Few movies exist that hit my sweet spot like DEATHGASM, a horror comedy about a Death Metal band that accidentally summons a demon by playing really wickedly awesome music. Saturday night, DEATHGASM makes its Canadian premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, which seemed a foregone conclusion to me when I saw it back at SXSW. Written and Directed by Jason Lei Howden, the film is the latest entry in the Kiwi assault upon our genre senses, following “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Housebound.” Howden won a New Zealand competition in 2013 where his DEATHGASM pitch was awarded $200,000NZ in production funding and caught the eye of genre master and Executive Producer Ant Timpson (also a major force behind Turbo Kid). I had a chance to sit down with the team behind the film a few months ago, and I’ve been holding out on releasing this interview until the Fantasia screening, and also because it was near impossible to transcribe. Eight people around a table, all with pretty strong accents, and a free-flowing discussion that covered the film, metal music in New Zealand, t-shirt culture, which of Howden’s high school friends are probably now in jail, and the gallon to liter conversion rate for the amount of bodily fluids in this film meant it was a nightmare to organize. But that’s okay because this is a crazy movie, that goes in surprising directions before you blink an eye.

“It started with the title, DEATHGASM,” says Howden about the birth of his film; “I had this vaguely offensive title, I thought this has to be a splatter movie, obviously. And I was working on this short film script that had these two metalhead characters — definitely a lot more serious, coming-of-age sort of story and I thought ‘why not put these characters into the splatter film?’” The name of the film also serves as the name of the ‘band’ the lead characters form. Milo Cawthorne stars as Brodie, a metalhead new to town and ripe to be picked on by all the jocktards that dominate his high school. After the older and more mysterious Zakk (James Blake) rescues him from a hazing, they form a band with a few other outcasts and set about on a quest to make the heaviest music they can. “Zakk is actually based on a friend I had out of high school,” Howden says, “I used to get beaten up by these guys a lot, and this hard core other metalhead comes in a Slayer shirt, glasses all the time — he never took his glasses off — and just started whaling on these bullies for me, and I thought ‘woah this is awesome.’ He was actually a total asshole, but he was great!” He added “this friend once seduced a girl by modifying lyrics from the Slayer song “South of Heaven,” writing her a note asking ‘how did an angel fall so far south of heaven?.”   The girl was hooked and Howden experienced (at least secondhand) the power of metal.

“I’m a big horror and metal fan obviously,” says the director, “I remember seeing [1986 film] “Trick or Treat” when I was a teenage metalhead, I loved it, Ozzy does this awesome cameo – it still kind of holds up – its one of those genres, heavy metal horror, that just seems to have gone away recently.”

In DEATHGASM, the band breaks into the home of one of their idols, a recluse old headbanger named Rikki Daggers. Daggers gives them a piece of sheet music, the same one a strange cult is after as well, and the band tests it out during practice. They inadvertently rouse a demon and he ransacks the town, turning everyone into zombies. The team, which included producers Andrew Beattie and Sarah Howden (Jason’s wife) set out to make a film that was true to the spirit, energy, fun, and darkness that is present in real extreme metal. “For me it feels like the most metal heavy metal film in terms of the amount of music on screen,” says the director, “and the black metal and all these obscure bands — you are never going to see Nunslaughter in any other movie.” Despite this, all the music in the film, and the references, really support the story. “There was so much in-jokey stuff that got left out,” Howden admits, “because its just me being a metal fanboy.” But other moments, like a character referencing Metallica’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ at the death of his father make the film a delight for true fans. “If it ever was a studio movie it’d be fucking Nickelback or something,” Howden says, “it would be a hard rock movie, we’d need them more good looking, we can’t have hair as long.”

For Cawthorne, being in a metal band was not that far out of his comfort zone, even if he wouldn’t describe himself as someone who likes metal music. “I used to flat with a bunch of guys who were in a metal band and so that was my first introduction to it,” he says, “I had a real appreciation for the musicianship.” He based his performance as Brodie partially off one of these roommates. “I had a guy who had a few messy dreads in his hair, he didn’t wear underpants, and he would sleep in this one bed and never change the sheets but he was this incredible guitarist,” Cawthorne says, “he was so up for anything.” Cawthorne, whom I first saw in his brilliant performance in “Blood Punch,” (for which I am still desperately awaiting theatrical release) found metal fans surprisingly accepting. “I went to a couple metal gigs that my roommates played,” he says, “you go to a normal club and you can feel people looking at you, judging you and they’re all wearing the newest clothes but a metal show is ‘come as you are.’ Everyone’s a freak. It’s a real nice atmosphere.”

Kimberly Crossman, who plays Brodie’s love interest Medina and a new initiate into the world of metal found her own experiences mirroring her character: “I’m not not a fan of any music genre,” she says, “but it was definitely a new experience for me. I love learning so I think for me coming on and learning from these guys and getting the whole experience was definitely cool. And I’m more interested now and I understand it a lot more. I had an idea of what sorts of people follow metal and this movie breaks that stereotype.” Brodie captures Medina’s interest with the time told method of the mixtape – and is completely surprised when she succumbs to the power of the metal. At the end of the film, she is chopping up demonically-possessed zombies with an axe and ready to join that mosh pit. “I thought that was a really cool arc and that’s something I don’t necessarily get in television,” Crossman says, “television it’s a through-story but you don’t know where its going. So yeah creating my own arc as a clean cut, put-together girl and at the end I’ve got piercings and I’m smoking and we’re having an argument about metal, that to me is a real cool progression as an actress.”

“It’s kind of Jason’s version of Grease,” chimes in Executive Producer Ant Timpson.  Howden agrees, and admits he loves him some Grease. “All you have to do is slut it up a little and you get the guy,” remarks Crossman and the conversation quickly disintegrates into the possibilities of DEATHGASM: the Broadway musical, which of course would be the most amazing thing ever.

It’s so rare to come across real metal fans (i.e. fans of real metal) I must admit that was basically all I wanted to talk about with Howden, who based much of the film off his own personal experiences and made it for the ‘initiated.’ “I don’t think I ever had New Zealand in mind as an audience when I was writing actually,” he confesses, “it was metalheads everywhere.” He added that despite his own experiences, and his wife Sarah’s, who admits to sneaking out of her parents’ house to see Jason’s band, extreme metal is not really a popular thing in New Zealand. “I mean its there, I think most places have that undercurrent,” he says, “it used to be bigger in the 90s,” and he partially blames grunge for its disappearance and the lack of metal horror films. “The whole culture is the darkest and most hard core you can get,” Sarah Howden says, “young people that want to rebel, its not like footballers.” This is who they made the movie for. The fact that it is set in New Zealand is just a bit of a bonus. “In a way I think it’s a little bit endearing watching these kiwi kids with native bush in their corpsepaint, something a little bit weird about it,” the director says.

We are laying down the gauntlet right now – if you fucking read this Peter Jackson, make a fucking horror film please!” – Cawthorne

And how does Howden himself feel about the state of the New Zealand film industry? “At the moment its crazy because there was like a huge lull in the 2000s for kiwi movies,” he muses. Timpson, producer and creator of the popular “ABC’s of Death” film series and one of the most recognizable voices of New Zealand cinema, admits he’s a little surprised it has taken so long. “I did this national competition for years,” he says, “and from that, after 14 years, I thought there’s going to be like a huge influx of people getting enthused and going off and making indie pictures like the US and the UK are doing.” And maybe they did, but it took much longer for the scene to mature. “You guys never hear about them,” Timpson says, “but we see all those features and they don’t even get out of their bedrooms. What is just now happening is the scripts are matching the enthusiasm and so the films are thinking in terms of global audiences.”

Part of their success, in part, comes from the training many of these filmmakers received working on larger Hollywood films who are decamping to New Zealand more and more often, especially people like Peter Jackson and his Weta Workshop.  Jason Lei Howden himself worked on the Hobbit movies as a Senior Paint and Rotoscope Artist, as well as films like “The Great Gatsby,” ” Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,”  and “Prometheus.” The DEATHGASM team is very quick to credit another New Zealand filmmaker as well, television producer Robert Tapert, responsible for series like “Young Hercules,” “Spartacus,” and of course, “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Says DEATHGASM producer Andrew Beattie, “Peter only makes a film every three years, there’s something happening every week in Rob’s world.” Still, Peter Jackson, and his influence on Kiwi filmmaking cannot be overlooked. “We appreciate Peter Jackson doing those early horror movies,” says Sarah Howden, “and we hope that making this film will challenge him to do another. It’s on.”

Peter Jackson’s next project seems to be another two “TinTin” films. In the meantime, DEATHGASM plants the Kiwi flag on Canadian soil on Saturday July 18th at 9:30pm.


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