Michael Varrati is a former producer, editor, public relations consultant, and part-time cult movie actor. He is currently working on a non-fiction book detailing the history and subculture of the late night creature feature host.
When was the first time you watched a horror film, and how did it affect you?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact horror film that drew me into the genre. In fact, as my parents will attest, I was actually something of a chicken when it came to the scary stuff. My mom loves to tell people about how, when I was a kid, if I even thought the music in a movie or show was too spooky, I’d run over and turn the TV off. Thinking about that, it’s hard to believe that almost my entire world now thrives on creepy things.
I first became aware of the genre through USA Up All Night and its hostess, Rhonda Shear. It was always a treat to stay up and watch Rhonda host these silly movies that were meant to scare me. She was my initial conduit to such films as Night of the Creeps and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. I don’t really remember being frightened by the movies that were hosted on Up All Night, but excited by the prospect that there existed a style of film beyond what was playing at the theatres. Through that initial exposure into the world of outlaw cinema, I branched out and really sought out all manner of horror and B-movies. I have no problem citing Rhonda as the person most directly responsible for my immersion into this world. If it wasn’t for her show and quirky sense of fun, I may not be here today. So, if you’re tired of seeing me around, feel free to send letters of complaint to her. Make sure you tell her I said hello.
What was it that first attracted you to horror?
I think like most people I was drawn in initially by that sense of ‘other’. I think we’re all mildly fascinated by the unexplained. Ghosts, goblins, vampires, and the sort represent that which is beyond convention, and that’s appealing.
Later on, it became more about the psychology of terror for me. Once at a convention, I told Thom Mathews that unlike most people who watch slasher movies to see the kills, I like them for the survivors. That’s true. I’m fascinated by what could drive someone who survived something like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to carry on. Seeing these characters evolve and grow, it made me love them. Mathews’ Tommy Jarvis character is more compelling to me than Jason, and Alice from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies is the kind of girl that I’d want for a best friend. These people face darkness and live to fight another day. That’s awesome.
What achievement are you most proud of?
It might seem like a bit of a cop-out answer, but I really have a hard time just choosing one thing. Every project I’ve worked on has lead to something new, and because of that, I value them all for different reasons. Even the films and performances I’ve been involved in that didn’t go exactly as planned have given me a greater understanding of the industry and the creative process, and as such, I can’t really say that I devalue any of those experiences.
I will say, however, that it has meant a great deal to me to achieve recognition and encouragement from people whom I grew up admiring. For those of us who do this for the sheer love of the genre, no matter what we achieve, we never stop being fans. Getting a note from film-makers like Frank Henenlotter or David DeCoteau giving words of kindness or encouragement has been mind-blowing. More so, to have an actor or actress whom you’ve grown up watching want to be in a script you’ve written, well…that’s not just an achievement, it’s a sense of accomplished satisfaction.
I recently completed a script for Bart Mastronardi’s Tales of Poe anthology film, and we’re getting ready to start shooting that in New York City. My segment of the film is a fully-realised version of Poe’s poem ‘Dreams’, and will feature Amy Steel (Friday the 13th Pt. 2) and Caroline Williams (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), as well as a currently unannounced surprise guest. I’ll also be appearing in the piece as an evil doctor, so I’m very much looking forward to getting started.
Beyond that, I’ve several other scripts in production, including one TV pilot and a project I’m working on with Lesleh Donaldson (of Funeral Home fame). On the acting side, I recently completed shooting roles in two Happy Cloud Pictures projects, the feature film Razor Days, as directed by Mike Watt, and a short that Amy Lynn Best directed called 7:45 of the Dead. I’m currently signed to work on three new movies, but I don’t have permission from the directors to talk about any of them yet, so I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned.
Oh! I also should mention that I’m currently featured in a live stage show with Beverly Bonner that continues the story of Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case movies. The show, called Casey – 30 Years Later has Bev reprising her role from the trilogy. I play a reporter who catches up with her to see what she’s been up to since Belial ran rampant through New York. It’s pretty clever and I get abused a whole lot in it, so people ought to enjoy the show. We’re doing it again in November in New York City. I’m really excited; we’re actually performing in Times Square!
Who do you admire in the horror world?
That’s a huge question, as there are a lot of people I admire for a variety of different reasons. I suppose I could talk about how people like Stephen King and David Lynch had a profound impact on my work, but really coming from the era of horror that I do, that almost goes without saying.
Mostly, I admire people who remain fiercely uncompromising about their art. For example, I’ve often venerated Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman to anyone with a willingness to listen. Whether you love or hate Troma’s catalogue of films is irrelevant, Lloyd has always fought on behalf of the little guy. His belief that a film made with heart is a film that must be seen, regardless of budget, is really admirable. Indie filmmakers really need someone in their corner, and I think Lloyd has always been that champion. I respect him greatly, because it means he often has hard battles to fight, but continues to fight them nonetheless.
As such, I admire anyone who’s out there making films their way. A lot of the filmmakers that I’ve had the pleasure of working with, people like Bart, Alan Rowe Kelly, Mike Watt and Amy Lynn Best. They all have to fight stacked odds every time they get the camera out. Making an indie film in today’s market isn’t an easy task, but they all believe in the movies enough to put blood, sweat, and tears into them. If you’re out there making a film with passion and conviction, regardless of adversity, then I applaud you.
Do you prefer gore or psychological horror?
Gore can make me squeamish, but it doesn’t really scare me. I’ve always said that I’d take a creepy film over a bloody film any day. Guts and gore certainly have their place in horror, but I think if you can really get into someone’s head, you’ve made an effective film. There are really no limits to where the human mind can go, and because of that, the possibilities for terrifying someone on a psychological level are endless.
How important is it to unsettle a viewer?
I wish I could say that if you haven’t unsettled the viewer, then you haven’t made a horror film, but I don’t think that school of thought can really apply to modern audiences. People who have grown up with horror flicks have seen so much, and have come to crave that outrageous content. It’s hard to shock people who thrive on this stuff. So, rather than unsettle, I’d say it’s more important to provide something fresh and edgy. If you can make the hardened horror fan cheer in their seat, then you’ve done your job. Also, if you’ve unsettled or pissed off the average citizen along the way, that’s just icing on the cake.
How do you evoke fear?
I know most writers would say that they use what scares them to evoke fear, but I usually go the opposite route. The things that inspire me to take a dark turn are usually very mundane situations that cause me to say, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”
I like the perversion of normalcy, because I think when people strive so hard to maintain an image of stability, that veneer is created to hide something sinister. From my perspective, a church bake sale is a far more evil place than the ghetto. I don’t think anyone who’s lived outside of the mainstream would disagree. The second someone in a community suggests than one set of values should prevail over others, that’s when hatred and fear sneak into people’s minds. I really am interested in that aspect of humanity, and it’s those themes that I return to most often when I write.
I think the real world is far more horrifying than anything I’ve seen committed to film. I’m not afraid of the dark, ghosts, or anything of that nature, but I find other people extremely unsettling. Humanity has proven time and again that it is worse than any fictional monster. The things people do to one another, whether it’s on a global level or a personal one, often really unnerve me. I find stories of home invasion, like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, far scarier than Freddy Krueger. You want me to lose a night’s sleep, just tell me about something someone actually did. That’ll throw me off way more than the bogeyman.
Why should people watch your films?
I’m not claiming to make the best movies ever, but I will say that I always give them my best. When I’m writing, I won’t hand over a script until I am satisfied that I gave everything to that story I possibly could. When I’m acting, I like to make sure the character I play falls in line with the director’s vision. Will this suit every viewer? Probably not, but it will always come from a genuine place. I assure horror fans that the movies I make are not crafted solely to get you to open your wallet, but to tell an actual story. I’m not necessarily multiplex fare, but I promise to always deliver a movie that was made with heart – even if we had to rip a few out to get it done.
How far is too far when it comes to horror cinema?
I don’t believe there’s really a limit to what can or should be done. I’m unwavering in the thought that art should never be suppressed or censored, because once we allow others to decide what is acceptable for us, where does that control end? As long as the artist or filmmaker is safe and doesn’t endanger anyone to create the shock value, I see no reason why the envelope cannot continue to be pushed.
That is not to say that there aren’t things I’d prefer not to see, but that’s the power I have as a viewer. It’s up to the audience to decide what it can handle. If we don’t like something, we can always choose to watch something else. To that end, I don’t think an artist should ever be limited, because if I don’t want to see it, that doesn’t mean someone else should be denied the opportunity. How far is too far? As far as I’m concerned, it’s never far enough!
I think it will depend on what is going on in the world at that time. The motivating trends of horror are usually influenced by current taboos. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, there was a big debate brewing about emerging scientific thought and its place in a religious society. So, Frankenstein’s monster is a reflection of that, showing man using science to play God.
More recently, I think the torture aspect of movies like Saw and Hostel really reflected the situation in Abu Ghraib and the whole morality issue of torture that was buzzing in public discourse. So, in ten years time, who is to say what horrors will spring from society? But maybe that’s where the absolute truth can be found: Horror only evolves as society continues to remain ignorant.
Recommend a film.
There are so many movies that are redefining the genre right now, it’s hard to recommend just one. However, I’ve recently been uber-obsessed with Ti West’s work. The way he crafts such atmospheric horror boggles the mind. If you have the good fortune to see The Innkeepers while it is making its rounds, do it without question. If you’re stuck somewhere where that isn’t an option, get your mitts on House of the Devil. That movie is a fierce little pot-boiler. It made me jump several times from the creeping dread that is steeped in every frame, and genre icon Mary Woronov is frighteningly icy. My hat’s off to Ti West for making such fresh and fearsome movies. Someone needs to get me that man’s number, because I’d kill to work with him. Literally.