Havertown-based filmmaker Robert Angelo Masciantonio is best known as the writer/director of horror films Cold Hearts (1999) and Neighbor (2009), the former of which was an NJ-set riff on The Lost Boys while the latter was an exercise in the extreme that will make even the most experienced horror hounds squirm (there’s a scene that recalls Audition with needles replaced by a thermometer that’s inserted into…something). Rob recently sat down with Cinedelphia to talk about his favorite horror films, the perils of shooting on the Jersey Shore, and his career thus far.
CINEDELPHIA: What were some of the horror films that awakened your love for the genre when you were younger?
ROBERT ANGELO MASICANTONIO: Number one on the list would be An American Werewolf in London. I saw that when I was ten and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the world John Landis created, the characters he created, the effects at the time were so groundbreaking and just downright scary. The Shining. Amityville Horror, one and two, I think I like two as much as the first one. Friday the 13th Part III and on. Halloween. I’ve always loved the idea of Michael Myers, which I tried to borrow for Neighbor and which made people mad. There’s no backstory for the girl in Neighbor, she’s simply a psychotic person on the loose and that’s what I always thought was awesome about Michael Myers. It started getting a little confusing with part five and on, but it was just the idea that Myers was [the shark from] Jaws personified, he was just some kid that snapped and we don’t know why, he was just a sicko. I always loved not knowing why he wanted to kill.
C: Have there been any horror films in recent years that you’ve liked?
RAM: Fright Night was a lot of fun, you can’t compare it to the original, but it was fun as a 3D summer flick. I haven’t been scared by a movie since The Shining when I was a kid. I don’t know, what are some movies…
RAM: Awful. I’m really not behind the remakes, they’re all pretty terrible. I actually reached out to John Landis when I heard they were going to remake American Werewolf and asked if he could get me the job directing it. He responded and was like “Unfortunately I have nothing to do with it.”
C: We saw Final Destination 4 and 5.
RAM: 5 was kinda weak, but as a franchise I enjoy the Final Destination films. I really liked how grandiose they got at one point.
C: What about things like Human Centipede and A Serbian Film?
RAM: I haven’t seen A Serbian Film. I saw Human Centipede, I didn’t care for it.
I enjoyed I Sell the Dead as well as Trick ‘R Treat, that’s something I can see myself watching every Halloween season.
C: You studied film at Temple, right?
RAM: In theory. I was enrolled in classes and I showed up every once in a while, but I wasn’t the best of students.
C: How long was it after your occasional time spent at Temple that you went out and made your first feature?
RAM: I actually left school to make the feature [1999’s Cold Hearts]. It was around the time that I would have had to make a senior project. I’d fulfilled all of the credits for the film major at Temple, there were a bunch of core classes I had to take that I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to take another math, I didn’t want to take another science, that kind of stuff. So I convinced my dad to invest the money it would have cost for me to finish school and I hit up some other family and friends and got the money to make the feature.
RAM: 1997. May 1998 we shot Cold Hearts. It was The Lost Boys visit Dawson’s Creek and it was done that way by design. Buffy was still kinda new and I loved what Joss Whedon was doing. My goal was to make a vampire movie geared towards teenage girls, I didn’t want it to be ultraviolent, it was more about relationships, drug addictions, ideals…
C: Sounds vaguely reminiscent of Twilight.
RAM: Yes, it’s funny that you would say that, because Twilight is just a big-budget remake of Cold Hearts as far as I’m concerned. Someone’s theory online was that Stephenie Meyer got high one night, ate a bag of Cheetos, watched Cold Hearts and then wrote the book. I’ve never read the book, I won’t see those movies.
C: What were some of the horror films that influenced Cold Hearts?
RAM: The Lost Boys is definitely all over it. It’s funny because people are always like “It’s a Lost Boys ripoff,” but it has a very East Coast mentality that Lost Boys didn’t have.
RAM: Yeah, we shot entirely in Ocean City. Twenty-some days.
C: So it does have that vacation retreat/small town feel that The Lost Boys had.
RAM: Yeah, that’s actually written into the story. The bad guy vampires in Cold Hearts are there to eat tourists because they know that people come and go throughout the town.
C: The film has an interesting cast, from Amy Jo Johnson, an accomplished television actress, to Fred Norris of Howard Stern fame.
RAM: Frightening Eric Norris.
C: There are some Kevin Smith/View Askew references in there too. Where did this amalgamation of pop culture-types come from?
Fred was my idea. I wanted someone with a recognizable voice and this was right after Private Parts when Fred was doing more acting work. I never hired Fred to get on the show, it actually took ten years for Howard Stern to interview me. Fred came in for one night.
The View Askew stuff…I was friends with Kevin Smith at the time, he won’t take credit for it, he plays it humble, which is fine, but Kevin was a real driving force behind the movie getting made. I was friendly with him and I was being a pain in his ass, it’s easy to see in hindsight that I was the eager kid that he was cool enough to let into his world, and I would always badger him, “What do I do? Who can I talk to?” One day he was like “Just go do it, man. Just go make a movie” and I thought “Well, if you can do it then I can do it.” [In the film] I’m wearing the View Askew hockey jersey, that was mine, and I think they sent us some stuff that I threw in there. So that was my nod to Kevin.
C: Did it cost a lot to bring in Fred Norris for that one day of shooting?
RAM: Well, it was money we had set aside in the budget.
C: Did you have any other actors in mind for the role?
RAM: Well, in my delusional mind at the time I was thinking Jack Nicholson who we offered $10,000 to and then he won the Academy Award for As Good as It Gets and I was like “Well, that’s that.”
C: Did you use a Philadelphia-based crew for the film?
RAM: No, all of the crew had flown in from L.A., all different connections I had made. I went out there for casting and just met people through people. What it cost to fly everyone out and put everyone up didn’t kill us as much as people driving in from Philly everyday would have. I think we rented nine houses at one point. All the guys in the camera apartment had a house, the grips had their house. It was wild, we took over Ocean City for a month.
RAM: I called Tom, I think his shop may have been listed. The script had gone out to a bunch of shops in L.A. who did really good work, but I thought I’d give calling Savini a shot. I called, it was his voice on the answering machine, I called back a few days later. By the fourth call he answered the phone and I sent him the script. He sent me back an awesome bid, what he said was that “I’ll design everything with you and then my boys are gonna take care of it.” I met with him twice, once with Amy Jo in Pittsburgh because the guys had to cover her head to toe in rubber so I went out there to be supportive.
C: Did shooting on the Jersey shore lead to any problems?
RAM: Our biggest problem was that we shot in May, springtime, and the gnats hatched and it was the largest infestation of gnats in 20 years. So for two hours between sunset and sunrise for a good solid week we had to have full-on turbans and face guards. A couple guys went to the hospital, gnats were getting in the camera, it was awful.
C: What did you do once shooting was completed?
RAM: I moved to L.A. right after it was finished, did all the post production out there. We had screenings, we had a big screening on the Paramount lot. Within a couple weeks of that we had a [distribution] offer we were happy with, it was a pretty quick process. We had a limited L.A. theatrical release and it played a weekend in New York and then it went to video and DVD. Synapse Films put the DVD out, he’s a great guy, Don May at Synapse. Right now we’re trying to find the original negative to make a Cold Hearts Blu-ray.
C: Following Cold Hearts you spent quite a few years concentrating on writing.
RAM: I did some shorts, but I was mainly writing and teaching.
RAM: I was actually just thinking about watching it, I haven’t watched it since we made it.
C: So it wasn’t one of your prouder moments?
RAM: I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but it wasn’t the movie I signed on to make.
C: It’s worth noting that this was work-for-hire for the both of us.
RAM: Yes, which I guess is why I didn’t quit because at the end of the day I could say that I did what I was told. It was just this guy’s dream to make a movie, this guy who grew up in Delaware who was a cruise travel agent. He wanted to be an actor when he was younger, he pursued it and let it go, and then reached a point in his life where he decided that he wanted to give it another chance. He had a first draft of a script, it was about 50 pages, so I told him I’d rewrite it and make it into something, which I did, and then we tailored it to what he wanted. He had a very specific vision and sometimes you just have to go with that. I offered him options and I went with what the boss wanted so that’s what the boss got.
C: What are some of the fond memories you have from working on the film?
RAM: I had a blast working with Erin Brown aka Misty Mundae. I think she’s a good comedic actress who needs to get out of that niche of softcore erotic parody films, The Lord of the G-Strings, Spiderbabe, that sort of thing.
The two days I spent with Krista [Allen] were two days that I wouldn’t have been prepared for if it wasn’t for what I learned at Temple. I had two days to shoot…Christ, I know in the first day we shot 25 pages and in the independent film world you’re lucky if you get three or four off in a day.
I had a lot of fun shooting the stuff with the fake Aerosmith band, we had the run of a giant restaurant with a full-size concert stage, that was a lot of fun.
Overall, it was more of an entertaining experience. I got to work with pals, it felt like we just happened to be making this little romantic comedy.
C: Not much came of that film, but it was valuable for you in that you found a couple of actors that you would work with again…
RAM: Yes, Joe Aniska was one of them. I worked with Joe on a short and the next feature I did, [2009’s] Neighbor. Tracy Toth was another. I would like to say that All Along did help launch the career of ABC’s Charlie McDermott, because the role that he plays on The Middle is similar to that in the film. So I’m hoping that something from the movie was on his reel and it helped him get the role.
C: How did Neighbor come about?
RAM: I was working on this other project at the time that was moving slowly and I was given the opportunity by the producer, Charles St. John Smith III who we worked with on All Along, to make another horror movie. I think the first draft may have been fully finished in November of 2008 and we were shooting in January and February of 2009 so it was a very quick turnaround from concept to first screening. We used the Red camera digital system, which afforded me the luxury of having my editor on site so at the end of each day I’d already have assembly cuts of what we did for the day.
C: You used a local crew for the film, right?
RAM: All local, yes. Cold Hearts was the only time I imported people. All Along and Neighbor were all locals.
RAM: They were very different because of their budgets. I had more money for Cold Hearts, it was shot on 35mm film, which is becoming a lost art. Neighbor was very intense because of the subject matter and all of the effects involved. I’d see things one way and then Vincent Guastini, the makeup creator, would come into town with something that blew my expectations away.
C: Despite the difference in budgets, I think the makeup and special effects in Neighbor are far superior to those in Cold Hearts.
RAM: They’re different. The effects in Cold Hearts are like classic monster effects.
C: And Neighbor is straight-out sadistic gore.
RAM: Yes, my intention with Neighbor from the beginning was to make people queasy. I don’t really get Hostel and Saw and the goreporn movies. I’ve only seen the first Saw, I didn’t watch all of Hostel, I just never thought that was scary. I’d listen to that generation of kids who talked about how scary those films are and I thought “Well, if you think that’s scary, I’ll show you scary.”
RAM: Yeah, exactly, and again, it was meant to be. If that gross stuff is scary to you then I want to make you sick of it. I wanted to saturate people’s brains with it to where it almost wouldn’t be acceptable anymore.
C: Do you think you achieved that goal of corrupting the viewers?
RAM: I hope so. I think so. I was able to see it with a few live audiences, I saw it with 750 people at Fantasia and there were definitely scenes where I was hoping for the reaction that it received.
C: Did anyone react in outrage at the film’s public screenings?
RAM: Yes. If you go on the internet it seems split down the middle. People love it and they love the idea that we went that way and forced you to look at as much of this torture and mayhem as possible and then there’s people who hate me. People who think that it’s not horror, it’s people getting eviscerated. And yeah, it is. “Relax” is what I say to them. I don’t know why people get so mad.
C: How do you personally deal with that sort of negative feedback?
RAM: I ignore them. I shouldn’t even talk about this, but there was a kid on IMDb that started this whole smear campaign about how I went on there and opened ten accounts to give it good reviews and I showed the dude that I didn’t open ten accounts, I held a contest and the best review got a prize. I even listed everyone’s Facebook pages. So, y’know, get away from the front of your computer and make a movie and let me review it. You can’t please everyone, so I’m sorry if you hated it. I’ll just hang out with the kids that loved it.
I actually popped it on the other day to check something for reference and I ended up watching the whole movie. It was on Fearnet last fall, I admit that if it’s on then I’ll watch it. It keeps my attention.
C: It played film festivals and received DVD distribution all over the world.
RAM: Yeah, it just came out in June on DVD in the UK to a fantastic response, maybe even moreso than here in the States. Germany has a really cool Blu-ray/DVD box set of the film and the consumers are up in arms because the German government cut forty-something seconds from one of the scenes and the fans know that that wasn’t cleared by me. The British Film Commission cut out four and a half minutes to what was already a cut version. We did make an R-rated cut for some of the chain stores, I don’t support that version.
C: As a filmmaker, don’t you get angry when some random person just starts cutting apart your film?
RAM: It made me sick. I found out about it on the internet, I did an interview for a UK website and they asked how I felt about the cuts and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was shocked. I’m grateful that it’s out there, but I also feel that we should have been given the chance to alter it ourselves.
C: You did make an R-rated cut though.
RAM: We were contractually bound because, understandably, there were some outlets that wouldn’t carry movies that were unrated. The R cut was done sort of obnoxiously, I took the stance that if that’s what you want then that’s what you’re going to get and we cut nearly five minutes of material, all gore, blood and mayhem. All the good stuff.
C: What’s up next for you?
RAM: The scripts for Neighbor 2 and 3 are finished, that’s just sort of a matter of timing for us at this point. I shot a short film called Fairyland in the spring, which I’m going to finish in the fall, and that’s actually parlayed into a feature opportunity.
C: Is this another horror outing?
RAM: Fairyland is a complete departure from my previous three films. It’s a gritty take on fairy tale characters, sort of like putting Jack and Jill in a world with Tony Soprano, darker and edgier real-world situations. I don’t label anything, I don’t say “This guy’s a troll, this guy’s an ogre, this girl’s a mermaid.” I leave it up to the audience to figure out though everything is there. Ogres aren’t going to be giant green guys, it’s kind of like the vampires in Cold Hearts, you could pass them on the street and not know it.
C: So when can people expect a sequel to Neighbor to go into production?
RAM: I don’t know. If I had my way it would be this spring, but we haven’t talked about it solidly enough yet. I would ideally like to do two and three back to back. We’re talking about shooting Fairyland in 3D, Neighbor 3 was written to be shot in 3D.