A year after its FrightFest debut, the Axelle Carolyn-curated Tales Of Halloween is finally available on Blu-ray and DVD here in the UK, and it’s one of the best horror anthologies of recent years. Set in the same town on the same night, it’s a fast and funny collection of shorts from some of our favourite filmmakers, including Neil Marshall, Paul Solet, Mike Mendez, Darren Lynn Bousman, Carolyn herself and Lucky McKee.
McKee’s short, titled ‘Ding Dong,’ is unforgettable. Pollyanna McIntosh (The Woman) and Marc Senter (Red White And Blue) play a couple preparing for trick or treaters, but he’s a little worried that she’s a little too invested in the adorable tots coming to their door, and might not want to let them go…
We’re huge fans of McKee’s work, from the heartfelt loneliness of May to the savage social satire of The Woman, to the giddy madness of All Cheerleaders Die, so we were thrilled to talk to him about his inspirations for this strange tale, why horror anthology TV deserves a comeback, his upcoming thriller Misfortune, and his latest collaboration with Jack Ketchum.
How did you get involved with Tales Of Halloween?
I’m friends with Axelle Carolyn, and she just called me out of the blue. I was actually in the middle of a road trip, and they brought me on board at the last minute, I was the last director to come on to the show. So I had to scramble to come up with an idea! I was kind of a special case because all of the other filmmakers were based in Los Angeles, so it actually took a little more effort on their part to get me out there.
It took me a minute to land on an idea that I thought could work, because so many people had covered so many great aspects of Halloween already, so I just kind of dug into a personal place and came up with something.
Were you given any guidelines beyond “Here are the directors, and it’s set on Halloween?”
It was pretty loose. They said the idea was that it all takes place in the same neighbourhood and that was the loose connection, and they had the DJ stuff with Adrienne Barbeau to wrap it around, but it was pretty loose. Anything that kind of fell into that general territory, I could do what I wanted.
You said you had to come with the idea pretty quickly, what was the first thing about this story that came to you?
Being recently married myself at that time, and starting to think about having kids and stuff like that, I just thought, “What about a young couple that hasn’t been able to have kids yet, having kids show up at their door all day and all night long?” I thought that was an interesting jump off point, and I put in a bit of my love of the subconscious areas that David Lynch pokes around in, and my lifelong love of The Wizard Of Oz and the green witch in that, and Hansel and Gretel. It was just kind of a mixture of a lot of things that were swirling through my brain at that moment.
Pollyanna McIntosh and Marc Senter are brilliant in it. How did they come on board?
Well, when I had pictured this red witch, I was thinking that Polly has this spectacular smile that I thought would look amazing in red, her face in red contrasted with her wicked looking smile. And I obviously had such a good experience working with her on The Woman, I just thought it would be cool.
I’d been wanting to work with Marc for a long time, I’d produced this film he starred in called The Lost years ago, had helped my buddy Chris Sivertson make the first Jack Ketchum adaptation, and had always loved Marc. We’d come close on a couple of projects over the years, but finally we found something that fit well. It was fun to put him in that little costume and beat him up for a couple of days!
It’s obviously a very short story but you really do get a sense of what their lives have been like.
I’d always wanted to do a story about an abusive relationship where it’s actually the woman abusing the man, I thought that would be an interesting dynamic to tackle. That was a theme that had been swirling in my brain for a while and it just connected with this story.
They’re both great actors, you feel like these are people that have lived lives, they’re not just reciting lines from the script. They do a lot of work on their characters and figure out what makes them tick before the cameras roll and I think you feel that.
And the whole film has this very heightened, strange atmosphere. Is that one of the joys of shorts, that you can maintain that for the duration?
Yeah, I wanted to play in a subconscious state, I feel like you’re in the psyche of this guy and the story is about very real male fears. I’ve done a lot of female-driven movies, and obviously there’s a really crucial female character in the story, but it really is from his mental perspective.
I’m also a big fan of silent film and wanted to do something that was extremely visual without a lot of modern effects. I kind of pretended that I was working from early 20th century filmmaking rules, with a lot of layering and doing everything in camera. Having a surreal feeling, not necessarily surrealistic, but I just wanted it to look cool, you know?
I guess the witch’s amazing design is part of that, too!
Yeah, definitely, with her candy cane arms and all that. My wife helped design that, my wife is an amazing artist. She’s storyboarded for me ever since my movie The Woods and done conceptual designs for me and everything. It’s pretty amazing when you can just say, “I picture this red witch and she’s got, like, candy cane arms…” and she draws it and it’s like, “Exactly!” [laughs] Even better than what I’ve had in my brain. My wife was really crucial and she’s one of the editors on the film. And also on set, she really helped with the costume and getting the look of everything just right.
Was there any input or interference from the rest of the team once you’d got started?
Not really, they pretty much let me do my own thing. When I first gave the script to Axelle it really kind of disturbed her! She wasn’t quite sure of it because the subject matter made her really uncomfortable, and she was surprised that I wrote a pretty unsympathetic female character because I was kind of known for writing sympathetic women up to that point! But yeah, they pretty much let me do my thing, no creative interference, just encouragement.
What was the experience like of seeing the whole movie put together?
That was strange. I came in last, and I don’t live in LA so I know all the filmmakers involved but I’m kind of an honorary member of that crew, I’m not going to dinner with them every week and going to the same parties and stuff. But when I saw the final film, I was like “Wow! Mine is really, really weird!” [laughs] But that’s cool, it’s like a mix-tape with a bunch of your favourite horror directors and I think all of those contrasting tones and styles makes it what it is. I think that’s what makes it fun and surprising.
You’ve got some anthology experience having worked on Masters Of Horror. Is it a format you enjoy?
Oh yeah. I’d equate a film more to writing a novella or something like that, and short films can be like poems. Just all about one idea, one simple idea and expressing that as economically as possible. I love that format; I grew up on anthologies. It’s a very comfortable format, I wish it was a more popular format. It’s cool that something like Black Mirror has come along and rekindled people’s love of it.
I miss Masters of Horror, I wish that show had gone on and on. There are so many places you can go with it, and horror is such an elastic genre. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the success of Black Mirror will inspire people to do more of those things. It all goes in waves, you know.
After you made May in 2002, you directed a mid-level budget horror with The Woods. It feels like the horror landscape has changed so much now…
Yeah, I don’t think it’s specific to horror, I think it’s films in general. I mean, you’ve got low budget films that are even lower budget than when I started out. And the middle ground films have all been absorbed into television, because it’s the thing right now, with streaming and all these great series. And then you have huge budget films. The middle ground has definitely disappeared.
Like The Woods, that was a mid-range studio budget film, and they’re not really making a lot of those any more. I think something like Don’t Breathe is a rarity, or some of the films that James Wan is producing, there’s just a few people that are actually able to pull things off in that budget range. It’s so strange because horror continually proves itself to be one of the strongest genres in terms of box office. They almost always turn profits on those things.
It’s always surprising that the Blumhouse budgets have stayed so low when they’re so profitable!
It’s the market, the market dictates everything. We’re in a strange transitional period, with the technology changing and people getting used to the idea of things being delivered digitally and physical media disappearing. We’re still going through an adjustment period!
But on the flipside, it feels to me that the big studios aren’t Universal and Paramount and Fox anymore, it’s Netflix and Amazon and Hulu. Those are the major studios now. Those are the guys that have real money to put into movies these days. And they’re also not as afraid to take a risk because they have such a solid distribution format, it’s part of everybody’s daily life now.
Has moving away from horror with your next film Misfortune felt like a big adjustment?
It all comes down to the same thing. It’s a different genre, but for me it’s always been about character and finding really, really good actors. And I’m fortunate enough to have John Cusack playing my antagonist, and Willa Fitzgerald from Scream, and Daniel Zovatto who was in Don’t Breathe, I just have these really, really fine actors.
There’s a lot of action elements, so that’s just a fun challenge! It will be a fun little pivot for me. But there’s definitely a lot of darkness in it too, so people that have seen my stuff in the past will feel some connective tissue there. No matter what, there’s always a little darkness and Grimms’ fairytale aspect to anything I do!
And you have a new project with Jack Ketchum coming out?
Yeah, we have new book coming out that’s actually one of my favourite stories I’ve ever been a part of. The book is called The Secret Life Of Souls and it comes out here in the States on 8 November with a really cool publisher, Pegasus Books. It’s a story about a little girl that has a psychic connection with her dog. I’m pretty excited about it!
It’s the longest novel we’ve written, it’s my third novel with Ketchum, and I’m really, really proud of it. It’s one of my little darlings, one of my favourite things I’ve done over the course of my career, and I’m really excited to share that with people.
You’ve worked with Ketchum on a few projects now. What’s your writing process like?
Ketchum and I have a different process. In the case of The Woman, we wrote the screenplay first and the book came after that. The most comfortable format for me to write in is a screenplay format, so if he’s the first one laying down pages, it’s in prose form, and if I’m the first one laying down pages, it’s in screenplay form, and then we switch off and start consulting on things, building things scene by scene together through long conversations.
It’s kind of a unique process, and I always let him take the lead on the prose side and he lets me take the lead on the movie side. So ultimately, if you’re able to get the film made, you have these two interpretations of the same story in different art forms, it’s pretty fun.
Finally, what’s your favourite rainy day horror film?
Rainy day horror film…I’d probably say The Innocents, the Jack Clayton film. It’s just so beautiful and haunting, and some of my favourite black and white widescreen photography I’ve ever seen. The lighting is so creative in that movie; it’s dripping with atmosphere. It’s a fun movie to introduce people to, it just blows their mind when you bust it on them! And just a gorgeous film, too, I think it’s inspired a lot of our great directors.