I think we could all use a good laugh. And one of the best ways for horror fans to get their chuckles affectionately from the genre would be checking out Shudder’s latest release, Scare Package! Our own Trey Hillburn III reviewed it late last year, and after seeing it myself, it was a blast of meta genre fun. I was fortunate enough to talk with the project’s creators and two directors on the horror comedy anthology, Aaron Koontz and Cameron Burns to discuss the inner workings of Scare Package…
Jacob Davison: What are your names and what do you do?
Aaron Koontz: I’m Aaron Koontz and with me is Cameron Burns, and we are the ones who came up with the concept for SCARE PACKAGE. I directed and co-wrote with Cameron, the whole wraparound story and the finale.
Cameron Burns: Yes, I am Cameron and I did that. The stuff he said. (Laughter) He stole my answer!
JD: How did you meet?
AK: We both went to Full Sail in Orlando, the film school. We didn’t meet there, though. I think we knew each other peripherally, but we didn’t know each other during school. Then we both worked at EA Sports working in the test department. We actually met over SAVED BY THE BELL trivia! (Laughter) Small world.
CB: We don’t remember who won either, unfortunately.
JD: SAVED BY THE BELL unites us all.
AK: As it should! We met then and realized we had similar likes even outside of SAVED BY THE BELL and we were like “Hey! We should work together!” And started writing together and doing stuff like that.
JD: How did Scare Package begin?
AK: We had made our first feature film (Camera Obscura) and it was a really tough experience for a number of reasons. We made that with Universal Studios, it was a studio film, and we just didn’t have all the control. We wanted to do something with our friends and was fun. It was also a downer of a movie! (Laughter) So, we wanted to make something fun and Cameron had been pushing for an anthology movie for awhile. Because we had been going to festivals for years and knew so many great people and it was a good excuse to work with our friends. We knew we could do it over a longer period of time while still developing other projects.
I didn’t really want to make an anthology, though. It just felt like everything had already been tapped into that you could see. Southbound, VHS 2, the new resurgence of anthologies had nailed it. I didn’t want to compete with that. But Cameron was rightfully persistent and we put together some spreadsheets of the highs and lows of what we thought of anthology films. What we thought worked and what didn’t and we decided to go for it, but with a different hook. It was originally called TROPES. Every segment was a different horror trope, but it turns out some people don’t know what the word ‘tropes’ means!
CB: We live in a bubble. We all know what it means, but the outside people don’t.
AK: Yeah, but if we’re going to call the movie TROPES then the movie title should be a trope. We wanted to lean into this with every aspect. The poster was referential to posters, so we have this seedy, HOUSE style poster. But it’s also this meta poster, within a poster, within a poster. Right, because we’re commenting on horror films at the same time. Then the title, Scare Package is something like SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT or CHOPPING MALL or those punny title horror movies. We found an interesting hook and went for it.
JD: How did you settle on Scare Package for the title?
AK: I think one fo the worst title ideas I had was NORMAL ACTIVITY. So, we went away from that. My girlfriend at the time actually came up with it, Cassandra Hierholzer.
JD: And let’s get into your specific segments. Can you talk about Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium and Horror Hypothesis?
CB: With Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium we knew kind fo early on, like Arron said when we did that deep dive to anthologies. We realized no one was using the wraparound story to its fullest potential. And we knew you could tell an interesting story, you didn’t have to go to the next story as quickly as possible. We kicked around working with Jeremy King, the actor who plays Rad Chad on a bunch of stuff, way back to the EA days. We knew we wanted tow rod with him and we knew the wraparound would be the ideal place for him. We spitballed a bunch of ideas and one that stuck was him running this video store and it just worked in terms of getting in and out of segments, we felt it could be funny.
We tapped into that early on and then it was about how to transition that into the final segment, Horror Hypothesis. Which was another idea we had separately but we didn’t have them together and we wanted to figure out how to blend one into the other. If we wanted the wraparound to be a real story, we wanted that to lead into the last segment. The basic idea being a testing facility for slasher killers, which e thought was really funny and really ripe for meta comedy. Once we had those two ideas, it was a matter of blending them together and packing as many jokes and meta commentaries as possible.
AK: There was definitely an effort that even without the other segments, the wraparound could still be one, cohesive story. That was a goal we had and maybe we kind of did it. (Laughter)
CB: We tried.
JD: I’d say you did! On that, could you talk more about working with Jeremy King and the character of Rad Chad?
AK: Cam and I worked on a very small project, like 15 years ago, and Jeremy King was onboard to be a bike cop. He was so funny we jut kept writing different parts for him. He’s got such a unique sense of comedic timing. He’s this weird in-between of lovable and punchable that is a lot of fun.
CB: Both as a character and in real life, but…
AK: Very true! What’s crazy is Jeremy isn’t a big horror fan so we had to stop him multiple times and do multiple takes where he’d riff a bit and go off on some things to make sure they were accurate to horror. Telling him to say things exactly because horror fans would get the exact reading. But he’s a blast. I love killing him in everything that I do! And probably will going forward.
CB: There’s a really great rite of passage as a horror creator in killing your friends. And Jeremy is a friend, and we love doing it.
JD: It’s the best form of flattery!
CB: It is!
JD: I wanted to ask you, on Horror Hypothesis, since it revolves around a slasher testing facility what went into casting and creating the slasher for that segment The Devil’s Lake Impaler played by Dustin Rhodes?
AK: When I worked with Tate Steinsiek who’s my makeup fx designer and the director of CASTLE FREAK and we wanted an iconic mask, that was extremely important. We wanted build a weird folklore, I researched everything from Voorhees to Myers origin stories to try and come up with our own weird and wild thing. Also, we wanted to have a commentary on- I think at the time we were writing it one of those really awful stories about a frat boy who had done some pretty awful things and gotten way with it and I was mad, so we decided to make it an anti-fratboy killer! Even on his sweater the letters are Delta Epsilon Alpha Theta, they spell ’death’ on the sweater. But the mask, the first face that we used was actually Donald Trump’s.
CB: If you pause the movie, there are a couple of instances where you can see Trump’s face.
AK: We started with that mask as kind of an homage to them starting with the Shatner mask from HALLOWEEN with Michael Myers. So we started there and kind of Texas Chainsawed it. Stitched it together. But it was fun to come up with the whole origin story and do the flashback sequence with him, which was so ridiculous. Dustin is amazing, he was such a wonderful person to work with, it was so much fun. But to create our own killer… that was a big reason why I didn’t want anyone else to do that sequence. Because I selfishly wanted to create this really cool mask and outfit and backstory. It was so much fun!
JD: I wanted to ask about the FX for your segments. For the sheer amount of practical FX and make-up, I really dug that.
AK: So, Kris Fipps, who was also one of our producers was also our go to for make-up FX. He helped us source through the right people. We’ve also been making horror films for a long time, short films and side projects as well. We’ve always done practical FX. That was a prerequisite. We really wanted there to be a number of practical FX in the segments and wanted to push the gore. In Horror Hypothesis alone, we used over 30 gallons of blood.
Just throwing it around everywhere. And on a per minute basis, some might say it’s the bloodiest film ever made because I even asked Brad Miska how many gallons did they use on Safe Haven in VHS 2 and I read how much blood Feda used in Evil Dead. And on a per minute basis, we are pretty close to one of the bloodiest things ever made! Which is fun. It was unintentional, just kind of happened that way. If you’re doing something as a love letter to 80’s horror, you got to go over the top with your kills. You have to go for it and have weird originality to it and come up with unique ways. That’s what me and my friends would do, sitting around and talk about our favorite kills of Freddy and Jason and all of this. So, if we were going to do it we had to up the ante of those kills.
CB: That was probably the most fun part of wiring Horror Hypothesis. We had the basic idea and the flow and would stop and say “How crazy can we make this kill? What have we never seen before?”
AK: Having Brandon do all the flips and get his arm broken off and then killed with his own arm was a lot of fun to think of. But we also killed someone with a treadmill. I’ve never seen that happen! We had to build a wall, use a real treadmill, had to green screen the way it worked. The amount fo time and effort it took to kill someone with a treadmill was absurd. For one second that it was there, but it was worth it.
CB: All because while we were writing it, we were trying to come up with the craziest thing possible. Then on set we were wondering “Why did we do that?” What were thinking!
AK: That’s the thing, we answered dot no one on this movie. We got to make it for ourselves. So we got to put more time and effort into it, we got to kill someone with a treadmill and cut them in half. Our friend, Elizabeth Trieu, and we cut her in half and it was great!
JD: In terms of the tone, what was the way you went about balancing the horror and comedy?
CB: I think we kind of went by trial and error before finding the sweet spot that we wanted. We didn’t want to make SCARY MOVIE, we didn’t want to just make a movie that parodies other movies and makes fun of horror. We didn’t want to punch down in horror, we didn’t want to do anything like that. We wanted people who genuinely love horror to show how much we loved the stuff and how much we care about horror. We wanted funny people who also understood horror. Because you can tell when someone is taking cheap shots as opposed to having fun with something that we love. So that was kind fo the North Star that we were aiming at. That helped set the tone for the kind fo comedy we were going for.
AK: And the great thing about comedy, is that there are so many different variations of it. There were similar tones, but we wanted every segment to be different form the other segments. But as long as it was fun, had practical FX, and making fun of a trope and with love we were all about.
JD: And I think you nailed it. And what do you think it is about horror, especially lately, that has become so meta and deconstructed?
AK: I think it’s because there was a time period where a lot of folks grew up and in the 80’s in particular and there was a formula. There was sheer success, but then there was these derivative versions of Friday the 13th, Black Christmas, and Halloween coming out and they were inundated into the market place. They just did the same things over and over and over again, so it makes it easier to examine them form a meta perspective. But you can’t be holding the audience’s hands throughout that process and you can’t be talking to them directly for the whole movie, though it depends not he kind of movie you’re doing there’s an opportunity there still. As long as it’s coming from a place of heart then it can be meta, it can kind of wink at the audience and at the camera a little bit. I mean, we literally look at the camera at one point! (Laughter) As long as it’s done with the right attention I think there’s still a lot of fun with that and a lot that can be said and analyzed about how those tropes were utilized. How those tropes affect how we look at horror today.
CB: I also think you can do this with any genre, truthfully. There are tropes in westerns, there are tropes in romcoms. You can do it with any genre, but horror is the only genre where people are fans of the genre. Because fans are so rabid, they know the tropes in such a way that you just don’t see it as much. As opposed to other genres, fans deep dive horror more. I think it just becomes more clear and obvious after that. I do think you could make a similar kind fo movie for any genre it’s just that horror fans are so rabid and see and know these things.
AK: There’s a Geico commercial about horror tropes! (Laughter) Right? It’s just so embedded in the pop culture. It’s something that’s known.
JD: Not sure if I can say who, but there’s a certain special guest in Horror Hypothesis and I wanted to know how that came about?
CB: Yeah. We’re trying to keep it a little quiet for now. It’s just a lot fo fun. I’ve been a fan my entire life and I watched the show, I recorded the show off TV. This is before Shudder, before…
AK: You’re telling who this person is the more you talk about him. (Laughter)
CB: There’s a person I admire a lot as an 80’s horror fan and watching a lot of TV and this individual followed me on twitter. We wanted a horror expert and who’s a better horror expert than this guy? It’s okay, it’s gonna get out there! It’s getting out there anyway!
Scare Package is currently available to stream on Shudder.