Having spent over two decades in make-up special effects, Todd Tucker has worked on films that include: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), The Mask (1994), Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and Watchmen (2009). His sophomore feature, The Terror of Hallow’s Eve (2017), finds the filmmaker treating himself as the audience, while also merging his proverbial creative hats.
“I made it for people like me who love these kinds of movies” he explains. “I tried to stay very true to the genre and concept that I was trying to make and I wanted to come up with a cast of characters and creatures that felt familiar but were very new in their design. All the creatures were practically made at our studio here in Burbank, California, where we filmed a portion of the movie. So we utilised our creature and production facility for at least half of the sets in the film.”
Yearning for revenge against the High School bullies, 15-year-old Timmy Stevens (Caleb Thomas) unknowingly summons up the evil spirit of the hideous Scarecrow. With the ability to scare the bullies to death, Timmy learns the dangerous nature of his dark desire for revenge that once unleashed even he will struggle to control.
Ahead of the World Premiere at Horror Channel FrightFest Tucker, in conversation with PopMatters, discusses the merging of real events with imagination that the realism of his adolescent world denied him. He also reflects on the use of CGI in filmmaking and the need to consider the audience in its application, as well as the mix of joy and sadness within the filmmaking process, and the influence of marketing on the appeal of the horror genre.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I was an only child, and if I wasn’t watching movies, then I’d be making stuff that I could put in one. Going to the movies was the greatest experience because I could totally leave this world and absorb myself in the world of a movie. And they made great movies back then, mind-blowing films. No kid today could experience something like that because there is now so much stuff. It was a different time, but it definitely had an impact on me, and I wanted to work on movies since I was a little kid. But I had to wait until I was old enough and move to Los Angeles.
What was the genesis of the idea for The Terror of Hallow’s Eve?
The first 35 minutes of the film are based on events that happened to me when I was 14. I painted the picture exactly as I remember it. The only thing that didn’t happen was I didn’t have the opportunity to raise a demon to help me to take these guys down. I wanted to, I wished I could, but it didn’t happen.
I remember being in the garage after I had just been beaten up pretty badly by these guys. It was not just a few punches, I had a concussion and I was pretty messed up. One of the older guys went to jail, so it was a big deal. When I started coming up with the story for The Terror of Hallow’s Eve, I remembered back to when I was sitting there wishing I could go back and just tear these guys apart. As I was trying to sculpt in my garage, and getting blood all over the place, I remember wishing that if there was anything I could do, I would turn into a werewolf right then and there, and just go back and rip them to shreds… I was so pissed off!
So when we started coming up with the concept for the film, I decided to go ahead and put all that dirty laundry into the script, and further the idea by fleshing it out and seeing what would happen if I really had the opportunity to do it. Yes, that was wishful thinking, but I wanted that to happen. That made it a little difficult when filming a lot of the scenes because I was literally making it as close to what it was as I possibly could. But it was such fun to take a story and combine it with the fantasy idea, and come up with something that was close to the movies that inspired me as a kid.
I have seen Halloween (1978) Alien (1979) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) at least 50 times each. I just love these types of movies and I’m lucky to be able to do it as a career now. Ultimately taking what happened and then fleshing it out, and turning it into The Terror of Hallow’s Eve was a passion project for me, but it wasn’t easy — it was a little bit of an emotional ride.
Would you describe the experience of making the film as a cathartic experience?
I really didn’t hold onto this in as far as I had it in the back of mind or I wanted to get this off my chest. It wasn’t like that. It was more that my daughter is in high school and she is dealing with bullying. So I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but it really brought it back to me, and then I realised how many people would identify with the story because bullying is a huge thing now.
The message of the film isn’t to summon the creature and kill your bullies violently and supernaturally. If there’s a message it’s if something like this happens in your life, then don’t let it dictate the rest of your life. Move past it and be what you want to be – don’t let other people tell you what you are going to be. So it felt like the right time for me to make this kind of movie.
I’ve had people come up to me who’ve seen the film telling me about the bully that messed them up, and have started breaking down in front of me crying. It’s a very sensitive subject and if anything, I hope people can identify with some of the stuff in the movie, and it can help them to get past it, too. I wanted to do something that was more than just a horror film. I wanted to make something that had a message and might reach out to people in a different way.
The narrative of the film is simple, but within this simplicity of structure you are exploring the idea of the connection between our world running parallel to a supernatural realm, the two of which can interact. The Terror of Hallow’s Eve more specifically looks at how imagination is both the doorway to this world and its author. Although similar to art, there is an organicity to it where we lack authorial control.
When we were first putting the script together I wanted to keep the story fairly linear. I didn’t want to jump all over the place, but I didn’t have a lot of B stories, so I started on Tim’s story because that’s what it was. Then when we crossed over into the supernatural world I wanted it to be to the point where the audience almost couldn’t tell if Timmy was crazy — was it all in his mind? So we wanted to keep that back and forth motion, to keep the audience unsure as to how and why he’s able to make all of that stuff happen. It’s not within his control, obviously, and the idea is this happens once a year, every year — that’s the idea behind the trickster. So it was interesting to try to make a cool segway from what is a very linear and real world story, to a very dark parallel fantasy world that you’re mentioning.
I think a lot of people wish they had the ability to go into a parallel world, and especially for those people who want revenge — a world where you can make things happen that you cannot in the real world. It’ll be interesting to see how people take it and feel after they’ve seen it — what they like and what they respond to.
The puppetry provides the film with a pleasant aesthetic — one that feels tangibly real. The argument could be made that modern filmmaking has become overly reliant on CGI rather than using it as a tool to enhance a vision. In your opinion, what is the value of having something tangibly real for both the actors and the audience?
When we started the film, we knew that much like the old ’80s films that had no CG because it didn’t exist, we wanted to make sure the film could drop right into that slot. But the truth of the matter is that we have about a hundred visual effects shots, which we used them to enhance the practical effects.
I’ll give you an example. The trickster is played by Doug Jones, who is actually 6′ 4″. We shot him against a green screen, shrunk him down in the shot, did prosthetic make-up and then in post we digitally made his eyes bigger. So it was all practical, but by using the CG as a tool to enhance it, it takes it to a point where it’s still physically tangibly there. It’s doing something that you can’t explain how it’s done and that’s the real trick, because the second it doesn’t feel like it’s there and it’s a CG element, you don’t connect with it, and it takes you out of the movie.
Behind the scenes (ThinkJam)
We have a bunch of other characters such as the terror, a big giant creature, which we didn’t have the bottom half of that looked convincing enough — as if it was floating and supernatural and was truly a spectre of sorts. So we created the entire bottom half of the terror where we had all these wispy weird kind of brown and black layers of smoke, and tendrils moving around. But again, from the waist up it was a practical puppet. So we combined the current CG with the spirit and look of practical ’80s effects, and came up with what I think was a very convincing and transparent version of both.
We say this is all practical effects, and they all are, but the truth is they’re enhanced, and that’s why we are able to make it look as cool and as real in the shots as it is. That’s something that anytime we are doing make-up effects for someone else’s film, we always try to explain how important it is to utilise as much of the practical as a starting point as you can. If nothing else, it’s because it makes it much easier for the audience to connect with and to believe.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
I don’t think it changes you… How do I explain it? It’s a weird thing because when you come up with the concept and you write it out, and then you go through each of the steps from the very beginning, and you watch all of those steps come together, it’s such a cool feeling. If you know what you want and you start to see it literally happening in front of you, and you are able to take all these different departments of people and bring them together as a team to make one thing, and if you do it correctly, it’s like being a quarterback for a football team and winning the Super Bowl. It’s that kind of a feeling because it takes so many people to make it happen, and that’s where it’s really hard because if one person in the chain screws up, it could lead to a lot of bad things happening. So you have to bring the right people on and that the experience is positive.
For me, the people we’ve had on our films have been great, and I’ve remained friends with these guys for years. It becomes a family situation by the time we’re done, and it’s sad when it’s over. It’s like the end of high school, a weird feeling and a little bit depressing because you’ve gone through this filmmaking war together. So it’s a very rewarding experience and I don’t know if it necessarily changes me, but when I direct a film I will not realise it, but I’ll be smiling all the time — it’s just that good of a feeling to be doing what I really want to be doing. It’s really hard to explain, and the only way I can say it is that it’s like being a quarterback of the team that just won the Super Bowl.
Christian Kane, Todd Tucker and Sarah Lancaster (ThinkJam)
Is The Terror of Hallow’s Eve only the beginning of your directorial ambitions?
Absolutely! Right now I’m 27 years in the make-up effects world and I have been fortunate enough to witness some of the greatest directors in history make movies. I got to watch Spielberg do Hook (1991) Coppola do Dracula (1992), and I worked on Hannibal (2001). I got to see some of the greatest directors do their thing and I sat there and watched them intently, hoping that someday some little kid would be watching me [laughs] do the same thing. So it was in my head for a long time, and I feel like The Terror of Hallow’s Eve will definitely open some doors for us, and the goal is to continue to create.
We have five or six projects packaged right now that we are pitching, and we are definitely moving on and doing more projects. Right now I’m starting on the script for the sequel of The Terror of Hallow’s Eve. Yeah, our goal is to continue with more projects and just get better and better.
Picking up on the prospect of a possible sequel, what is the reason for horror cinema being so prolific for sequels and franchises?
I truly believe the main reason is that horror fans are the strongest and most dedicated… You have Star Trek fans that will die for Star Trek. And you have people that love horror so much that they get tattoos all over their bodies.
Also, after Star Wars (1977) came out, horror, sci-fi and fantasy began to be marketed. All of a sudden you had all these cool things — Pinhead action figures, Freddy Krueger lampshades, and weird stuff, and your favourite horror movies could be captured on a lunch box. So [the industry] came up with merchandising and I think that catered to the fans loving it all the more. They don’t do that with a romantic comedy or an action movie. So I believe it’s the branding that makes it more of an experience for the fans. You have a strong fan base and these films are more than just a one time experience.
Horror Channel FrightFest hosted the World Premiere of The Terror of Hallow’s Eve.