This is the last of the interviews I did when attending Horrorhound 2011 in Cincinnati on November 13, 2011. Tom McLoughlin was at Horrorhound as part of a Friday the 13th Part VI reunion. However, that is only one great horror film that has been a part of his prolific career as a director. McLoughlin started directing four years before Friday the 13th Part VI with One Dark Night in 1982. He has gone on to work primarily on TV movies, but that has not stopped him from contributing to the horror genre. A particular stand-out for this scare fan is his work on the television adaptation of the Stephen King short story Sometimes They Come Back. Between his steady flow of fans throughout the day, he managed to find the time to talk with me and provide this interview.
Ira Gansler (interviewer): How do you define horror?
Tom McLoughlin: Horror, Ira, to me is a very different thing from gore or suspense or even the sort of the classic way of looking at a scary story. That whole feeling of being horrified, to me, is a different way of approaching a story. Because you can scare somebody, you know, jump scare, you know, scared for the character whatever, but to sit back and be horrified because you care about the person and the storytelling, and something is happening to them that's beyond, to me, what your imagination would have thought. You know, if somebody is coming at you with a knife, for instance, and all you're afraid of is being stabbed, what's horrible to the audience is if that thing goes into the eye or into the ear with Tom Friendly driving the van. So it’s, those moments to me are like it's scary as Jason's approaching you and then what he does is he doesn't slit his neck, he goes right into his ear, which is a horrific moment. So that's kind of how, in Friday, I would define it.
IG: Why you think horror appeals to people?
TM: I think horror appeals to people, mainly because, it is something you can watch, you can go through it, and then it’s over, and it doesn't happen to you. But you got to kind of experience it and you came out ok at the end of it. The character might not of, but you did, so there is this kind of catharsis that occurs. The good horror movies too have that sense that something is going to happen to the person we care about, we hope not, and you're waiting for that horrific outcome. And if it doesn't happen, it's great. And you feel like, "well they got away and maybe in real life I'll get away, whether it’s my credit cards are maxed out and I'm horrified of what might happen to me in my life, I might get thrown out of my house and living on the street. And somehow all of those fears of what goes on in your daily life go away because you get caught up with the characters on the screen. So it does give you a kind of a release. Temporary, but it certainly helps us psychologically.
IG: And you know, I think obviously there's that huge psychological element to horror and with that, why do you feel, and maybe it's that you disagree with it or you agree, but why do you feel that horror keeps seeming to aim, now a days, to seem to push the envelope in terms of gore and the over-the-top deaths?
TM: Well, you know, I had this issue on my Friday. I tried to approach it in a slightly unorthodox way: A, adding humor to it and second, making Jason the undead, you know coming back with a lightning bolt, which basically, you know, now he's unstoppable. And then you add to that the fact, you know, I knew I had to do an element of gore, but there had been so much of that, you know you couldn't avoid getting an X-rating with it. I also thought if I did 13 kills there sort of was a reason and a rhyme with the whole thing. It happens on Friday the 13th and there are 13 kills, the whole thing kind of goes around the mythology of how Jason was killed on Friday the 13th. So I tried to wrap into that whole kind of context. But after we screened it, the producer said "You know, we need three more kills." And I said "why?" She says "I don't know, I just feel like we need to see these other people get it: the caretaker, actually see Sissies head be twisted and taken off and then add two other people." And I had to figure out how we could do that and where we could place those things. So, you know, gore to me, like the torture porn thing that is going on now, is kind of taking one more step into something that is less horrific and more repulsive. And I'm not a big fan of it, I think there is a place in every movie for certain elements of that, but when that's what the objective is, you know, and it works, it’s been very successful, but then you have to top that and you got to go yet another step beyond that. That's the hard thing, how much gorier can we get? And then, basically they tell you that you can't do that anymore. So you go on the internet.
IG: So do you feel that there is too much emphasis on the gore now a days and not enough on that psychological thrill or scare?
TM: Not to me, not as much as there was. Blaire Witch came along and did it completely clean. Paranormal Activity, I mean those are the things that are enormously successful. And it’s more about being cheap and making the audience feel like their seeing something real then a complete gore fest. Not that there isn't those films but I've notice that they've not been as successful unless they're direct to DVD and then that caters to a particular audience that that's what they want to see and buy, then you go target that audience, but if you put it out mainstream, it’s a lot harder to get seen.
IG: Here's kind of one that I've been thinking about a lot. You know, film as a whole, really seems to be most successful when it exists in the context of what is going on in the larger world. Whether it’s our fear over war, poverty, whatever the current big scare on the horizon it, terrorism currently, so do you feel that horror has the need to exist within that framework, or because it feeds on our primal fears that it can be successful without tapping into the modern-day fears.
TM: That's a really good question. I think it’s a bit of both to be honest. Grimm's fairy tales are probably some of the most horrific things that children can read. Even when you look at the Disney, early Disney Snow White, the witch was really scary. There's elements that we have to have in our culture and I think that part of growing up is knowing that there are monsters but that the monsters can be defeated. You needed to be brave, you know you needed to push the witch into the oven, you know instead of Hansel and Gretel having to go in. When you think about the concept, it’s pretty intense, but you know it is, there is a mythology that I think is important. Then when you get into the whole thing of what is going on in the time, there's a wonderful book that is also a documentary called "Nightmares in red, white, and blue" the history of the American horror movie that I did with Joe Madry. And I think that Joe did a wonderful job with tracking the decades and showing the atomic fears of the 50's and the 70's with the "God is dead" and the Exorcist and The Omen. And how much of that is influencing culture and how much is culture the reason why those movies came out? And there's a little bit of both. I think "The Omen" wouldn't have happened if "The Exorcist" wasn't so popular. And "The Exorcist" wouldn't have happened if "Rosemary's Baby" wasn't so popular. And so, you kind of feed on what is working for people. Most days, it was the books. And you know, I guess you could say the same about "Twilight" or "Harry Potter." If "Twilight" hadn't worked or "Harry Potter" hadn't worked then we wouldn't have those great movies. So there's a need to give the audience kind of what they want, but they don't know what they want until you give it to them. I don't think anybody thought "Harry Potter" would be the phenomenon that it is, not to mention that it got kids to want to read again. And everybody, still everybody says that nobody is going to read anymore. They did, and they enjoyed it, and it made them want to read other things because they enjoyed the fun experience. And then they saw the movie and that made it even better. Or "gee, they didn't do this or that" and then you go back and read the book again or maybe seeing the movie is what makes you go see the book. So I think anything that can be done that steers your imagination, I think, is good. And we all cannot tell. You know we look at what's going on with terrorism and things. Do we want to put that into the movie? Well, it’s like, we see it on the news, maybe we don't want to see it as a piece of entertainment. Even if you're conquering it, I could be wrong about this, but it never seems like what is literally going on is what you make a movie about unless you do it overboard. Like the 50's, like the fear that we're going to die in an atomic bomb, well, no there's going to be giant locusts, there's going to be giant things, bigger than life things. And that, of course, was catering to the teenage crowd, and that's the thing. You can do death, you can do violence, you can do torture, but you kind of have to be young to sort of go "yeah, I can enjoy that as a piece of entertainment." because death is so far out of your realm of reality. It doesn't really bother you. As people get older and have kids, now they get a little more nervous about dying or something happening to their kids.
IG: Absolutely, so what do you think is your biggest trick of the trade for scaring the audience? What do you do? I think a lot of fans, I'm sure you've heard it a lot this weekend, love part VI. They really say, I know me as a fan, I know part VI really stands apart from the rest, in terms of being such a great Friday movie even though it was so far along in the line and we had seen Jason so many times already. So what do you think is your trick for bringing that kind of fresh, what the fans want, to horror?
TM: That's another great question, Ira. I get, I think, the thing that I try to do, and this might sound strange, but I was a huge fan of Frank Capra, and actually even had him as a mentor where I was able to bounce things off of him and call him and talk to him. And Frank Capra’s movies couldn't be further away from horror if possible. I mean what is "It's a wonderful life" have to do with my Friday? Well, what I learned from Capra is that it’s a people to people medium. If you can get the people to like the people on your screen then they will connect with them and I went in with that objective for one. I wanted people to like Tommy, I wanted people to like Jennifer's character, I wanted you to like pretty much everybody so when they died, it’s like, well gee, there's sort of a regret that they're gone and yet there is a little more horror in the fact that I killed somebody that you liked. And then the sense of humor also, I believe I learned from Charlie Chaplain, believe it or not. You know, if you like somebody you can laugh. If you don't like them, it’s hard to laugh. And if you laugh, you've just released some tension and then you can do a jump scare so much better because you've allowed the audience to let down their guard for a moment and suddenly something happens. I also wanted with my comedy background to allow the audience to provide punchlines. You set up a scene like the American Express card thing and I knew that by holding on that shot, there would always be some joker that would yell out "don't leave home without it!" And everybody would laugh. People who hadn't thought of that would laugh, because they thought how clever this guy was and he thought how clever he was, but to me that doesn't matter. If the audience is enjoying that and are participating with what is happening on screen, that's a huge thing. It used to happen in the 80's in the movies so much and we don't see it as much now. Whenever I can stick something in like that, a laugh, "so what WERE you going to be when you grew up?" or even having the caretaker look right in the lens and say "some people have a strange idea of entertainment" you know which is directed at all of us sitting there watching this. You know, so that's what I think gave it a whole new approach, by bringing those elements into it and trying to have a little more story. I tried to tie up the whole Jason myth by having Jennifer's character talk about you know the back story. Having it happen on Friday the 13th. So there's a lot of stuff that kind of stayed true to the legend and the mythology and what I couldn't figure out from the other movies, I just sort of made up the kind of classic scary story telling.
IG: Do you think horror can go too far?
TM: Can horror go too far? I guess it can in that if it, I guess the thing, the snuff films. The things that you think that you're watching that you think is real and maybe its faked, but you're watching it and you're getting off on it because you think it’s real is pretty intense. I mean, in terms of going "hey man, you've got to see this woman get her throat cut open," it's like "what movie?" and it’s like "it’s not a movie, you know they got real." So I guess that kind of plays into a whole other kind of fantasy fulfillment which there are going to be 95% of the people, 98% of the people who say "I don't want to see that. That's not entertaining to me." And then that other few percent, if that gets them off, so they don't do that, then great. And that's a thing that we've suffered a lot with these movies is this "oh, you're feeding people to do this. You want them to look at this and want to imitate it." Every once in a while, there will be somebody, I'll see it on a documentary where it's like "What was going on in your mind?" and it'll be "Oh, I was just thinking I was Jason and I went after that kid's mama" and you go "Oh Jesus!" At the same time, I've had psychologists say "you know when we've had problems with kids, we put a Jason mask on them and they get out all their anger and all their violence on a stuffed pillow or something." Because it wasn't them, they were able to free themselves up. Because that's also what Jason represents is that unstoppable killing machine that's out there, that can find you no matter what, that can't stop him, you can shoot him and he'll get right back up again. So, it’s again, it kind of works on both levels. I think if somebody's a bit unbalanced, it can throw gasoline on the fire. You know, Michael Myers, any of them. People can get off on being Freddy. Making somebody be tortured or killed while he laughs about it kind of thing. But it’s so so so rare that that happens. Most of us just really go, you know like Halloween, where we go to have a good time, laugh, get scared, and get on with our lives.
IG: So, obviously, you're saying you talked with the psychologists, there's a lot of pros to horror, a large contingent of people who find that release in a less destructive way through this medium. So, why do you think the MPAA has been so hard on horror of all things?
TM: Well, I think that in their mind, it does go too far. And that every so often, something will get through the cracks, like "The Exorcist." Still to this day, when I see those scenes, the crucifix scene, you know in particular. It's like how did they have one screening and they went "Ok" and gave it an R and that was the end of it. And you know, those of us, like I got nine failures with the MPAA and to me, mine was the least gory and had the least amount of watching someone get stabbed repeatedly and was all superhuman kills because Jason was, in my mind, was superhuman now. But, the thing that was the most interesting was that David Kagen's kill, you know, Sheriff Garris, being bent over backwards and hearing his back snap that they made us take the most amount of frames out of. And it was kind of a cumulative effect. Because when it got to that point in the movie, they felt like "how much more was this guy going to go?" And, to me, that was a bloodless, really horrific thing to happen. I mean, again, it was one of those moments that I consider horror. It wasn't gore, you know, and it wasn't so much it scared you, as it was like it's just like "oh my God, that's horrible!" to have somebody bend you back and snap you like that. I talked to a lot of people who said they couldn't go to a chiropractor after that I just felt like if this person was wacko, he could do that to me. So, you know, I think the MPAA is this group that feels like they can protect the general public, and they do get crazy, they do take it way too seriously, and I think a lot of its wrong and other times I think that somebody's got to draw a line.
IG: This is fantastic, this is absolutely fantastic. I only have two more questions, and we'll be done. What do you think is the future of horror?
TM: The future of horror to me is what I believe "Paranormal Activity" and "Blair Witch" have begun, which is how do you tell the audience now that this is real? That what you're seeing is actually real and you can suspend disbelief as you watch this. And, I felt that because I was doing a lot of TV movies over the years and a lot of them, most of them, were based on true stories. So when you start a movie and it goes "based on a true story" or based on true events" you're basically saying to the audience that everything you see after this is based on factual on some level. They don't actually think it’s all based on facts or based on a part of an event or whatever, they really just accept that the word true is in there so something in this, if not all of it, is true. When you watch those kinds of horror movies, like "Para" any of the stuff that is done with like more of a video camera you accept that because we've seen so many reality shows and we've seen so many paranormal shows on cable that this begins to tell you that "ok this either is happening or could of happened, this is found footage" it's trying to get people to accept that there is some element of truth to this and that adds another dimension. Now how do you take that to the next step, I would guess that can you do a 3D movie that way? Can you somehow do something that is that but feels like it is a bit of a recreation movie? Like shows that are recreations and are really really well done. I've seen some stuff on HBO and on, I think, the Chiller channel, where they look like little films, but they really are just good film makers just good film makers just making interviews with people and then creating recreations of these stories that people are telling. And I found that just an interesting advance to taking that truth and moving it on. But then, what I'm hoping for always, is "The Sixth Sense" to come along again. Somebody who goes back to the basic rules. Care about the child, care about the lead actor, find it really spooky and then surprise the hell out of you at the end of it as that movie did. And I remember seeing "Blair Witch" first and I remember seeing that the audience reacted well to it and two weeks later I saw the premier to "The Sixth Sense" and the audience went nuts and I went "Well, you can't argue with the fact that people still love a classic horror movie." And we have to find those stories, those ways of making all the elements work again and then it’s fresh.
IG: Stephen King once wrote, and I'm paraphrasing here, that horror is all about the buildup and in the end it’s never as bad as the audience expected. That if you open the door at the end of the dark hallway to a 20-foot tall insect, the audience response is "Oh, that's not so bad, it could have been a 30-foot tall insect." How do you overcome that to have the payoff to the build up?
TM: You know that's the million dollar question. Because so many people think that they do have the payoff and then when you put it out in front of the audience, it becomes the "so what" factor. You know, sometimes it's like "So what, I just saw that on the X-files." Or, "So what, I just saw that on The Walking Dead it’s not such a great make-up or whatever." You never really know. You use your imagination to come up with something that you think is going to be the killer people are going to go nuts for and you find out that there's one audience that doesn't react at all and there's one audience that maybe part of them reacts. Now a days, you have the internet and you can hear or read reactions and people are very opinionated about what they thought was cool and what wasn't cool. So it really, just gets down to if you had all the answers to making a successful horror movie one after another or a great comedy and you know exactly what is going to be funny to the audience at that particular time or that demographic. So, I mean King is absolutely right, it’s really about the suspense and the anticipation. And what I think the good one's do to is that you're about to open the door and just as your head starts to lean around something comes from out of frame from the other side that's not behind the door and grabs you and that shocks the hell out of the audience. It's unexpected and if you do your job right, you don't need an EHHHHHHHHHHHH sound to go along with it, that in and of itself is scary. So it is just trying to figure out what the audience is anticipating, give them something better then what they were anticipating and then if you can twist it with a line, a funny line, after that then you've really built a piece of music. Each little bit ended up making it far more entertaining and you sit there going "that was good, that was great!" and that's what we all strive for.