Dracula fans have cause for a big toothy grin. A new take on lesser-known characters from the classic Bram Stoker novel will screen Friday night at the AMC Studio 30 as part of the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness. This will be the American premiere of Renfield: The Un-Dead, which was shot entirely in the Houston area.
Stomach alert! Don’t expect a sparkly vampire teen romance, people. According to the filmmakers, it’s “Buffy meets Blade in a blender.”
Renfield is the story of the cloaked Count’s mad servant, R.N. Renfield, who becomes a blood-sucker himself when bitten by his lord and master (played by Houston stage actor John W. Stevens in his first film role).
The delicious anticipation of what havoc Renfield will wreak (this time in the modern day Bayou City of all places) should be enough to get lovers of the genre to fly like a bat out of, well, you know where, to meet the stars and makers at the showcase.
Last October, Renfield had its world premiere in Whitby, England at the Bram Stoker Film Festival in the very same theater where Dracula's original author sat, in 1895, while making notes for his infamous tome introducing Count Dracula. His original vampire tale has spawned an entire industry and is still chilling our bones well over a 100 years later.
United Kingdom author and cult expert Gavin Baddeley (quite the celebrity across the pond) called America’s Renfield one of “the most eagerly anticipated movies” of the annual British fang festival.
He continued to gush (sorry, the pun was irresistible) saying Renfield “wears its low budget on its sleeve with an ambience self-consciously resonant of the cult straight-to-video schlock of the '80s. Pulsing with Gothic energy, Renfield's a kinetic horror comic of a film that often comes across something like Buffy on seriously bad acid.” (That’s a compliment!)
“The cracked jewel in the movie's crown is the titular bug-munching anti-hero, as depicted with demented relish by Phil Nichols. Nichols doesn't just chew the scenery, but most of the rest of the cast, literally getting his teeth into the role with an enthusiasm every bit as contagious as vampirism itself."
The British press heaped more praise on the star, Houstonian Phil Nichols, crowning him the “iconic Renfield.” And we've all heard how picky Brits can be!
Nichols, a classically trained actor featured for years in Houston’s Shakespeare in the Park stagings, is also a sculptor, special effects master, ventriloquist and extraordinary puppet creator. He and his equally gifted sister, artist Melissa Nichols, operate a special effects and special makeup company based in Houston called Facades FX. (Their collector masks and prosthetics are sold all over the world.)
Facades FX Make-up Lab and Creature Design created the movie’s sets, masks, makeup, special effects and, of course, teeth — loads of realistic fangs — for the film.
Phil Nichols had always wanted to try his hand at making his own movie, not just working to enhance someone else’s. About five years ago he had the idea to write a script about the unhinged Dracula minion called Renfield and to set it in a comic book-style world.
The movie begins with a young woman (played by Houston actress Julin Jean) who opens the Renfield comic which sucks the audience into the book and into a vampire world like no other.
Houston’s Bob Willems joined forces with the Nichols pair becoming the executive producer as well as directing and editing Renfield. His first complete edit resulted in a three-hour film. Now there's a nightmare knowing how much has to come out!
The shoot took 35 days last spring and kept a grueling pace which resulted in Phil Nichols performing with “walking pneumonia.” (Wearing a hot 30-pound leather coat didn’t help. He went through three of those coats enacting Renfield’s vampire frenzy.)
Over that period, Melissa Nichols constructed the interior sets at Westline Studios (part of director Willems’ company). She brought to eerie life a castle’s arched entrance, a Bayou City morgue, family crypt interior, hospital hallway, an 1895 bedroom, an 1895 insane asylum study and its modern day counterpart. After each set was used, it was dismantled and parts were often recycled into the next.
Being green while creating screams is good, but of utmost importance is saving money.
Working within a $50,000 budget, the Nichols siblings were able to use their own skills as special effects experts to create an atmosphere that otherwise would have been cost prohibitive.
Watch for one scene (they call it their Hellboy shot) where Renfield is on top of a building with the city of Houston rotating around him. This was accomplished by constructing a human-sized turntable that actually rotated the actor, making it look like the background was revolving around him.
Veteran Texas stuntman David “Stutters” Sanders came out of retirement to coordinate the action, and there’s plenty of it, which required all vampire actors to be wired to fly. The result seems to be much more successful than Broadway’s forever-previewing Spider-Man Turn off the Dark. (Maybe that show's fired director Julie Taymor should come to Texas to learn how to get it right.)
The film’s publicity promises the audience lots of blood. Apparently, a little can go a long way — only one and 1/2 gallons of stage blood was used; a modest supply compared to some productions. Boggy Creek, another horror film shot in Texas on which the Nichols worked, splattered away six gallons.
So you’ll be in the know, there is squirt blood and then there is mouth blood. If the wrong kind is used in the actor’s mouth, as happened once to Phil Nichols as Renfield, the taste is horrible — and it burns! “That was the one thing I couldn’t stomach,” admits Nichols, and the scene had to be re-shot.
The Nichols are hoping to sell Renfield to cable TV and are waiting to hear from the Chiller Channel. They’ve lined-up Video on Demand already, but a run on cable channels first would be a dream.
Another film is already in the team’s pipeline; this one written by Melissa Nichols. It’s about scientific research leading to hybrid human dinosaur creatures. Project Pangea: Dinosaurs Unleashed! will most likely be beyond your wildest imagination — fertile ground for two wildly creative monster makers who call Houston home.