There are many criticisms that have been leveled at the horror genre over the years. Sometimes the points that are being argued are valid, while other times they seem to be merely grasping at straws. Whatever the case may be, one thing is for certain: horror cinema is no stranger to controversy. In fact, it practically thrives on it.
By its very nature, it is bound to upset somebody. After all, isn’t that kind of the point? Horror is meant to make you feel uncomfortable. To bring you face-to-face with danger and death in an environment where you can walk away physically unscathed afterwards. That is why it has had such a profound and lasting impact on the culture. If you make someone laugh, they might look back upon it fondly once or twice in the passing days or weeks. Hell, they might even have a chuckle about it years down the road. Eventually, though, it will fade away from memory. However, if you scare the absolute bejeezus out of somebody – if you really repulse and terrify them – then they will remember that shit forever.
Fred Vogel‘s work is the embodiment of this idea. His films are the stuff of legend and have earned a long-standing reputation as being some of the most unsettling and downright vile that you’ll ever see. Despite this, the man himself is actually quite personable. His enthusiasm for film shines through whenever he discusses the topic and has ultimately led him down a path of fulfilling many roles. He has been a director, an actor, a teacher, and a producer. Above all else, though, Fred Vogel is an artist, who takes his craft very seriously. Today, I got the chance to sit down with him for a chat. Here is what he had to say.
A Legacy of Brutality –The Thoughts and the Films of Fred Vogel
LJ: Hello, Mr. Vogel. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I suppose that the best place for us to start would be with an introduction. So, for those who aren’t already familiar with your body of work, who are you? What is TOETAG Pictures and what is it all about?
FV: My name is Fred Vogel and I am one of the co-owners of TOETAG Pictures. We are known for making probably the most extreme, brutal, underground films. We’re known for our special effects and the uncompromising stories that we tell and, being underground, we have the freedom to create the art that we want to create. Our stuff is pretty nasty, so you know –there are no rules there.
LJ: Your 2001 film August Underground has quite the reputation among fans of extreme horror. I have often heard it described as being, among other things, one of the most disturbing pictures ever made. What inspired you to take the project on, and why make a film that is so absolutely unrelenting?
FV: The idea was that August Underground was going to be a stepping stone for me to make a bigger movie. I was teaching at the Tom Savini Makeup school, at the time, and was probably at the top of my game as a special effects artist. I knew that I could make a movie on a small budget, knowing what I know and having the resources that I had. I also wanted to show how serial killers and sociopaths really are, instead of how Hollywood glorifies them. I wanted to show them in a negative light, to show you that it can be the guy right down the street that has the girl tied up in the basement with her nipple chopped off.
You know, in 2001 when I made August Underground, it was just a different time. Movies were a little bit different then, there wasn’t anything like what I did. I mean, the closest thing to the cinéma vérité style was The Blair Witch Project, which came out a year earlier. So, that found-footage look – that’s what was easier for me to tell my story in, you know, financially.
LJ: In all of the interviews and segments that I’ve seen, you’ve always come across as a pretty friendly and outgoing guy. This is in stark contrast to the character that you play in the August Underground series, Peter Mountain. Is there any special emotional or mental state that you have to get into to play the character? How do get your head into the role?
FV: You know, for me, it’s kind of easy to step into it and step out of it, because I know exactly what I want. I know what needs to be on the screen. One of the reasons why I think it works so well is that when I’m collaborating with my business partner, Jerami Cruise – when we’re doing the special effects – I’m a special effects artist, too. So, we know how to like, counterbalance if something’s going wrong. I’m able to step in and hide the effect. I know how the effects work, and I think that’s one of the things that really makes those movies shine, is that the effects look so real. If they didn’t look real, the idea of the movies doesn’t work. It wouldn’t come off as a real snuff movie.
LJ: As I had mentioned before, the August Underground trilogy is notorious for its brutality. The films are also famous for the distinct air of authenticity that they have. Whenever you watch one of them, it feels like you’re viewing an actual snuff film. So much is this the case, that you were even detained at the Canadian border while on your way to Toronto once? That must have been a pain in the ass. Would you mind telling us about this experience?
FV: I was a guest at the Rue Morgue Festival of Fear, and we were also doing a makeup demonstration for Clive Barker – we were doing a Cenobite makeup – so, we were going up there. It was a very big event for us because we were releasing the August Underground and August Underground’s Mordum Snuff Editions on DVD, as well as doing this makeup demonstration. Crossing the border at one o’clock in the morning, you know – my name is on the list. Because when August Underground was first released and I was sending it across the world for reviews and festivals, people thought it was real. I got a lot of calls and stuff like that, and we got put on a list. So, when going into Canada I threw up that red flag and they detained me at the border. They arrested me and I was locked up there at the border for half the day. It was scary, but you know, Canada didn’t want any smut coming into their country, and I understand that.
LJ: Since we are currently on the subject of government intervening in creative expression, I suppose that this would be the perfect segway into my next question – what are your views on censorship, particularly pertaining to the horror genre? I imagine that you must have a pretty interesting opinion on the topic.
FV: I’m not a fan of censorship. If you don’t like something, don’t watch it. If you don’t want to hear it, don’t listen to it. You know? If you don’t want to look at some art, turn your head. But there’s a lot of people that counterbalance that and want to see that kind of stuff. Art has always been freedom – I was an artist first. Everybody at TOETAG is an artist. For us, we’re creating something that is meaningful to us, where it’s not just about making money. It’s always been about the art and making something that sticks and has history and has legacy, and you can’t do that when you’re censored. So, for us to have the free reign that we do, that really classifies us as supporting that and non-censorship laws.
LJ: I remember you once mentioning that you’re a fan of James Whale’s Frankenstein. I would assume that, by extension, you’re probably also a fan of Jack Pierce. Am I correct in this presumption? Are there any other examples of early horror makeup that you particularly admire?
FV: Jack Pierce is the man. His makeup has stood the test of time. I’ll teach classes on sculpture to children, and I’ll bring a Frankenstein bust in and they’ll all know that that’s Frankenstein. And these are kids born in, you know, 2015 or whatever – like, little guys. So, just for them to know that the guy with the green face and the square head and the bolts is Frankenstein’s Monster, that’s pretty amazing. To have your work stand-out over generations is amazing. It’s a shame that Jack didn’t get a chance to really reap the benefits of his masterpiece. And it’s not just Frankenstein. If you look at his Wolf Man… if you look at The Mummy… I mean, the man created such amazing makeups. But, of course, Lon Cheney Sr. was the first one really to catch my eye. It’s watching The Phantom of the Opera and seeing those images of London After Midnight, The Hunchback of Notre Dame – it’s some amazing stuff there.
LJ: Speaking of horror makeup, as a renowned practical effects artist and former instructor at Tom Savini’s FX school, what is your opinion on the contemporary use of CGI in horror? I wouldn’t think that it would be a positive one, generally speaking – although I could always be wrong. What are your thoughts on the matter?
FV: You know, everything evolves and changes. I think if you do practical effects and marry it with the CGI, you can get some really, really great stuff. When stuff is just completely CGI, you can tell – you see the blood spatter, you know… it just doesn’t look real. Being a fan of practical effects, like… my wife and I were just watching the remake of The Thing, and they shot a lot of that stuff practical, but later in post they did everything digitally. It’s a real shame because if you look at what Rob Bottin did – as a child, the guy was like, in his early twenties pulling off those effects – there are some really talented artists out there that can make stuff happen.
It just costs too much money. That’s the big problem. Being a special effects guy, people are afraid of that budget. It’s like “Oh shit, how much is this cut off… Oh, we need a head, or…”, you know? And we tell them the price of what it’s going to cost, with the materials and the time to make it, and it’s just expensive. It’s easier to go to a computer guy now.
LJ: Aside from Frankenstein, I have also heard that you like the film Black Christmas quite a bit. In fact, I’ve even seen a photo of you rocking a Black Christmas t-shirt once. I completely understand where you’re coming from on this one – I’m a big fan of the movie, myself. So, what was it about Black Christmas that made you like it so much? Are there any other Canadian horror films that you also hold in high regard?
FV: Black Christmas was just one of those, to me, perfect movies. Bob Clark, who directed Black Christmas, really nailed what would be the birth of the modern horror movie. You can see how it influenced John Carpenter with Halloween. But everything from, you know, the way that it was shot – it’s cold. When you watch that movie, it feels cold. And then you’re also terrified of Billy, and hearing those phone calls where he’s cursing and just being so vulgar that you’re like ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that guy’s saying that’. I always loved the scene where he flips out in the attic and just starts smashing all the shit around, like [imitates a creepy wail and flails his arms] and going crazy – love that stuff.
But it just goes to show what a talented filmmaker Bob Clark is. The guy can go from making Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Death Dream, to Black Christmas, and then jump over and make A Christmas Story and Porky’s. It just goes to show what a talented director he was. And of course, when you think of Canada, you’ve got to talk about David Cronenberg. The Dead Zone is one of my favorite movies. You know, I love so much of his stuff, like The Brood. It’s great.
LJ: I’ve always wondered about your opinion on the horror market that’s available outside of North America. I know that some of the stuff is pretty wild. The Italians and Japanese, in particular, have produced some pretty off-the-wall shit in the last few decades. What do you think about this?
FV: I love other countries’ movies. It represents what’s going on over there, just like it does here. The stuff that we spawn through our content, they spawn through their content. It was really exciting when I made August Underground – like, right after it was made, the next three years – that’s when that New French Wave came in and you had guys like Aja doing High Tension and Frontiers and Inside and all those great movies that were coming out of there. You know, it’s great.
A lot of people are like ‘Oh, I don’t want to watch a movie with subtitles’. They’re just not into that – but I think horror fans just don’t give a shit about that. We’ll watch a movie with subtitles, you know? I prefer watching the movie not even with an English dub, just give me the straight-up subtitles and enjoy it that way. Because I’m a cinephile and I love movies and I don’t care where it’s coming from. If it’s a good fuckin’ movie then it’s a good fuckin’ movie.
LJ: As it would turn out, we have yet another thing in common. We both love Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It is probably one of the grittier, more true-to-life portrayals that exist covering the subject of serial murder. Did you take any cues from Henry when you were coming up with the concept for August Underground? Were there any other films that helped to inspire your vision of what a horror movie should be?
FV: Yeah. Henry was one of those little, dirty movies that, when it came into the video store, I was like ‘Oh man, this is like a Faces of Death –it’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘. Just like, the first time you saw those words on a box – that was really cool. And yes, Henry totally inspired me with August Underground. I remember when I would bring actors in to talk about the role, I would show them the home invasion scene from Henry, and I was like ‘This is what the movie is going to look like’. This isn’t like ‘knife going up, girl’s reaction, knife going down’. This is like, all happening right here, right now, in front of your face. So, Henry was definitely an inspiration.
Movies like Man Bites Dog. Of course, you had Cannibal Holocaust. Emannuel in America, Last House on Dead End Street, Last House on the Left, House on the Edge of the Park – a lot of that exploitation, horror roughie stuff. I Spit on Your Grave, you know… All of that shit influences me. I went from Universal Monsters to 80’s slashers, to that. You know what I mean? I progressed. I wanted to dive deeper into the genre and really see how nasty it could get. You know, growing up I was really happy to be able to see that at a young age and have it influence me as the filmmaker that I am today.
LJ: Now, let’s move away from the topic of fictional serial killers and on to discussing some real ones. I find them fascinating, in a morbid sort of way. Hell, I could watch true crime documentaries all day long, if given the opportunity. Are there any that you find to be particularly interesting? Do you have any favorite books or documentaries that cover them, and were any of your characters inspired by non-fictional sources?
FV: When making August Underground I researched everything. I watched every documentary I could on serial killers. You know, of course, the big ones like Bundy, Gacy, Kemper, Ramirez, Hillside Stranglers – all that stuff. But one of the main reasons why I made August Underground, as well, was my students at the time were writing to serial killers. And I was like ‘Guys, you know, what if… you’re using this fandom… I understand being interested in what these fuckin’ sickos do, but like to praise them and to want a letter signed by Manson or something like that – like, what if that was your mom that they killed, or whatever – a family member, somebody close?’. They never really experienced that real horror. Unfortunately, I have.
I had a cousin who was murdered when I was making my film The Redsin Tower and that was pretty heavy shit on me. It got to a point where I was like ‘Maybe I shouldn’t make these really disgusting movies. Maybe I’m putting this bad juju out into the world’, you know? That energy. When I really thought about what I create artistically… it’s like Judas Priest. People hearing the devil in Judas Priest, or Ozzy or something like that. As an artist, you can’t take that stuff to heart. You know – it’s nutty.
LJ: So, I know that you did some work for the band Necrophagia – which is awesome. I’m pretty fond of their Cannibal Holocaust EP. You shot a music video for them if I recall correctly. Killjoy, the band’s late singer, had also come to work on some of your projects, as well. Can you tell me a bit about how this relationship developed?
FV: So, when I made August Underground I was contacted by Killjoy. I never heard of Necrophagia, so he sent me a package full of records and t-shirts and stuff like that. I got to see Through the Eyes of the Dead for the first time and listen to a little bit of the stuff, and we got on the phone and just started shooting the shit, and we had a lot in common. It was almost one of those things where we had been friends our whole lives, we just hadn’t found each other yet. So, when Killjoy and I started hanging out, it was like a brotherly thing.
His goal was to make the most depraved music and music videos, and I wanted to make some really depraved movies. So, we were just two peas in a pod when it came to that. Necrophagia was his baby, TOETAG was mine. It was great for us to help each other out. I went to Europe with him and did a documentary over there for the Necrotorture tour and then, of course, he was in August Underground’s Mordum. We did everything together as much as we could, and unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago. So, you know – that sucks.
LJ: I’m going to go out on a limb and assume, based on your work with Necrophagia, that you enjoy Heavy Metal music. If you do, then what’s your preferred sound? Are you a Sludge Metal guy or a Death Metal guy? Do you lean more towards Agoraphobic Nosebleed, or does Mayhem get your motor running? Dish, man!
FV: You know, I really wasn’t into that heavy of Metal when I first met Killjoy. I’ve grown to like it over the years. When I think of bands like Pig Destroyer – Scott Hall is one of my good friends and he did the music for my film The Redsin Tower – so, I’ve grown to like a lot of that stuff. You know, honestly, I’d rather listen to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath for my Metal, ’cause I like that really stoner kind of guitar; I like that slow, kind of sludgy stuff, but I listen to everything from Punk Rock to 50’s Rock ‘N Roll to Metal to Hip Hop. I love it all.
LJ: Switching back over to the subject of film, what’s next for TOETAG? Do you have anything that’s currently in the works? The last thing that I can remember hearing about was the latest, special edition release of your film The Final Interview. Got any exciting, new ideas kicking around in the old nightmare-factory? Come on, give us some good news.
FV: TOETAG has kind of been on a hiatus. After Sella Turcica in 2010, I really focused on trying to do a few bigger projects that weren’t TOETAG. TOETAG gives me the freedom to be as sick as I want to be, but I wanted to make something a little bit different. I wanted to tell different stories that weren’t sick and vile. So, that’s why The Final Interview is just a Fred Vogel movie. It’s not a TOETAG picture. But, you know, when we come back we’re going to come back hard.
It’s just hard when Shelby and I are here in Pittsburgh, and Jerami is out in Los Angeles. He works in the movie business as a special effects artist, building all the costumes for the Marvel movies, and I work here in Pittsburgh in the movie business as a set dresser and special effects artist. So, we’re both just busy. You know, you gotta pay the bills and you gotta take care of your family and things like that. Priorities change just a little bit, but the sickness is inside us and when we do come back together it’s gonna be fuckin’ hard.
LJ: The last project that you directed was the aforementioned film The Final Interview. Although I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, I’ve heard some promising things. Would you mind telling us a bit about the film, and what made you decide to take on what seems more like a psychological thriller than a straight-up, blood and guts splatter film?
FV: It’s totally a thriller. I’d been trying to get this project off the ground called Pittsburgh Body Removal, about the guys in Pittsburgh that pick up the dead. I got really close but the money kind of fell through, and one of the reasons why the money fell through is because of my past. You know, when you look me up, I’m the guy that makes the most disturbing horror movies ever made and that can be kind of scary to money people. So I wanted to show them that I could make anything.
I came up with a really great idea about a guy who is being interviewed on the last day that he is alive on this planet because he’s getting put to death. So, he’s being interviewed by this… he used to be, like, one of the top news guys back in the day, but he’s kind of declined in the years. It’s a battle of wits between these two. It’s very dramatic and very talky – it’s an interview. It’s something like a lot of people haven’t seen before and I’m really excited for people to see it because it’s just so different. It did really well on the film festival circuit, I won a couple of nice awards, so, very happy with the movie. And really great acting.
LJ: Circling back around to the August Underground series, I have often heard stories about how different people have reacted when experiencing the films for the first time. In fact, I’ve even seen a fan documentary that revolves almost entirely around this exact subject. As the creator of the series, what is the most memorable response that you’ve gotten from somebody who has recently viewed one of your projects?
FV: So, when I first made August Underground I would go to conventions and I would bring a VCR and the movie. I would set up these little hotel parties, where I would have people come back to my room and I’d pop the tape in the VCR and give an intro to the movie, ‘Hey, I’m Fred, this is my new movie…’ and I would leave. Then, I would come back after it was done and I would talk to the people. This one time, I did that and this girl freaked out so bad – she kind of went into this catatonic state, where she was just trembling – and when I came back into the room she was fuckin’ horrified. And some of the people that she was with, you know, they were like ‘Man, this is fucked up. Are you really doing this shit?’ and they just didn’t realize that it was a movie because it looked so real.
So, there’s been times, man, where people look at it as real – and that’s the best compliment that I could get because that’s what I wanted. I wanted it to look real. If it didn’t look real, it wouldn’t work. And if it didn’t look real we wouldn’t be talking about it twenty years later.
LJ: Well, thank you again for taking the time to engage with us today. I must say, it has been an incredible treat to pick your brain. For your fans, detractors, and those who are new to your work, do you have any parting words? Any great mantras that we can take away with us?
FV: If you’re an aspiring filmmaker – pick up a camera. Write a script. Make a movie. Just do it. You gotta get out there and do it. You gotta get off your ass and do it. You can talk about it all day, but if you’re not doing it, you’re not doing it.
And, you know, stay sick. Keep watching horror movies, man. It’s good for the soul.
Fred Vogel‘s latest film, The Final Interview is currently available for purchase, here. Remember, if you are interested in owning a copy of the movie, then you need to act quickly – there is only a limited supply in circulation. So, you know, get on it!
View the trailer for The Final Interview, courtesy of Jamie Lockhart‘s YouTube Channel, below.
If you enjoyed ‘August in October: An Interview with Fred Vogel of TOETAG Pictures’ then please feel free to check out our other articles about film and TV, here.