Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Death House Director Harrison Smith Opens Up About His Star-Studded Horror Flick

They don't make horror movies like they used to, but if they did, it would probably look a lot like Death House.

Originally the idea of late horror icon Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) the upcoming flick is a throwback to a time when horror was about more than jump cuts and marketing hashtags. A lot of that comes from the cast, a veritable who's who of horror from the '70s and '80s, but it's also the distinct vision of writer-director B. Harrison Smith (Camp Dread). 

Kane Hodder (Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th franchise) stars as Sieg, an occultist Neo-Nazi held prisoner at the Death House — sort of the Area 51 of supermax prisons holding the worst criminals on Earth and possibly from beyond. When two young government agents (Cortney Palm and Cody Longo) tour the facility, an incident unlocks all the cells and they find themselves navigating a gauntlet of terror.

Dubbed "The Expendables of horror," the movie boasts one of the most impressive casts ever assembled for a genre film. In addition to Hodder, the cast includes Barbara Crampton (From Beyond, Re-Animator), Sid Haig and Bill Moseley (House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects), Dee Wallace (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Critters), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Tony Todd (Candyman), Adrienne Barbeau (Escape From New York, The Fog), Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Vernon Wells (Commando, The Road Warrior), and R.A. Mihailoff (Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), among others.

But don't expect to see Candyman take on Jason Voorhees. These are all original characters and Smith made it clear when he signed up that he didn't want to make a monster mashup. Instead, it's a tribute to the '80s and also to Hansen, who tragically died of pancreatic cancer in 2015. 

We caught up with Smith ahead of the release of Death House on Feb. 23. He said that although hundreds of fans have already seen the movie and love it, he knows others will hate it. Of course, that just means he's doing something right.

Death House has tons of horror icons in the cast, but it actually looks reminiscent of movies like John Carpenter's Escape From New York. Was that film an influence?

Holy crap, you just nailed it. That's exactly what I was going for. There's a lot of blood and gore, there's plenty of horror, but the real inspiration behind Death House is Escape From New York. In fact, if you're a fan of that film, you'll notice something in the opening of Death House. Adrienne Barbeau plays the voice of the Death House computer, and when Kane is brought into the prison, her voice is saying, "Follow the yellow line..." It's the whole thing from Escape From New York. It's an easter egg.

Are there a lot of easter eggs like that?

Absolutely. The final easter egg happens during the end credits. Halfway through, the credits will stop, and there'll be an easter egg. I can't say much about it, but I can tell you this: it's the original, and it's the genuine one. You'll have to watch to see what I mean.

The idea for Death House came from Gunnar Hansen. What did he hope to say with the movie?

Gunnar wanted to make a real comment, not just on good versus evil — like we haven't seen that in a horror film — but he wanted to talk about good and evil's dependency upon each other. The original script he wrote was titled Death House, but his problem — by his own admission — was that he wasn't good with dialogue. And he also felt the pacing was too slow and it was all too artsy and just wouldn't fly. That's why there was a problem for a few years finding momentum to get it going. He did hire somebody to do a second draft, but that script was more torture porn. [Hansen] was very disgusted by that, and that's where it gave rise to an internet rumor that he kind of disavowed his own project. He did disavow the second script, but he didn't disavow the project. 

How did you get involved?

Gunnar's agent, Mike Eisenstadt, brought me up to him. He said, "I just worked with this guy Harrison Smith. He worked with Dee Wallace and he treated everybody right. Maybe we should go to him." So they came to a screening of Zombie Killers out in Los Angeles and the two producers that he had attached, including Rick Finkelstein of Entertainment Factory, asked me if I would be interested in sitting down with Mike and talking about this, so we did. 

How did you change the script?

The original plot was going to be something along the lines of a group of documentary filmmakers go into what they think is an abandoned asylum, but of course, it isn't abandoned, and hilarity ensues. So when I met with Gunnar, I said, "To be fair, we've seen this before. There's nothing really new here. Not that you can reinvent everything, but we've seen the quasi-found footage kind of 'what's out there in the dark' kind of movie and it really isn't doing much." So he agreed and we talked about it more and more. Finally, I was in a bar working on the treatment and it was just around Super Bowl time a year or so ago when they showed a preview for Jurassic World. And that's when it hit me. I was sitting there and went, 'Yeah, that's what this is." Escape From New York came back to me and I thought of two cadets who just graduated from this elite government training program for the supernatural and they're touring Death House and the ride breaks down. That's basically what it is. It's like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs. 

But it all has an '80s feeling to it, too.

Exactly. I wanted that '80s vibe because all of our stars are from that time. Why try to pigeonhole them into something else? What I didn't want was an R-rated Scooby-Doo episode where it's like, "Oh, there's Sid Haig. Oh look, there's Tony Todd." I didn't want any of that. I wanted something where the characters were germane to the story and everything worked. So I came up with that, gave a 10-page treatment to Gunnar and he liked it. Then I started writing the script and got it done just before Gunnar died. I was able to send it to him and he said, "I give this my blessing. It's great." Then sadly, we lost Gunnar. But I know he went to his grave with a thumbs up on the script.

When you were writing, did you have specific actors in mind for the roles?

Definitely. One of the parts was definitely meant for Dee Wallace. I wrote the role of Dr. Fletcher with her in mind, and I wanted to see Dee play somebody really evil. Dee has always been like America's mom, so I really wanted to see her do something that was a stretch for her. She even said, "I wasn't ready for this kind of role. I'm not very likable in this movie." And I was like, "No, you're not supposed to be." And she did it well. We beat her up pretty good. She's so good in it.

Who do you think stretches the most from what we're used to seeing from them?

That depends. All the actors have said that this is pretty much [Hodder's] movie. Kane has really acted his heart out in this movie and he's so great in the role of Sieg. So if you want to position Kane in the role he's best known for — which is a silent, mute killer hacking up campers — in comparison to this, that's the biggest stretch. Kane goes from a hulking guy behind a hockey mask to this very thoughtful, plotting quasi-Neo Nazi kind of genius.

Was there anyone you were starstruck by?

I don't usually get starstruck. What I do get is in awe of what these people have experienced, and I was just fascinated by Sid Haig. Sid has been in this business for 50 years and I got to sit with him during a lunch a couple times and it was almost like, "Okay, Sid, teach me." And he would just go all the way back to the [Roger] Corman days and all these really bad B-level movies and talk about how distribution has changed and how the filmmaking process has changed. It was fascinating. You don't always get that kind of insight. To sit and listen to him as kind of the elder statesman of horror was really cool. 

Did he give you any advice that stuck with you?

Definitely. We showed the film during a sneak preview at Scare-a-Con in June because that's what Gunnar wanted. One of his final wishes was that when the film was complete, it had to show to at least one con before it got distributed. Sid and Tony Todd and everybody was there. We showed the movie to about 300 people, and before we showed it, Sid sat with me and he said, "You got your audience preview cards?" and I said, "Yes sir, I do." He said, "Great. Let me look at them." They're standard cards where the audience ranks the movie on a scale of zero to 10 — zero being the worst and 10 being the best — and he said, "Of course you want the majority to be great scores, but you also want some zeros and some ones. What you don't want is a stack of fives." And I never forgot that. If you just get a stack of fives, your movie really made no impression on anyone. 

He said, "You're always going to have some people who hate what you do. You'll never make a movie that everyone is going to love, and they'll hate it for a variety of reasons. But you'll find that most people who don't like the film will cite the example that it's not The Expendables of horror in the way of Freddy vs. Jason." And he was correct. We had an overwhelming stack of positives. And the ones who didn't like it said, "It wasn't what I was expecting. I was hoping Candyman would fight Captain Spaulding." And it's like, "No. This is not Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." In The Expendables, is Stallone playing Cobra? Is Schwarzenegger playing the Terminator? No, they're playing all-new characters. And that's what we've done with horror. Why would anybody expect them to be playing the same roles they've played before? It's just silly. I had no interest in making a mashup. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

That doesn't seem to be a popular opinion in Hollywood these days.

That's true. But if Freddy vs. Jason was such a great idea, why aren't there more of them? That movie came out in 2003. Where are the follow-ups? And didn't it take like 14 scripts to get that thing together? Do we really need Ash vs. Michael Myers? Do we really want that? Tony Todd said they offered him an incredible amount of money to do Candyman vs. Leprechaun, but he walked away. He said, "I'm not doing that bulls***." He walked away from a big payday. All he had to do was play Candyman and fight the Leprechaun. But then you've basically moved into The Love Boat of horror. It's Gilligan's Island with horror. I probably sound like some movie snob, but I'm not. I'll watch anything that's a good time. 

I love Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But let's not go back and try and reimagine that movie as a classic of horror. It is not. It was made at a time when those characters were on the downslope. Nobody at Universal was interested in making another Wolfman or Frankenstein movie. I'm sure it was Bela Lugosi's last good paycheck. But it was made, I'm sure, because Universal was like, "F*** it, put them all in this. Maybe that'll do something." It's like [fast food] hamburgers: today they're fresh, tomorrow they're chili. That was basically the Universal monsters. They were no longer fresh, so Universal ground them up into chili. But to sit back and say Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a paragon of horror, no it's not. It's a joke. They were making fun of themselves. But it's a great way to introduce kids to horror.

Although the actors don't play their iconic roles, do we get nods to those characters like Jason or Candyman?

You'll see so many references to other movies, but without being heavy-handed. We had all these extras in a prison break scene and I said to Kane, "This is the scene where you're gonna do your Jason. It's where the audience who knows you is going to be like, "Holy s***, that's Jason Voorhees!" It's a scene where he's about to get into kind of a duel, and Kane stands there and he just turns his head around towards the camera. I heard one extra say, "Dude, that's f***ing Jason Voorhees!" And that's what we want. It's subtle, but there it is. All you need to do is imagine him with the mask on and a machete in his hand and there he is.

Was there one scene you particularly enjoyed directing?

I had a number of them, but I'm really proud of the three satans scene with Bill Oberst Jr., Sean Whalen, Barbara Crampton, Cody [Longo] and Cortney [Palm]. I'm very proud of that scene because it's a quiet moment. It's quietly eery and the horror is done through the dialogue. Barbara's performance is so measured and icy cool during the scene that even Bill said, "Horror movies don't usually have that kind of stuff. I'm so glad I got to be in this scene." However, I also love the monsters in the cell and I love the confrontation between Kane and R.A. Mihailoff. It has some fantastic practical special effects and I will go on record and say that our one effect in that scene is better than the chestburster scene in Alien.

That's a big statement.

It is a big statement, and I stand by it. We had an extra pass out from it. We didn't tell him what was going to happen. We had to call an ambulance and all of that, and the guy just said, "I wasn't expecting that." We were like, "Good, then we did our job."

How do you infuse elements of the '70s and '80s into modern horror? Is it in the script or the production design?

It's in the script, but our set designer is a guy named Josh Reale, and I told him that the look of this movie needs to evoke the '70s and '80s. It's taking place today, but with a few tweaks here and there, this could be set in 1982 or 1974. I wanted the Death House itself to have a look where it was probably state-of-the-art in its day, but they didn't keep up with it and kept adding stuff without taking anything out. Plus our lighting, which is thanks to our director of photography, Matt Klammer, had a lot to do with the retro look. When you're underneath Death House with these characters, it's almost like you went back in time.

How do you think modern day horror compares to stuff from the '70s and '80s?

That's a great question. There were definitely good horror movies in the '70s and '80s, but there were plenty of bad horror movies, as well. People forget that. In the '80s, for every A Nightmare on Elm Street there was some crappy, D-list, Vestron Video kind of movie. Some of those movies serve as better memories than they do actual movies. But I think sometimes horror is too polished now. It's too pre-packaged. Everybody thinks the epitome of horror is a Lights Out or The Conjuring or something like that. And although those are well-made, I watched Lights Out and within the first 15 minutes, I said, 'Well, this is how this is going to turn out," and then it did. Or you get a film like Don't Breathe, which for me, is one of the most overrated horror movies ever made. I couldn't stand any of the characters. I thought, "Wow, they broke a record. In 30 seconds, I already despise every character on the screen and hope they all die."

I don't think horror takes as many risks as it used to. I don't see anything like Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left getting made soon. We have the Saw movies and all of that, but it's not what Craven was doing with Last House on the Left. There's so much social commentary to it. Then on the flip side, you have Get Out, which I enjoyed, but I felt it was entirely predictable. I get it and I see what [Jordan] Peele was trying to say with the social commentary about race, but I think a lot of people turned it into something it just wasn't meant to be. Everybody was looking to justify some kind of social justice warrior cause with this movie and they just forgot to think of it as a horror movie. I liked it and I thought it was well-made, but it didn't blow my socks off. Same with The Babadook.

Do you think it has anything to do with the marketing of horror movies?

Absolutely. I think we see too much hype for horror these days instead of letting horror speak for itself. I'm not hyping Death House. We made a great tip of the hat to '80s sci-fi action and horror with a lot of blood and a lot of gore, and I'm hoping people enjoy it because we do have some social commentary in there. We talk about the need to expunge everything that's offensive. That itself is evil. I saw Sony just published a statement apologizing for talking about peanut allergies [in Peter Rabbit] and they don't want to offend anybody who may have an allergy. Gimme a break, man. What the hell is going on? We're sanitizing everything. 

But do you know where the real horror is? It's these kids who are never exposed to anything that's a real life lesson and they're told that everything works out in the end and they become so desensitized. You see things like that kid who raped a girl while she was dying of an overdose and posted it on Facebook. That's evil, man. That's real horror. Or we have kids that are bullying each other and trying to deliberately drive other kids to kill themselves. There's a pressure valve for everything. So when you want to sanitize everything and make everything non-offensive, it's going to come out somewhere else. We're raising a generation of kids that don't know how to cope. So everything is horror to them. "I only have 3G instead of 4G." That's horror to them. "I only have 15 followers on Snapchat. That's my horror." I think that's where we're at. There's too much hype and too much sanitation.

It seems to be getting more difficult to take a stance like that.

You can't criticize anything that's the popular opinion. And do you know the people who get upset about everything? It's f***ing white people. When Get Out came out, you didn't hear the black community say, "Finally, a horror movie for us." It was white people saying, "Finally, a horror movie for black people." It's always white people who have a problem with everything, man. They just have to prove, "Look how socially progressive I am." Right now, we're also seeing it with the #meetoo movement. If you speak out against the women making accusations, well, you must be a misogynist as well. That's evil. These aren't witch hunts. This is something worse. It's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you don't say the right thing, the aliens will point at you and scream at you like Donald Sutherland. 

Do you think horror is sometimes too serious?

Definitely. Sometimes there's just horror for horror's sake. Death House is fun. I think the Saw movies overall are well-made, but why do I want to sit there and watch rotten human beings get tortured for 90 minutes? The world already sucks enough. Give me monsters, give me demons, give me ghosts, give me aliens, give me creatures. But I don't want to watch somebody slowly get flayed or ripped apart. I get it. There's an audience for that and some of the special effects are damn fine special effects. But overall, I'd rather have monsters than monstrous humans.

How would Gunnar have felt about the finished Death House?

I think he would've been pleased. We really held true to his desire to show the whole good and evil dependency. He didn't want to see it turn into a bloodbath, and we didn't do that. It's just a fun rollercoaster ride and it was so much fun to make. I think he'd approve.