Every year, the Sundance Film Festival gathers cinema’s best and brightest new titles – and horror is no exception. Though it may not be the first genre that comes to mind when you think ‘Sundance’, the festival has been the launching pad for dozens of now-iconic horror titles: The Blair Witch Project, Cube, It Follows, Hereditary, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Halloween, just to name a few.
Among this year’s titles is Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls, a horror-comedy adapted from writer/director/editor Andrew Bowser’s viral internet character of the same name. We got the chance to (virtually) sit down with Bowser and co-star/horror icon star Barbara Crampton (who plays Onyx’s mother, Nancy) to talk all things Onyx, Re-Animator, and what it’s like taking a film to Sundance.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Culturess: The film features constant [Re-Animator] references: character names, lines lifted straight from the movie, and obviously we see a head get decapitated. Andrew, what’s it like going from being a fan of someone’s work to directing them in your own movie?
AB: It really is one of the most special parts of the process. Because growing up and watching these films, you know, these people, they feel so distant and mythical, they’re characters in my head. And you know, they’re mythologized, as I said, so when you get to a place where not only are they willing to engage with you, and look at your material, and then act in your material, it’s just, it’s a real affirmation as a filmmaker, and surreal.
But Barbara is, and has always been a real supporter of filmmakers, and young artists. She’s always taking the time to respond and to engage. And I think I’ve told Barbara, this story, but I randomly walked into Stuart Gordon’s office, before he passed, and he welcomed me in and I sat down and had a conversation with him for 20 minutes. So he was also cut from the same cloth.
BC: I think people are more approachable than you realize. Andrew and I have been friends for more than five years now, so we already had a shorthand with one another. But I think it was probably different when you were working with Jeffrey [Combs], because you had never met him, right?
AB: I had, but very briefly. It is different when you enter into that partnership of director and actor. But I had a phone call with Jeffrey while in Massachusetts prior to him arriving for the shoot, and I could just tell we were going to be simpatico. He was integral to this project, because the tone that both of both Barbara and Jeffrey strike, and I said this in a Q&A, but the tone that they strike in a lot of their performances is a grounded emotional reality in response to absurd happenings. So it really helped anchor Onyx even before anybody had seen the film, or for people that don’t know my character.
Culturess: Talking about the idea of bringing a grounded element to something so bombastic, what’s your approach for dropping a character (who exists for many as an internet meme) into a grounded world? How do you develop and flesh out a character like that?
AB: I think for me, it was was natural, just because I’m a bit older than the generation that truly was raised on the internet. And so for me, the Internet of it all was really an anomaly. It was a surprise to me, it wasn’t necessarily what I was chasing. So I was working as a director and a producer while these videos were going viral, that to me, were mostly about the edit.
You know, the splicing of my character into existing footage was what excited me. But making those videos, I’ve always been kind of building a narrative in my head for this character, because my interests are the interests of a narrative filmmaker. And I would see him be discussed as a meme, or as a troll because some people thought I actually went to these events and pretended to be someone which isn’t true, they were always edit pieces. But that’s why, even for the Kickstarter, one of the slogans was “make me more than a meme”. It was really about taking Onyx out of maybe how the public has accepted him, and spread him and bring him into a context that I have more influence and control over as a filmmaker.
Culturess: In another interview, you talked about how Onyx is a processing agent for your anxiety and mental health. As an artist who cares about the character very deeply, and who (as you say) wants to make him ‘more than a meme’, what’s your reaction when people only see him as a an internet joke? Have you always wanted people to take Onyx more seriously?
AB: I was never too put off by the place he held in pop culture. Because I think I always felt deep down that I know what he means to me as a performer and as a creator. I know I’ll be able to do something with him that goes a little further and says a little more. I’ve always had that security, just because Onyx is so important to me. And I’ve always engaged with my fans that know he’s a character, that know I’m a director, to know what they truly like about the character. To know that it’s more than just memes and TikToks. I’ve always had an odd amount of peace about what I knew he could turn into.
Culturess: I imagine it’s very fulfilling, especially with a grassroots-funded film that started on Kickstarter, to see it finally come to fruition. How did you decide you wanted to take the film to Sundance?
AB: I just shoot for the moon in all things. And also having encouragement from people like Barbara, and my DP, everybody that came on board further validated my feelings on the film. And so I entered Sundance just thinking “you know what, there’s a chance.” They’ve got a Midnights section, I’ve got all these cool people involved, I’ve got all these artisans and technicians that are raising the bar on a genre horror-comedy. I had no idea Sundance would respond to it, and when we got the call I was floored. But I was so glad that I pressed ‘submit’, because you just never know.
Culturess: You touched on the artisans who worked on the effects for this film – and I wanted to ask both of you (but Barbara specifically, since you’ve got so much experience in the genre) what did you make of the puppetry and the effects? It’s a very deliberate 80s homage. Barbara, were you there for those scenes?
BC: I wasn’t on set for the puppets, so the first time I saw them was a cut that Andrew sent to me a few months before he started submitting to festivals. I was over the moon. I was floored. I just think they’re fantastic. It definitely does harken back to things that I remember when I was first coming up in the movie business. I just think the puppets were extraordinary.
For a minute, I was like “Are those the real people? Or are those puppets?” I knew they were puppets, but I was like “Maybe they’re in heavy makeup.” I was shocked. They just looked so good to me! There were so many layers to this film that harken back to early stuff that I had been involved with that really struck a chord with me.
Culturess: Andrew, did you always know you were going to do practical effects, and that it was going to be puppets? Or was that something someone brought to you down the line?
AB: I always knew that it would be practical effects. But truly, I thought there’d only be one puppet, and that would be the Beefy Bad Boy, and I thought everything else would be makeup. But I’m a big fan of this creature designer named Adam Dougherty, who goes by KreatureKid, I followed him at horror conventions for years. I sent him the scripts to get his take on the Beefy, Bad Boy character design, and he read it and said “Bows, I think we can do every creature”.
And I thought, wow, that wasn’t what was in my head. But that’s why it’s so important to listen to collaborators, especially collaborators that understand the tone, and the vision, because that actually gets me closer to the tone that I want for the Onyx world. And I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself! But it’s also because I’m not a creature designer, and I’m not as technically adept as Adam. So I couldn’t imagine what he can imagine. That’s his world. And he sent me a sketch of the Abaddon Demon, as he imagined it sitting outside of the fast food joint. And I thought, “Oh, well, that’s an image that I want to see on film.” So we went all puppets. There’s some prosthetic makeup effects in the film, that dream sequence and then something in the finale, but the creatures being puppets was really key, I think, to unlocking the tone
Culturess: You talk about the “world” of Onyx, and the reversal of fortune at the end with Bartok and Farrah leaves the door pretty clearly open for a sequel. Are we looking at 2 Fast, 2 Fortuitous? What do you have on the horizon?
AB: [Laughs] That’s exactly the joke the crew made on set. I have been writing the sequel, and I’ve been falling in love with it. It’s just cracking me up. I was trying to get it written before Sundance, but being here [Park City] and watching the film with an audience, I can’t wait to get back to LA and keep writing that script. I think it’s a really fun evolution of the first film, but it also might give people more of what they liked about the first film. There’s less worldbuilding, less backstory that you have to lay. The second one really kind of rips and dips, as Onyx would say.
Culturess: Barbara, do you see an avenue for Nancy [Onyx’s mother] coming back and kicking some ass in the sequel?
BC: I’m sitting back here hopeful. I mean, I’m there at the house – maybe I moved in will all the other people at the end? [Laughs].
Culturess: I was trying to think about what role Nancy would have in the Book of Abaddon, like “Viking” or “Witch” that we see in the film. What would she do? Or is that a spoiler?
AB: I can theorize and it won’t be a spoiler, there’s not an element like that yet in the script. I don’t know what Nancy would be because the problem is, Nancy is somewhat of a villain in Onyx’s life, you know, she kind of missed him as a kid. Obviously, she’s not as much of an antagonist as his boss at work, or Bartok. But she definitely had an effect on Onyx’s shaping psyche as he grew up, and maybe wasn’t quite what she wanted out of a son. So I might say that Nancy is you know, maybe something kind of two-faced.
BC: Watching the movie, when at the end I’m told “He’s your son”, I don’t say anything, but I was thinking that if I had a line, I would say “Yeah, I’m really proud now.”
AB: Well, that’s true. I get that vibe as well from your your reaction. That shot is why I love that, it you are looking up, kind of surprised and proud.
BC: Yeah, because as a mom, myself, I will say that, you look at your kids and you want them to be their best selves, and you want them to be unique, and you want them to be whoever they are. And sometimes as a parent, I don’t see my children as other people see them. And so in my character’s defense, [They both laugh], I would say seeing that house and seeing you through the eyes of everyone else, I finally realized your greatness.
AB: That’s a really insightful take.
Culturess: I was wondering about that ending. For a genre film, it’s very sweet and wholesome. Did you always see a happy ending for Onyx?
AB: I truly did not always see a happy ending for him, and I’ve had a problem with the character from the beginning, that because it’s a way for me to process a lot of anxiety and, things that can take a toll on mental health, sometimes I feel like he becomes too much of an underdog and there’s too much shame heaped on him.
And there might be too much stress put on him without much relief. And actually, it was Ryan Stanger, who plays my stepfather, said on a web series years and years ago: “You know, Bows, you gotta let Onyx win every now and again, right?” And I said, “why?” And he said,” Well, you know, the guy is always getting kicked while he’s down.” And I thought, well, in a way, that’s what I need him to be for what I’m working through. But the real magic came when I sat down to write the script, and I thought I might place him in a really gory horror-comedy, where he’s, you know, maybe he’s a Bruce Campbell, getting blood splattered on his face as he moves through a house full of zombies.
But the heart of Onyx over these years really has been wanting to connect, wanting to not feel alone. He made a joke in the very first Onyx video that he didn’t mind waiting in line at conventions for long periods of time, because you’re never alone, if you’re in a line. And it’s true! That speaks to how much he really just wants family and community. So once I started writing it, and listening to that kind of heart center, then I realized, you know what, this is going to go well for him. And there’s gonna be a victory at the end for him and his friends.
Culturess: I would imagine that as an artist who puts so much of yourself into that character, it’s cathartic to see him have a big victory like that.
AB: Very true. It made me feel good. It warmed my heart to write that narrative for him, because it also kind of reminded me that maybe I could have some victories. It’s so surreal to be here with the film at Sundance, which is such a victory for me as a filmmaker.
BC: It’s a mirror to you and your journey as a filmmaker.
Culturess: Switching gears, Barbara, this is your sixth film with Jeffrey Combs, I wanted to ask what keeps the two of you working together for so long? Do you just get along that well?
BC: You know, I’d like to do more with Jeffrey, honestly. We’ve tried to work together in the past few years on a few things, and it hasn’t worked out. Initially, and I don’t know if people know this, but he was offered the husband role in You’re Next. He didn’t know the filmmakers then and I didn’t really either. But I took a chance on them. And then later, you know, the movie was directed by Adam Winguard. And then the rest is history. And he’s directing really big films right now. But I never asked you to free he was sorry that he never took that role. [Laughs] I don’t know. Probably not. He has an amazing robust career. But we keep trying, and we’re talking about stuff. You know, don’t discount A Re-Animator 2.0 coming out at some point. It’s always out in the ether to potentially be made. Brian Yuzna has been trying to do something for years. I don’t think Jeffrey and I are done. I do think we’ll work together again, and he’s a very good friend to me. I love him. And you know, so hopefully it’ll happen at some point.