Skip to main content

Interview: Harrison Smith: Death House Movie

In a world full of zombie and demon movies, Harrison Smith and Entertainment Factory have dared to do something different.

That's right, my creepy cohorts: not zombies, sparkly vampires, lame emo werewolves, bad interpretations of skin walkers, fake demon possessions, or post-apocalyptic, unbelievable nonsense. Can you say spooky, evil, government experimentation in an old, sinister-looking, turn of the century prison?  Throw in a who's who of horror icons, and you've got the potential for one Hell of a movie, possibly quite literally.

But I don't want to give too much away.

The movie, Death House, doesn't come out 'til 2017, but when it does, make sure you give it a watch. Until then, I think I'll have to drink some nightshade, and lock myself in my tomb so I don't implode from anticipation. It's been far too long since I've been frightened by a horror movie, and I'm pretty sure this is going to be the one to do it for me. The anticipation of the weeks of nightmares this movie will cause has left me breathless.

Now, on to the important matter of the interview.  I had the pleasure of speaking to Harrison about his film and the whole complicated process that is being a filmmaker. I found Harrison to be not only very passionate about making movies, but also very generous with his praise of the people with whom he worked - two things that are sometimes rare in the entertainment industry. Harrison was such a great pleasure to talk to, and such a font of knowledge, that I could have spent hours speaking with him about Death House and film making in general. Alas, our chat had to come to an end , but the following interview is the final result.

Lili's Lair: Let's talk about Death House. How did the whole thing get its start? It's such a unique concept.

Harrison Smith: I didn't come up with the concept. The original concept of Death House to amalgamate all of these horror icons into a single film was really the idea of agent Mike Eisenstadt and Gunnar Hansen of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They had the idea to make a movie with all these horror stars in it, and I guess they had tried to get it off the ground for a number of years... One thing led to another, and Gunnar couldn't really come up with a script that he was really happy with, and the project kind of languished for a while. And then what happened was, they brought the project to me. They brought it to me at a screening of my movie Zombie Killers in Los Angeles, and they pitched it to me as the "Expendables of Horror." Now the project was brought to me by Rick Finkelstien and Steven Chase of Entertainment Factory. They had come on board to get this movie made, and they were finding issues with it after Gunnar had written his original Death House script that didn't work... They got some other writer to come on board, and he wrote a script that was very opposite of Gunnar's. It was more like a torture porn movie.

So, they brought it to me. They said "Oh, this is gonna be kinda like the 'Expendables of Horror'," and to me I wasn't really interested in that. I think the idea was pretty stupid to call it that, and at first I thought they were pitching it to me like a mash-up of like Freddy vs Pinhead, or Michael Meyers vs Jason, or something like that, and to me those movies are just stupid. They're no different than Frankenstein meets the Wolfman or something like that.

So, I made it clear to Mike I have no interest in making a movie like this. He said: "Well, no,no hear me out. Gunnar wants you to take charge of the script and see what you come up with, and try to find a way to integrate all these horror stars without it looking like a gimmick."

That's a tough order. ya know. You have to be real careful with it. So I sat down and came up with an idea because Gunnar's original script was about a documentary film crew, and I said to Gunnar: "Well, this isn't bad but it's not like anything else we haven't seen before."

Gunnar knew that, and he said: "Well, this is my problem, and I'm not really good at dialog, and I just need somebody to breathe new life into it."

So I came up with the idea while I was working on a treatment. It was right around Super Bowl time here, and the preview for Jurassic World came on as a teaser preview, and that's when it hit me. I was like: well why does it have to be an asylum? Why don't we make it an Area 51 prison... dark ops kinda, off the books, secret prison, and the world's worst are housed there? And you have two agents that are walking through on a tour of it, and the ride breaks down, just like in Jurassic Park... and the monsters get out. So, instead of the Expendables of Horror I'd like to think of it as Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.

Lili's Lair: I read somewhere that you got some of your inspiration from Dante's Inferno, and the nine circles of Hell, Is that true?

Harrison Smith: Yes, that is true. Gunnar wanted to keep something called the four horseman in it, and they were like these supernatural beings that were in the asylum. I changed it into the five evils. I put a woman in there, as well, because everything in horror is always the supernatural boy;s club. So I added a woman to the five evils, like the five points on a pentagram. And the prison is divided into nine levels, so it's like the nine circles of Hell. With the worst one being at the bottom, the ninth level. Dante's Inferno was definitely an inspiration to this, but there's also some Lovecraft elements, as well.

Lili's Lair: I watched the trailer, and it looks very unique. You don't generally get to see the kind of cast that you have all in one movie.

Harrison Smith: Look, the film has a definite 80's vibe to it. We wanted that because that's where all these people really came from. Most of their heydays were in the eighties and early nineties. So what we wanted to do was to hearken back to that without being so retro, and just repeating something all over again. That bar was set very, very low for this, and we could have aimed very low. Instead we shot high, and we went for something that was [at] the same time different, and all these characters, all this cast is used properly. The cast is absolutely used properly. Instead of just taking Sid Haig and sticking him in a hospital gown, and killing somebody with a knife, and then everybody goes; "Oh, hey that was Sid Haig." We don't do that. We give them characters, we give them something substantial, and most of all, we have a pretty fresh and inventive story.

Lili's Lair: I know you've worked with several of these horror legends before Death House, but how did you manage to get so many for one film? You had said the project was kind of languishing, so how did you finally get the entire cast you got? Did you use a casting agency?

Harrison Smith: I'd love to take the credit for that , but I can't. A lot of these people were already in place by the time that I came on board the project. So it was really Mike Eisenstadt , and other agents like Judy Fox who really helped pull all of this together, and get it all set. A lot of them came to the table for Gunnar. They wanted to work, and do this for Gunnar, but they also wanted a script they could get behind, and Gunnar knew that was the issue. What nobody counted on, or what nobody banked on. was the fact that Gunnar was dying of pancreatic cancer. That was the issue, nobody knew that, and Gunnar never said a word about it, he never let mentioned it, he never let on that he was ill. So nobody really knew that the situation was actually so grave. So, in that way, I can't take any credit for assembling this cast because a lot of them were already in place because of Gummar. It was just finding a good script, and that's why Gunnar was so emphatic about getting a script in place quickly. That's what he wanted. Now in hindsight, you look back and go; Oh now I see why he wanted to move so quickly on all of it.

Lili's Lair: I'm very sorry for your loss, but it's nice that you got to finish his vision.

Harrison Smith: Yeah and that was the main commitment I wanted. A lot of people have said; "Oh, well, you're just kind of trading off his name." [But] it's like, well, number one - that's what he wanted. I mean, he told Rick, the producer, and Mike in the last week of his life, "Do whatever you have too; shoot a promotion for it on my grave." That's exactly what he said.

Lili's Lair: It sounds like he really wanted this project to be his legacy.

Harrison Smith: It's his final screen appearance - he does make an appearance in Death House. It's not a huge one, but he is in there, and the film is dedicated to his memory.

Lili's Lair: That is so nice, Harrison.. I read that you are a great admirer of all your stars, they conjure  fond memories for you from your youth. Was it weird or intimidating, being their boss?

Harrison Smith: No, not at all. Weird, no. Intimidating, absolutely not. What it was, was it was like a self-reflecting moment to realize that I got pretty lucky here. Not a lot of people get to do this. It's not like a regular job. So for me, it wasn't intimidating, but it was one where you almost have to take two steps back from yourself and say: I'm pretty lucky to have made it this far, and I hope I get farther, I hope Death House is a hit, and I got lucky to work with these people, and most of all to tell them that. How often do you get to say that to these people? I just think it's great! Little did I ever know that one day I'd be working with Kane Hodder or others. I saw these people in the movie theaters growing up, and [I] get to work with them, and that's pretty cool. But it wasn't intimidating. They were very down to earth people, and very nice, and very unassuming. Nobody walks on the set like, [as] somebody asked me in a previous interview, there were any divas. Absolutely not. I'm not just saying that. They were just the nicest damn people. They really were.

Lili's Lair: Knowing who was in the cast, did you write any parts with certain actors or actresses in mind, or was that already laid out?

Harrison Smith: Oh, absolutely, no that wasn't laid out. There were some like Dee Wallace, I had something in mind, and Barbara. I had them in mind as the main administrators and doctors. Then the others we kind of plugged in. I wanted Kane for a main villain, just because he has that big formidable kind of frame, and so there were certain ones yes, absolutely, like when you're writing dialog. You're like this one for that.

Lili's Lair: Was Death House shot on location where sets were created, or was it mostly green screen and CGI?

Harrison Smith: No, it was a real location. It was Holmesburg prison in Philadelphia. That served for 95% of the location... we built some sets inside of there. There is some green screen involved, but it involves the prison cells of the prisoners, because they don't live in jail cells. The prisoners live in these like virtual reality, almost like holodecks that recreate the world that they had before they were arrested, and they've never been caught, so then the victims are thrown into the cells, and they're dressed to look like their profile. So that way, the killers can be studied in an almost natural environment without them realizing that they are being studied.

Lili's Lair: That's sinister. I read the synopsis on IMDB talking about shipping in the homeless to be their victims. The reason I asked if it was mostly green screen is because - from what you see in the trailer - it's just so creepy and nasty looking, it's really amazing.

Harrison Smith: (laughter) Well, yeah, it is a prison. The original prison was actually built in the late 1800's. It's still standing, it exists, and is still used. So it served as a wonderful location for the motion picture. There were just no issues in trying to find a really good set there. Everything worked to our advantage.

Lili's Lair:  How long did it take to finish Death House from conception and writing, to post

Harrison Smith: I mean, technically, if you want to start with the original conception of the concept, you're talking five years. When I got involved with it, it got up in production in less than a year.

Lili's Lair:  Because a lot of the leg work had already been done I'm assuming, right?

Harrison Smith: Correct.

Lili's Lair: That makes sense. Friday the 11th [of November], you're finishing post production. When do you expect the release of the film?

Harrison Smith: That will depend on the buyer. It depends on who picks it up. I'm anticipating sometime in 2017. Early in 2017, between January and April. Somewhere there.

Lili's Lair: Do you already have distributors?

Harrison Smith: We do, we have distributors lined up that are interested. I'm not going to say who, yet. That's on the producers' end of things, but they've got them lined up, and they're waiting to see the finished product. So I'm literally eyes deep in getting this all wound down for Friday.

Lili's Lair: Can we expect to see a theatrical release or a limited theatrical release?

Harrison Smith: Yes, either/or.

Lili's Lair: I've noticed a commonality with indie films in that the writer and or creator is also many times the star, director, producer, editor, etc. Do you think this is out of necessity or desire. What is your reason?

Harrison Smith: I don't really act in my films so I don't like to do that. A lot of the time, for me, it's been out of necessity. I mean, I would love for somebody to direct sometimes, but some people come to the table and we've approached them, and they're way to expensive. They think we're working on a Spielberg movie or something, and that's not what it is. For me, it's mostly out of necessity. It's not always out of desire.

Writing, doing all that stuff, producing, directing, all at the same time, it's not easy, which is why I usually take offense sometimes to online critics that just think: "Oh well, you just slap a movie together, and they did this, and did this." No, that's not how it works. To get a movie made, funded, and shot, and through post production, and then released, and make it successful, it's a minor miracle. It's not an easy thin. But you know? Hollywood makes it look easy [in] shows like Project Green Light, and things like that. They make it look like: "Oh, this is easy, this is all you do." I mean, you can make movies that way, but they aren't going to be very good. If you want to make something of quality, you've got to shepherd it through, and sometimes pick up the chores, and wear many hats. It's just the way it goes at this level.

Lili's Lair: What's your favourite part of the creative process, is it directing, is it writing?

Harrison Smith: I really like the writing part, and most of all I think the [best] part of it is just seeing it all come together. When it goes from page to being shot, and then coming out of post, and the effects are laid in, and all that stuff, you go: "Wow! This came out pretty much as we wrote it, and this is what we wanted it to be." Because it all starts with the script. If you don't have a good script, you don't have a good movie. It's that simple.

Lili's Lair: Do you have a most memorable moment from the making of this particular movie?

Harrison Smith: I mean, you have a lot of moments. One of them which was really cool was when Kane, Bill Moseley, and Michael Berryman all did the Three Stooges. "Hello, Hello, Hello," they went like that and the sing kind of thing. That was pretty cool. A favourite moment? I don't know, it was just all one big moment. That's how I look at it. I mean, everyday you're on set something new is going on, and something exciting, and seeing your effects work, and your practical effects go off right, and you're like this is a moment. So, I'm gonna say that really the whole movie was one big moment.

Lili's Lair: What are you doing to promote the movie. Are you traveling around, or is that going to wait 'til next year as far as promoting and marketing?

Harrison Smith: We took it to the convention circuit in the fall, that's what Gunnar wanted. We gave you the trailer at Days of the Dead in Lexington, KY, and we'll kick in with more travelling, I'm sure, and appearances, once the film is bought. That will be whatever the distributor wants to do.

Lili's Lair: Do you have any final thoughts that you'd like to share with people about the movie, or about film making in general?

Harrison Smith: I think the biggest thing: I always get asked do you have any words for future film makers, and my words are simple. Simply go out and do it! Don't talk about it. Don't sit and talk about it on a blog, and don't talk about it on a YouTube channel. Go make it. That's the best thing that you can do. It really does come down to be that simple, and, look, maybe you won't have $40,000, or $100,000, or a million to do it, but the fact is, you gotta start somewhere, and get out there, and make your craft, and keep polishing your craft until you have it. That's the best way.

There's too many people out there with a Wordpress [site], or whatever, that think they're critics, and then you have others who think because they have a camera and Final Cut Pro, they're a filmmaker. That doesn't make you anything. It also requires ambition. You can sit in film school, and study film for three or four years. That doesn't make you a filmmaker, and it DOESN'T make you a critic. If you don't understand film, and you don't understand history, because film has a lot of history to it. Not only horror history, and film history, but actual history. I mean the experiments that take place inside of Death House are all based on real federal government experiments. Mind control experiments in the 1950s and '60s called the MK ULTRA experiments. You've gotta kinda know what you're talking about. Like, you need to know that's what it is, to write a script that has all these people in it. There's a lot of Easter eggs in there that you can listen for, and look for, and so my final words are. Get out there and so it. Don't talk about it.

Lili's Lair: What would you like t see happening next for you?

Harrison Smith: Once Death House is out to the public, I'm directing in January my first comedy called Garlic and Gunpowder, and we have a great cast with Michael Madsen, Vivica Fox. We have those people attached, and it's going to be good. So I'd love to take a step out of horror for a little bit, and just do a comedy - it would be a nice refreshing change to make something without blood.

Between Harrison's talent and a brilliant, iconic cast, who all pulled together to make this once in a lifetime film, I'm sure Harrison will realize his goals and help to fulfill the vision of Gunnar Hansen.

With that said, my ghoulish groupies, please make sure to visit all the links to Harrison Smith and  Death House or else: "I'll have your guts for garters!"