"Billy Club" takes a stab at bringing the slasher movie back
Like a bubbly, topless coed wandering around a dark house after having sex or the strong, handsome jock who recommends splitting up to his friends after they hear an eerie sound coming from … somewhere, the slasher horror genre is seemingly doomed to die a bloody, painful death.
The era of the slasher film's heyday – the '80s – has long since past, leaving behind a number of iconic characters (Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers) and an even larger number of hoary clichés. "Scream" back in 1996 seemed to strike the final nail in the slasher movie coffin, delivering scares while also mocking the genre's classic formula. When the franchise came back in 2011 with "Scream 4," it failed by and large because it was still making fun of the conventions of a genre abandoned by Hollywood.
Now, the only time you see a slasher flick is if it's a remake, like "Friday the 13th," "Nightmare on Elm Street" or pretty much any slasher movie that made money back in the day.
"I don't know if it was horror fans' decision to have no new slashers made, if people just gave up on it, or if they moved onto paranormal or vampire things," said Nick Sommer.
"I don't want to make a vampire movie. I don't really care for paranormal movies. Hollywood caters to a demographic because they need to make their money back. We don't need to make our money back. We want to make the coolest movie we can possibly make."
For Sommer and fellow local writer-director Drew Rosas, that ended up being "Billy Club," an old-school horror slasher flick in which some old Little League teammates are hunted by a murderer wearing a creepy retro umpire's mask and wielding a baseball bat covered in nails. The film premieres tonight at 10 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre as a part of the Milwaukee Film Festival's Cream City Cinema line-up. It also plays two more times next week.
Sommer and Rosas began working on "Billy Club" after their first collaboration, 2010's ultra-low budget horror comedy "Blood Junkie," found some moderate success and acclaim, selected by Bloody Disgusting writer Lauren Taylor as one of the best horror films of 2011. The film was even picked up by legendary gore factory Troma, an experience that "ended up not really working out super good" according to Rosas.
"I didn't really make any money on it honestly," Rosas said. "That really wasn't what I was going in for anyway. The deal is definitely not as good as I wanted. They were going to put it on Netflix, OnDemand and Hulu, and they just kinda burned their bridges with those companies. So now I'm kind of paying the price for it."
Rosas's experience with "Blood Junkie" and Troma came with perks as well, however. He made plenty of connections out in Los Angeles, and while making "Blood Junkie," he got to work with his future partner-in-crime Sommer.
"I found Nick as our lead actor, and he really stepped up," Rosas said. "Basically by the end of the movie, he was pretty much co-directing with me. He was writing a lot of his own lines, and we were just having fun with it. So it was like, 'Hey, let's get the team back together,' and this time, we just started where we left off and became a partnership."
Sommer, who had been working on the idea for "Billy Club" by himself for a little bit after "Blood Junkie," hoped to make the kind of horror movie that inspired him back when he was a kid.
"I just kept thinking about horror movies that I liked and other classic iconic killers that I liked, like Michael Myers, Jason and Freddy," Sommer said. "I was like, 'Man, wouldn't it be cool to take a crack at making my own.'"
Sommer decided to try using baseball as a theme for his slasher film, looking up old-school catcher's masks and other ominous sports equipment to use for scaring audiences. It was around this time Rosas – a fan of '80s slashers since he discovered "a video store in my hometown that would rent those movies to a 14-year-old kid" – joined Sommer in making their blood-splattered baseball-horror dream combo into reality.
"Baseball is a good umbrella for a horror movie, just because there are so many cultural derivatives from it," Rosas said. "You play it as kids. You watch it as adults. You got a sweet weapon automatically. You got a sweet mask automatically. There are just a lot of elements to it that seem like they would work well in the horror genre. It's an iconic sport and an iconic genre."
"American classics, team them up and try to make our own classic," Sommer added.
After Sommer and Rosas – who both named Joh Carpenter's "Halloween" as one of their favorite slashers – got the script just right, they got a crew together and filmed "Billy Club" up in northern Wisconsin. Though they noted the talent pool is admittedly smaller than out on the west coast, the production was still a pleasantly stark contrast to the usual tedious – and expensive – location hunts that happen for films out in Los Angeles.
"You shoot in somebody's house in L.A., they want $10,000," Rosas said. "You shoot in somebody's house here, they give it to you for free, let you take it over for a day and probably bake you chocolate chip cookies."
"We had people thanking us to let us close their bar down for the day," Sommer added. "This bar, Remo's Corner in Kenosha, the guy there was so pumped. It was insane. Not only was he letting us do it and helping us out, he was bending over backwards and pumped to do it. It was pretty special."
Tonight serves as the world premiere screening of "Billy Club," which has been two years in the making for Sommer and Rosas. They both believe it's a huge step forward from their first film ("The story is actually a story," Sommer joked). And while they've both worked on new projects, moved onto new things and new ideas – including potentially making a move to short-form stories or web series – tonight is about finally sharing their killer creation with the public.
"That's what's fun, seeing how people are going react to this time that you put into this piece that you think is pretty cool or weird or funny," Sommer said. "To be honest, any reaction at all is acceptable to me. Movies are a roller coaster. As long as you're having an extreme emotion to some degree, then that's great."
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