Thursday, May 17, 2012

The "Never Got Made" Files #72: SEA OF SIN (1991/1993)

Sincerity and a go-for-broke attitude in low budget filmmaking will get you a long way with us.  Case in point: the film WINTERBEAST (1991).  Director Christopher Thies knew the odds were stacked against him when working with such a low budget, so he managed to throw everything into his picture.  It features demons, stop-motion monsters, zombies, nudity, clown masks, ever-changing mustaches, and more.  While it will never be confused with a horror great, WINTERBEAST displayed enough creativity and “what in the world?” charm that we couldn’t help but like and admire it here at Video Junkie.

I contacted Thies on a completely unrelated matter and, after revealing my penchant for unfinished films, he informed me that he had his own “never got made” skeleton in his closet titled SEA OF SIN, a horror flick about killer mermaids.  Color me interested.  The project was supposed to be Thies’ sophomore feature, but never got finished.  It also holds the distinction of being the only project we’ve covered so far that never got made…twice!  “The project had a couple of false starts,” Thies explained via e-mail. “We almost started shooting in 1991, but eventually shooting ended up taking place in late September and October of 1993.”

Michael Anderson reacts to
the film's cancellation
Regarding the first attempt, Thies explains that SEA OF SIN was a significantly larger production than his debut.  “The initial production in 1991 was budgeted around $300,000,” he reveals. “We had an investor the first go-round who was a venture capitalist. I was working in a video store as we were making WINTERBEAST and I had a friend and co-worker who had a lot of the same interests and taste in movies as I did – Larry Aufiero. He wasn’t involved in WINTERBEAST at all. His sister Dorothy had just finished up working as production manager for the TV show MONSTERS and was interested in producing – so we all got together and they liked the script so decided to make SEA OF SIN with them producing and me directing. Before shooting began the funds fell though- either the stock market tanked or the investor finally got a look at WINTERBEAST, but that ended the first version.”  It is a shame too as Thies discloses that the group had cast Michael J. Anderson, best known as the diminutive “Man from Another Place” in TWIN PEAKS, as the magician in the film.

John Waterhouse's
A Mermaid
So what exactly was SEA OF SIN about?  The script – co-written by Thies, Kevin Maguire and Delia Huse – focused on a killer mermaids coming from the sea and descending upon a seaside town in New England.  Lovecraft would be proud.  “The story revolved around a seaside amusement area,” Thies explains, “and a mysterious mother and two daughters who come to town with a drunken magician to perform at one of the bars. They end up being a family of killer mermaids and the magician is their human hostage. They’ve actually come to town to sacrifice 7 victims (one for each of the seas) so Poseidon will rise from the sea and impregnate them to carry on the race. He does arrive at the end and runs amok at the town’s “Miss Neptune” contest killing and maiming and carrying one of the mermaids off into the ocean.”

It was a wild subject, no doubt, and mermaids – long used in scary maritime folklore – have rarely been used as the subject for horror films (Curtis Harrington’s NIGHT TIDE being the most famous example).  So where did Thies exactly draw his inspiration for this idea?  The answer might surprise you. “The Bermuda Triangle,” he states.  “Not the actual place, but an old amusement park ride at an oceanfront amusement park [Paragon Park] in Hull, Massachusetts. The whole place was torn down in the 80s but I went there a lot as a kid. They had what was originally an ‘Old Mill’ dark ride where the current would carry these boats through pitch black tunnels past a few black lit animated fiberglass dioramas. In the mid 70s they changed the theme from a jungle cruise to the Bermuda Triangle. They had these great set pieces of mermaids and King Neptune tormenting drowning sailors that were really amazing.”

The Bermuda Triangle ride at Paragon Park:

Joe Pallister as Martin
With belief in his concept, Thies decided to give production another go a few years later. He eschewed attempts to gain funding in Hollywood, something they had tried with WINTERBEAST to no avail. “Two years later we started again with Larry and me funding it ourselves,” he explains, “by that point he owned a video store and I was working in insurance.”  While the budget was significantly less ($30,000) than their first attempt, Thies and company still maintained a professional attitude.  They started by casting actors down in New York.  PLAYGIRL centerfold staple and 1993's "Man of the Year" Joe Pallister was a cast as Martin, the Coast Guard member who must combat the sisters, and Dina Dillon and Alexandra Adi were cast as the good and evil mermaid sisters, respectively.  And while Thies had separated from his WINTERBEAST producer Mark Frizzell on this project, a few of that film’s alumni helped on this new production.  “Bill MacLeod, who played Dick Sargent in WINTERBEAST, was the key grip. And Kevin Maguire, who was the bartender at the Wild Goose Lodge, was going to play a street preacher at the beach,” he explains.  Could we also see a return of everyone’s favorite WINTERBEAST villain, the super strange Sheldon?  “I wrote a part for Bob Harlow, who played Sheldon, but by the time we started production, he was nowhere to be found.”

So production began anew in the fall of 1993.  Shooting on 16mm film, the production has established a shooting schedule of 15 days. Actors were bused up from New York to the Boston area and shooting began at an amusement park in the Salisbury, Massachusetts area. Unfortunately, the production began to quickly fall behind.  “I think we shot a total of about 6 days,” Thies confesses.  “We were falling behind schedule more each day, but the goal was to complete the exteriors around the beach before the cold weather set in and then go to interiors.”

Ultimately, only 20% of the live action footage was shot.  Not only was Thies dealing with the pressures of directing a film, he also had to deal with a low budget director’s worst nemesis – a disgruntled spouse!  “I can tell you that my wife at the time was not happy with the whole idea,” he amusingly reveals.  “It didn't help that on the fist day of shooting she came up to the location and some drunk checking into the motel we were all staying at forgot to put his truck in park and it rolled down the hill and smashed the back of her brand new car. I remember later that night we were shooting at a beachfront arcade and she was parked across the street glaring at me from her dented car.”

Director Thies (in black) on location

Dina Dillon as
The Good Mermaid
Eventually the project collapsed under the combination of the weight of its own ambitiousness and a lack of funds.  Money dried up to the point that the producers couldn’t even get the processed footage out of the lab.  It is a shame too as Thies promises the script offered some truly one-of-a-kind onscreen mayhem that, given the madness displayed in WINTERBEAST, would have given the horror genre some true firsts.  As examples of the craziness, he mentions a scripted scene where the evil mermaid sister, Marina, zaps onto a Navy sub and turns the crew members “into piles of flopping fish.” There is also this wild scene from the film’s finale where Martin chases Marina through the amusement park with a trident.  “He chases her through the amusement park at night and ends up at the top of a waterslide, where she beheads the attendant with a garrote and her and Martin and the head all end up sliding to the bottom in a battle to the death. In the pool at the bottom she turns into her mermaid form and he kills her while the other swimmers run for it.”

It was in the creatures that SEA OF SIN, like all good monsters movies, was going to shine.  “Steve Fiorilla, who worked on WINTERBEAST, had designed some great mermaid creatures,” Thies reveals, “that I wanted to do in stop-motion.  Each one was a different sea creature- one a crab, one an octopus, etc.” Here is his lone surviving design:

As evidenced by the above drawing, the mermaid monsters were truly unique.  Alas, the killer mermaids drowned in a sea of debt, rather than a sea of blood.  It is too bad as Thies liked the look of the footage he saw that did come out of the lab.  Today, the project is lost and Thies owns none of the footage.

What wasn’t lost in the process though was determination and Thies eventually did get his sophomore feature off the ground.  Reteaming with WINTERBEAST producer and friend Frizzell, Thies recently shot another nautical themed horror film called HOOKED.  “Mark called me out of the blue about 5 years ago,” he discloses. “He was good enough to track me down and it wasn't long before we decided to self-release the WINTERBEAST DVD and launch into a new project.  Not because it made sense, but just because that's what we love to do. I had written a number of scripts in that time and HOOKED was the first one I showed him. He called it JAWS meets PSYCHO meets PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE. It had plenty of animation and we've added more along the way. It was incredibly over-ambitious, but I think we've pulled it off.”

Telling the story of a man who begins to chew on the inhabitants of a fishing town courtesy of some shark teeth dentures, HOOKED delivers on the weird and wild promise previously seen in SEA OF SIN.  Any chance it could have a killer mermaid in the mix? “There is a mermaid in HOOKED,” Thies reveals, “but she is an aquarium toy that comes to life and talks to the main character when he’s hallucinating. Other than that, it’s a different kind of film altogether.”

1 Reactions:

  1. This article, as well as your whole "Never Got Made" series, is pretty fascinating for an armchair look into the frustration that can take place on movie sets. And there totally should be more horror movies about mermaids.


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