Carolina-based director Steve Daniels is the writer/director of Ghormley,
and many other super-8 lensed shorts that combine a love of kinetic, experimental
camerawork with rapid editing and tongue-in-cheek humor, mixed with a
spoonful of old-school Southern tradition. Icons felt it was about
time to speak in-depth about his previous films, future plans, and his
horror film that is (wait for it) actually scary! -
by Adam Barnick 3/06
What are your earliest memories
of the horror genre?
I was obsessed with monsters and the macabre at a very young age. My Father,
who frequently would take me to explore old abandoned "spook"
Houses, encouraged this fascination. We would play hide and seek in the
local graveyard, and watch horror films on television. The first horror
film I remember seeing was 'Burnt Offerings.' Actor Anthony James'
smiling hearse driver character scared the absolute hell out of me. And
then there was the Bloody Best of Fangoria #2 magazine from the summer
|Images of Rob Bottin's
FX for Carpenter's 'The Thing' made a profound impact on me. I was
eight, and the pictures startled me so badly, I hid the magazine
under the bed stand in hopes that it would prevent the creatures
coming off the pages in the middle of the night. Of course now,
The Thing is one of my all time favorite films. Also in '82, I begged
my Aunt to take me to go see Tobe Hooper's 'Poltergeist'. I completely
freaked out when the guy peels his face down to the skull, so we
had to leave the theatre. Of course, Poltergeist is also one of
my favorite films now.
How did you get started in filmmaking? Did you end up going to
school for it, or learning on your own?
My parents bought
me a VHS camcorder when I was 16, and my Dad taught me how to
sequence shots together. Since I had no access to editing equipment,
this was in 1990, I would make short films by "edit in camera"
technique. I would enlist my younger brother to star in such neighborhood
classics as 'The Thing in the Basement' and 'The Adventures of
Sgt. Rueben.' I think I knew I wanted to be a director when I
saw Evil Dead II for the first time. I laughed so hard I cried.
It was exhilarating to see Raimi's inventive camera moves... so
audacious and kinetic. I had never seen anything like that before
and it made a huge impression.
I studied "media arts" at the University of South Carolina.
I learned some great theory there, but as far as hands-on experience,
it was up to me to experiment and go out on my own. I've always
preferred the DIY approach.
Your work has been predominantly Black and White Super 8...what about
the format appeals so much, and are you on the fence about using DV?
Thoughts on the film vs. DV debate?
|I love super 8 film.
There is nothing like the look and texture of that film. That
unmistakable flicker of 18 frames per second. It's organic. I prefer
shooting in black and white because of the high contrast you can
achieve and the simple fact I've always associated things in black
and white, things that happened in the past, to be much scarier
visually. As far as DV, I'm certainly no film purist by any means. It's
all about using what resources you have and how to best get your
story across. I've shot projects on 24p dv and will continue to
do so because it's cheap and instantaneous.
How did you discover Lee Smith? He seems to be in everything you've done...
what strikes me is how chameleonic he is. In all the shorts I noticed
him in, he looks and acts completely different.
Lee and I attended
some of the same media arts classes at USC, and even then I was
I recruiting him to be in my student projects. We've been together
since. Lee is a seasoned stage actor who also has starred
in many films, music videos, and tv commercials. He has this incredible
talent of disappearing into his roles. I know it's a cliche, but
Lee really does become his characters. What's amazing too is that
for the projects we work on together, Lee does his own costume
and make-up. He's shown up at my door decked out in his character's
wares and I didn't recognize him. We know and respect how each
other works, and it makes shooting a film together so streamlined
Something like The Flying Squirrel, was that part of a contest/challenge?
It's a good use of a mini documentary set by strict limits.
The Flying Squirrel was done for a contest called 'The Attack of the 50
Foot Reels' as part of the LA branch of Flicker. Flicker is a grassroots
collective and ongoing film festival that encourages the use of small-gauge
filmmaking like super 8 and 16mm. I was inspired to start shooting on
super 8 after a traveling 'best of Flicker films' came through my town. Flicker
was started in Chapel Hill, NC by Norwood Cheek and has since spread to
LA, NYC, Richmond VA, Austin TX. (A little horror movie trivia -
Norwood as a brief appearance in Lucky Mckee's 'May' as the guy on the
bus stop bench.) For the contest, each entrant gets one 50 ft roll of
super 8 film. That's roughly 3.5 minutes of raw footage. You then
go out and shoot a film "edit-in-camera" send it off to Flicker
to develop, so you can't cheat, and then all the filmmakers get to see
their work projected for the first time with an audience. Because super
8 is a silent film, you record sound on a separate source, edit that to
3.5 minutes, and hope it synchs up during playback. It's a great
way to sharpen your skills, but it's an ulcer-inducer for sure.
|You may have actually
have beaten Team America to it by having puppets (in Strings of
Death) do Matrix kung fu moves and disembowel each other. Where
did this idea come from, did you have access to puppets?
'Strings of Death' was done a couple years before 'Team America',
but was inspired from the exact same source, and that is the 'Thunderbirds'
tv series. We have a marionette puppet theatre here in Columbia
and I had seen some of their shows and had been blown away by their
hand made puppets. I approached them about doing a film together,
and we all thought an archetypal zombie puppet movie would be cool
What in your
life, and which filmmakers, inspired you, regardless of Genre,
during your formative periods?
My dad inspired me to follow in the old southern tradition of
story telling. Authors Poe, Lovecraft, Richard Matheson,
and Ambrose Bierce, I could list tons of filmmakers who inspire
me, but the ones who influenced me as a younger lad would be Sam
Raimi, John Carpenter, James Cameron, Walter Hill, George "road
warrior" Miller, David Lynch, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon,
Kubrick, Peter Jackson, the 3 Stooges.
How did THE STASH come about? It's one of the most bizarre, funny
short comedies I've seen. It's so well cut and funny I ignored the
fact that it's your only film shot on cheaper videotape. It was sponsored
by someone else, too, right?
|Thank you. 'The
Stash' was a goof project done in last-minute fashion in 3 days
for a local film contest called the 'Toaster Fest.' The requirements
stated that your film could be about anything, it just had to have
a toaster somewhere within the film. I dreamed up this kitchen battle
where various kitchen appliances where used as weapons, and dumped
in my love of Spaghetti Westerns and 70's grind house cheese. I
"borrowed" a DVC pro TV news camera and we just freestyled
everything. As far as being sponsored, that's a bit misleading.
Months before I made the Stash, a local film collective gave me
a small monetary grant towards my next project. I had felt
bad that I hadn't used it, so I put them in the credits.
The Stash cost me in total about $10 and that was for the fake mustaches
and the eye patch.)
Most of your work before The Gibbering Horror of Howard Ghormley was
hyperkinetic, tongue-in cheek comedy..what made you decide to switch gears
completely for this film? I noticed you kept your style and applied it
well... the film scared the living hell out of me, and nothing really
has in the past few years save Session 9 and Blair Witch.
Wow, thanks. It's
an honor for me just to be mentioned in the same sentence with
'Session 9'. It's a terrifying film, and one of my favorite
modern horror films. From the beginning, I've always wanted to
do "straight horror", and to be honest, I think it's
just hard to do well. With Ghormley, I wanted to tell a creepy
story, take my time building up the atmosphere of dread,
and not just blaze through the proceedings with a barrage of fast
When/how did the idea for Ghormley come together? Did you write it
around things you had access to(Lee, the old house), etc.
Ghormley is based on a disturbing dream I had years and years ago. I
woke up and wrote it down, and the ideas stayed with me until I had to
commit them to film.
|The title, and your
Production Company's title suggest a devotion to Lovecraft.
Most definitely. Lovecraft's writing has influenced my work tremendously.
I wanted the title to ring Lovecraft all the way, and 'Soth of Yog
Productions' is a simple nod to Lovecraft's deity Yog-Sothoth, "the
key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet." What I love about
Lovecraft is that he would set such a foreboding tone in his tales,
an atmosphere of slowly creeping, impending cosmic dread. Lovecraft's
protagonists slowly begin to realize their utter insignificance
in the face of the infinite cosmos as creatures and forces beyond
their understanding begin to affect their reality and sanity. I
tried to reflect Lovecraft's atmospheric dread of the unknown into
What scares you in films or in life? Does Ghormley ring personal
to you, or is it simply a spooky story you wanted to get out there?
The short answer is: the unknown scares me. As far as in films, I'm
a sucker for any ghost movie. Cinematic ghosts defy the laws of nature,
and so there is nothing stopping one from popping up right in your face,
smiling madly like Anthony James in 'Burnt Offerings' Hell, Large Marge
scared me from Burton's 'Pee Wee's Big Adventure.' The core of Ghormley
is based on the fear of repetition, redundancy, stagnation, decay. It's
based on a very real fear of being stuck in a rut, whether it be in life, a
career, or a haunted house.
Didn't it take
you a year of weekends to shoot? How big was your crew?
It did take about a year shooting on weekends. We all had our
day jobs during the week and the production had too many start
and stop disasters to get into here. The core crew was 4 people:
My girlfriend Katherine Perry, Randy Schrader and his wife Kristi,
and of course Lee, who would help unload and set up equipment
with the rest of us. The girls did grip work and Randy did the
amazing lighting in Ghormley, which was modeled after German expressionism
and film noir. Yes, the film did take a long time to complete
not because of film damage, but because of an unforeseen camera
aperture problem. The lab that transfers my film always charges
a set-up fee per package of film that I send. Therefore,
I shot a bunch of footage and sent it all in at once to save money,
only to later find out that most of the footage I sent in was
horribly underexposed. I had to send my super 8 camera off
to be fixed, and then ended up having to re-shoot about 90% of
the film. I slowly realized that the production actually started
to mimic the cyclic themes in Ghormley. We, the small crew, became
caught in this same cyclic pattern of returning to the house and
repeating things over and over again. It was maddening. Luckily,
Lee and my friends insisted we finish the project, start over
basically, and I'm very thankful for their determination and patience.
This film takes your technique to a slightly higher level. I'm curious
what played into your decision to make such a select use of sound (like
leaving out most footsteps and real-world ambience.)
I made a very conscious decision to keep the natural "real world"
sound down to a minimum and use them only for key components in the film.
The film is "heard" through Ghormley's head...his state of being.
It's meta-diagetic sound. Because Ghormley was based on a bad dream,
I wanted the audio to stay within that surreal framework.
Tommy Crouse plays Gyre Haint, the fleeting presence encountered in
the film. I also noticed him in The Stash. Is he a friend? Actor? What
made you decide to cast him in this? Any significance to the name?
|Tommy is both a friend
and a talented actor. Tommy, Lee, Randy, and I all worked together
at the local CBS affiliate television station here in town. We
saw each other everyday, which made planning for projects easier.
Tommy's very slim and gaunt, which made him perfect for the haint
role. As far as the name, a haint is just a southern name for
ghost. Gyre is in relation to "rotation." The
Gyre Haint plays back into the cyclic theme of Ghormley. Hence
the bicycle, rotating gears, spinning shot... it's all about the
repeating, rotating cycle of this nightmarish reality that Ghormley
is stuck in.
The film manages to evoke stylistic memories of Outer Limits, Twilight
Zone, and Carnival of Souls. Would you agree? Were you going for a style
that reflected that early period?
For Ghormley, I
reached back beyond episodic weird TV to radio for stylistic inspiration.
I wanted it to feel old like it could have occurred anytime between
the 1920's through the 1940's. I adore pulpy, old-time radio,
horror serials from this era and wanted Ghormley to look and feel
just as the images I imagine when I listen to those old radio
shows. The film Carnival of Souls did have a significant influence,
especially for the Gyre Haint and the surreal, haunting quality
of the images. "The Innocents" did as well.
The film seems (slight spoilers) to be
about a man chasing his own tail. The elliptical ending has caused a lot
of positive debate about Howard's mental state (Juliya even states on
Blood Drive II that it's about a man who's insane), but I think it can
be taken for a time-warped, surrealistic ghost story too. You don't
have to give a definitive answer, but did you always intend it to be ambiguous?
Is the ghoul (Haint) real or imagined? Did the house claim/bait/trap
Howard, or has he always lived there?
Ambiguous to a certain extent. I certainly left the film open ended
for viewer interpretation. It's always interesting to hear what viewers
bring to the experience themselves. I never intended the "mentally
ill" explanation, but it's a valid one. Ghormley is trapped in a
type of dream-limbo... an alter-nightmare reality. There is a ghost that
lured him to the house, but once he enters the house, he has started a
neverending loop, and has always lived there and always will. He becomes
the ghost. (end spoilers)
Tell me about your sound design, which in this film gets under your
I recorded and mixed all the natural sounds for the film. Chris Bickel
did the fantastic score for Ghormley, which contains all of the more supernatural
sound design elements. ie: all the creepy shit. Chris is an accomplished
musician, notably as the singer for South Carolina's most brutal
hardcore bands Guyana Punchline. He did an experimental album several
years ago, that blew me away. I approached him about scoring
Ghormley. His influences for the score were early David Lynch and Kubrick's
|Ghormley has gotten
a lot of attention at festivals, and won the coveted top spot on
Fangoria's Blood Drive II DVD. Was this project created for
the Drive, or on your own? What did you think when you found
out you won?
I was going to make it regardless, but the Blood Drive gave
me a specific goal to reach and was a great motivator to actually
complete it. I was honored for it to have also screened at
this past years HP Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland OR.
It received the coveted 'Brown Jenkin' award for film excellence.
I was ecstatic when I found out Ghormley won inclusion on the Blood
Drive. One strange thing though, the day I found out, unbeknownst
to me, I had an infection in my inner ear, and as I was driving
I suffered a terrifying vertigo attack. My vision began to
spin, similar to the shot near the end of my film. I had to
go to the emergency room. The cyclic theme of Ghormley haunted
me to the end I guess.
of Re-Animator fame, has taken a particular liking to Ghormley.
I was so honored to first meet Stuart at this years HP Lovecraft
Film Festival in Portland. It was because of Gordon and his film
Re-animator that inspired met to seek out Lovecraft's writings
years ago. I owe a tremendous amount to Stuart Gordon. Re-Animator
had such an impact on my cinematic development, and his subsequential
films continued to inspire me. He was incredibly cool, approachable,
and down to earth when I met him.
What do you hope to do next, in terms of short or feature length?
I am currently working on a original Lovecraftian horror short
I wrote called 'Dirt Dauber'. If things work out, I plan
to cast Lee Smith in a role, and hope for Chris Bickel to do the