Friday, September 30, 2016

Are We Monsters? A chat with horror author Brian Kirk

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Brian Kirk’s debut horror novel, We Are Monsters, deservedly Stoker award nominated for superior achievement in a first novel. It’s a complex, fascinating work and I wanted to pick Brian’s brain…um, since that’s what he seems to excel at.

SRW: Welcome Brian! Tell the readers a little bit about We Are Monsters.

BK: Hey, Stuart! Thanks for taking the time to chat.
Certainly. We Are Monsters is a story about a brilliant, yet troubled psychiatrist named Alex Drexler who is working to create a cure for schizophrenia. At first, the drug he creates shows great promise in alleviating his patient’s symptoms. It appears to return schizophrenics to their former selves. But (as you may imagine) something goes wrong. Unforeseen side effects begin to emerge, forcing prior traumas to the surface, setting inner demons free. His medicine may help heal the schizophrenic mind, but it also expands it, and the monsters it releases could be more dangerous than the disease.

SRW: This is a very psychologically rich book, Brian. All of your characters are given back-stories, ultimately defining their current flaws, fears and guilt. The past makes us who we are. Very human traits. Do you have a background in psychology?

BK: I don’t have a formal background in psychology, though the field has always fascinated me. Like many creative people, I have been plagued with bouts of mental illness my whole life, which draws me to the subject. I’m fairly introspective and often psychoanalyze myself. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but over time I’ve become versed in the various methods of cognitive behavioral therapy for both self-application and out of general curiosity.

SRW: You’re not very nice to your three leads! (I like that. Heh.) Closet sadist or hyping up the drama and suspense?

BK: Probably the latter. What’s the point in writing about boring people without problems, right? As I’ve grown older, I’ve become fascinated with how events that occurred early in one’s life impact that person later on, either due to trauma rising to the surface, or through a sequence of events or decisions that lead someone on a certain path towards an undesirable destination they couldn’t foresee.
One of these two eventualities come true for most of the central characters in We Are Monsters. Their individual pasts have caught up with their current predicaments in ways that must be dealt with.

SRW: The three protagonists are all saddled with guilt, generated by events out of their control (for the most part; I’m looking at you, Alex, as the exception!). Did you write them to be pitied? Despised? Empathetic? I think you pulled all three emotions off at various times. But that guilt, Brian! One of the themes of the book appears to be that instilled guilt formulates who we as people are. Catholic much?

BK:  Very insightful, Stuart. Perhaps you are the closet psychologist!

I didn’t conceive the characters with the intention of eliciting a certain emotion, exactly. I was more concerned with giving them real issues to work through in a way that felt authentic to me. But, guilt? Yes. Hell, yes. I’ve lived with guilt stemming from a stringent religious upbringing most of my life. Many years spent worrying my soul was destined for eternal hell due to slight infractions to arbitrary rules that harmed no one. I think we all strive to become our actualized selves, either based on religious ideology or a basic moral code, and become disappointed when we fall short. That seems to be a fairly universal experience that I tried to express through the characters in the book. 

SRW: There’re quite a few themes in the book, some of them heavy. Now I don’t wanna’ make We Are Monsters sound like a dull college text-book, but generally in horror fiction, the reader doesn’t encounter such metaphysical themes as the nature of reality. Sort of literature gussied up with horror. Do you believe we are capable of forming our own reality? 

BK: I’m not sure what I believe. I’m equally compelled by arguments for free will as I am pre-determination. Personal experience leads me to believe we are capable of forming our own reality, but I don’t know if there’s “woo-woo” metaphysics involved or if it’s just a matter of applying basic momentum in a specific direction.  

Ten years ago, I was as far from being a published author as possible. But it’s something I knew I wanted to become. So I set my intention towards making it happen, applying my time and attention in that direction, taking all the necessary steps to accomplish that goal. Eventually I was able to turn that dream into my reality. Was there woo-woo involved as suggested by The Law of Attraction, and such philosophies, or was it simply a natural outcome based on the steps and actions I was taking? Don’t know. 

SRW:  There are some great quotes about insanity: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Often attributed to Einstein). I like this definition. But if we study it, Brian, aren’t your three protagonists guilty of insanity by this definition? Each day they use the same methods at work (particularly Eli), hoping to cure insanity and generally failing. If we really wanna’ get depressing, perhaps we’re all insane, performing the same work, day in or day out. 

BK: There is a broad spectrum of mental states. Our society tends to favor the analytical state of consciousness most grounded in the physical reality of things we can touch, measure, and weigh. That’s the state of consciousness rewarded in schools that rely on the memorization of information evaluated by multiple choice tests. People on other mental spectrums that lean more towards imaginary realms are often less valued by our society, and are even, depending on the degree of separation from our material reality and the actions that result from this, feared, ostracized, incarcerated and/or institutionalized.  
One thing that I find curious and frightening is to consider how our societal reward systems tend to favor people with psychopathic tendencies. Want to know the ten jobs with the highest rates of psychopathy?
1. CEO
2. Lawyer
3. Media (Television/Radio)
4. Salesperson
5. Surgeon
6. Journalist
7. Police officer
8. Clergy person
9. Chef
10. Civil servant
Yep, scary stuff.

SRW: Edgar Allen Poe wrote “I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Talk about depressing. If we accept this as the new world order, I don’t wanna be sane. How do you feel about this quote?

BK:  Ha! I like that! 

I think it’s all a matter of perspective. Bankers are crazy to circus performers, and visa versa. I wish our society was more open to altered states of consciousness, or valued states of consciousness that did more than earn money and drive our economy forward. One of the most common questions people ask when they learn I aspire to write professionally is, “How much does it pay?” 

I think the key is to be authentic to yourself. Don’t conform to the pressure of societal norms if they don’t make sense to you. It’s tricky, though. Because no one likes to starve.

SRW: The catalyst for the horrific events in the book is the drug, Dimethyltryptamine (that’s a handful to type!). As I read the book, I had assumed it a fictional drug. But, no, my pharmaceutical professor of a wife told me it’s a real deal. Well done! Did you do a lot of research before settling on the right drug to fit the tale? (I bet that was fun reading!) And do you believe in the power of Dimethl…Dimathap…that drug?

BK:  I first learned about Dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT, from a book called “DMT: The Spirit Molecule,” written by Rick Strassman, a scientist who conducted government funded clinical tests on the effects of DMT. I was fascinated by the results from that study. Otherwise sober, responsible volunteers who participated in this study were convinced they had entered alternate dimensions and communicated with alien intelligences during their experiences with DMT. These experiences were not only almost universally life altering for those who experienced them, there were similarities in experiences among disparate people who had never met. Almost like people from separate states sharing a common dream.
While the author does not make any definitive conclusions, he was compelled by this theory that the molecule opens a doorway in our minds that allows our consciousness to travel through to other dimensions. This is a theory long held by shamanic traditions, especially those who use the psychedelic brew, Ayahuasca, of which the chief psychedelic compound is DMT.

SRW: Finally—and I suppose we should have started here—the title. Clearly, the title references not only the mental patients, but the three protagonists, and humanity as a whole. Good, appropriate title. Did you have the title in mind before you began?

BK: No, the original title for the book was, “In Search of Asylum.” My editor at the time, Don D’Auria, felt like the title sounded too much like non-fiction, which I agreed with. He suggested, “Asylum,” which I felt was too generic, so I brainstormed alternates and came up with “We Are Monsters,” which felt right. I’m happy where we wound up. 

SRW: What’re you writing as a follow-up, Brian?

BK:  I’m currently working on a third novel, while my second is on submission with various editors. The completed novel currently making the rounds is the first in a planned trilogy of dark sci-fi thrillers with a “Strange Days” kind of vibe. The work-in-progress is a horror novel that I’m writing by the request of a publisher based on a proposal and should be done by year’s end. Hopefully one or more will hit!   

SRW: Tell everyone where they can find We Are Monsters.

BK: Anyone interested in checking out We Are Monsters can order a copy here:
And for anyone interested in striking up a virtual friendship, please connect with me through one of the following channels. Don’t worry. I only kill my characters.

SRW: Thanks for dropping by, Brian. And if you’re looking for a very interesting, well written and different horror novel, give We Are Monsters a shot.

BK: Thanks, Stuart! I appreciate the nice things you said about the novel and for taking the time to chat.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Return to Richard Griffin-ville! Put the kids outside and tuck the cat in...

Okay, I lied. That's what writers do. I said awesome filmaker Richard Griffin's interview would conclude last week. Sorry, Richard, but Oklahoma's weather trauma trumped you.

So two weeks ago, I yakked and yakked with fun and funny filmmaker Richard Griffin. Even I got tired. Hang on's the exciting, edge-of-the-seat, shocking conclusion to the epic interview! Bite on leather if you need to.

SRW: Richard, welcome back! 2008 was a busy year for you. You also released Beyond the Dunwich Horror. After Nun of That, I was surprised you took a stab at a pretty much straight-forward horror flick. Is this “Richard Griffin’s Gotta Pay the Rent” film?

RG: HA! There’s no such thing. Every film I make, I make from the heart. Thankfully, we have enough of a fan base that each film pays for the next movie, so there’s little to no risk. I have a ticket to ride, and the great thing is … I never have to make a movie just to have a success so I can make the films I want. I cannot imagine spending the long hours it takes to make movie if your heart isn’t in it. It doesn’t make sense at all. 

SRW: Again I noticed a great deal of thought and care was put into the credit sequence, this time evoking a ‘70’s made-for-TV movie sorta vibe. For you, Richard, the movie seems strangely subdued.  There’re nods to Lovecraft, of course, but am I right in detecting a Mario Bava/Argento influence as well? Particularly with some of the color schemes?

RG: Yeah, there’s a big Argento / Fulci / Bava thing going on. But I also wanted to amp up the sexuality, because that’s really missing from not only Lovecraft adaptations, but also from indie films in general. I really love Beyond the Dunwich Horror, because not only is it this huge love letter to Italian horror, but to horror films in general. 

SRW: Atomic Brain Invasion landed in 2010. More so than Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon, this is a note-by-note, nearly perfect recreation of a ‘50’s schlock fest (minus some post-modern satire and humor, natch). The opening black and white bit (a spoof on educational propaganda films) was some scientific blowhard going on and on about alien fishmen was fantastic. I was kinda hoping the whole film would be in B&W. Did you consider going that route?
RG: Yes. But for reasons I’d rather not get into, we decided to go the Technicolor Route.

SRW: The usual Richard Griffin bad guys are in full force: the Catholic League of Decency, the government, the military. But, to me, the biggest threat was the actor who played the coonskin cap wearing nerd. I’m just sayin’. Whenever he panics, he raises his voice, stuttering like “Shaggy” from “Scooby-Do.” (“A g-g-g-ghost!”) What’s up with THAT?

RG: It’s funny. We always make with the funny. 

SRW: Um, moving on...Also terrific was the movie scene within the movie. Two guys standing around, one of them oblivious as to where the other man is pointing out a monster. Eventually they start sniping at one another for being rude. That’s the movie I want to see! Oh, and Elvis shows up here. Brandon Luis Aponte (also very good in Nun of That) makes for an amusing Elvis. Where do you find your actors? How do you convince them to do some of the things your scripts require?

RG: Typically they need no convincing. They see the humor in the script, and realize quickly it’s all in good fun. I think the main thing is, our films aren’t mean spirited. They’re so good natured, it’s hard to think they’re anything but playful by their very nature. 

SRW:  The following year brought you back to what I presume to be an obsession of yours: the disco and the ‘70’s. I’m talking The Disco Exorcist, of course. The film almost plays like a comical version of Boogie Nights (even a “roller girl” shows up). With, you know, demons. The “hero’s” a typical ‘70’s cad, irresistible to women and not too safe in his sexual endeavors. Was this movie just an excuse to play in the ‘70’s?
RG: The reason for the film is the title. It just popped into my head one day. “Michael Reed IS The Disco Exorcist”. I just walked around my house laughing my head off. The plot came to me about five minutes after the title. On a car ride to Rock and Shock, I pitched the idea to my screenwriter friend Tony Nunes, and he knocked out the first draft pretty quickly. 

You know, the thing I love the most about this movie is that it’s really sexy. That was my goal. What if you made a softcore porno film that had a witty screenplay and good acting? That’s really what making The Disco Exorcist was all about.

SRW: Okay, cool. Now I wanna rewatch. You scratched up the film stock, giving the movie a good old crappy VHS vibe. How was that done?

RG: It was done with overlays of real damaged film. None of it was done with CGI. I think it gives it a higher quality that most films that try that look. 
SRW: There are a lot of highlights (and blue eye shadow!). But my favorite had to be the hilariously uncomfortable family dinner scene. Autobiographical?

RG: No, my family is pretty functional. I just love awkward dinner table scenes in movies, so I tend to have a lot of them in my movies. I love humor that’s based around discomfort and embarrassment, so that seems like the perfect place for it to happen! 

SRW: My fave type of humor, too! Michael Thurber appears to be one of your favorite actors. Is his character patterned after Anton LaVey?

RG: Nope. He was patterned after Sardu, the MC of the Joel Reed film Bloodsucking Freaks! 

SRW: Thought I was the only one to see that awful, yet great, movie! Your next film, Exhumed, is shot in gorgeous black and white, giving it an unworldly appearance. Which, I think, fits the film nicely. While there’s some dark humor, it’s not your typical confrontational style. Did you set out to make a more serious film? Or did the nature of the script call for it?
RG: Guy Benoit’s screenplay for Exhumed is still one of the finest scripts I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading and directing. It’s so haunting, and tragically sad. There really wasn’t a place for any outward humor in the movie.

SRW: It’s probably your most gothic film with a wide set of references. Let me see if I can spot them all: the mannequin sequence could be a shout-out to either Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. Or is it Maniac? I got a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane gothic vibe on occasion.  And at times is played like a Kuchar melodrama. How’d I do?

RG: Wrong on all counts, but close on one. The mannequins were a slight homage to Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil. 

SRW: I won’t spoil the ending. But I have to say it was one of the sickest, most disturbing and psychotic, yet oddly touching finales to all of your films. Well done!

RG: Thank you! 

SRW: Next we go back in time to 1983 in Murder University. All of the slasher tropes are in place: promiscuous college students getting slaughtered, a haunted house, beheadings, masked ax killers, a new wave theme song. And that’s just in the opening two minutes! Your films are all over the place time-wise. Do you like revisiting the past? Or do you think the exploitation films of the ‘50’s through the ‘80’s were just more fun?
RG: I like making period pieces! I don’t really think of them as homages as much as I love to play around with costumes and sets. It’s just kind of dull making a modern day horror film with a bunch of twits running around with their cell phones in bland locations. The fashions of the 70s and 80s were a lot cooler, and it gives me more visually interesting things to point my camera at.

SRW: Another recurring actor is Jamie DuFault, who’s quite good as the hero, making him one of your most appealing leads. The similarly named Jesse DuFault is in several of your films as well. Brother thespians? (And Michael Thurber is quite funny as a super foul-mouthed detective.)

RG: Yes! They’re brothers. Jamie is the eldest of the two. Both are extremely different as thespians, but they’re both wonderful in their own way. Extremely professional and good natured.

SRW: I was quite looking forward to your next film, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, as I thought the subject matter would’ve been right up your twisted alley. To be honest, it didn’t feel like a Richard Griffin film. There’s humor, but not of the subversive type. It almost seemed more traditional, far more subdued. I noticed Ted Marr didn’t have a hand in production on this film (Just sayin’). Did someone hire you to take on this project?

RG: Nope. This was a project I did to just have some fun. I wanted to go back and make a movie like I did when I was a teenager making Super 8 films with friends. To be honest, it’s probably my favorite of my movies. It’s got a lot of energy, and it was a blast to make. How can you not have fun making movies in an actual wax museum? 

SRW: Was the head in the tray a nod to The Brain that Wouldn’t Die?

RG: Sure was! 

SRW: The Sins of Dracula found you back in your comfort zone: amusingly taking on religion and organized groups. There’s an opening disclaimer/warning that advises the viewer to watch responsibly and consult your local parish. Your hero, Billy (Jamie DuFault again; quite good), runs up against (gasp) the Evils of community theatre. We’re talking drug users! Odd dressers! Dungeons and Dragons gamers! And gays! Richard, do you see community theatre as the logical anti-religious organization?

RG: No. I just thought it was a strange place for Dracula to be hanging out. I just started watching a bunch of Christian scare films from the 70s and 80s, and I thought they were ripe for satire. I thought, “What if a church wanted to make their own scare film? What if they were so un-hip they thought kids were still scared by Dracula?” I contacted writer Michael Varrati and we were off and running! 

SRW: I love those Christian propaganda films. For all the wrong reasons, of course. Billy’s monologue to God was hilarious. How much was improvised or scripted?

RG: Entirely scripted by Michael Varrati. Some of the finest writing of the film. It wasn’t originally in the screenplay, but added later. I think it’s hysterically funny, and Jamie Default completely knocks it out of the park.

SRW: Yes, he did. And congrats to Varrati, a great writer. One of my favorite lines in all your movies: “I had sex with Shannon and now everyone’s dead!” I suppose you have to see it to understand it in context. Hey, too bad we didn’t get to see any of “Jonestown Jubilee.” One can hold out hope.

RG: Originally in the script there was about five more pages dealing with Jonestown Jubilee, but it suddenly became entirely about that and we just completely forgot about Dracula. Maybe someday Michael Varrati will write a Broadway musical about it.

SRW: Dreams stay alive! Seven Dorms of Death is a riot from start to finish. You play up the “lost movie” angle quite well. You stuff the film full of terribly ripe dialogue, arch acting, one of the worst screams ever, terrible effects, missing scenes, stock footage, the whole ball of awful wax. Is it hard to be intentionally terrible?

RG: Well, the big challenge was to work with each actor to find out what kind of bad actor they would be. Would they be wooden? Or would they overdo everything? It was completely liberating, because you could just make horrible mistakes and they would be perfect for the film. In terms of just being on the set, it was a sheer joy to make. We blew so many takes because myself or the crew would just crack up laughing. The cast is brilliant.

SRW: I didn’t recognize Michael Thurber as Baron Von Blah at first, here channeling Joe Flaherty and many old-school horror hosts.  Quite a fun wrap-around. Even better are the ads and trailers. Did you have a bunch of left-over ideas with nowhere to put them?

RG: No, those were all original ideas for the movie. Some were written by Matthew Jason Walsh, who wrote the screenplay for Seven Dorms, some by Michael Varrati, and some by myself. Those were a lot of fun to write and shoot. 

SRW: Okay, I’m not going to even ask about Aaron Andrade’s grating performance as Detective Vargas. Forget it, I am going to ask. Did you direct him in this anger-management deprived performance?

RG: That’s all Aaron, and my favorite performance in any of my films, hands down. Sheer genius. It takes 50 pound brass balls to give that kind of performance, but Aaron is fearless. 

SRW: The final film! Flesh for the Inferno. Not much to say ‘cause I’m running out of Griffin gas. But you’re still working out your anti-religious stance (particularly Catholicism). Cheaper than therapy?
RG: I’m not even a Christian! That’s all Michael Varrati, who wrote the script. To me, it’s a just  good, simple horror story. I really have no bones to pick with the Catholic Church, except when it comes to covering up child rape, which they seem to do with wild abandon. But, that being said… I’ve been friends with several priests and nuns in my life, and they were wonderful, generous persons. After all, it’s only a movie. 

SRW: (Yeah, I've kinda got a problem with that child abuse stuff, too). There you have it, folks. Richard’s quite the prolific filmmaker. There’re still three or four I haven’t watched. His films aren’t for everybody. But if you’ve ever loved cheesy horror flicks from the good ol’ days of VHS and drive-ins, and have an anarchistic streak of humor in you, then seek them out. Thanks much, Richard.


Friday, September 16, 2016

Oooooklahoma, where the winds comes sweepin'...SHUT UP!

Well, I imagine there aren't too many Okies singing that beloved song now.
(Due to bad weather, filmmaker Richard Griffin's jaw-dropping interview will conclude next week.)
Not long ago, a devastating, incredible wind storm blew through eastern Oklahoma. Some of you, not from the Midwest, might be scoffing, saying, "Oh my, Stuart, what's wrong? Afraid your hair will muss?"

A) I don't have any hair; B) people underestimate the power of wind.

How strong was it? It blew over a semi on the Turner Turnpike. Over 87,000 people were without power. One of the water suppliers lost some of their pumps, putting their customers on rations. A mobile home with a dog inside it was flattened (miraculously, the dog's okay). Finally, everywhere you look, trees are down, houses destroyed, people's lives in turmoil. And the local tree trimmer guys are set for life. The remnants of a war-torn battle zone.

Sadly, my inlaws were affected. The storm plowed through Broken Arrow, next to Tulsa, in Nature's indiscriminate and bullying way. (All photos are from their yard).

They live on a vastly wooded three acres and over half of their trees are down, some having fallen on the house. Karma smiled on them, though. Miraculously, the house is undamaged. My mother-in-law was out when the storm blew through but my father-in-law was at home. Apparently, he'd had no idea it'd happened. Maybe he had his TV headphones on. I'm sure when he went outside, though, he was in for a shock. Anyway...maybe it's good karma paying them back for the nice things they do. But the clean-up, ay-yi-yi!

My wife packed up her loppers and headed down. Her brother brought the chainsaw, his wife supplied tea and lemonade making skills. Unfortunately, I couldn't go because I wasn't supposed to make long car trips. Recovering from "Major Surgery," don't you know. (Whew. Dodged that bullet).

But the clean-up crew could only do so much. One of the downed trees was thicker than a giant's thumb. No chainsaws could even begin to bite the bark. 

My inlaws had an estimate. Crikey. I need to get into that line of work. Sadly, the guy says he'll have to cut down another tree to get his truck into the backyard. Headache after heartache for them.

Still, the house is intact. So is their health. Unlike many other Oklahomans.
Never underestimate the power of wind. You can't do anything about it, I'm just sayin'. And, people, for the love of God, stop singing that happy song about Oklahoma wind!

Friday, September 9, 2016

Richard Griffin: Absolute Filmmaking Threat to Common Decency!