Darren Bousman doesn’t look like the type of guy who’s been the subject of an FBI investigation into Los Angeles cults.
The director of Saw II through IV, Repo! The Genetic Opera, The Devil’s Carnival, the soon-to-be-released Abattoir and the immersive psychological horror theater project The Tension Experience: Ascension (the reason for the FBI inquiries) answers the door in an adult Minion costume and says, “Any horror cred I had as a director is going to be thrown out the window now.”
I’m here to find out what a Hollywood horror director does on this most sacred of holidays — Halloween — and because Bousman is a married man and new dad, the answer is: trick-or-treat. At least, that’s the first agenda of the night.
Bousman’s wife, Laura, and son Henry are Minions, too.
“He wakes us up at like 6 in the morning to watch the Minions, and then when it’s done, he wants us to play it again for him,” Bousman sighs. This is a man who has the real Billy the Puppet doll from the Saw movies sitting in his den. Minions are not what he imagined his kid would be watching, but he feels hopeful, since Henry’s only 2. As we dodge pint-sized ghosts, robots and one particularly inventive jellyfish at the trick-or-treat street party that is Toluca Estates Drive — a cul-de-sac extravaganza of Halloween displays in the Valley, where one house seriously raffled off a 50-inch TV this year — Bousman remembers his childhood.
“The first movie I saw that fucked me up was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. We didn’t really have any restrictions on what we could and couldn’t watch, and I think that’s where I got my creativity from. Look, I’m not gonna let Henry watch The Serbian Film or anything like that,” Bousman says, referring to the infamous 2010 cult film whose graphic depictions of rape and child sexual abuse are so over-the-top sick that it’s been banned in multiple countries. (He says his brother got the DVD for him one Christmas, and for 28 minutes, the wholesome family watched it together until everyone left the room.) “But Dark Crystal, The Labyrinth, those are fair game.”
Just as he finishes that thought, Henry — eyes wide with fright — toddles as quickly as he can to his mom’s arms, whispering ominously, “Boo,” while pointing at a particularly eerie giant ghost ship planted in someone’s front yard.
“‘Boo’ is what he calls all scary stuff,” Laura says, and it’s also one of the few words he can articulate. When you grow up with a Billy the Puppet doll in your house, seems you’d need a word for frightening things.
Bousman’s friend and frequent collaborator Dayton Callie (who many will remember as Charlie Utter on Deadwood and Chief Wayne Unser on Sons of Anarchy) joins us in a booth at Black Market Liquor Bar in Studio City. Callie holds court at the restaurant often, as he’s part owner. He’s also a frequent user of “fuck” and trades jabs with Bousman, never letting him forget the leaky trailer Callie got on the set of The Devil’s Carnival. “But at least when I watch his movies, I don’t want to leave the theater,” Callie says matter-of-factly. The actor co-stars with another horror veteran, Lin Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Insidious), in Abattoir, which Bousman describes as a neo-noir masquerading as horror, about a mysterious old man (Callie) who’s building a haunted house out of rooms where deaths occurred.
“I definitely don’t know if I could do something like Saw again,” Bousman says, explaining that he absolutely thinks differently about horror now that he’s a dad, which is why he’s ventured into The Tension Experience, which is more about uncovering deep, dark secrets of the psyche than blood and guts.
On my visit to Tension a few days earlier, I was welcomed into a cult called the O.O.A. but was first sent a series of texts and emails from strangers, warning me not to go, asking me to read their missing daughter’s diary and hoping I can solve their husband’s sudden death. Others got frantic text messages. Bousman says in the months leading up to The Tension Experience’s reveal, he’d send his actors in an Uber to future participants’ houses to have them improv scenes on their doorsteps. (Every time we get into an Uber on Halloween night, the driver asks, “Are you Ellie?” — the secret name Bousman used to order the cars.) People really thought it was a cult, and Bousman gets a kick out of it. Seven days a week, he’s sitting behind a monitor wall, watching the input from hundreds of security cameras placed around the Tension warehouse.
He shows Callie and me security-camera footage of one of his more aggressive actors getting punched in the face the night before. He laughs and shakes his head: “It’s not the first time.”
Callie reiterates that he has zero desire to go to Tension. “I don’t watch horror movies,” he says.
Bousman teases, “But what about the ones you were in, like Halloween 2?”
Callie shoots him a knife-sharp look. “I disavow Halloween 2.”
The two are about to work together again sooner rather than later. A Chinese production company asked Bousman to rewrite the Abattoir script for a Chinese director to remake, because the China Film Bureau has a strict ban on ghosts in movies. (This is absolutely true.) Bousman decided not to do a straight rewrite and instead decided to advance the story of Callie’s character, so it’s almost like a sequel or an alternate reality of the world.
“I’m not going to fucking China alone,” Callie says.
“I’m coming with you for the week, so I can direct your scenes,” Bousman says. “China’s the only place I’m afraid to go. I’m so worried about the food. They eat everything there — the eyes, the intestines, all of it. Ugh.”
For reference: In Saw III, a man is chained inside a vat that is slowly filled with liquefied pig corpses.
Every Halloween night, after all the kids are in bed or safely in the hands of a babysitter, a group of horror directors gathers at a house in Toluca Lake to party and talk shop. Many here tonight are those who directed scary segments for the film Tales of Halloween (2015) or have just been palling around with like-minded horror buffs since they got to Los Angeles, including Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider!), Neil Marshall (The Descent, Game of Thrones), Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson (Night of the Demons, A Mother of Tears) and even James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring).
A big-screen TV plays an endless succession of horror flicks. Anderson asks Mendez which obscure movie is playing, and he soaks in about two frames before rattling off the title; his brain is an encyclopedia of horror.
This entire night, Bousman has alternated talking about horror films and his family, and I get the feeling that’s not an act because I’m following him around for the story. These people live for the genre. Every conversation I catch is either about Bousman’s Tension — many have gone multiple times to try to unlock other experiences — or the great horror movie they’ve made or seen. It’s actually very sweet.
At a quiet moment in the party, Anderson and Gierasch lug out a giant, 5-foot-long painting, setting it up against the wall, something they say they have to keep away from children. Many have already seen it, but it’s still a dizzying sight. Gay cowboys rock each other’s worlds in a suck-and-fuck tableau that reveals more and more the closer you look. Where did the couple procure such a painting? From the set of Crank: High Voltage.
“We were supposed to just hold onto it, and then it became ours,” Anderson says.
Every aspect of these people’s lives revolves around a mutual love for film. When Bousman got married, they projected Bride of Frankenstein on a wall and spun the Suspiria soundtrack all night. I ask him and Laura if they’re going to put Henry in one of his dad’s films, and she says, “Only if it’s a good one.”
Bousman sneaks away from the party early, and as he waits for “Ellie’s” Uber, he says, “When I first came to L.A., all I wanted to do was hang in the cool scene, but now I’ve got Henry, and I think my family is cool.” Bousman has directed some of the most viscerally horrifying films of this decade, been reported to multiple cult-watch organizations and secretly watches people volunteering to be psychologically maddened in a warehouse every night. But on Halloween, he’s also a dad.
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