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Like many esteemed horror figures, director and writer Mick Garris, well known for multiple collaborations with Stephen King and for being the creative force behind the MASTERS OF HORROR series, began his directing career in the sequel trenches with 1988’s CRITTERS 2. Time, though, has proven CRITTERS 2 to be an often inventive, truly fun fan favorite and Movieside Film Festival is honoring that fact by making CRITTERS 2 one of the centerpieces of their Sci-Fi Spectacular 5 on Saturday, March 19 at the legendary Music Box Theatre in Chicago (see details here). With Garris, appearing as a special guest at the event, FANGORIA thought it would be a perfect time to catch up with him and explore the legacy of CRITTERS 2 and his other cult-worthy projects.
FANGORIA: It’s been well noted that you use color as a motivating factor in your films. Are there any unusual, classic filmmakers like Douglas Sirk, who have influenced you as a director?
MICK GARRIS: Well, not Douglas Sirk, but definitely Preston Sturges who wouldn’t appear to have any influence on me. But I do love to use color as a psychological motivation for the characters. In a subtle way, though. I don’t like to beat people over the head with it. I like looking at color patterns. So the Italian directors have definitely been a motivation to me in that respect.
FANG: How did CRITTERS 2, your first film as a director, materialize then?
GARRIS: Well, I was hired by Steven Spielberg to work on AMAZING STORIES and that made people interested in me. I directed an episode for the second season, and when you’ve been knighted by King Steven [laughs], people tend to notice. I was also a writer, and since New Line was doing CRITTERS 2 as a low budget feature, I think they figured they were getting a 2 for 1. I was a writer and a director and someone who had been schooled in the Steven Spielberg way.
FANG: Did you have typical first director’s nerves or did New Line guide you through the process?
GARRIS: Well, AMAZING STORIES was very much a machine, a well-oiled machine, so I didn’t want my first feature to be too demanding. And here I got a $4 million feature with tons of creatures, special effects and green screens! But, I knew going into it there was a basic structure. It was a sequel. There was stuff that the audience liked in the first one and wanted to see again. So once the train got rolling down the hill, no one from New Line really interfered.
FANG: There must have been plenty of memorable set moments, then.
GARRIS: Well, the ball of critters scene was just amazing. I had never seen anything like it. In fact, if you look closely enough at the film, you can see the legs of one of the guys working the creatures. We didn’t have the CGI back then to edit it out. But what was most memorable about the shoot was that it was the coldest, bitterest winter in LA in years when we were filming it. It was 22 degrees when we shot the highly appreciated, Playboy staple pop-out scene. But, the actress, Roxanne Kernohan, was just the sweetest thing. She was a trouper.
FANG: It was so unfortunate that she died in a car accident in 1993.
GARRIS: Oh, I vaguely remember hearing that. What a tragedy. She was just incredibly sweet. What was truly special about working with her was that she had done an actual test shoot for Playboy and they let us use it. So, that is actual Playboy photography in the film.
FANG: Is it surprising then that CRITTERS 2 is such a fan favorite 22 years after the fact?
GARRIS: Definitely! You put your heart into every movie. You’ve got to truly love what you’re doing no matter what or you’re just a hack. So it was devastating when CRITTERS 2 was released. Not only were the reviews mediocre at best, with Siskel and Ebert absolutely hating it, but I went to see it on the Friday it opened and there were only 3 other people in the entire audience. So all these years later, it’s amazing how well it’s embraced. Like I said, you’ve got to love what you do and do it well, so this fandom is truly heartening.
FANG: Have you found the same is true with your other early ventures such as Stephen King’s SLEEPWALKERS?
GARRIS: I do get people coming up to me at conventions saying they appreciate SLEEPWALKERS—especially people who were coming of age when that premiered. It was the number one movie in the country the weekend it opened. It was very successful because it didn’t cost much. The reviews were just terrible, but there are things in that film that I’m very proud of. It’s definitely not my favorite, but I love the goofiness of it. You spend a year of your life on a film, so you just can’t make a film that doesn’t have things you’re proud of in it. Stephen and I definitely went into that one with the idea that we were making a B movie. What was truly funny was that we went through so many studio regimes when developing it. One executive said, “There is no way a movie where a boy sleeps with his mother is coming out when I’m in power!’ And he wasn’t lying [laughs], when it came out he was just no longer there!
FANG: Has your close association with King cost you other work or created any kind of industry backlash?
GARRIS: Well, I’ve never told this story before. After I finished QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY, I was offered a miniseries based on a Dean Koontz book. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to commit to anything, and I didn’t know the book, but I said I’d read it. About a week later, I heard Koontz supposedly said, “No way! Not the Stephen King guy!” But most of the backlash I get is from the Kubrick fans who can’t believe that we remade THE SHINING. I take a lot of heat from them. But we just wanted to make something truer to the book. But, any negatives are far overweighed by the positives. Stephen is just an amazing and generous guy.
FANG: Unlike Bette Midler’s evil character in HOCUS POCUS, a different kind of a film that you had a hand in creating.
GARRIS: Well, I was writing for AMAZING STORIES when David Kirschner, who is a great guy, came up with the basis for that story. But, it wasn’t until seven or eight years after my initial script that it was filmed. It had gone through a lot of different writers and changes during that time and finally came back around to something that was close to my original concept. The main thing that they changed was that they made it about teenagers and my story was about 11 and 12 year olds. Halloween when you’re that age is really a very important, very different time. You’re no longer a kid, not a teen. So, that was the major difference. Still, I get a lot of young women coming up and telling me that was their favorite film as a child.
FANG: With so many of your projects receiving late term appreciation, are there any favorites that you wish fans would take a second look at?
GARRIS: While RIDING THE BULLET was definitely my most personal film and I don’t think people understood it when it was released. I think my least seen work, though, is QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY, and it’s a lot of fun. The Clive Barker story in that anthology is just so loony. So, it would be incredibly gratifying if more people would check that one out.
FANG: Who knows? Maybe you’ll get some people in Chicago telling you how much QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY meant to them as kids.
GARRIS: That would be incredible.
FANG: Will your talented wife Cynthia, who was so wonderful in Dario Argento’s MASTERS OF HORROR episode JENIFER, be joining you in Chicago for Sci-Fi Spectacular 5?
GARRIS: No, unfortunately, she won’t be. And thank you. She’s actually not Jenifer in that. A lot of people think that.
FANG: She plays Rose. She’s also worked with you on a number of projects, as well.
GARRIS: Yes! You know, you spend so much time making these projects, so you need to be with people who work hard and you enjoy being around. I’ve worked with Matt Frewer five times and he is just amazing. You never know what he is going to bring out at any moment.
FANG: You’ve worked with another fan favorite, E.T.’s Henry Thomas, on CHOCOLATE for MASTERS OF HORROR and DESPERATION.
GARRIS: Yes, Henry is an amazing guy, an amazing actor. I just believe in enjoyable experiences. I always have happy sets with people who truly get along and want to create.
For more on the Sci-Fi Spectacular, check out the Music Box Theatre’s website and the event’s Facebook page.
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