By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
As mysteriously bloodless bodies pile up, a down-on-his-luck bartender and an aging drag queen struggle to survive both their own personal dramas and a masked killer bent on slaughtering young gay men in Darkstar Pictures’ DEATH DROP GORGEOUS, a campy gorefest from first-time filmmakers Michael J. Ahern, Christopher Dalpe, and Brandon Perras-Sanchez.
When Dwayne (Wayne Gonsalves) returns to his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island after a failed relationship, he moves in with his self-centered friend Brian (Dalpe). Short on cash, he goes to his old boss, sleazy club owner Tony Two-Fingers (Perras-Sanchez), to get his old bartending gig at a local gay bar back. To his dismay, he’s assigned to work on Tuesdays, the slowest, least lucrative night of the week. Adding insult to injury, Dwayne must also deal with the eccentricities and casual cruelty of the club’s cadre of performers. Consigned to the Tuesday night trash heap with Dwayne is Gloria Hole (Payton St. James aka. Michael McAdam), a former queen of the Providence drag scene who’s desperate to return to the top despite the cruel machinations of her vicious, young rivals Janet Fitness (Matthew Pidge) and Audrey Heartburn (Paul Bahn).
As Dwayne and Gloria fight separate battles for their respective places in the club’s pecking order, a masked maniac begins using a dating app to lure gay men to their violent deaths. With his clientele dwindling, Tony Two-Fingers enlists the aid of on-the-take detectives O’Hara (Ahern) and Barry (Sean Murphy) to track down the seemingly vampiric killer before his livelihood is washed away in a deluge of blood and glitter.
Directors Michael J. Ahern, Christopher Dalpe, Brandon Perras-Sanchez, and star Payton St. James recently took some time out from promoting the film to talk with Rue Morgue about the arduous labor of love that is DEATH DROP GORGEOUS.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. First, tell me a little about your backgrounds and your lives before DEATH DROP GORGEOUS.
Michael J. Ahern: Our lives, weirdly, haven’t changed that much. I work in a non-profit setting and I bartend. We filmed DEATH DROP GORGEOUS on nights and weekends. That’s why it’s such a passionate project.
Brandon Perras-Sanchez: I came from the noise rock and metal scene. I was playing music for a long time. The band I was in was pretty wild and crazy–lots of fake blood and costumes. We’re all like horror nerds forever, so transitioning into making horror instead of crazy, bloody noise rock seemed pretty natural. [Laughs].
Payton St. James: I was born on a winter’s day…[Laughs] I come from the drag world. I started doing drag about 30 years ago. It was always kind of a part-time gig for me–nights and weekends. It’s been a pretty good part-time gig for a while. Now, I work for a hospitality company in beautiful Provincetown, Massachusetts.
DEATH DROP GORGEOUS took about a year-and-a-half to shoot. How did the film come about and what challenges did that long production time present?
BPS: Day jobs are kind of the biggest obstacle. If someday we can do without those and make films full-time, that would be wonderful. The idea sprung about a year before we started writing the script. Chris and I were talking about how the sex apps are really just made for serial killers. Horny men skip a lot of red flags and find themselves in some pretty tumultuous situations. A year later, I talked to Mike about this idea, and Mike was like, “Let’s make it into a movie.” So we started meeting and adding more and more pieces to make it an even more ridiculous plot. We just said, “Fuck it! Let’s make it!”
MJA: And the momentum just kept going. Then, more folks hopped in on the project like Payton and other local queens and actors. That kept our motivation for it going. In regards to the difficulty in the length of production, if you watch the film, you’ll notice the length of my beard changes several times! [Laughs] That was very inconsistent of me!
BPS: Payton was pivotal to our completing this project. When we started and were filming some of the early scenes, it was going well, and we were into it. When we filmed our first scene with Payton, she did such a great job, it kind of leveled us up. We were like, “Holy shit. We really have to commit to this and make it good!” She brought such an amazing performance to the film.
MJA: Yeah, that first day we were like, “Oh shit! This is real! We gotta bring our ‘A’ game.”
PSJ: That is very sweet and very kind. Thank you very much for that. I gotta tell you, coming into it, I read the script, and I think, maybe I was three pages in, and I knew that I [had] to be a part of this. I don’t care if I’m playing the third tree from the left. It made absolutely no difference. It was something that had to happen, and I’m so grateful that I got to be a part of it. They gave me more freedom to do everything I could think of and everything that I wanted to do. I’m eternally grateful for that. It was amazing.
Since Chris just arrived, I’ll turn this question over to him. This is a film with three writers who also serve as directors. How did the collaborative process work with so many creators involved?
Christopher Dalpe: That’s a really good question and I feel like we’ve been talking about that a lot within the past couple of weeks. In most instances, I would say it would be the recipe for disaster, failure, and sadness. With our team, I think we had a very shared vision and an oddly unique set of skills that add to that shared vision. I think that’s the beauty of DEATH DROP GORGEOUS…we had a story that we wanted to tell. Some of us were like, “It could be funny here, but it could be gross here, or it could be meaningful here, or it could be beautiful here.” That’s what added up to this movie that we put out into the world. It does feel like a little bit of all of us, but more than that, too.
When you got on the set, how did you divide up the labor of directing?
CD: So Mike and I did a heavy role in directing, but folks like Payton St. James, she doesn’t need much other than “Keep going! Keep going!” She would ask, “Is that good enough?” and we’re like, “You could do it again if you wanted, but that seemed eerily perfect.” I think Mike and I often work together structurally in the storyline. I discovered that I want to do more of a theater style stage direction. I like being able to say things like, “You did the line, but I didn’t believe you…” [Laughs], or, “maybe we do it this way or maybe it makes more sense this way.” I think most of the time, even with our actors, it also felt very collaborative. I don’t think I ever felt that the team wasn’t working with our actors to kind of build something that was bigger than the scene to begin with.
How does your hometown, the city of Providence, function in DROP DEAD GORGEOUS? It seems almost like a character in itself in much the same way that John Waters has used Baltimore in his work.
MJA: Our community really stepped up by allowing us to use their spaces. So every space you see is a local business that was down with the film and happy to accommodate us. Any other sets you saw, we built in our basement or our garage [Laughs]. I think that camaraderie naturally comes through. We’re all transplants, but we’ve all been here for a long time and we have a love-hate relationship with Providence. I think that’s why we depict it as so crazy and fun and beautiful but also show kind of the gross and disgusting parts at the same time.
BPS: Providence has a similar trajectory as Baltimore. There’s a little Mafia involvement. Everything has a little bit of grime to it. The DIY and art and music scene in Providence is pretty eclectic and crazy but also very ahead of the pack. It’s the same with the drag world. We highlighted a lot of that in the film. A lot of the bands on the soundtrack are local bands and a lot of the scoring is from local musicians. There are weird little fingerprints that separate Providence from the rest of the country that we kind of highlighted in the film, too.
This question’s for Payton. Gloria Hole really walks away with the movie. How did you approach playing her and what are some of the influences for the character?
PSJ: Gloria is a lot of things! She’s a lot of things! Her character is actually based on a real person who the boys know very well who also happens to be my best friend in the world. Approaching her from that perspective and knowing what their vision for Gloria was, based on the person, made it a lot easier. I think the more that we got into it, realizing that it wasn’t intended to be a caricature of this person, Gloria is a real human being–warts and all. At the end of the day, I grew to love her very much as horrendous and horrible a human being as she can be! What I took from reading her and playing her was the fact that she is a survivor. At the end of the world, there will be cockroaches and Cher and Gloria Hole!
CD: There’s the tagline for the whole interview! [Laughs]
Payton, did you have much acting experience going into the film?
PSJ: Yeah. Drag came about for me in an odd way. I was a theater major in college. It’s fantastic to be able to go and do and play things, but then the real world hits you in the face. You go, “Oh. I was a theater major. And now I have to pay back my student loans, so I better get a real job!” Acting was always something that was on the backburner for me while working in corporate America. I kept my hand in acting for a while, and then drag came about. I thought that drag was a really interesting form of acting. It kind of evolved from there.
With 30 years as a drag performer to your credit, have you ever experienced the kind of age discrimination that Gloria Hole faces in DEATH DROP GORGEOUS first hand?
PSJ: Absolutely. Any “-ism” that you see in this film is very real.
CD: If I could jump in here…you’ve been competing with the older queens for years! Really trying to move them aside, you know!
PSJ: When I said 30 years, I didn’t mean 30. [Laughs] Honestly, any “-ism” that you see in this film is universal. It’s not exclusive to the queer community at all. Anybody seeing this movie has experienced something like that in their own lives. And I certainly have seen ageism. It’s difficult when you realize that you can get away with a lot for a long time in this business by being pretty. Eventually, you’re not so pretty anymore. Then you can get away with being uber-talented, but your body gives out and you’re not so talented anymore. You have to reinvent yourself constantly. There’s always going to be someone younger and prettier and faster and all of that, but if you start out with a good foundation and a good mindset, a strong character and some convictions, then you can get through it.
How much of Gloria was on the page and how much was improvised?
PSJ: To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t really know! There were times when I know I said what was written on the page, and there are others times when I think I just opened my mouth and I didn’t know what was coming out. They just let go and do it! Every so often, they would have to stop me and tell me, “We need you to say this because this is an important point and if you don’t say it, nothing else is going to make sense.” As an actor, the most important thing you can do is respect the written word, and I tried my damndest to do that and I don’t know if I always did! Anything that you loved and thought was brilliant was scripted! [Laughs]
CD: I don’t think that’s true! You’re not giving yourself enough credit. I think that everything that Payton ended up doing that was not scripted, we probably kept in the film. . . Payton brought a depth to Gloria that I don’t think necessarily was fully on the page. There’s depth to Gloria. She’s not a two-dimensional character. . . There are moments of sympathy that Payton garnered from audiences and we didn’t write that.
Were you ever concerned that you might stray too far into LGBTQ stereotypes in some of the characterizations?
BPS: It was a fine line that we were walking. We definitely tapped into some of these stereotypes on purpose. I think a lot of people forget that the racism and the ageism and the femmephobia are actual stereotypes that there’s a lot of truth to. We didn’t want to skirt too much around that, but we didn’t want to make it too in-your-face with the political message. Those messages are there, but they don’t dominate the film. I think the stereotypes are there to show the different kinds of characters in the gay community, but I don;t think we pushed them as hard as we could have. We definitely kept them to maybe like the Providence stereotypes of these characters, but not as universal as they could have been and not as intense as they could have been.
CD: There is satire in the movie. Utilizing stereotypes as satire has a poignancy for the film. Being over the top or being overly egregious or meaning overly mean has a point. LGBT and queer culture has a lot of these archetypes that we’ve built ourselves that are not necessarily always worth celebrating. We’ve had some critiques [that have accused us of] just portraying stereotypes. We’re actually trying to be subversive towards those stereotypes and say something about those characters. My character, Broadway Brian, is supposed to be kind of awful! [Laughs]That’s the point.
How do you feel about the mainstreaming of gay culture and do you think it’s been positive on the whole?
BPS: Over the last week, I watched two modern horror films that had LGBTQ characters. I’m all for representation, but I’m tired of the gay friend being the sassy one. Or they’re always nice–they’re never the villain. It’s getting a little old. In our film, I’m glad that we show that gay men can be bullies. They can be villains. They can be bad people, and a lot of them are. They’re not your best friend. They’re not sassy all the time, and they can literally be anybody. It’s just a sexual orientation. I do think that representation is good in a sense, but I think it’s time to shake it up a little bit.
MJA: I think, for the most part, representation is good, but I find there’s this form of tokenism that is very empty representation. There will be a movie that’s celebrated online for having a gay couple, and I’ll go and see the movie and the gay couple is two-dimensional or they own bistros. It’s like empty calories. It doesn’t feel good after I eat it. There are some things that I think are great that I applaud and celebrate, but then there’s a sort of empty representation with bad characters that I don’t want to identify with.
CD: I don’t think inclusion has ever been enough. Queer art is subversive in nature and it’s supposed to be deconstructing a larger system. Being included is not enough. The genre should be expanded. The world of these stories should be expanded. . . I think the end goal of mainstreaming is shortsighted.
Above all, DEATH DROP GORGEOUS is a horror film. What attracts you to the genre?
PSJ: Absolutely nothing! [Laughs] In all honesty, I’m terrified by horror films. I don’t watch them…I’m literally afraid of just about everything in the world. Horror is not my go-to genre. It’s been that way for a very long time. After being involved in DEATH DROP GORGEOUS, I kind of look at horror with a whole different lens. I thought, up until now, horror movies were just slasher films and blood and guts and that kind of thing. That’s just not my bag. I like a nice British drama where people drink tea and maybe someone owns a laundromat. And occasionally there’s a woman who’s vaguely lesbian–you never know. They don’t talk about it. That’s what I enjoy. [Laughs]
After doing this, it struck me that a horror movie is no different than any other movie. There’s a story. There are characters. There are lives. There are people. I would never have thought of it like that. I would have thought, “I’m not going to watch that movie because somebody’s going to get their head cut off, and I don’t want to see that.” It gave me a whole different perspective.
MJA: I’ve always been attracted to fantasy horror like Pan’s Labyrinth which is like a fantasy fable, but there’s a lot of horrific elements in it. I know this isn’t a horror movie, but The Lord of the Rings was very influential. I saw it when I was 11. There are a lot of images and creatures and things that are very horrific. I think that was probably my first introduction to horror. The first horror movie I ever saw, or maybe the first one that left a significant impression on me was The Blair Witch Project. I think that kind of power that a movie can have over someone where you’re literally scared to go in the woods for months was something that was really profound. It was terrifying that a piece of media could do that. That’s when I started delving into horror. The horror movies that stick with me are the ones I love.
BPS: When I was a little kid I was obsessed with mythology and folklore and urban legends. I was terrified of horror when I was kid, but I think there’s a transition that happens between having an interest in all that kind of storytelling and you eventually find your way into horror. A lot of [folklore and urban legends] are cautionary tales. A lot of horror is modeled after that type of storytelling. I grew up in northern Vermont in this tiny little town. We had a video rental store and a gas station and that was it. My friends and I would go and rent a stack of VHS horror and just watch them over and over again, and I just got hooked.
CD: My story is similar to Brandon’s. I grew up in a family of creeps. I’m the youngest of four. My mom always loved gothic horror and ghosts and mansions, and my dad was more into crime and film noir. So between the two of them, they raised a bunch of kids who are also obsessed with art and monsters and death and dying. By the time I was five, there was a lot of creepy stuff going on, so I earned and learned a palette for monsters and horror really early. It’s always been a part of my world. There’s always been a place for monsters.
With so much CGI in modern horror films, it’s refreshing to see practical makeup effects at the forefront of DEATH DROP GORGEOUS. Tell me about the movie’s gory set pieces.
BPS: It was important to make the gore as graphic as possible. One of the great things about ’80s slashers is the rewatchability of those films. Some of those plots are paper-thin, but the gore’s so fun you want to return and watch these movies again. I wanted to make sure that was a huge part of our film, too. So even if you hate the story, you might want to go back and watch the kills
We reached out to Victoria Elizabeth Black from Dragula, and she had a website with a little horror shop set up, and she did special effects. I sent her an email and she got back to me fairly quickly. She and her partner drove up from Orlando and did three of our really big scenes. They were super-professional. It was very realistic and very graphic. The other person who did our special effects was Scott Miller who lives in Massachusetts about two hours from us, and he came down and did the other half of the special effects. Otherwise, as a crew, we Macgyvered some stuff together like the heel in Chris’ eye…we were able to do that ourselves. It worked out really well. It looked great on camera, too.
CD: I’m still proud of that heel in my eye scene–not just because I’m center stage in that moment. Every time we’ve watched it with people, and there’s that spurt, everyone goes,”Ugh.”
You managed to snag some real horror movie royalty in the form of a legendary 1980s scream queen. How did you get Linnea Quigley (Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Demons) to appear in the film?
BPS: So Devon Hunt who scored a big chunk of our movie is really close friends with her. He was in a metal band called Sexcrement, and she starred in one of his videos. She was up at Salem Horror Fest and Devon and his friend Holly had contacted me and said, “We’re going to be hanging out with Linnea Quigley, do you want to come?” I said, “Abso-fuckin-lutely!” So we went up there and met her. Linnea’s just like this amazing, sweet, little benevolent creature who loves animals and is vegan. She’s such a cool person. We hung out with her for the night. We stayed in contact and asked her if she wanted to cameo in the movie. She didn’t even think twice. She was like, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” We filmed her scene in the parking lot of the hotel in Salem she was staying in, and it was a total blast. . . She’s a very sweet, crazy, fun person. I love her. I’m glad she’s still getting work, and people are starting to notice what an impact she’s had on horror. . .
The press release for DEATH DROP GORGEOUS calls the film an ode to the films of John Waters. What do Waters and his movies mean to you and how did his work influence the production?
CD: I just fuckin’ love John Waters! It’s his ability to be cynical, but also share a love for something that makes him great. John Waters has always been able to tear something apart–rip it apart–genuinely, but still be celebrating something. I think his depictions of queer chracters, queer monsters, and the dryness of some of his humor are things that have always resonated with me. You can make a point , but you don’t always have to be so serious about it. That’s something I love about his work.
BPS: One time I saw John Waters in Provincetown on his bike. He was riding by me, and I was like, “Oh, my God! It’s John Waters!” He turned around and went, “Ugh,” and kept going. [Laughs]
PSJ: I probably see him at least twice a day riding his bicycle up and down Commercial Street here in Provincetown. He likes nothing more than not to be noticed. [Laughs]
MJA: So it would be a bad idea to give you a copy of DEATH DROP GORGEOUS to give to him?
PSJ: Oh, no. I’ll just throw right out the window at him!
CD: Stick it in his bike spokes! [Laughs]
MJA: I think the passion and the wild time that John Waters and his cast and crew are obviously having in his films is the same as what we were doing. It was a bunch of our friends, and we were making a movie and just going for it. I was watching Female Trouble a couple of months ago and it was almost like this weird validating experience. It felt like I was in good company. That script is so smart in ways that you wouldn’t think, When you listen to the dialogue you realize that it’s written really well. It’s clearly coming through that they all believed in the project and I think that’s also what happened with our cast. Everyone came to set and believed in the project.
What’s the reaction to Death Drop Gorgeous been like so far?
CD: We’re basically famous!
MJA: There have been handfuls of people that get it, that enjoy it, that know what it is and are having a blast with it. And there are people that don’t get it who need films that are high-budget and have crazy production value. We made this film on a budget that would only cover a transitional scene in a Hollywood movie. Sometimes, it’s disheartening to read things from folks who just dismiss it because of that. I think if you sit down and you’re ready to have a good time, you’re going to love the movie. It’s been a mixed bag, but the people who get it, fucking get it. It’s been really validating to read some of these glorious reviews that make me feel like a real filmmaker.
BPS: You’re not going to make every horror fan happy. When people see LGBTQ horror, they assume it’s going to be a TED Talk about how you should talk about gay people, and everybody gets all frustrated and weird about it. We’ve had some reviews where people were like, “Another movie not made for me.” This story is based on the experiences of queer people. If you want to watch it, go right ahead, but our target audience is pretty vast. We’re targeting horror fans, LGBTQ people, and anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider. We also wanted to make the LGBTQ horror movie we wanted to see because it wasn’t out there. I feel like we haven’t gotten the proper representation yet. I wish people would calm down a little bit and watch the movie first before making all their accusations, but that’s just horror in general. You’re not going to make everyone happy, and that’s totally fine.
What are you working on next?
MJA: We are in the middle of production on our second feature which will be called Saint Drogo. Payton is also in it. It’s going to be a lot different than DEATH DOP GORGEOUS, but it’s going to be very magical, eerie, spooky, and still in the horror genre. We’re about 60 percent done with production. We’re hoping to wrap by the end of winter or the beginning of spring. We have a little teaser, concept trailer up. Look for it on Vimeo to see what we’ve accomplished so far.
CD: Saint Drogo is still deeply cynical, but less of a satire. The humor is not like DEATH DROP GORGEOUS, but it represents a darker edge of queer culture. That’s where Saint Drogo triumphs as a scary story for gay people.
Any final words of wisdom?
BPS: If you’re out there and have a story to tell, make your own movie. Fuck everyone else, tell your story! Everyone has this Hollywood standard in mind of what a movie’s supposed to look like, but there are so many homemade films out there that are gold. Tangerine was filmed with an iPhone and made it all the way to the Oscars. Don’t be afraid to do your own thing. The resources are out there. The community is out there. Just do it.
MJA: I’ll second that. We were able to do this film with the budget we had because our community stepped up for us. They jumped on board. We had talented people like Payton who were down for this silly, silly ride. So collaborate. Use your community. We need stories. We need new, fresh, poignant stories. We don’t need another remake or another reimagining. I don’t need a computer built by Netflix to write me algorithms for scripts. I need fresh, creative brains and ideas.
CD: My only words of wisdom are: “Don’t take yourself too seriously” and “Listen to whatever Payton St. James is about to say.”
PSJ: [Laughs] You just think I’m wise because I’m as old as the Sphinx. I look like Yoda, but I’m not wise! Honestly, the thing that I learned from being involved in DEATH DROP GORGEOUS and everybody who put their heart and soul into it, and all of the work, and the time, the dedication, the blood, the sweat, and the tears, is that if anybody out there wants to do something–if you have a passion or an idea or something in the middle of your gut that’s telling you, “I have to do this”–trust the sound of your own voice. That’s the most important thing. If you do that, you can do anything.
DEATH DROP GORGEOUS is available now on VOD from Darkstar Pictures.