Ahead of Horror Channel’s UK TV Premiere of BOOK OF MONSTERS, on May 14, director Stewart Sparke talks about the influence of horror fans, his obsession with the Alien franchise and collaborating with horror icon Nicholas Vince.
Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be a film director?
I remember first realising that I wanted to make films during one of many viewings of ‘The Mummy’ (1999) on VHS in my bedroom on an old 15” TV. I became quite obsessed with the film and tried to make all my friends come over to watch it because I wanted to share all the amazing trivia about how they made the special effects. This sparked the idea that perhaps I could make my own films and so my first effort was to remake the entirety of the Phantom Menace in my bedroom with myself and my friends miming along to the audio of the VHS being played in the background. I didn’t even have a camcorder back then, so we shot the whole thing from a webcam mounted to the top of my computer monitor! Things escalated from there and I have been making films ever since, although I’m glad to say that we upgraded from the fixed webcam long ago!
How did Book of Monsters come about?
Book of Monsters was the result of myself and writer Paul Butler’s love of all things 80s horror. We love movies like Evil Dead 2, The Monster Squad and Fright Night. We developed a story designed to be filmed on a low budget in a single studio set over just a few weeks and doubled down on our commitment to practical effects, bringing in the fantastic team from DDFX Studio to create our monsters!
The movie was also heavily influenced by the horror community who, via Kickstarter, actually chose which monsters showed up in the movie and how some of our hapless characters were brutally dispatched! I’m still really proud to say that Book of Monsters is very much a movie made for horror fans, by horror fans as they had a huge hand in the way everything turned out on screen!
It’s very different to you first feature, The Creature Below, was this a deliberate choice?
As a psychological horror movie, ‘The Creature Below’ took itself very seriously which was something of a blessing and a curse to shoot. On the one hand, Paul and I loved drawing upon the Lovecraft mythos for inspiration and playing with the serious themes of madness and motherhood in a very domestic setting. At the same time however, we had so much fun with the practical effects creatures in the film that we felt somewhat shackled by the serious tone which restricted us from doing some of the more camp, 80s inspired, silly fun that you can have with a killer squid monster that you’re keeping in your basement. Which is why, when it came time to make ‘Book of Monsters’ that we fully committed to going all out on a practical effects driven movie with lots of opportunity to have some Gremlins 2 style fun!
Did it take long to cast?
We already knew going in that we wanted to bring back some of the fantastic cast that we’d had the pleasure of working with on The Creature Below but this time in very different roles. Anna Dawson (Arya), Michaela Longden (Mona) and Daniel S. Thrace (Gary) all returned to be splattered with buckets of fake blood and were fully on board for the shift to a more comedic tone this time round. Lizzie Arryn-Stanton had previously auditioned for our last film and we immediately thought of her for the role of Beth, making our job very easy! For our lead Sophie, the incredibly talented Lyndsey Craine came on very early in development as we knew immediately that she could convey the sweet and unassuming nature of our final girl who could swing a chainsaw with the best of them.
What was it like working with the legend that is Nicholas Vince?
Working with Nick was an absolute dream come true! We were lucky enough to have met him a few times at FrightFest and had the pleasure of being guests on his horror themed interview series Chattering with Nicholas Vince when we were promoting ‘The Creature Below’ (he is now hosting the brilliant The Chattering Hour on YouTube which is well worth checking out!). As someone who is known for playing horrific monsters on film, we really wanted to give Nick a completely different role in ‘Book of Monsters’ and he excelled in the movie as Sophie’s father.
Was it a tough shoot as it takes place in just one location?
Having the single location of Sophie’s house made things an absolute dream to shoot! We built the entire interior of the house at Prime Studios in Leeds which is just next to ITV’s old Emmerdale studios. Having a set build rather than an actual location meant that we had so much more control over lighting and could do whatever we wanted when it came to flinging fake blood and guts all over the walls! With everyone being confined to the studio for two weeks the set almost started to feel like home by the end of the shoot and it was sad to see it all taken down when we wrapped shooting.
It has a cool retro vibe to it; was the feeling and tone of the movie influenced by horror from the 80s and 90s?
Writer Paul Butler and I were hugely influenced by 80s and 90s horror. Since the movie came out people have likened it to everything from ‘Spookies’ to ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and they’re not wrong! We drew inspiration from the entire spectrum of horror from those decades, specifically creature features which we absolutely adore. A huge part of my childhood was wearing out VHS copies of ‘Tremors’, ‘Gremlins’ and ‘Aliens’ which all burned into my brain and influenced so many moments in Book of Monsters!
There’s a lot of practical effects here for fans of old school horror, was this a deliberate choice?
We made a commitment to have all of the film’s monsters realised with practical effects as soon as we had settled on the basic concept of the movie. As huge fans of old school horror, it was incredibly important to us that we paid tribute to the genre and did things how they would have been done in the 80s. CGI has its place and we did end up using it to enhance a few effects but when it came to the monsters themselves, we knew it could only be practical. The beauty of practical effects creatures is that they are a real, tangible presence on set that the actors can interact with and react to. Even if it’s a performer in a rubber suit, once you get the lighting right and slather on the slime, the monster comes alive in a way that CGI can never realise. It’s also an amazing feeling to see everyone on the cast and crew light up with joy every time we had an actual monster on set!
Did you have much budget to play with?
The entire budget for ‘Book of Monsters’ was probably the equivalent to what a Hollywood movie would spend on just a single shot so I’m proud of what our amazing cast and crew were able to achieve on such a tiny budget. We have the incredible international horror community to thank for making the film a reality in the first place as most of the film’s budget was raised on Kickstarter. Without their belief in us and the movie, I wouldn’t be talking about it with you right now, so I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who backed the Kickstarter campaign and the outpouring of support that we’ve seen for the film since its release!
Are you a big fan of monster movies and do you have a favourite?
I absolutely adore monster movies and my all-time favourite is ‘Aliens’! I’m obsessed with the Alien franchise in general and the Lovecraft-esque mystery of the Xenomorph as a monster is so intriguing to me. ‘Aliens’ really expanded that mythology with the Queen and it’s a movie I can watch repeatedly without ever getting bored. Coming in at a close second is ‘The Thing’ with a creature design that is just stunning in every way. Rob Bottin’s work on that movie is timeless and the monster is truly terrifying. The defibrillation scene completely blew my mind when I first saw it and it’s movies like that which inspire me every day.
You’re a multi-talented creative, do you have a favourite job?
Directing is certainly my favourite role as there’s nothing quite like being on set with passionate, like-minded people who love monsters as much as you do. The reward of seeing something you’ve spent months (or sometimes years) visualising in your head suddenly materialise in front of you is unparalleled. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have directed two features and on both I was blessed with cast and crew who poured everything into making the films the best they could be.
So, what are you up to at the moment?
Since ‘Book of Monsters’, myself and Paul Butler have been busy working on the script for our next movie which will be produced by our studio, Dark Rift Horror. We’re excited to start shooting the movie this summer and whilst we can’t reveal anything just yet, fans of old school, practical effects driven monster movies will be very happy!
Dark Rift Horror is also working with the wonderful Nicholas Vince to adapt his one-man stage show I Am Monsters into a feature film which has been such a privilege for us. Those who were lucky enough to see the show during its run will know how witty, fascinating, and uplifting Nick’s story is and we’ve had a blast working with him to give it a cinematic feel that does justice to his incredible journey.
Finally, we’ve been working with some hugely talented indie horror filmmakers to bring their movies to Blu-ray later this year under our new Dark Rift Presents label. We had great success when we released ‘Book of Monsters’ as a UK exclusive Collector’s Edition Blu-ray last year and that inspired us to give more indie horror movies the premium physical media release they deserve. We will be announcing our first two titles later this year, but horror fans can expect plenty of practical effects driven blood and guts with a darkly comedic edge!