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Gary Sherman ("Death Line") Interview
Gary Sherman never wanted to direct horror movies. But like all filmmakers who are perhaps a little too good at what they do, he got stuck in a particular genre's tangled web. Sherman is, of course, the man behind such cult classics as the London Underground-set Death Line and the Ron Shusett & Dan O'Bannon (of Alien fame) penned Dead & Buried. Both films displayed an eerie, slow-burning approach to horror that left fans in little doubt that he was one of the genre's true masters. But despite directing the extreme violence of Vice Squad, the ill-fated Poltergeist III (one of the last films to use entirely in-camera special effects), and the DV cam serial killer flick 39: A Film by Carroll McKane, Master of Horror was a mantle Sherman didn't want. Here he talks to Classic-Horror about his involvement with the genre, and his long standing desire to finally break free of it.
Classic-Horror.com: So for someone who admits to never being in love with the genre, how did you come to direct the horror picture Death Line?
Gary Sherman: I was very political at the time and I had been writing scripts that were very political. But they were more like student films than anything else and were nothing that anybody was ever going to make. So I started making TV commercials in London and my friends kept telling me that if I wrote a horror film, it'd get made. So I thought, "Why not write a political film a disguise it as a horror film?" And with my co-writer Ceri Jones we sat down and wrote a script that had this underlying theme of class consciousness.
C-H: That's really apparent and Death Line presents this idea of a warped social structure in quite an angry way...
Sherman: I was quite angry about everything back then! I was a 60s hippy and I had written stuff that was even angrier than Death Line. In the States racism was, and still is, a big problem. As a Jew growing up I used to see signs on hotels that said "No dogs or Jews allowed." I remember how that affected me. But in the UK there was this whole class division going on, and I don't think classism is any different from racism. I read about how the people who dug out the Underground tunnels were all from the lower class and they were just treated like cattle. That was what Death Line was all about - the mistreatment of the lower class.
C-H: You were also inspired by riding on the London Underground yourself...
Sherman: Yeah, I wanted to know about the tubes and I heard that a lot of people died while building them. So I got really in to researching what happened. In the meantime I also heard about Sawney Bean (a Scottish highwayman who hid in the highland caves and lived off human flesh) so I thought why not combine the two?
C-H: Aside from these factors, were you influenced by any horror movies?
Sherman: There was nothing we were emulating - nothing had ever looked like Death Line. But y'know I do like horror films. My earliest memory of a movie was House of Wax in 3D. Unforgettable. In terms of influences there were certain directors that I loved, but they were not strictly horror directors. I love Polanski, his early films like Repulsion and Knife in the Water. I also think Rosemary's Baby is one of the greatest films ever. It's definitely in my Top Ten list.
C-H: And Polanski made Cul-de-Sac which stared Donald Pleasence...
Sherman: Boy, yeah and Donald was a major star at that time.
C-H: And yet you still got him to play Inspector Calhoun in Death Line. As a first time director it must have been intimidating working with such an experienced actor.
Sherman: Working with him was an incredible pleasure. He loved the fact that it was a comedy part and didn't care that the rest of it was a horror film. And for the first couple of days he tested me. This guy had been in more films than I had collectively seen in my whole life. It was very intimidating and for the first few days he did not make it less intimidating. He just said, "You're the boss, you tell me what to do." He was testing me, but I guess I passed because after that he was fantastic. When he wasn't on camera he was off getting tea for everyone. He was a gentleman.
C-H: And you had Christopher Lee too - another legend of British horror.
Sherman: Yeah and because of the Dracula films, Christopher was the highest paid British actor at that time. Luckily, our producer Paul Maslansky had worked with him on some Hammer films and they were old friends. So Maslansky told Chris about the movie and introduced him to me and Chris said, "If you give me a part in your movie where I don't have to wear fangs I'll do it!" So we wrote him the part of the MI5 agent and he did it for scale. We shot his scene in one day.
C-H: The character of the underground cannibal known as The Man is totally a victim of his situation. Do you have a sympathy for your on-screen monsters?
Sherman: Well, the villain Ramrod in my film Vice Squad is as evil as anybody can be. But then that film is about violence against women and I wanted it be as ugly as possible and there was no way I could forgive that character after what he had done. He made choices. But in Death Line, the monster was forced into that situation. There's a scene at the end of the film were the boyfriend character (David Ladd) is kicking The Man in the head, and his girlfriend (Sharon Gurney) yells at him to stop. And if anyone watching can identify with her or The Man at that point then I've done my job -- because it wasn't The Man's fault. He was just being what society had forced him to be and he didn't deserve to be punished for it.
C-H: The title of Death Line was changed to Raw Meat when it was released in the US. Did they change anything else?
Sherman: The original release of Raw Meat was not my film. They even took out the 12-minute tracking shot which explores The Man's underground lair. Samuel Z. Arkoff who ran AIP pictures who released it in the US thought it was boring.
C-H: That's the centerpiece of the film! But despite you obvious skill in directing you didn't make another film for almost a decade...
Sherman: Well, all anyone wanted me to do after Death Line was horror. As long as I killed 47 people in a movie, they'd make it. I once wrote a screenplay for a romantic comedy that I really loved and I showed it to my agent and he just said, "No one's gonna buy a comedy from you. They want blood and guts from you." But y'know, I wanna direct a film where no one gets killed. I don't wanna kill people anymore.
C-H: But during this absence in the 1970s, you did write a horror screenplay that was eventually directed by John Huston called Phobia.
Sherman: In one foul swoop that was the most exciting and depressing experience of my career. I wrote Phobia as two unconnected parallel stories where in one, people keep getting killed, and in the other someone is trying to straighten out their life. Then at the end these stories come together and you realise you've been watching two sides of the same story. You realise that the guy in the character-driven side is actually the perpetrator of the murders and it ends with him blowing his own brains out - BOOM!! So I was working at Fox and I got a call from this guy called Ron Shusett and he thought Death Line was the greatest film he'd ever seen and he bought the script for Phobia. And this was before Ron made Alien -- he wasn't anybody then...
C-H: Did you want to direct it?
Sherman: I was trying not to direct horror at that time. So one day Ron calls me up and says, "Guess what? John Huston is gonna make Phobia!" And I get to meet him! I was thrilled! In the meantime I started working on another project and I start hearing back these horror stories from the set of Phobia. "John is sick, John is drunk, the film is way behind schedule and over budget." What I later found out is that he was so drunk all the time that he couldn't get anything done and he's only shot one of the stories. But he'd shot so much footage that they figured they could make a whole movie based on that. So they just shut the film down. A few months later I went to see a rough cut and I couldn't stay until the end. It was awful. I was just sick to my stomach because Huston was a major hero of mine. I mean John Huston directed one of my screenplays and it's the worst thing he ever made! I was devastated.
C-H: So even at that point in your career you'd decided to stay away from horror movies as a director. What brought you back to helm Dead & Buried?
Sherman: Well the script was by Shusett and I liked it and I liked him. They were going to do it at Avco-Embassy which was run by Bob Rehme who I adored -- one of the best studio executives ever. Unfortunately what happened during Dead & Buried was the studio changed hands three times and it was a mess... a real nightmare. Eventually it ended up with BSO run by Mark Damon who added all the gore. So two pictures I had done back-to-back with Ron and both [had] been disasters! I think we ended up with a good film with Dead & Buried but I hated the added scenes: the fisherman getting slashed across the face with a harpoon, the doctor who gets acid up his nose. I was also not responsible for Lisa Blount's breasts being in the movie.
C-H: Dead & Buried is quite beautifully shot. It has a real somber feel to it...
Sherman: And there was no red! In order to achieve no red we had to do all these make up tests and find green fire engines and stuff. We used a really odd color palette. Of course when the studio did the inserts, they put red in it.
C-H: What was the purpose of the ban on the color red?
Sherman: Well in the movie Dobbs (Jack Albertson) the mortician is actually revealed to be the only person in the entire town who's alive. Everyone else is a zombie. So when he dies that's the first time you're supposed to see blood. I think it would have been really effective.
C-H: How was working with Stan Winston on the movie?
Sherman: It was basically Stan's first major movie and he did an unbelievable job. There's a scene in the movie where we see Dobbs rebuild a dead woman's face from the skeleton out. We basically wanted to show Dobbs' art and how he reconstructed these faces. And you'll notice through the magic of Stan Winston as the last eyeball goes in that the camera stays on the face and then she sits up and smiles. And there was no difference between the puppet and the real person. I mean Stan was genius. He did everything on the film except the inserts - which were done by some hack. That was real sloppy. This was all before CGI by the way.
C-H: As was Poltergeist III in which every effect was done in-camera (i.e. live on set). It turns the film into a kind of magic trick...
Sherman: It's all smoke and mirrors, baby! In that case it really was smoke and mirrors. I had done a film is 1979 called The Mysterious Two and it was probably one of the first films ever made to use CGI. I had the idea of creating an image on computer and then somehow marrying that into a film. I worked with a digital designer and we did it at the Cray on one of the biggest computers in the world to create a kind of spaceship that would be impossible to create practically. So when I had the opportunity to do Poltergeist III, for my own conceit, I thought, "Well since I've done what is probably the fist piece of CGI, I would like to do the last major special effects film that uses no CGI." And that's what we did.
C-H: How do you feel about the use of CGI in today's movies?
Sherman: I love CGI and I believe that technology keeps giving us gifts. But what I don't love is that fact that it is used as an excuse for no script and no characters. And I don't think the studios care. People will go to see a great CGI film and they don't care if it's a good story or not. I don't want to make those films.
C-H: A few years back there was talk of you writing and directing a remake of Death Line. Is that still on the horizon?
Sherman: Yeah it was set in Chicago this time. I got paid to write the script and they may still make it at some point which is fine. I don't want to direct it. I was thinking about it at one point but the more I thought about it the more I didn't want to do it. Basically my friend Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) said he'd kill me if I did. He said, "How do you improve on perfection?" I don't know if I feel that way but that's what he said.
C-H: I've heard him say that Death Line is one of his favourite films...
Sherman: Guillermo purposely does a tribute to Death Line in every one of his films. He told me if it wasn't for Death Line, he would not have become a director. When he finished cutting Pan's Labyrinth I happened to be in LA and he called me and said, "I want you and John Landis to come see the film, because you guys think so differently." And we saw it and by the end, both John and I were crying. I looked at Guillermo and said to him, "You know what? If the only contribution that I've ever made to the film industry is to get you to become a director then I have done my job." That's how I feel.