MIKE THORN on film with Rebecca Gransden

MIKE THORN on film with Rebecca Gransden

What film, or films, made the first deep impression on you?

This question is always difficult to answer, because I honestly can’t remember a time before I was totally obsessed with film. Like many suburban Canadian families in the nineties, mine owned a collection of Disney movies on VHS. I think Fantasia (1940) was the first one that really resonated with me in a major way—it was just this overload of pure sound and image, scary and funny and beautiful and intense. My mom had also taped The Wizard of Oz (1939) before I was born, and I was mesmerized by that film’s music and images and weird atmosphere. This recorded-from-cable cassette included commercial breaks from the early nineties, and those TV ads are now irrevocably folded into my memory of Oz. Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) also comes to mind as a childhood favorite.  

But I think the directors that got me permanently hooked on cinema were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I spent an unimaginable amount of childhood hours watching and rewatching the original and prequel Star Wars trilogies. Those films, in tandem with J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, ignited my imagination in a major way, inspiring me to begin drawing and writing. The Indiana Jones trilogy, Jurassic Park (1993) and E.T. (1982) also had lasting effects; E.T. might actually have been the first film to scare me, especially the nighttime scene when Elliott sees the alien’s silhouette slowly advancing toward him across the misty backyard.

Very often film is one of the ways we first come into contact with a world outside that of our direct experience. Which films introduced you to areas of life away from the familiar circumstances you grew up in?

Well, I guess Fantasia and Star Wars and E.T. and Indiana Jones would all qualify here. I initially became so obsessed with film specifically for its capacity to transport me into entirely new and unknown worlds. So, in that sense, film has always taken me away from the familiar. 

What films first felt transgressive to you? Do you remember being secretive about any films you watched growing up?

Horror is the genre I associate most immediately with transgression and secrecy, which is part of the reason I adore it so much. 

My younger brother and I used to sneak downstairs to catch “Friday Night Frightmare”, a weekly, late-night horror double-bill on the Space channel. I was totally drawn to Chucky’s unapologetically acerbic outlaw attitude in the Child’s Play films, especially in Bride of Chucky (1998). The way those films hybridized humour and violence seemed quite transgressive to my young mind. Two other “Frightmare” standouts were William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989).

Are there any films that define your formative years?

I became a full-fledged film fanatic in my teens, especially after landing a job at Blockbuster. One of the employee benefits was ten free DVD rentals a week, and I always took full advantage. There are so, so, so many definitive films from my teen years, because I went through lots of different stages of exploration and obsession—I did deep-dives into directors’ and actors’ filmographies, so I devoured a lot of films by “canonical” filmmakers, especially from classic and New Hollywood, people like Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Elia Kazan, Bernardo Bertolucci, Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Sidney Lumet. When I reflect on my teen years, the definitive films that come immediately to mind are On the Waterfront (1954), Citizen Kane (1941), Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), Last Days (2005), Badlands (1973), The Dreamers (2003), Bad Lieutenant (1992), Bully (2001), The Basketball Diaries (1995), and Last Tango in Paris (1972). 

Can you talk about the influence film has had on your writing? 

When I’m writing fiction, I often think in broad cinematic terms: I design my scenes with staging, lighting, sound, and even framing in mind, because all these elements are integral to atmosphere. My first short story collection, Darkest Hours, is among many things a tribute to horror movies. That book is totally soaked in homage to the films of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tod Browning, James Whale, David Cronenberg, and Rob Zombie (among others). For that reason, Journalstone and I decided to include a selection of film criticism in the expanded edition that came out last year. 

I’ve been writing film criticism since my early teens (one of my earliest writing gigs was as a freelance critic for the local arts paper Beat Route), so I think I have always made a mental connection between cinema and writing, conscious or unconscious. 

Do you use film as a prompt or direct motivation for your writing?

Not consciously, no… I’ve never actually used any kind of writing prompts. 

Day-to-day life motivates me to write more than anything—pain and regret, moments of excitement, friendships and relationships, ruminations on the past and speculations about the future… Just regular life stuff. 

What directors, film movements, or particular actors have been an influence?

While working on my current book, I’ve been thinking a lot about Bela Lugosi’s screen presence, especially in the 1940s Poverty Row pictures. Takashi Ito’s work (specifically Spacy [1981], Ghost [1984], and Grim [1985]) was on my mind when I was first conceptualizing a sensory approach to the book’s most hallucinatory, cosmic scenes.

I guess I already named a lot of the filmmakers who had an influence on Darkest Hours in one of my previous answers. Larry Clark’s work (especially Ken Park [2002]) was a useful reference point for Shelter for the Damned

Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?

When I was a teenager, I wanted to become a professional actor. I had the passion, but probably not the talent. Throughout high school, I played roles in several of my friend Brendan Prost’s films. 

In my late teens, I co-directed a film with my brother Kevin. It was a thinly veiled imitation of the sad minimalism I responded to in Last Days (2005) and The Brown Bunny (2003) (minus the explicit sexual content of the latter). I also wrote and acted in a cringeworthy short film around the same time. 

During the early stages of pandemic lockdown, I collaborated with my ex-girlfriend Sophy Romvari on an experimental short film called Some Kind of Connection (2020). We really had nothing to work with, aside from our phones and the interior of my apartment. It was seriously inspiring to watch the process of such a talented filmmaker in action, and to play a small role in that process.  

I have also drafted several screen treatments in the couple years since then. Some of the most electrifying creative experiences of my life have been in collaborating with director Jamie Blanks (Urban Legend [1998], Valentine [2001], Storm Warning [2007], Long Weekend [2008]), whose work I’ve admired for years. 

I don’t know to what extent these experiences have had an influence on my writing. I suppose acting and screenwriting and directing have all allowed me different contexts within which to resolve creative obstacles, although fiction-writing presents far fewer material challenges than filmmaking. When it comes to writing the first draft of a novel or a short story, there are no restrictions in terms of casting or budget or location—the only limitations are those of the writer’s imagination; the tools required for the process are literally just a writing instrument and a surface on which to write. By contrast, filmmaking consists of so many moving parts and collaborators, and it is subject to the physical and financial conditions of its production contexts. 

Are there films you associate with a particular time in your life, or a specific writing project?

I strongly associate Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004) with my early twenties. I connected in an intense way with the film’s subject matter, and I was so intoxicated by its lush visual approach and the haunting score by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd. 

I love Araki’s work in general. His films exist on their own beautifully immersive countercultural plane. 

Thinking about the places you’ve lived, are there any environments that are cinematic? Have you lived anywhere that has been regularly depicted onscreen? If so, has this had an influence on your perception of the place, or how you’ve depicted it in any of your writings?

I think any environment has cinematic potential if captured by the right director and cinematographer.

I lived in Calgary, Alberta for basically my entire life until August 2021. I don’t remember ever seeing the city itself depicted onscreen, but the province’s rural and mountainous areas have been go-to locations for lots of Hollywood Westerns (recent examples include Brokeback Mountain [2005], The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007], and The Revenant [2015]). 

I’m now living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I love getting lost in Odell Park, especially in the fall. I wouldn’t be surprised if it found its way into a future story or novel. 

Are there films you regularly return to, and do you know why?

I don’t rewatch films as often as I used to. I always feel like I have so many cinematic blind spots, so when I get the time to watch something, I’m much likelier to opt for something I’ve never seen. If I’m writing an article or teaching a lesson about a film, I’ll make sure to look at it again. 

Since I wrote my master’s thesis on John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), I’ve seen that film an absurd number of times. I also rewatched Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) a lot when I was teaching English Composition; I turned to that film often as an example of genre as social allegory. I’ve written a fair bit on Rob Zombie’s filmography, so I frequently return to his work. Out of all his films, I think I’ve watched The Lords of Salem (2012) the most; I really connect with that one. 

Do you have any lines of film dialogue you regularly use in your daily life?

I quote from Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Billy Madison (1995) a lot. 

Are there individual scenes that stay with you?

There are too many to name. The final shot in King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) has clung to my brain. The last interview session in Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler (1968) is one of the most psychologically disturbing film scenes I can remember. 

Near the beginning of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), there’s a sequence depicting the English royal charter ships approaching shore, scored by Richard Wagner’s “Vorspiel to Das Rheingold.” One of the most memorably awe-inspiring cinematic experiences of my life was watching this scene unfold on a giant theatre screen at the age of fifteen. I didn’t yet understand some of the ideological problems endemic to this film’s national mythology, but as a pure aesthetic experience it was so overpoweringly beautiful. 

What films have roused a visceral reaction in you?

Documentaries tend to disturb me more than anything else. I’ve had visceral reactions to several of Frederick Wiseman’s films (Titicut Follies [1967], Law and Order [1969], and Primate [1974] come immediately to mind). I was also really unsettled by Blood of the Beasts (1949), Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Body without Soul (1996), and the McKamey Manor material in Haunters: The Art of the Scare (2017).

Are there films that are reliable for inspiring your creativity?

Not in an immediately conscious way. There’s no doubt that all the films I’ve watched have accumulated inside the gray matter between my temples, so they find their way into the writing, but I don’t turn to them expressly for creative inspiration.  

Which of your writings would adapt most successfully to film?

Well, I’ve thought most intensively about Shelter for the Damned in terms of cinematic adaptation. It’s a very “interior” novel, but I think it would easily translate into the visual language of film. 

I also think “The Auteur”, “A New Kind of Drug”, “Havoc”, “Offer to the Adversary”, and “Virus” would work well as movies. 

Can you give some film recommendations for those who have liked your writing?

I’ll go with titles I haven’t already referenced, to keep things interesting. Fans of my writing might enjoy The Avenging Conscience (1914), The Unknown (1927), The Black Cat (1934), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Corridors of Blood (1958), Monster on the Campus (1958), The Haunted Palace (1963), Matango (1963), Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Last House on Dead End Street (1973), Martin (1976), Xtro (1982), Christine (1983), From Beyond (1986), Hellraiser (1987), Society (1989), Brainscan (1994), The Addiction (1995), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), Pi (1998), eXistenZ (1999), Pulse (2001), In My Skin (2002), Haze (2005), Mortuary (2005), My Soul to Take (2010), Color Out of Space (2019), and Smiley Face Killers (2020). 

Mike Thorn is the author of Shelter for the Damned, Darkest Hours, and Peel Back and See. His fiction has appeared in Vastarien, Dark Moon Digest, NoSleep, and elsewhere. His essays and articles have been published in various venues, including The Film Stage and American Twilight: The Cinema of Tobe Hooper (University of Texas Press). Connect with him on X (@MikeThornWrites) and visit his website.

Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at Tangerine Press, Burning House Press, Muskeg, Ligeia, and Silent Auctions, among others. Her books are anemogram., Rusticles, and Sea of Glass.

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