Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! This month, we’re taking a trip to Norway for the beautiful seaside views, the lovely seafood, and the underwater monster-worshiping cults! We get all this and more from Andy Collier and Tor Mian’s 2020 film Sacrifice, and our guide is author Paul Kane, whose short story “Men of the Cloth” is the basis for the film. You might know Kane as the award-winning author and editor of over a hundred books, including the Arrowhead trilogy (gathered together in the sellout Hooded Man omnibus, revolving around a post-apocalyptic version of Robin Hood), The Butterfly Man and Other Stories, Hellbound Hearts, Wonderland, and Pain Cages. He’s also a longtime non-fiction writer and journalist with bylines in SFX, Rue Morgue and DeathRay. You can check out the latest and greatest at his website.
Kane’s pick this month follows Emma and Isaac Pickman (Sophie Stevens and Ludovic Hughes), a young, expecting couple visiting a small town in Norway where Isaac has inherited a home after the death of his mother. The townspeople seem odd and standoff-ish at first, until they realize that Isaac is the baby who used to live in the house. The town’s sheriff, Renate Nygard (Barbara Crampton) takes the couple under her wing, but only after letting them know she suspect’s Isaac’s mother killed his father before she left with him as a baby. As Isaac becomes more invested (one might say obsessed) with the town and its culture, Emma starts having some ominous dreams hinting at a menacing underwater deity that requires a sacrifice, and the people in town may be the ones looking to deliver it.
Before we get into the interview, please consider this your obligatory spoiler warning as we will be covering major plot points for the film.
Now, usually I ask my guests to discuss their first time seeing a movie, but in your case, Paul, things are a bit different since it’s a movie based on your work. Can you recount a little bit about the process of getting your story from page to screen? What were your first impressions when you saw the film?
Absolutely! The movie came about because I watched a short film based on a friend of mine’s story, Michael Marshall Smith’s The Seventeenth Kind, starring Tony Curran from Underworld: Evolution and Doctor Who. I’m always trying to get short films off the ground, the most recent being The Torturer which Little Spark Films made with Paul T. Taylor and Lawrence Varnado – that’s currently streaming in 96 countries. So anyway, I asked the guys at Loose Canon, who’d made The Seventeenth Kind, if they’d be interested in reading some of my short scripts. Andy Collier kindly wrote back and thanked me for the offer, but they were moving more into features now and they’d be in touch down the line.
I just wrote it all off to be honest, like you do, but then a couple of years later I got another mail asking if I had any stories that were ‘folk horror’ in nature. I’ve covered a lot of ground in my 25 years writing fiction, so I said, ‘Yes, definitely!’. I sent a few over for Andy and his writing/directing partner Tor Mian to read, and they loved ‘Men of the Cloth’. We set up a meeting – in a pub, where else? – and chatted about the story, and just favorite horror films in general, really. We found we all got on really well and had similar tastes, and suddenly everything was off and running with an adaptation.
As for first impressions, I really enjoyed the film. We’d intended to do a premiere/launch at FrightFest, an in-person thing with cast and crew and the movie playing on the big screen. But because of the pandemic, it was all done online sadly. I couldn’t get the connection to work, so frustratingly I was seeing these wonderful responses from viewers saying things like ‘Suspiria 2018 meets Midsommar, with just the right amount of Lair of the White Worm and maybe a dash of Q-The Winged Serpent thrown in... Congrats, on another great masterpiece!’ So by the time I did see it in the run up to release on streaming, I was already prepared for something special. Then when we were sent the blu-ray, my wife Marie – O’Regan, a fantastic writer/editor herself – and I had a movie night at home. That’s always going to be a treasured memory.
You mention in an interview with Set the Tape that your story didn’t have as much of the cosmic horror elements beyond the inclusion of the cult. Did you collaborate with screenwriters Andy Collier and Tor Mian as they adapted your story, or did they take your initial concept and run with it?
Andy and Tor were very open at the start about what they wanted to do with the story, what they wanted to change, and what I’d be comfortable with them doing. So we discussed the options they had in mind, as they were adapting the story into a script themselves. Things like swapping the children, a boy and girl, for a pregnant female protagonist made sense from a production point of view, for instance. But introducing more cosmic elements, drawing on Lovecraftian influences, that was all them really. The original is a very different beast, though, and very British – although the main characters are still Americans in this ‘fish out of water’ scenario – so I could understand them wanting to set it somewhere else to give it a more global appeal.
‘Men of the Cloth’ is basically a community that revolves around weaving, spinning and dyeing, but which fell apart when mass production came along. The roots go back much further though, literally, as we discover in the huge tapestry they’ve got in that village. The inhabitants worship this massive ram’s head god and its henchmen are scarecrows. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t have loved to see a straight adaptation of that – scarecrows are incredibly creepy! – but I’m also used to my work being changed by other creatives in film, TV or audio form. In fact, it’s kind of interesting to see where they take the source material.
I’ve just this week signed a renewal on the film option for my werewolf novella RED, and the script for that is very different from my original take. But those tales are still there to read, in the case of RED a new omnibus edition is coming out from Hellbound soon and with ‘Men of the Cloth’ there’s an official Sacrifice tie-in collection from Luna called The Colour of Madness, which was the film’s original title. Having said all this, the beats of the original are still there, so they had a roadmap to follow when they were making it – and Andy sent me a photo of a scarecrow when they were filming, saying ‘Look, they’re still in it!’
Do you think the shift of the setting from England to Norway impacted the way the story was presented, either in visual representation or the themes explored?
It’s bound to affect the way it’s presented, if only because of where it’s being set. In the same way that the short film of ‘The Weeping Woman’, which Mark Steensland made, is very different because it was shot in snowbound Michigan as opposed to the English countryside. I remember being sent all these wonderful photos when the Loose Canon guys were scouting for locations and they were like paintings – no filters, nothing. I thought to myself then, this movie is going to look absolutely gorgeous! I think it probably helped with the cosmic horror vibes, because you’ve got this huge expanse of water that you just know a tentacled beastie could be lurking in. Then you’ve got the scene with the lights in the sky, and that place just lends itself massively to beautiful imagery like that.
Within the cosmic horror elements there’s also an exploration of family, with Isaac struggling with the conflict between his family’s past trauma and his attraction to his past and his hometown. Do you see those themes of family trauma and history as being a key component of cosmic horror?
That’s all totally carried across from the original novelette. I always try and create believable characters, families and their relationships, their history, because it just grounds any tale and helps you to go with the flow when things get more freaky. It gives us something to relate to, makes us ask how we’d react in that kind of weird situation, whether we’d pull together or just break. That trauma you’re talking about. So in a sense it’s a key element – or at least it is to me, anyway – of any kind of horror, whether it’s cosmic, folk or whatever. In the case of Sacrifice, it also gives Isaac – played brilliantly by Ludovic Hughes – a reason to go back and find out more about his heritage. And I have to give a massive shoutout to the cast here, especially Sophie Stevens as Emma and the legendary Barbara Crampton as Renate. Without exceptional actors, no characters you create will ever work, and their interactions would just fall flat.
You mentioned previously that the initial interest in your story was from a folk horror perspective, and you could say Sacrifice winds up being a blend of the two. How do you think folk horror and cosmic horror intersect?
Ooh, that’s a tough one as they’re quite different things at the end of the day. But I think the guys did a good job of marrying the two, with all the cult stuff and the worship of ‘The Slumbering One’ – which gives it a kind of Wicker Man feel – and then you’ve also got this possibility that the tentacled creature itself comes from another place, either a different dimension or from space or whatever. They wisely keep that ambiguous. Some of the underwater scenes and dream sequences key into that, and as I say, those weird lights in the sky – there’s a sense that there’s something ‘other’ going on, beyond the ‘normal’ religious worship.
That ending throws us for a bit of a loop, as we find out the cult’s desire to pull Isaac into the fold is something of a long con to set him up for the titular sacrifice they didn’t get to make 25 years ago. How does this line up with your original ending, and how do you interpret that? Is it something akin to a happy ending as Emma is saved, or is it kind of an “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situation?
Well – and these are total spoilers, same as the above – in the original story, the Isaac character – who’s called Lance in the story –does join the cult, because he realizes that’s where he belongs. He went back to the village of Camlin to find out where he came from, to get a sense of identity he feels he’s lacking, and in the finale his kids end up being stitched into those scarecrows and his wife Shelley is offered up to the ram and the tapestry. So it’s a bit of a twist for people expecting Sacrifice to be like the story, that it’s Isaac who’s offered up instead! I mean, Emma’s sort of ‘safe’, for now, but it’s absolutely a frying pan and fire deal because she faces what Isaac’s mother went through all those years ago with her child when it’s born. Or maybe, as Renate says, she’ll just ‘get used to it’ – like Florence Pugh’s character very quickly does in Midsommar; not that she isn’t given reason to! And, by the way, for the record I bloody love Midsommar: it’s one of my all-time favorite films, and so the fact that this – and the novel I wrote that came out the same year as Sacrifice, The Family Lie from HQ/HarperCollins as PL Kane – have been drawing comparisons to that movie makes me so incredibly happy.
Those who read my column regularly know I like to wrap things up by asking if there is room for a sequel, remake, or any kind of revisit to the universe of the movie we’re discussing. Obviously it’s a bit premature for a remake given the movie only just recently came out, but I’m wondering, as the person who wrote the source material, do you think there’s room for more stories in this small Norwegian town?
I’d love to see another one, and the film’s ending leaves it totally open for more. It left me wanting to dig into the background of the cult, what’s going on with ‘The Slumbering One’ – is it related to any other kind of ‘old ones’ or ‘gods’ – and whether anyone might come looking for Isaac and Emma now that they’ve disappeared. Obviously what happens in the future is down to Loose Canon and the film companies, but I for one would thoroughly enjoy watching a sequel or prequel, or even both. If only to get more of that tentacled monster! I would’ve loved to have seen it almost wake up, start to come out of the water so you get a real sense of the scale of it and the danger just before the sacrifice takes place… But I know that was probably a budgetary thing. Hey, who knows, maybe we’ll find out that this place is twinned with the one from ‘Men of the Cloth’, and that way we’d get more scarecrows, too! Andy’s going to chuckle when he sees that, I’m sure.
As someone who’s just circled back to a novel I wrote twenty years ago, The Gemini Factor, and written a sequel to that, and also turned the standalone RED novella into a trilogy, when it looked impossible to carry the story on, I’m of the opinion that there are always loose threads – if you’ll pardon the expression – you could pull on. In my work there are little crossovers and nods that readers seem to love, like my sinister faceless Corporation cropping up in both The Controllers and the new collection Zombies!, or my Torturer character appearing in different settings, and that gives me a buzz. I don’t see any reason why that couldn’t be the case with the films and TV stuff based on my scripts or stories. If it’s good enough for a certain Mr King…