Locations, Lighting and Just the Right Amount of Ambition:
The Horror Films of Charlie Steeds
We catch up with Charlie Steeds, the man behind Dark Temple Productions, for an exclusive interview with the wunderkind of neo-retro British horror...
For fans of independent horror—truly independent horror—Charlie Steeds has established himself as one of the UK’s most prolific and entertaining filmmakers.
In 2015, fresh from the Met Film School, he wrote and directed a post-apocalyptic thriller for less than £2,000, which made at least $100,000 in worldwide sales. Since then, he’s been on a one-man mission to explore virtually every kind of horror, from American grindhouse to English ghost story. These days, still in his twenties, he has no less than nine finished features on his IMDb page – and somehow, he still found time to start the Soho Horror Film Fest. To put all that in context, I turned forty this year and am still trying to finish my first Warhammer army, so I can only marvel at his creative output.
His Dark Temple films are not only numerous but credible. Although they represent a ‘grand tour’ of horror styles, they also stand as a coherent body of work, united by his neo-retro aesthetic. Whether it’s a backwoods slasher or a werewolf comedy, you know when you’re watching a Dark Temple film. Unlike most low budget movies, they’re stylish productions, making deft use of lighting, framing, sound, score, and great locations to punch above their weight.
We haven’t seen all of them yet (we’re working on it!) but here’s a roundup of our favourites so far.
An English Haunting (UK, Charlie Steeds, 2020) is Dark Temple’s take on a period ghost story. Blake Cunningham (David Lenik) and his wine-swilling mother, Margot Clemonte (Tessa Wood), take up residence in a grand country pile called Clemonte Hall. The owner is Margot’s estranged father (Barrington de la Roche) whose presence casts an eerie spell on the whole house; he’s not only dying but virtually catatonic, confined to his bed on the upper floor. ‘It is what it is,’ says Margot. ‘Free house, free place to stay—until the old bastard croaks. Spooky enough for you?’ It’s no surprise that these lines are used in the trailer because they sum up the film quite nicely. As you might expect, things soon get even spookier, with a soupçon of the occult for good measure.
Unlike other ghost stories (and contrary to some reviews) I wouldn’t class this as a ‘slow burn’. The frights take very little time to mobilise, and there are some great scares dotted throughout. For my money, the best is a set-piece involving an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, but there are several. All in all, it’s a lean gothic drama that doesn’t hold back on the horror, and which, by the end, is piling it on with gleeful abandon. Recommended.
From the same year, Death Ranch (UK, Charlie Steeds, 2020) is a different beast entirely. Set in 1970s America, it follows a trio of African American fugitives to an abandoned ranch in Tennessee. Little do they know they’ve strayed into the hunting grounds of a white supremacist cannibal cult…
It’s exactly what it sounds like: a loving tribute to grindhouse exploitation, partly inspired by Brotherhood of Death (USA, Richard F. Barker/Bill Berry, 1976)—or rather, its misleading tagline. In Steeds’ film, the violence and swagger are pitch-perfect for the genre, and the story has a surprising amount of emotional depth, thanks to the relationship between Brandon (Deiondre Teagle) and his siblings (Faith Monique, Travis Cutner).
Obviously, you want the neo-nazis to get their comeuppance, and that alone keeps you glued to the screen, but the heroes hold your interest too. It’s very gory, sometimes funny, and occasionally both, and if it sounds like your bag, it’s a must-see.
A Werewolf in England (UK, Charlie Steeds, 2020) takes us back to our own shores, but this time, it’s the 19th Century, and the entertainment du jour is a very capable horror-comedy. Archie Whittock (Reece Connolly) is bound for the gallows; he killed a werewolf who then turned back into a human, leaving him with a hard-to-explain corpse on his hands. At the start of the film, he’s being taken to his trial in chains, chaperoned by a loathsome parish councillor called Horrace (Tim Cartwright).
En route, they hide from a storm in the ominously named Three Claws Inn. The resulting siege is fast-paced and funny, with some very game performances and buckets of atmosphere. There’s also plenty of horrors, with a great sense of building doom, some deliciously OTT villains, and fantastic practical effects.
Also, unlike too many cut-price creature features, the beasts themselves are shown in all their glory—or should that be ‘gory’?—by actors in bodysuits, courtesy of Midnight Studios. The only thing missing is an on-screen transformation, but that’s a small concession to budget in a film that, with everything else on offer, creates a huge amount of visual interest. In short, A Werewolf in England is bound to delight fans of creature features, practical gore, and gruesome slapstick comedy.
We took the opportunity to ask Charlie Steeds some questions about his work, which you can read below.
Ellis: You’ve already covered a surprising number of horror genres: grindhouse, English ghost story, vampire thriller, backwoods horror, and so on. Are there any big ones left on your bucket list? And if only one horror genre could survive the nuclear holocaust, which would you pick?
Charlie: I love all the sub-genres of horror, it’s quite unique to have so many and they all come with their own very particular styles and themes, I’ll probably try my hand at all of them at some point. I recently had the chance to do aquatic horror which must be pretty near the top of my list, we don’t get enough of those, so I watched films like Deep Star Six and Leviathan for inspiration. I’d love to do a tropical island zombie movie like Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombie Holocaust (AKA Doctor Butcher MD, one of my all-time favourites).
I don’t class my film Vampire Virus as my official tackling of the vampire genre, its very light on vampire lore, so my Hollywood dream movie would be to direct Salem’s Lot, I’m much more attracted to that kind of vampire tale. If Vampire Virus had been entirely my take on vampires there’d have been much more gore and sex and a very gothic setting, with big monster vampires, I’m not a fan of the little fangs, I prefer full-blown half-bat monsters. The ultimate sub-genre I want to explore more of, or really bring into being its own sub-genre (because I’m not sure it is) is fish monsters, fish creatures invading a harbourside town! I have a script I’ve been working on for years, it’s become more of a mini-series now because it just grows and grows. I also have a slasher movie in the works, and I’m growing very fond of cosmic horror (another sub-genre that’s not quite entirely developed just yet).
E: Related to the above: what are the key ingredients of your personal style, which you bring to every film regardless of genre?
C: I’m making films at stupendously low budgets compared to horror films of the past (although it’s plenty to make a full time living as a director, and of course everyone is paid) but I don’t think a low budget needs to hold a film back (certainly horror films) if the right ingredients are there. So my number one ingredient is to tell an interesting and entertaining story.
I’m very inspired by director Jack Hill (Coffy, Foxy Brown, The Big Bird Cage). His budgets were small, but he always made the films wonderfully entertaining. Same goes for Lucio Fulci, his films were scrappier than Dario Argento’s, but they always delivered the gory goods! My style tends to be heavy on characters and dialogue, probably because my love for horror first came from Stephen King miniseries adaptations (so two hours of character development and then a bit of horror at the end). The other most noticeable trait of my films is how they’re inspired by films of the 70s and 80s, in the visuals. I build my own sets, there’s a certain stylised quality to the way my films often look, it’s far from real life. I prefer period settings to modern, it’s more cinematic and in keeping with my 70s/80s aesthetic. And I have action in my movies, I love action, so I will schedule two or three days into my shooting block just to nail one 5 minute action sequence, which indie filmmakers rarely have time for. When I write, I want to see how much chaos I can bring upon my characters, so hopefully, my films have some thrills.
E: You once said that ‘the less money you have the more you learn’ because ‘you’re forced to get creative.’ In terms of low budget brilliance, what’s the best trick you’ve pulled off? What was the biggest disappointment to come from budget constraints?
C: Films like mine are having to work on a whole different level because the money isn’t there to provide easy solutions, it’s all trickery because it’s a miracle any film made at this budget level is even watchable or even looks visually acceptable.
As far as tricks go, I’d say locations, lighting and just the right amount of ambition. A great location is what takes a low budget movie to the next level. I didn’t pay for a single location on my first three horror features and those films have some stunning locations, even a 13th century castle (where we shot The House of Violent Desire). Locations usually dictate which of my films actually get made. I specifically wrote An English Haunting because I had access to the most wonderful country manor house I could ever dream of. Rarely will you put on one of my films and see a modern-day apartment, your mate’s garage, your parent’s kitchen (nothing would bore me more) but I couldn’t make that look anything but low budget. So instead I’ve had to build interiors of a 2-floor log cabin, a 2-floor Victorian Inn with 5 rooms, a deep-sea submarine and a narrowboat, completely from scratch… and that’s not a small job! The other trick is lighting, you have to be able to light a film cinematically. In an age where film lighting is starting to look more like ‘let’s just light everything,’ it pays to study films like Alien and look at the use of shadows.
The biggest disappointment is just that in every film at this level the budget always lets you down. Either in the costume, or set, or just lack of time to finesse a shot, budget always kills the movie, despite all your hard work. And that’s because flawless movies are not a product of my budget level, I am a long way off. For better or worse I’ve chosen to continue to be ambitious with the content of the movies, but I never let the rough patches of low budget horror bother me when I fell in love with The Evil Dead or Charles Band movies, so I just have to hope modern audiences can continue to be forgiving, the way they are with low budget horror of the 70s and 80s.
E: Some of your films are set in the UK and others are set in the US. Will you carry on making a mix of the two? Are there any other places (or even times) that you’d like to explore?
C: I’d love to say I grew up on Hammer Horror and Amicus and so I aspired to continue a tradition of British Horror, but I didn’t, I grew up on John Carpenter, Rob Zombie, Elm Street, Friday 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre! So when I started making movies, naturally I wanted to make them in the USA, but I didn’t have the budget, so I was creating British-set films with a USA horror vibe. Very quickly I realised my place in the world of horror filmmaking is that I’m British… and so instead of trying to get that 80s American horror vibe, I’d be better off utilising what’s all around me, British locations that don’t exist in the rest of the world! That’s what’ll make my horror unique internationally, British horror is my flavour. Part of the reason I was drawn to do The Barge People when the script came to me was that it’s set on the canal, that felt so British, I did narrowboat holidays in my childhood, I wanted to see that as a horror movie. And from there I’ve gone on to make films like An English Haunting, the whole point of which was to be a very British-feeling ghost story (hence the title…), like the BBC Christmas ghost stories for example, and England is wonderful for ghost stories.
Still, I love the influences I mentioned earlier, so that’s why I went out to Tennessee to make my Grindhouse-inspired movie Death Ranch, and I’ll continue to go to and from countries depending on the project. I’ve shot in France and Finland too. But Britain-based horror is my primary interest, I can now see how American horror fans look at my movies and appreciate the locations, the atmosphere… this is a great place to be a horror filmmaker.
E: Dark Temple Films (and even the company logo) have a great retro vibe. What do you find appealing about that aesthetic?
C: This retro style is now becoming a popular gimmick, with the likes of Stranger Things and the Fear Street trilogy on Netflix, but when I started making movies it didn’t feel so obvious. I love movies from the 70s and the 80s, they were the peak of horror style, and now we’re in an age where we have 100 years of filmmaking techniques and visual styles, so why modern filmmakers seem to swarm to the technology from only the past 5 years or so, I’ll never understand… I guess they want to be current, they want their movies to look hyper-modern… I don’t. But generally (and of course I can’t say this for all films) modern films look dull to me. They have no character, they look too pristine, I can’t tell the difference between most modern horror films and adverts I see on the TV for cars and kitchens… Film isn’t supposed to look like real life to me, it’s supposed to look like a fantasy, it’s horror movies! People might say a horror film looks fake or hammy, well yeah, it is fake, the more fake the better! I’m always using vintage lenses, framing my shots and moving my camera in ways inspired by the older films I love (usually Italian horror, Fulci, Bava, Argento, Martino) designing old school opening titles and seeking composers who can deliver the vibes I personally enjoy (my favourite is Tangerine Dream) or a proper orchestral sound. I always dedicate a lot of attention to the music of my films (where many other indie filmmakers are using pre-existing stock music). When my logo comes up it hits a nostalgic note with horror fans, which is really cool, if you like my logo we probably enjoy the same kind of horror movies and you’ll hopefully enjoy the movie that comes after.
E: You’ve described writing as your favourite part of the filmmaking process. To my knowledge, The Barge People (UK, Charlie Steeds, 2018) is the only Dark Temple film that was written by someone else. Would you prefer to remain an auteur, or do you see yourself directing more films from other people’s scripts? And if you could direct a screenplay by your dream writer, who would it be?
C: Writing is my passion above all else, or more so dreaming up horror stories to tell. It’s storytelling that’s my thing, I don’t care anywhere near as much for the cameras and technology, the editing, even working with the actors… all of that is really just me trying to do right by my script. When the script isn’t my own, or if I’m writing to someone else’s specifications (as with Vampire Virus, which I co-wrote with Sam Ashurst, for a company with a very specific brief) I don’t feel as connected with the material, I don’t bring my best filmmaking to the project. I was lucky that my first six horror movies were entirely my own ideas, I had 100% creative freedom to write whatever the hell I wanted, and final cut on the edits. The following 4 movies were all sort of made-to-order, I had a brief I had to follow, but still a lot of creative freedom allowed. I feel the difference though, I have a constant urge to give up on those types of projects and just focus on the ideas that are 100% my own, but when I’m following a brief (for example, ‘make us a werewolf movie’) there’s more money up for grabs and more sales/marketing in place. I got tired of seeing my films like Winterskin and The House of Violent Desire finding almost no audience whatsoever… compared to A Werewolf in England that is still on DVD in supermarkets here 10 months after its release, or Vampire Virus that has over 4 million YouTube views. If a great script fell into my lap that’d be awesome, it’s not happened though. There’s lots of stuff I’d love to adapt, HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, my favourite horror writer Richard Laymon, all of that would be a dream! I’d say a Stephen King original script would be my dream… the day I adapt King and Lovecraft, I’ve achieved my career goals.
E: You’ve named Phantasm (USA, Don Coscarelli, 1979) as one of your favourite films. What do you think of the four sequels, and what do you think of horror’s tendency to spawn long-running (often increasingly ludicrous) franchises? Would you ever make one of your own?
C: I’m so eager to have a franchise or two on the go! Last year I started pre-production on a slasher movie, part of the appeal was that I want to make 5 or more of them, like Freddy & Jason, but at the last moment I called off the shoot, I didn’t think the results were going to be good enough based on the locations and sets I had, but I intend to start up that project again as soon as I can (but over in the USA instead). There was hope with The Barge People for a sequel, Cannibal Farm has been offered sequel funding but I’ve so far turned it down (still, it’s proving to be a popular movie by indie film standards and it may happen one day) and I have ideas to carry on An English Haunting into a series of different ghost stories linked by the same universe.
I adore the Phantasm movies! As a teenager, on a lonely summer afternoon, opening up that metallic Anchor Bay set and seeing all the discs of the 4 movies there for me to dive into, to capture my imagination, that is the ultimate horror nostalgia for me… To me there are only 3 sequels, 2 & 3 are equally incredible, 4 is interesting but doesn’t have the same thrills as the first 3. Those experiences, discovering movies like Phantasm, or the Masters of Horror boxsets, and the feelings of pure escapism that I felt watching them back then is the main thing that drives me to make horror movies as a career, that’s why I do this.
E: Lastly: what else do you have in store for us horror fans…?
C: I have four new movies coming your way, three of them have wrapped or partially wrapped production. Two science fiction horrors, with big Lovecraft and Aliens inspirations, and two horror movies, one is more medieval fantasy and the other is pure medieval horror. Post-Lockdown I am busier than I’ve ever been, I’ve rarely said no to projects and offers until this year but I simply don’t have the time to make all the projects I’m offered right now. Above all else, I want to focus on a horror movie that is totally my own idea, not commercial at all but just something horror fans have never seen, something so unique to my own style and tastes, so that’s what I’m writing, ready for production in 2022. I have Death Ranch, Werewolf Castle and Winterskin coming to UK DVD very soon. I’ve been away shooting all year so I’m now excited to get back to releasing my regular podcast episodes on the Dark Temple Podcast, it’s felt important to reflect on the films I’ve already made and continue to promote my older work. I have a Blu Ray of my film The House of Violent Desire that I’m going to self-release, it’s loaded with special features and is a new tighter edit, with stunning new artwork by Sadist Art Designs. And I’d like to have a month or two where I can just sit around and watch movies, maybe even have the time to read a horror paperback (I’m a slow reader) but honestly I doubt it’ll happen, I’m booked up into early 2022, and this is why I have grey hairs at age 27.
Many thanks to Charlie Steeds for answering our questions! You can learn more about his films here.
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