Genre veteran Mick Garris – one of the masterminds behind the horror anthology film Nightmare Cinema (now available on VOD) – knows a thing or two about creating a lean, mean, terrifying movie. Few directors and producers in the industry are as closely tied to horror anthologies as Garris, who has notably worked on beloved cult television series like Masters of Horror (where he served as an executive producer and creator), Fear Itself (which he also helped create), Tales from the Crypt, and Freddy’s Nightmares. His career expands far beyond the confines of short filmmaking, but Garris seems just as happy working on single episode chillers and horror anthologies as he does features. But as the silver haired and jovial master of horror told us while promoting his latest work, that wasn’t always the case.
“I was never into shorts, but my first job was on Amazing Stories,” Garris begins, weaving a story about how he grew to love anthologies while in Toronto last fall for the local premiere of Nightmare Cinema at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. “Back then, I never had the time or energy to even get into series television or get to know the family that would watch something like that at home every night. Then again, television wasn’t what it is today. I actually think in many respects that television is better today than movies are. There was never a time when I felt like I was doing one thing instead of something else, because, like many people, I was just happy to work. But I did end up working on a lot of anthology films and series, and truth be told, my segment of Nightmare Cinema was originally intended to be a feature. The people who were interested in making that into a feature were one of the first to ask if it could work if it were to be cut down. I know that David Slade’s segment in Nightmare Cinema was originally envisioned as a feature. Ryûhei Kitamura’s, too. Those were written to be longer than they were, but were compressed into shorts. But it’s also just as hard to get an anthology off the ground as it is a feature, and sometime even harder. They’re not very commercially viable, in theatres, especially, and even on television there are a lot of them out there now.”
For Nightmare Cinema, Garris helped to assemble a dream team of genre film royalty behind the camera, with fellow genre veteran Joe Dante offering up the somewhat surreally nasty tale Mirari, 30 Days of Night and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch director David Slade helming the appropriately hellish looking This Way to Egress, Versus and Midnight Meat Train director Ryûhei Kitamura crafting the notably bonkers and blood drenched Mashit, and Juan of the Dead creator Alejandro Brugués overseeing the playfully meta The Thing in the Woods. The film itself is framed by wrap-around segments (directed by Garris, who also helms the concluding short, Dead) where unsuspecting passersby are invited into a mysterious cinema, where a creepy, somewhat prophetic projectionist (played by Mickey Rourke) will a screen movie from his “patrons” from another realm that relates to the problems they have going on in their own lives. It’s a pretty classic sort of set up for such an anthology, but Nightmare Cinema wants to feel like an old school movie. Above anything else, Garris clearly wants the audience for Nightmare Cinema to have a great time being scared.
“I love the form because they’re still self-contained movies,” Garris explains about his love of anthology filmmaking. “I’ve worked on shows and films that have had continuing characters, but there’s something satisfying about seeing a single story through to a conclusion. Today, making mainstream movies are a lot more about creating theme park rides than they are about storytelling. And in the case of Nightmare Cinema, we actually kind of lean into that feeling of a theme park ride. Even though more and more people will consume something like this at home on their televisions and computers, there will always be that thrill of going to a movie theatre. There’s something to be said about setting something like this against the backdrop of a decaying movie theatre. You can say that there’s something metaphorical to be said about the death of cinema, but you can also show how exhilarating it can feel to be there.”
One of the biggest opportunities posed to the filmmakers involved with Nightmare Cinema was a chance for them to work outside of their established style or comfort zone for a little bit and collaborate, in some cases, with writers they’ve never worked with before, or in Joe Dante’s case, with someone they hadn’t collaborated with in quite some time. Outside of Garris and Slade’s shorts, the other entries feel unique when one takes into account the directors’ previous works. Dante, Kitamura, and Brugués are well known for infusing their work with dark humour, but their Nightmare Cinema segments are unlike anything they’ve previously attempted with their other features and shorts. It was an intentional move on the part of Garris and his collaborators that viewers wouldn’t really know for certain who directed what by the time the credits rolled.
“What we did here was similar to what we did on Masters of Horror, which was to go to people that we knew were talented and we asked them what they had and how they wanted to do it. We were willing to let these filmmakers do whatever they wanted to do, as long as we got a sense of their personality on film. David had been trying to get his short made into a feature for years, as had I, so we were kind of the odd people out here.”
“Sandra Becerrill, who wrote Ryûhei’s short, had been trying to get her film made for years in Mexico, and when I approached [Ryûhei] to be a part of this, he really didn’t have anything in the front of his mind, and I thought they would be a perfect match.”
“With Joe, he didn’t have much that he was eager to do, but I remembered that he had worked before with Richard Christian Matheson going back to our Amazing Stories days. I put them together, Richard pitched a bunch of ideas and Mirari was the one Joe responded to the most. Their story is very much like a modern Twilight Zone episode, which is the old school cautionary tale with a really strong moral. Joe said about his segment that the only way this movie makes sense is if all of the characters are out of their fucking minds. When it ends you know that it was fun and that you saw something that you haven’t seen before, but you’re not quite sure about the logic behind it. And yet, that logic is there. It just has its own logic. It’s batshit crazy, but it’s there. “
“Alejandro was actually the one person that I knew had to be a part of this one no matter what. He pitched his idea to me as him wanting to start things off as the last act of a slasher movie – because everyone has seen the first two acts – but then it takes a turn. It was such a great idea. He just killed it. It has so much energy, and just such a crowd pleaser.”
Garris’ career extends well beyond taking part in some of horror’s most notable anthology series and films. He’s also well known for directing cult favourites like Critters 2, Psycho IV: The Beginning, and Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers. He has worked on the screenplays for Hocus Pocus, *batteries not included, and The Fly II, and was responsible for a number of memorable television adaptations of other King works, such as The Stand, the author’s preferred version of The Shining, and Desperation. Although he might be better associated with his television work, he still adores the experience of sitting in a theatre – either alone or with a crowd – and watching stories unfold in a dark room.
“On the opening night of Sleepwalkers, I went to the Chinese Theatre, and it was packed,” Garris says when asked about the most memorable time he spent watching one of his films with an audience. “It was the only one of my films that went on to be number one at the box office, and the audience in the theatre that night went apeshit. It was the perfect combination of fear and laughter in the theatre that night. With that audience on that night the film was working on every possible emotional level that one could’ve hoped for. The communal experience of that night couldn’t be topped.”
Going over Garris’ filmography is a fascinating rabbit hole to travel down, full of hits, films that took a long time to find their audiences, cult favourites, and forgotten oddities, but he’s been working for so long and so prominently in a genre that fans adore that he’s often surprised to see what people want to talk about when they meet him. And he’s always willing to talk about pretty much anything and have a bit of a sense of humour about it.
“Sometimes you do get people who want to talk about things like Quicksilver Highway or that episode of Freddy’s Nightmares that I did, but I still have some things that I’ve done that almost no one talks to me about, and I’m always taken aback whenever people bring them up,” Garris says with a chuckle. “I can almost guarantee that you never saw or even heard of Virtual Obsession, which was a three hour television movie I did for ABC based on a sci-fi novel from British author Peter James with Peter Gallagher, Mimi Rogers, and Bridgette Wilson. I actually wrote that with Preston Sturges’ son, and that one really impresses me when people bring it up. That one is out there – you can find it if you look hard enough – but it’s really, really hard to find. Almost no one brings that up. The same goes for The Others, which was a television show that was done by Steven Spielberg’s production company. That was a show that had some really big names working on it, but that one’s nearly impossible to find.”
“Hocus Pocus is such a special case in the context of my career. It’s an anniversary year that we’re in right now, and for the past ten years the audience for it has kept growing and growing and growing. When it came out, it was – at best – a modest success. It is now one of the most popular Halloween movies of all time. Riding the Bullet actually takes place on Halloween, too, and is one of the most personal things that I’ve done, but I’m happy that one of the expressly Halloween movies I’ve done has found its audience,” Garris says with a laugh.
“Critters 2, when it came out, only cost four million dollars, but it was still seen as a disaster. If you went to see that movie on opening day, you probably had the theatre to yourself. I went to see it on opening day at my local theatre in Universal City and there were three people in the audience. But what’s so strange about that is that while the original Critters rarely gets revived in pop culture, Critters 2 has weirdly had the longer life and is always being revived. It’s the thirtieth anniversary of it this year, and every Easter for the past decade or so, there have been revival houses that keep bringing it back because it’s one of the very few Easter set horror movies ever made. Even film festivals show interest in Critters 2. They’re actually playing it at a film festival in Dublin that I’m going to, and it still boggles my mind because that was my first movie. It’s also my only comedy that I directed. Time might’ve caught up with it.”
One thing about making horror films that Garris has seen change for the better is the film ratings process in the United States. Shortly before our interview, Garris found out that Nightmare Cinema had been granted an R-rating from the notoriously puritanical and conservative Motion Picture Association of America, a group that he had many battles with during the 1980s and 90s. There are still some things you emphatically can’t do on film or television, but Garris welcomes any amount of permissiveness he can get with his projects.
“I was shocked last night when I heard from the MPAA that we got an R-rating on our first pass through. Coming from the era when I first started making movies like this, I almost couldn’t believe it! The things you’re allowed to get away with in movies have certainly expanded, but it’s still funny to think about. The people who make up the ratings committees are always changing. The only constant is that it’s made up of parents. These people are volunteers who watch movies together, and then they essentially age out of their positions once their kids are older. When I did Sleepwalkers, I had to go before them five different times with five different cuts of the film to get the MPAA to give me an R-rating. I think that today, a big reason why we were able to squeak through with this in the way we did was because there are just so many more movies being made these days. I think when you have that kind of volume, some things are allowed to slip through the cracks that might not have been able to in the past.”
One thing that Garris clearly loves as much as he adores working is talking about and with other filmmakers. He has previously hosted the series Post Mortem, where he interviewed some of the biggest names in genre cinema, and has made too many podcast, convention, and roundtable appearances to properly count. Being a true student and teacher of cinema, asking Garris to name some of his favourite anthology shorts that he didn’t direct is a difficult task, but he is able to narrow it down to a few, some obvious and one that’s a lot less talked about and definitely worth seeking out.
“On Masters of Horror, Stuart Gordon did an episode called The Black Cat, which was about Edgar Allen Poe, and it feels like a perfect period piece horror about Poe. I absolutely love what he did with that. It sticks out in my mind. I think it’s up there with the first three episodes of Tales from the Crypt that were done by Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, and Richard Donner. And those were so great because they were so different from each other. These are the kinds of stories that show what anthologies can be at their best and most entertaining.”
And while Garris’ work on Nightmare Cinema is designed to send chills up and down the spines of viewers, he knows that he’ll sleep well at night with the results, mostly because he never recalls ever having a bad dream.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a movie give me a nightmare,” Garris says somewhat surprisingly. “I tend to not remember my dreams, but I’m sure that I have them. But one thing about what we do as writers and directors is that we have our dreams while we’re awake, and we’re always exercising that part of our brains to share these thoughts with other people. The creative process is the same when you’re awake as when you’re having a dream.”
Nightmare Cinema is now available in Canada on VOD.