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Filmmaker
Steve Daniels!!!
"The weirdest, creepiest film I've seen in a long time. Steve Daniels is a director to keep an eye on, just don't turn your back on him. He has a big future in horror." - Stuart Gordon
 
Master of Horror Stuart Gordon bestowed these words on The Gibbering Horror of Howard Ghormley, a surreal nightmarish short horror film that has gotten across-the-board raves at festivals and online, and was picked up by Koch Vision and Fangoria Magazine as the centerpiece of their BLOOD DRIVE II: AMERICA'S BEST SHORT HORROR FILMS release this past Halloween.

South 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 of '82.

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.

JUST THE KISS OF THE HOPS Short:

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 and painless.

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.

THE FLYING SQUIRREL Short:

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 to make.

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.)

THE STASH Short Film:

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 edit montages.

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 Ghormley.

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)

First 5 Minutes Of THE GIBBERING HORROR OF HOWARD GHORMLEY:

Tell me about your sound design, which in this film gets under your skin.

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 The Shining.

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.

Stuart Gordon, 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 musical score.

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