Beyond the dark planet

Doug Bradley and Douglas Schulze on special effects, villains and Thorns

by Jennie Kermode

Doug Bradley in Thorns
Doug Bradley in Thorns Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

Of all the films at this year’s Frightfest, hybrid occult horror/science fiction tale Thorns is probably the goriest. It features some truly gruesome special effects, but there’s also a lot of interesting visual design work, and – the factor which is likely to draw in the most fans – it features a supporting turn from Doug Bradley, aka Pinhead from Clive Barker classic Hellraiser. Here he plays not the thorn-faced monster whom you’ll see in the publicity materials, but an archbishop who guides a former priest on a mission to investigate an observatory where strange things are afoot. Together with director Douglas Schulze, he joined me in the run-up to the festival to discuss the film.

“My manager contacted me. Some of his clients had worked with Doug previously so he was able to vouch for Doug,” he says of the process of joining the project. “For me, the starting point is always to read the script, and I liked the script and I liked the part. Negotiations were good and quick and easy, and I'm a few hours’ drive away from where we were filming so everything fell into place.

“You never know what's coming. I followed up playing the archbishop by playing a priest in The Exorcists.” He laughs. “Again, it's the subject matter, the imaginative landscape of the movie. I always sit with the script and put the words in my mouth and see how they sound, and they sounded good.”

“The film was a few years in the making,” says Douglas Schulze. “It called for a contemporary monster movie with a distinct retro vibe. The idea was to pay homage to what I consider a great era of cinema, in the Eighties. I saw so many of these wonderful monster movies growing up, whether it was Clive Barker or John Carpenter, so I used that as a starting point for drafting the story.

“When the script was written, initially, I didn't know that I would be given the opportunity to work with Doug. It wasn't until I had a conversation with his manager that he brought it up, and I was like, ‘Wow! He's been on my bucket list for an actor to work with for years.’ So I jumped at the chance, hoping our schedules would align, and went from there.”

A lot of the film revolves around the special effects, and there's one very early on where it really sets out its stall. Ever since Un Chien Andalou, the cutting of eyeballs has been a particular source of revulsion in cinema. It’s a shame that a lot of viewers won’t see it because they’ll look away even if they really try not to, but in this case it’s really well done.

“Major kudos to our special makeup effects wizard, Mr. Dan Phillips,” says the director. “He was the one who helped design the monster with me. We had plenty of evenings where we sat down looking at sketches, crossing back and forth, and he was instrumental in doing the intricate eye gag, as we called that. Anything you take your time with has the opportunity to turn out well, and we made certain not to rush that opening sequence. From what we're hearing, it's effective, which is nice to see.

“The original title wasn't Thorns. It was Dark Planet. I don't want to give away all of the story, but there is kind of a collective evil, if you will. As I talked with our special effects man, we began to look at history. We made the decision to go in that direction based on numerous factors. I think when people see it, and they see the monster, and they put it all together, it will make sense.” He grins. “I'm trying to be mysterious.”

Doug Bradley says that he was impressed by the result. “Given the restraints he was working under, which in in budgetary terms was significant. Special effects makeup is unforgiving in that regard. If it looks cheap, you've lost your audience the moment you put it on screen, especially when it's a featured monster like that. And it impresses straight away, as does as does the eye gag. You're right to go to that. I was impressed. It looks really good, and it holds up throughout the film. That's another important element – you haven't come to the limits of the monster by the third time you encounter it.

“In terms of my character, I was also intrigued straight away by this: he's an archbishop, a man of the cloth, and yet he’s working on behalf of a well known space agency. That's a spin on the character that immediately made me go ‘Oh, this is interesting. I don't know many archbishops who work for NASA. What's going on here then?’”

I raise the fact that there has always been an intellectual tradition within parts of the Catholic Church, which has let it to some curious places, and he agrees.

“Certainly the Catholic Church has always had a strange relationship with with all of this. They have their own observatory and they do seem to keep an eye on what's going on. And they've involved themselves in the UFO debates as well, that imagine other forms of life out there. Of course, the problem is, as soon as they find them, they're going to want to be converting them. I'm not quite sure about that idea. That tradition is there but it’s a complicated relationship going all the way back to excommunicating Galileo for spotting the moons of Jupiter through his telescope.”

I ask Douglas Schulze about how he brought together the elements of ritual and science.

“There's a natural evolution,” he says. “From a creative standpoint, the story began with science as the impetus, but as the monster took shape, the spiritual element and the religion began to surface. It's a recurring theme that I find extremely fascinating, and the two worlds seem to gel quite well together.”

I mention that I love the corridor in the film where there are Bible passages stuck to the walls, because they give it such a wonderful texture. And it seemed to me that he was trying to break up the straight lines of that scientific space and make it seem a bit more mysterious.

“Sure,” he says. “Without getting too complicated, drawing from the Kubrick world of composition, there's this idea of single point perspective where your eye is drawn to the centre of the frame. I was very inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey’s almost tunnel-like images that draw your your eye to a single character point. The hallway was a very important tool that we continued to revisit in the film. The Bible pages are always moving and the movements keep your attention.”

How does he feel about the film getting Frightfest’s attention?

“I'm extremely honoured,” he says. “We were actually invited to several other festivals earlier in the year but Frightfest has been on my bucket list as a festival to visit, and I've never been to London, so this was a wonderful way to celebrate the world première of the film. We're really excited.”

He has a biological horror film project in development at the moment, he says, but it’s still at an early stage and he’s not sure what will happen. Doug Bradley, meanwhile, has been playing a Batman villain in Gotham Knights.

“That was very cool to do,” he says. “It was very, very cool to do. I'd actually gone over to the UK for my daughter's wedding, and I was packing up, with a car on the way to take me back to Heathrow on the Tuesday morning after the wedding, and I spotted an email from my manager: ‘Script, please read, get back to me ASAP. I mean it.’ And my first response was ‘For fuck’s sake, not now.’ And then I thought I'd better at least have a quick look. So I started looking at my scenes and almost immediately I was texting him saying ‘Absolutely yes. What happens next?’

“Again, it was an outstandingly well written script. I loved the way it was written. I, for my sins, was entirely ignorant of Joe Chill. I didn't realise that he was such a central part of the Batman mythology and first appeared in the comics in 1933, If I remember correctly. I mentioned to a couple of friends that I was doing this and got the kind of ‘Oh my god, oh my god!’ reaction. I mean, I'm a Batman fan but not a Batman geek. So yeah. I'm reading the screenplay on the outskirts of London on Tuesday, and the following Wednesday, I was filming.”

As well as Thorns, he’s starring in a short film which is screening at Frightfest, which he wants to make sure fans don’t miss.

“Mud On My Shoes is the short film. It's by Matt Montgomery, whom people will know better as Piggy D, Rob Zombie’s bassist. He wrote a wonderful collection of scary poems for children called All My Friends Are Creeps, and he asked me if I would record the stories, which I was happy to do. That was a lot of fun, and I'm all in favour of giving children dark imaginative stuff to feed on alongside Disney. He's had a number of ideas for where to go next with these, and this is one of them. It's already won an award at the the Venice Short Film Festival I believe. So it's Mud On My Shoes and I'm the voice reading the poem.”

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