire to make a horror film that is beautiful and not slave to reality. I know it’s cliché to say, but, to me, cinema should be a dream. It must be. Reality is fine and I certainly enjoy all movies and take them all on their own terms, but, as far as my own work is concerned, I want my films to exist in a dream, to have a universal power that is tied into the very essence of what we are.
Diabolique: One thing that sets you apart, though, is your tie to the erotic. Whereas, European filmmakers tend to be extremely explicit in their display of sexuality and eroticism, in Queen of Blood you seem to opt for eroticized visuals, without exploiting nudity. So, a sense of the erotic comes from the movement of the camera, the use of slow motion, or the composition of a shot. Was there a conscious effort to divert the erotic away from female bodies?
Alexander: Absolutely. The best of Rollin and Franco is not exemplified by overt sex but rather obsession and voyeurism. I love sex. I love watching sex. I love having sex. But to me, in films that are meant to have a kind of alien elegance, overt sexuality would pander, make it ordinary. The European masters had to get explicit in their work to get financing. Horror and porn were bedfellows. They had no choice. I do. I think both Blood for Irina and Queen of Blood are incredibly erotic films, but instead of intercourse there is slow movement, punctuated by moments of fluid, of human contact…each bit of human contact, each shot of fingers touching skin is meant to gently reward erotically. My favorite vampire film is Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre and the scene where Kinski bites Adjani is pure eroticisim and yet there is no nudity. It is an earthy, moving, and kinky sex scene with no sex. I adore that.
Diabolique: What do you think it is about the vampire genre that has attracted so many auteur filmmakers?
Alexander: Film itself is a vampire. We are collectively in a state of heightened horror at all times, trying to avoid our inevitable death. Cinema exists because we are trying to mythologize ourselves, make ourselves bigger than death, stronger than time. We want to live forever. Cinema lives forever. It feeds off of its audience. And vice versa. Film is a vampire. The idea of the literal vampire as superhuman being that travels time infinitely is in itself a cinematic one and then you temper that with the tragedy of loneliness and the simple, visceral attraction to bloodletting and oral antics…well, what’s not to fascinate…
Diabolique: I’m interested in the dual hunter theme you develop; while Irina is stalking her prey, the Preacher is also on the hunt. When did the idea to contrast Irina with another predator come to you?
Alexander: It came first. Again, I wanted Irina to be this timeless, apathetic force of nature. Not evil. Just nature. She kills not to spite or harm, she kills because she is programmed to do it. She simply endures and survives and people line up to be taken. Nature is a killer. It’s killing us right now. And yet we don’t fear it. We should fear it. But we don’t. We immerse ourselves in it even though we have absolutely no concrete idea as to what it is or why it is. Either does it. It’s a fascinating relationship we have with the natural world, because we are of it yet we are perverted into thinking we are above it! That’s what religion has done to us. Twisted us into thinking we are superior and entitled to more than anything else we co-exist with. The idea of the preacher visually stems from Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, blended with Kinski in Aguirre the Wrath of God. But, allegorically, the preacher is religion, the preacher is man; hypocritical and evil by design. We destroy the world in order to understand it, to master it, and yet the joke is we will never understand it. The preacher here is connected to nature, to Irina, and yet is beneath her. He kills out of lust and a desire to harm in order to quench his own selfish needs. And when he confronts nature dead on in a deluded state, wherein he thinks he will gain knowledge, he is destroyed. As are we when we do the same. That idea is the central idea behind this incarnation of Irina…
Diabolique: Queen of Blood works with the idea of birth and rebirth, this is relevant for the current issue of Diabolique, where we are focusing on pregnancy horror. As a film critic and filmmaker, what role do you think pregnancy and reproduction play in horror?
Alexander: There are only two events in the human lifespan of any real significance and that’s the beginning of life and the ending. The rest is filler. Glorious filler, but filler. The hard truth is that we are really only here to make more of us. We are part of a chain of evolution, nothing more. So we are hard wired on a basic, primal level to react to pregnancy and revere a pregnant woman. We are the drones. The pregnant woman must survive to make more of us. We can dress it up and socialize it and mythologize it, but that’s the reality of it. So if the beginning and the end are the key components of our existence and if, as I believe, horror films offer the purest window into the essence of what we are, then concepts of sex and death are the soul of any horror film. Procreation and decimation are the only real mysteries. We are fixated on them because we are confounded by them. When we see a pregnant woman in jeopardy, it sets off those primal alarms, a true sense of horror. In Queen of Blood, the idea of Irina as a simple force of nature whose only purpose is to continue brushes up against the motif of the pregnant widow, who knows something is coming for her and wants to protect her child against whatever it is. She is pure and good, but all of that is irrelevant when she meets the vampire. The vampire only wants to continue and the widow is the key to that. It’s not personal. It’s just business. The business of living. And dying. And it was ,of course, extra personal for me as the widow is played by my wife, mother of our three children.
Diabolique: What film do you think best exploits the theme of pregnancy in horror?
Alexander: There are so many but obviously Rosemary’s Baby is the mother—literally—of them all. More recently, Inside did me in with its endless mother-in-jeopardy sequences. Of course, Alien has its roots in pregnancy horror. But, I think my favorite pregnancy/motherhood horror film has to be David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Giving birth to rage and psychosis as physical beings is–like most of David’s work–revolutionary and both effective on a visceral level and an intellectual one.
Diabolique: You helped to score the film, were you taking influence from any particular composers? Bands?
Alexander: I did the entire score with the explosions of guitar noise during the murder sequences belonging to Toronto musician Ali Jafri of the bands Ariel and Gotham City Drugstore, and with vocals by my wife and co-lead, Carrie Gemmell. Like Irina, and like most of my music, the sound is a direct quote on the work of Tangerine Dream, Popul Vuh, early Ennio Morricone, and the ambient synth music of John Carpenter. And Skinny Puppy of course, which is why I put my friend Ogre in there, one of the greatest musicians and physical performers in history.
Diabolique: As far as your filmmaking career is concerned, what is next for you? Both Blood of Irina and Queen of Blood are artistic, experimental endeavors that aren’t as accessible to wide audiences; do you plan on staying on this track, or do you see yourself trying to work within a more conventional style for the next film?
Alexander: Well…as of this interview, my next film will be a radical step-up in terms of budget. I mean, I’ll have a budget. But the sensibilities will be the same, the ideas, themes and even select cast will be the same. Dialogue will be present if and when it needs to be, but I am no fan of explanatory dialogue at all. I am more interested in creating work that speaks a kind of universal language. I have yet to formally announce this but my favorite contemporary filmmaker called me some months ago after seeing both Irina and Queen and said, and I quote, “ we speak the same cinematic language.” My head exploded. He offered to finance and produce my next film. And he is. I can’t say who that person is yet, as I’d get murdered in my sleep, I’m sure but suffice to say it is both insane and yet, when you look at his work and mine…it makes perfect sense. Irina was in fact fashioned after one of his films in some respects. So yes, the song won’t change but the orchestra will be massive.
Learn more about Queen of Blood here