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Author Topic: DISCIPLES OF DEATH 2  (Read 3002 times)


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« on: 18 Jul 2007 - 11:54 »

One of the attractions to Disciples of Death was Dobbs and Cass’s lack of knowledge of the horror genre; they literally went for it hell-bent for leather. “We were simply trying to tell an entertaining and action filled adventure story with elements of horror as a sales tool,” Dobbs says. “I don’t think we actually set out to produce what has become the classic horror genre. As you pointed out in our first exchange of messages, one of the appeals of the story is that it doesn’t follow the ‘by-the-numbers sequences’ of horror movies. Such as ‘by-the-numbers’ construction that in, and of itself, has become a subject for horror spoofs such as the send-ups of Scary Movie (2000). I always preferred to look at Disciples of Death as a rugged adventure story that just happened to contain some truly horrific but very real images than the usual fantasy trip or one step beyond reality. One review I read pointed out that one of its strengths is that all of the horror is the horror of reality.” Indeed, Disciples of Death does not play ball in the typical slasher horror genre with the expected clichés and tired formula: there is no explanation as to why the hooded monks indulge in human sacrifices, the heroine doesn’t appear until nearly forty minutes of running time, the lead hero is killed before the end credits roll and the movie lacks a visceral punch of extreme gore that were the hallmark of many independent drive-in flicks. Was the restricted use of onscreen violence in terms of hardcore splatter and dismemberment a conscious decision? “My thinking was that the audience becomes immune to horrific images,” Dobbs affirms. “Witness The Thing from Another Planet (1951) with James Arness as the giant carrot. You only get glimpses of an arm, shadow or a silhouette and your imagination starts to conjure up all sorts of personally sickening imagery – every time there’s even a suggestion of ‘the thing’, your skin crawls. Compare that to John Carpenter’s remake with the horrific multi-tentacled monster that appears almost from the opening. By the time the film is half-over, the audience is completely adjusted to the vision and begin to falter: the imagination is still a powerful tool,” Dobbs says.

The decision to place the heroine halfway through the movie and not identifying the protagonists, as well as killing the lead actor, is off-kilter but works surprisingly well and is a refreshing take on horror film narrative when so many films are formula driven. “We determined that it’s the usual mumbo-jumbo of explanation of phenomenon that tends to bog down most horror movies so we left the reasons
behind the cult’s activities deliberately vague.” Dobbs confirms. “There is a scene between the heroine and the lodge owner (Irene Kelly and Joshua Bryant) in which she expresses her interest in the old Penitente cult and her curiosity regarding rumours of its rebirth. At least, in the version we turned over to the distributor there is that scene. As for killing the lead actor, Deputy Dave, before the end of the story, that was a very deliberate act which we did to shake up our audience. Since almost all melodramas have a hero who stands tall and cleans everybody’s clock in the finale, we thought it would be a real jolt to kill the lead which heightens audience anxiety and renewed speculation,” Dobbs adds, as rush-hour customers start to filter into the bar. Nailing his colours to the mast, he concludes, “I’d say that we were dead on.” Of course, Dobbs and Cass did not have to worry about a studio, its suits and working practice in which they pay the lead actor to hang around to the finale and affect the outcome. “Under the studio or network system, we’d have never got away with several elements to our story, and we didn’t even realise it at the time. That information came to us through the years since as we pounded our heads against ‘The System’,” Dobbs says.

Being a poverty-row production with a restrictive budget and punishing schedule, innovative decisions and multi-tasking were key words for the success of the movie to be completed – shooting on a bean does not allow creature comforts, caravans for actors and expensive re-shoots. “If you’re familiar with Frank Oz’s Bowfinger (1999), you’ve seen a typical day on the set,” Dobbs grins. “We were headquartered about five miles north of the Rio Grande and there were a cluster of Mexican villages along the south bank of the river such as Santa Elena, Boquillas, Lajitas and San Carlos. In those days, the border controls were not very tight so we put out the word and had a dozen Mexican grips and electricians that worked for very low wages. They knew nothing about showbiz on day one, but by the end of the picture, most had mastered a great deal of behind-the-scenes duties and we were very happy with their efforts. On later films, many of these same men worked as set carpenters and greensmen (Note: responsible for procuring, placing and maintaining vegetation on film sets, from the lawns of a period mansion to creating alien swamps.) Today, with the much increased border security efforts, such entrepreneurship would not be permitted and the studios and networks no longer make films along the Rio Grande; it’s become too expensive, even for the studios.” Dobbs says. As he quaffs his chilled Miller, Cass is more to the point on the hardships – and benefits – of independent filmmaking: “It was HARD WORK! We did everything – there were no ‘stars’ – and we slept where we shot most of the film and also used the dwellings. Pearle beer (a local Texas brewery) donated several cases of beer for the drinking scenes. Dobbs had to lock-up a few cases to assure that we would have beer for those scenes. But the crew and I enjoyed a few beers every day after work.”

Guerrilla filmmaking where corners are cut can often bring the best out of a small production, but can also lead to dire consequences as Dobbs discovered to his horror. In a scene where an actor is thrown into a snake pit with a dozen six-foot rattlesnakes for company, the director nearly became rattler fodder. “History demonstrates that far more camera operators have been seriously injured or killed on film shoots than stuntmen – we had a near miss. We had the actor, the camera operator, his assistant and myself all in the pit at a reasonably safe distance from the snakes. At least they were when we first started… We were using a long lens to compact the snakes and victim, but the temperature in the old Waldron mine is seventy-five degrees all year – too cold for snakes and they tend to coil into a nest in an effort to stay warm and then become very sluggish. We had a lot of trouble provoking any of the snakes to actually strike, no matter what target we put in front of them. I started to stomp around in disgust and frustration. I then felt a sharp tug on the cuff of my jeans and looked over at the herpetologist with the snake stick,” Dobbs laughs, the hilarity, excitement and danger of low-budget filmmaking too evident in his revelry. “He looked back at me with a wide-eyed grimace. I looked down and only then realised that the stick was hooked on my jeans and I was literally inches away from the nest of snakes, one of them was poised to bite me. I leaped aside! The strike didn’t hit its mark nor did we get it on camera.

“We were ninety miles from medical help and I would have, without a doubt and the very least, lost the use of whichever leg the snake bit, no matter what first aid had been applied. The old Hollywood myth about cutting a cross into the fang marks and sucking out the venom is just that – an old Hollywood myth. It may prevent death but it can’t prevent major and irreparable atrophy!” Dobbs laughs.

Despite failing to achieve its rightful recognition as an effective horror movie and to be declared lost, Disciples of Death proved to be an extremely valuable learning curve in more than a hundred ways for its two creators. “There’s no teacher like ‘on the ground’ experience. Until six months ago, Disciples of Death was simply a distant but fond memory. However, we’re now contemplating doing an updated version that will take advantage of all we think we’ve learned in the intervening years. That is, if the horror craze doesn’t run its course within the next year or so. And we’ll always be grateful for the recognition, especially after all these years. Thanks to one and all who love the genre and who have found merit in Disciples of Death,” Dobbs says. Concluding, Cass is keen to emphasise his thanks and is clearly flattered that people are starting to rediscover their movie. “I am so happy that several young men’s hard work has born fruit and that it’s reaching a whole new generation of fans.” And amen to that! 
© Jay Slater 6 April 2006
In the memory of Frank Q. Dobbs who passed away 15 February 2006
Thanks: David Cass

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