Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 8, 2003
Ouch Potato

Local Philip Eisner says he’s ready to get back into horror films ... after his nap.


Since his deal with the Sci Fi Channel almost five years ago, he has spoiled himself rotten. The wife often finds him languidly snoozing in the den in the afternoons. Instead of punching keys on a laptop, he’s been punching keys on an Xbox controller. Ideas for geek and gore have drifted through his skull on a regular basis, but nothing makes it onto paper. He’s already tasted from the well — the big studio, that is — and the recurring residuals provide enough reason (and loose change) to duck work for awhile.

But all that’s about to change for screenwriter Philip Eisner: The wife just had a baby boy. And now the Fort Worth native has to get off his keister, organize those thoughts that have been swimming around in his brain, and crank out some scripts. Pronto.

So what would you expect to see from the guy who made his name with the madly graphic Event Horizon ($26 million box office), a stomach-turning sci-fi romp about a spaceship crew that travels through a black hole and fortuitously (for us) stumbles into hell? Answer: Not a romantic comedy. Eisner is currently scouting rural locations beyond the Fort Worth city limits for a North Texas NC-17 bloodbath, a total B-movie menace saluting the culty, misogynistic works of horror filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis. Eisner, never at a loss for an apt modifier or three, best characterized the concept as “the film you don’t dare see,” “The Last Picture Show ... but with zombies,” or “just a really bitchin’ straightforward monster movie.”

In 1989, he got his foot in the studio door with his feature length cyberfunk screenplay Wirehead, which producer Lawrence Gordon bought but unfortunately shelved. (Gordon at the time was preoccupied with the productions of Another 48 Hrs, Die Hard 2, and Predator 2.) Nonetheless, the sale of Wirehead allowed Eisner to settle in Los Angeles and begin his career in the horror movie business. He eventually pitched Gordon the idea for what he called “The Shining in space.” The producer agreed to it. Five years passed while Gordon fought for distribution rights during a studio power shift. Finally, in 1997, voila! Paramount greenlighted Eisner and director Paul Anderson’s Event Horizon. “We really wanted to make a horror film,” Eisner said. “And not just gore. Horror. That feeling in the pit in your stomach of absolute dread. And if you can’t get dread, you go for shock. If you can’t get shock, you go for the gross-out.”

Eisner definitely got the gross-out — one big slap in the face. The original cut ran 125 minutes, a more elaborate version than what was released, one that would have better revealed the characters’ personalities and stirred more emotion in viewers. (So in a scene when a crew member gets disfigured or melts into a meat pie, the audience might actually give a shit about who’s dying, as opposed to how audiences typically react in horror films — instinctually rooting for the bad guy.) But Paramount steadfastly stuck to its demand for a 90-minute corporate cut. The film went sour with the rest of 1997’s mediocre horror lineup (Mimic, Wishmaster). And Eisner, while disappointed with the finished product and the film’s meager success, didn’t pout. The studio’s pay structure was generous enough to ease the pain. And every time a copy of the soundtrack sold or a television network overseas aired the flick, a check arrived in the mail. Around this time is when he picked up his afternoon nap habit.

A short time later, he pocketed a deal with the Sci Fi Channel to write Firestarter 2: Rekindled, a follow-up to the 1984 movie based on Stephen King’s novel about a young girl who can produce flames telekinetically. Needless to say, he tasted from the well ... again. And apparently it’s not so easy getting that taste out of your mouth. “I’m probably ahead of the curve [concerning screenwriters],” he said. “I’ve had stuff made. There are people out there who don’t get stuff made at all. Then there are a few guys who are constantly, constantly, constantly [writing], and they’re certainly cashing in. If Event Horizon had broken $100 million dollars, people would be trying to get me to rewrite romantic comedies. And I’d say, ‘Is this movie going to be good? Probably not. But if it’s going to break $100 million, I’ll do it.’”

If Eisner can pull off his Texas zombie flick with a shoestring budget (say, a million bucks), the writing on the wall could very well read success. His gruesome concept could follow in the footsteps of recent low-budget successful shockers (28 Days Later). They might not be big box-office smashes, but, as always, they’re great rentals. “Everyone worries about the down economy. That people want to see happy movies,” he said. “ No. The horror movie continually does well.”

Eisner’s backyard nail-biter could turn into an artistic bloody mess rather than an artistic success, and, if that’s the case, steps to salvage the work can still be taken. He can find the independent funding to make the movie work; that’s not a problem. The question is whether he wants to try his luck at releasing the movie himself or pitching it to a studio. If the philosophy of producer Andy Gould (House of 1000 Corpses) sticks — that “if you stay with [a movie], it sells no matter what,” — then Eisner appears to be cooking up a win-win situation.

Or, at the very least, a situation that’ll get him a few more naps on the couch.

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