It takes a lot of guts to tackle a slasher movie. With films like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Scream lining the hallowed halls, it’s a daunting sub-genre for any new filmmaker to break into. And yet, Dallas Jackson stepped up to the plate with his directorial debut film, Thriller. As a lifelong horror fan, Jackson knows the strengths that slasher films have to offer. And as that same fan, he also saw where slashers were lacking. Jackson, along with Ken Rance, wrote Thriller to play upon the traditional slasher tropes while simultaneously incorporating an urban backdrop and more inclusive cast. A teen movie for the modern age, Thriller explores not only the format, but real everyday issues including violence, racism, bullying and what it’s like to be a teenager in a city like Compton.
What starts out as a cruel but innocent childhood prank turns deadly when introvert target Chauncey Page (Jason Woods) accidentally kills one of his tormentors. With their friend dead and young Chauncey sent to prison, the children at fault swallow their guilt and get on with their lives as best they can. Years later Chauncey is released. A tall, intimidating figure, his return to the neighborhood conjures uncomfortable feelings for the kids, now teenagers, who fear that he may want to confront them about the horrible past. With their high school preparing for Homecoming and parties and romance at the forefront of their minds, everyone is traumatized when members of their crew start turning up murdered in increasingly gruesome ways. It becomes clear that Chauncey wants far more than a simple apology—he wants revenge.
Recognizing the uniqueness of what Jackson was bringing to the table, Blumhouse Productions was quick to jump on the Thriller train. The film premiered at the LA Film Festival on September 23, 2018 and it wasn’t long before another industry powerhouse got involved; Netflix. The film dropped April 14th is available to stream now at your convenience. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Jackson and we talked about lots of things including Thriller, working with RZA, his inspirations, John Carpenter, and which Wu-Tang Clan album is the best. Check it out.
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview! I’m excited to talk to you as I just checked out Thriller courtesy of Netflix.
Dallas Jackson: It’s like 7-Eleven. They’re there for you 24/7, and that’s the reason I was excited about Netflix releasing Thriller. The idea of people being able to watch it whenever they want, wherever they are. It’s just interesting because if you want to go to a movie, you go and you pay, and then you have to go home and wait for it to come out on DVD or whatever. It’s an interesting way now to watch movies and you have the liberty to watch it 5 times if you so choose. That’s crazy.
NOFS: While watching Thriller, it’s clear you are a fan of the genre. What were some of the first horror films you remember having an impact on you?
DJ: I’ll try to narrow it down, how about that. Because I was an only child, my father used to take me to work. I’m from Colorado and he used to work in Westminster for the city’s Parks and Rec. He used to take me to work at the Rec Center he worked at, and there was a theater across the street from his job called Cinema 70. It was two double features on each side and you could see both for like, $2. So, I used to see a lot of movies I probably shouldn’t have seen when I was a kid. They didn’t care, they saw me so much it was just like, ‘Oh it’s that kid. Let him in.’
I’d say the most impactful was probably The Exorcist. It really jacked me up. It was a re-issue of the movie, and from what I understand, it had even more stuff in it than when it originally came out. So that was quite disturbing, and also intriguing. I wanted to watch it again, even though I knew it gave me horrible nightmares. I thought the idea of a kid being possessed was really interesting and weird, but in a good way.
I liked Halloween a lot. That was pretty cool to me and the origin of Michael Myers. How it opens up and you see him doing this horrible thing, and then he goes away and comes back even crazier. That was really impactful, the idea of that movie. And Jamie Lee Curtis was super cool.
And Prom Night, I love Prom Night. It’s funny, because I can’t remember if I saw some of these in the theater or on VHS, because I was one of those kids too; at home alone, popping in a VHS tape and watching it a bunch of times. Prom Night for me was like, something I remembered because it started out as kids playing, but went a step too far. I love the idea of this haunting them throughout their pre-teen and then teenage years. I just loved that idea and that’s obviously something I borrowed for Thriller; the idea that something would haunt you and affect you in a way that would change your life. Whether it changed your attitude, or it made you crazy, made you insecure or made you feel guilty. Those 3 movies right there, and Friday the 13th. And A Nightmare on Elm Street. The original. Not the reboot.
NOFS: It’s funny to me to think of a little kid, sitting alone in a theater watching The Exorcist.
DJ: Uhhh…yeah, it probably shouldn’t have happened. I went home that night and we were eating dinner, and my mom was like ‘What’s wrong with you?’ She could just tell that something was wrong. Like my spirit was just, off. And I told her, and she was just like, ‘What the hell is The Exorcist? What are you doing at work with your father?’ And then I had to crawl into bed later that night with her.
NOFS: When did you decide to take your love of film to the next level and pursue filmmaking?
DJ: When I was in high school, my father took me to see Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend’s first movie. The movie was funny and great, but it was the story of the movie that was intriguing to me. He made the movie. He wrote it, he directed it and produced it, and the legend is that he paid for the movie with his credit cards. So I was like, ‘Oh! There’s an African-American man who made a movie on his own that’s in the theater and he did it on his own.’ It showed me that there was a pathway and that you didn’t need a studio per se to make a movie.
So I knew from high school. And then, when I went to Howard University, I majored in TV and Film because that’s what I wanted to pursue. It was from my love of movies, but also after seeing Hollywood Shuffle, and guys like Spike Lee and John Singleton started to pop up, it was ‘Ok, there’s other people that look like me that are doing this.’ It’s crazy, because I look back at my high school yearbook and there are people that wrote ‘You’re the next Spike Lee!’ or ‘We’ll see you on the big screen!’ For that to have happened, it’s pretty crazy and amazing. It’s a testament to when you have a dream and you just keep chipping at it.
NOFS: That’s a great segue into talking about Thriller a bit more. Thriller is your directorial debut! Congratulations on that! That’s a huge accomplishment.
DJ: Aw, thank you! It was definitely fun and it was definitely challenging. When it’s your first time and all eyes are on you, you have to make sure you’re working at your top ability. I had just come off of Executive Producing a TV show with John Singleton called Rebel on BET. We did 10 episodes of that and for those 10 episodes, John Singleton directed the first two, and then 4 other directors came in after him. It was my show, so I was able to be on set everyday and watch Singleton. Just a pure genius, and I was able to watch him work. And I had a notebook and could just follow him around and watch the other directors that came in. I could see the positives and also what not to do. So that was like a masters program for me right there.
“When it’s your first time and all eyes are on you, you have to make sure you’re working at your top ability.”
At the same time, I was working on Thriller for Blumhouse in the script stage. I had a director in mind, but he went and took another movie because it was more money and Blumhouse was like, ‘You should think about directing.’ They encouraged it, and I felt like because I was working with Singleton, I could do it. But I had to think about. ‘They’re saying I can do this. But, damn. Do I really think I can do this?’ And then I saw this quote that basically said, ‘If you’re afraid to do something, you should do it.’ And I was. So I was like, ‘Ok. I’m going to do it.’
NOFS: Thriller falls into the slasher format. Why a slasher? What was it about this sub-genre that attracted you to it?
DJ: The idea of wanting to tell the story of bullying gone wrong. Particularly in urban and Black and Latino areas, and kids are bullied all around, but in urban areas it can get violent and it can get severe. It can get to the point where people want to take their own lives, and I wanted to kind of tell the story of what happens when that goes wrong and how it comes back to haunt these kids.
And then also, the concept that most of the slasher films have been suburban based. From Scream, to I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, even the early 80’s slashers like A Nightmare on Elm Street. They were all in these kinds of suburban areas and I thought there’s always been an opportunity to do a slasher movie with kids of color. Whether you mix in kids from the CW, or a hip-hop artist, or whatever, there’s a way to do that. It was an idea I had like, 10 years ago. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.
When we wrote the script, me and my writing partner at the time, Ken Rance, it was something that we talked to Blumhouse about. And they were intrigued by the idea. Surprisingly, they were like, ‘Yeah you’re right. Why hasn’t anyone done that?’ And we were like, ‘You tell us! You’re the Kings of Horror right now!’ I would have thought after Scary Movie, because it was the Wayans’ and because it was multi-cultural and because it did poke fun at the genre, that more things would have come from that with an urban slant, but it didn’t. Also, there used to be a plethora of teen movies like Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles and House Party. There just hasn’t been a really fun teen movie in a while, and I thought there was a chance to do that as well.
NOFS: I liked how you used the platform to not only make a fun film, but to also convey a message. Like with the character of Chauncey. Talk to me about his attire. How did you arrive at your slasher’s appearance and mask?
DJ: I wanted to choose something that was common in the hood. Literally. When you see somebody in an urban environment, you’re gonna see kids with their hoods on. Whether they’re jogging, or it’s cold outside or someone is playing basketball, people have kind of turned the idea of wearing a hood into this ominous thing. Like when you watch the news, how many times have you seen the killer or the assailant with a hood, and you can’t really see the face in the drawing, it’s just the lower part of the person’s face and it’s ‘Have you seen this person?’ Or even like Trayvon. He was basically thought to be dangerous because he had this hood on. And the guy (I won’t give his name energy) decided ‘I’m going to take this person out because he’s dangerous and because he has a hoodie on.’
So, I just thought that the idea of creating an urban legend out of Chauncey and having him be cloaked in the same thing that he went away in, which is his hoodie, and then come back and it’s now kind of become his costume. When people see him they know that it’s Chauncey. And the mask itself, originally when I wrote the movie, the hoodie was over the face enough that you never got to see who was beneath it. When we were testing costumes and hoods, it was nearly impossible to completely cover someone’s face when they were walking without running into a tree. So we incorporated the idea that when the killer was present, the hood would also have a mask. It would create an even more ominous figure. We wanted to take the idea of the hoodie and make it kind of an urban costume. Take the idea of all the dangers that are associated with it, just like the way that Freddy Krueger wears his green and red sweater or Michael wears his janitor-like outfit, we wanted to have this thing that an urban killer would wear.
NOFS: There’s a scene with Chauncey where he goes to the refrigerator, there’s nothing in it except ketchup and he proceeds to pour a bunch in his mouth. It’s such a small, quick detail, but it told so much about the character and what he’s been through both past and present. Can you talk about how that scene came about?
DJ: We made Jason, the actor that plays him, actually do that. We were all freaking out because we made him do it like, 8 times. And it’s crazy, you never know what’s going to affect someone and that’s affected people! I’ve seen people tweet like ‘OMG! He drank ketchup!’ and my daughter reenacts that scene. The idea of it was that his mother is obviously not the best mom. She’s transformed into this dark alcoholic and she’s not cooking a lot. She’s not out grocery shopping. She’s been mourning the loss of her son at home drinking. And now Chauncey’s back. It’s just the idea that he went away and things were ok, but not great. And now he’s back and things are worse. But he’s been through so much that he’s probably eaten worse or drank worse.
“Chauncey is so hungry, and he’s home, but there’s nothing in the refrigerator but ketchup and he’s going to eat it.”
That scene was written and it was first just ketchup in the fridge, and then we were like, ‘He should drink it.’ I heard this story once about DMX. He said he was at home and so hungry and there was nothing in the refrigerator and no groceries or anything. And he was searching for food and went into his mother’s bedroom and her perfume smelled so good on her dresser that he unscrewed the bottle and drank it because he was so hungry and thought it was juice. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also like, damn. Chauncey is so hungry, and he’s home, but there’s nothing in the refrigerator but ketchup and he’s going to eat it. He’s going to squirt it in his mouth, because it’s something. Or maybe he just really likes ketchup a lot. [laughs]
NOFS: I don’t know, I think his face begs to differ.
DJ: Ah man, when he did that and we yelled cut, I don’t even want to tell you what went down. But he was a trooper. He’d be like, ‘You need me to do it again?’ And we were like, ‘Yep!’ That was no camera trick. He was really taking that to the head.
NOFS: You also worked with RZA pretty extensively on this film. Not only did he play the role of Principal Hurd, he’s an Executive Producer and he scored the film. How were you not starstruck the whole time? How did he become involved in the project?
DJ: I wasn’t starstruck, because we’ve been friends for a while, but when I first met him I was definitely starstruck. We met at a house party that Quentin Tarantino was having some years ago. Quentin introduced us and we bonded over this movie called The Last Dragon that we both really liked and I was definitely starstruck. But we exchanged numbers and he called me and we started talking about remaking The Last Dragon and we eventually ended up having a chance to develop it for Sony Pictures. That was some years ago and it’s still being developed.
But that started a relationship with us where we were like, ‘OK. We got some legit business done.’ And we started talking about other things. So, when the idea of Thriller came around and the idea of it getting made with Blumhouse, I asked him if he wanted to be involved because I know he loves horror movies. And Blumhouse was like, ‘Hey, you’re friends with RZA. Do you think he would score it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah! Of course!’ And I didn’t know he would. But luckily he was like, ‘Yeah! That’d be great!’ Then we decided to make him an Executive Producer, and then there was a role I needed so I was like, ‘Hey, you act pretty good. Would you want to be in it?’ He was either going to be the cop or the principal. Mykelti Williamson played Detective Johnson, but I didn’t have Mykelti yet, and the day that I was going to shoot the detective and the principal, the principal ended up working out better for RZA schedule-wise. So that’s how he went from one thing, to another thing, to another and I was like, ‘Cool!’
NOFS: The film score is super interesting. It’s different than what I expected out of a RZA score. What were your initial conversations like regarding the film’s music?
DJ: He’s really a musical genius. Beyond hip-hop, he can play the piano and he knows different kinds of music other than just hip-hop. So we talked about Halloween. And John Carpenter. And Escape From New York. We talked about the sound of John Carpenter and the idea of creating our own theme song, not only for Chauncey, but letting that theme kind of branch off into what the music of the movie would sound like. So we really were paying homage to John Carpenter with the sound of the score. You know, the Halloween soundtrack and particularly Michael Myers’ theme song is legendary. So we were like, ‘How can we do that for this movie?’ And we drop some hip-hop songs here and there. RZA has artists and things so for different scenes we’d use some stuff, but for the score, it was really RZA’s interpretation of a John Carpenter score. He’d play me some stuff and I’d just be like, ‘Damn. Yeah, exactly. Do that.’
NOFS: I heard a rumor that you’re working on a Sudden Death remake and I got really excited about it. Is this a thing?
DJ: It is a thing! It’s a thing that’s real and I’m shooting this summer. We’ll be kind of paying homage to the first one but then also putting a new spin on it. And also having fun with it. They had fun with the first one, like when Van Damme beat up the mascot and when he played goalie in the hockey game, but when I say have fun with it I mean have fun with the genre. Like how I did with Thriller, but have fun with the action genre. And really be real and gritty about it, but have fun with the main character. It will be my martial arts Die Hard.
NOFS: That. Sounds. Awesome.
DJ: For me it’s about…I would never remake a movie that’s perfect. Like, I would never remake The Godfather. I’d never remake Enter The Dragon, or A Nightmare on Elm Street even though they did that. I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t remake E.T. There’s just some things you don’t touch. But for the original Sudden Death, there was a great idea in there, but a lot of the movie was just ‘Let’s let Van Damme do some crazy stuff.’ So, there was a seed of an idea in there. The idea of chaos happening at a sports event and nobody knows. And also there’s a badass person in here that nobody knows about but is working here. They’re a security guard and they are the only one who can really save the day. Nobody knows what’s going on and he’s running around putting out these fires. That idea was cool to me and I thought there was a really interesting way into that. We start shooting in Canada in August and I’ll have to come back and talk to you about it. There’s going to be some really cool people in it that will make it…like, I’m excited. You’ll definitely feel like we’re paying proper homage to the original.
NOFS: Since you are such a huge fan of horror, sci-fi and action films, I have a few quick questions for you. I’m curious where you land on a few things.
First up, Escape from New York…or Escape from L.A.?
DJ: Oh, Escape from New York all day. I was kind of mad at Escape from L.A. for a while, but I’ve kind of accepted it now. But nothing tops Escape from New York.
NOFS: Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness?
DJ: Evil Dead II. For sure. Just because, well…hold on, let me back up because Army of Darkness is really good. Army of Darkness is more fun, but Evil Dead II is more me feeling like they didn’t drop the ball from Evil Dead. It wasn’t disappointing. But Army of Darkness was a lot of fun. I think I gotta say Army of Darkness. I was trippin’.
NOFS: Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day?
DJ: Damn. That’s a good one. Terminator 2. Terminator is the origin so you kind of feel bad and it was so good for the time, but yeah, Terminator 2. That’s another one that I’m like, just leave it alone.
NOFS: Favorite Friday the 13th film?
DJ: Well, it’s a bit of a tie between 1 and 2, but I gotta go with the original because of the twist. To me, that was another big influence on Thriller. I always was like, ‘That was genius.’
NOFS: Favorite Wu-Tang Clan album or song?
DJ: That’s impossible. But, ‘Enter the 36 Chambers’ is my favorite album. ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ is perfect as well, but the first album is just amazing. It’s still dope. I still listen to it every day and it’s on my gym list when I go to the gym. First Wu-Tang album, all day long.
Make sure to check out Thriller, now streaming on Netflix. Can’t wait to listen to that killer RZA score again? Check out the score, plus tracks from Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, The Hoodies and more here.
Want to know a bit more about Thriller? Check out our review from fellow contributor Jessica Rose here. Share your thoughts over on Twitter, our Horror Movie Fiend Club Facebook page, or on our Subreddit page!