The Attic Expeditions : A Real Head Trip
An independent crew with a great cast aim to prove once and for all that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
By ANTHONY C. FERRANTE
Low-budget horror can be safely divided into two camps these days. On one hand, you have indie companies like Trimark and Artisan cranking out quickie sequels to venerable franchises such as Leprechaun and Wishmaster while only occasionally taking a chance on something fresh and original. On the other hand, there are those rare indie filmmakers with maxed-out credit cards and a load of imagination trying to pull together the impossible on a shoestring.
The creators of The Attic Expeditions have been even more ambitious—the movie was still done on a shoestring, but their aim was to get the whole shoe. In order to do this, they raised enough money to shoot this atmospheric shocker on 35mm at a time when most low-budget horror goes the 16mm or digital video route. Also, a nifty little SAG limited-exhibition agreement allowed them to further bump up their profile by hiring recognizable actors like Seth (Idle Hands) Green, Jeffrey (Re-Animator) Combs, Ted Raimi and Wendy (People Under the Stairs) Robie to headline their cast.
“I call this ‘the baby,’ “says producer Daniel Gold, who, alongside director Jeremy Kasten, raised $60,000 in startup money to get the film into production (the final budget ended up at a little under $1 million). “It really is like having a child. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s waking up every morning having to deal with and think about it 24 hours a day.”
The “baby” has taken a long time to gestate, especially for Kasten, who was editing and associate-producing “crappy movies for the Playboy Channel” when he started toiling for the exploitation outfit Vista Street back in 1991. When Witchcraft IV was set to go into production for the company with Julie Strain in the lead, they didn’t have a screenplay, so Kasten called up his writing partner Rogan Russell Marshall in Mississippi and asked him to pound one out.
“He wrote the script in a week and sent it to me,” Kasten recalls, “and when I read it I said, ‘There is no way I’m going to give this away to Vista Street—I have to make this movie.'” But it took Kasten another five years to raise enough money to even go into production.
While many filmmakers have lofty goals when they set out, few achieve what Kasten, Gold and co-producers Dan Griffiths and Melissa Balin (who started off as lot assistant director before moving up) have managed. The end result has the energy of Evil Dead but with much higher production values, and the kind of well-thought-out, clever writing that has been largely absent from the horror genre for years.
“I wanted to make a mindfuck horror movie,” says Kasten. “It’s somewhere between Don’t Look Now and Suspiria. It’s very dialogue-heavy in the sense that there is not a slasher or someone with a chainsaw. I love all the movies that inspired the slasher genre, but I believe horror movies can also be very, very scary when they’re just about people playing with your head, which is what this is. It’s about a guy in a mental hospital where everybody is there to mess with his head, and they do.”
The story focuses on Trevor Blackburn (Nightmare on Elm Street 4’s Andras Jones), who finds himself in a sanitarium under the care of the mysterious Dr. Ek (Combs). Ek convinces Trevor that he killed his girlfriend after playing around with an ancient black magic book, though Trevor has no recollection of the event—but being in a coma for four years can do that to a person. Part of his therapy is to stay at a halfway house dubbed the House of Love, overseen by Dr. Abbey Thalaina (Robie), where Trevor encounters a group of individuals more disturbed than him. Their real reason for being there is much more diabolical than it first appears, and as the story progresses, we learn that it has been carefully engineered under Ek’s very watchful eye.
“Renting horror movies every weekend as a kid was my favorite thing to do,” Kasten recalls. Now kids are growing up on these mediocre sendups of the genre, and I hope it’s not too late to show them something else. That’s what we wanted to do with Attic Expeditions—show what smart horror is, but at the same time really play with an audience’s head. The one thing I hope we’ve succeeded in doing is that every 10 minutes, it becomes a movie you didn’t expect it to be.”
Crafting such an inventive horror film does come with a price, though. After the five years it took to finally cobble together enough money to go in production, there followed an additional four years from the beginning of principal photography to the film’s completion. When FANGORIA first hooks up with the Attic team, it’s January 1998 and the tight-knit crew is huddled together on a small Hollywood soundstage for its second round of shooting. Round One occurred for 18 days during summer 1997, and for Kasten the downtime was necessary to regroup and discover what they already had in the can. After raising some more money, they’re now hoping to finish the film’s shooting for another five days spread throughout the rest of January.
“I tell you, when we ran out of money and shut down, it turned out to be for the best,” says Gold. “We needed time to plan these things out. You need time to schedule things and be intelligent about it. This movie works on three different levels, and the way shooting is going, it has broken itself up that way. Often, filmmakers have to rush through something because they have budgetary restraints. We’re trying to put together a movie that’s a little more sophisticated.”
Two important sequences are being shot during this night’s filming. The first involves a “ritual” between Trevor and his fiancée Faith (Beth Bates), while the other will see Trevor’s skull cracked open and his brain exposed in a weird, surreal dream sequence. For the ritual, 13 pillars have been erected in a black room with leaves and dirt scattered throughout. Jones, clad only in boxer shorts, is then placed in the center of a triangle with his arms tied to spikes. Bates, sporting bright red hair, holds a candle and sits over an open book, reading gibberish. While the camera is set up, Jones jokes that “I always wanted to pretend I was a Roman” as the crew nails the spikes deeper into the floor for more realism.
Having previously appeared in Nightmare 4 and The Demolitionist, Jones observes that horror films like Attic Expeditions are par for the course in his career. “Being covered in blood, getting killed, shooting myself in another movie—I just don’t get cast in comedies,” he says. “I get cast where bad things happen to me.”
It’s a chilly proposition for an actor to lie on the cold floor near-naked, but luckily the filnunaking is efficient and Kasten has a very Sam Raimi-esque demeanor on set—easygoing, but knowing exactly what he wants. A rehearsal is called and the actors run through their motions once; two takes later, Kasten is pleased and moves on to the next shot.
“Unless there is something wrong with the performance or the camera, there’s really no reason to shoot any more than a couple of takes,” the director says. The fact that there also isn’t enough film stock to shoot more than two takes is another reality Kasten was aware of going into the movie. “The rehearsals with the actors before shooting helped a lot. We literally spent weeks with them talking about scenes and rehearsing.”
As Jones is released from the ritual, he smiles and gets excited for the next shot—the head-cracking scene. “This is cool, my brain is going to make it into the movie,” Jones deadpans. “I always wanted to be known for my mind.”
The gag is being created by special makeup artist Cass McClure, who was called in at the 11th hour to help out with the FX when the original artist had to back out. According to McClure, the exposed brain effect is one of the most difficult things for a makeup artist to accomplish, especially with little prep time and without the chance to mold the actor’s head.
“This is a tough gag to pull off,” says McClure. “It’s like making a really over-weight person look thin, because it’s much harder to reduce than add. It’s nicer when you can build up, but when you have someone sitting there with the top of their head off, the size of the brain is much smaller than the skull, so it’s rough.” To expedite the process, McClure whipped up a generic head appliance and is planning on tweaking everything on set a little later. “Hopefully, everything will run smoothly” he says.
Two weeks later, FANGORIA returns to the Attic Expeditions set. The brain trick went smoothly and without a hitch, Kasten says; now the crew is occupying a dwelling on a residential street in South Central LA, finishing up some key “House of Love” sequences. Most of the footage at this location was shot in summer 1997, but there are still a few key sequences from the finale to complete. The problem is that Kasten and his crew have to be out of the house before sunrise, when a music video crew is going to be taking over the place for their shoot. Tension is high and a great deal has to be accomplished in a short period of time.
Kasten, however, is grateful that he’s finally getting his vision on celluloid despite shooting on and off throughout the past year. “It kills you, but it’s so much better than the alternative,” he says. “When I was writing and holding onto my scripts waiting for something to happen, it hurt so much more. It’s scary, because you know you want to make movies and until you’re actually doing it, you don’t know you can. At least in my own mind, I’m settled with that. I’m happy with what I’ve got. It also has to do with all the people who are working on the movie with me. It’s very easy to conceive of cool shots, but you need the right people who can execute them the way you want, and we have that here.”
Joining the shoot this evening is Green, who plays Douglas, a fellow mental patient at the House of Love who befriends Trevor. “I’m somebody whom Trevor is supposed to trust, and then something else happens to me,” says Green. “It’s a fun part, because you get to see me do my shitty Jeff Goldblum imitation throughout most of the film. All my dialogue is like, ‘Trevor you… need to understand where… I’m coming from and where everyone else… in this place is… for your benefit.’ That’s how I read all my lines.”
Green’s involvement could not have happened without SAG’s new limited-exhibition agreement for low-budget films, and the actor is grateful because, like everyone else on the film, he believed in the script. “It seemed liked this Jacob’s Ladder kind of thing where all this crazy shit is going on and you’re never quite sure whether it’s all in Trevor’s head or if it’s real,” says Green. “It was also an opportunity for me to play a character I’ve never played before. I get all these cool chunks of dialogue and Jeremy had so many great ideas—it’s a really fun thing to be part of. Working on low-budget films doesn’t bother me. I went to work on Can’t Hardly Wait, and my trailer was so big and I felt like such an asshole. I was like, ‘Anybody want to come and share this with me?’ It was this big-studio movie and everybody was like, ‘Let me get you some water,’ and I was like, ‘I can get my own water.’ You feel like such a dick.”
A familiar face to Fango, Green first spoke to this magazine while making licks back in 1993, when he tried to convince everyone on set that he acted in porn under the nom de film “Johnny Tripod.” Now that he has become much more recognizable due to his stints on Bey the Vampire Slayer and as Scott Evil in the Austin Powers movies, Green admits he had to say goodbye to his alleged “other” career.
“I’ve actually had to give it up, because I’m trying to do that mainstream thing like Traci Lords,” laughs Green, who says he has even pulled the Johnny Tripod line on unsuspecting casting directors. “It’s the first thing out of my mouth. People will be like, ‘Where do I know you from?’ and I’ll go, ‘I’ve done a lot of porno,’ and they’re like, ‘Maybe that’s it.’ Porno is a much bigger-ticket industry than they’d like to admit.”
Also on set this evening is Robie, who’s having a blast on the film—especially since the actual People Under the Stairs abode is right across the street from “The House of Love.” “I’m crazy about these people—they’re wonderful,” she says. “They’re young filmmakers making their dreams come true. It doesn’t occur to them that they can’t do it—they just make it happen.”
Not only are they living their dreams, but they have also proven to be quite loyal. Shannon Hart Cleary, who plays mental patient Amy, was friends with Kasten during their college days in Boston, and she was cast in the part way back in 1992. “He gave me his word,” says Cleary, noting that her character does awful things in the movie, only to meet an equally nasty demise. “I seduce Trevor and then accuse him of raping me, but there’s a reason which I’m not going to give away. Then horrible things happen to my character.”
Now living in Los Angeles and part of the comedy troupe Here Come Your Enemies, Cleary has bonded with the entire cast and even had the chance to joke around with Robie on many occasions. “We would sit outside and watch people go into the People Under the Stairs house, and Wendy would be, ‘Don’t go in there, whatever you do!’ “she laughs.
While shooting was anticipated to continue a few days later with Combs and Raimi (who plays Ek’s colleague Dr. Coffee), production was once again shut down until November 1999. Combs, who was first cast in 1997 for the role of Ek, was completely surprised when he got the call that Attic Expeditions was once again in need of his services for the final six days of principal photography.
“I thought I would never hear from them again,” Combs admits. “The planet is strewn with projects that have fallen apart. They had begun shooting and I was ready to go, and then two days before they told me they had shut down. It was like coitus interruptus. I have never heard of a movie before that has shut down, and three years later you get a call from your agent saying, ‘They’re ready now.’ That just endeared me to the project—the fact that they never gave up.” Luckily, Combs was available just prior to heading for Spain and his part in Brian Yuzna’s Faust.
When Fango picks up with the filmmakers again, it’s February 2001. The film is finally completed and shopping for a distributor. For Kasten, it has been a rite of passage, but never once did he give up on his dream. “The journey of making this movie is that for four years, we didn’t once look at each other and go, ‘Maybe we should stop, let’s give up, this isn’t going to work,’ ” he says. “We kept fighting and fighting. That has to do with me loving this movie, and with the three producers meeting every week just to sit down and throw crazy ideas around of how to raise enough money to shoot another five days.”
At presstime, The Attic Expeditions was headed for a couple of European testivals—Cinenygma in Luxembourg and Dead by Dawn in Scotland—and just had its U.S. premiere at this summer’s Seattle Film Festival. A number of video companies are now looking at the film, but producer Griffiths notes that they’re waiting to see if word of mouth and strong audience reaction can land the film that ever-elusive theatrical berth—even a limited one.
“When I first saw the movie, I really didn’t know what to expect,” says Combs. “It was so rich, complex and interesting. The film was like a marble in my head—I couldn’t get images out of my mind from this movie. It turns so many times. It was a rare case where I walked out of the theater thinking about what I saw instead of forgetting about it and getting on with my life. It’s an affecting piece.”
For Kasten, who has been trying to re-build his life from the ground up after investing his heart and soul into The Attic Expeditions, hearing Combs’ words makes up for all the long hours with no pay that he put into the project.
“Inside, I’m still 12 years old watching Jeffrey Combs for the first time in Re-Animator,” Kasten beams. “To hear him talk about the movie we made like that is the most thrilling part so far.”