New Horror Musical Express
An interview with Pat Higgins
Horror is set to hit the high notes with a new musical comedy horror, Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead, from the mind of award winning British horror writer and director Pat Higgins. Horrified's Dean Newman finds out more...
He has been called ‘one of the key names in the British horror revival’ by Scream magazine and ‘a cult favourite’ by Fangoria. It turns out horror has been coursing through his veins for some time.
It is the year 1981 and little Pat Higgins was getting his first taste of media exposure on local radio talking about horror. The film the six-year-old was talking about was David Cronenberg’s Scanners – the poster to be precise and the fact that it scared the bejesus out of him.
It kind of reminded me of the phone in flashbacks to a young Norman Bates in Psycho IV: The Beginning, thus forever melding those words Higgins and horror as one.
Pat Higgins has since made his peace with the head-exploding classic as that very same poster design now sits in his house, almost trophy-like, although it’s more that it has captured him and his imagination than the other way round. In some ways, you could describe Pat as one-part Wes Craven meets one-part Quentin Tarantino.
The 46-year-old from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream horrormeister Craven, is a college lecturer by day and, like Tarantino, used to work in a video shop – Blockbuster in Westcliff-on-Sea, no less.
What screams may come then as, rather than renting video nasties to the public, he is now making them; over his seventeen years helming and writing horror films he has built up quite the body of work (and number of bodies) that has seen him win numerous awards and also attend the Cannes Film Festival.
His sixth feature film as writer/director is Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead and it is already causing quite the stir as the current number one Kickstarter film project – horror or otherwise – in the world.
Horrified: What can we expect from Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead?
Pat Higgins: It’s an insane blood-soaked comedy in which a cursed, undead boyband do battle with chainsaw-wielding cheerleaders. It’s also a musical, with 11 or 12 songs in it. It’s set on a TV talent show, kind of like a low-rent version of Britain’s Got Talent, and it’s got a brilliant cast including Charlie Bond, James Hamer-Morton and Dani Thompson. Charlie’s also producing it. It’s going to be bloody epic!
H: What makes it the perfect film for now?
PH: Because it’s fun. It’s been an extremely shit year for most people in a number of ways. I don’t feel like making a dark, anxious arthouse film right now because, Jesus, isn’t the world dark and anxious enough? I want to make a movie with bright colours and endless jokes and eye-popping gore and good songs. We want to deliver everything a comedy-horror fan could hope for. If we fail it sure as hell won’t be for lack of trying.
H: What’s your elevator pitch for the film?
PH: Having made it through to the final of a TV talent show, an enthusiastic but dysfunctional cheerleading troop are on the brink of falling apart. When a cursed amulet turns their rival boyband act into a screeching gang of zombies, the girls must learn to use their wits, friendship and assorted powertools before the TV finale takes a turn for the apocalyptic.
H: Congratulations, as it is currently the most popular film project in the world on Kickstarter. How can people get involved in making it happen and what rewards are on offer?
PH: If people head over to jinx.uk they can find perks ranging from a pdf of the screenplay through to coming down to spend a day on the set and getting killed onscreen. We’re even planning a special screening with a gig after it, where the cast will get up onstage and blast through the songs live. That should be absolutely nuts, and you can get tickets to that by backing us. By picking up perks on Kickstarter, you really become part of the team putting this whole crazy project together.
H: Where did you take your inspiration from for writing the songs for the film, and how was it being a songsmith? The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode ‘Once More With Feeling’, Thriller, Phantom of the Opera, The Rocky Horror Show, Little Shop of Horrors, not a bad horror/musical crowd to be in. Which is closest in tone to Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead?
PT: I bloody love musicals, particularly weird ones. All the things you’ve mentioned are great. I’ve sometimes described this as being Little Shop of Horrors through a distortion pedal, but there’s bits of all kinds of DNA in there. Anna and the Apocalypse came out after I’d started writing Powertool Cheerleaders, and I was really worried that it would end up doing the same thing I was trying to do. I approached it with some trepidation and was relieved to find it’s a very different beast. It’s bloody brilliant, but it’s much more like a horror twist on High School Musical. Ours is more on the rock n’ roll side of the tracks.
H: This isn’t your first versus film, you penned Strippers vs Werewolves, I know that wasn’t a great experience for you. Did this help exorcise some of those demons?
PH: Strippers vs Werewolves was a shitty experience for a lot of genuinely nice people. It’s lovely to be working with Charlie Bond again (who was also in Strippers vs Werewolves) in a vastly different context. She’s a brilliant producer and the sort of person who’ll get up early to bake vegan chocolate brownies in order to welcome the cast to set on the first day of shooting. Having a happy set is massively important to both of us. And, yeah, because Strippers vs Werewolves ended up a long way from where we’d hoped it would, this does feel like a tiny bit of an opportunity to rewrite history. There’s no point spending your life looking backwards, after all.
H: Tell us a bit about the cast of Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead.
PH: Well, we’ve announced the first block of casting but we’re announcing more as we pass certain milestones on the Kickstarter. Of the ones we’ve announced, there’s Charlie herself playing Emily. There’s James Hamer-Morton, who was brilliant in Liam Regan’s flick My Bloody Banjo and is just an astonishingly talented dude all-round. He’s playing Hunter, the leader of the boyband StarMen. We’ve got Megan-Rose Buxton, who’s possibly better known as a singer and has a new single dropping next week. She’s playing Olivia, the partially reformed party girl. She just blew us away on an online table-read we conducted over lockdown.
We’ve got Dani Thompson, who’s a real genre icon nowadays and who I’ve been wanting to work with for ages, playing Chloe the coach. Liz Soutar is playing Ashley, who streams her whole life online. Liz has brought this really crazy energy to the role, almost like an anime character. Carrie Thompson is Brianna, who has lived quite a cosseted lifestyle and isn’t really ready for a bloody fight to the finish. On our promo shoot day, Carrie was wielding twin nail guns instead of pom-poms. She made it look easy but it’s not: those things are heavy! Faith Elizabeth is playing Mackenzie, our gothic single mum. I first saw Faith in a short film called In Flight which is just GREAT. You can catch it on Amazon Prime.
We’ve also got Cy Henty as the manager of the boyband. Cy Henty has to be in everything I ever make, otherwise it triggers an ancient curse and the earth gets consumed in hellfire. So I HAVE to keep casting him. Just as well he’s really good, I suppose.
H: It’s not the first time you’ve explored those themes, and you’ve even done a horror rock mockumentary. Tell us a little bit about your back catalogue.
PH: Well, that horror rock mockumentary was The Devil’s Music, which people always say is my best film just because we haven’t finished this one yet. That’s certainly the most acclaimed thing I’ve done (it won Best Independent Feature at the Festival of Fantastic Films) and was the first movie we created songs for. In fact, one of the songs written by the Antichrist in The Devil’s Music gets covered by the boyband in Powertool Cheerleaders.
The other ones from the back catalogue: my first film was TrashHouse (ambitious, scrappy, mad), then Hellbride (fun, cheerful, uneven), then KillerKiller (dark, bad sound, good bits), The Devil’s Music (as discussed), Bordello Death Tales and Nazi Zombie Death Tales (co-production anthologies that we shot for nearly nothing) and then The House on the Witchpit (which I destroyed onstage at the festival premiere screening and has only rarely been glimpsed in different forms since then). That’s not counting writing-only gigs like Strippers vs Werewolves, of course. There have been a lot of years where I’ve focused on writing gigs rather than production. I’ve done some uncredited rewrite work on bigger features which I’m usually NDA-bound not to talk about.
H: Sam Raimi has his 1973 Oldsmobile that has featured in many of his productions, including The Evil Dead, you have a defunct chainsaw. What’s its horror history with you?
PH: Nick Dunkley, my production manager on TrashHouse, brought it in one day. We’ve used it ever since because it looks awesome! Just right for carving up zombies. There are other props and bits of wardrobe that recur in my movies. There’s some surgical equipment in KillerKiller which you can also see in Bordello Death Tales. The wedding dress in Hellbride became one of Erika’s stage outfits in The Devil’s Music. Even up to the present day: the cheerleader uniform worn by Danielle Laws on the cover of the US DVD of KillerKiller was reused for our Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead promo shoot. When you don’t have much money you need to be enthusiastic about recycling!
H: What unique challenges does Covid-19 bring to the film and filmmaking?
PH: The promo shoot was my first time on set masked and distanced. It was such a great atmosphere that it didn’t seem to matter much. There are logistical problems in terms of actors sharing scenes, obviously, but for the main shoot, we’ll find a way through it depending on what the advice is at the time. Both Charlie and I took the ScreenSkills ‘Safe Sets’ qualification before the shoot, which covers a lot of the challenges in quite a nice way.
H: Lockdown has produced the instant Classic, Host. How has it helped horror and filmmaking in general?
PH: I bloody love Host! I’ve known Jed Shepherd on Twitter for years and we’ve chatted about various things in the past. He’s had a crazy year and it’s SO well deserved because Host approached a unique situation in a unique way and created something that nobody had seen before at just the point where it would resonate most with them. That doesn’t happen very often. In terms of genre cinema, Host will define 2020 for years to come. I imagine there’ll be a slew of copycats missing the point (remember the countless ‘woods and camcorder’ epics after The Blair Witch Project dropped?) but there will hopefully be a couple more great films using the limitations to their advantage too.
H: That was released on Shudder. I know you’ve had films released at the cinema, they were available in every Blockbuster Video in the UK and now on Amazon. How has the release landscape changed and are there now more opportunities for getting work out there?
PH: Anyone can get their work out there. YouTube doesn’t care about your character arcs. There are no gatekeepers. That’s a double-edged sword because the problem becomes getting anyone to want to watch it (rather than getting people to be able to watch it). The goalposts shift but I’m not sure if the money situation has changed much at all; it’s still goddamn hard to consistently and reliably make money, just for different reasons.
H: How are you hoping Powertoool Cheerleaders will be released?
PH: When I first wrote the script, pre-Covid, I had an eye on the drive-in circuit. I loved the idea of having a show with singing, dancing, fireworks and the movie itself, and was just beginning to investigate how practical that would or wouldn’t be when we all got locked down. It’ll certainly play the festival circuit and we’ll be doing some mad one-offs like the screening gig I mentioned. There’ll be an option to watch it at home at some point, no doubt, but I don’t want it to just vanish into the sea of infinite content without a trace. This sucker needs to splash around a bit.
H: Who are your influences?
PH: It’s mainly filmmakers that went out and just did it regardless of any obstacles that may have been in their path, so very much people like Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriquez, and Kevin Smith. People who had no money and little professional experience but just decided right I’m going to put together a screenplay, put together the best package that I can and just go out and actually make it.
In terms of tone, I’d definitely also add Joe Dante to that list, if there is anyone I owe a huge debt to with comedy-horror hybrids then it’s him in particular. I vividly remember seeing Gremlins when I was about 11 and it just had this huge impact on me. Not forgetting Fred Dekker as well, with Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad. Just the perfect mixes of comedy and horror.
H: What horror movies do you hold in high regard?
PH: I’ve got a lot of love for The Shining, which I think is perhaps the greatest horror movie ever made, the original Robert Wise version of The Haunting and The Exorcist.
The Shining has got images that drill into your head and just stay there. Stephen King was not a huge fan and called it a beautiful car without an engine, but I don’t actually think he is right, there is an engine there and is revving really fast but it is so beautifully made that you can’t hear the engine. I thought Doctor Sleep took on an impossible task to make a satisfying sequel and actually pulled it off in a lot of ways. It’s a great film.
The Exorcist is smart, is not afraid of its subject matter in a way that a lot of movies dealing with that sort of thing might be and is willing to credit its audience with some intelligence. And The Haunting is just a beautiful, crisp, perfect movie.
I think the greatest scare shot of all time for me has to be in the much butchered The Exorcist III, or possibly in the 1989 version of The Woman in Black. You know the shot I mean.
H: I’m guessing you’ve got the recent Arrow release of The Exorcist III?
PH: Oh God, yes. I thought we’d never get to see it.
H: What about British horror films or television, what creeped you out or influenced you when you were younger, and now?
PH: I did a whole live show in 2018 called Fear & Film, which was entirely dedicated to the stuff that scared me as a child. I also did a TEDx talk about it but a lot of that stuff is TV rather than film. I steered clear of film because I was very, very wary of getting spooked. The stuff in my head was scary enough. I do vividly remember the short that played before The Empire Strikes Back, though, Black Angel, which scared me so badly I almost didn’t go and see Empire for a second time.
H: Getting the right mix of horror and humour is notoriously hard to get right, what do you see as the secret to success in balancing those two areas in film?
PH: I think you have to love your characters and love your script. If it’s not breaking your heart to kill one of your characters, which is someone you’ve lived with for months and years in the back of your head, on the page and finally in front of the camera, you can’t expect anyone else to remotely give a shit about them.
I think that particularly with horror-comedies people think they can back away from the script and think we can set this up and then this up, the wacky best friend dies at this point, so on and so forth and I think that people can get very dispassionate about it and more often than not it really shows.
You end up with characters as just cannon-fodder that nobody cares about, including the people who have written and made the movie. In terms of the gags, I think it is a matter of approaching it in a smart way and ensuring that the script is as tight and as entertaining as it can possibly be because the writing process is the only one where low budget directors can get a leap on Hollywood.
If you are going to crossbreed horror and comedy then you have to do it with loving care.
H: A lot of horror-comedy is played straight as well, such as An American Werewolf in London and Shaun of the Dead, isn’t it?
PH: Absolutely, Shaun of the Dead is a movie that really loves its characters, the way that the mother’s death (Penelope Wilton) is handled is just heartbreaking. And I think that is what marks that film out over less successful scripts as it is written by someone that cares.
H: Like many filmmakers were you bitten by the film bug at an early age.
PH: Film was what I’d always wanted to do; I’ve still got Super-8 footage that I filmed when I was little, unleashing stop-motion monsters on Essex, then life got in the way but the love of film never went away. I worked in video shops, cinemas, anything to be near film. I then found myself stuck in a call-centre during the dot-com boom, literally writing screenplays between calls.
I bought stock in it when it floated on the stock market, borrowing cash from family and friends, watched the company rocket and then sold it off. I paid back everyone that very week but more importantly had enough money for a broadcast-quality camera and an edit suite. With that, we made our first film, TrashHouse, which came out on DVD all over the UK.
H: What advice would you give to any budding filmmakers or writers?
PH: Give up! It’s way too competitive out here and I want all the work for myself.
No, don’t give up. Trust your instincts, do the things that only you can do. Don’t try and copy others and for Christ’s sake don’t be boring. Hollywood will always have us beaten on budget but we can take risks they can’t. We don’t have to please EVERYONE to make our money back, so don’t try to. Get a few thousand people to love your movie rather than trying to get millions to not object to it. If you’re making a tentpole blockbuster you don’t have that luxury.