SHAPESHIFTERS, ZOMBIES DOMINATE 2004 HOLLYWOOD INVESTIGATOR
HALLOWEEN HORROR FILM AWARDS
by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor.
[October 24, 2004]
CIA spook-turned-filmmaker Michael D. Sellers revisits the Dracula legend
the Best Feature Film entry in the Hollywood Investigator's Halloween
Horror Film Awards!
the tale of four exchange students who travel to Romania to write papers
on Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler (1431- 1476), the historic Dracula,
popularized by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel, Dracula.
Little do the students know,
they are the focus of competing conspiracies to prevent -- or help! --
Dracula's return from undeath so he may lead post-Communist Romania to
Brad Dourif (Lord
of the Rings, The
Hazing) leads the good conspirators trying to halt Dracula and his
secret society of nationalist followers. Dourif assigns Billy Zane
to protect the students -- and retrieve Dracula's magic necklace that opens
the portals of time.
Dracula is played by Francesco
who imparts a feral taint to his role. As Dracula, Quinn precedes
his every statement with a delightfully subtle half-snarl, suggesting
a monster beneath human form. His portrayal evokes Christopher
Lee, who likewise emphasized Dracula's beastly side, as opposed to
Gary Oldman's romantic Dracula in 1992's Bram
Yet storywise, Vlad more resembles Bram
Stoker's Dracula more so than the Lee
films. Both Bram
Stoker's Dracula and Vlad.are
at least partially rooted in history. Both films reference Dracula's
war with the Ottoman Turks and his wife's suicide. Yet they take
contrasting approaches to history. Quinn's Dracula is pure monster,
whereas Oldman's Dracula is motivated and redeemed by love. These
contrasting approaches are underscored by the films' log lines. The
log line for Bram
Stoker's Dracula was Love Never Dies. For Vlad it's Evil Never Dies.
But despite Quinn's beastly
a romantic twist to events when Dracula's magic necklace causes a rip in
time, transporting Ilona (Iva Hasperger), the daughter of an English mercenary
who fought the Turks at Constantinople, to the students camping in a forest.
Fortunately, one of the students (Nicholas Irons) speaks Middle English,
and can thus communicate -- and fall in love! -- with Ilona.
That Ilona only speaks an
indecipherable (to modern audiences) Chaucerian English
is a nice cinematic innovation. Normally, movie time travelers have
no trouble speaking and understanding medieval English, which always sounds
like stilted modern English.
What's more, Hasperger and
Irons speak Middle English with convincing fluency.
Likewise, Zane affects a
convincing Romanian accent, with one downside. Although his character
speaks fluent English, he always says "da" instead of "yes."
One of film critic Roger
Ebert's pet peeves is that every foreign character, no matter how fluent
their English, will revert to their native tongue to say "yes." In
of movie clichés, Ebert refers to "yes" as "the hardest word
But this is the script's
fault, not Zane's. The actor offers a fine, if all too short, performance
as one of Dracula's adversaries.
Vlad is scripted by film director Michael D. Sellers. Sellers graduated
NYU's film school in the 1970s, soon after which he began a ten-year career
in the CIA. Over that time Sellers was stationed in Moscow, Ethiopia,
and the Philippines. His cover in the Philippines was that of a record
and film producer, and he produced several Philippine language films.
Sellers says filmmaking and
espionage are similar in their use of makeup effects (for disguises, in
the latter case), and in their use of psychology. Filmmakers must
know psychology to create convincing characters, while intelligence officers
must understand psychology to convince people to spy for them.
Seller says, "The CIA certainly
taught me how to dive into a new culture and try to get beneath the surface
and understand it, and that was what I did with Romania and Vlad On our first trip out there, I found two of the actors who play major roles
in the film, Monica Davidescu and Emil Hostine, both of whom are major
theater actors in Romania, and both of whom just took me under their wing
and introduced me to people, everyone from scholars to, in Monica's case,
the inhabitants of the tiny Carpathian village where she grew up."
Davidescu plays one of the
students, an Romanian exile living in Paris. The remaining two students
are filled by Kam Heskin and Paul Popowich.
Dracula stalks both Heskin
and Hasperger, because both blonds resemble his dead wife. But unlike
Oldman with Winona Ryder's Mina, Quinn's Dracula is crueler toward his
Seller's CIA training continues
help him learn new languages fast. "I was able to get more deeply
into the [Romanian] culture in a short time than I might otherwise have
been able to. Being able to pick up the language quickly helped --
even though I didn't know that much, you'd be surprised how far 1000 words
can get you, at least in terms of creating some good will and breaking
down barriers. People appreciate that you take the efforts to learn
their language, and they respond to the seriousness of the effort you put
September 2004 at a few Los Angeles theaters. Michael D. Sellers
may be contacted through Rita Hollingsworth of RMH
* Best Horror Micro-Budget Feature
While Vlad was the Best Feature Film in our horror film
search, the Best Micro Budget Feature went
to yet another shapeshifter film: Skinwalker:
Curse of the Shaman, produced on digital video for $20,000 by
its director, Steven Stevens Jr.
Shot in the California desert, Skinwalker follows two young filmmakers who set out to shoot a documentary about an
Indian curse that claimed six young lives. The lead filmmaker (played
by Amanda Paytas) is also seeking (though she denies it) the birth mother
who gave her up for adoption and is reputed to live in the town near the
Stevens admits The
Blair Witch Project was "an inspiration," though he regards it as a
rare gem. "I'd rent digital horror movies all over the shelves at
Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, and I was like, I know I can make a movie
this good or better. Most have no story, bad acting, and the lighting
and sound are bad. We made Skinwalker.for
less than $20,000, and I've seen digital movies with five times our budget
that I can't get through the first ten minutes. I'm very happy with
Most of the film was shot
in Action, California. Stevens told the Investigator, "I pulled a
lot of favors for the locations. Most of it was shot at the Inner
City Slickers Ranch run by Michael McNeal. They do charity
work for inner city kids, teaching them the cowboy lifestyle."
Like many micro-budget indie
films, newcomers dominate the cast, but there are some noteworthy names. Celeste Yarnall (the bisexual vampire in 1971's.Velvet
Vampire) plays Paytas's mother. James Doohan ("Scotty" of Star
Trek fame, now 84) has a cameo as a retired judge.
Getting name actors for
an indie film is difficult. Stevens was helped in this his father
is a talent agent who's repped Doohan
for nearly 30 years. "Jimmy heard I was trying to make this movie
and asked if he could be in it," said Stevens. "We didn't have a
part written, but as soon as he said he wanted to work on it we rewrote
the script. I'm honored to have worked with such an icon."
Trekie buffs take note: Skinwalker may be Doohan's last project!
"He retired after making
this," said Stevens. "My father represents some of the other actors,
but we tried to stay away from that to avoid any problems. Clients
Celeste Yarnall decided to help us and Amanda Paytas came in at the last
minute after the lead dropped out."
"We shot Skinwalker on a Canon
XL1, used Avid Express, then transferred
it to Final
Cut for the visual effects. We recently started sending it to
distributors and festivals. I'd say the distribution part is more
difficult than making the movie itself."
Stevens may be contacted
Best Horror Short Film
Many of tomorrow's filmmakers
cut their teeth and shorts, and the Best Short Film submitted to the Hollywood Investigator was Rick Lavon's Stiffs
by Sid, a slickly photographed mockumentary about a Hollywood
casting agency that specializes in providing real-live zombies, ghouls,
and walking corpses to horror filmmakers.
Running a mere 13 minutes,
Lavon's film incorporates many visual "looks." As with This
Is Spinal Tap and A
Mighty Wind, Stiffs
by Sid switches from office and on-set interviews, to clips
from (fictitious) color and black-and-white horror films serviced by Sid,
to retro-1950s stock footage as Sid talks about his agency's early days.
Lavon tells the Hollywood
Investigator, "We used the Panasonic
DVX-100, shot on 24p, using a variety
of filters to enhance the "film-look" aspect. We edited on Final
Cut Pro HD.
"I'm a senior editor at Alan Weiss Productions, a
New York City video production company, so I was fortunate to have access
Theodore Bouloukos -- who
resembles Harvey Weinstein -- offers an overblown yet realistic portrayal
of casting agent for the undead, Artie Sugerman (son of company founder,
Says Lavon, "The budget was
south of $5,000. Most of the actors were doing this for a reel or
out of friendship."
Of his work at Alan
Weiss Productions, Lavon says, "We do a variety of news and broadcast
projects. I've also worked at several TV stations around the country,
and won four Emmy awards for shooting and editing over the course of my
career. I've edited a couple of other horror movies, including Vampire
Lavon may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best Horror Music Video
Heavy metal continues to
borrow horror icons, as in the "You
Make Me Feel So Dead" music video (performed by Pitbull Daycare and
directed by Paul Hough), the Best Music Video.entry
in the Hollywood Investigator's horror film search.
Hough's beautifully photographed
video features impressive surreal images such as a motorcycle flying above
the group, a woman yanked into the ground, and underground shots amid overhanging
roots and the woman's kicking boot. Perhaps most impressive is the
field of arms sticking from the ground, waving to the beat of the music.
Explaining his special effects
to the Investigator, Hough said, "Nothing was computer animated -- we couldn't
afford that! I found a dried-up riverbank, and we built a platform
across it. The band spent a couple of hours picking up grass from
a local field, and we scattered the grass across the platform, adding a
couple of tree stumps and sticks, giving the illusion that it was the proper
ground. We cut holes into the platform and had about 70 people stand
beneath it, one to each hole.
"The main unforeseen problem
was that I wanted the hands to move in sync, but no one could see each
other and it was very difficult to get 70 arms moving in unison. People also tired pretty quickly but fortunately we shot a bunch of different
angles before we were down to just a few moving hands.
"We shot on video and edited
Cut Pro. It was real low budget -- even the band carried
camera equipment. We used Adobe
After Effects and Magic Bullet to
give it more of a film look.
"As for the girl being in
the ground -- we dug a hole and stuck her in it!"
Hough says of his background,
"I went to NYU Film School where I didn't really get a chance to explore
love of horror. Upon graduating I directed a show called Reverse
on Fox Sports -- which got banned. Recently, I directed a
feature documentary called The
Backyard. There's much blood and horror in that. I'm currently
prepping to direct a video for Chris Jericho's band Fozzy -- which we're shooting in November. I'm also looking for cool feature
Pitbull Daycare's song is
available on the Saw
soundtrack and on their Unclean album. Hough may be contacted at email@example.com or
by phone at (818) 599-0751.
Finally, we give Honorable
Mention to Jeremy's Wake-Up Call, an
animated short about a young truant's nightmarish day playing hooky.
The characters look ...
vacant (their crude expressions lacking the emotional depth and distinct
personalities of a polished Pixar film) and their limbs move stiffly.
the film has nicely surreal images, an intact if simple story with a cute
twist ending, an eye for "camera angles", and a charming end credits song
written and skillfully performed by Mike Carty. Jeremy's
Wake-Up Call is a serious effort by a developing artist, Massachusetts
filmmaker Paul Carty.
Paul Carty created Jeremy's
Wake-Up Call using Cinema 4D, Final
Performer -- and lots of help from his family! Mike is
his brother, as is Joe, who receives credit for special effects.
Paul co-wrote the script with his mother, Jane.
Paul's formal education is
in graphic design. He tells the Investigator that he's done "music
production for T.V. ads, websites, and corporate videos." Despite
its brief running time (5 minutes), Jeremy's Wake-Up
Call required "approximately 400 production hours and 100 rendering
Paul Carty may be contacted
The Hollywood Investigator
is currently contacting horror conventions about screening these winning
films in 2005. Stay tuned for further developments!
the Hollywood Investigator Halloween Horror
Film Awards were renamed the Tabloid
Witch Awards. We now declare that all 2004 honorees are hereby
retroactively transformed into Tabloid
Witch Award honorees. (We can do
that.) -- October 19, 2006
* The Final Tally
* Best Horror
Feature Film ............................. Michael D. Sellers (Vlad)
* Best Horror
Micro-Budget Feature Film ......... Steven Stevens Jr. (Skinwalker:
of the Shaman)
* Best Horror
Short Film ................................. Rick Lavon (Stiffs by
* Best Horror
Music Video ............................... Paul Hough (You Make
Me Feel So Dead)
* Paul Carty (Jeremy's Wake-Up
Are YOU a
horror filmmaker seeking publicity? It's not too early to enter our next search! We'll be reviewing entries as they arrive.
if you're a filmmaker, actor, musician, or writer who doesn't do horror
-- we want to hear from you too! Email or snail mail us about your
project, and if we're intrigued we'll cover it or invite you to submit
Copyright 2004 by HollywoodInvestigator.com
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