After all too many years dealing with real life horrors on various documentary projects I was determined to return to the genre with the wildest and most broadly entertaining dramatic subject I could find.
The Mother of Toads concerns an American anthropology student and his leggy girlfriend who inadvertently run foul of a genuine old world witch while holidaying in the south of France. The young man happens to be a fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and when the witch tells him that she is drawing her spells from an authentic copy of the dreaded ‘Necronomicon’ he becomes determined to find out once and for all whether the mythical black book described in Lovecraft’s fiction really exists, a quest that has grotesque and ultimately mind bending consequences for all concerned.
Catriona MacColl who plays the lead sorceress, the insidious Mere Antoinette, needs no introduction. She has been criminally underutilized as a screen presence of late and confided in me early in pre-production that she had always wanted to play a witch. I have long been an admirer of Catriona’s work but her chilling incarnation of ‘Mere Antoinette’ came as a revelation to us all. She imbues her character’s every word and gesture with such other-wordly malevolence and unexpected pathos that I cannot help but wish the film’s allotted 22 minute running time were a good deal longer. Catriona was given able support by Victoria Maurette, who is familiar from the work of Albert Pyun and has an extensive background in Argentinian television and Shane Woodward who, like Dylan McDermot on Hardware, is trained in the Meisner technique which I believe helped him to bring a sense of authenticity to his role that is all too rare in this sort of genre production. Despite their varying approaches and the challenging shooting conditions the ensemble came together like a dream.
Of course you could say that the locations are the real stars of this particular show. I have been living in a very remote area of the southern Pyrenees for the last few years, a place where magic still lingers and wanted to spin a yarn drawing on the local folklore as well as the wild, densely forested mountain landscapes which have not, to the best of my knowledge, been committed to film before. Realizing that this is as close as you can probably get to real-life Lovecraft country I decided to develop a story that drew on the spirit of the weird tales of the nineteen-thirties, recast as it were in a suitably 21 st century context. By chance Severin were developing The Theatre Bizarre at precisely the same time which proved to be an ideal setting for this freaky li’l fable. Needless to say getting a chance to work with Catriona on a location allegedly situated over one of the real life ‘seven dreaded gateways to hell’ was the opportunity of a lifetime!
Shooting, as ever, was tight as a razor considering the amount of coverage I was aiming for on the break-neck five day schedule and the remote and relatively inaccessible nature of the locations I had in mind. Essentially this was accomplished by running two crews, a routine I practiced on my previous features in order to make the most of the budgets and equipment available to us. Of course pulling this sort of stunt requires an extraordinary degree of pre-planning as well as a God given ability to live without sleep. It was a calculated risk taking the Red Mysterium X into a rugged, extremely isolated, mountainous environment like this and in the end I was pleasantly surprised by the results. Karim Hussain’s (pictured below, right) wide-screen photography easily measures up to standards previously attainable only on 35mm making the Red the first digital camera capable of doing justice to the subtler nuances of natural elements such as fire and water that are so crucial to the creation of a truly magical ambiance.
The segment’s visual style positions it very much in the territory of the European Gothic, a genre pioneered and epitomized by the classic works of Bava, Fulci and Argento. Kill Baby, Kill! by Mario Bava was a particular touchstone for both myself and Karim while sharp eyed fans will doubtless detect references to Fulci’s The Beyond, not the least of them being the presence of both Catriona and the seal of Eibon. Simon Boswell who contributes the original score is, of course, a veteran of Argento’s Phenomena, Soavi’s Stage Fright and Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre as well as my own previous work. You will find that the completed segment is also agreeably reminiscent of something that might have escaped from an EC or Warren horror comic, reflecting my childhood reading preferences as well as a lifelong appreciation of the work of Berni Wrightson and ‘Ghastly’ Graham Ingels. After all a story like this wouldn’t be complete without a suitably ghoulish sting in the tale…
The shoot had to be scheduled around the life cycle of the huge Pyrenean toads that play a key role in the storyline with principal photography completed before they go into hibernation in late October. The toads have been associated with witchcraft since time out of mind and are viewed in popular mythology as familiars or intermediaries between mankind and the ‘other-world’. Consequently it was of the up most importance that they be treated with maximum care, not to mention kid gloves as they really are quite toxic! I’m happy to report that they all came through in one piece and were safely returned to their native breeding grounds after having their moment in the limelight. One of the principal locations, the deserted house that serves as the toad mother’s lair, had such an evil reputation that it had to be exorcised by the unit sorcerer before we could work on it but fortunately we suffered no particular ill luck, other than a few bad dreams reported by Catriona’s body double who claimed that some black magician or another was trying to steal her soul while she was asleep and poor Emiliano Ranzani, the film’s co-writer and second unit director, who managed to get psycho-active toad venom in both his eyes while achieving a particularly grueling close up. Fortunately the toxins wore off after twelve hours or so with no lasting effects. In this line of work it’s an occupational hazard, I guess.
Richard Stanley is arguably one of the true auteurs of horror of the last twenty years having burst onto the scene in 1990 with his debut feature Hardware. He followed it up with the ambitious Dust Devil before taking on one of the great unmade epics of the era The Island Of Dr. Mareau from which he was let go by nervous studio heads in the late stages of pre-production. He has spent the subsequent 15 years making a series of challenging documentaries. The Mother Of Toads marks his long awaited return to dramatic genre filmmaking.