Among the many exciting horror features premiering at London’s FrightFest later this month is Thorns, a biblical and brutal sci-fi horror from Hellmaster's Douglas Schulze and starring Hellraiser icon and all-round horror legend Doug Bradley. The creepy creature-feature follows an ex-priest (Jon Bennett) working for NASA who is sent to investigate a remote observatory that went silent after receiving a radio signal from deep space. Upon arrival, he discovers the signal has set in motion the biblical end of times. The former priest must now team up with the mute nun Sister Agnes (Cassandra Shomer) and summon his lost faith to stop the signal from spreading hell on Earth. Ahead of FrightFest, we sat down with the two Dougs to chat religious horror, practical gore, and whether horror has lost its '80s edge.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thorns is a loving homage to so many horror classics such as Hellraiser, The Thing and The Exorcist, and wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. How did the story first come to you, Douglas, and Doug how did you come aboard on the project?
Douglas Schulze: I grew up loving horror from the 70s and 80s, specifically monster films. It was always my hope and intention to make such a film, it started with the idea of making a contemporary yet retro-vibed monster movie. Years ago I read The Hope for Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck, which is a study on group evil. That book served as an inspiration too, especially with the way the world is now, with our advances in technology and increasingly extreme opinions. I had a fascination with how group psychology and group evil operates, which you can see with the mysterious signal in Thorns.
Doug Bradley: These decisions make themselves fairly quickly: it’s a combination of whether the story grips me and whether I want to carry on reading the script. I’m a stickler, so grammatical or punctuational errors irritate the hell out of me [laughs] there was none of that, I’m glad to report! And then the story – does it grab your imagination? Looking at my own part in this, the character of Jenkins was immediately interesting and powerfully written. There's a moral contradiction to his character, as viewers will find out, that I found very exciting.
Doug, you’ve accumulated quite a few religious roles across your filmography, most famously of course as Pinhead the Hell Priest, but also as Padre Ennis in Exorcismus, Rev. Andrews in The Reverend and now Archbishop Jenkins. Do you find yourself naturally drawn to these roles that combine horror and religion?
DB: My first wife always said I have a ‘god-shaped hole’ in my soul. I was bought up in a religious household. My grandfather was a Scottish Baptist minister of fundamentalist, Calvinist persuasion, and I remember going to see him preach on Sunday mornings, watching him make his way up into the pulpit with his black robe flowing behind him. I remember thinking “that’s cool. I wouldn’t mind doing that.” I didn’t feel a calling to the church, but I wanted to walk up to the pulpit in a black cloak. In a lot of ways, I got to do that! I can’t get away from [religious roles] at the moment – I also just played a priest in an upcoming film called The Exorcists and may be about to play another exorcist in a movie coming later this year. Philosophically, it very much interests me. When I was about 15, and a thorough-going hippy, I went to membership classes at the church. We started talking about what God was. The conclusion was that it doesn’t matter what God is – as long as you believe that God is. And I thought ‘...are you fucking kidding me?’ [laughs] I’m supposed to just blindly believe? I decided this was not for me. I describe myself now as a religious atheist. But the mythological ideas, especially as they are contained within Thorns, interest me. The Book of Revelations, for example, is an extraordinary, poetic vision. It’s a fertile, imaginative sandpit to play in. I felt that Douglas was playing in it with happy abandon, and was happy to get in and join him!
Douglas, you’ve worked with some true legends of genre cinema, including John Saxon, Sid Haig, David Carradine and now Doug Bradley. Did you have Doug in mind specifically, knowing his proclivity for religious horror when you were writing the character of the Archbishop?
DS: Doug is one of the actors who’s always been on my bucket list. Doug’s work and his history with Clive Barker and Hellraiser means he’s always been someone I wanted to work with. But when I was writing the script, I tried not to write for anyone in particular, only because I don’t want to be disappointed if I’m unable to cast them. But I won’t lie to you, as it came together, my subconscious was directing me towards Doug.
There’s some spectacular VFX featured in Thorns, most notably with the design of a creature known as the Necronaut (who we bought you exclusive images of not too long ago) – were there any challenges that came with bringing such a practical creature to life?
DS: Because the story is an homage to the great monster movies that inspired me, it was important for me to have everything physical – effects, makeup... we didn’t want to use CGI or computerized effects. That requires hours upon hours of prep, and once your monster is in costume, you can’t put them on ice. We had a prosthetic so encumbering that Bo Shumaker, who does an amazing job as one of the creatures in the film, likened it to being a scuba diver. It’s a very claustrophobic operation. You can plan and prep with dialogue sequences and all the like, but the minute the actor is in makeup, everything shifts. Managing that can really be a challenge. Our special effects designer, Dan Philips, was the gentleman responsible for sculpting, executing the makeup effects on set, applying them daily. Major kudos to Dan. We had lengthy discussions about the creature, and I will say it was the most evolved element of the story. It actually led to a title change, as the original title for Thorns was meant to be Necronaut. But as the makeup and the monster and the character developed, it titled itself.
Doug, how did you feel about escaping the joys of facial prosthetics for this role? Did you miss it, or were you a little jealous?
DB: Oh, I can’t even begin to tell you the hell I went through. I had to face all of ten minutes in the makeup chair [laughs] For my part in the movie I was saved from the joys of latex. Having seen the film, I must pass my congratulations on to Bo and Jon and Cassandra. Cassandra especially, who holds the center of the movie without even being able to speak. And to you too, Doug – I know you’re working on limited resources and it’s a difficult thing to pull off – but you did it!
You didn't get off easy though, Doug; what Archbishop Jenkins lacks in facial prosthetics he more than makes up for with fantastically ominous monologues and a great deal of dialogue.
DB: [the heavier language] makes it easier, actually. The richer and heavier the language, the easier it is to get into your head. That’s why we love Shakespeare.
DS: From previous experiences I was wondering if we might have to chop into the monologues or looking for different angles...but Doug kept delivering time after time, complete takes with no error. Quite frequently throughout the film we are using Doug's very first take.
In a time when many are concerned of the sanitization of horror, the goop and gore of Thorns feels very much like a welcome throwback to the glory days of the 80s, where horror was arguably meaner and much less cleaner. Was this something that came up during the writing or production process?
DS: I don’t know that it was an act of rebellion [against modern horror] so much as it was an act of love for an era gone by. I wanted to express the elements that made up the films that made me return to them years later and still to this day. Even today when I’m checking out movies on streaming platforms, I usually end up going back to those older films. It was definitely a passion that I wanted to express.
Doug, I know you’ve spoken in the past about your concerns that horror is being watered down. How does Thorns measure up to those standards?
DB: I actually do get a bit bored with gore for its own sake, and I did get bored with slasher films in the ‘80s. I also don’t think they’re particularly imaginative in terms where you can explore and what you can think about. Comparing kills is a relatively limited exercise. It’s present in Thorns – very nice eye-gouging, I must say Doug. But it’s nicely done. It all fits with the story. I didn’t feel it was being thrown in gratuitously or to upset audiences. I think horror has become much more conservative, and I think Hollywood has too. A lot of it is when you compare 1980s horror, a thing you will hear a lot is that producers would greenlight the film, give you the check, and leave you alone to make the film. I don’t think that always happens anymore. I’ve said to Clive [Barker] before, I have my doubts whether if today he, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, wandered in to a studio meeting to pitch Hellraiser, in all its perverse glory… I wonder whether he’d get anywhere. And even if he found people to back the movie, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have been allowed to direct it, having pretty much zero experience at that point. I can’t see that being allowed to happen today. So much of Hellraiser’s transgressive perversity would upset people. I’d like to see more horror films being made for adults, and not twelve year olds.
By the end of Thorns, it's safe to say that all hell breaks loose both literally and figuratively, but some mysteries are left unsolved. Is the world of Thorns a world you see yourself returning to in the future?
DS: Oh, of course. Certain characters have their stories left very much open-ended. Right now we’re focused on bringing the first outfit to audiences via the festival circuit and hopefully find a great distributor, and then fingers crossed! I’d love to, it’s a fascinating throughline and I’d love to see where the story goes. I’m game.
DB: [in a gruff, stereotypical trailer voice] Thorns 2....well, you know where I live, Doug. [laughs]
FrightFest attendees can catch the world premiere of Thorns on Saturday 26 August at 8:30pm, and we'll have more news for you on limited theatrical, VOD, and disc releases as and when we get them!