Robert Parigi is best known as the writer and director of award-winning cult horror film Love Object. As a producer, his diverse credits include animation (King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead), genre series Tales from the Crypt, Profiler, and most recently, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” It is my pleasure to bring our readers a more intimate look at a monster kid who has turned his passion for the weird into his career.
As someone who used to make gelatin scars as a child, what is it about the horror genre that gained your affection as such a young age?
H.P. Lovecraft speculated that a “sensitive few” are by nature drawn to the weird. I suppose that is my case, since my earliest memories are of odd and strange things. The Weird has always been with me, and has never faded, despite a few misguided attempts to escape. Thankfully, It is always there.
But now, Lovecraft’s sensitive few aren’t so few. With shows like The Walking Dead attracting larger audiences than major league sports, and fans who call themselves “Little Monsters” cheering Lady Gaga as she celebrates being Born This Way, the few now seem much more like the mainstream.
Consequently, I think the biggest challenges and opportunities facing those of us with a passion for the Weird is to learn how to navigate this new-found acceptance to become better creators and more conscious audiences.
Why do you think society has always been so drawn to such things?
One measure of the profound nature of our attraction to Horror is how long people have been asking that very question! In Aristotle’s POETICS, he suggested the appeal might be explained by mimesis and catharsis.
Mimesis is the imitation of nature. Aristotle noticed that we seem to take the most delight in seeing the most horrible things imitated, even if we would be disgusted to see the same things in real life. This certainly seems to apply to Horror, especially in the mode of splatter. Perhaps the awareness of artifice gives us a vicarious power over or immunity to the horrors presented? In the enjoyment of simulated horrors, we become artificial gods.
Catharsis is the discharge of negative emotions. Aristotle thought that by experiencing violent emotions while watching a play, those emotions were purged from the audience. Thus spent, they could return to their real lives more calm. Some Horror functions this way; we can all think of movies or books that have left us feeling exhausted. But this seems incomplete. Certainly some Horror is exhilarating rather than exhausting. Rather than allowing us to return to the normal world, it makes that world forever strange and suspect. It is about challenging the normal world, rather than making us accept it.
Of course, enemies of the imagination in general and Horror in particular take exactly the opposite view of catharsis! They claim that watching simulated horrors desensitizes the viewer, causing them to commit real-life violence. Censors always use this to justify their crimes: the Hayes Code, the Comics Code, PMRC warning labels on music, Video Nasty legislation in the U.K., TV Content Ratings and the V-Chip, attempts to ban or regulate video games, and the varieties of politically correct oppression currently so fashionable. Despite more than 2000 years of research on this question, no causal link between Horror and real violence has ever been found. So moral hygienists who make these claims are either deeply ignorant, or deeply dishonest. Either way, they need to be kept as far as possible away from actual politics and legislation.
I think the appeal of Horror is that it speaks the truth. In order for sanity and civilization to exist, we need to pretend that existence is orderly, has a meaning, and is basically just. Deep down, we know all of that is a lie. Horror is the one mode of art where we see this ultimate truth. Even the most lowly horror movie speaks a truth that the most powerful people in the world will never admit. This is why the powerful, or those who seek power, so often attempt to censor Horror.
In your work you have said you like to share a glimpse of the weird. Why is that?
The Weird defines the Real. Think of it in terms of geometry. The center of a square is the same as the center of a circle. So if you are only looking at the center, the space inside the shape, there is no difference between a square and a circle.
It is the extremities, the borders, the fringe that defines the shape. Speaking metaphorically, is the world (or Life, or Experience, or Meaning) a circle, a square, a trapezoid, a polyhedron? You will never know if you restrict your gaze to the inside of the shape. You have to look at the fringe.
The Weird exits on the limits of the Real, so ultimately it is what defines what kind of world we live in.
Do you think a little weird goes a long way in a world such as this?
I don’t think it is so much a quantitative question of the proportion of weird to normal, so much as a qualitative question of the kind of weird. The most truly, profoundly Weird challenges our most basic assumptions about the world and ourselves. This is very different from mere spectacle.
Although Lady Gaga appropriates weird terms like “monster” and weird signifiers, there is nothing particularly weird about her music itself. So it is surface-weird. Or rather, the weirdness is in the non-musical aspect of her performance. Marilyn Manson is a more unified presentation of weirdness in music and in performance.
Hopefully, pop-cultural presentations of surface become a gateway weirdness that encourages the audience to pursue those same features in other aspects of experience. The glamorous presentation of surface-weird spectacle is a good place to start. But there is so much more.
What was it like hopping a plane from NY to L.A?
I didn’t even think about it. It was something I had to do. I have always been guided by the Weird.
The college I attended cancelled their film program the semester I started, so while killing time to transfer I happened to discover what I call the Weird was also very present in academic philosophy. I became so intrigued, I changed my major from Film (which no longer existed at the school) to Philosophy, and then started graduate work for a Ph.D.
After a year into graduate school, I happened to see a double feature of RE-ANIMATOR and EVIL DEAD 2. I was suddenly overwhelmed by my neglected passion for horror movies. I had a kind of panic attack: I had to get out of academia as soon as possible and get back to horror movies! It was an existential crisis. Or maybe indigestion.
In any case, I had no choice. I wrapped up my M.A., flew to L.A., and slept on a friend’s sofa until I got my first job as a set P.A.
What was it like in those earliest days when you were still looking for work?
I was too busy working, or looking for work to worry about it!
The most important thing I learned was to do every job you are assigned as if it is the most import job you in the world. No one will listen to your ideas for cool movies if you can’t even do the crappy job they are paying you to do. I was thinking about this on one of my first jobs, spending the entire day throwing rocks at peacocks to keep them away from a scene we were shooting on the Disney Ranch so they would not spoil the sound with their shrieking.
What advice would you offer those who wish to pursue a similar career?
First: do it now. Don’t wait. There is never a good time to do something this foolish. So you might as well do it now.
Second: Consider why you want to do this, because that will determine where you will do this. The situation is very different now than when I started. Back then, the only place that had the equipment necessary to make movies was Los Angeles, so you had to come here. Now, with digital cameras, desktop editing, sound, and visual effects, you can make a movie anywhere, with money you save from a “real job.”
If your primary goal is to make your own movies, the tools are available everywhere. If you live someplace with great locations, and you can find a few good actors, you might be able to make a great movie right there. You can outsource visual effects and music online, and have access to talent from all over the world. Imagine what Lovecraft might have done with a digital camera on the streets of Providence!
If your primary goal is to make movies as a career, Los Angeles is still the only city that matters. There are film scenes everywhere, but in terms of earning a living in the rackets, L.A. is still your best bet. And even then there are no guarantees. Dreamworks Animation just laid off half their staff, and visual effects house Rhythm and Hues went out of business the same year they won an Academy Award for LIFE OF PI. So prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.
What do you think about the current state of the horror industry?
There are more great horror films being made now than ever before. Sadly, few of them are made in Hollywood, and even fewer ever get a theatrical release. The reasons for this would take up a whole article on its own.
Thanks to the internet, we can see good films from all over the world (such as THE BABADOOK) to make up the difference. The trick is finding them among all the garbage. So you need to find sources for good reviews to lead you to the better films.
How would you most like to see it change?
I would love to see the return of the mid-range movie business model. By that I mean, a business model that would make movies with budgets in the $1million – $5million rage profitable again.
The old model for this size budget has been destroyed by digital piracy. That has particularly hurt horror films, because that is the budget range best suited for horror: large enough to buy the stylized production values essential for horror, but small enough to tell an intimate story. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a horror film; WORLD WAR Z is an action movie.
The proliferation of streaming services could be the new source for this scale project. So far, no one has decided to focus on horror. But it will happen sooner or later. Hopefully, sooner. I don’t know how many more found footage movies I can watch.
What do you think the industry of today could learn from the masters of yesteryear?
Film making today is far too polite, formulaic, and literal. Horror films work best when they are risky, dangerous, and bizarre. The original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE went for the throat, with no apologies.
The fact that I even have to say “the original” is part of the problem. Horror movies need to take risks to create new stories, reveal new visions.
How did you get the job at Tales from the Crypt?
My first job as a production assistant was shooting in a warehouse in North Hollywood. Many warehouses in this neighborhood had been repurposed for indie film shoots, and the one next door was preparing to shoot the Freddy’s Nightmares t.v. series. So I dropped off a resume, and continued to pester them whenever I had a chance. Eventually, they hired me.
A few years later, the line producers from Freddy’s Nightmares took over Tales from the Crypt. Since I had already worked for them on Freddy’s Nightmares, a similar project, they hired me for Tales from the Crypt.
That’s why it is so important to live in Los Angeles if you want to work in the Industry. These are the kinds of accidents that lead to jobs.
What are some of your most fond memories from that time?
The executive producers on Tales from the Crypt were Hollywood royalty. It was amazing and enlightening working with so many talented directors, composers, and actors.
Walter Hill is a true gentleman, scholar, and film maker. I had a Don Post Studios Tor Johnson mask in my office, and happened to be reading Goethe’s FAUST. Mr. Hill is the only person I’ve ever met who could identify Tor Johnson, and quote FAUST from memory. A true renaissance man. The Man Who Was Death is a masterpiece.
It was especially great working with William Malone, who directed Only Skin Deep. I met Bill on Freddy’s Nightmares, and instantly became friends when I discovered that he had sculpted all my favorite Don Post Studios masks, and our shared fascination with Universal horrors. Oddly enough, Don Post Studios’ factory at the time was in another one of those warehouses I mentioned, behind the Freddy’s Nightmares and Tales from the Crypt stages! We’ve been friends ever since, and I’ve been lucky to post produce some of Bill’s t.v. work. I hope to produce a feature with him soon; he has several great projects.
What was the most challenging thing you faced while working on that particular series?
The biggest challenge on Tales from the Crypt was delivering feature-film quality production values on a television budget and schedule. Most of our directors came from features, so they would not accept anything that would compromise the episode.
I loved working with them, as it was an opportunity to learn a whole new level of film making. During the pre-production meeting for Robert Zemeckis’ You, Murderer episode he gave an entire course in rear-screen projection for driving scenes. And Academy-Award winning visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston and the ILM crew were a master class in vfx.
What would you consider to be some of the best horror films ever made? Why?
I hate this question, because there are so many! I have many lists of favorites, for different aspects of Horror. Here is one list, in approximately chronological order…
- Cabinet of Dr. Caligari / Nosferatu
2. The Unknown / Freaks
3. Frankenstein / Island of Lost Souls
4. The Black Cat / Mad Love
5. Cat People / Invasion of the Body Snatchers
6. Night of the Living Dead / Eraserhead
7. Rosemary’s Baby / The Tenant
8. John Carpenter’s The Thing / Videodrome / Re-Animator
9. Dead Ringers / Candyman
10. Ringu / Blair Witch Project
- Do you ever get tired of doing what you do for a living?
No. Every life has ups and downs: at least I’m doing what I love. So even when I’m miserable, I’m miserable in Hollywood. The most horrible thing I can imagine is what life would have been like if I had not followed my passion for Horror.
How did Vincent Price come to inspire your love of art?
I’ve always been a bit dislocated in time. When everyone was into slasher movies, I loved the classic Universal horrors. Unfortunately, all of those actors and artists were dead. Except for Vincent Price; he was the last living link to the classical horror tradition I loved. So I was always fascinated by him.
My father is a university professor, so he took to see Vincent Price when he appeared on a lecture tour. During the lecture, Mr. Price described his many interests outside of horror, especially art. That was all I needed to pursue a life-long interest in art and its history. Growing up Catholic also helped, since so much of the Western Art tradition is informed by Catholicism.
During the Q&A after the lecture, I got to ask Mr. Price a question about filming the visibility scene in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS. And in the crowd afterwards, I was lucky to get his autograph on Famous Monster of Filmland #94, which included his picture in the You Axed for It column. I still have that issue, and I still love exploring art. The best art always seems to be touched by the Weird.
Recently, I’ve started hosting art tours to local museums and galleries in L.A. Our first tour was to the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles Community College, and every tour is named after a Vincent Price film (such as, The Abominable Art Tour Rises Again). Once you start looking for the Weird, it is strange where you will find it. Our latest art tour was to the Hello Kitty retrospective at the Japan America National Museum!
Why do you think art and horror seem to blend so well?
Both explore the limits of possibility. As Pinhead says, “We are voyagers, on the outer boundaries of experience.”
Do you have dream project you’d most like to bring into being?
CHROME GOTHIC is my dream project. It’s my favorite script and has everything I love in one movie: mutants, romance, love, perversion, hot-rods, and extravagant gore.
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Explore your Horror heritage to the fullest. Horror is more than slashers and zombies. Horror is a legacy that extends from the earliest origins of consciousness through all of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, theatre, fashion, all of human culture. Seek it out not just in current pop cultural products, but in the great books and art of history. It’s there, and it is waiting for you.