*Editor’s note: Icons’ own Justin R. Lafleur was awesome enough to not only conduct this interview, but to do it with a filmmaker that holds a special place with Icons of Fright. Dante Tomaselli was one of the very first interviews conducted for Icons, back in an interview that Rob G. did in 2004..a full decade ago. What better way to celebrate a “Decade of Fright”, than by catching up with someone whose career has grown, just as Icons has grown. We’re all very stoked on this one, and we hope you readers are as well!-Jerry
Rejoice film freaks! Visionary director Dante Tomaselli is back with what can arguably be called his best film yet, the recently released TORTURE CHAMBER! All his trademark obsessions are on display (the inversion of religious iconography, Catholic mysticism, demonic forces hovering at the edges of the everyday and children who may or may not be spawns of the devil, all put through a seventies / Italian horror cinema blender), only here they reach a fruition and maturity that both honors what came before in his filmography and point towards an exciting new direction of growth for the director. From the fires of hell turning a small bedroom into a sizzling oven (in a creepily effective opening and possible nod to Donald Cammell’s 1977 DEMON SEED) to a wonderful homage to his 2000 film DESECRATION, in the form of an insidiously changing painting of the Pope, his visions of spiritual warfare besieging everyday folks in a maelstrom of evil have been stunningly realized more so then ever before. If you are up for the weird trip and keen on the director’s personal aesthetic of low-budget surrealism, TORTURE CHAMBER offers up a quietly unsettling excursion into hell.
On the heels of TORTURE CHAMBER’S bow on DVD and the debut of his second album of sinister music, THE DOLL, hitting disc just the other week, Icons of Fright thought it time to catch back up with one of the genre’s most unique and powerful visionaries. In our first chat with Tomaselli, conducted by Rob G in 2004 (which can be read here) , we focused on his history as an burgeoning artist and what it was like to be Dante Tomaselli doing Dante Tomaselli things in the field of horror cinema. Today, we zero in on his more recent achievments and discover what his plans are for the future, the re-occurence of motifs and themes in his work, working alongside horror veterans and ask him just how truly scary are his nightmares.
If I may draw a conjecture between your childhood raised within Catholicism and the themes of your work in the horror genre, it would appear as though exposure to the beliefs and practices of the Catholic church has had a negative, traumatizing effect on your psyche, albeit an extremely rich and rewarding effect that has birthed fruitful creativity. Elsewhere, you’ve spoken of the paralyzing fears you experienced in your youth, namely going to hell, due to this upbringing within the church. Analyzing your body of work, one is tempted to conclude that you are working through the demons of your childhood. Would you say that his is a fairly accurate assessment? Are you still a practicing Catholic and if so, do you see your faith, as it were then or may be now, as advantageous to your imagination?
I never wanted to go to church in the first place. I’m a Catholic because of my upbringing but I’m not a practicing Catholic. I still remember being on my knees in church and wondering what in the world I was doing there. And sitting in a confessional booth…It felt very odd for me. It seemed like hypnosis or brain washing. Where is God? The apparition. I’d stare at the architecture and listen to the hymns. But I’m not anti-religion. I’m not political. My grandmothers were fantastic people, my favorite human beings on this planet and they were very religious. I suppose it gave them peace and that’s a positive thing. I just don’t like when religion twists, as it often does, to display hypocrisy. Characters in my films are influenced by smiling preachers with evil in their hearts. And they’re out there. Hate and venom cloaked in religion. The trancelike power religion wields when there are wolves in sheep’s clothing at the helm. People pretending to know God’s opinion. And what exactly is the opinion of this invisible force in the sky? So many entities shouting, “God demands this….God doesn’t allow this…” I mean, really, you’re worshipping a ghost! There’s nothing there! It’s mass psychosis.
I remember in 1976, I was 6 and my parents took me to see THE OMEN at a Drive-In in New Jersey and there was a scene where Damien sees a church and just explodes. Now that’s extreme but I understood his anxiety in a way. I developed panic anxiety when I was in the seventh grade. I don’t have it now as much, I guess I’m more comfortable in my own skin and I’ve worked through some issues, but when I was younger….Aside from constant nightmares, something traumatized me. I remember being afraid of any teacher calling on me to read out loud even though I received A’s and B’s in English and reading was no problem. I read books all the time. It was anxiety. I don’t know why my body reacted the way it did. I don’t know why my inner state was so negative. My heart would beat so fast, I thought it was going to pound out of my chest. I felt like I was going to pass out and I couldn’t speak. No one really knew this. I hid it well. It was very stressful to my body and it’s probably why I was sick a lot. All that toxic energy within. Now as an adult, I’m compelled to illustrate those emotionally violent states in my films and music. Plus once I had something called Urticaria where I couldn’t go outside or I’d be covered in hives. It’s an allergy where the air, the atmosphere itself is the enemy.
As an extension of the previous question. Most of your protagonists are damned by your design. Whether it be eternal damnation or enduring a personal hell here on Earth, they are doomed. As their creator and when you are writing for these fictitious souls, do you view their fates as warranted and deserved or are you sympathetic to the suffering your characters undergo at your hands? Do you empathize with their plight?
Well, the way I conduct myself outside of the movie’s conscience is different. In life, I try to be a good person. I treat people with respect and I’m pretty gentle but when I’m in the realm of the film, I’m different. I can be sympathetic…yes…my films are not a celebration of violence. They’re more about the sensitivity to violence. I can also be cruel and judgmental as the voice of the puppet show I’m creating. I am sometimes the God that God-fearing folks fantasize about. Like in SATAN’S PLAYGROUND when there was a random camper on his own path smoking a joint, I had a demon kill him…Random killings are evil and inexplicable. Or when a nun got slashed by floating scissors in DESECRATION. I tend to slam the door on the viewers at the end of my films. There’s an energy…a fury. It’s about…It’s about there not being any closure. The confusion of being alive. I do feel there’s a sense of a journey…of having to go through the darkness to get to the light. Even though that light never arrives.
In 2004, you stated to Icons of Fright that you are “…more of a musician than your typical director. These films are songs or…albums to me.” It calls to mind sentiments expressed by another artist with a challenging, often misunderstood body of work, David Lynch, who has stated that he sees himself first and foremost as a painter and that his films are best viewed as “moving paintings.” Should this outlook on your own films act as guiding light for your audience, gently suggesting how they should experience or best appreciate your art? And if so, how so?
I would probably put my films in the category of Psychedelia. Anyone ready to sit down and watch my stuff might want to know that they’re non-linear experiences, in other words, the past, present and future meld. I make horror films that speak in dream language. I notice a contrast when I attend film festivals or markets. I’m not a salesman. I’m not a showman. Many directors love the attention. And that’s great. More power to them. I prefer to work behind the scenes, in the darkness of my mind or the film set itself. I don’t like talking…talking…I like making films not posturing and selling. When I was really young like 4, I knew I wanted to be a horror director. I knew that I wanted to make scary movies. I also remember around that age being in a doctor’s office and seeing HIGHLIGHTS MAGAZINE illustrations. I took some home and stared at the pictures endlessly, my eyes scanning. They released serotonin in my brain. I was electrified…and I knew that I wanted to create horror films like that…where clues are hidden and you have to search. My films should be experienced in stereo, in darkness. I believe any other way diminishes them. Home computers are okay but have some good speakers attached. Maybe with another kind of movie, a drama or comedy it doesn’t matter much but with a horror film where mood is paramount…you need to hear it in stereo. I’m definitely more a musician than a typical director.
Since making that statement in 2004, you have gone on to craft three albums of instrumental music. SCREAM IN THE DARK, a creepy collection of sounds aimed at the Halloween music market. The recently released THE DOLL and the forthcoming NIGHTMARE. What has it been like for you as a director to focus solely on the creation of music instead of crafting visuals? Are the two eternally entwined in your mind? Excluding music videos, adapting albums into feature length narratives, as you plan to do with THE DOLL, is certainly uncharted territory for most film directors. What has that process been like? How much do your soundscapes influence what you will in turn put into their future scripts?
I’ve always had an interest in electronic music like Jean Michel Jarre, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Greg Hawkes, John Carpenter, Coil and Tangerine Dream. I played some instruments…trumpet and guitar when I was younger but forgot how to read music. So last year I started taking piano lessons and my talented teacher, Don Olson ended up engineering my soundscape albums. We’ve stopped lessons completely and work solely on sound design. Making movies is my real passion but it’s always stressful because there are so many people required…With my mood music…my soundscapes…I’m alone and I love that. I can create these…worlds. It’s been very therapeutic for me because I need an outlet. For me it all begins with sounds. Always did. Sounds trigger visuals. It’s like the synesthesia that I have…Sound – Color synesthesia. When I hear certain sounds, I see colors… patterns. Mostly it happens with rain, just the sound of it…or sizzling…I’ll see fiber optic dots floating specks of light. Or with a loud alarm, I’ll see gray spirals, mini tornadoes. I’m a sound hunter….Once I find the sounds that speak to me, I begin to mix them in my mind, layer by layer. They’re like little spiders crawling around in my brain until they’re formed and unleashed. It’s an exorcism. I block out all the outside noise, all the chatter, I go into myself.
You’ve stated that the film based upon your album, THE DOLL, is set in Salem, Massachusetts and revolves around an old wax museum. If ever there were a more perfect setting for story told by Dante Tomaselli, I don’t know what it would be. Can you expand on any details regarding this movie? Get us excited. Or rather, even more excited than we already are.
THE DOLL is going to be my fifth feature, unless I end up shooting ALICE, SWEET ALICE first. I’d walk over broken glass to make each of my films happen but I’m no longer plagued by a sickening pang in my stomach, like it’s life or death. That’s not sending out a healthy signal to the universe. Desperation breeds desperation, I’ve learned. It’s more a quiet resolve now. I learned my lesson because after I didn’t get to shoot my long planned project, back in 2008…THE OCEAN…I was nearly suicidal. I won’t go through that again. Creating TORTURE CHAMBER saved me and was a lesson in tenacity. I always want each of my films to be more effective than the last and I aim for THE DOLL to be my creepiest, most suspenseful horror film. I’ve always been extremely unsettled by dolls and mannequins. If you notice there’s an eerie doll in every single one of my films. My nightmares feature doll-like figures galore. TOURIST TRAP is a favorite. I used to come home from school in the early 80’s and watch it every single day like an addiction. I don’t want to give away too much about THE DOLL at this point because the screenplay is being created now and the film is in its early stages of development. Imagine a violent haunting at a family owned wax museum in Salem. Wax figures depicting the Salem Witch Trials. A lake in the backyard. Woods. It’s a haunted house horror movie with a twist. Each one of my films is a funhouse that I’m constructing. I make no bones about it, I’m not interested in creating comedies or something about lawyers in love. I have my focus and it’s very specific…gothic horror.
Heretofore, all the screenplays for your produced films have been written by yourself. Lately you’ve been collaborating with writer / Fangoria scribe Michael Gingold on gestating projects, namely the aforementioned ALICE, SWEET ALICE re-make, THE OCEAN and THE DOLL. What was the motivation behind bringing another voice into the fold of your creative vision and how has the process of shared screenwriting credit effected, in your mind, the eventual finished product? Looking forward. will the results be a new, altogether different Dante Tomaselli effort than what fans have come to expect from you?
No. I always want Michael to help me, not obliterate my ideas. He knows that. With THE OCEAN I came up with the template and he expanded on those ideas and contributed a lot. It’s my characters, my basic plot and he elaborates and writes new scenes that enhance the storyline. It’s refreshing for me to focus more on the directing and scoring because that’s what I really love. I trust Mike. He’s one of the most honest and decent people in the horror industry. And he’s wildly creative. The amount of writing he does for Fangoria…It boggles the mind. I admire him as a writer, very much. He also knows that each project, each script of mine is a different animal, a different budget and that the screenplay is made for the purpose of me directing and scoring. Like for THE DOLL, I chose a really stripped-down setting. A wax museum, a lake…woods. That’s it. I don’t want too much dialogue and it’s got to be very tight. I’m writing the first draft with the preliminary soundtrack music always playing in the background and soon Mike will come in and polish…add dialogue and more scenes, ideas. It’s good that we’ve done this two times before. Mike really did a terrific job on ALICE, SWEET ALICE. We recently completed our final draft. He’s a fan of the film itself and had the paperback book called, COMMUNION when he was younger. We both did. I had a signed autographed copy from Alfred himself. When I created the teaser artwork for the remake I just had to incorporate the cover of that old unsettling book, a visual Alfred Sole, my cousin, created himself: The diminutive white-veiled Catholic girl brandishing a bloody crucifix, dagger.
It is rare that directors in the genre are the driving force behind getting a re-make off of the ground and not a studio looking to bank on an existing property. How has your process of resurrecting ALICE, SWEET ALICE differed from the course most remakes take in getting to movie screens and how does your family ties to the original’s director, Alfred Sole, effect what you are attempting to achieve with this endeavor?
This is a family affair and a labor of love. It’s not your typical soulless Hollywood remake. Alfred will be Production Designer on it and he’s currently the Production Designer on the ABC show, CASTLE. Recently he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on CASTLE. Alfred has been through the indie and Hollywood grind. He’s seen it all. When we talk, it’s like it can go on forever. We have so much in common, I look up to him and value what he has to say. Growing up, Alfred was a legend in our family. ALICE, SWEET ALICE was a staple in our household. He moved to California and has been around there ever since. When I was 7 years old, the film made its world premiere in Paterson, New Jersey under the title of COMMUNION. I was too young to attend but I remember the promo artwork. The white veiled figure with the glowing crucifix dagger. I was transfixed by it. For the low budget production, my father provided communion dresses, gloves and white veils because he owned a jewelry and bridal shop in Totowa New Jersey. Many of my relatives were extras. When the film came out on VHS in the late 70’s, I watched it over and over. I still do. The remake is in development, as soon I can give a firm start up date, I will.
TORTURE CHAMBER is presented as a series of interlocking vignettes that increasingly intertwine as the film reaches its climax. Viewing them is akin to dropping into others people’s staggeringly disorientating fever dreams, the effect of which can leave the viewer feeling even more off kilter from your hypnagogic narratives, than usual. What was behind the decision to tell an already surreal story in a non-linear fashion? Was this element present in the movie’s script, or was this an avenue of approach taken later on when the film was being discovered in editing?
I constructed TORTURE CHAMBER very much like my early films, DESECRATION and HORROR. It’s told through a series of dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. Very labyrinth. I feel the film exists at the hazy intersection between life and death. An interior journey. A non-linear experience was always my intention…from screenplay to shooting…something dizzying and hazy…indecipherable…like a real nightmare. I tried to make sure that the viewer would have no idea what is coming next. The dinner scene is the heart and soul of the movie. Jimmy, the young boy is controlled by his family. He’s like a suicide bomber…a slave to his family and their religion. He’s even kept in a cage. Jimmy’s own brother, Mark is a priest who tries to exorcism him…Like my film, HORROR, TORTURE CHAMBER is a loop. It’s a circular maze with no way out. It’s also like CHUTES AND LADDERS…the children’s game. With its odd turns and trapdoors, you really don’t know what will happen next. There are forces that you can’t control. Each portal leads you to the next.
TORTURE CHAMBER’S eerie, otherworldly atmosphere gets an amazing amount of mileage from the stunning locations utilized throughout the film. From the titular chamber itself, to the underground tunnels used to great effect in and around the movie’s climax. How did you discover such haunting, cinematic locations and what was it like shooting among them?
Thanks. I spent about a year scouting locations. First on my own and then with the New Jersey Film Commission. They helped me on all my features and they were especially helpful on TORTURE CHAMBER. I first started investigating caves for the film’s many underground sequences. Surprisingly, there are caves all around New Jersey and New York if you search for them but there’s all kinds of bat diseases in many and they’re not filmable. What I really saw in my mind’s eye was more like an underground mine. Very catacomb-like. So in the end, I shot at a mine in Ogdensburg, New Jersey. It was cold and dank and strange substances would drip from above. I felt like I was in the pits of hell. We shot in the intense early summer heat so a lot of people got sick walking from the iciness inside to the sweltering sun. Practically everyone on my film didn’t feel well at one point or another. I was ill for a few days. I recall shooting certain scenes with a high fever and raging sore throat. The crew also shot inside underground tunnels in Fort Totten Queens, an old military base. Stark locales but beautiful and macabre. Beauty and horror. Different sides of the same coin.
Horror veteran / icon Lynn Lowry has been making a huge resurgence in the genre of late. In addition to a commanding and sympathetic turn in TORTURE CHAMBER, she has recently taken roles in the indies GEORGE’S INTERVENTION, THE TROUBLE WITH BARRY (both with genre alum Peter Stickles), BASEMENT JACK and THE THEATRE BIZARRE among many other titles. How was working with one of horror’s most sublime and beautiful talents? Do you have plans to add her to your roster of reoccurring performers?
Yes. I really loved working with Lynn and we’re always in touch. Before all of this, we met at my apartment in New Jersey. It was about six years ago. I believe her agent arranged it. A convention was nearby….the Meadowlands or Secaucus. It was the same day Adrienne Barbeau came over to my apartment and we got to know each other and talked about the screenplay for THE OCEAN. She was ready to star in it. I was on cloud nine. Judith O’ Dea came to visit me too, the star of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. She was supposed to co-star in THE OCEAN. I had all these spectacular ladies in my apartment in one day.
As far as TORTURE CHAMBER, I remember it being six in the morning and wrapping a scene and suddenly I’m in a car service with Lynn Lowry, taking her back to her hotel. And we’re talking about things like her time on the set of David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS and her experience working with George Romero on THE CRAZIES. I was so tired and so excited, I felt tickled. Lynn portrayed her role in TORTURE CHAMBER like a wounded angel. She was so delicate and emotional on set. Like a psychic sponge. It’s a very bizarre part, the art therapist, full of strange metaphor.
With TORTURE CHAMBER, you worked with a performer new to your repertoire, actor Richard D. Busser. In this writer’s opinion, he very nearly steals every scene he appears in. With his background in theater, what was your direction like to someone unaccustomed to working within horror and on a production of such grisly extremes?
He was very good, yes. Well, I had a casting agent, Pamela Kramer, set me up with him. I thought he looked the part and was glad that he’s a Scorpio because I wrote the role as someone with Scorpio characteristics: obsessive, tenacious, intense. There was a kind of incestuous relationship the character had with his mother and when he read his lines I knew. During filming, he was really best during an uncomfortable family dinner scene. There was this odd twinkle in his eye. He’s part of a religious family in deep psychic pain. Rick took direction very well. I’m glad you liked him in it.
Can you talk a little bit about what became of your film, THE OCEAN and Christopher Garenteno’s documentary about you, THE HORROR OF DANTE TOMASELLI? Is there a possibility that we may still see the former one day and when can we hope to experience the latter?
THE OCEAN is a little painful to talk about but it’s a project of mine about a psychic haunted by visions of a watery apocalypse. There was a lot of momentum behind THE OCEAN about six years ago and people still ask me about it all the time but I just couldn’t get it off the ground. The budget was on the high side and it was during a recession in the States. I can try to rationalize it in ways, why it didn’t happen but the bottom line is that no one else is to blame. I’m responsible for everything that happens to me. Different production companies got involved at different times because we had a solid script, beautiful locations and a well- known retro horror cast attached with performers like Dee Wallace, Adrienne Barbeau, Lynn Lowry and Judith O-Dea. I remember even Tom Atkins was interested for a while, because of Adrienne’s involvement. A lot people liked the script and the concept and knew I had made three other features. It seemed sure-fire, especially when a certain production company placed an Ad in VARIETY for it. So it was crushing for me when the money wasn’t there, I mean to have Adrienne Barbeau and Dee Wallace on the phone ready to go…I was just crushed. A painful sword in my gut. I still do plan on completing the film when the time is right and the funding is there. I did have my underwater cinematographer, Mike Prickett, a daredevil cameraman, shoot huge monstrous waves as B roll footage for the film’s eerie underwater scuba diving sequence and surfing competition sequence gone awry. Years back, I created a montage with that footage and it’s somewhere online. Mike Prickett and I met in Bermuda and I paid him to shoot some eye-popping images straight from THE OCEAN script…It was B roll footage that I could incorporate. I even had a human dummy filled with blood mailed to him in Hawaii for the purpose of Mike filming it exploding on jagged rocks but it didn’t come out right. Recently, sadly, I found out that Mike is partially paralyzed from an accident in the ocean. As far as THE HORROR OF DANTE TOMASELLI, the documentary, I’m not sure. I do keep in touch with the director, Chris Garetano and I’ll ask him. I know there’s a trailer for that on the Anchor Bay SATAN’S PLAYGROUND disc.
That is awful. I’m truly sorry to hear about both your friend’s unfortunate accident and the series of events that led to THE OCEAN’S temporary demise. You’re right, that was quite a roster of names attached and I think it is safe for me to speak for all horror fans when I say that we still eagerly anticipate that film’s resurrection one day.
Thank you. I do believe one day THE OCEAN will rise.
Now that the HALLOWEEN franchise has broken away from the established, original series (likely forever) and been re-spun into something…different…under Rob Zombie’s direction, can you expound on what your involvement and plans were for the now-abandoned HALLOWEEN 9? What would a Dante Tomaselli HALLOWEEN film look and feel like? Where would you have taken the mythology of Michael Myers?
Oh yeah that all happened about six years ago. There was a petition some horror fans created online for me to direct the next HALLOWEEN sequel. I’d still love to. I’d want to retain the spirit and tone of the original. It would not be about me doing a surreal film. I’d aim to please fans of the original and deliver the goods. Usually I make films for myself but this would be an exception….the HALLOWEEN series is like a movement. Of course my favorite is the original.
From V/H/S to THE ABCS OF DEATH, modern horror film enthusiasts appear to be falling in love all over again with the anthology format. Perhaps not since the heyday of Amicus Studios has so many collections of short films been gaining this amount exposure to wider audiences. Upon watching the divisive THE THEATRE BIZARRE (which I quite liked), I thought to myself “What this baroque, strange film needs and is missing, is a contribution by Dante Tomaselli.” I thought your aesthetic and visual palette could possibly harmonize with what the likes of Richard Stanley and Karim Hussain brought to its table. These recent anthology films certainly seem to cater to the auteur directors in the genre, those who insist on playing by their own rules and telling their stories differently. With that in mind, have you any aspirations of coming aboard one of these popular collaborative efforts and would you accept an offer if invited?
I would be interested but no one ever asked me. I’m an underground horror filmmaker. I think certain directors and producers probably don’t know of me. I got my start creating experimental short films so I’d be interested in revisiting the format, sure. My films in general are very polarized. For as many people who enjoy my work there are just as many who despise it. This does leave me feeling a little disoriented at times, if I absorb it, though I am accustomed to that kind of feedback by now. I never cared about being the popular kid growing up. I didn’t mind being the weird one. I am weird. I remember a long line of students in the cafeteria waiting for me to read their palms. I used to read palms. I’ve always been a little eccentric. On the set, while shaping my films I feel like Dracula…communicating almost telepathically. Being a Creator. It’s when I’m most aligned with who I really am. I’ve always been a polarized person. I rub people the wrong way and the right way. I accept that now and don’t fight it anymore. My films are nothing if not different.
In closing, it has been well established in interviews that you draw much of your inspiration for your work from your own nightmares. If your sojourns through the dreamworld are anything like your movies, I don’t know how you get a wink of sleep at night. I imagine sweat soaked sheets and panicked awakenings in early morning, pitch blackness. As a means of gaining additional insight into the mind of Dante Tomaselli, would you be willing to share with us one of your recent or memorable nightmares that left you either shaken or inspired?
Well, there are still times when I’m afraid to place my head on the pillow and fall asleep. I pop up in the middle of the night and say “oh no I don’t want to go back to that world.” A lot of the imagery near the middle and end of TORTURE CHAMBER, the underground tunnels…came to me directly from my nightmares. And I became determined to translate…or transcribe those images, those places…The caverns of hell. An electric blue, royal blue almost aquamarine hue…Hallways made of stone…Torture devices…Trap doors…Black wrought iron gates….
A reoccurring dream I have is an invisible force chasing me through the woods…And there’s this lake…I need to get to land. I have no choice but to jump into the lake and swim to get to the other side. It’s so cold and there are blades in there. Dangerous sharp debris is everywhere. As I swim deeper I’m cut and sliced and water around me turns blood red. I try to get to the other side but I can’t. It’s a frightening dream and I actually wrote it into THE DOLL.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us again, Dante. It has been an absolute delight.
You’re welcome. Energy, Dante
To order a copy of Dante Tomaselli’s film Torture Chamber, you may do so by visiting here.
To order a copy of Dante Tomaselli’s album, The Doll, you may do so by visiting here.