Just before the festive period Hugh had a chance to sit down with the talented Danishka Esterhazy and chat about her latest hit, the fantastically gruesome and funny remake Slumber Party Massacre.
Hi Danishka! I had such a great time with Slumber Party Massacre, it was such a terrific re-invention of one of my schlocky favourites from the 80’s.
Thank you so much.
How do you feel about the reception the film has received, it feels like it has been very warmly embraced?
Y’know, I’m really happy with how the film has been received and I am a big fan of the original as well. When I was invited to become part of this remake I was so excited, but when you do a remake of a film that has a real fandom there’s a risk. There’s a high standard you have to hit, and you’re worried that you’re gonna let people down or that you’re gonna offend them.
Some people don’t want you to touch the material at all if it’s something they really like and I always say ‘well just don’t watch it!’ (laughs). I was a little worried because I wanted the fans to really enjoy it, so I made the movie for myself, as I am a fan.
I took all the parts of the original that worked and made sure that they were in there so we could celebrate them, and then I took the parts that have really dated or that I didn’t like and was able to make fun of them and turn them upside down in an attempt to amuse people (laughs). I knew it wouldn’t amuse everybody (laughs).
But the horror fans have really gotten what I was trying to do and I’m really happy about that.
I was fortunate to see the film almost blind, with no trailer.
Oh that’s wonderful!
Yeah! You watch that opening scene and it matches up nicely with the tone and style of the original…. And then when it switches gear it is so unexpected and so much fun.
I wish everybody saw movies like that, watching them blind and just allowing the director to take them on a journey.
You said you were invited onto the project; at what point did that happen?
I came on very early. I was in LA meeting with another production company about another film that didn’t get green-lit. I went for a coffee in the NBC building and bumped into Josh Van Houdt who was an executive at the SyFy Channel. I had just worked for him on a series called Vagrant Queen and I was really happy to bump into him.
The timing was absolutely amazing because he was just that day putting together a team for Slumber Party Massacre! He said ‘I’ve got a screen writer and I’m just about to go pitch to get the rights to this movie, and I need a director; would you be interested?’. And I said yes, I couldn’t believe it!
I spent about 24 / 48 hours rewatching the movie and coming up with ideas and speaking with the screenwriter (Suzanne Keilly). And then Josh, Suzanne and I went to talk to Shout Factory about our ideas, and we told them we want to do a really feminist remake, its gonna be a lot of fun, upset expectations and really mock the male gaze, but also celebrate everything we love and have some amazing kills!
We were really lucky that they loved the ideas and basically said yes right away. So then poor Suzanne had to go away and write the script, so I was able to give her some ideas. She’s a wonderful writer and definitely gets all the credit, but I was able to help shape and suggest the script and change some of the kills and characters a little bit. It was a very collaborative process.
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It’s always nice to hear when there is such a collaborative effort and symbiosis between the writer and director on these projects. And from the outside looking in, it does seem as though SyFy are great people to work with and really put together some interesting projects.
They really have, a lot of their TV movies they give the directors and writers a lot of creative freedom. They really invest in people that they think are the right team and give them the freedom to go away and make the films they want to make, which is wonderful and incredibly rare in television.
Unfortunately, Suzanne couldn’t come to set; we were supposed to shoot the thing a year earlier but then Covid hit. We kept pushing the date of production by a few months, I think we did that three or four times, and I kept thinking ‘there’s no way this film is going to get made now’. But, no, they eventually green-lit the project and I went out to South Africa to shoot in January 2021.
At the time it was at the height of the South African Covid variant… well the first one anyway (laughs), so there was a total travel ban and you had to get permission from the government to bring anyone into the country! So Suzanne couldn’t come, we couldn’t bring any cast, we actually had to use all local talent. Thankfully Cape Town has an amazing film scene.
That’s remarkable, because in such a large ensemble, you seem to have got the casting spot-on. Was the process completely dictated by Covid?
We didn’t have anyone in mind in the beginning. Before Covid hit we kinda thought we would have an international cast of Americans, Brits, Canadians, a bit of a mix. But when it came to the reality that we were going to have to film in total isolation in Stellenbosch we were going to have to isolate together and out of necessity cast from South African actors.
We knew we had to cast Dana first, who’s kinda the heart of the film, and from there we could find Trish and young Trish and then build the group of friends around Dana with people to compliment her.
We had a pretty open casting call where we looked at actors from Johannesburg and Cape Town and all over the country really. We found Hannah (Gonera) and right away I just knew she had to be our lead; she’s so interesting and vulnerable and I just loved her as an actress. Once we had her, we started looking for the rest, including some actors that I’d worked with before.
Alex McGregor, who I’d worked with before on Vagrant Queen is a very funny actress with amazing comic-timing and also Jennifer Steyn who became Kay. When I worked Jennifer before she was in full alien prosthetics with blue skin (laughs)! I’d never really seen her real face, so that was pretty interesting! She’s a solid actor and a joy to work with.
There was Richard White and Richard Firth that I’d worked with before and knew I could rely on, the rest were a complete discovery.
Hannah Gonera is absolutely fantastic in the film, there are just so many layers to that performance especially when you understand the rules of the film you are watching.
What about Rob van Vuuren?
(laughs) He’s great!
(laughs) What kind of directions did you give him to elicit that sort of performance from him? I loved it so much, but it is utterly bonkers!
(laughs) I’m so glad!
Rob is such a treasure, he is a huge celebrity in South Africa! He’s been on TV for a long time as sketch comedian and an improv actor, and obviously a very talented comic actor too. I had never worked with him before, but I knew I wanted somebody who could embody that original performance of Michael Villella who is such an iconic character. I mean he IS the driller killer. He is Slumber Party Massacre. I wanted somebody who could bring that sort of physicality to the role that existed in the original.
In the auditions we put together a clip-reel of the original performance for the actors to see, and some of them tried to do the voice and some of them tried to be menacing or even tried to do a complete mimic (which is what I didn’t want). Rob really found this deep physicality with the character; with the way he holds his chin, or the way he moves his eyes, and he has a dance background that gives his movement a really unique feel. I loved everything that he did (laughs).
When I was watching the film, one of the things I wrote down next to Rob’s name was ‘meticulous’ because it feels like everything about the performance is so considered and so precise. I didn’t realise he had a background in sketch comedy, but that actually explains a lot.
He watched all the interviews with Michael Villella and all this behind-the-scenes stuff. And it might be the DVD commentary where Michael Villella talks about his entire performance is channelled through finding an animal that represented the character and the animal he chose was the peacock!
(laughs) Of COURSE he did!
(laughs) Once you know that everything sort of clicks, right? Like the way he moves his head and the way he moves his feet, there’s this whole thing going on. And Rob loved that, he became obsessed with that idea. Sometimes he would take those things just way too far and I’d have to shout ‘Too much peacock!’ (laughs).
The idea of reframing the film as a feminist work, of poking fun at some of those absurd 80’s stereotypes is inspired. How difficult was it to get the tone right?
It was tricky. Whenever you are doing this kind of parody it can be difficult. Horror-comedy itself is such a difficult thing to doo well. It only really works if you are hitting the jokes but also scaring them when the horror picks up.
It’s being able to manage these dramatic shifts between comedy and fright, and I like to do as much as a shift as possible and you never really know how much it’s going to work.
I think I was really nervous about this one because we made it in total isolation, and it has a pretty bold style and then the world premiere at Fantastic Fest I really wanted to fly out and experience it with an audience. At that point we hadn’t even done test screening, so we had no idea how people were going to react (laughs).
I was working on a TV show at the time in Canada, so I had to get on like three planes and then 24 hours later I made it to Austin, Texas for the Premiere. It was a huge relief to see it with an audience and see that people were laughing at the right place and were tense at the right spots and they even cheered a couple of the kill sequences which made me so happy! I mean, they can be a tough crowd but they are a great horror crowd at Fantastic Fest.
I felt like I had hit the tone properly for the right audience, but it absolutely is a tone that not everybody is going to love.
Horror comedy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. There will be some people who just love a slow and serious horror, and I do as well, but that is a very different animal to what we have here. If you’re looking for that, I’m afraid it’s not going to deliver (laughs)
I think there is plenty of room for both, and it is nice when you get a film that really embraces the sillier aspects of the genre. Some of the kills are ridiculously gross in the film…
(laughs) I LOVE a gory death!
Me too! Are you a fan of practical effects of digital?
It was mostly practical effects, that is definitely my preference, I love prosthetics.
I like to put together a scene with as little digital effects as possible, but obviously there are digital compositions between prosthetic parts and actors. I had a great prosthetics team in Cape Town, amazing at building body parts. I mean the chest prosthetic they built for the shower scene looked incredible, almost completely real to the naked eye. You really didn’t need much digital effects to sell that to the audience.
Suzanne wrote wonderful kill sequences; I did change a few based on what we had available and what was practical during the shoot. For example, with the original guitar kill? Suzanne had envisaged the drill going into the guitar and having the guitar spinning, but we quickly realised that was just not going to be possible (laughs). So the horrible death with the guitar strings (which I refer to as the Guitar-Weedwhacker!) is what we came up with.
And I really liked that kill; sometimes a collaboration with your team on finding what kills are going to be practical really helps to avoid more digital shots.
I spoke to Steve Kostanski earlier in the year and he really won me around to the notion that digital effects aren’t bad as a rule, more how they are implemented. Practical is always the way to go, but digital effects really help support that.
I love Steve!
And yeah, he’s right. For example, the first big kill in the film is the one where the drill goes through the throat of Jackie. So we build a fake torso and head, everything but the face, and we had the actress in place at first to film everything. We then moved her out and put the torso in place to have Rob drill through that, and then used composition to put her face back onto the torso. It means Rob is actually drilling through something physical and it gives the scene a little more physicality.
What’s your own opinions on the way slasher films have evolved over the last twenty years or so?
I think it’s a really exciting time for slashers. I love what they’ve done with the new Halloween series and Candyman and Black Christmas too. I love you have all these brilliant filmmakers taking slashers and doing something interesting and unexpected with them. And that’s something that’s always taking place, horror is genre that people always underestimate or dismiss.
I’m sure there are elements of horror that are ridiculous and exploitative, I mean look at the nudity the original Slumber Party Massacre and that’s why some people dismiss it. But that was a trilogy written and directed by women, and there is a lot of really sly writing and directing happening in that series. And if people don’t give it a chance they really miss how many layers there are to it.
I feel we’re in a real golden age of horror right now. Whether it’s the slow art films of A24 or the remake of big slasher movies, it’s an incredible genre to spread ideas in or entertain. The horror community is a great community to be part of.
What horror films do you enjoy?
I watch every kind of horror film; I go to a lot of festivals. I’m a big fan of Steve Kostanski’s films and I have a lot of friends who are great horror filmmakers like Karen Lam and Audrey Cummings, both of who are so talented.
A film I saw that really scared me this year was The Night House. It’s a film that interested in big topics like femicide, domestic abuse, mental illness. And it’s a contained house thriller, and I found it utterly terrifying. I saw it in a theatre and was constantly on edge, which makes me happy because sometimes I can be a little bit hard to scare because I know the mechanics of the films too well!
But yeah, the tension really cranked it up for me and I thought it was amazing.
The Night House. Just add that to the list..
It’s great, and it has a terrific performance from Rebecca Hall who is just amazing.
What new projects do you have coming up at the moment?
We just finished a really fun horror/comedy/drama TV series (laughs). It’s coming out in January and it’s called Astrid and Lilly Save the World, and it’s a bit of a monster show so that has been really fun and we’ve had a lot of fun prosthetic monster creations on that one.
I can’t wait for people to see that one, it’s coming out on SyFy and we are hoping it gets a big world-wide release.
I’m also looking forward to directing some features in the upcoming year and I’m in talks with a couple of collaborators about that, so I hope to be able to share some more information soon.
Excellent stuff Danishka, thanks for your time.
No problem, it was a lot of fun!
By: Hugh McStay
Slumber Party Massacre is available now on digital