In the eighties, the horror film took on a whole new level of animosity due entirely to an assortment of successful movies that were categorized in a relatively new class. Parents and critics alike almost harmoniously detested a sub-genre of horror movies… the slasher film. Even the production companies that were financing these pictures often abandoned them after tallying their end box office receipts.
I like the slasher film. I understood it for what it was and I often found it futile for journalists to critique such a film. They just didn’t seem to get it. Not to say there weren’t some terrible stalker films out there. They eventually got predictable and many of the main characters were underdeveloped with the antagonist often taking on more depth and popularity. Even during these times I never relinquished my fondness for the slasher film.
The slasher film returned thanks entirely to the man known as Wes Craven when he released the critically and financially successful franchise known as SCREAM. The genre reached a whole new generation of horror seekers and seemed to put life back into a tired and forgotten concept.
In September of 2002, a co-worker slid the invaluable film reference book GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER FILM across my desk as a gift. The author was Adam Rockoff and it was my first experience with his work. The book was good and it was one of the rare times that the slasher film was given its due by an author who appreciated and understood the genre. Four years later, GOING TO PIECES was made into a two-hour documentary for the Starz cable channel and was released on home video by ThinkFilm. It featured interviews with Wes Craven, Tony Timpone, Stan Winston, Tom Savini and several other people involved with the genre—both behind and in front of the cameras. It was a perfect companion to the novel Rockoff had written.
A New Yorker, who proudly calls Chicago his hometown, Rockoff recently secured a screenwriting deal with production company Fever Dreams. The first of these titles, WICKED LAKE, just had its world premiere at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. He also has TALES FOR SLEEPLESS NIGHTS, an anthology in the vein of CREEPSHOW, and a sequel to FLESH FOR THE BEAST in the works. Adam is also a frequent guest on radio and television programs to discuss all things horror, including Bravo’s highly rated special, THE 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS. He has also written for numerous horror periodicals and had a long-running column in VideoScope magazine.
As always, he is working on a variety of new horror projects, from scripts to documentaries. In the middle of July, I finally ran Adam Rockoff down and got him to discuss stalker films, the upcoming horror pictures he is involved with and I wanted to find out what has happened to his writing career since the release of his book six years ago.
Bryan Layne: I enjoyed your book GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER FILM. Why explore the slasher film to the extent you did for the novel?
Adam Rockoff: Thank you. I certainly appreciate that. I wanted to explore the slasher film because, a) These were the films that I grew up on, and b) It seemed that this was the one sub-genre of horror films that, to steal an over-used Rodney Dangerfield quote, “didn’t get no respect.”
BL: What makes a movie a slasher film?
AR: I guess I could spout out some academic BS, but really, I think that as long as you have a killer who murders people with sharp objects, and a few thematic and/or stylistic conventions that have become staples of the genre– the final girl or the killer’s POV, etc.– you’ve got yourself a slasher film.
BL: You wrote in your book of mainstream critics ripping the slasher film apart. Did any of these films receive favorable reviews at all or were they universally detested?
AR: I’m sure there were some exceptions, but overall they were universally detested. Roger Ebert, for example, was a big fan of Halloween and wrote a fairly complimentary piece on Last House on the Left. And of course, there were the underground fanzines, but their bag was usually zombies and European gore films. Slasher films really were thought of as one step above, and in some case below, pornography.
BL: With the horribly sarcastic ways the critics describe slasher films in your documentary, was your novel and the film met with the same scathing manner?
AR: Not at all and I guess I’m lucky in that if someone actually buys a book titled, GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER FILM, they’re probably already a fan of the genre. Most of the reviews of my book were surprisingly, and somewhat undeservingly, effusive in their praise. There was one critic, however, who wrote, “There’s only one problem with GOING TO PIECES—the author.” For some reason, critics were tougher on the documentary. Although I always tell people that the film is actually better than my book. After all, these films were to be viewed, not read about.
BL: Without offending anyone who was kind enough to allow you to interview him or her for your novel, which was your favorite personality?
AR: They were all great. But Armand Mastroianni and Joe Zito were probably my favorites. They had some really wonderful stories. Armand, for example, was on the set of THE GODFATHER when Coppola shot the wedding scene, and also spoke with Scorsese about HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE. It was a thrill for me to speak with John Carpenter and a lot of the other guys I’ve always admired, but it was almost more fun to talk with some of the more obscure people. Carpenter was great, but he probably gets tired of talking about how the idea for HALLOWEEN came together. He’s told that story a million times. Guys like Herb Freed, who did GRADUATION DAY, and Fred Walton, who did WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and APRIL FOOL’S DAY—these are guys who weren’t very accustomed to receiving a lot of publicity, certainly not twenty years later. You have to remember, when they were making these movies, it wasn’t like you and I looking back at the whole genre, or the whole slasher movement. These guys were just thinking about making a quick buck and then moving on to bigger and better things. So, that was actually a lot of fun for me to speak with some of the lesser-known filmmakers.
BL: Did you find the fact that the director of GRADUATION DAY, Herb Freed, became a rabbi all these years later a little surprising?
AR: Yes, I did find it surprising. I guess any type of religious man involved with a film that has naked teenagers getting killed is surprising because those types of people are generally considered straight arrows. I have to stress that Herb was a very, very interesting guy and he was willing to speak with me extensively about GRADUATION DAY. I think Herb’s wife was a relatively famous performer on the stages of theater and I believe she passed away at a young age. It was a sad story from what I can recall. He was, like most of the other guys I spoke with, quite a character.
BL: How’s the McFarland Publishing experience for you? They treating you well over there?
AR: I don’t really have much contact with McFarland anymore, other than that I buy a lot of their books for my own enjoyment. But I’ll certainly always be grateful to them for publishing GOING TO PIECES.
BL: Where can people purchase your novel?
AR: Either directly from McFarland, www.mcfarlandpub.com, or on Amazon. You can also order it through any major bookstore.
BL: Why gravitate towards the horror genre?
AR: Horror films have always appealed to me, even when I was far too young to watch them. The names alone were alluring. Although I could barely read, I used to scan the cable guide and try to imagine the horrors that lurked behind titles like MY BLOODY VALENTINE and TERROR TRAIN. Somewhere in my parents’ house, there’s an essay that I wrote in 2nd grade in which, instructed to write about what I liked to do in my spare time, I proceeded to list about 50 horror films that I said I had seen.
I wasn’t, however, a brave kid. I was terrified of the children’s book Babar, as well as the Disney film THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS. But like many other kids, I discovered that there was something enjoyable about being scared. And horror films were a very safe way to experience, and come to terms with, my myriad fears.
BL: What are a few of your all-time favorite films in the horror genre?
AR: Probably the same ones as 99% of horror fans out there: JAWS, HALLOWEEN, THE EXORCIST, PSYCHO, POLTERGEIST, THE WICKER MAN and ROSEMARY’S BABY. But I’ll give you a few unsung ones that I really love. And believe me, I’m well aware that some of them aren’t exactly considered classics. I, MADMAN, THE TENANT, NIGHTMARE (the Hammer film, not the Scavolini one, although I do like that as well), THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, WHITE NOISE (I’m serious; I loved it), KOLOBOS, CURTAINS and, most recently, INSIDE.
BL: If you were going to introduce someone to the slasher genre, which three titles would you choose?
AR: Without a doubt, the big three—HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET—because they’re among the best and most representative of the genre. But not counting these, three others that are excellent examples of the traditional slasher film would be MY BLOODY VALENTINE, THE BURNING and THE PROWLER.
BL: Which were the worst of the slasher genre?
AR: I would say it’s a toss up between DON’T GO IN THE WOODS, NEW YEAR’S EVIL and HOME SWEET HOME. But of course, they’re so mind-numbingly bad they’re almost good.
BL: The slasher film isn’t completely dead now, is it?
AR: Oh, no. Far from it. ROB ZOMBIE’S HALLOWEEN just came out and, despite what you may think of it, it was a bonafide blockbuster. FRIDAY THE 13TH and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET are both about to be remade—and I’d venture an educated guess they won’t stop at one installment. Dimension Extreme is also putting out some great slashers, many of them foreign. And while once “slasher’ was a dirty word, even in the genre, a lot of young and really talented directors are embracing this form. In fact, I’d say that the slasher genre is healthier then it’s been since the golden years of ‘80-83.
BL: Which new filmmaker is one to lookout for in the horror genre?
AR: Oh, God. There are just so many talented directors out there. It really pisses me off when people pine for the “glory days” of the horror film. With all due respect to the giants of our genre like Romero, Carpenter, Craven, and Hooper, there are a bunch of young directors who are just as talented. You have the big guns like Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. James Wan who directed SAW and DEAD SILENCE. There’s Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury who co-directed INSIDE, which I adore. It’s probably the best horror film I’ve seen in the past five years. I challenge anyone to find me someone who’s made a more accomplished and disturbing debut feature. I’ve always thought Jamie Blanks, the Australian director of URBAN LEGEND and VALENTINE, never got the critical respect he deserves. He just finished LONG WEEKEND, a remake of a great nature-run-amok film from the 70’s, so hopefully this will change. Jeremy Kasten, who’s done some great low-budget films like, THE ATTIC EXPEDITIONS, THE THIRST, and ALL SOUL’S DAY and just finished Dimension’s WIZARD OF GORE remake, is a director whose work I really admire.
BL: I realize Hollywood is simply a big business, but how do you feel about the eighties slasher titles being remade?
AR: Like most horror fans, I’m ambivalent. On one hand, I don’t understand the urge to remake a perfect, or at least perfectly good, film. But on the other, I would have killed to write the remakes of FRIDAY THE 13TH and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. But as good, or as awful, as a remake may be, I don’t really think it has an effect on the original. I mean, is THE HAUNTING any less brilliant because of Jan de Bont’s remake?
BL: How do you feel about violence in the cinema?
AR: I’m probably biased, since I’ve made a living exploiting violence in one way or another—whether writing about it or using it in my original scripts. I don’t think that violence in entertainment causes violence in real life if that’s what you mean. However, as the father of two young kids, I can tell you that I’m a big believer in age-appropriate entertainment. I can assure you, we don’t proudly display GOING TO PIECES on our mantle (but we also don’t have a mantle!)
BL: Would you consider films such as TAXI DRIVER, DELIVERANCE or 8MM, for example, horror films? I remember feeling completely drained and experiencing emotions similar to some horror films the first time I viewed those films, as well as others.
AR: I would not consider them horror films. But that’s just my opinion, and it’s certainly no more valid than anyone else’s. However, I’ll concede that they’re exceptionally disturbing films. In fact, the movies that have upset me the most, the ones that really hit me right in the gut and knocked the wind out of me, weren’t what you would call horror films. For example, SALO OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM and more recently, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.
BL: Has there been a violent image in a horror film that disturbed you enough that you may have felt the filmmaker went too far?
AR: As long as it’s in a fictional context, I don’t think you can go too far. And as I said before, there are numerous images in SALO that I find far more disturbing than those in the hardest horror films. But if I had to choose some horror scenes that pushed me to the limit of what I could take, there’s the staircase Caesarian section from INSIDE, the eyeball puncture in FLOWER OF FLESH AND BLOOD (one of the GUINEA PIG films) and the scene in DAGON when the guy literally has his face pulled off over his head.
BL: Do violence and humor mix well in your opinion?
AR: I’m probably in the minority of horror fans here, but I’m not at all a fan of mixing humor and horror. I like my horror straight up. I never “got” films like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE HOWLING, AND RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, although I fully recognize that they’re among the most beloved films in the genre. APRIL FOOL’S DAY, however, is one of my all-time favorite horror movies—but that doesn’t really have much comedy until the final “twist.” I do have a soft spot for Peter Jackson’s DEAD ALIVE. It’s just so totally deranged.
BL: What are a few of your favorite films not in the horror genre?
AR: Oh, man, I could go on forever. I’m not really going out on a limb with a lot of these. THE GODFATHER, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, BIG WEDNESDAY, MEATBALLS, SCARFACE, THE GRADUATE, CASABLANCA, BUGSY, CINEMA PARADISO, MANHATTAN, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
BL: While authoring GOING TO PIECES was there already a deal in the works for the made for the cable documentary?
AR: Nope. One of the film’s producers, Rudy Scalese, as big a slasher fan as you’ll ever find, optioned the book a couple of years after it was published. I actually had very little to do with the GOING TO PIECES documentary. I consulted with them a bit and I helped with putting them in touch with stars, but the film was done—for better or for worse—all by the production company. I actually, and this is not false modesty, tell people all of the time that I feel the documentary is better than the book. I always joke around that I can state this without sounding like an asshole because I had nothing to do with the film—I can praise it all I want without sounding cocky. I saw the finished film just like you and everybody else, when it came out. I’ve got to say that I was real happy with it, looking at it objectively; I thought they did a great job.
BL: The musical score for GOING TO PIECES was very well done and memorable. How cool was it to secure Harry Manfredini for the soundtrack?
AR: So cool. Of course, that was all Rudy Scalese’s doing. Most fans know Harry who, incidentally, is a very funny guy, from his classic scores for FRIDAY THE 13TH and SWAMP THING. However, I’m a huge fan of some of his lesser-known work on films like SLAUGHTER HIGH, its real unsettling stuff.
BL: What can you tell me about the script you wrote for the film WICKED LAKE?
AR: Only that it’s the greatest American film since CITIZEN KANE, or at the very least, since THE GODFATHER. Aside from that, it really was just a fabulous experience. I met and worked with a lot of extremely talented people who I know are going to do some great work in the future. I guess it all started with John Quinn, the director of CHEERLEADER CAMP. I wrote the liner notes for the Anchor Bay DVD release of that title and while I was interviewing him the subject of a CHEERLEADER CAMP sequel was mentioned. He sent me the script that was written and it went back and forth between us with ideas attached. I told him that from previous work I had done in the past, I knew a lot of these small distribution companies that wanted to get into original productions. Fever Dreams was one of those companies. They showed some interest in doing the sequel, but ultimately they asked if I had anything else written that they could shoot really cheap. I told them about my script called WICKED LAKE, which I had already written.
I wrote WICKED LAKE in response to all of these films like SAW and HOSTEL that were coming out pretty regularly. The critics were calling them the most depraved things imaginable, or they would state that nothing could possibly be more hardcore than those kinds of horror films. I was discussing it with my friend, Chris McKay, and it was kind of a joke to us because we were familiar with movies like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and the GUINEA PIG films; stuff that was much more extreme. I told Chris to let me write this script that is so ridiculously over-the-top, so offensive, so filled with blood and sex, that no one will believe it. At the same time, I wanted to make it very inexpensive to shoot. The idea I had was similar to what Sean S. Cunningham and Wes Craven did with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, just try to do something shocking and get it out there for the hell of it. So, low and behold, I sent the finished script over to Fever Dreams and they loved it. The producer there, John Carchietta, was one of the first ones to read it and something about it appealed to him. He purchased it right away and got it made.
BL: Is it available in theaters at the moment?
AR: It had its premiere in Los Angeles, which I went out to see, and then it’s going to be playing at some festivals. It will actually be playing in some theaters in July and if it does well, they’ll do a limited release in various major cities. Then, of course, it will be released on DVD.
BL: What are some new things you’re working on that your fans can look out for?
AR: Well, Fever Dreams commissioned me to write the sequel to their first original production, FLESH FOR THE BEAST. They also bought another screenplay of mine, TALES FOR SLEEPLESS NIGHTS, which is an anthology in the vein of CREEPSHOW. I’m also in the early stages of a project best described as an X-FILESfor kids. Then I have a bunch of other horror scripts in various stages of development, including an old-fashioned slasher and one about a cult in a small town.