Brad Sykes, a legend of the indie horror scene, recently sat down with us to talk about the re-release of his sci-fi film Plaguers, which has just been given a new lease of life in the form of a 10th anniversary edition. Available for the first-time on Blu-ray and DVD from Wild Eye Releasing, the 10th Anniversary edition includes audio commentary and an unseen Q+A with cast and crew. The title is also available on digital.
When an alien contagion is released aboard a spaceship transforming its victims into demonic flesh-eaters, the crew must either destroy the infected or join them.
You only need to do a quick google search to see just how popular Plaguers has become over the years. Why do you think it's become more and more popular as time has gone on?
When I made Plaguers, my goal was simply to make an entertaining movie in the style of the films I loved growing up, like Aliens, Demons, and Prince of Darkness. I also wanted it to add something new to the mix, with the 'zombies in space' concept. Plaguers was always intended to be scary, but also fun, with action, humor and lots of practical gore and creatures, all of which I felt were missing from the genre at the time.
Plaguers had a good festival run, and was released in virtually every country in the world, but in the US it was mismarketed and more or less buried by the distributor. The movie was also ahead of its time, which sounds weird for a 'retro' project, but in 2009 everyone was watching CGI fests like Avatar, or Syfy movies, and our old-school filmmaking approach and references to eighties classics was not widely appreciated.
But since then, Plaguers has gained a solid worldwide fan base, and kept being re-released overseas and playing on cable. Many people have told me it's their favorite film of mine. And more recently, horror fans have turned away from CGI and want to see more practical makeup effects and gore, which is almost a lost art nowadays. So, this is perfect timing for a re-release, to introduce fans to the film, who might have missed it the first time around, and finally give the movie a Blu upgrade plus new extras for the loyal Plaguers fans who loved it when they saw it ten years ago.
A lot of the work you did in the film was practical too, I imagine?
Just about everything was done practically - all the makeup effects, gore, creature suits, special props, even the spaceship miniatures. All the sets are real - there are no 'virtual sets' in Plaguers. The only times we used CGI were when there was no other way around it, like for some of the space sequences, gunfire/bullet hits and Thanatos light effects, which were still done partially practically, with a light on a dimmer, then augmented with CG later on.
Who did the make-up and effects work in the film?
The key effects company on the film was Monster FX, which was headed up by Ron Karkoska and Mark Villalobos. I had worked with Ron and Mark previously on four or five smaller films, like Death Factory and Goth, and always enjoyed working with them. They not only executed all the creature and gore effects, they also brought on other artists to create the special props, like the spaceships, Thanatos, the space coffin, and even the captain's 'blaster'.
It's a film that is all about just giving audiences a good time. Do a lot today's genre films forget to do that?
I think they do, to some extent. While I can appreciate the aesthetic and serious intent behind movies like Midsommar or The Witch, they almost feel too calculated and academic, in a way. Watching these movies is kind of like taking medicine. Some of them are interesting, even disturbing, but they're probably not movies I would watch again, or want to own. And yet every year, I end up revisiting Dawn of the Dead, or Demons, Prince of Darkness or The Fog, which are also deadly serious horror movies but yet remain entertaining after multiple viewings. I'm not putting Plaguers in the same league as those classics, but I was hoping to at least make the type of film that fans would have fun watching the first time around and want to revisit at some point.
Does today's abundance of CGI in films depress you?
Well, some of the first jobs I had in the movie business were in the FX department. I worked on a few Brian Yuzna movies and got to meet a lot of FX artists and help execute this stuff on set. So, I have a tremendous respect for the art and craft of it, and it's a big reason why I got into horror films to begin with. So, of course I'm not a huge fan of CGI and I think a lot of jobs have been lost, and movies, not just horror movies, have lost a certain believability and tactile quality with the profusion of CGI over practical FX. And I think a lot of fans are tiring of it, especially when the same thing could have been done better, and in many cases cheaper, practically.
At the same time, CGI is a good tool to have as long as it's used sparingly, and it isn't the whole show. The technology has gotten better so there's a greater realism to everything, and I think filmmakers are getting wiser about combining practical stuff and CGI or incorporate CGI in a more organic way. Just to mention a few examples, Monsters, or, more recently, Spring, were shot like documentaries, and showed their creatures fleetingly. That's a very effective way to use CGI. So it all really depends on the filmmaker and how they choose to use it.
Are you utilizing CGI in your later movies?
I got away from CGI for a while after Plaguers and went back to strictly practical effects, but ironically, we're using CGI in my new film ("Hi-Fear") that we're editing right now! This one has more of a science fiction angle, and we really needed some CGI to create an alien "Visitor" in a few scenes. Again, though, I'm trying to use a less is more approach and include the scenery and actors in the sequences as much as possible, so you're never just looking at a standalone "effects shot" that pulls you out of the story.
Where has technology been a blessing but also a curse for filmmakers?
Every new innovation is a double-edged sword, whether it's CGI, digital editing, or digital cameras. Just to talk about cameras, when I started directing, most movies were still shot on film, and I directed a few that were shot on 16mm. When you shoot film, you can feel 'money being spent' every time you roll the camera, so everyone brings their A-game, from actors to crew, to each take. Not so with digital, where you can keep rolling hypothetically forever and end up with a lot of wasted material, which ultimately does cost you both time and money in the post process and sometimes makes for a less 'serious' set environment. At the same time, digital is the only viable way for most indie filmmakers to make a movie nowadays, and the quality has gotten much better over the years, obviously. So like I said, there are pros and cons to any new technology.
With all the streaming platforms we now have, does that give independent filmmakers more opportunities?
Streaming is the best way for filmmakers to get their work seen, but as far as making a profit from it, well, that's something everyone in the business, distributors included, are still trying to figure out. Not every streamer is going to take every movie, nor should they, but it's the only distribution option for many filmmakers, since there really are no video stores anymore. Even once your movies gets in, I think it's tough for a movie to stand out on a streaming platform in the same way that it did when your DVD was sitting on a shelf next to the latest blockbuster. Video stores were the great equalizers, in a way.
By that token, do you think physical media is on the way out?
Everybody likes to say that, but I think physical media will stick around a bit longer than we think, and maybe never truly go away. I've been collecting VHS, DVD and Blu for thirty years, and my last two movies got VHS releases, so maybe I'm a bad person to ask! Based on what's going on with the studios' libraries lately, I would say don't throw those DVDs away, not now, not EVER, if it's a movie you really care about.
I would also use vinyl as an example. For a while, the music industry had completely written vinyl off as a 'dead' format, and for a while now, it's been outselling CDs. There are a lot more record stores than video stores out there. Whether it's an LP or a VHS or a Blu-ray, there's always something to be said for being able to hold the physical product in your hand.
Speaking of, you have a new anniversary edition of Plaguers. How did this come about?
Wild Eye Releasing, who had released our last two movies Hi-8 and Hi-Death, approached us late last year about doing a Plaguers re-release on Blu-ray and DVD. Obviously, we were interested in doing that, especially getting the movie on Blu which had never happened before. This will be its Blu-ray debut in the US. My producer, Josephina, also mentioned that this would be the film's 10th Anniversary so that also makes this release special. For this release, we added some new special features that would make it more appealing to fans, whether they've seen the movie before or not.
Did you enjoy doing the audio commentary?
We did a new commentary for the Wild Eye release that features myself, producer Josephina Sykes and our editor Brad Jacques. I always enjoy doing commentaries and this was the first time I've done a 'retrospective' commentary, so that was interesting, to look at the movie ten years later and see how I felt about it now.
How good does the film look on Blu-ray? Nice transfer?
I'm biased, of course, but I think the movie looks and sounds better than it ever has before. Plaguers was a well-photographed movie to begin with, thanks to our Director of Photography Scott Spears, and Wild Eye did an excellent job transferring it from the original tapes.
Is there anything in the film you cringe at - any scene?
One scene that stood out for me this time around, I wouldn't call it cringe worthy, but I wish we'd had more time for the big finale of the movie, when all the plaguers enter the airlock and Holloway uses the coffin to escape. We got the coverage we needed, but I wish we'd had time to shoot a few extra angles, close ups of the creatures, to make it more powerful in the editing. No matter how much time and money you have - and on Plaguers we certainly had a bigger budget than our previous films - you always wish you had more of both.
And at the same time, is there a scene you're especially proud of?
I like the final scene between Holloway and Tarver, played by Steve Railsback. Steve was an actor I had admired for years and I was thrilled to work with him. He was great with all the physical action but in this scene, he brought a humanity to the scene that made it unexpectedly touching. You can have the best special effects in the world, practical or CGI, but none of it matters much if you don't care about the characters.