I enjoyed Death House more than I ever imagined I would. See, in one circle or another, rumor, legend, and vague insinuations have existed for years about this movie dubbed “The Expendables of Horror.” With so much anticipation built up around the release, I was hesitant at first to go see it. Too often a film can’t live up to its own hype and the result is dismaying to say the least. For me, Death House was everything it promised to be. Action, violence, gore, terror, and meaningful appearances by some of the most iconic figures in horror cinema of the last forty years.
As you may recall from other interviews I’ve done over the last year, sometimes something is just so cool, the interview is so different, that I have to write it in a less traditional manner. When I started talking to Death House writer/Director Harrison Smith, I knew this was going to be one of those “non traditional” pieces. In 2016, Smith wrote a four part series for Horror Fuel, The Road to Death House. In it, he answered my opening salvo of questions. So, in that spirit, here is your Introduction to the Death House interview with writer/director Harrison Smith.
Dan - Gunnar Hansesn was writing Death House before his sudden passing in 2015. How did you become involved with the film?
How similar is the plot on film to Gunnar’s original concept?
Why Death House? What attracted you to the story?
What was it like to have so many horror icons working together on a single film?
With the cast, Death House has been called “The Expendables of Horror.” Do you feel like there’s some merit to this comparison?
Harrison - “Death House” is my fifth feature film: the fifth I have written and the third I have directed. It’s been a long road, and frankly, I am doing what no one else is doing in Hollywood, making consistent, high quality product on very low budgets. I’ve made one film a year since doing this profession full time.“Death House” was brought to me at a screening for my previous film “Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard.” Agent Michael Eisenstadt brought producers Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase of Entertainment Factory to the screening to meet me. They had a project written by Gunnar Hansen and Mike thought I was the guy for them to meet. Rick did not want to meet me, let alone sit through a zombie movie. I can’t blame him.
These guys had been trying to make it since roughly 2010. A rewrite was done on Gunnar’s original script by another author, but it did not improve on what was already in place. “The bones are all there,” Eisenstadt told me in a lunch meeting the following day. I agreed to read Gunnar’s original script and this rewrite on the plane ride back home. They wanted me to rewrite the script and direct the film.
Cynicism was already on the table before me. “The Expendables of Horror” made what should be a serious horror film sound like a gimmick. It implied a “who’s who” type of style that would be nothing more than an “R” rated “Scooby Doo” episode. Remember those episodes where they met the likes of Phyllis Diller, Don Knotts, Batman and Robin, Josie and the Pussycats and The Addams Family? “It’s Don Knotts! Famous comedian and actor!” (For all those young kids…you know… the target audience, who had no friggin’ clue who the guy was).
I called Gunnar and we discussed his script. He readily admitted that dialogue was not his thing. He wanted a high concept type of horror film and was not happy with “The Expendables” thing either. He was not a fan of the revise, and I agreed. So it was up to me to take what he had in place and see what I could come up with. Gunnar was soft spoken and gentle. He made it clear: do whatever I needed to, but the title “Death House” had to stay and the concept of the “Four Horsemen” had to stay.
I started on a treatment. I re-read Gunnar’s script and tossed the revise. Nothing from that revise was usable. Gunnar’s themes were of good and evil, the concept we hold of both. I liked that and used it as my center. However it was while I was brainstorming at a local bar/restaurant that the entire concept came to me. It was Superbowl weekend. I was “that guy” standing at a bar high top with my iPad looking like the Starbucks writer when the first trailer for “Jurassic World” came over the TV.
Read the full, four part series Road to Death House written by Harrison Smith to get the whole story straight from the horse’s mouth.
Dan - During the Nashville premiere you mentioned that the script for part two was already written and that the intention is to make Death House into a series of films. Can you give us a hint at what we can expect from part two?
Harrison - I don’t want to go too much into the sequel. It is written and submitted and picks up with Tony Todd’s character and “The Farm.” What i can say is that the sequel is extremely dark and ultra violent and has a lot to say about the sickness in our society today. It goes in a new direction and is a continuation of our characters’ stories but not a rehash at all. Not even close to the original.
Dan - Watching Death House was a genuinely fun and creepy experience. One of my favorite scenes involved the creatures in the cold storage unit. Will we be seeing more monstrosities like that in the coming films?
Harrison - Oh yes. The creatures in that cell seem to be a popular stand out in the film. You will see things even better than those monsters. The creatures called “The Herders” populate “Death House 2” and they are absolutely brutal.
Dan- I cannot even start to tell you how excited I am to hear that. So, are there any living horror icons who didn’t appear in Death House who you’d like to be able to cast in the sequel?
Harrison - Sure. Schedules were the issue with who made it and who didn’t in the first film. I don’t want to list any names because then I possibly offend someone I accidentally didn’t name. All I can say is that we are open to any all horror icons who didn’t appear in the first and happy to have them.
Dan - There is a lot of story in Death House. Between Kane Hodder’s Sieg, Tony Todd’s collector and the Five Evils there seems like more story to tell than an hour and a half long feature can give. Will there be any multimedia tie-ins to the film? A comic book or some short films maybe?
Harrison - That’s a great question. It will depend on how the film does and the demand for such items. Personally, I would love it. I would love to see a whole expanded universe on all of them and even Agents Boon and Novak who have their own dark histories.
Dan - As both writer and director, how did it feel to bring this story to life? What can you say about carrying this project from script to screen?
Harrison - It’s been a long road. Gunnar Hansen, who created the project, is not here to see it emerge from the post production studio. Making a movie is akin to a minor miracle. Making one with the largest collection of horror names in a single picture, to date…that’s something else.
Death House is personal to me. I want its audience to know I feel the same things they do. I have the same love and respect for these wonderful actors and the same gratitude for their work and the memories they have provided. They contributed to the human condition, to the culture, and that is no small achievement.
This is why I know Death House is great. It was made with respect for a much maligned and kicked around, underappreciated genre. We aimed high.
We did it for the fans.
We did it for Gunnar.
Dan - If you could offer filmmakers and screenwriters one piece of advice after your experience with Death House, what would you say?
Harrison - I offer the same advice across the board no matter what film: “Do it.” Don’t talk about making movies. Don’t sit around and review movies. Get out there and make your movie. Make it happen no matter what resources you have. It will only grow from the experience.
As Death House prepares for a Netflix release later this summer, we’re also wondering about another potential story forming in the planned film series. An IMDb page appeared in April 2017 for a film titled Dawn of 5 Evils. From a brief snippet offered by Smith to Dread Central back in November, the outlined 12 page treatment would be a brief origin story of the dubiously malicious entities housed in the deepest bowels of the prison. There have been no updates on the project since late 2017. When asked about this potential prequel, here’s what Smith had to add:
“The film is an unofficial prequel, a sort of origins story on the 5 Evils. I hate the title and it's only a working one. The script is not written and it will depend on Death House's performance on whether this is made. I have a detailed treatment for the film but it hasn't gone beyond that stage yet.”
Here’s looking forward to the continued development of Death House and it’s incredible cast of characters.
Dan Lee is a film critic, editorialist, independent author, and horror culture correspondent from Tennessee. You can also follow him on social media @dotdblog