There are few genres of cinema where the rapidly changing times has become as obvious as the horror genre. As latex suits and concocted blood has been replaced with pixilated digital files, stories that were once innovative and inspiring have been watered down into displays of senseless violence and rehashed repetition. And yet, due to these changing times, horror fans have stood by and celebrated those who still champion the SFX of yore, and many old-school horror filmmakers choose practical over digital because they know the difference as well.
It’s in this world that horror directing legend Tom Holland still thrives, still churning imaginative frights together while respecting the work that has carved out his legacy. He’s embraced the young and the bold by appearing in Hatchet II, and has already seen one of his films, Fright Night, receive a high profile Hollywood remake. However, Holland still remains humble, yet intricately aware, in this new cinematic paradigm, and still remains active as a filmmaker and writer, respectively. In line with our FRIGHT NIGHT WEEK, Tom Holland sat with Diabolique to talk about Fright Night, Child’s Play and even his work on the small screen, as he prepares for another exciting chapter in his prolific career…
DIABOLIQUE: Fright Night was your first feature film as a director after establishing yourself as a prolific and dependable genre screenwriter. How did you come up with the concept for Fright Night?
TOM HOLLAND: I was writing Cloak & Dagger, which was supposedly based on a Cornell Woolrich short story called “The Window.” [“The Window”] was the adolescent version of Rear Window. I had the chance [to direct Cloak & Dagger] but I didn’t end up using it because it was too thin of a story at that point. However, when I was sitting there and trying to think of how to write Cloak & Dagger, I thought of how hysterically funny it would be if a teenage horror fan became convinced that his next door neighbor was a vampire. I sort of had the idea then and there.
I didn’t have the story until several months later because I kept asking myself, “Well, what would the teenage horror fan do?” Then, it occurred to me that he would go to Peter Vincent, the Roddy McDowall character, for help. Once I had that, I couldn’t stop myself from getting to the keyboard and starting to work.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the most admirable aspects of Fright Night is that it doesn’t only have great characters and a wonderful story, but the visual sense is incredibly compelling. The story itself could be told from the visuals alone. Was it more important for you to capture the visual elements of the film or to make sure that the story was cohesive?
HOLLAND: I think all of it [was equally important]. What happened was when I was writing Psycho II, I worked with the late Richard Franklin, and he was a huge Hitchcock scholar. We watched every Hitchcock movie ever made, even The Silence, and that taught me about visual set pieces. Subsequently, I try to add three to five visual set pieces into every script that I write.
I thought Fright Night just tickled my funny bone, as my Mother used to say. So the dialogue and characters became an expression of that [feeling], since there was a funny idea at the center of [the film]. What that lead to was a lot of warmth, humor between the people and caring, so I thought that it all became equally important. Not only visually, but getting to know Charlie Brewster, Peter Vincent, Evil Ed, Amy and all of them.
It was a wonderful writing experience, and I laughed myself silly as I was writing it. I was chuckling constantly. I can’t tell you how much fun that was to write. I think the fun was there in the writing and it came out in the playing of the script.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering this was your first outing as a director, it’s incredible that the performances are so strong, from Chris Sarandon to Roddy McDowall to Stephen Geoffreys and beyond. What was your approach to directing these actors? Were you more involved and rigid to the script or did you leave them wiggle room to add their own flair and essence to the role?
HOLLAND: Well, yes and no. I had two weeks of rehearsals, and I don’t think I’ve ever had that much rehearsal time since. Everyone was enthusiastic. Chris Sarandon and Roddy were the two older players, but Roddy was very paternalistic and supportive. So what we did was we rehearsed live and I laid out the rooms off of the production designs on a soundstage. We acted out every scene in the movie before we started to shoot by laying out white masking tape on the floor to the approximate dimensions of the room.
Acting-wise, I directed Fright Night before we started to shoot, and I also asked the actors to write-up a page-and-a-half, two-page character profiles about who their characters were. So there was a backstory to each character that wasn’t necessarily on the page, but [that backstory] gave a sense of subtext to everybody’s relationship to each other. We were able to explore what motivated them and what changed from scene-to-scene.
In other words, it wasn’t like they were thrown into it and just started to shoot. This movie was blocked out down to every move before we even started to shoot. So, all of the hard work had been done before filming as far as the acting was concern. Also, Roddy was incredibly supportive, and god knows he was [supportive] in every movie he ever made. But they were real actors, and if you’re a real player, you’re thrilled to rehearse and that group was. There was no star attitude from anybody. Chris Sarandon was, at heart, a theater actor, so it really clicked because everybody came there to work and everybody enjoyed the rehearsals.
Ever since then, rehearsals have been very hard to do because when you have a star, their time is so ultra-valuable that you can get maybe three to four days before you start to shoot, if you get lucky. But I didn’t have any of those problems; I had a full, solid two weeks for Fright Night. So that film was extremely well-planned and laid out. Every moment of pre-production was used and it really paid off.
The actual shooting went very, very smoothly and the actors knew everything they needed. We didn’t have to waste anytime talking about anything, you know? It was just a great experience. The film was blessed, because you need a little bit of luck with every one of these [films] in order to make them work. That film had the best [luck].
You also have to realize that I had Richard Edlund as the SFX producer, and that whole SFX team was just coming off of Ghostbusters. So they were coming off of this huge film into a tiny, little film called Fright Night, and they had made many mistakes on Ghostbusters which they learned from, so they knew what they were doing in terms of what they were able to do and the height of the technology at the time. We were lucky, and the guy who did that- and he’s passed also, and I hate that they’re all dead- was the head of production at Columbia Pictures at the time and he just surrounded me with great people. He also gave me John DeCuir as a production designer, but if you look at his credits, not only did he do Ghostbusters but also Cleopatra, The King and I and more. I was given one of the top five production designers in Hollywood. And DeCuir told me about as much as anyone did about production design.
So I had this phenomenal support, and I had all of the best crew from Ghostbusters come over and do Fright Night. It was like getting the team of a $200 million Hollywood tentpole movie to do my little movie. That’s what it was like. That’s why the effects are as terrific as they are.
DIABOLIQUE: You did not come back to direct the sequel to Fright Night, but you were credited as a co-writer. What motivated your hesitation to return for the sequel?
HOLLAND: I didn’t have anything to do with Fright Night 2. I was working on something else at the time. [Fright Night 2 director] Tommy Lee Wallace is a very talented guy and a terrific fellow, but what they tried to do with the sequel was that they tried to make it even cheaper. It’s human greed, and that’s the producers thing. So I don’t have much to say about Fright Night 2 because I had very little to do with it. I know they were all trying to make money off of the reputation of the first film, and that’s one of the things I don’t like about Hollywood.
Now when they try to do a sequel, [producers] will put more money into it, but back then, anything with a number on it meant you got less and less money every time. It was different; sequels back then shorted everything to try to increase the profit margin and they put as little into it as possible. It was like beating a dead horse in those days. Now, not so much, because everything is sequelized forever.
The producer of Fright Night 2 was Herb Jaffe, and he wouldn’t pay to bring Chris Sarandon back. That was short-sightedness, and I happen to like Herb very much. He’s a terrific gent. But it was that kind of thinking that prevailed about sequels at the time. He was not alone.
DIABOLIQUE: After Fright Night, you took on another, albeit more straight-faced, high concept horror film with Child’s Play, which was initially developed from a script from Don Mancini. What brought you to that project, specifically?
HOLLAND: Well, I thought that the [original] script was weak, at best, and I had to try to figure out what to do with it. What it had was that it touched on a universal fear, which was that we all thought when we were kids, “Oh my gosh, what would happen if my playthings came alive?” More specifically, your dolls, and that was a real touchstone. But the original script didn’t have any story. So I tried to come up with something to make it work, and I couldn’t.
So I left [Child’s Play], and I went off and made Fatal Beauty. While I was gone, Joe Ruben, the director, came on and he tried to get a story out of it, and that’s when John Lafia came on. They couldn’t get a story out of it, so Joe Ruben quit. But then, I don’t know how but all of the sudden I thought of Charles Lee Ray. And I thought, “Well, if I have an evil serial murderer possess that doll, then I have an antagonist and I can set it up so the audience roots for the mother trying to save her son.” It was then that I had a really strong story, so I came back onto the project and wrote the Child’s Play that we all know today.
I always thought that, with Child’s Play, I was directing my own original script. What happens when you direct, in terms of the Writers Guild, is that the rules are that in order for a director to get Screenplay credit is that he has to at least write 50% of it. Usually, the threshold for credit on a screenplay is at least 30%, but they raised it for the director to have written at least half of it, and then everyone else who worked on it, despite whether their material was used, automatically gets credit due.
So that’s what happened [on Child’s Play]; if the director is also the writer, he gets screwed as the writer. They just changed those rules after all these years maybe about a year ago because there are so many director-writers who are starting to object, and now they’re going through that situation where there are multiple writers. You can call Joe Ruben and ask him why he left Child’s Play, but he didn’t get a screenplay out of [Don’s draft] because he was given the same screenplay that I had tried earlier. It was a three-year process, I think.
DIABOLIQUE: Child’s Play had a much more serious emphasis on the subject matter than the sequels, which went further and further into the realm of horror comedy. What are your thoughts on the legacy of Child’s Play?
HOLLAND: Well, directing and writing is about voice. I haven’t work on any of the sequels, and they used some of the material that I hadn’t in the first sequel, and I thought it was like watching paint dry. The second sequel was pretty much that way too. Then what happens is if you can’t make something work, you go into farce, which indicates the exhaustion of a genre. So since nobody has been able to find the terror within the situation like the original Child’s Play, I think the easy get is to go to comedy. I think somebody is going to have to reinvent the killer doll genre; either that or go back using my original script for the first film.
The horror movie, especially for Child’s Play, works in direct proportion with the involvement of the characters. In other words, you have to care about the people who are in danger in order to be involved. This was a part of the difficulty of writing it in the first place. You’re dealing with a very dicey situation in the first place when you’re dealing with a killer doll. There’s something basically ridiculous about that. It’s very easy to get bad laughs, so that’s why writing the screenplay was so damned difficult for the first film, which established the franchise. You know my sense of humor anyway, and the devilish sense of humor is what made the doll so enjoyable, but that’s about all they kept from the first Child’s Play, at least that’s what it seems to me, to where they’ve ended up, which is farce or rather high camp.
If you look at the franchise, too, the films get cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. So you know what’s going to happen is somebody’s going to do a remake someday when the rights are straightened out, and you know the damn doll will be CGI. Right there, [CGI] is what takes away the reality and puts you into video games.
DIABOLIQUE: Outside of your work on Fright Night and Child’s Play, you’re also well known through the genre world for your adaptation of the works of Stephen King. What do you think it is about Stephen King’s work that matched your sensibilities? Do you think your experiences in directing Fright Night and Child’s Play lent better to adapting King’s work?
HOLLAND: Well, I don’t know about that but I was a kid when I read Stephen King. I think Stephen is what my generation has as the closest thing to a Charles Dickens. Stephen did a bunch of things. He popularized horror for a middle class audience; he took horror out of the ghetto and made it acceptable to a class of people. At this point, I think his short stories are what cast me in. I think [Stephen King’s short stories] are great, a lot of them anyways. I can’t say enough positive about him, as far as his talent is concerned.
I’m a great admirer of Stephen because he’s never stopped, just based on his fortitude, intuitiveness and being prolific. He’s a marvel. The Stand has to be one of the great horror novels and sagas. I’m a fan of Stephen. And you’re lucky if you can get a ten year creative run, and that takes a lot of work; Stephen, essentially, has been working non-stop for 40 fucking years, maybe 45. Good, bad or indifferent, he keeps getting it out and every now and then, there’s something that’s just stone cold brilliant. This is all from a guy who almost got run down and died.
I remember when I was directing The Langoliers, and he came in for a small, bit part in [the film]. He came in and was a nervous wreck because he had to come in early, sit around and wait; that’s how it goes because with the cost of production, essentially, you don’t want to spend a minute waiting for anybody. They always call you a couple of hours before they’re going to shoot with you. But Stephen was a nervous wreck, and I didn’t understand why.
So we started talking and it was because he was jonesing, because he wasn’t writing at his desk. He told me he had about three months worth or work laid out on a grease board in his office and for three months, he had the days divided up. In the mornings, he had one project; in the afternoons, he had another project. He was working seven days a week. That is just… my God, man. I bet he’s still doing it. That amount of stick-to-itiveness and having his nose to the grindstone is phenomenal, especially since he’s managed to maintain such a high level of quality.
But Stephen King took and democratized horror. Before Stephen, horror was really something in the back of the room. It was always a niche, and Stephen brought it out to the masses. All of us who have a love of the genre should be thankful to Stephen for expanding our audience. You can criticize him, too, but what he does is that he makes horror accessible.
Stephen King made horror accessible for the 40-year-old housewife. You’re not going to get that with Clive Barker, who stands by his H.P. Lovecraft influences. If you look at Stephen’s work, he made horror acceptable to everybody by using a lot of brand names in his writing, but there’s a humanity in his writing, too. So he went beyond rats in the basement and things in the walls.
DIABOLIQUE: Absolutely. I think one of the best aspects of Stephen King’s work is that there’s always a sense of exploration and curiosity that a lot of people can relate to, and when his work came out, he reached out to a generation that had already experienced B-movies and William Castle movies. I feel like his audience wanted to see those horror stories that were so enjoyable but in a realistic, relatable context, and Stephen King was the first writer to explore that theme. The fact that his work clicks with every passing generation is further indication of that notion.
HOLLAND: Yeah, so you know!
DIABOLIQUE: But I digress: Fright Night is considered one of predecessors to the defined subgenre of horror comedy. Do you think horror comedy is more suited by nature towards an underground audience or can it become as accessible now to the mainstream as in it did in the years of Ghostbusters and Fright Night?
HOLLAND: I think both [options]; it depends. [Horror comedy] is certainly more mainstream now than back when I started. If you’re using over-the-top kills, blood and gore like Adam Green, then that’s comedic. I love Adam Green, and I acted in Hatchet II; I’m a huge admirer of Adam. But I prefer comedy that comes out of the situation and doesn’t wink at the audience or break the fourth wall; that’s what happens in both Fright Night and Child’s Play. The comedy comes out of the situation, not winking at the audience.
I vastly prefer that, and I think that Adam does that a lot, too. There are a lot of horror films, though, that are self-conscious. Occasionally, it’s because the people who are writing and directing [those films] are looking down on the genre. So they’re winking at the audience, saying, “Hey, I know this is shit and so do you.” Also, your generation is weighted down with this sense of irony, which is too smart to be cool quite often; not always, but quite often. So if you want to be successful, you want the audience to willingly suspend their disbelief while watching the movie so that comedy can come out of the situation, not from the writer or director commenting on that situation.
I’m really a huge fan of Adam’s though; in no way is that a slight at him. I instead mean things that you get like that last two Child’s Play movies, which are comedies! They’re ridiculous because that’s what you can do. If you can make the situation real, where they’re really in danger, then the laughs come out of that because you get the chance to give the audience relief from the terror. That’s a higher art form.
If you look at Adam’s Holliston, or if you look at those Halloween shorts that he’s done, and he’ll have people chop themselves up and it’ll get more and more extreme, but it gets more ridiculous when the blood sprays all over that it becomes funny. It’s those situations in which horror comedy has develop alongside. But when you get into Scary Movie 2, 3, 4, and 5, that’s like what I said about farce being an exhaustion of the medium and the genre. That’s what those movies indicate.
The situations have become so clichéd. That’s when you know they’re wearing out their welcome. Then again, that’s what I’ve been saying about vampires ever since Twilight, but they still keep making those. And right now, it would seem to me that I’m getting tired of zombies, but World War Z makes money. It’s hard to say, but it feels to me that these classic genre monsters need to come along and be reinvented before they can take off on a new run. That may or may not have happened on a few of these monster areas.
DIABOLIQUE: Your ventures into horror comedy have also come to fruition on the small screen, with your episodes of Tales from the Crypt and an episode in the Second Season of Masters of Horror. Do you find it more difficult to balance horror and comedy given the time constraints of television storytelling?
HOLLAND: I did three episodes of Tales from the Crypt, including the third episode ever made, and I did one called “King of the Road” that got started an actors career, and I thought he was excellent in it. That actor’s name is Brad Pitt. I saw Brad and knew he was a star. I thought all three episodes that I did were very good. The second episode, “Four-Sided Triangle”, was terrific, and I also co-wrote that [story]. That was the episode with Patricia Arquette. Personally, I loved that episode, and I thought the episode that I did with Amanda Plummer, who’s a brilliant fucking actress.
Now, let’s move to “We All Scream for Ice Cream” in Masters of Horror. I thought I had made mistakes there. I had a brilliant actor in Bill Forsythe; I cannot say enough about him as a talent. I should have made him play Emmett Kelly, who was a famous clown who dressed in street clothes. Instead, I let him get into a clown costume. In other words, it was about a mentally disadvantaged man, as they say, who wasn’t right in the head. I should have made him make his own costume out of castaway’s and thrift store stuff. If I had gotten a bit deeper down into character there and made him more touching- and this is my problem, not Bill Forsythe’s- but if I would have done a better job of how I costumed him, I always thought that episode could have been a million times better.
That show was always reaching for a human truth, because the story fit in line as a tragedy, and I didn’t quite get there. So I was very happy with Tales from the Crypt and I felt Masters of Horror wasn’t as good as it could have been, and that was my fault. It was a lot about costumes because I didn’t go into the character and explore what made Bill’s character moving and what made you feel sorry for him. If I had gotten more of a grip on that, I would have made a very moving script, as well as something that was very scary.
The death scene was a tragedy for the kids because they were just messing around, but if you felt any more sympathy for Bill’s character, who had the IQ of a 10-year-old, then I could have elevated that story to tragic proportions. I didn’t do that, and I think that’s because of the costuming. I know that sounds silly to you, but those are the decisions that the directors have to make and go for.
If you look at my work, I try to take people that you like, as an audience member, and put them in absolutely horrendous situations. The terror only happens when you care about the people and what’s going to happen to them, because you like them or identify with them or you sympathize. This, by the way, is a rule that has been lost over the years; very few people follow it and nobody cares about it anymore, but that’s how I feel about it.
It’s all a part of a whole. We look at all the mistakes when we’re putting something together, and the trick is to do more things right than you do wrong because you’re bound to do things wrong, too.
DIABOLIQUE: It’s really inspiring to see that after all these years that you’re still working hard and putting out great content. Do you have any projects currently in development or along the pipeline?
HOLLAND: I have Tom Holland’s Twisted Tales on FEARnet, which debuts November 4th. I have ten episodes and they’re all coming out at the same time so that you can binge view them. Back when I started on that project, FEARnet was going to release the episodes once every week, but we had a meeting a few weeks back and we’re going to be putting them out all together. I think that Netflix binge-watching model must be having an effect on that.
I’m also slated to do The Ten O’Clock People, which is also a Stephen King piece, and we’re going to begin [filming] on September 23rd, and Chris Sarandon is attached to that. I can’t really talk about that because we’re in negotiations with the talent.
I also have something called Tom Holland’s Untold Tales, which is being released for the Kindle with an app for Untold Tales on iTunes. I had written some Twisted Tales that were too expensive to produce, and so I’ve written them up as short stories. In short stories, when you’re writing prose, you can spend as much money as you want because there’s no one there to tell you, “No.” I’ve enjoyed that tremendously. In fact, I’m almost at the end of the fourth Untold Tale. I’m going to be putting them out one-a-month or two-a-month until I get to about 10 or 12 of them.
For those interested in checking out Holland’s previous efforts, his Stephen King adaptation The Langoliers and his appearance as an actor in Hatchet II are both available on Netflix Instant Streaming. His films, which include Fright Night, Child’s Play, Thinner, The Temp and Fatal Beauty, can be found on DVD (and in some cases, Blu-ray) at most major retail outlets, such as Amazon, Walmart, iTunes, Best Buy and Target. His contributions to Masters of Horror and Tales from the Crypt can also be purchased on DVD at those same outlets as well. The sequel to the remake of Fright Night, Fright Night 2: New Blood, will be released October 1st from 20th Century Fox, and you can view exclusive stills from that film here.
Once again Twisted Tales, featuring William Forsythe, Angela Bettis and AJ Bowen, premieres on FEARnet.com on November 4th, and they will be syndicated on FEARnet’s television channel as well. Untold Tales will be available soon on Amazon.com and iTunes. For more from Tom Holland, Twisted Tales and Fright Night, check back on DiaboliqueMagazine.com! In addition, you can view our FRIGHT NIGHT WEEK interview with Chris Sarandon here. Also, don’t forget to pick up Diabolique Issue #17, our incredibly great and star-studded horror-comedy issue, available for preorder now!
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from MontclairStateUniversity, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.