Q&A: Writer/Director Walter Boholst Talks His Distinctive Brand Of “VOODOO POSSESSION”

An archive interview from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · January 16, 2019, 12:55 AM EST
Voodoo Possession

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on January 15, 2014, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

There are no pins in dolls in Voodoo Possession, the new occult chiller on DVD and digital from Image Entertainment, in which filmmaker Walter Boholst takes a different approach to black-magic thrills. Fango spoke to Boholst about this, his first horror feature.

Voodoo Possession is set in and around an insane asylum in Haiti, where Aiden Chase (Ryan Caltagirone) travels with a small TV crew headed by reporter Bree Nelson (Kerry Knuppe) to try to track down his missing brother Cody. What they find is evidence of a dangerous voodoo spirit that possesses the living and whisks their souls away to a parallel realm. Danny Trejo co-stars as a hospital administrator caught up in the supernatural peril, and Oscar-winning makeup artist (for 2010’s Star Trek) Barney Burman not only designed the film’s FX but served as a producer as well. Boholst, who had previously made a couple of short movies (including the zombie-themed D-Volution) and the microbudget comedy Thrust, was working in Image’s business and legal department when the opportunity to make Voodoo Possession arose…

How did you get the film set up at Image?

I had been working at Image for about three years when a producer named Mark Burman [no relation to Barney] was delivering a film there, and we got to talking and I gave him my zombie short film and [feature-length] script. He was like, “Hey, this is great, but the zombie genre is kind of oversaturated at the moment.” This was just when The Walking Dead was coming out. He said, “Let’s try something different; let’s do something in the realm of voodoo. We haven’t really seen that in a long time.” This idea intrigued me; I didn’t know anything about voodoo, but I was willing to give it a shot. So I did a ton of research to try to create a horror movie out of something I knew nothing about.

How much of what we see in the film is directly based on what you found in your research, and how much of its mythology did you invent yourself?

A lot of it is based on real voodoo. You know, it’s hard making a film about a religion, and maybe that’s why not a lot of people make voodoo movies. And some of the ones that have been done are kind of stereotypical and cheesy, and I did not want to do that. A big part of this was about finding a way to make a horror movie about voodoo without insulting the religion. I found out that possession in that culture is actually an honor, because it’s your god coming in and inhabiting you, and not all voodoo spirits are evil. A lot of them are part good, part evil, and often the ceremonies are joyous, festive occasions—so that didn’t really help me make a horror movie!

So I found a spirit, Linglessu, who is around violent acts in violent times, and craves buckets of blood, basically. I was like, “That’s my horror movie! That’s the spirit I’m going to revolve my story around.” That’s a major crux of the film, and another is that I read that when a spirit possesses a human being, only one spirit can be within a body at one time. That led me to think, “Well, where does the human soul go if the spirit is taking up the body?” From there, I came up with the angle of that soul going into other levels of the spirit world, so we have this Inception-like chase into different levels. That I totally made up [laughs].

One thing that did help me was that voodoo is a very secretive religion, and each house of voodoo worships in their own separate way. The basics are similar across the board, but each one has its own rules and customs, so that gave me some leeway to basically invent stuff without having a canon or bible to adhere to. I took that creative license.

You also tied the story in to the earthquake in Haiti a few years ago. How sensitive did you feel you had to be to the reality of that situation?

Well, it’s kind of a backdrop. I didn’t want to make it a cornerstone of the movie; I just wanted to make it the introduction to why the Cody character goes over there. It’s an impetus for him to make that trip; a lot of responders and caregivers went over there. I didn’t want that element to overwhelm the story, because it’s still a genre movie first and foremost. Also, I knew I wanted the setting to be this abandoned, rundown hospital, so the earthquake kind of lent itself to that.

How much filming did you actually do in Haiti?

None, zero [laughs]. We used stock footage. We talked about going there, but the budget of the movie was so low. I mean, the movie actually looks good, and people might be thrown off and think it’s a bigger-budget project than it was, but it was incredibly low. So we couldn’t film in Haiti, but Bree being a news reporter allowed us to use stock footage just to give the audience a sense of space and location.

How did Barney Burman become involved on the producing side?

Originally, he and Mark found each other on Facebook, and I think just because they happened to have the same last name and were both in the film industry, they struck up a friendship. Then Barney was looking to get into producing, so Mark mentioned this project to him and it all came together. Barney also has a background as an actor and a writer, so in addition to doing the makeup design, he was involved in the scripting process too.

It must have helped to have such a seasoned makeup FX artist producing your first horror feature.

Oh yeah, absolutely. Especially since it was my first feature of any size; I mean, Thrust was basically a few thousand bucks, with me and my friends in a backyard. You have to worry about a million different things when making a movie, and I did not worry for one second about the makeup effects, because I knew they would be expertly designed and executed. That took a weight off my shoulders, and I could focus on other areas.

How did you get Danny Trejo involved?

Mark Burman had worked with him on a picture several years ago, so he kept up a relationship with Danny’s manager. The distributor wanted some kind of recognizable name to help sell the film, and Danny was available and we had that relationship, so it came together from there.

Did you tailor the part for Trejo, or did he bring his personality to an already scripted role?

A little bit of both. It was already written, and then he came in and brought his own qualities. Unfortunately, one of the things that happened as we were playing Tetris with the budget and schedule was that I had to cut a fight scene with Trejo’s character Kross and Aiden, which was supposed to push the first act forward a little bit. Kross was supposed to have gone insane and be hiding out in the bowels of the asylum, and then he surprises Aiden and says, “You guys are investigating these murders? Well, we filmed these experiments, and here’s the videotape.” That’s where some of the exposition was supposed to come across.

Unfortunately, because of money and time, I had to cut that and some other great scenes and replace them with a little slower exposition [laughs]. That really killed me, because it would have been a great scene, because he would have been going nuts and there would have been more action, but that’s independent filmmaking. I couldn’t sacrifice the end of the movie or a lot of the story.

The movie is as much about family demons as it is about voodoo; how did you balance those elements in the storytelling?

That’s actually a great question. I wanted to make a movie about the effects of voodoo on people, and it seemed to me that stuff like the ceremonies, and what I call the window dressing, can be a bit stereotypical. I mean, when people think of a voodoo movie, they think, “Oh, it’s going to be sticking pins in dolls and that kind of thing,” which is actually not Haitian voodoo, it’s Louisiana hoodoo. Real voodoo can strike and affect people in their real lives. I saw one documentary where this guy’s son was possessed, and the voodoo priest said to the dad, “Well, it’s your fault, because you’re not taking care of him; you’re spending money on women and booze, so if you make things right with your son, then the voodoo spirit will leave him.”

So even though, as Americans who are unfamiliar with the culture, we think it’s kind of exotic, it’s really about human stories. Once we got into the script development, it became about the personal journey of Aiden and his family and how voodoo affects them, as opposed to ending with some kind of exorcism scene. That’s a very American view of voodoo, because we’re so used to seeing exorcism movies. So this is definitely a departure from what people might think they’re getting. You see the title Voodoo Possession and you might think, “Oh, it’s exorcism in the world of voodoo,” but it’s really not. So I hope the movie finds its audience, even though a lot of people might think they’re getting one thing, and they’ll see it’s actually about something different.

And the cover art makes it look like some kind of zombie film…

Right, and there is a lot of zombie culture and lore in the world of voodoo, but… I had nothing to do with the cover art, actually [laughs]; the movie is really more of a psychological drama/mystery/thriller set in the world of horror. I was influenced by things like The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage, those foreign horror films that are really about dark stories and characters in troubling times, as opposed to scaring people with a “boo!” moment every three minutes. I hope the trailer and artwork get people’s attention, but that they can keep an open mind about a different kind of story in the world of voodoo.