The Films That Influenced ESCAPE FROM CANNIBAL FARM
And so the trailer is out! The first responses to this year's ultra-bloody offering from Dark Temple Motion Pictures ESCAPE FROM CANNIBAL FARM are popping up over social media, and thankfully its proving more popular than any of my previous works! As I did with my first feature film Labyrinthia (out now on DVD in the US and Canada under the title 'Deadman Apocalypse') I take this time to discuss and reflect upon the writing of the script, and share with you my many influences, giving you an idea of what horrors to expect before you get to see the film itself in early 2017.
Writing is my favourite part of the filmmaking process, its a time to absorb and discover all the wonderful movies, TV shows, even artwork, comics and books, and the more you absorb the more intresting the results will be when all the bits that stuck with you come back out onto the page. Having made my action-adventure movie LABYRINTHIA I really wanted to make my next film a pure horror movie. LABYRINTHIA was a script where I purposely looked for what was going to be popular that year, Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and therefore wrote something that took an influence from them, albeit within the extremely low budget constraints, and based upon that element the film found distribution. Escape From Cannibal Farm was immediately different because now I knew I could get a film 'out there' I felt less need to pander to a traditional screenplay structure quite as much, this wasn’t going to be a straight forward narrative where the hero gets the girl, saves the day and defeats the baddies. I would write the horror film I had always wanted to see.
I’ll start with what gave me the idea for ESCAPE FROM CANNIBAL FARM, and as always it comes down to my producer instinct constantly being on the look-out for film ideas that can be set in one location, preferably one I can get easily and for free (though I will add that by the end of writing, this film is set across many locations, some of them very tricky). I was watching documentaries online as research for a monthly documentary series I would create at my past video production job, and I came across one where farmers were making foie gras. Now I'm not massively into animal rights and animal welfare, though as a sane human being I think animals shouldn’t be made to suffer and should be treated fairly even if they’re to be eaten, but the images just seemed cruel and alarming, I couldn’t help but imagine “what if that was happening to me?” because naturally you relate, and feel sympathy for the animals. Animal cruelty aside, I am at the end of the day a sick and twisted horror geek, and the idea of putting humans in these situations felt horrifyingly cinematic… I pictured a scene where a girl would have that foie gras feeding tube forced down her throat so she could be pumped with some disgusting substance (human guts or brains or blood, prefereably belonging to someone she knew and loved) to make her fat and juicy and all the more pleasant to eat.
See, I am a twisted horror geek!
And so this tale of pro-animal rights-tinged cannibalism and torture was born, and the reason it stuck was down to how easy it would be to shove actors into cages in a creepy farm. The fact that I’d shot the whole of Labyrinthia on a farm already meant a farm was ideal, and thinking back I do recall having second thoughts whilst shooting Labyrinthia “why didn’t I just write a script set on a bloody farm!?” before crawling back into that back-breaking small tunnel of pain. What would I have on a farm; cannibals farming humans obviously, and thinking back I’m sure that idea was with me even as long ago as then, shooting Labyrinthia in 2015.
Yet horror has become a tired genre where we see the same ideas done again and again, and this didn't seem all that new an idea... In addition to that, a horror audience loves to see certain tropes repeated and there’s a comfort to familiarity (especailly when you’re trying to sell your low budget indie film). So I’m all for looking to classic horror when coming up with my story, this didn’t need to be the next Blair Witch Project or anything that’s never been done before (if such a thing exists). Being such a horror fan, I couldn’t help but take influence from my personal favourites. Now there’s two types of horror I love, there’s the type I love the most, supernatural fantasy (Suspiria, Hellraiser, Phantasm) where anything can happen, with witches, demons, magical objects such as a box that opens the gateways to hell or a flying sphere that drains your blood, and the other type, that rough, raw, gritty, real horror like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the more recent The Devils Rejects (a little less real, but still gritty). That’s what this would be, the rough and gritty kind, we’d shoot it in the summer and it’d be a slow burner that turns all shaky-cam and brutally blood-drenched.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes are both horror films that can be placed in the sub-genre of ‘Backwoods’ horror; that’s where city-folks travel out to somewhere more remote and end up fighting a very primitive, rural force, such as the crazy Chainsaw Massacre family or the mutants living in the hills. I love both of these films, its a very traditional horror story told again and again, and I would start with that structure as my story base, because it fell very easily into place, city-folk stumble onto the cannibal farm, perfect. With this come all the tropes, some of which I would absoltely include in my script (there just had to be a creepy old guy on the side of the road to give them directions, just like in The Hills Have Eyes) there had to be some kind of vehicle breakdown or ambush, there had to be that slow-burn opening half hour where we all know the family is slowly getting more and more stuck in the trap (phone signal goes, car runs out of gas, this place doesn’t appear to be on the map…). But cliches aren’t often a good thing, the familiarity of this idea was rather strong, strong enough to pitch this as the Chainsaw Massacre that’s set in the British Counrtyside “The British Chainsaw Massacre” which is a good thing for film sales, but alarm bells were ringing that this obviously had to be different, I’ve no interest in making a cheap rip-off of a horror classic.
To say how I prevented my script from falling into cheap rip-off territory I would be giving far too many plot details away, but let’s just say that even at this point in my development of the script I was never going to make this film -despite it being an easy one to accomplish on a small budget- becasuse it was too familiar. However, when certain plot-twists and ideas came to me it turned the story into something I wanted to make. What if the cannibals at the farm had a completely unexpected motive, what if the story took a really bizarre turn, what if there was a much bigger horror occuring than just one evil farm, how and why did it come to be that a farm would harvest human meat? My imagination was triggered and I knew I would be making this film.
After the obvious influence of Backwoods horror movies, two other influences began to guide my writing, first that was the Western genre, and second being my own personal fears and horrors, which a writer should embrace, though I’m sure that personal stuff seeped through by accident, without a doubt this became a script filled with one of my deepest fears. The more I thought of an isolated farmhouse out in the middle of the country, the more I thought of Westerns, not so much in the story aspects but in the way I would later compose the shots and so on. At the heart of Escape From Cannibal Farm is the tale of two duelling farmers, like the classic western anti-hero vs the criminal gang or the corrupt sheriff. As research I watched the Making Of the Hills Have Eyes (the original, though I far prefer the remake, maybe the only horror remake I prefer) to hear what Wes Craven was trying to do with the story and what it was really all about. He had based the film on the story of Sawney Bean, which is a real-life tale about a cannibal family that actually was told because of the punishment brought upon the family by so-called civilised society, Craven asked who was really the monster; the cannibals, or the people who punished them so horrifically? That’s what the Hills Have Eyes is about, this city family intruding onto the mutant’s land and instead of falling victim to them, becoming the monsters themselves.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the other hand explores a far more primal fear because we know almost nothing about the villains, Leatherface remains a mystery, nothing is explained. So I took that idea of the family becoming more evil than the cannibals, that’s what Escape From Cannibal Farm was originally going to all about because I find that idea so intriguing, as a starting point, and though that’s a part of my characters the theme became something else, more personal to my own fears. I wanted to do the opposite of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where they never explained the family - though I know that the pure horror of that film comes entirely from the lack of explaination, as a younger viewer when I first saw the film I was dissapointed to not get a backstory on Leatherface (though there is much more in the sequel/prequels, The Beginning is actually a film I really like). On the playground in primary school, kids would talk about Leatherface and Freddy (I would constantly tell scary stories to the other children myself, loved it even back then and I basically do the very same thing with my films 15 years later) and make up origin stories to explain why he wore human skin on his face that were kind of more fantastic than the psychological reasons behind the real-life inspirastion; Ed-Gein. In Escape From Cannibal Farm I needed my big horror character, like Freddy or Jason or Pinhead, no horror movie is complete without one, and mine is very simlar in appearance to Leatherface, which I’m sure is going to be a blessing (for film sales) and a curse (for disgruntled horror buffs). The difference is I really wanted him to have the backstory that Leatherface didn't have, that had disappointed me about Chainsaw Massacre, so that’s how my character The Boy With The Melted Face came about.
The final piece of this scriptwriting puzzle came from my own personal fears (subconscious fears, the only fear I know I have is Sharks), which I didn't intend to write into the story, they just came through. Writing with the theme of civilised people becoming more monstrous than the monsters, that I'd nabbed from The Hills Have Eyes, took me so far before giving way to new themes. In every conflict in this script came the same theme of parenting, or specifically 'bad parenting'. Perhaps I can see that as part of the character of Leatherface too, but for me I think this is a specific personal fear. Being betrayed by your parents, being raised wrong by your parents, and ultimately having to step away from your parents and become an independent individual; which is the central character arc of the lead character Jessica Harver (played by the excellent Kate Marie Davies) in ESCAPE FROM CANNIBAL FARM. I'll be interested to see how my next horror screenplays reflect my own fears and troubles, which I attribute this theme to, as I myself am young and making a life away from home in London, much like the Jessica Harver character, and in a particularly difficult industry.
ESCAPE FROM CANNIBAL FARM is currently in post-production and due for a release in 2017, you can view the trailer here: