Sunday 2 October 2016

The films of Tyler Tharpe - Freak (US 1999) and Return in Red (US 2007) plus exclusive director interview

Like the vinyl obsessive scouring second hand shops for hidden musical gems, the horror film enthusiast wades his or her (mainly his) way through stacks of so so movies hoping to find an undiscovered film worthy of their attention. This was how I came across the name Tyler Tharpe and his first film Freak, made in 1999. I had no expectations of the movie but after two viewings I'm now convinced that it's one of the best genre films of that decade that nobody's heard of.

Freak opens with scenes of a young boy being verbally abused by his horrendous mother (rather like the opening of Bad Boy Bubby but with clothes thankfully on) who is not just angry, she's heavily pregnant. The mother gives birth herself and tries to burn the new baby, but the boy rescues the infant from the incinerator and bludgeons his mother to death. Time advances and we meet Staci and Jodi, two sisters (one a half sibling adopted by their mother and now re-adopted by Staci) who must leave the family home and relocate across America to West Virginia. Meanwhile the boy, now grown up and hospitalised but also heavily bandaged to disguise his supposed disfigurement (we're never really sure whether he is or possibly it's just his mother's delusion), is also transferred across America to another secure facility. He escapes his transport and returns home to the scene of his boyhood crimes, paying particular interest in the orphaned twins, now in the same area, the youngest of which just may be the same baby he rescued from a fiery death nine years previously. 

Freak consciously takes its story steer from Halloween, but the grainy 16mm stock on which it's filmed, the leisurely pace and the cast of oddball characters give an impression of movies made much earlier - I was specifically reminded of Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) which used its American locations similarly effectively, all banging screen doors and abandoned trucks. The actors are all good at underplaying their roles and the whole thing is very gloomy but immensely successfully rendered.

Intrigued by this I checked out Tharpe's other available movie, 2007's Return in Red. The title refers to a military test classification for 'serious' or 'fatal' experiment results, which hints at what's to come. This is a very sinister movie about the effects of sonic experiments on the inhabitants of a small Indiana town (Tharpe's own home state). Many of the town dwellers are employed by a local factory, and Return in Red documents their rituals as they go about their day, fitting their life around working either the day or night shift. Into this poor but seemingly happy community enters an anonymous van, roving around town. When it stops the side door opens to reveal a large dish which, when activated, emits a sonic pitch that has horrendous effects on the living. People receiving low bursts become dissociated and confused. A larger dose leads to intense levels of pain that trigger people becoming suicidal or murderous. Much more nihilistic than Freak, nothing is explained here, and the viewer is left with the distinct feeling that the town is being deliberately experimented on; the final scene has a caller to a radio show convinced that this is all the Government's doing - she's dismissed as a crank but we're pretty sure she's right.

What both films have in common, as well as the shot on film format as opposed to video, is the terrific use of mid Western locations (free of most trappings of modernity) and the deployment of a 1:33 frame which keeps things very intimate. The cast of quirky local characters is about as un-Hollywood as it gets; and the deliberately slow pace, which in both films leads to a violent climax, is deceptive. 

Tharpe behind the scenes at his drive in
Intrigued by these very odd but extremely interesting films, I decided to track Mr Tharpe down, which in these days of social media isn't difficult. Since 2008 Tyler has run a drive in cinema in Martinsville, Indiana, so he's pretty busy with that, but recently his mind has returned to film making, as we shall see...

DEoL: So what’s your background, and how did you get into making films?

TT:  I started out like a lot of filmmakers my age, making Super 8 films in the back yard and in the basement. I went on to study film in college, where I ended up making my favorite short film, The Fifth Man. I went to Los Angeles from college, working in the the industry for a few years, starting out reading scripts at a production office on the Sony Studios lot. Then after working as a production assistant on the animated feature Bebe's Kids for Paramount in 1992, I decided to strike out on my own and make my first feature film, Freak.

DEoL: Can you tell us a bit about your first short film, Cow Stories Part 1, in which your contribution was, according to imdb, uncredited?

TT: Cow Stories Part 1 was a short film I shot in the Los Angeles area about 1998, right as I was finishing up the edit on Freak. I kind of just wanted to keep the creative juices flowing.  I shot it on Super 8, just like I did when I was a kid... but it’s sitting on my 20 year old PowerMac 8500.   I’m not even sure I’m able to transfer it off this old computer or even view it again someday!

DEoL: Tell me how you got Freak together, and some details about the shoot.

Tharpe on the set of Freak (1999)
TT: I moved back home from Los Angeles to Indiana in 1993, and started writing Freak and finished the script in about 6 months or so, with the intention to produce and film it in my home state. I knew I wanted to shoot it on film, and although at first I thought it would be shot on Super 8, I later decided to shoot it on 16mm, which was the format of choice for modest budgeted productions at the time. I spent a few months scouting for real locations and locating a crew including local cinematographer Tony Hettinger, and with a couple of good sized credit cards in my wallet, production began in October of 1994.

DEoL; I know the story has a few nods to Halloween, but were there other film influences in your head when putting the movie together? I thought that tone wise it was rather like the 1971 movie Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.

TT: I have not seen Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, but now I’m gonna have to check that out. Halloween was a huge influence, probably way too many similarities to count actually, mostly in the present day/second part of the story. If I could go back in time, I would rewrite the whole film, and the entire story would be an extension of the opening scene, taking place when the “Freak' was a young boy. I had a great back story that fed that opening scene, and I think that really would have made the movie stand out more.

DEoL: Looking at the opening credits, the title Freak seems to have been added in. Was there originally a different name for the film?

TT: was originally titled The Last Roadstop. When the film got picked up by E.I. Independent Cinema in New Jersey, they expressed interest in changing the title to something more marketable. I agreed...and they came back with a list of of about a dozen titles, such as Criminally Insane (which they later used for a different film), Gruesome Freak etc. I felt it fit well, so I chose and we went with Freak.

DEoL: You shot both this and Return in Red on 16mm. The choice makes both films look timeless (that and the locations) – were you tempted to shoot on video for either, or was 16mm a conscious choice?

Michael Todd Schneider in Return in Red (2007)
TT: Film was my first choice. Even high end video still looked like video back in the early 90’s. I did some tests and tried to make Super 8 look great, but I just couldn’t pull it off. So I decided to splurge and shoot on 16mm, which cost about $13,000 including the cinematographer, and was the bulk of the film’s budget. As for the locations, yes, I too really love the locations I was able to secure for both films; like the old house in Freak, and the seedy factory in Return in Red. Shooting in real locations helps add much needed authenticity to a film, and it helps the actors get into the mood, especially on a horror movie. 

DEoL: Moving on to Return in Red, while there’s a quote at the beginning that gives the subject matter some historical subtext, what drew you to make a movie about something so specific (‘government’ sonic testing)?

TT: I was really into listening to Coast to Coast AM (a local Indiana radio station - Ed) throughout the nineties, where the guests talk about the paranormal and other such topics.  The original host, Art Bell, had a guest on one night named Nick Begich. He talked about how the U.S. has this facility named HAARP (which stands for 'High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program') located up in Alaska, which is able to beam electromagnetic frequencies into the atmosphere, bounce them off of the ionosphere and back to Earth, for whatever mysterious purpose. He had some theories on what this is actually used for.  That set my mind racing, and I came up with the idea for Return in Red.

DEoL: In the film what are they supposed to be making at the factory? I loved the brief scene where all the workers moved in sync – was that a reference to Metropolis by any chance?

TT: Cool, I’m glad you liked that... no one really ever asks me about that shot.  That wasn’t a direct reference to Metropolis; however that POV was there to explain what was going on deep in the mind of Katie, who felt stuck and at a dead end in life, and who felt everyone around her were automatons.  As for what they were making at the factory...I have no idea!  However, the owner of the location did train the actors to operate that heavy machinery. So all of those machines were actually running, and the actors were drilling holes in spare parts, and threading pipes, etc.  So I hope it’s not too obvious that we were faking it.

DEoL: Script wise both films seem improvised, which makes them feel very real. How much were they scripted and how much did you let the characters create their own lines?

TT: I wrote the dialogue for both films...very little improvisation, outside of an actor changing a word or two by accident, or to make it flow better.  The only improvised scene I ever filmed - and I happen to love this scene - is in Return in Red, with the four factory workers chatting outside before going into work. Those guys came up with that scene, and I love how it worked, and captured the grit of those characters. Overall, I’m not too comfortable writing dialogue, and I’m tempted to experiment and let my actors improvise all of the dialogue in my next film.

DEoL: Have any of the people in your movies seen the films, and if so what was the reaction?

Freak (1999)
TT: Yes, I gave a copy to almost everyone who was involved with the film... I think most of them enjoyed the films, but it’s hard to tell.  Funny story... the actor who played Pete the gas station attendant in Return in Red provided the awesome brick gas station for the film, and played himself in the movie. When you walked into that station, that is exactly how it would go.  Anyway, I gave him a copy of the movie when we finished it, and I visited him a few years later I asked him what he thought of it, and he said, “I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet.” He not only provided a location, but was in it, and he hadn’t seen it yet!

DEoL: I know we’ve spoken briefly about this on Facebook, but can you tell me something about your involvement in the ‘lost film’ Double Dose of Terror!

TT:  I collaborated on that film with Michael Todd Schneider, who is a filmmaker-of-all-trades who did the special make-up effects and score for Return in Red, and and played the crazed 'screwdriver victim.' We got together shortly after the shooting for Red wrapped, and came up with the idea to shoot an anthology film (and I’ll add, we weren't the first people to ever do this obviously, but we thought of this idea a few years before Grindhouse and V/H/S and the million other anthologies that started to flood the marketplace). We finished it in 2011. It exists and is out there, and I think it’s currently for sale on Michael’s website, (it may be but good luck finding it! Ed).  My only problem with it was that I shot my segment on DV, which doesn’t excite me in the least bit.  I consider it an extremely underground effort...which is kind of cool in its own way.

DEoL; And finally, if you don't mind me saying your film making career isn’t exactly prolific (although your two major films are both better than many film makers achieve in a lifetime). Would you like to make more films? And if so do you have any plans?

TT: Thanks for the compliment! Yes, I have another film in the works...I consider it more of a mainstream effort, in the spirit of Sinister (Scott Derrickson's 2012 movie -Ed), which I really loved.  What happened was, in a nutshell, I bought a drive in theater a year after my last film was released, back in 2008, and I’ve been so bloody busy keeping that thing running that I’ve kind of had to put filmmaking on the back burner.  But the best thing about having a drive in, is the fact that it’s only open for 6 months, and that gives me 6 months off to shoot a movie and do other stuff. So I hope to make a return to film making very soon...!

DEoL; Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Tyler, and best of luck with the drive in and the next movie project.

If you're ever in Martinsville, Indiana, make sure to visit Tyler's drive in - the website is here. Freak and Return in Red can both still be found for sale in the usual on-line places.

No comments:

Post a Comment