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FrightFest 2023: Thorns’ Doug Bradley and Douglas Schulze are Anything but Prickly

Whenever you’re met with the unique opportunity to talk to two incredible individuals who’ve affected how you see horror in the world, you have to take it. This week, I had the fantastic opportunity to speak to director Douglas Schulze (Hellmaster, Memesis, The Dark Below) and horror icon Doug Bradley (Hellraiser) just ahead of the UK premiere of their latest film, Thorns.

Thorns is a multifaceted film that positions itself on the cusp of faith and dangerous science. By making Hell a distant planet, NASA observatory scientists have open communications with the world, not realizing it may unleash doomsday on ours. When the observatory goes dark, a former priest (Jon Bennett) who now works for NASA is sent to the location to check in, finding only a monstrous being (Bo Shumaker) and a mute nun (Cassandra Schomer) inside.

You can watch the entire interview with Schulze and Bradley below or read excerpts from it below.

Loaded with gory practical effects and a storyline of Hell on Earth, Hellraiser is easily recognizable as one of Thorns influences. My first question to Schulze was if having Doug Bradley in the film was a necessity, given its inspiration.

Schulze: “There was a desire, certainly, to work with Doug. When the story was being crafted, you never know how casting is going to play out, but I did call upon Doug’s manager when it came time to begin casting. He brought the potential up, saying, ‘Would you like me to approach Doug?’ and I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ So, that’s how that all started and came to be. And I think it’s a big part of our movie, obviously.”

I directed my next question to Doug Bradley. Though he has played men of the cloth characters in the past, I wanted to know if he approached Thorns, in which he plays an Archbishop, differently given its Hellraiser qualities.

Bradley asked, “Is it a promotion or a demotion, do you think?” He asked me what I thought of his roles. I have a special place in my heart for the actor’s portrayal of the Hell Priest Pinhead, so seeing him in this role was likened to a demotion. Regardless, Bradley’s role in Thorns is incomparable. He’s probably my favorite part, and I believe audiences will revel in every moment he’s on screen.

Doug Bradley looking serious
Image courtesy of Douglas Schulze

Bradley: “Well, to be honest, other people have pointed out the Hellraiser homage qualities. I leave that up to my namesake to discuss as to whether that was specifically in his mind or not. It wasn’t in mine approaching the script, nor was it particularly reading it. I mean, some of the Archbishop’s philosophical musings on the nature of evil and the rather condescending and dismissive view of humanity that he takes had echoes in my head of a certain other character, yes, certainly. But it’s not a thing that’s actively in your head. You approach each script on its own merits. Each character on his own terms.”

Being that Thorns‘ makeup and prosthetics are so spectacular, I next asked Doug Bradley if there was ever a time when he was back in the makeup chair.

Bradley: “It’s not anything that I’ve turned my back on. I never said that I was done playing the role. Those are decisions for other people to make. I would do it again. I will say this: I think, to some extent, prosthetic makeup is a young man’s game. I think for someone like Robert Englund, it’s less of an issue because he has a small head, so he carries prosthetic makeup very well, and he has very tight flesh. I don’t. And, you know, time and gravity has done to me what time and gravity will do, whether you like it or not. I can carry the makeup again, and I would, in the right circumstances, or [for] an entirely different role… I wouldn’t make the wearing of prosthetic makeup a disbarment to playing a role; let me put it that way. […] I don’t want to put ideas into Doug [Schulze]’s head, but at the same time, there is something very nice about sitting down in the makeup chair and five to ten minutes later having the makeup artist say, ‘That’s it! You’re done!”

The poster for thorns shows an eclipse in the background with the monster whose face is wrapped in thorns, Sister Agnes, and Archbishop Jenkins
Image Courtesy of Polymath PR/FrightFest

Continuing on the prosthetic aspect of Thorns, I asked Schulze if he faced any challenges with the practical effects and gore work while trying to realize his vision for the film.

Schulze: “Well, yeah, certainly. The challenge was the clock. With any type of filmmaking, you’re racing the clock to get your shot list and make certain you can execute everything to your liking. We made certain to allot enough time in each day where we had an effect gag. And so we were very careful and cautious about that because it’s a centerpiece of the movie.

“But, in particular, what was very challenging was—for the actor who played the monster—the makeup was so all-encompassing that there was a claustrophobic feeling. The actor couldn’t see. Bo Shumaker plays wonderfully the monster, and we had to lead him onto and off of the set. And he likened the experience to being underwater. He’s an avid scuba diver, and he said if he didn’t have that experience, there was no way he could have lasted for the hours it required in the makeup because once you’re in it, there was such a sense for him of being just trapped, that it was extremely arduous.”

Bradley: “This would be like him scuba diving blindfolded, right?”

Schulze: “Yeah.”

Bradley: “Well, it was true for Nick and Simon, playing Butterball and Chatterer in Hellraiser. They also were pretty much blind. They had to be led and told which way to look—no idea where the camera was. I had the longer makeup process, but I always thought I got off easier than they did. […] Bo does a great job, I mean, I doth my cap to him, certainly. I was impressed to Hell. Also, Jon […] and Cassandra […]. They do a great job. Again, Cassandra, with the constraints of kind of guiding the story in many ways without being able to speak, she does a superb job. And Bo carries the makeup tremendously well. As I said, he’s officially part of the union.”

A person holds a tweezer to their eyes trying to extract a worm-like parasite
Image Courtesy of Polymath PR/FrightFest

In one of the film’s most squirm-inducing sequences, a parasitic creature has to be extracted from Sister Agnes (Schomer). I let Schulze know that the scene in the film was maybe the most apprehensive I’ve been in watching a gross-out moment all year. So, I wanted to learn about where the idea came from and what made Schulze and Bradley’s skins crawl.

Schulze: “You know, body horror and the idea of tiny, parasitic entities that crawl and wiggle and can get through an orifice, I think everyone is frightened by that. We do have a few eyegags in our film. You know, we open with one, and then, of course, there’s the scene with Cassandra and trying to extract—without giving too much away in the story. But, very well thought out and intended, and complex effects gags for sure.

“What makes my skin crawl, there’s the physical, but then, of course, there’s often quite a lot of psychological. With horror, sometimes it’s not what you see, and it’s sometimes what you don’t see. In some of the great horror films, that allows your mind and your own creative imagination…You know, I’ll never forget, it’s not a horror film, but seeing Brian DePalma’s Scarface and there’s a particular scene with a chainsaw in a hotel room and the way DePalma depicts the sequence he chooses to keep the camera on Al Pacino’s face, and you just hear everything else, and to me, it’s hard just letting your imagination go is quite often skin crawling, right?”

The monster stands facing the camera, his head is bloody above his crown of thorns, he has no eyes or nose.
Image Courtesy of Polymath PR/FrightFest

Bradley: “I was just thinking Tarantino does the same trick, doesn’t he, with the ear cutting off, where he just slowly slides the camera away. You hear it all. And then he slowly slides the camera back.

“Skin crawling, for me: needles. Why is it an unwritten rule in cinema that every time someone gets an injection of any kind, there has to be a close-up of the needle going into the skin?” Bradley buries his face into his hands, “And that has me doing that because the other thing that apparently directors are ordered to do is to cut away and then cut back again. So, I’ll come out, and I think, ‘I’m safe now,’ and then they cut back and, you know, I’m not.

“And wasps. I don’t do well with wasps. They’re evil. Peter Straub, in his novel Ghost Story, he embodied pure evil in the form of a wasp, and I was cheering when I read it. They really are. They ruin a good summer’s day. They fly like sharks swim. And, of course, they’re basically hypodermics with wings.”

Doug Bradley ventures further into one terrifyingly graphic wasp scenario he witnessed involving a grisly roadside scene. I will leave that up to you, dear reader, if you want to know more. In the video, you can hear more about why wasps make Bradley’s skin crawl at the 12:30 mark. Regardless, It’s ironic to think that this legend of horror cinema, who played a character with needles protruding from his skin, just centimeters from his eyeballs, has been wearing on his face what he feared most this whole time.

Sister Agnes has blood on her head and apostolnik, showcasing a cautious expression her hand is raised to her chest.
Image Courtesy of Polymath PR/FrightFest

The question I really wanted to ask came next, and I knew the answer wouldn’t be so simple. Because Thorns blends science and religion, I wondered whether Schulze or Bradley saw lessons to be learned from the extremities of either.

Bradley: “Certainly, it was an element that attracted me, the mixing of science and religion. And I think that’s interesting. You hear it a lot now, pejoratively. Climate change deniers like to talk about climate change science as being a religion, and they mean it dismissively. I just went to see Oppenheimer, which I guess is also an essay on the idea of scientists, quote-unquote, playing God, and the extremes to which science will go if it’s allowed to. Of course, the counter-argument with Oppenheimer is that the scientists are not doing anything wrong. The scientists are exploring the science. It’s the politicians who make the decisions about what will be done with that. And there are moral niceties within Oppenheimer because the original impetus for America creating the bomb is to do it before the nazis did. Because they were pretty certain that if Hitler got the bomb, he would use it. […] Then there’s the further moral shuffle that while Oppenheimer is okay with the bomb being used to end the war, he does not want the extension of the bomb, he’s opposed to the development of the H-bomb, as opposed to the A-bomb, that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, he’s opposed to the development of the H-bomb and the superbombs that followed it, but by that time it’s out of the hands of the scientists and in the hands of the politicians.

And we all know the extremes to which religion will go and the horrors that are and have been committed in the name of religion. It’s interesting, I was talking yesterday to someone remembering a series that was on BBC television by a wonderful scientist called Jacob Bronowski, and the series was called The Ascent of Man. I’m sure it’s on YouTube or Amazon somewhere. I hugely recommend it. Some of the science will be kind of out of date now, to some extent. But, he had an episode called “[Knowlege or Certainty],” which was based around the ideas of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and so forth. Bronowski himself was Jewish, and at the end of the episode, he went to Auschwitz and presented Auschwitz as being the ultimate example of what happens when doubt is cast aside, and people insist on being in a place of certainty. He walks into a muddy puddle; he lost family in Auschwitz as well as colleagues. And he picks up a handful of mud out of this puddle and squeezes it. This is where we get to. And he quoted Oliver Cromwell from his trial, ‘I beseech you gentlemen in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be wrong.’

I think it touches on that. Again, wherever, either religion or science. And I —to defend science— I don’t think science does this. Because science is not built on certainty, it’s always based on experimentation/experimental results, and all science does at any given moment is say, ‘to the best of our knowledge and understanding, based on the evidence before us, this is what we think is going on,’ and that will be the accepted model until a new piece of evidence comes along. Religion operates, for me, far too much in a place of certainty. And you can bring evidence… I have a family member, not an immediate family member, [in the] wider family, who is a Young Earth Creationist. So, the world and everything that is in it or ever has been in it, nothing is older than six thousand years. And all the scientists that use carbon dating and so forth to prove otherwise are simply wrong. Because there is a book, and that’s it. And you can’t talk to them, you can’t argue with them, because it’s just that. It is so, it’s in the Bible, it’s so, therefore it’s so. And nothing else can be discussed or talked about. That’s a terribly dangerous place for human beings to let their heads be in, I think.”

The poster for Thorns shows a monsterous figure with no eyes or nose, his face is wrapped in a thorn crown.
Image Courtesy of Polymath PR/FrightFest

Schulze: “As usual, Doug’s answered wonderfully. I would maybe just add, at its core, our protagonist in the story is battling this idea of predetermination and trying to battle it with free will, and that’s sort of where the spiritual battle or the religious battle exists. We do a little sleight of hand, if you will,  with science in this to make the audience think that perhaps our problems are much further out there than they really are. And then, of course, you know, towards the end of the film, we have this reveal and so forth. Hopefully, everybody enjoys the twist.”

Wrapping things up, I asked Douglas Schulze about his Memesis film series. Despite what anyone says, I love these films, which present horror film fans who go a little too far and remake classic films like Night of the Living Dead and Nosferatu for real. I asked since so many films are now hitting the public domain, if Schulze had plans to close out a trilogy.

Schulze: “That’s where the original idea started with this idea [that] there’s so much great cinema that’s come before. The ability to homage was certainly presented with Romero’s public domain, Night of the Living Dead, and all that. Yeah, I would like to, at some point, kind of close that out. The sad truth is there’s only so much time in a day to do an independent film and do it well, and there are only so many movies left to make. So you gotta begin to prioritize where you put your energies and so forth, but given the time and the resources, I would love to revisit that series for sure. We’ll see what happens in the future. As I was telling Doug Bradley, Thorns we see as a bigger story. It has a very dark ending, and it’s very purposeful, but it’s not the end of the story. So, if there’s enough interest, we may return again. So we’ll see what happens there.

I thanked Douglas Schulze and Doug Bradley for their time and wished Thorns a successful debut at FrightFest. For more on Thorns, you can read JP Nunez‘s FrightFest review.

Thorns held its world premiere at FrightFest on August 26, and it should be getting a US release sometime later this year

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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