From 'Saw' to Berlin: The Bloody Odyssey of Darren Lynn Bousman

TOH Barry Bostwick Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Epic Pictures

TOH Barry Bostwick Still - H 2015

The cult-horror mastermind on anthologies, religious horror and the thrill of distributing his own movies: "it's like being addicted to a very bad drug."

When Repo! The Genetic Opera opened in 2008, director Darren Lynn Bousman was angry. He was angry the Lionsgate release ran in a small amount of theaters in the U.S. and Canada and received little promotion. He was angry when its box-office gross came to a mere $147,000. And he was angry about what that figure meant: that the kinds of outside-the-box, genre-blending horror the director of Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV wanted to make were bound for straight-to-DVD or -VOD releases.

“My anger was consuming me, and then I had this awakening: I can sit here and be angry and upset, or I can do something about it," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I decided, just, 'f— it. I'm going to do something about it.'"

He decided to self-distribute the film. He phoned independent theaters nationwide and offered to rent their screens for special showings of his blood-soaked rock opera. "90 percent told me no and 10 percent said yes. I only needed that 10 percent," he says. With a print he obtained from Lionsgate, he toured the country. In a replica of the Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon begun nearly 40 years earlier, fans showed up — in costume and with lines and lyrics memorized.

The film's cult status has grown in the subsequent years (fans still organize screenings and "shadowcasts," where they perform the movie while it screens, worldwide), and Bousman has replicated his distribution model — he released The Devil's Carnival, a 55-minute musical set in Hell, in 2012. It continues to generate screenings nationwide. In 2015 Bousman and writer-star Terrance Zdunich will release a feature-length sequel, The Devil's Carnival: Alleluia.

"Just because a distributor thinks a film isn’t theatrical quality doesn’t mean it isn’t," says Bousman. “I ended up getting my movies in more theaters myself than through distributors. Any filmmaker can do it, but we’re holding ourselves back. You’re only relegated by your own laziness."

He hasn't left behind conventionally distributed horror releases. He followed Repo! with the slasher remake Mother's Day and moved into writing with the religious horror film 11-11-11 and the Stephen Moyer starrer The Barrens, directing both. In addition to Alleluia, his upcoming directorial projects include the wilderness thriller Misfortune and Abattoir, a spin on the haunted-house movie.

His project at Berlin is part of a growing subgenre in horror — in the vein of The ABCs of Death and V/H/S, Tales of Halloween is an anthology, with 10 segments each by a different director and with its own story. It’s not scheduled to screen at the festival, but Epic Pictures, which financed and produced the film, will represent it to international buyers and is looking for a partner to distribute domestically. The segments are all set on Halloween night; Bousman's, titled "The Night Billy Raised Hell," is about a boy who goes trick-or-treating with the devil (played by Barry Bostwick, a Rocky Horror alum). "It's not as extreme as some of my other stuff, but I think it’s going to be hilarious and dark at the same time," says Bousman.

Below is an edited transcript of his conversation with THR:

Why do you think your screenings are such a hit with fans?

It gets to the idea of, what’s the point of going to the movies anymore? If I’ve got a big TV and a surround-sound system, why do I need to go the theater? Unless you’re a big summer blockbuster, how do you get people to see the movies you’re doing? What we though is, ‘what if we tried to make our movies more experiential, as opposed to just a passive experience?’ We turned our movies into experiences. We did costume contests and did music when you were going in, and it became an event.

What's the experience like for you and your actors and producers?

It's like being addicted to a very bad drug. Once you start it's hard to get off it. I go make a movie like Saw, and I get to spend the time making it and then a couple days promoting it and then I don't get to see the interaction with the audience. With these movies, there's immediate gratification. You make the movie, and then you see people dressed up as your characters in a line wrapped around four city blocks. 

The community embraces you so quickly, it's hard to not get taken over by it. We have a lot of actors who turn their back on it, and then they turn up to it and they become addicted. Paul Sorvino, I don't think he understood what he was making, and then went to the first show. I know Paris Hilton had no idea what she was doing, the kind of effect it’d have on people.

What are your favorite horror movies?

I love religious horror more than anything. I love things like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen. I'm really fascinated with people's mythologies and belief systems. I never try to preach anything, I never put my own beliefs in my movies, but I’m fascinated with a culture that tells kids that monsters aren't real, but then will go to church and worship a man who walked on water, and the fiery netherworld, and the burning bush. It's kind of a crazy dichotomy. I was raised religious, I do have faith, but it's just a crazy thing to choose to say, 'I believe this but I don’t believe that.' I think that fate’s a big thing for me, and I constantly struggle with my own faith.

I've always been fascinated with religion — not just one particular religion, but all religions. One of my first majors in college was East Asian mythology. When I travel the world, that’s my favorite thing to look at.

What do you like about working on an anthology?

From a directing standpoint, it allows me to go do something fun for a few days. Making movies is hard. They take years, and they take years off your life on top of those years. 99% percent of my life is not coming up with creative shots, it’s politicking and pushing the giant rock up the hill — it's the one percent that's being on set and coming up with elaborate scenes. What's great about this is, this allowed us to do what I thought directing was. We had great producers who said, 'look, just go make a movie.' It's getting to go on set and be creative.

If your next project could be anything, what would it be?

I've been saying this since I was a kid. I want to reboot the Leprechaun series. I’ve always been fan of that series. I think if I could remake any movie I wanted to, I would only remake a movie I thought I could do something new with, something the original film didn't.