DIE LAUGHING! A Talk with Writer/Director Rolfe Kanefsky by Owen Keehnen

Rolfe Kanesky is a film lover through and through who has a career habit of successfully blending horror and humor in his films – a connection born from multiple viewings of the Abbott and Costello fright-flicks. He directed his first professional film at age 20 in 1989, the lauded tongue-in-cheek thriller ‘There’s Nothing Out There’, which predates Wes Craven’s post modern ‘Scream’ schtick by several years. Since then he has made such films as the deliciously demented ‘The Hazing’ (starring Tiffany Shepis, Nectar Rose, and Brad Dourif), ‘Corpses’ (a ‘zombedy’ also starring Shepis as well as Jeff Fahey), ‘Nightmare Man’, ‘Jacqueline Hyde’ (a fresh spin on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic), ‘Tomorrow By Midnight’ (with Carol Kane and Alexis Arquette), ‘Rod Steele 0014: Balls of Thunder’ (yep, that’s a Bond parody), and even a homage to Porky’s/Zapped called ‘Pretty Cool’. Recently he took a break from his work on ‘Nightmare Man’ to answer a few questions for Racks and Razors fans.


  Owen: You are about ready to start work on your latest movie 'Nightmare Man' starring Racks and Razors favorite Tiffany Shepis (who also starred in your films 'Corpses' and 'The Hazing').  What can you tell us about it?

Rolfe: NIGHTMARE MAN is a horror thriller about a young woman who receives a demonic African mask in the mail that comes to life and attacks her. Or possibly it is only a delusion. Her husband and doctors believe she is a paranoid schizophrenic and suggest she commit herself to a mental hospital for some future examination. On the way there, the car runs out of gas. Her husband walks to the gas station and while she is waiting in the car for him to return, the NIGHTMARE MAN attacks her again…or is it only in her mind? She runs into the woods and stumbles upon a country house where two young couples are vacationing. They take her inside as she warns them all that there is a killer outside with a knife. They manage to reach the woman’s husband on his cell and he tells them that there is no killer. It’s all in her mind but be careful. She could be dangerous to herself and possibly others. Now, nobody knows who to trust and as the murders begin, the horror explodes with unexpected twists and turns along the way. Tiffany Shepis plays “Mia”, one of the young ladies at the country house. Blythe Metz plays “Ellen” the woman who may or may not be crazy. The rest of the cast will be finalized in a week or two. Production begins on August 15th. I wrote and will direct as well as co-produce it for Valkhn Films, my own company. My parents, a New York producer Ben Gruberg, and a new L.A. producer Esther Goodstein are putting the project together with me. It’s simple story that should be very suspenseful and keep you guessing to the very end.

Owen: 'Corpses' stars Tiffany as well as Jeff Fahey and is being touted as a "zombedy".  Was it as fun to make as it sounds?

Rolfe: CORPSES was a troubled shoot to say the least. The finished film is a weird quirky comedy that kinda fun if you’re in the right mood. The cast is great but the production was a nightmare. The film has problems. If I had been able to do a commentary track for the DVD, I could have explained why the film is the way it is. But with York Entertainment behind the release, that turned out to be impossible. I’ll say this, compared to most of the other York releases, CORPSES is surprisingly entertaining. Compared to “real” movies, I’ll let the viewers decide. But to answer your question, there was absolutely NO FUN in making CORPSES with the exception of working with a great cast. If the film works at all, it really is a miracle. I have threatened to write a book about the making of this film and one day I might. It would be called “HOW NOT TO PRODUCE A MOVIE”.

Owen: You've always had fun with the fright genre; your first professional film (made at age 20 in 1989) was the tongue-in-cheek favorite 'There's Nothing Out There'.  Do you feel in some ways you invented a genre that has been given a greater prominence with 'Scream' and 'Shaun of the Dead'?

Rolfe: THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE was an attempt to break into the film business and start my career. Horror was still huge at the time (late 80’s) and I’ve always loved horror comedies when they work. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, FRIGHT NIGHT, EVIL DEAD 2, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. These are some of my favorite movies. So, while I was still in high school, I wanted to try to write a horror flick. I had been watching every horror film on video since I was 14 and wanted to give it a shot. The problem was while I was watching these films, I couldn’t help but notice all the tired clichés that would be used again and again. Example: kids wandering off by themselves, a cat jumping out of nowhere for a cheap scare, people standing in front of open windows, dropping the knife by the killer when we all know he’s still alive, etc… Back in 1987, I had never seen a horror film where someone in the film was actually aware of the horror genre and could comment upon his friends’ stupidity. So, I wrote in MIKE, a horror buff who finds himself in a horror film with his friends and can act like the audience, commenting on all the stupid clichés. You see, I love horror films but I’ve always felt that there are a lot of lazy filmmakers and films out there. I thought if I parodied the clichés, people would stop using them and come up with some better, fresher ideas. That was the goal. The make a horror/comedy that had enough sex and violence to satisfy the horror crowd (or what studios believe the horror crowd wants) while the comedy could be spread through word of mouth. So, in short, I was making a commercial film that twisted the genre into something slightly new. To this day I am still very proud of the final result. The problem was that studios didn’t understand it. They couldn’t see how an audience would respond. They felt the film was too funny to be scary and too scary to be funny so it didn’t work. But the audiences, festivals, and critics loved it. For years, I knew that the audience was ready for something like this and if a filmmaker came along with enough movie, a few name actors, and a big theatrical release, it would make a fortune. Six years later, Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson and SCREAM proved me right. Do I think Kevin Williamson may have watched THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE on HBO/Cinemax before/while he was writing SCREAM and have been influenced? Yes. Do I mind? No. SCREAM brought back the horror genre and it’s going stronger today than ever and that’s great! I’m now able to make more horror films so I can’t complain and may people do give me credit for starting the trend. I made no money and Hollywood still ignores me but at least, I know the film is appreciated. Kevin Smith even told me face to face one day that he felt SCREAM ripped me off and I hear Quentin Tarantino is a fan.

Owen: You did a terrific job writing as well as directed 'The Hazing'.  It was an extremely entertaining gore fest.  What is your predominant memory of filming it?

Rolfe: THE HAZING was a project that was somewhat inspired by the success of SCREAM. You see, after SCREAM came out, everyone wanted horror/comedy. But I didn’t want to redo NOTHING OUT THERE or rip-off SCREAM so I thought hard about what I could do that would be horror/comedy but still be different. That’s when I thought about “BREAKFAST CLUB” as a horror film. Set up a bunch of stereotype characters and then have them become real people as the story unfolds so you don’t know who’s going to live and die because the kids aren’t following the rules. I combined that concept with a HELL NIGHT plotline and there’s THE HAZING. (THE HAZING actually started life as a potential sequel to HELL NIGHT as HELL NIGHT 2: THE HAZING but when the producers weren’t interested, I dropped the HELL NIGHT connection.) Having almost a million dollars to make THE HAZING was great but the producers were very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to pull off an effects-heavy action horror piece on the budget and time (18 days). I wasn’t that concerned but I felt the pressure during the entire shoots. Again, the cast was great but I felt that the production and some crew people didn’t trust me. I felt like I had very little respect on the set and that was frustrating so I couldn’t really enjoy my “return” to the genre. By the end, I am very happy with the final result and again most of the reviews have been wonderful. Horror fans really got what I was going for. An old-fashioned 80’s style horror comedy with a more modern attitude.

Owen: 'The Hazing' had some great supporting work by Brad Dourif.  How was he to work with?

Rolfe: Brad Dourif was wonderful. He really collaborated in the movie, adding stuff to his character and his knowledge of alchemy and tarot cards. He really worked with all the actors and gave 100%. No complaints at all. He was one of my first choices for Professor Kapps and I was delighted when he agreed to do it. We were very lucky. We got him right between LORD OF THE RINGS and DEADWOOD. He came up with making Professor Kapps British, since he had just perfected the accent for the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. The problem was that when Tiffany Shepis and Philip Andrew get possessed by him, they too would have to speak that way so Brad Dourif worked with both of them and recorded all of their lines into a tape recorder to help them get it down. They had to learn in two weeks when he had spent months perfecting. That is Tiffany’s voice when she’s possessed. We just lowered the pitch slightly in post but she really nailed it. Even Brad was very impressed.

Owen: 'The Hazing' also featured an extremely memorable cameo by supermodel Brooke Burke in her screen debut.  How did she get involved with the project?

Rolfe: Brooke Burke had just finished her stint as host of E!’s Wild On series and was looking to get into features. Our casting people had her name on the list and I thought she’d be a perfect cameo for the film. She gave a great audition and we gave her the part. Unfortunately, her agents didn’t want us to use her name to advertise the film so we couldn't really take advantage of her fan base. I think she’s fine in the film but really regret not shooting the scene where she changing into her Halloween costume in the bathroom. It was scripted and she had agreed to do it but the producers cut it because of time. They didn’t let me shoot the scene and I was stunned. I mean, how to you not shoot the scene of Brooke Burke taking off her clothes?!! Looking back, the producers know they made a mistake. We actually tried to get her back to shoot it but she wouldn’t return.

Owen: I want to hear all about the filming of "the tongue scene" from that movie.

Rolfe: Okay. Here’s the story of the tongue scene. When I was writing the script a good seven years before we made it, I came up with this over-the-top tongue scene. In my mind, this was the “head” scene from RE-ANIMATOR or the tree rape scene from EVIL DEAD or the lipstick through the nipple scene in NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. I remembered in the 80’s there was always that one crazy scene that people would talk about. I thought the tongue scene would be it. When people first read the script, they liked most of it but felt the tongue scene was going too far. Some women found it disturbing. I thought “Good! It’s a horror film. It’s supposed to be disturbing”. I thought the scene could be funny, scary, sexy, and disgusting at the same time. Well, because of all the flack, I toned down the scene. It was originally longer so I trimmed it. Years later, THE HAZING finally gets set-up with a new producer and I’m very happy. He likes the tongue scene. However, he doesn’t have all the money yet so he’s looking for a partner. Well, another company got involved for a while and they hated the tongue scene. They didn’t think it was scary and wanted to do something else. We fought to keep it and finally they left the project. So, the tongue scene is back in. However, Nectar Rose, the actress playing the girl on the receiving end of the tongue, is worried. She has never done nudity before. So, we took her out to breakfast and explain the whole deal. She agrees to do it but wants some trims. I say okay. Originally, when Nectar realizes that something is wrong and looks down, the tongue is licking her nipple. Nectar didn’t want to do that so I changed the tongue to have it slapping against her stomach. Now, when it finally comes to shooting the scene, the producer is worried that we’ll never get an “R” rating. I assure him that it won’t be that explicit and I don’t think it will be a problem. Some of the female crewmembers also told me that they almost refused to work on the film because of the tongue scene but after it was shot, they realized what I was going for and had no more concerns. To tell you the truth, the shooting of the tongue scene was my happiest day on the set. The producer was not around to worry and I was able to get exactly what I wanted. The actors were cool. Nectar’s biggest problem was doing her C.U.’s of fake orgasms in front of a roomful of strangers but she pulled through and did a great job. Jeremy had a gagging reflex problem and did not enjoy shoving this whole tongue in his mouth and getting covered in wet sticky fake blood isn’t so great either but he was also a trooper and pulled it off with flying colors. Luckily, Nectar and Jeremy were good friends and were actually dating at the time so they were comfortable with each other. The effects guys did a good job overall. There were cables to manipulate the tongue and various versions for different shots. When Jeremy grabs the chainsaw and tears the tongue into pieces, I had a huge smile on my face as blood spurted everywhere covering the walls and ceiling. Jeremy was practically covered in the stuff from head to toe. He said his balls will probably be sticking to his thigh for the next week but we got the shot. When all was said and done, the tongue scene worked the way I wanted it to and the MPAA gave us an “R” without any cuts needed. MTI Home Video said the whole office applauded when they heard THE HAZING was granted an “R”. They too were afraid cuts would be needed. Many people have said the tongue scene is their favorite part in the film. There were some other moments in the script that I would have liked to get to that level but wasn’t able to. The mannequin scene with Justine also could have been a highlight. Unfortunately, most of it didn’t get filmed because of time issues. But the tongue scene survived!

Owen: I also want to hear about the very dark "thriller with humor" 'Tomorrow By Midnight' with Alexis Arquette and Carol Kane. 

Rolfe: TOMORROW BY MIDNIGHT is the film that I’m most proud of. It is not the most commercial movie I’ve made but it is the most personal and does have a lot to say. It’s about four college film students that wind up taking a video store hostage for the night. I’ve described it as “BREAKFAST CLUB” with guns or “CLERKS” meets “DOG DAY AFTERNOON”. The film asks the question: what happens when the line between movie violence and real life violence gets blurred? Again, I’m very happy with the cast but also happy with the entire film. It was shot on 35mm, scope, with a great 5.1 mix. Besides Alexis Arquette (PULP FICTION, LORDS OF DOGTOWN, BRIDE OF CHUCKY, WEDDING SINGER, etc…) and Carol Kane (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, PRINCESS BRIDE, TV’s TAXI, THE PACIFIER), it features a early role of Jorge Garcia (T.V.’s LOST) and Tamara Craig Thomas (THE CURVE, and upcoming features ASK THE DUST with Salma Hayek and FUN WITH DICK AND JANE with Jim Carrey). The whole film is set in the video store that is a B-movie fans dream. All the posters and trailers in the store are from Troma, Roger Corman, and Full Moon and there are extended conversations about Hitchcock vs. DePalma, Halloween, Friday The 13th vs. Tarantino movies. I believe over 156 films are mentioned but at the same time there is a lot of suspense and when the film turns serious and deadly, the violence is shocking and brutal. I’m still trying to find a distributor to pick up the film. It deserves to be released some day.

Owen: What makes horror and humor such a great mix?  

Rolfe: I believe humor is a great way to get people off-guard before a big scare. JAWS is a great example when Roy Scheider is throwing out the shark bait and says, “Why don’t you chuck some of this shit” and the shark bursts up behind him. A laugh turning into a scream is very powerful. When done properly, the film is just a great rollercoaster. FRIGHT NIGHT was a delight in the theaters. The audiences went crazy. Same with EVIL DEAD 2. I had so much fun watching those films that I always wanted to recreate that kind of movie-going experience. I wish THE HAZING had been given a theatrical shot, even just a small one. Because I think it would have been a blast! The sequence on the moors in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is probably the best blend of comedy and horror in a single scene. You are on the edge of your seat in fear but still chuckling at the witty banter. You laugh and scream, amused and terrified at the same time. It’s very delicate line to walk but one I’ve always found to be a great challenge and very rewarding when done right.

Owen: Tell me about your other new movie you have coming out 'Jacquelyn Hyde' starring Gabriella Hall and Blythe Metz.

Rolfe: JACQUELINE HYDE is a different kind of horror film for me. It’s a modern tale inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde” but seen from a woman’s point of view. Gabriella Hall plays JACKIE HYDE, a shy telemarketer who inherits her grandfather’s mansion. He was an inventor and magician and created a potion that allows a person to transform into anyone they wish to be. JACKIE stumbles upon the potion and soon transforms herself into various men and women as she experiments with herself and her sexuality. She eventually finds her alter ego, JACQUELINE HYDE (Blythe Metz) and the sex soon leads to violence. I’ve always thought of this as “Jekyll and Hyde” crossed with LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR. It’s an erotic journey into horror. It was also my first film as co-producer with Gabriella under her Pixie Flicks banner. I’m very happy with the film and amazed by what’s happened with it. It got selected for the 23rd Brussels International Film Festival earlier this year and screened alongside THE RING TWO, WHITE NOISE, BOOGEYMAN, TEAM AMERICA, CREEP, ROBOTS, and Paul Schrader’s EXORCIST, among others. JACQUELINE HYDE is a much, much smaller film than any of these, so getting selected was a great honor. And now, the film is getting released on October 18th in the states through Warner Home Video, so it should be everywhere! It’s probably going to have the biggest release of any of my films so far. I’ve always felt that there is a real audience out there for erotic horror and JACQUELINE HYDE will be the test. If is succeeds, I hope to make a few more of these types of films and already have some scripts ready to go. The releasing company has asked about a possible sequel.

Owen: Looking back on when you were a kid is there some memory you can point to that says, "Yep, that kid was destined to make movies".

Rolfe: Well, I discovered what I wanted to do very, very young. My father introduced me to Abbott and Costello movies when I was four and I fell in love with them. As fate would have it, the very first movie memory I have is watching the end of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE”. I started writing my own Abbott and Costello stories soon after and when I got my first video camera at the age of 13 that was it. There was no turning back. At fourteen, I knew I was going to be a director and I started writing screenplays at 15. At 16, I tackled my first feature length movie, STRENGTH IN NUMBERS. My parents were and still are extremely supportive but they tried to broaden my interest. Unfortunately, I’m very stubborn and film has always been the love of my life.

Owen: You have a pretty varied career --- in addition to the aforementioned movies you've also done 'The Erotic Misadventures Of An Invisible Man', the teen comedy 'Pretty Cool', the James Bond spoof 'Rod Steele', etc.  Looking over your oeuvre which film gives you the most pride?

Rolfe: I have always loved comedy and that is my strong suit. However, I also love horror films, thrillers, musicals, and action. I would love to make a NORTH BY NORTHWEST, a BLUES BROTHERS, a CHRISTMAS IN JULY, a SILENT PARTNER, a PINK PANTHER and a SLEUTH so my taste is varied. Looking back, I guess I’m most proud of THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE, THE HAZING, PRETTY COOL, and TOMORROW BY MIDNIGHT. I’d say THE HAZING is my (none-to-subtle homage to) EVIL DEAD, PRETTY COOL is my PORKY’S / ZAPPED! and TOMORROW is my BREAKFAST CLUB.

Owen: What in real life makes you laugh and shudder at the same time?

Rolfe: Thinking about real life. It’s much more fun being lost in the movies.