After discussing special effects with Allan Apone, I had a lovely chat with JT Petty confirming his plans for a Faces of Death-inspired horror film. It's still in its early stages, as he just finished up The Burrowers last week, a film I've been dying to see for a long time-- but more on that in a bit.
In today's column I reconcile these two stunning sources for the sake of making some kind of a point, but both of these interviews have been so fascinating to me that I could hardly sit on the rest of what they had to say, so here you go. Special thanks to JT Petty for (at least temporarily) repairing my optimism for the genre.
TB: When did you first see Faces of Death?
JTP: Like everybody, I watched it when I was twelve years old, from behind my fingers; I watched it again about a year ago when I got the writing job. Like anybody who watches it as a child and then as an adult, it’s amazing how fake it is. When you’re twelve, you’re like, “Oh my god, I just saw these people die!” but now it’s goofy as hell. What did the special effects guy have to say?
TB: [Recaps Allan Apone interview, i.e. monkey brains.]
JTP: Monkey brains specifically is hilarious. There’s no shot in that sequence that lasts longer than a second. Have you watched it again recently?
TB: [Admits technical ignorance of FOD]
JTP: There is real autopsy footage in it-- that I believe is real-- and that’s kind of fucked up to watch. But that’s not really horror, it’s just weirdly analytical. One thing I didn’t really remember about it at all is what a sort of false-hearted liberal diatribe it is. They keep trying to justify why they’re showing you all this horrible shit, so it’s like, “These are baby seals being clubbed,” and the voice over goes on to say something like, “Watching this I realize I could never again wear fur.” They do that for everything. After the monkey brains get eaten there’s a hint toward vegetarianism. Surprisingly moralizing. Which I guess all horror movies kind of are-- "If you have sex you get killed," that sort of thing.
TB: Your movie is a fictional take on the series, correct?
JTP: It’s a fictional narrative. I want to involve some real footage; I want to play with not knowing what’s fake and what’s real, which I think is just sort of interesting in general right now. Faces of Death would be impossible to make today, because if a kid wants to watch somebody die, they just go online and watch Saddam Hussein die-- you actually get to see real, honest-to-god murder anytime you want to. So figuring out how to make this movie scary again seems like an interesting challenge... When you don’t know what’s real and what’s not, how you’re allowed to enjoy it becomes really complicated, and ultimately, frightening.
TB: Do you think that the original film sparked an interest in this craving for real death footage, or was it merely symptomatic of our nature?
JTP: Faces of Death is totally more of a symptom than a cause. If you go back to the earliest motion pictures that Thomas Edison was making—
TB: Like the electrocution of that elephant?
JTP: The death of that elephant is just awful. There’s also The Execution of Mary Stuart, a silent movie where they lead this woman to a chopping block, put her head down on it, and then cut her head off. At the time it was pretty straightforward: “This is what it’s like to watch someone die.” I think technology was headed there right from the start, but pictures especially, and moving pictures very especially,
TB: In the meantime, what are your hopes for The Burrowers?
JTP: My hopes are high! It’s a pretty effects-heavy movie; when we were working on the picture, we worked on the sound and the visual effects separately, so I didn’t get to see it all put together until last week. So I got to watch it almost like a fresh audience, and it was really, really good-- and I’m usually fairly hard on myself with that kind of thing. I’m very happy with it. My biggest worry is how people are going to react to a horror Western. It’s not at all campy, it doesn't at all make a joke out of the fact that it’s in the old West. It’s just a straight-on John Carpenter horror kind of thing.
TB: Can you explain how a monster movie functions in that setting?
JTP: I’ve lived in NYC for 12 years now, and if I go out to the grasslands I get creeped out by the open spaces. The Burrowers is like that-- a horror movie in daylight, in open spaces. That’s what I’ve always liked about Jaws, it makes the ocean scary. It puts you and the poor bastards out in the middle of the ocean so you’re always on the monster’s turf.
TB: Speaking of the horror/Western crossover, do you feel competitive about GallowWalker coming out as well?
JTP: I saw the trailer for GallowWalker, and again, it seems pretty campy to me, so no. I really see both The Burrowers and Faces of Death as chances to get horror fans off-balance again, because we’re so insanely savvy about all the rules of the genre, you set up your five teenagers and you know in what order they’ll be killed in. If you set something in the old West, and you have something that doesn’t fit the mold, hopefully you can still surprise and frighten them.
TB: I can definitely see Faces of Death going in that direction.
JTP: People think that because it’s a Hollywood movie that it’s going to be safe. But then every once in Cronenberg sneaks The Fly through the system and you find yourself in the theatre saying “Motherfucker, what just happened to me?”