twixt GREG KLYMKIW and
Foresight Features, an independent south-western Ontario film production company headed by Jesse T. Cook, John Geddes and Matthew Wiele has, in a few short years, ascended to the throne of genre film supremacy in the land of beaver, maple syrup and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the leader of Canada's Nazi Party. These three 30-year-old gents who love horror movies as much, if not more than life itself, have an unholy alliance as filmmakers with writer Tony Burgess. Foresight's three latest insanely imaginative and scary genre pictures have tantalized genre fans the world over during the course of a short year-and-a-half period.
Hellmouth, Septic Man and Ejecta, all spring from the diseased brain of Tony Burgess, one of Canada’s most celebrated science fiction and horror novelists and screenwriters. He also wrote the source material and screenplay for Bruce McDonald's scary-ass Pontypool.
The last time Mr. Burgess and I met was to discuss Ejecta.
Now, the matter at hand is Hellmouth.
PULL, MEAT DRAW and PINCOCKSDuring our Ejecta chat, my fantasia included Burgess treating me to some fine pull from a still near Collingwood when I went down to the ass-end of the Bruce Peninsula to meet with him in Stayner. Pull is, of course, the key ingredient in the creative collaborative process between Burgess, Cook, Geddes and Wiele. This time, my deepest imaginings, spurred on by my frequent semi-comatose blood sugar crashes, have me suggesting that Tony haul hissef the fuck up to the northern-most tip of the Bruce where I hang my shingles. I want Burgess to have a taste of some great pull from these parts, but to also join me at the Meat Draw in our local Royal Canadian Legion. Burgess would, in this hallucinatory miasma within my cerebral cortex, query me on the matter and I would explain thusly:
"We purchase several raffle tickets at $1.00 per ticket. We want to get to the draw at least two hours in advance and space the ticket purchases out prior to the drawing of the lucky numbers. This allows for a decent spread of lucky numbers, ensuring at least one win and ideally, more than one."
Here Burgess will require clarification to the following query. Are we doing the interview sometime within this two hour period prior to the draw at the Legion or will we be saving it for when we visit Ma Pincock and her boys for some pull in the bush? I would, of course, affirm that pre-meat-draw was indeed a good time to do the interview as we'd be able to consume vast quantities of cheap Rye in the company of malcontent veterans who'd quietly gaze into whatever jar of liquor sat before them and mutter: "Well, what can you do?" This fantasia of mine also has Tony holding a barbecue the next day and wondering if he'll be able to win what he needs instead of having to buy it, wherein I'd explain:
"Spread upon the pool tables will be a wide array of meats - everything from prime rib roasts to a package of wieners, and in between there will be steaks and briskets of every imaginable grade and cut. Sometimes there will even be exotic fare like headcheese, tongue, hoof and all manner of juicy viscous innards. The animal of choice is cow, but there will, on occasion be pig, lamb, buffalo, horse, black bear, deer, peacock, emu and chicken. We will have, during the preceding two hours, an opportunity to peruse the offerings and make detailed lists of our favourites in the order which best reflects our individual and/or collective meatly desires. Ideally, we want our lucky number to be called as early in the proceedings as possible. It will allow us first pickins from the pool tables. Most people in this hallowed spot will immediately snatch up the prime rib roast. As the numbers are called, the most prime choices are secured by the happy winners until all that's left are the dregs. As for the pull, it's gonna follow in the bush with the Pincock brothers and their Ma who works the still and generates the mother's milk from a very old family recipe. Ma is practically a Rhodes Scholar of shine preparation, but the boys weren't blessed with her smarts."
I'll mention that we'll meet the boys at the Meat Draw because they purchase their tickets as a team quite early-on in the proceedings. "Don't sweat it," I can assure Tony. "We usually breathe a sigh of relief when the Pincocks are selected early on. They're not going to choose any prime rib or steaks. They always go for the fucking wieners."
I furthermore recount an especially salient example of the Pincock brothers' collective lack of grey matter. One time, during a job burning off a huge pile of brush, they decide not to wait for a raging wind storm to die down. During the gale force tempest, Curly, the eldest Pincock brother, gets a might impatient as he's right afeared they'll be late for the Meat Draw. Fetching a plastic milk jug full of gasoline from the back of their half ton, Curly pops the cap to toss a spray of fuel in the direction of the smouldering fire just as a huge breeze blows in his direction. As the first splashes of gasoline hit the fire, the wind carries a blast of flame back into Curly's face. Grasping the still-half-full plastic milk carton of gasoline, it explodes in his hands. Whilst his younger brothers, Enoch and Harold also go up in flames, Curly gets it the worst, running back to the half-ton, burning to a crisp and screaming - not an especially good idea as there were several milk jugs full of gasoline in the back of the pickup, a full tank of gas in the truck itself and several barrels of Ma Pincock's fine home brew.
As Tony will, no doubt, beg me to stop, I add, "Have I mentioned the box of dynamite in the back of their half-ton? The Pincock boys use it when they go fishing as it's much easier to set charges in hand-crafted waterproof containers that explode in the clear blue of Lake Huron, allowing for hundreds of stunned fish to float to the surface, so the Pincocks can just handily scoop them up into their boat." I add gravely, "It's a miracle Curly Pincock and his brothers lived to tell the tale. We're all thankful they survived, though. Someone has to choose the package of wieners at the Meat Draw and better the Pincocks than any of us. Besides, their inbreeding guarantees their early departure from the Legion once they win so as they can hit the backwoods for a weenie-roast. And you know what? If the Pincocks win tonight, we'll settle in with those boys in the bush, guzzle back Ma's pull and maybe even have some hot dogs with 'em."
Klymkiw: Hellmouth is replete with cool graveyards. One of my favourites was this old graveyard south of Winnipeg where tucked in a little grove behind an abandoned church was a kiddie graveyard with weathered headstones that had stone carvings of lambs and pudgy babies with wings. What is your favourite graveyard and why?
Burgess: There's a graveyard on a little dirt road hidden on Rainbow Valley Road north of Edenvale. Tiny white church, more of a shack on the grounds. It is maintained by the Clearview gravedigger known locally as Crackerjack. I had to do an author photo for an article in The Walrus [Magazine] so i got Crackerjack to find me a freshly dug grave to stand in. He obliged.
Where the fuck did the idea of Hellmouth come from?
Now that's a good question. It's not really an idea - more like a bizarre wishlist that director John Geddes asked me to realize. He had very specific story elements and environs that looked at first like an angry clog of random irreconcilables. I was quickly charmed by his conviction and so executed, to the best of my ability, his peculiar vision. John approaches story quite unlike anyone...wide and passionate, without cynicism or irony, but self aware - he often mentioned Ed Wood, not as a joke we could make, but as a film maker with no distance from his own material - Ed Wood as a way of believing in things. It felt to me like we could make something original and truly outsider.
I loved Ed Wood's movies as a kid. Even then they seemed distinctive to me. When people started making fun of him the the 80s, it kind of pissed me off. Can you describe the writing process on Hellmouth?
It involved a lot of cognitive dissonance and pure story telling - a bit like a tunnel vision - which fit perfectly with John's idea of a parallel world made of whole plastic. Everything behaves in a figurative landscape, a busy meaning-making sketch, that reaches in an authentic way to an honest nothing.
Was pull involved in the creative process?
Does evil seek out those who are lonely or is evil a natural manifestation born out of loneliness?
I have no idea.
Sorry for the eggheadedness, but Stephen McHattie's character in Hellmouth is alone, lonely and eventually he's facing hell. In Taxi Driver, Travis says: "Loneliness has followed me my whole life. I'm God's lonely man." For some reason I could not get this out of my head while watching Hellmouth. Why? Is that MY sick shit or yours or a combination of the two?
Well, this is as much [director] John Geddes as me or you. He was looking at Richard Matheson and one of the great films about isolation - The Incredible Shrinking Man. There was an experience we were chasing: not so much the films of Ed Wood, Richard Matheson or Hitchcock, but the person watching them. In the middle of a Saturday afternoon or the wee hours of Sunday morning, the viewer is alone and completely open, perhaps not even knowing the name of the film. When it reaches out to say something or do something, the lone viewer experiences a kind of belief they couldn't have acheived sitting beside someone. It falls outside. It is a movie you started watching half way through and maybe you fall asleep before the end, but for the rest of your life it has this unprocessed life in your memory. If it meant anything it was probably that it was real, like a dream is, and you didn't see it - it happened to you.
What was it like collaborating with Geddes? How does he differ from the other Foresight sickos?
They are all different and very respectful of that. The most striking thing about making Hellmouth was the way John lived the post production day and night. An ENORMOUS amount of work went into how it looks. John had to become a religious madman for two years. I mean, no one has made a film in the way this one was made, and no one ever will again. Ever.
I loved the weird-ass cool look of Hellmouth - dare I say it? Post-modern? Is this something that was part of the writing or is it strictly the sick shit of Geddes in translating your words to the screen?
We had the look in mind from the beginning. Early on I was trying to gauge how far I could go with the visuals and there was simply no limit. Can I have a demon lick the door open? Yep. Can we giant hellmouth swallow Julian Richings? Yep. And on and on. We watched lots of films to get a sense of how this would look and really, it was about using CG effects as if they were cheap practicals from Ed Wood's studio backlot.
I love being plunged into a world of horror that is hugely influenced by the post-war ennui of film noir. Was this a conscious approach on your part?
Oh yes, absolutely. That and shamed, smudgy modernism, and its loss of noise.
Stephen McHattie. How present was his visage and bountiful talents in your mind during the writing of the screenplay?
Oh he was always there, for sure. In fact, when we were trying to figure out how to construct the Barda at the end (CG? Big latex? A robot? An actor?) Stephen said `lemme me do it' and he was amazing, injecting a whole other layer of smoke to the story. Stephen has the incredible ability to occupy illogical spaces between what should make sense.
The gaping maw of hell as envisaged in medieval art and literature seems a natural bedfellow for the kind of ennui that plagues McHattie's character and the world of the film. Why? Is this a natural bedfellow for you? For all of us?
I have always loved the Hellmouth. Especially as a big creaking stage machine on the Elizabethan stage. So heavy and noisy for a figure. The hellmouth as stage prop is the perfect object for what we were doing: the thereness of practical effects combined with the not thereness of generated image.
I can envisage franchise potential for all the stuff you write for Foresight. Further exploration of the Septic Man, Richings in Ejecta and McHattie in Hellmouth, all seems natural to me. Any thoughts or discussion with you and Foresight on this?
We have talked about that, yes. In fact, me and Ari Millen wanna make a TV show based on our characters [from Hellmouth] Harry and Tips. Kinda Lenny and Squiggy as directed by Buster Keaton.
Shit, the Pincock Boys are here. Let's go look at the meat with them. I'll introduce you.
HELLMOUTH - THE REVIEW
|Stephen McHattie, a babe-o-licious ghost,|
creepy graveyards, the jaws of hell itself,
Bruce McDonald & Julian Richings in tow,
plus super-cool retro imagery fill the drawers of
Dir. John Geddes
Scr. Tony Burgess
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Siobhan Murphy, Boyd Banks,
Julian Richings, Bruce McDonald, Ari Millen, Tony Burgess
Review By Greg Klymkiw
To both the living and perhaps even the dead, old graveyards are as comforting as they are creepy. Screenwriter Tony Burgess seems to understand this better than most and with Hellmouth, he's crafted one of the most deliciously insane horror treats of the new millennium. Superbly and imaginatively directed by John Geddes and delivered to us by Foresight Features, the visionary company of (mad)men from Collingwood, Ontario, this is a first-rate mind-penetrator designed to plunge us deeply into the hallucinogenic properties inherent in Hell itself.
When I was a kid (who'd not grown out of childhood) during the late 70s and early 80s, I programmed a movie theatre devoted almost exclusively to cult and genre films and Hellmouth is exactly the kind of picture I'd have been playing during midnight shows in the 70-year-old 600-seat former-neighbourhood-cinema-turned-Porn-emporium-turned-arthouse in the wasted-west-end of Winnipeg (just round the corner from famed cult director Guy Maddin's boyhood home and his Aunt Lil's beauty salon which eventually became the studio for his first bonafide hit film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital). It's this very personal observation which proves to me, beyond a shadow of any doubt, just how universal Hellmouth is. The narrative is rooted in a strange amalgam of 40s film noir and the controversial early-to-mid-50s William Gaines period of the late-lamented and utterly demented E.C. Comics. In this sense, the madness that is Hellmouth has yielded a classic horror movie for now and forever.
And lemme tell ya, this ain't nothing to sneeze globs of bloodied snot at.
Charlie Baker (Stephen McHattie) is a tired, old grave-keeper living out his last days before retirement in a long-forgotten graveyard still maintained by a rural municipality with a certain pride in its historical legacy. As the film progresses, however, the legacy goes well beyond its commemorative value. Mr. Whinny (Boyd Banks) is a slimy, local bureaucrat who demands Charlie curtail his retirement plans to preside over an even older graveyard a few miles away. Charlie reminds Whinny that his own days are numbered due to a rare, degenerative brain disease, but the cruel, taunting administrator will have none of it and threatens to fire Charlie if he doesn't do his bidding (and thus flushing the retirement package down the toilet). Bureaucrats are just like that, especially if they work for Satan.
Alas, poor Charlie has little choice in the matter and is forced to make an odyssey across the dark and stormy landscape of this rectum-of-the-world township where he meets the mysterious babe-o-licious Faye (Siobhan Murphy). Swathed in form-fitting white, dark shades and blood-red lipstick, Faye hooks Charlie immediately into her plight and he becomes the unlikeliest knight in shining armour.
Grave-keeper Charlie Baker will, you see, soon do battle with a formidable foe at the very jaws of Hell itself.
Burgess's writing here is not only infused with imagination, but the archetypal characters, hard-boiled dialogue and unexpected turns taken by the tale create a solid coat hanger upon which director Geddes can display the stylish adornments of cool retro-visuals as well as all the eye-popping special visual effects splattering across the screen like so many ocular taste buds.
The mise-en-scene is not unlike the Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez approach to the world of Sin City, but here, the rich monochrome, dappled occasionally with garish colours, seems even more suited to the genre of horror rather than neo-noir. Geddes guides his superb cast through the minefields of a gothic nightmare with the assured hand of a master, eliciting performances that play the more lurid properties of the characters blessedly straight (McHattie, Banks and Murphy), thus allowing occasional explosions of over-the-top, though never tongue-in-cheek thespian gymnastics from Julian Richings and legendary director Bruce McDonald.
Crypt-Keepers and Grave-Keepers have long been a staple of horror, but usually, they're not treated as characters, but as "hosts" to deliver anthology-styled tales of terror (not unlike the classic Amicus production from the 70s such as Tales from the Crypt). As a feature film, Hellmouth gets to have its cake and eat it too. However, given that Charlie Baker is a living, breathing character, Foresight Features might actually have a property here worth revisiting - either in feature-length prequels, sequels and/or standalone "presents" tales of other grave-keepers. Better yet, there might even be a terrific continuing anthology series for the likes of Starz with Charlie involved week-to-week as an actual participant and storyteller. God knows the creative above-the-liners are more than skilled and up-to-the-challenge and Stephen McHattie, one of the best character actors in the world would be the ideal star.
Just a thought from a middle-aged old exhibitor, film buyer and movie producer . . .
Getting back to my personal rumination of those halcyon days when I programmed cult movies, it's with all respect that I reveal now that Hellmouth is the kind of picture we used to fondly refer to as a "head film". Like the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), Slava Tsukerman (Liquid Sky), David Lynch (Eraserhead) and so many others during the "Golden" Age of cult cinema, Hellmouth is ideal viewing for those who wish to ingest copious amounts of hallucinogens prior to and during their viewings of the film. That said, like all terrific "head films", the movie itself is plenty hallucinogenic and ultimately requires no added stimulants.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Hellmouth is being distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada in a gorgeously transferred DVD and BLU-RAY combo pack. The photography, sound and effects in this film are so astonishing that both formats have been worked to the outer limits of their capabilities to render a first-rate product. My only disappointment is the lack of extras on the discs, however, it does include trailers for Foresight's Septic Man and Ejecta.