The King of modern low-budget horror n Sci-fi wackness [2022-09-15]
Oregon-based Joe Sherlock is one of the more distinctive of modern low-budget genre directors- his work blends sci-fi and horror tropes, with wacky and often surreal sensibilities. His films blend in elements of weird humour, repeated in film references, extremely low-grade effects, well-proportioned and tattooed women, oh and mayonnaise. Since the late 1990’s he has helmed twenty-five films, and counting- moving from early SOV videos, onto digital filmed features. I tracked down Joe for an email interview- where we discuss his influences, his films, and the future
M[m]: What are some of your earliest film/ TV memories- and do you think any of these directly impacted on you wanting to make film yourself?
Joe: Well, it goes without saying that I was 9 when I saw Star Wars and it made me a sci-fi and genre fan for life. I was a little kid in the '70s and fondly remember Saturday morning cartoons, but I really dug stuff like Jason of Star Command, Ark II, The New Adventures of Flash Gordon and other sci-fi stuff. I also watched a Saturday afternoon horror host show (Dr. Shock out of Philadelphia) and got a double feature of all sorts of horror every weekend. I loved KISS, watched The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. For sure my early intake of all that stuff plus comic books and monster-filled tales from Greek mythology all influenced the kind of movies I made today.
I've told this story before, but my favorite horror movie is PHANTASM. I first saw it on the CBS Late Movie in March of 1981, sitting alone in the dark in the dead of night (dead of night for a middle school kid), my family asleep at the other end of the house. The creepy psychic lady. That box he had to put his hand in. The Tall Man. The spheres. The bug thing. The yellow goo. The Volkswagen on its side. The sound in that room with the bars. Edited as it certainly was for TV, it still scared the crap out of me and was so unlike anything I had seen before. In the years since I’ve come to appreciate it also for what went on behind-the-scenes: how Don Coscarelli came up with it, the creative ways they made those wild scenes and nightmarish images. The sheer determination they had to just plain make the movie happen. It’s inspired me in many ways in making my own flicks.
M[m]: On the subject of Phantasm- did you enjoy the sequels/ where they went? And have you ever considered what you’d like to do with a sequel?
Joe: I have enjoyed the sequels, but given the conditions under which I saw the original, none will have the same impact. I did see Phantasm II in the theater as a double feature with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and that was quite cool! I haven't thought about where I would take that story, but I did toy with the idea of a fan film short. Who knows maybe someday I'll make it?
M[m]: You mention Kiss, and how impactful they were on you. Do you still follow the band now? And if so, what do you see as your favourite albums/ periods?
Joe: I still follow the band and have had a great time at their concerts. Kiss Alive II was the first one that I bought so it will always be a favourite. I enjoy the different phases of the band for what they are, be it extra heavy, extra poppy or just straight-ahead rock and roll.
M[m]: On the subject of music- what other bands/ genres do you like?
Joe: I like all kinds of stuff. Heavy metal, pop, synthwave, jazz, 70s mellow stuff; it all depends on the mood I am in.
M[m]: When did you first think you’d like to make your own films- and could you detail your early steps into filmmaking?
Joe: As mentioned earlier, all that media I was consuming made me a genre fan and when I was growing up, I would often draw my own comics, complete with my own worlds of superheroes, sci-fi creatures and monsters. Very akin to storyboarding as I would later discover.
It was on KPTV channel 12 out of Portland, Oregon that I saw Don Dohler’s THE ALIEN FACTOR in the early '80s. It being an ultra-low-budget movie shot in backyards, living rooms and woods near Baltimore, it reminded me very much of my old neighborhood in New Jersey. Beyond that, the homemade feel made me think, “I could do that!”
I made short films using my dad's super-8 film camera including some stop-motion stuff. Later on, a friend had a VHS camcorder we made skits and stuff with and later once my family got one, I made sci-fi and horror shorts, some music videos and the like.
M[m]: according to IMDB your first work was 1996 Dimension of Blood- how did this come about, what was its runtime (as there isn’t one listed), and what are your thoughts on the film now?
Joe: Dimension of Blood was a turning point because it was the first time, I decided to really put some serious effort into one of these video efforts. It was inspired by The X-Files as well as the many b-movies I loved. It runs for 35 minutes. I started shooting it in December of 1995 and finished it early that next year. Shot on VHS. Edited on a 3/4" U-matic tape system.
I still enjoy watching this. Sure, it's amateur and grainy low-res and all that, but it's stuffed full of fake blood, gore, slime, weirdos, lo-fi effects and heck, it's me a bunch of my friends having a good time!
M[m]: Seemingly around 2012 you switched from Shot on Video, to shot on film- what triggered this?, and what do you see as the pros & cons of both formats?
Joe: Aside from that super-8 stuff I did when I was a kid, I've never shot on film. In 2012, I just got a better camera, that's all! From VHS in 1995 to shooting on a DLSR today, it's always been video. From big cassettes to little cassettes to SD cards. The look just got better.
M[m]: Over your career, you developed a distinctive take on horror & Sci-fi filming, with touches of weird humour, repeated in film references, extremely low-grade effects, mayonnaise, and well-proportioned often tattooed women. Please discuss what you see as your influences, and are there any elements in your formal you’d like to expand/ add to in the future?
Joe: For the most part, my 'style' has been an organic thing. For sure a steady diet of b-movies influenced me in terms of 'the ingredients,' as I call them: blood, gore, nudity, action, sex, violence, monsters, weird stuff. The last thing I want my movies to be is boring so at least if it's talky, there is some sort of horror or sexy or action thing happening every 10 minutes!
As I've done movie after movie, I do recognize (as many have pointed out) that I do have recurring themes and scenes. Being a DIY filmmaker has meant that I've been able to make the movies mostly I want the way I want (with the usual microbudget limitations). I'll throw in weird humor and references to my other movies and repeat lines and scenes because I think it's fun. Story wise my movies do not inhabit a singular universe but I reuse props and locations and actors all the time as well so you do get that 'let's put on a show' kind of feel sometimes.
I feature people of many sizes, shapes and ages because I've got friends and friends of friends of many sizes, shapes and ages. I've had many viewers thank me for including bigger ladies or more 'real' looking people than more mainstream productions and I am happy to oblige.
M[m]: Another recurring theme in your work is women taking baths/ showers- have you ever considered pushing further the flesh content in your work?
Joe: You know, I am fine with where I am at in my flicks right now. I have had people ask me to push the line further than R-rated stuff and feature full-frontal male nudity and such and I'm not saying never, but right now I like the level of skin in my little b-movies.
M[m]: Another trait of your work is often floating plots- please discuss how much do you tightly script, and how much don’t?
Joe: 97% of everything is scripted. Sometimes ad libs will make it in or I'll intentionally leave a section of script open for the actors I know will be playing the parts to ad lib or chit chat about something they know (example a couple of HVAC guys talking about work for a scene that was really about the character between them being uninterested).
As far as 'floating,' I assume you mean that the movie might bob and weave between several storylines? I've done a lot of anthologies as most of the time my story ideas end up pretty short. Even on my features, they sometimes consist of several segments but are all mixed back and forth, pulling many of them together at the end.
M[m]: Your production company is called Skull face Astronaut- what’s the origin of this name?
Joe: Years and years ago I wrote up an outline for a movie idea I had, inspired by THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN. I had an astronaut who comes back from space and starts to deteriorate and he is a collector of monster masks and has a whole shelf of them on Styrofoam wig heads (which I had at the time) and the idea was that he would take this skull mask off the shelf and put it on to cover up the fact that his skin was melting away. He was also going crazy since his brain was melting and he would go on a killing spree wearing this mask. I didn't have a title, so I named the file "SKULLFACE ASTRONAUT." Well, I never did write the script, nor make the movie, but I liked that phrase because it perfectly was sci-fi and horror at the same time. So now I use it as my production company name.
M[m]: Over recent years you’ve built up a repertory of actors/ friends you work with from film to film- a few you’ve used quite a few times such as Dale Wilson, Emily Howard & Richard Johnson. How did you go about sourcing your casts?
Joe: I started by casting friends, then they told people about how fun it was, so those friends of friends became involved. I've held screenings at theatre pubs and independent theatres and had attendees come up after the show wanting to be involved. Same thing for screenings and vending at comic cons or horror conventions. I’ve only really auditioned people once and that was back in the early 2000s for my sexy thriller UNDERBELLY - I advertised the local college paper and got two students to read for a couple of parts. Otherwise, I have been very, very, very lucky to have talented friends who are great actors, want to get naked and/or covered in fake blood and dig it so much they invite their friends along.
M[m]: Talking of acting you’ve appeared in a few of your films yourself- I practically liked the lead role you played in Pickman’s Model (from your anthology film Channel 99) where you play a sinister artist. How do you personally approach doing a role, and would you like to do more acting in future- be it in your own films, or others?
Joe: I do enjoy the acting, but since I am usually the director/sound/lights/props guy on set, it's hard to also be in front of the camera. I've done a few parts for other people and I enjoy it.
M[m]: Oh, I didn’t know you’d acted in other folks’ films- what have been some of your favourite roles and why?
Joe: I played a quirky computer hacker who lived out of his car named, "Captain Snacks" in a crime film called DECRYPTER years ago. It was a small part, but it was fun to play. Another part that was fun was a mysterious "Man in Black" type character in my friend John Bowker's movie HOUSEBOUND.
M[m]: You’ve got coming on for twenty-five feature-length films under your belt now- please could you select say five or so that are your favourites, and explain why?
Joe: DRIFTER because I really like the balance of horror and humor in it, I like the mystery and reveals in it, there are some really great shots and performances and overall, I just like the vibe of it. It has several nods to PHANTASM in it and my friend Steve Sessions created a fantastic soundtrack for it.
ODD NOGGINS, just because it is so unique and chock full of sci-fi horror weirdness
CHANNEL 99, my homage to early 80s pay cable late-night fare because being an anthology it has ample opportunity to include a wide variety of things I dig - like hot chicks and monsters!
BEYOND THE WALL OF FEAR is another fave, I really like how the stories turned out; great performances, cool story twists, lo-fi but fun effects.
M[m]: You recently had a boxset of your films released on Sterling Entertainment- how did this come about, and what are some of the neat extra on the set?
Joe: Sterling Entertainment approached me with the offer to put out two collector box sets and I was thrilled. We spent about a year working on them, from getting the best possible source materials for the blu-ray authoring, to the fantastic painted artwork being done by an artist in Belgium to me creating commentary tracks (often with several cast members) as well as new behind-the-scenes featurettes, etc. It was a ton of work but it's really great to see the movies out in such great packages
M[m]: What’s next in the pipeline film-wise?
Joe: Believe it or not I am working on five movies currently. Two sci-fi horror ones for hire that are just about ready to be delivered, a zombie one that is partially shot, another horror feature that is in the writing stages to be shot later this year and one more sci-fi weird one that is about 1/3 shot with more to be done by year's end. Watch all my social media when I can make announcements.
M[m]: What art- be it film, music, or book-wise has impacted you over the last few months most?
Joe: That's a hard one - I've been crazy busy making stuff, so not consuming as much in the last few months. I did binge-watch "Barry" on HBO and really dug it. Went to a concert by "The Darkness" a few months back and while I was already a fan, I was blown away by what a great show they put on. Plus, I had heard the song Black Shuck, but never really paid much attention to the lyrics, so it was cool to look into that and find out it's about a huge, ghostly black dog from English folklore. Needless to say, I'm going to work in a mention of Black Shuck into my next script!
M[m]: You mention the Black Shuck- do you have a general interest in cyprids, and if so any plans to work anymore in future films?
Joe: I guess I'd say I have a general interest. I was really into Greek Mythology as a kid but mostly for the monsters! Even when I was in middle school and kids were playing D&D I was mostly just pouring over the monster manual. Living in the Pacific Northwest, bigfoot is a part of the culture up here so a natural thing to put into movies. A movie I have just finished editing has not only bigfoot but aliens, D.B. Cooper and clones in it!
M[m]: Are there any other modern low-budget horror/ sci-fi directors you admire? And if so, please mention a few of your favourite films by said directors?
Joe: I admire Joe Begos - he is making movies with his friends on low budgets filled with splattering blood and cool visuals. He's been able to connect up with some smaller production companies, but still can shift and just make something like BLISS on his own terms and still come up with something great. I admire his creativity, grit to get these things done, his relationship with CHANNEL 83 FILMS partner with editor/producer Josh Ethier. I was impressed with ALMOST HUMAN and THE MIND'S EYE.
I also like Chad Crawford Kinkle's work - his movie JUG FACE was a folk horror flick with low budget and limited locations and such but boy was it well acted and had such a great creepy undercurrent to it. His next movie DEMENTER had the same qualities. I find it inspiring because they are interesting ideas told with limited resources, which of course I experience as well.
"Low Budget" is all relative, but I also like stuff from Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE INNKEEPERS), Travis Stevens (JAKOB’S WIFE), Josh Ruben (WEREWOLVES WITHIN), Jim Cummings (THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW), Christopher Landon (FREAKY, HAPPY DEATH DAY), Adam Egypt Mortimer (ARCHENEMY, DANIEL ISN'T REAL), Oz Perkins (GRETEL & HANSEL, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER) and many others.
A big thanks to Joe for his time and efforts with the interview. The main place for Joe’s films head here http://www.skullfaceastronaut.com
Picture credits: menu pic Director Joe Sherlock acting in the Pickman's Model segment of Channel 99, first in text pic Actresses Emily Howard and Jewel Siren goofing around with director Joe Sherlock on the set of Thingz, second in interview pic Actress Emily Howard with director Joe Sherlock on the set of Dark Zone Thirteen, final pic Actress Stephanie Marie in a promo shot for Skullface Astronaut.