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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor.  [October 24, 2004]





[]  CIA spook-turned-filmmaker Michael D. Sellers revisits the Dracula legend in Vlad, the Best Feature Film entry in the Hollywood Investigator's Halloween Horror Film Awards! the tale of four exchange students who travel to Romania to write papers on Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler (1431- 1476), the historic Dracula, popularized by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel, Dracula.

Little do the students know, they are the focus of competing conspiracies to prevent -- or help! -- Dracula's return from undeath so he may lead post-Communist Romania to new greatness.

Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings, The Hazing) leads the good conspirators trying to halt Dracula and his secret society of nationalist followers. Dourif assigns Billy Zane (Twin Peaks, Titanic) to protect the students -- and retrieve Dracula's magic necklace that opens the portals of time.

Dracula is played by Francesco Quinn (Platoon), who imparts a feral taint to his role. As Dracula, Quinn precedes his every statement with a delightfully subtle half-snarl, suggesting a monster beneath human form. His portrayal evokes Christopher Lee, who likewise emphasized Dracula's beastly side, as opposed to Gary Oldman's romantic Dracula in 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Yet storywise, Vlad more resembles Bram Stoker's Dracula more so than the Lee films. Both Bram Stoker's Dracula and Vlad.are at least partially rooted in history. Both films reference Dracula's war with the Ottoman Turks and his wife's suicide. Yet they take contrasting approaches to history.  Quinn's Dracula is pure monster, whereas Oldman's Dracula is motivated and redeemed by love.  These contrasting approaches are underscored by the films' log lines. The log line for Bram Stoker's Dracula was Love Never Dies. For Vlad it's Evil Never Dies.

But despite Quinn's beastly Dracula, Vlad.adds a romantic twist to events when Dracula's magic necklace causes a rip in time, transporting Ilona (Iva Hasperger), the daughter of an English mercenary who fought the Turks at Constantinople, to the students camping in a forest. Fortunately, one of the students (Nicholas Irons) speaks Middle English, and can thus communicate -- and fall in love! -- with Ilona.

That Ilona only speaks an indecipherable (to modern audiences) Chaucerian English is a nice cinematic innovation. Normally, movie time travelers have no trouble speaking and understanding medieval English, which always sounds like stilted modern English.

What's more, Hasperger and Irons speak Middle English with convincing fluency.

Likewise, Zane affects a convincing Romanian accent, with one downside. Although his character speaks fluent English, he always says "da" instead of "yes."

One of film critic Roger Ebert's pet peeves is that every foreign character, no matter how fluent their English, will revert to their native tongue to say "yes." In his book of movie clichés, Ebert refers to "yes" as "the hardest word in English."

But this is the script's fault, not Zane's. The actor offers a fine, if all too short, performance as one of Dracula's adversaries.

Vlad is scripted by film director Michael D. Sellers. Sellers graduated NYU's film school in the 1970s, soon after which he began a ten-year career in the CIA. Over that time Sellers was stationed in Moscow, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. His cover in the Philippines was that of a record and film producer, and he produced several Philippine language films.

Sellers says filmmaking and espionage are similar in their use of makeup effects (for disguises, in the latter case), and in their use of psychology. Filmmakers must know psychology to create convincing characters, while intelligence officers must understand psychology to convince people to spy for them.

Seller says, "The CIA certainly taught me how to dive into a new culture and try to get beneath the surface and understand it, and that was what I did with Romania and Vlad On our first trip out there, I found two of the actors who play major roles in the film, Monica Davidescu and Emil Hostine, both of whom are major theater actors in Romania, and both of whom just took me under their wing and introduced me to people, everyone from scholars to, in Monica's case, the inhabitants of the tiny Carpathian village where she grew up."

Davidescu plays one of the students, an Romanian exile living in Paris. The remaining two students are filled by Kam Heskin and Paul Popowich.

Dracula stalks both Heskin and Hasperger, because both blonds resemble his dead wife.  But unlike Oldman with Winona Ryder's Mina, Quinn's Dracula is crueler toward his "loves."

Seller's CIA training continues to help him learn new languages fast. "I was able to get more deeply into the [Romanian] culture in a short time than I might otherwise have been able to.  Being able to pick up the language quickly helped -- even though I didn't know that much, you'd be surprised how far 1000 words can get you, at least in terms of creating some good will and breaking down barriers. People appreciate that you take the efforts to learn their language, and they respond to the seriousness of the effort you put out."

Vlad.opened September 2004 at a few Los Angeles theaters. Michael D. Sellers may be contacted through Rita Hollingsworth of RMH Media.



* Best Horror Micro-Budget Feature


While Vlad was the Best Feature Film in our horror film search, the Best Micro Budget Feature went to yet another shapeshifter film: Skinwalker: Curse of the Shaman, produced on digital video for $20,000 by its director, Steven Stevens Jr.

Shot in the California desert, Skinwalker follows two young filmmakers who set out to shoot a documentary about an Indian curse that claimed six young lives. The lead filmmaker (played by Amanda Paytas) is also seeking (though she denies it) the birth mother who gave her up for adoption and is reputed to live in the town near the cursed desert.

Stevens admits The Blair Witch Project was "an inspiration," though he regards it as a rare gem. "I'd rent digital horror movies all over the shelves at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, and I was like, I know I can make a movie this good or better. Most have no story, bad acting, and the lighting and sound are bad. We made Skinwalker.for less than $20,000, and I've seen digital movies with five times our budget that I can't get through the first ten minutes. I'm very happy with my first attempt."

Most of the film was shot in Action, California. Stevens told the Investigator, "I pulled a lot of favors for the locations. Most of it was shot at the Inner City Slickers Ranch run by Michael McNeal. They do charity work for inner city kids, teaching them the cowboy lifestyle."

Like many micro-budget indie films, newcomers dominate the cast, but there are some noteworthy names. Celeste Yarnall (the bisexual vampire in 1971's.Velvet Vampire) plays Paytas's mother.  James Doohan ("Scotty" of Star Trek fame, now 84) has a cameo as a retired judge.

Getting name actors for an indie film is difficult.  Stevens was helped in this his father is a talent agent who's repped Doohan for nearly 30 years. "Jimmy heard I was trying to make this movie and asked if he could be in it," said Stevens. "We didn't have a part written, but as soon as he said he wanted to work on it we rewrote the script. I'm honored to have worked with such an icon."

Trekie buffs take note: Skinwalker may be Doohan's last project!

"He retired after making this," said Stevens. "My father represents some of the other actors, but we tried to stay away from that to avoid any problems.  Clients Celeste Yarnall decided to help us and Amanda Paytas came in at the last minute after the lead dropped out."

"We shot Skinwalker on a Canon XL1, used Avid Express, then transferred it to Final Cut for the visual effects. We recently started sending it to distributors and festivals. I'd say the distribution part is more difficult than making the movie itself."

Stevens may be contacted at:



* Best Horror Short Film


Many of tomorrow's filmmakers cut their teeth and shorts, and the Best Short Film submitted to the Hollywood Investigator was Rick Lavon's Stiffs by Sid, a slickly photographed mockumentary about a Hollywood casting agency that specializes in providing real-live zombies, ghouls, and walking corpses to horror filmmakers.

Running a mere 13 minutes, Lavon's film incorporates many visual "looks." As with This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, Stiffs by Sid switches from office and on-set interviews, to clips from (fictitious) color and black-and-white horror films serviced by Sid, to retro-1950s stock footage as Sid talks about his agency's early days.

Lavon tells the Hollywood Investigator, "We used the Panasonic DVX-100, shot on 24p, using a variety of filters to enhance the "film-look" aspect. We edited on Final Cut Pro HD.

"I'm a senior editor at Alan Weiss Productions, a New York City video production company, so I was fortunate to have access to that equipment."

Theodore Bouloukos -- who resembles Harvey Weinstein -- offers an overblown yet realistic portrayal of casting agent for the undead, Artie Sugerman (son of company founder, Sid Sugerman).

Says Lavon, "The budget was south of $5,000.  Most of the actors were doing this for a reel or out of friendship."

Of his work at Alan Weiss Productions, Lavon says, "We do a variety of news and broadcast projects. I've also worked at several TV stations around the country, and won four Emmy awards for shooting and editing over the course of my career. I've edited a couple of other horror movies, including Vampire Lesbian Kickboxers."

Lavon may be contacted at:



* Best Horror Music Video


Heavy metal continues to borrow horror icons, as in the "You Make Me Feel So Dead" music video (performed by Pitbull Daycare and directed by Paul Hough), the Best Music Video.entry in the Hollywood Investigator's horror film search.

Hough's beautifully photographed video features impressive surreal images such as a motorcycle flying above the group, a woman yanked into the ground, and underground shots amid overhanging roots and the woman's kicking boot. Perhaps most impressive is the field of arms sticking from the ground, waving to the beat of the music.

Explaining his special effects to the Investigator, Hough said, "Nothing was computer animated -- we couldn't afford that! I found a dried-up riverbank, and we built a platform across it. The band spent a couple of hours picking up grass from a local field, and we scattered the grass across the platform, adding a couple of tree stumps and sticks, giving the illusion that it was the proper ground. We cut holes into the platform and had about 70 people stand beneath it, one to each hole.

"The main unforeseen problem was that I wanted the hands to move in sync, but no one could see each other and it was very difficult to get 70 arms moving in unison. People also tired pretty quickly but fortunately we shot a bunch of different angles before we were down to just a few moving hands.

"We shot on video and edited on Final Cut Pro.  It was real low budget -- even the band carried camera equipment. We used Adobe After Effects and Magic Bullet to give it more of a film look.

"As for the girl being in the ground -- we dug a hole and stuck her in it!"

Hough says of his background, "I went to NYU Film School where I didn't really get a chance to explore my love of horror. Upon graduating I directed a show called Reverse Angle on Fox Sports -- which got banned. Recently, I directed a feature documentary called The Backyard. There's much blood and horror in that. I'm currently prepping to direct a video for Chris Jericho's band Fozzy -- which we're shooting in November. I'm also looking for cool feature genre scripts."

Pitbull Daycare's song is available on the Saw soundtrack and on their Unclean album. Hough may be contacted at or by phone at (818) 599-0751.



* Honorable Mention


Finally, we give Honorable Mention to Jeremy's Wake-Up Call, an animated short about a young truant's nightmarish day playing hooky.

The characters look ... vacant (their crude expressions lacking the emotional depth and distinct personalities of a polished Pixar film) and their limbs move stiffly.

Yet the film has nicely surreal images, an intact if simple story with a cute twist ending, an eye for "camera angles", and a charming end credits song written and skillfully performed by Mike Carty. Jeremy's Wake-Up Call is a serious effort by a developing artist, Massachusetts filmmaker Paul Carty.

Paul Carty created Jeremy's Wake-Up Call using Cinema 4D, Final Cut, Adobe Photoshop, Digital Performer -- and lots of help from his family!  Mike is his brother, as is Joe, who receives credit for special effects.  Paul co-wrote the script with his mother, Jane.

Paul's formal education is in graphic design. He tells the Investigator that he's done "music production for T.V. ads, websites, and corporate videos." Despite its brief running time (5 minutes), Jeremy's Wake-Up Call required "approximately 400 production hours and 100 rendering hours."

Paul Carty may be contacted at

The Hollywood Investigator is currently contacting horror conventions about screening these winning films in 2005. Stay tuned for further developments!



In 2005, the Hollywood Investigator Halloween Horror Film Awards were renamed the Tabloid Witch Awards. We now declare that all 2004 honorees are hereby retroactively transformed into Tabloid Witch Award honorees. (We can do that.)  -- October 19, 2006


* The Final Tally


Tabloid Witch Award Winners


* Best Horror Feature Film ................................. Michael D. Sellers  (Vlad)

* Best Horror Micro-Budget Feature Film ......... Steven Stevens Jr.  (Skinwalker: Curse of the Shaman)

* Best Horror Short Film ..................................... Rick Lavon  (Stiffs by Sid)

* Best Horror Music Video ................................. Paul Hough  (You Make Me Feel So Dead)

Tabloid Witch Honorable Mention


* Paul Carty ....................................................... (Jeremy's Wake-Up Call)


Are YOU a horror filmmaker seeking publicity? It's not too early to enter our next search! We'll be reviewing entries as they arrive.

And if you're a filmmaker, actor, musician, or writer who doesn't do horror -- we want to hear from you too! Email or snail mail us about your project, and if we're intrigued we'll cover it or invite you to submit a report!

Copyright 2004 by



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