Nathan Smith talks to members of comedy troupe Broken Lizard about their fan favorite (but often overlooked by the mainstream) 2004 horror comedy, Club Dread
For horror fans, it seems as though no sub-genre was more adept at filling seats in movie theaters in the 1980s than the slasher film. Even though the top-grossing films of the ’80s barely include horror (hey, Ghostbusters counts, right?), reminiscing about the slasher films of the ’80s conjures up images of tons of guys and gals flocking gleefully to their local cinema on the weekends to watch people get killed in various ways, brutal or not (and perhaps seeing some skin in the process). Regardless of any wistfully-inflated memories, slashers were lucrative for the major movie studios making these films on the cheap: studios took them on as independent productions and then picked them up for distribution. The practice is known as a negative pickup and it was quite common with films like the early sequels in the Friday the 13th franchise, for example. For some of these films in the ’80s, Canadian tax shelters were a boon to American production companies who didn’t want to be seen putting dollars towards productions that they saw as “lesser than” their regular star-studded output (we can note features like Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine, and Prom Night).
If there was anything that teenagers in the ’80s pined for more than slasher movies, it was a silly comedy like Porky’s or Bachelor Party. Both genres seem diametrically opposed to one another, but in reality, they’re on the same wavelength precisely as the kind of anarchy that hot-blooded, hormonal adolescents love. Thus, the slasher parody was born: first with a pretty solid spoof of slasher films, 1981’s Student Bodies, then through 1982’s double feature of hack-and-slash parodies, National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (penned by John Hughes), and Pandemonium, which had a great ensemble cast and was directed by Alfred Sole, who years earlier made the prestigious Catholic horror movie, Alice, Sweet Alice.
As the years passed, slasher movies gained more respect, especially after the landmark December 1996 release of Scream. Scream’s success guaranteed that the slasher cycle would be born again with bigger studio entries like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Valentine, and Urban Legend, with indies like Cherry Falls sprinkled throughout. With the resurgence of slasher films, the slasher spoof also made a comeback, for better and for worse, starting with the Scary Movie franchise in 2000. The first film in that franchise is really the only one that hewed closely to the hack and slash template set forth by the films it was imitating, but still relied on immature humor and only a cursory knowledge of the sub-genre it was parodying. Scary Movie stuck mainly to poking fun at Dimension Films’ powerhouse franchise, Scream, and it paid off handsomely for them, netting a gross of $278 million (and we can thank Scary Movie for spawning its own terrible slew of spoofs with Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Vampires Suck.) Scary Movie’s longevity rests with the fact that slasher movies are always enjoyed at all times, especially when the sub-genre is content to go as meta as possible, like in 1987 with Return to Horror High, in 1988 with Unmasked Part 25, or in 2006 with Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. But Scary Movie’s humor isn’t as timeless as those films, as most of it rests on poking fun at the pop culture of the moment (the other humor rests in ridiculous gay-panic jokes or gross-out sexual buffoonery).
A majority of slasher spoofs tended to focus either on the gore or on the comedy, but hardly any of them were able to strike a balance using the best elements of both slashers and comedies. Enter 2004’s Club Dread, the third film written by and starring the New York based comedy troupe, Broken Lizard, comprised of Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Kevin Heffernan, Erik Stolhanske, and Jay Chandrasekhar, who handled directing duties. Club Dread centers on the copious hot guys and gals who jet off to a little place called Pleasure Island, a tropical paradise that promises sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, courtesy of a washed-up musician named Coconut Pete (a send-up on everyone’s favorite sun-soaked songsmith, Jimmy Buffett). Shortly after meeting the staff at Pleasure Island, we witness them getting killed off one by one by a maniac with a bone to pick. It’s an excellent set-up for a slasher film: secluded island, killers, good-looking coeds, and plenty of suspects.
“It was coming after Super Troopers, which probably provided a little bit of a challenge for us because I think people expected the exact same type of humor, and we just wanted to try something different, something that was a little unique.” — Erik stolhanske
The genesis of the film, according to Erik Stolhanske, came from the troupe’s shared affection for ’80s horror: “[Soter] and all of us were big fans of ’80s slasher films, the slasher films that had a comedic sex bent. They always had gratuitous sex or high school kids hooking up and then they get killed. We thought it would be fun to play with that genre a little bit,” he says. “It was coming after Super Troopers, which probably provided a little bit of a challenge for us because I think people expected the exact same type of humor, and we just wanted to try something different, something that was a little unique.” Jay Chandrasekhar agrees, “We were big fans of Halloween and Friday the 13th, so those films were a big focus.”
For Paul Soter, Club Dread’s origins were personal: “I’ve been pretty big horror guy since I was a kid. I have a sister who is a year older than I am and she and I got started pretty early on, watching stuff we shouldn’t have been watching, and so for me, it’s one of my favorite genres,” he says. “And obviously, I love comedy and I do comedy with the guys, but it’s basically we’re trying to figure out what we do after Super Troopers. You know, there was talk about, what would be a fun kind of world to occupy, and we landed on this idea. I’m sure I pushed it because I’ve always wanted to be able to do horror, and I don’t know if Erik explained how the different projects work. Each one has a different point person, so the group is writing as much of the process gathered in the same room as much as possible, but there is still ultimately the person who is taking the notes, plugging things into an outline, into a script, and ultimately that person is going to have a little more of their style and taste invested into that script. And so that was my goal on Club Dread. So, the movie was great because, I love horror and I love horror comedy.”
Soter recalls, “I had a particular favorite movie, Student Bodies. I was twelve back in 1981, when ‘The Year of the Slasher Movie’ hit, and that was the perfect time to absorb not just slasher movies, but there was already a parody basically within a year of the ridiculous waves of slasher movies wherein that sense of humor was also perfect for the young, almost kind of juvenile, sophomoric mind. Something could be fun and funny, but if you were a lover of horror movies–but also a lover of slasher movies–there could also be a fun kind of extra layer of that. Generally speaking, if you ask ‘what were the most important or influential movies that burned all that weird shit into me,’ it would be The Burning that was the first one that, dumb luck, I’ve come later to appreciate as a bit of an absurd entry in the wanna-be Friday the 13th movies. At the time that was the big one that, I think my dad let me see in the theater, and I hadn’t seen Friday the 13th, so for me it was absolutely my, at the time, entry way into slasher movies. And it just terrified the shit out of me. So for me, even though after that point, just catching up and consuming everything in the Friday the 13th franchise, that through my childhood and throughout my teenage years, The Cropsy was sort of the boogeyman of my nightmares, more so than Jason. So that was the one that sent me down that road. But I just always loved ridiculous shitty ones, something like Pieces. And to me, again, I remember watching that with my sister, and you know, it was a great experience for us because we laughed as much as anything else, because we were like ‘what the fuck is going on here?’ And so I think that’s why I always felt there was a space for a parody. And then like I said, Student Bodies was right on the heels of all those films, already there were so many, you know, because there had been stuff out there before 1981 when you had Black Christmas, and you had that early slasher stuff through the ’70s.”
In regards to Club Dread, one can see that the biggest divergence from the usual slasher template is that the film is more of an ensemble piece, and works better because of that. There’s new staffer Lars (Heffernan), our ostensible male lead, and Jenny, played by Brittany Daniel, who, in slasher parlance, is our “final girl”. The script cleverly gives them darker shades to their sunny demeanors, though, like how Lars is an obsessive fan boy or that Jenny may have killed the original host of “AM Pump Up with Amy Aerobics.” Though these little character details are there to put Lars and Jenny forth as red herrings, it also makes the world of Club Dread feel more lived in. “Well, the film is an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. It’s And Then There Were None,” explains Chandrasekhar. “So we dropped hints about various characters’ malice along the way. We wanted people to say, ‘Hey, maybe Jenny is the killer.’”
The rest of the Lizards are spread out over several different staffers, like druggie DJ Dave (Soter), posh tennis instructor Putman (Chandrasekhar), and horndog Juan (Lemme). Suiting up as the island’s Fun Police is Sam (Stolhanske), whom we find out in the film’s climax, is the killer. Stolhanske, whose character is meant to be the analog for the police presence in the typical slasher film, muses about his character’s motivation when he’s not crazed: “It’s a weird thing to think about that there are people out in real life that have killed people, and they’re out with the general population and looking for their next victim, and they have this secret that no one knows about. So that’s how I was kind of playing it, that I have this secret that the people on the island know nothing about.”
The Lizards all pull in fun performances, whether it be Heffernan acquitting himself strongly as the male lead, Soter brilliantly pulling off the space-cadet druggie, Stolhanske perfectly portraying basically two characters in one, Lemme hamming it with ease as the sleazy island cad, and Chandrasekhar completely acing the riotous, snooty Putman. Creating the character of Putman was something that Chandrasekhar did as a direct response to his lack of behind-the-scenes shenanigans on Super Troopers. As Chandrasekhar tells it, “During the shooting of Super Troopers, the other guys felt that I was no fun. They thought that the pressure of making the film made me unwilling to dick around and crack jokes when the camera was off. I was too focused in their opinion. So, their idea was that I should play a poncy Brit in such a silly accent so that I could not possibly be unfun on set.”
Brittany Daniel is skilled at juggling being sexy, funny, and menacing. Ditto for Jordan Ladd as Penelope, pulling off the naïve religious girl, the sultry, sexpot role, and sinister red herring effortlessly, sometimes within the same scene. Ladd is especially deserving credit for showing admirable gusto in her night-time topless tryst with Lemme’s Juan.
“When people ask us what’s one of our favorite movies to make, one of the reasons that Club Dread often falls on the top of our list is because he [BILL PAXTON] made it a great time.” — ERIK STOLHANSKE
And last, but not least, there’s Bill Paxton, who is very funny and sleazy as Coconut Pete. It’s the kind of role we all loved to see the late actor in, one that gives us endless joy because it’s such an energetic performance and one that makes us frustrated and sad that he passed away way too early. As Stolhanske recalls, “One idea that we had would have been a prequel on how they got to create that world [Pleasure Island], but it would be a sex romp, it wouldn’t even be a horror movie, which we thought was funny, but then we lost Bill. Bill was great. He came on early in the process. We loved him in Weird Science and True Lies, we knew that he had great comedic chops. We were big fans. It was really sad to lose him. He was a joy to work with down there. He loved getting into character. He came down there with the long hair and Hawaiian shirt and the guitar on his back. He made it so much fun. We got down there to rehearse the scenes and we became instant friends and had a ton of laughs. When people ask us what’s one of our favorite movies to make, one of the reasons that Club Dread often falls on the top of our list is because he made it a great time. He brought that Coconut Pete mentality – ‘always have a good time and always eat the worm,’ down there with him, which really created a great environment for us to have fun making that movie.”
Each of these characters have depth beyond their stereotypical surface: mainly by the way they balance sympathy with obnoxiousness and charm. That’s something that other slasher parodies didn’t always understand–characters are a joke-delivery device, but that’s not all they’re meant to be.
The film does a terrific job of both sending up and aping the countless slasher tropes. For example, in slasher films that present a whodunit angle, there’s always that clichéd moment in which a victim sees their killer’s identity and bellows some variation of “I knew it was you!” The Lizards take that one step further and actually name a character Yu, figuring out ways to keep repeating her name in an accusatory manner. Soter takes us through his thought process on the slasher gags and sending up those tropes: “Because I was a point man and I was the one who had seen all of these movies that the other guys hadn’t, I was kind of trying to explain to them, ‘okay, here’s this trope that you see and here’s how there’s going to be a funny spin on it. You know, they’re getting in the car to run and the car won’t start and the killer is walking slowly towards the vehicle. But you’re doing that with a golf cart and you plan all this drama of whether the vehicle is going to start and you find out that the vehicle doesn’t go any faster than the vehicle pursuing you. So, something like that.’ I think most of the guys had seen enough scary movies to say ‘oh yeah, we get that trope, we get that cliché.’”
Club Dread‘s climax offers a notable example of the film employing “The Rake Gag,” named for the terrific gag on The Simpsons, where Sideshow Bob steps on a series of rakes repeatedly, the trajectory of the humor flowing from funny to unfunny and all the way back to funny again. In this case, it’s the killer offering “one last scare,” with Sam seemingly being slayed and yet he keeps coming back for more: getting stabbed with a machete through the gut, getting strangled by the ropes holding the boat to its deck, getting cut in half by the rope attached to the boat that the heroes are trying to escape in, the upper half of his torso jumping off the side of the boat (a Friday the 13th nod if there ever was one), and, lastly, as they hurl his torso into the water and ride off happily into the sunset, his legs are paddling along to continue the carnage.
This cheeky meta nod to the “unstoppable killer” was also used to great effect in Michele Soavi’s phenomenal 1987 slasher, StageFright, where the killer, even after getting shot in the head, grins at the camera in the last shot of the film. This was very much the mindset that the Lizards had with regards to how their parody would work. As Soter describes the process: “We very early on, even from our first movie Puddle Cruiser, we had a lot of discussion that we’re not the Zucker Brothers. Anything that we do shouldn’t be like Airplane! or The Naked Gun. And as much as we love those movies, that wasn’t our style. So to me, even as a consumer, I don’t like those Scary Movie movies because often to me there’s something about, like, their taking actual characters from screens that they’re doing this silly version of. Those are successful movies, I guess because general audiences maybe go for that. But we always thought it would be a lot cooler to feel like the movie took place on Earth but had people say funny things to each other. And that can still happen when people are getting killed, and there can still be some funny things in kind of a gallows humor way. And it wasn’t until the ending that we were like, okay, you have to kind of have to jump the shark a little bit for a finale where we got to the point where we were like, okay, let’s go ahead and suspend the basic rules of life on Earth in order to have a really super ridiculous ending. But even that it’s still based on ‘the killer can’t be killed,’ okay, well, what can you do? You can shoot Michael Myers that many times and blow him up in a hospital room and still that’s not enough. It’s impossible to parody that concept without taking some liberties.”
Hank (M.C. Gainey), the requisite tough guy, whom slasher audiences believe to be the one who’ll take down the killer at the end of the movie (if this were Halloween, he’d be Dr. Loomis), is killed within seconds of coming face to face with the maniac. According to Stolhanske: “That was the fun stuff, right? You expect that Hank’s going to be the one to solve the crime, because you set him up as the guy who caught the Minneapolis Mangler, and just when he’s going to get the guy, he gets killed. That was the fun that we had with it, just playing with those stereotypes.” The film also deviates from the prototypes of the hack-and-slash films of the ‘80s by making the characters fully aware of the maniac’s presence, as opposed to only being aware of the danger in the film’s final act, like in Friday the 13th. This is a clever gambit because it allows the characters to have a little more intelligence on how to survive the island nightmare, and allows for a bit of procedural elements to propel the story along.
The icing on the investigative cake is using Coconut Pete’s ominous, Yacht Rock-styled songs as clues to survival and enhancing the film’s sense of mystery (think back to how Dario Argento’s Deep Red uses music as its own clue to solving the whodunit at its core); it also gives us a splendid scene wherein the cast riffs hilariously on Pete’s depressing stoner tunes. Though the songs ultimately serve as a misdirect by the killer, it allows the Lizards to riff on puns, something they excel at (for example, Pete’s album title Sea Shanties and Wet Panties and its killer track, “I’d Tell You But Then I’d Have Tequila”). Since the clear inspiration for Coconut Pete was the “Margaritaville” musician Jimmy Buffett, it’s only natural that he’d love to see the film. As Chandrasekhar tells it, “I hung out with Jimmy [Buffett] and Bill Paxton when we flew to West Palm to show Jimmy the film. Jimmy laughed big. It was just the four of us in the theater we rented, alongside Jimmy’s sister Lucy. I saw Jimmy perform after that, but I never knew if he did Coconut Pete’s songs. There is a Coconut Pete cover band in Northern Virginia and they draw a crowd.”
The other thing the Lizards nail is creating a convincing backstory for the “killer” of Pleasure Island, “Machete” Phil Colletti, and kudos to the writers for not taking the low-hanging fruit by having the staffers call him “Machete Colletti” while recounting the ghost story about him–instead, he’s “Machete Phil.” The legend itself pays tribute to the ‘80s slashers that inspired the film, particularly Terror Train, of which our “killer” shares a similar violence-inducing trigger with that film’s villain, Kenny Hampson. The genesis of “Machete Phil” starts with Soter’s slasher knowledge: “You know in The Burning and in Friday the 13th Part 2, there’s that campfire cliche, you create that mythology for the audience of people around a fire. I knew that we had to have that fireside scene. And that’s my favorite scene in the movie because A) I get to be that character who tells the story but also to me, the payoff of that scene, the comedy offset of that scene, there’s just so much stuff that I love. I love the fact that here’s what these guys imagine, you know, they do this every week with a new round of guests and they have a routine of scaring them and they have this absolutely ridiculous payoff of ‘where’s my penis?’ and them tucking their penis between their legs. So for me it was my favorite joke from the group’s body of work. And to me, it just tickles me more than anything we’ve ever done. I still, to this day, laugh when I replay the punchline in my head about Phil Coletti.” Soter continues, “There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Patty and Selma are trying to spread some gossip about, I think about Homer, and you see them pick up this phone book and they start with A. Aaronson and then there’s a time lapse and then they’re talking to Mr. Zakowski. The audience thinks they’ve called the whole phone book, but they’ve only called two people. I can’t get enough of that comedy of meeting you down the road and then pivoting to the opposite direction.”
The motive reveal for Club Dread’s killer, Sam, is actually one of the funniest moments in the film–he actually forgets why he’s doing the killing: it’s always some traumatic event that triggers a villain’s psychopathic tendencies, but here we see him reveal that the first “trigger” is something as petty as being lied to about pot. The other, more accurate motivation is that the island was bequeathed to Coconut Pete’s idiotic nephew, Dave, and this was a bridge too far for the Fun Police officer. Sam’s devotion to the island leaves him insane. It’s a solid motivation straight out of the supermarket slasher, Intruder, falling right in line with the imbalance of cruel violence acted upon in response to trivial matters—like, say, killing an island of people because of a dimebag.
One thing horror fans like to see is a great killer costume, and rather than just presenting us with a thoughtlessly thrown together, bland mask-and-outfit combo, Club Dread’s killer costume is unique, standing out colorfully. Unfortunately, it’s an outfit that Stolhanske had to suffer wearing during the shoot, due to the heat of the Mexican filming location. He laments, “The majority of the time I had to be in the killer’s outfit. We’re shooting in Mexico and it’s obviously like two hundred degrees, and we chose this outfit, which was ridiculous. We didn’t want to show an inch of skin, so I had a rain slicker and then a poncho over it and long pants. You just come out of that thing sweating, like buckets of sweat in your shoes.”
Portraying a slayer on film proved to have its set of visual limitations as well. Stolhanske continues, “I was in that outfit, and you can’t see great, and I was supposed to take a knife and cut M.C. Gainey’s throat. And to make it look realistic, you want to get this prop knife as close as possible. I always felt like I was going to nail him in the throat. Just being in that outfit was the hottest and the hardest thing to do.” It turns out that he was intended to be the killer straight from the get-go: “What we do in the movies is we play 180 from the last movie,” Stolhanske explains. “In Super Troopers, I played the earnest good guy [Rabbit] and on this movie, I played the bad guy. It’s similar to how Kevin played the sort-of bad guy in Super Troopers and plays the good guy in Club Dread.” Stolhanske executes–pun firmly intended–the role of island psychopath with relish, never going over the top like many actors do when portraying a villainous role. “For some of the scenes, I would try to put on some really dark music – heavy, driving industrial music, like Nine Inch Nails or Ministry, just go off into a corner for like a half an hour and try to get into that psychotic mode.” The moment Sam snaps in the story also leads to one of the more bizarre character bits, in which ace masseuse Lars stops Sam in his murderous tracks by giving him an intense orgasm. Not many slasher movies do that, huh?
“You realize the thing about the longevity of these franchises is actually based on audiences who want to be that villain. That your audience is actually identifying with Jason and Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers more because of the power that they have.” — PAUL SOTER
Soter lavishes praise on his co-star and offers insight to what it truly feels like to be a cinematic villain: “It was good for Stolhanske, because he’s the sweetest guy I know, but he can play crazy really well. So I think it was good to have somebody who didn’t believe he had it in him to do something like that, but then he was quite in the zone on those days when we were shooting the finale stuff. And it’s believable. He has that button that he can switch. But the funny thing was, it became a thing as we were shooting, you know, we were in this resort that was so beautiful and so perfect and everybody had their own cabana and had their own pool and so, if you had half the day off you were like ‘how fantastic – I’ve got my own pool house and I’ve got my own pool and I’m just going to drink tequila and sit in my pool.’ But what would have to happen, though, is that sometimes they were shooting scenes with the killer, but sometimes they were shooting something else. They were doing kind of second unit stuff to get the killer in the jungle and stuff like that. And so at different times different guys would get recruited to put on the outfit and go marching through the jungle playing the killer. Which I think it’s kind of a fun thing because, yeah, many of us were the killer. If you look at different scenes, it might be me, it might be Jay, it might be Lemme, although he’s considerably short so maybe not him. But it was fun to do. But it was also very hot. So when you had time off, you would hide because sometimes the PA would show up in your cabana and go ‘umm…you need to put on a killer outfit and walk through the jungle a few more times.’ And you were like, I don’t want to do this. I want to be in my pool hanging out, getting high, and drinking tequila. But, admittedly, you put on that outfit and put the mask on and carry the machete, it’s an incredibly powerful feeling. That’s the thing about horror to me. Where else can I be at autograph conventions or Comic Con or some horror convention? You realize the thing about the longevity of these franchises is actually based on audiences who want to be that villain. That your audience is actually identifying with Jason and Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers more because of the power that they have.”
“When you try to go silly with that stuff, it starts to feel cheap and it starts to feel cheesy. So you have to at some extent, I think, fool the audience into thinking they are watching an actual event of the genre that you’re parodying.” — pAUL SOTER
Club Dread‘s technical credits are just as impressive: Lawrence Sher, the feature’s cinematographer and future Academy Award nominee for Joker, photographs Mexico’s topography beautifully. Nathan Barr’s grand orchestral score lends a flourish to the various killings and the chase sequences. It was Soter who advised Chandrasekhar take a look at Barr for the score: “I just think it was one of those cases, a lot of times, even when Jay is directing we may ‘divide and conquer’ a little bit, especially when it comes to post-production. And I just remember that Jay had said at one point, in terms of working with Nate about how this should sound, he admitted that his familiarity with the reference points were more than his…so he just handed a lot of that off to me. Which was fine – it was great. Nate is a great guy. He had done Cabin Fever at that point. You know, he had done some work in the genre and has gone on to do a lot. But yes, he and I had that vocabulary a little bit more than he had with Jay.” In particular, there’s a shot in which the killer has just wiped out the obnoxious Dirk, played by Samm Levine, with a conveniently placed television and a swimming pool. Then the resort goes dark, the killer gears up with his machete, the mist rolls across the pool, and Barr’s score kicks in as the killer begins striding towards Jenny– it feels atmospheric and epic. This, as it turns out, was wholly intentional. Barr, in an interview for Scored to Death, a book on horror film composers: “It’s, like, deliberately silly material, a lot of it, and so I guess with Club Dread the idea was to play it [the score] straight, as straight as possible, and that was funny.” Soter dives into this thought process further: “I read one of Michael Palin’s diary compilations and he was writing about Monty Python and the Holy Grail and they had originally, for budgetary reasons, had one guy with a few instruments and not a lot of money, and so all of the music in the Holy Grail was kind of small, like what 4-5 musicians would sound like. Like the band of musicians that follow Eric Idle around. That’s what it was. And then when they were screening the movie it was just wasn’t playing and it just didn’t seem to have – it all just kind of felt kind of cheap and silly. So finally they said ‘You know what? Let’s use library tracks where we have gigantic, gravitas multi-instrument orchestra.’ You would hear that this was a serious ‘Swords and Sandals’ epic. And that made all the difference in that movie. And yeah, we were aware of that at the time. I think instinctively that I thought, and Nathan thought, it has to have the bells and whistles of a real horror movie. When you try to go silly with that stuff, it starts to feel cheap and it starts to feel cheesy. So you have to at some extent, I think, fool the audience into thinking they are watching an actual event of the genre that you’re parodying.” This paid off quite handsomely as Barr has worked with the Lizards on their films going forward, continuing with Beerfest and The Slammin’ Salmon.
In terms of neat visuals, Chandrasekhar employs a wicked shot right at the film’s beginning with the killer decapitating a victim, and then we watch from the head’s POV as the camera spins and hits the ground, giving us a full view of the twitching body it’s just been removed from. It’s a shot that feels like something out of another Argento feature, namely 1993’s Trauma, a film where the killer specialized in noggin removal. In order to keep a lot of horror fans’ attention, a film’s got to have memorable deaths, and Chandrasekhar does a great job making sure those shots have emotional impact.
The deaths strike a good balance between on and off-screen kills. At least the on-screen ones have some good variation: slit throats, decapitations, disemboweling, and electrocution. One moment sure to make horror fans wince is during the opening of the film, when a victim grips the killer’s blade to keep from plummeting to the rocky cliffs below, slicing that hand wide open–it’s quite a nasty bit of business! The death scenes for the Lizards were chaotic all on their own. Stolhanske raves about his over-the-top death: “That was a blast. Especially the part about getting cut in half in the middle of the ocean. Obviously growing up and being a huge slasher fan and getting to be an actor and doing it, being that serial killer that’s getting killed, it was a bucket list moment for me. I feel like if that was the last movie we made, I would be a happy man.” There was quite the physical toll of shooting the scene where he’s ripped in half by the ropes on the boat. “I was stuck in the ocean for hours on end. You get very pruny. We shot in Mexico, and the water was warm. But then, we had to do a reshoot in California because Jay didn’t have a shot of me dying – it’s a shot: waist up, I look dead-faced with my eyes open, and I just sink into the ocean. We didn’t have that in the edit. They were like, ‘Stolhanske, we need to get reshoots. We’ve got to get you sinking. It doesn’t feel final.’ We did it outside of Los Angeles, and though Southern California feels like a place where the water would be warm, but the water’s actually freezing. So we went to a location that’s down by a dock and the water must be 60 degrees. That was probably the most challenging thing I had to do, being in that water. You’re trying to get the focus and everything right, so you’re in there for a little while, and then Jay would say ‘action,’ and I would have three seconds to try and stop shivering as I sank down into the water. My teeth were chattering and I was blue. Immediately after he called ‘cut,’ I would jump up and they would have a thermal blanket for me and they would stop me from getting hypothermia. And then, I’d have to jump back in the water and do it again.”
In the case of Soter’s death, practicality turned out to be the best thing: “Originally what happened is, the way Jay wanted to do it, was with a fake head and a death mask and I even went into the shop and sat for my death mask so they could make my fake head. But as a lover of horror movies, even when we made Club Dread, I was like ‘meh.’ Fake head technology to me still looks like shit. I don’t think I’ve seen any movie where I was like ‘oh yeah, holy shit, that looks like a real severed head!’ So I had made the push that, like, you know what? If it’s on a turntable, why can’t we just create like an empty dummy turntable cabinet and I’ll crawl inside that thing and put my head through? And I was proud of myself for coming up with that idea, frankly, so I was always a little smug about doing it. And they were like, you know, ‘should we give you some [Dramamine]? If you get motion sickness, we’re just going to be spinning you over and over and again.’ And at least at that time, I was still young enough and vibrant enough that I could put up with it without getting sick. But now, I can’t. It’s funny – I tried going on a roller coaster last year and tried to do like a VR thing and now…my stomach. I’m sure now I would have puked all over the place, but at the time it wasn’t that bad. The only hard thing was when the camera was locked onto me and I was spinning. It was having my eyes open and my eyes staring out. They kept saying ‘… we can see your eyes moving. You’re adjusting your eyeballs as you’re spinning around.’ And I kept saying ‘I’m not, I’m not! I’m staring straight ahead! ‘And they said ‘no, we can see your eyes moving.’ So that was the tricky part that took forever to get – was to not just hold my head in place and keep my eyes open, but like, fixing your eyeballs as you’re being spun is actually harder than I assumed it would be.”
“There was a lot of pressure on Club Dread because it was a genre switch. From a show business standpoint, the ‘smarter’ move would have been to make another straight comedy.” — jay chandrasekhar
The downside to Broken Lizard’s popularity with Super Troopers is that the characters in that particular film were ingratiated with the movie-going public. One anecdote from the Club Dread commentary track with the Lizards refers to when Heffernan shows up on screen as Lars–the crowd would yell “Farva” at the screen. Stolhanske dives into this more detail: “Well, sketch comedians, we like to try to stretch a little bit and play different characters. We didn’t quite know early on because we hadn’t had success before this really, that people were going to get attached to characters that we played in our most successful movies.” This sentiment is echoed by Soter: “You know, rather strategically, that wasn’t the smartest thing to do coming off of Super Troopers. Probably now, in retrospect. I wouldn’t, if we were really trying to break out of something that already had this kind of limited fan base. I wish now we had done something a little more down the middle. I kind of wish now we had flip-flopped it. Because, I’ll tell you what, with that movie, we were asking a lot of our mainstream audience to be down with it. I think horror comedy is hard in general. I think very few times it gets done just right. It’s pretty niche. It’s like slasher parody is niche within niche. So, you know, it is cool now — because like I said, there’s this following now of people who, like me, it really spoke to them. But I suppose for our sort of career trajectory, it might not have been the smartest thing to do.” Chandrasekhar addresses the same point: “There was a lot of pressure on Club Dread because it was a genre switch. From a show business standpoint, the ‘smarter’ move would have been to make another straight comedy. We hoped it might take off like Scream, but then we opened against The Passion of the Christ and lost big. But, the film became big on home video, though.”
Despite Club Dread’s minimal box office take, the film will continue to endure as a slasher comedy that got it right because Broken Lizard gave some respect to the slasher genre they were spoofing and didn’t allow the humor to feel forced; everything about it is organic. Stolhanske elaborates: “We didn’t try to parody it too much. We tried to make a film that had genuine scares and genuine laughs, without it being like a parody. I love a great parody, like Airplane! is one of my favorite movies, and that’s a terrific parody. But it’s a different style. We weren’t trying to do that as much, we just tried to create a fun film that had good scares.” Soter agrees: “I do really like the movie, and if you think of Super Troopers as having sort of this cult following, Club Dread has this sort of cult within the cult and it’s a ton of people, but the people for whom it hits their sweet spot, they really have a fondness for it for that reason. If you’re somebody like me and you, and you have a pretty good library of horror and especially cheap, shitty horror/slasher in your mind, you know, it’s that bullseye.”