Kenneth J. Hall
Kenneth: "I was too young to follow the plots
but some major images stuck with me".
Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
June 28th, 2004
In a major exclusive, I got the chance to interview genre great Kenneth J. Hall and review his new movie 'The Halfway House'. Kenneth has been involved in the creation and execution of some of the genre's best loved characters from Andre Toulon's famous killer puppets in 'Puppet Master' to the creepy clown killer in 'The Clown at Midnight' to everyone's favourite creatures the gremlins.
Frustrated at watching his beloved works being destroyed in front of him, Kenneth took some time out to plan his next move. Luckily for us horror fans, Kenneth is back with his own company BV Entertainment and he has big plans to make films for us the way he wants to!!
Read on for the scoop on what really goes on behind the scenes on our favourite movies and for an exclusive review of the first film from BV Entertainment, the excellent 'The Halfway House'.
When did you first start to appreciate movies?
It started a very early age. You see, my mother liked going to the movies but didn't like leaving my brother and me with babysitters. So, even at the ages of 3 and 4, she took us along. While we also saw a lot of non-genre films, some of my earliest memories are of PIT AND THE PENDULUM, GORGO, BRIDES OF DRACULA, MOTHRA, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, and the like. I was too young to follow the plots but some major images stuck with me.
Did you study film?
Not formally. I was a theatre major in college but dropped out after the first year. In the late '60s and early '70s, serious study of film was becoming very popular. There were a number of books and magazines that I read whenever I could find them in my home town (Jacksonville, Florida). I even remember watching Charles Champlin interview Alfred Hitchcock on PBS and getting to hear about filmmaking technique straight from the Master.
Of course, I never lost my love of horror films and was thrilled to discover Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine when I was about 10. There were also some other cool publications around that time like Castle of Frankenstein and the early Cinefantastique, which were more esoteric and adult-oriented.
How did you go about getting started in the business?
When you live in Jacksonville, Florida, saying you're going to work in movies (in any capacity) gets the same reaction as if you wanted to be President or walk on the moon. "Sure, it happens to somebody but not anyone from Jacksonville!" Well, I was pretty headstrong and, fortunately, my mother encouraged my artistic endeavors. These ranged from shooting a couple of Super 8mm short films to reproducing the Fly and the Metaluna Mutant in my bedroom!
In 1977, my brother, some friends, and I met Rick Baker at a convention. STAR WARS had just come out but he still wasn't well-known then. He spent a lot of time talking to us about techniques, material sources, etc. What was even more important to me was seeing that, aside the fact that he was/is phenomenally talented, he started out as a fan like us who realized his dream of working in movies. This inspired us to eventually move across the country to Hollywood.
Though I never did work for Rick (I don't count being a puppeteer for a couple of days on GREMLINS II.), I realized it would be easier to find work in makeup effects, which was booming in 1982, than it would be getting work as a writer or director. After all, I had lots of photos of characters and puppets I had built to show in a portfolio whereas I'd really only written and directed for the stage, which wasn't going to impress anybody in LA.
You were renowned for your creature costumes early on. How does one discover that they possess such a talent?
I did a lot of acting in school theatre. I was usually cast as old men and other types of character roles, which led to me learning stage makeup. My interest in fantasy movies inspired me to go further in that direction; to make actual creatures. My friends and I had limited resources back then so we started fabricating things out of upholstery foam. We had seen this technique used by Henson and the Kroffts but also figured it was the way the Japanese made all their monster suits.
The first major project my brother and some friends undertook was making a Godzilla costume. It was the first of 3 they made, the last of which was used years later by Tim Burton in PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE. We all found ways to do as much work as we could in order to build up our portfolios.
One friend of mine came out to west coast first to work for an animatronics company and was moonlighting on JAWS 3D. I came out at the same time as two other friends, went on three interviews, and got hired by Tom Burman to do creature effects on SPACEHUNTER. This all happened in my first week in LA!
When did you start to write?
I had written a few stage shows back in Florida but had never seen an actual screenplay until I moved to California. I got a book called "Standard Script Formats" by Cole/Haag (highly recommended), which only deals with how to type a script professionally and not any of the creative aspects of writing. I had been watching movies for years so I just sat down and wrote one. That particular script never got produced but it looked good enough to get me my first job. That's no exaggeration either. When Fred Olen Ray was looking for a writer for THE TOMB, I showed him my writing sample. He flipped through it for about ten seconds and said "Well, it looks like a script. You can do it." He never actually read it!
Tonight she will love again, and kill again in Kenneth's 'Evil Spawn'.
How did you go about getting yourself noticed?
Things were different in Hollywood back then. The first video boom was just beginning and it was relatively easy to get work in low-budget films, if you were willing to work for low money. I did higher-paying effects jobs to subsidize my writing, which later led to directing. I had completely given up doing effects by the late 80's when the bottom fell out of the independent market. I literally had to break back in to effects to survive in the early 90's.
Where do the ideas for your stories come from?
Like so many writers these days, I'm more influenced by other films than outside sources. The one thing that I think gives me a bit of an edge over other B-movie guys is I do watch a lot of older, classic films and not just recent horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. My first directorial effort was EVIL SPAWN, which suffered from a poverty-row budget and poor producing. Nonetheless, I brought in elements from Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD, which made it a little more interesting than just the rip-off of THE WASP WOMAN it started out to be.
A lot of the time, the scripts I wrote were assignments where I was given a title and a brief concept that I had to flesh out into a coherent story. There were times I was given some ridiculous limitations. On TEST TUBE TEENS, I was told the entire film had to be shot on standing sets from PUPPET MASTER IV & V with no exterior locations. There was only one remotely futuristic set in the lot so, in a matter of hours, I had to devise a wacky plot that would work there. What I pitched was "a cross between SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE TERMINATOR," which is exactly what it was!
I was pretty good at doing these assignments but it drained me creatively to the point where I didn't do as many original scripts as I should have. One of the exceptions to this was THE CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT, which was a spec project that finally got made.
You have worked with many of the genre's finest stars. Do you have a personal favourite?
It was a kick to work with the likes of John Carradine, Cameron Mitchell, and so many others. I also did an effects job with Jack Palance, who was quite intimidating but ultimately very cool. However, my recent experience with Mary Woronov has to be the best. We were going to rent a trailer for her but she said she didn't need it. Instead, she brought in a folding lawn chair that she would set up in a corner and relax on when she wasn't working. She even gave us an extra day that hadn't been scheduled. We still stay in touch and go out to dinner once in a while. She's very outspoken and has a wicked sense of humor.
Your big break came in 1989 when you wrote 'Puppet Master' was the script yours, or had you been asked to write it?
Actually, my big break, if you can call it that, came a few years earlier when Debra Dion, Charles Band's wife at the time, fell in love a script I'd written called I WAS A TEENAGE SEX MUTANT (which later came out as DR. ALIEN). Here she was overseeing development for Empire Pictures and she hated horror and science fiction! The reason she liked that particular script is because I wrote it as a comedy. With a title like that, what else could it be?
That script prompted about half a dozen writing assignments over there, many of which never saw the light of day. This happened right around the end of Empire so most of the projects never got made. However, Charlie showed DR. ALIEN to Paramount, which impressed them enough to give him a video deal which evolved into the Full Moon label.
Before the dust from Empire had settled, Charlie had a new company that he wanted me to write PUPPET MASTER for. The title was one of his classic "Let's pull two random words out of a hat and call it a movie" ploys. Of course, it started out like all his other little creature films (DOLLS, GHOULIES, etc.) so I had to try to make it into something original.
How much control did you have over the script?
I wrote the first draft relatively free from interference. It was after I turned it in that I watched it being torn to shreds. Originally, the group that goes to the hotel were a crazed coven of contemporary witches trying to track down their missing member. They arrive to find him dead and torment his surviving girlfriend, hoping she'll reveal his secrets. Ultimately, it turns out he's lured them there to be destroyed by Toulon's puppets. I was trying to make the human characters unusual and interesting. By the time they brought in the 2nd writer (director David Schmoeller using a pseudonym), they had been watered down into a dull group of paranormal investigators.
They even spoiled the opening of the picture. My draft had Andre Toulon captured by the Nazi agents and dragged to their car after they fail to find his hidden trunk of puppets. They're starting to drive off when they look down to see he's clutching a grenade with the pin pulled. They reach for the doors but are blown to bits. Debbie and Charlie argued that it would be "more heroic" for Toulon to commit suicide by shooting himself. I couldn't quite understand how they missed the fact that he was still killing himself in my version as well as taking out the bad guys. Maybe they thought it was just too exciting or couldn't afford to blow up a car.
Did you create the characters or were you told to incorporate them?
Charlie had rough ideas for the different puppets, which I expanded on. There were originally going to be more of them in the first film, including Six-Shooter. I had a great scene of one of the witches trying to run him down with a motorcycle, only to get shot in the face and go flying off the edge of a cliff. (Again, it was either too expensive or too exciting for a Full Moon movie.)
One of the major changes in the puppets was the concept of the Leech Woman. I was stunned they expected people to believe spitting up leeches on a person would kill him! Sure, it's a gross idea but ultimately a stupid one. My Leech Woman wasn't as literal but much more gruesome. She had a sharp, forked tongue and a clear glass body. Once she pierced your jugular, you could see her torso filling up with blood. I had a scene where her screaming victim, in a desperate attempt to pull her off him, snaps her body in half, sending blood spraying everywhere. As he lies on the floor bleeding to death, we see her upper torso dragging itself out of the room.
Were you involved in the film in a day to day capacity?
No. Once they hired David Schmoeller, I left the project and only dropped by the set once. I was developing GHOST WRITER around the same time, which I wound up directing. Later on, they even tried to take my name off the picture but the WGA ruled in my favor, since I was the original writer.
Were you pleased with the end result?
Given what I've told you about my original script, you can understand why I'm not. Still, in spite of all their meddling, it was a good solid concept that appealed to audiences. The person who truly deserves the credit for that series' success is the late David Allen. Not only did he design the look of those puppets but he brought them to life through stop-motion and other methods. He died several years ago never receiving the fame or recognition he deserved.
Evil comes in all sizes in the 'Puppet Master'.
Why didn't you write any of the sequels?
An easy answer is that I was never asked. The real reason is it took me months to get my final payment out of them and even longer to get my sequel royalties, so that did not inspire me to seek further jobs there.
Have you seen any of the other movies?
A few of them. I think I stopped bothering after IV or V.
Which one is your favourite?
I remember part II being pretty bad. I guess my favorite was the third one. I did visit the set of PUPPET MASTER III, which was directed by David DeCoteau and written by Courtney Joiner, both friends of mine. That one was fun because it had a great cast along with a World War II setting.
I built this demon character with Wayne Toth for IV & V, which were directed by another friend, Jeff Burr. Unfortunately, the scripts made those films practically unwatchable.
Ghost Writer had a talented cast how did that all come about?
It started out as a vanity project for the Landers sisters that was produced by their mother. They originally wanted something more hard-edged and exploitive, but that was impossible to do given the girls' squeaky-clean TV image. We ultimately filled the cast with a lot of talented TV names and it did very well on syndicated television here in the US. It's the only PG-rated movie I've written or directed.
'Linnea's Horror Workout', was that as much fun to make as it sounds?
Yes and no. Creatively, it was fun but it was my first time producing something on video in the dark ages before DV and non-linear editing. Every technical problem that could be encountered came up either during the shoot or later on.
Day one: We had camera malfunctions and a makeup effects artist who showed up over three hours late. When things looked like they were going smoothly, we were shut down by the Glendale Fire Department for not having the right permit. Day two: The sound guy screwed up an entire morning's work, which had to be re-shot. I even had to ask our choreographer take over a role when the girl we cast got lost on her way to set! I don't want to even think about some of the things that happened in post-production.
My all time favourite project of yours was the excellent 'The Clown at Midnight'.
When did you write it?
I wrote the first draft sometime back in the eighties, when horror films were at their zenith. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET had just come out, which I found to be more imaginative than the straightforward slasher films. Therefore, the Clown in the original draft was more of a supernatural figure.
Where did the idea come from?
The title was inspired by an article Robert Bloch wrote in an old issue of Famous Monsters. It went on to quote Lon Chaney Sr. about how "a clown can be funny in a circus ring but what would be your reaction to find that same clown standing on your doorstep at midnight?" Imagine being a kid and reading that! What made an even greater impression was an accompanying photo of Chaney in one of his clown roles, which was creepy all on its own.
When I first started to play around with 8mm films in high school, I was going to do a short film based on the premise of a phantom clown menacing a woman in her home. I never did and a few years later, HALLOWEEN came out and started the whole stalker cycle.
I was in my college theatre and some of the students were talking about the place being haunted. It was there I came up with the whole PHANTOM OF THE OPERA approach, which gave it a more classical and atmospheric setting rather than having him prowling around the neighborhood.
How much were you involved?
I was very involved, even though everyone from the producers to the director were trying to push me out. Contractually, if I didn't direct my script, I was supposed to produce it. They turned around and set it up as a Canadian content project, which prevented me from doing either. I was then faced with calling off the whole movie (which I could have done given it was my property) or trying to do what I could to make it turn out well.
The director they hired had never made a horror film and it showed. So many of the scare opportunities in the script did not make it into the film because he didn't know how to pull them off. He didn't even understand the difference between Pagliaccio and a circus clown. He wanted the character to wear a rubber nose and have big, floppy shoes! Fortunately, the producers had seen pictures of the Lon Chaney makeup's that inspired the whole movie and agreed with me that was the way to go.
I ended up directing most of the second unit with no screen credit. These weren't just odd shots here and there; they were whole scenes. I did the entire sequence where Tatyana Ali was chased down and killed.
How did the filmmakers find the cast? There were a lot of talented people involved, wouldn't you agree?
Sarah Lassez was born in Canada but lived in the States. Some of the actors were American, including Jimmy Duval, who was a great guy, and Tatyana, who was an amazingly professional actress and very together young lady for her age. Most of the other young stars were cast locally in Winnipeg.
What happened with distribution in the USA and Canada?
As I understand it, the company that was originally supposed to release it went under, so it was sold to Artisan. They were so preoccupied with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that they dumped the film out on VHS only - no laser disc, no DVD, and no advertising. The final tragedy was it's never even played cable here in the US.
Did it receive any kind of theatrical release even in Canada?
Not to my knowledge.
Was it considered a hit? Do you know if it made a profit? Will we ever get to see a sequel?
A film has to be seen in order to be a hit so I can safely say the answer is "no." Frankly, I'm surprised when I run into anyone who's even heard of it, let alone seen it. As for making money, I'm sure someone saw a profit on it but probably not enough to spawn a sequel.
Do you know how Christopher Plummer and Margot Kidder got involved?
Christopher Plummer and Margot Kidder are both great actors, as is Sarah Lassez, and I felt they were well-cast in the film. However, the real reason they were hired was because they're Canadian, which satisfied some quota required to get the film funded there. I'm not impugning their talents, by any means. I'm merely commenting on how sad it is that government-subsidized filmmaking combines with producers' greed to create an environment where actors aren't necessarily cast for their abilities but for their nationality.
Sister Cecelia knows what to do
with bad girls in 'The Halfway House'.
Your new project 'The Halfway House' sounds fun. Can you tell us a little about the plot?
THE HALFWAY HOUSE is very fun because it's a humorous homage to horror/exploitation films from the 60's and 70's that still delivers large doses of sex, violence, and creature effects. Set in the Mary Magdalen Halfway House for Troubled Girls, the story concerns one woman's attempt to infiltrate this Catholic-run institution to find her missing sister. In her search, she encounters a lot of weirdness and depravity, topped off with a Lovecraftian cult that's sacrificing topless girls to a huge one-eyed, tentacled monster in the basement.
How long did the shoot take?
It was an incredibly short scheduleÖ Twelve days with one short day of pick-ups.
Again there was a lot of talent involved how did you get your cast?
I tracked Mary down through a local bookstore named Dark Delicacies. She had done some signings there and the owners were good enough to hook us up. Some of the actors were friends. Hell, some of them were family! My brother Cleve plays Lutkus, the sinister handyman. Others, like Janet Tracy Keijser, Stephanie Leighs, and Athena Demos, had worked with other filmmakers I knew. The rest just showed up to audition. I was quite lucky to have such a strong cast on the first feature that I produced through my own company, BV Entertainment.
We were equally fortunate with the crew, particularly Tom Callaway, who shot the picture and gave it such a big look.
What are the plans for release?
It will most likely go direct to DVD and cable. We're narrowing down our distributors here in the US and we have a sales agent representing the foreign rights. If there's anyone in the UK who likes to put out outrageous horror/exploitation, please get in touch with us.
Out of all of your creations which is your favourite?
Without a doubt, THE HALFWAY HOUSE. Even though it has a lower budget than some of my earlier films, I was not working for anyone else so I was able to follow my own instincts. Time will tell if those instincts are any good but the response to the film has been favorable so far. I had taken a long break from movie-making because I was not happy with the way many of my projects turned out, as you can gather from this interview. No one out there wants to hear whining or excuses but it does get frustrating when you lose control of a film, assuming you ever had any control to begin with. I determined long ago that the next film I made was going to be on my terms and that's what THE HALFWAY HOUSE is. Hopefully, it will be the first of many.
To read our exclusive review of 'The Halfway House' click here.
"Thank you for taking part in this interview Kenneth.
We wish you the very best of luck in the future."
You can read about Ken's bio/credits and current project info here:
Or you can visit the official Halway House movie web site here: www.halfwayhouse-movie.com