Director Interview: Anthony DiBlasi

With Malum‘s recent release on Blu-ray and digital, Hugh has a chat with the film’s director, Anthony DiBlasi, about their shared love of practical effects, his favourite horror films, and what we can expect from him next.

Hi Anthony, thank you so much for giving me some of your time. I had a lot of fun with Malum, it was a real treat to see such a fun, dark film packed full of practical effects!
Great, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

 

I wanted to ask you about the decision you made to remake your 2014 film Last Shift. That film was a hit with horror fans, so it was fascinating to me that you decided to take another run at it with Malum.

Well you know, me and my co-writer Scott (Poiley) had talked about maybe doing a sequel or a prequel to Last Shift one day, but had never really managed to sit down and get that going. And then the guys at Welcome Villain Films told us that they were really big fans of Last Shift and they were like, “We really loved Last Shift and wondered if you wanted to revisit that world?” So, we just started talking about it.

Last Shift is one of those films that did really well critically but it was still something of a hidden film. It was like people recommending it to each other. So they wanted to revisit it in a way that we could introduce it to a new and wider audience.

At first it was tough because I was trepidations about revisiting a film that I had already made, because I was wondering if I was going to get on set and be like, “Aw man, I’ve done this before!” So when we were writing it it was slow at first; but once we got away from it enough, understanding that we could do more things, we could do more with the mythology and creatures, it started to take its own life.

But really that’s how it started. If they hadn’t approached us I don’t think we would have done it. We may have made a sequel, but not like this.

A young woman in a police uniform has her face covered in blood. She is looking at something off camera with a concerned, yet calm look on her face. Still from Malum.

One of the strongest aspects of the film is Jessica Loren’s performance. What was the casting process like to try and find her?

She was in the M Night Shyamalan film Split, and we had really liked her in that.

Our casting director had seen her pretty recently. We really liked her and liked her work a lot, and the casting director suggested that we have a meeting with her. And we just hit it off, spoke the same language about the material and she was really up for taking on the challenge of doing a movie where you are essentially in every moment of it.

And that is incredibly strenuous for an actor having to do that, especially in horror where the intensity of things are so high.

 

She is terrific across the film. And there is a lot thrown at her too! I was astounded that you were able to fit so many different types of horror films into the movie. You have a bit of everything; slow burning tension, cult folk-horror, apocalyptic end-times stuff and you even found time to put some found footage in there. How much fun did you have squeezing in the whole gamut of horror into the film?

It was a lot of fun in the process of writing it.

Last Shift was very much presented as a video game, and here we wanted to stick with that sort of descent into madness with that first person point of view. It lets you play with the audience and have them question how much is in Jessica’s mind, how much is real until it is so overwhelmingly a descent into madness that she refuses to leave.

I think she always has agency; she is here to find out about her father, and the more she discovers the more terrified she is. But it reassures her that her father wasn’t some madman, and she can’t just step away from that because she needs the truth.

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Where did you film Malum? The Police Station looks and feels so oppressive, was that a set that you constructed?

It was all a real police station that we found in Kentucky! It was right in the downtown Louisville in the heart of the city and had closed two or three years prior. They were getting ready to pull it down, so we were very lucky that we were able to use it.

The first one was also a police station, but it was a tiny one-story building; this place was gigantic! It had four stories, a basement, a full prison on the top floor. We shot in the summer in Kentucky, and the building had no AC, but that sort of adds to the oppression of the film and makes it feel more horrifying.

 

I think that makes a big difference, to Jessica as well, actually being there and not just on a set on a sound stage.

Yeah, that was something that really helped.

And we said from the start that if we were able to film the first one in a police station with such a tiny budget, we should absolutely be able to do the same thing here. Because we could always have found an office building and dressed it, but it’s just not the same.

We had a producer who lived in Kentucky and he told us he had a good relationship with the police in the state so he was able to help us out with that.

A woman wears a bloody cloth mask with 'The King of Hell' written on a wall in blood behind her. Still from Malum.

It gives everything a really tactile feel, and really makes you feel like you are there. On the subject of tactile, I loved the practical effects in this film. I am a huge fan of practical effects over digital where possible; I spoke with Steve Kostanski around the time of the release of Psycho Goreman and he was very evangelical about practical effects. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, practical effects are pretty much what got me interested in movies when I was a kid. And even in college, I started doing effects because I liked the idea of a profession where you could show people the things you have done. “Look at this, I make MONSTERS!”(laughs)

So going into this with Josh Russell’s FX team who had just done the Hellraiser reboot, and I was keen to get them as much of the budget as possible. And the producers said, “You’re spending too much on effects” and I was like, “No, believe me, we’ll be alright.” (laughs)

It makes a huge difference being able to do these things on set and practically. But digital effects are great to use to clean up things; practical effects never work, especially the first two, three, four times.(laughs) So if you can clean stuff up with digital and you mesh it seamlessly with practical effects, people shouldn’t even be able to tell you’ve used them.

 

Sometimes when you have a great horror film with a monster that lurks in the dark, the reveal often doesn’t match the horror of the imagination. Thankfully Malum has none of these problems! The creatures here are wonderfully creepy right across the film. The creepy, sweaty bag-headed monsters are the stuff of nightmares, and the ultimate reveal of the Low God is jaw-dropping. Really reminded me of those big creature features of the 80’s and early 90’s. How difficult was it for the VFX team to bring those creatures to life?

The team were working around the clock in LA, shipping things over to us in pieces. And some of that stuff didn’t show up until right before we needed it for the scene!

I did a few drawings to show them the sort of thing I was thinking, just so the team had some sort of starting point. But there was still a lot of stuff for them to do, with wounds, and injuries and heads blowing up! We were like, “Man, this is a lot of stuff!” (laughs)

The great thing about Russell’s team was that we knew they were scrappy. A lot of seasoned FX houses would make this great effect for you but would cost so much money that you might lose some of the other things you wanted. But I knew that with our team, they would be able to just make the thing work as best they could or do something on the fly to get the effects we needed. Which is something we needed to do all the time.

The Low God was a big process; we needed fittings with the actor, do drawings and designs, and then put it all together. When I finally saw the finished design, I was just blown away by how well they had taken the drawings and interpreted in a better way than I could have imagined (laughs).

It’s a wonderful big swing that really works.

It’s like you said; it taps into the nostalgia for all these horror films that we grew up on. And even when I watch them now I still love them!

I watched The Fly again the other day and those effects still hold up. And you think that maybe if you showed some of these films to like an 18-year-old today, maybe it might look goofy; but the difference is that they are real and tangible and they have a real impact on the person on the screen.

Yeah, it’s like when you revisit some horror films from the late 90’s early 2000’s who went all in on CGI, they haven’t aged particularly well, and those effects stick out like a sore thumb.

Yeah, 100%

A young, naked woman with a bashed up fae crawls towards the camera with an awkward pose. Still from Malum.

I love the lore in this film. It feels like there is so much backstory just on the periphery of the film, that there were fully fleshed out ideas for the Low God and his cult. Did you guys have a detailed understanding of the mythology?

It took a while, because in Last Shift it was very ‘surface’. But I knew right away that I wanted to go Lovecraftian here; I wanted our own lore, I wanted our own terminology.

I didn’t want it to be about the devil or something you would already have an understanding of, I wanted the Flock of the Low God to have a complete ideology. And those things took time. Right up until production we were still working on it, where parts of the lore hadn’t clicked yet.

One of the big things was the Song of the Low God. Having taken all of these notes in the build up to filming, and looking at my notes from when we did Last Shift I found all these interesting terms and things I had written down that I was able to pull together in order to construct that and fill in the lore. But we really wanted to ensure that it was all unique and made sense.

The Temple Barron came to me in a dream years ago. “We are the Temple Barrons, listen to our plans” and I remember waking up and thinking, “What the fuck is that?” (laughs) And finally for this movie I was able to use it!

 

I think that all adds a real depth to the film. You don’t need to know everything that is going on, but you are aware that there is a larger world at play here. On that note, is that something you would like to revisit in the future with a sequel or prequel?

Yeah, we have talked about it. Once the film is in the green enough, we hope we can do another one. But for me, if you are doing a sequel, it has to be bigger than the first one so that requires a bigger financial commitment. Like we spent ‘X’ amount on FX in the first film so we need to double that number for the next (laughs).

I think that’s the only time its really worth doing. Because we have so much lore there that I would love to explore, and especially with the ending of Malum it would be great to see what comes next.

 

I will keep my fingers crossed for you that the film gets into he green enough for that to happen. Before I let you go, do you mind if I ask you a little about your previous work? I know you have adapted a few Clive Barker tales in the past, I assume you must be a big fan.

Oh absolutely, and I actually worked with him for a lot of years right out of college.

Joe Daily at his company was from Massachusetts like me so I started hounding him for a meeting and eventually I was invited in to meet with them and Clive. I was hired as an assistant after interning for a year and I worked for Clive for about twelve years!

 

That’s amazing! The reason I bring it up is because I don’t often get a chance to talk to people about how much I love Clive Barker’s work; I know you adapted ‘Dread’ from the Books of Blood, but which story within that anthology do you think is the untapped gem that hasn’t yet been tackled?

The one that I gravitated the most to was ‘Pig Blood Blues’. I really love that story; it is super creepy. I actually wrote a script for it after ‘Dread’ that never got made which is a real bummer because it was fun and scary and cool.

We had adapted maybe twenty plus stories into features from the Books of Blood because they are all so good and so rich, and at the studios it was always tough for them to digest that Barker twist on the material. Because it wasn’t Stephen King, it wasn’t easily digestible in a way that wasn’t grotesque, shocking or sexual, and the studios instinct is always to sanitise it. It’s tough.

Then after that the rights get muddy so it gets even tougher. But we got Midnight Meat Train made, we got Books of Blood made (we actually filmed that up in Scotland back in the day!) But yeah, we got Midnight Meat Train and Dread made but then it was back to development hell.

It’s so frustrating because I can’t think of a collection of stories by pretty much any author (and I include Stephen King in that) that are so unique and unusual from one story to the next. And he has such a strong, singular voice that the stories are all so unmistakably his. I just keep hoping that someone will one day adapt ‘In the Hills, the Cities’.

I knew you were gonna say that one (laughs)! It is such a great story, and we do have an adaptation of it that we would love to have made. What’s funny is that back in the day when we were doing Midnight Meat Train, Patrick Totopoulos was originally attached to direct and had created this amazing technology which was all these people building together into this one form and we were like “No, no, no, that’s like ‘In the Hills, the Cities’!” But we could have used that technology to get it done, definitely!

It looked amazing and would have been perfect!

I always like to ask any guest that I speak to for their favourite horror film.

I mean, its weird because I don’t always get to make the kind of movies that I grew up on as a kid. Malum is probably the closest I’ve gotten to that.

The Shining scared me, and I am always in awe of that film. If something is going to get me, it is going to be a ghost story.

But the movies that I watch every year are Fright Night, American Werewolf in London, The Lost Boys, The Blob and Fright Night 2; I love those effects-heavy movies where you get a lot of monster work and creatures. I just love that stuff.

I co-host a podcast called Vampire Videos and were are just about to cover Fright Night 2, which will be a first time watch for me.

Really? Wow! How you gonna watch it?

I’ve managed to get a DVD, but it is so hard to get a hold of!

Yeah, it’s a real shame. I think the DVD doesn’t have the proper ratio. I have a Blu-ray which is a bootleg that is a really good transfer that I got from e-bay with the proper actual frame. It had never been released like that, it was always in the wrong frame even when it came out on VHS.

You’ll love that movie. I think it might even be as good as the first one. It’s so weird!

 

Thank you so much for your time Anthony. Do you have any new projects on the go at the moment you can tell us about?

My wife and I are writing a horror feature together. We are doing a few projects together, and I am locked into doing a couple of original features that I am writing right now too. A few things in the fire!

And keep your eye out for the sequel to Malum too!

We’ll survive if we all just stick together!

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