In a small town in the middle of anywhere America the blood red letters of Hell splash across Old Town's welcome sign. Hell Town, U.S.A. is home to prom queens, comatose widows, and in-the-closet football players. It's also home to a masked murderer — the Letter Jacket killer.
"It's Hitchock meets 90210," laughs Owen Lawless, the actor who plays the closeted Jesse. "Really, you're laughing more than you're scared."
Lawless isn't kidding. Director Steve Balderson's film Hell Town is chuckle-inducing and often hilarious. But it's also a slasher flick filled with gory deaths and moments of suspense in dark warehouses, quiet lumberyards, and the kitchen of a pastry shop.
"When I was a kid watching soap operas with my mom ... it would be a wedding and then they'd machine-gun everybody," says Balderson. Inspired by these ridiculous soap opera moments, Balderson says that all of his work has over-the-top elements. That approach seems to work for Balderson, who currently has 13 films under his belt (one has yet to be released), and the affections of famed film critic Roger Ebert, who called Balderson "brilliant."
That brilliance shines through in Hell Town, an 86-minute film broken up into three "episodes." The opening narrator tells us that the three episodes we're about to see are part of an un-released TV series, Hell Town. This structure sets up the soap opera aspect of the film, quickly developing characters through flashbacks. From these flashbacks we learn that one girl has been established as promiscuous, one woman has fallen into a coma, one son has returned from juvi, and one jock has had his, well, he's had his penis chopped off and his throat slit. The stage is set.
"We knew everyone had to die," says Balderson who co-directed the film with Elizabeth Spear. Balderson says that the writers' shared sympathies helped them craft the funny, scary, very bloody film. With similar senses of humor, the two went to work creating a town in which high school kids have sex, fight, sometimes murder, and often die.
"High school is a great point at which to make a story happen," says Balderson, "It's the first time you're experiencing shit you'll be experiencing for the rest of your life."
High school diva Chanel, played by Amanda Deibert, spends most of the film plotting against her rival, pretty, blonde, boy-crazy Trish. With lines like "he took my other virginity," Trish is the perfect foil to Chanel, the borderline alcoholic working three jobs while her mom's in a coma. "She's my favorite character I've ever played," says Deibert, "She's a delightful, crazy bitch."
While Chanel's out to get Trish, someone else is out to get the school's jocks, quickly killing off secondary characters by strangulation, cane beatings, and head bludgeonings. "Some of the scenes are less gruesome, like the shower scene in Psycho," says Balderson. "The audience uses their imagination."
"When an actor does his work ... you substitute what would make you nervous," Lawless says. He's referring to one scene in particular, where his character is waiting for something to happen. It's a horror film, so you can imagine that whatever it is, it can't be good. He says that he drew from real life experiences to develop the role, a gay guy who's trying really hard to get Trish to take him to prom. "I lived with a roommate who was very over-compensating and I applied that to Jesse," says Lawless.
Balderson also admits to drawing from real-life acquaintances when creating Hell Town's characters. Balderson used his home town as the setting for the film, knowing that Wamego, Kansas fit the bill for a nondescript small town. "We could close the streets off and shoot and not worry about it," says Balderson, who shot the film in just two months last year. Deibert who has worked with Balderson before says that one of his greatest qualities is his ability to shoot efficiently in a short amount of time, without wearing down his actors.
"There's so much physicality and epic girl fights. It's exhausting, but so much fun," says Deibert. She says that cast get-togethers post-shooting helped wind down the day, as well as remind everyone that they weren't actually living a horror story. "Being scared and dying does weigh on you," says Deibert.
Lawless says he doesn't even like horror films and there's one scene in particular that gets to him. "I felt disgusted afterwards," he says. "I knew we were just playing and you're trying to sell it the best you can. I kept telling myself, it's made up, it's made up."
Deibert had her share of obstacles as well, since she was in her first trimester of pregnancy during the shoot. Deibert laughs remembering the day she shot one of her most gruesome scenes. "I thought 'oh my god, what if today's the day I get morning sickness?" Luckily, the sickness didn't kick in until the day after the take.
Hell Town has enough gratuitous moments to induce sickness, though — morning or otherwise. Deibert says she'll never be able to eat a donut again (we won't tell you why, you'll have to see for yourself). Suffice it to say, there was a lot of blood squirting around. But Lawless let us in on a trade secret: fake blood tastes like peppermint. "The taste is specifically for actors who will have blood in their mouths. It's starch-like and really thick. The first take [with fake blood] I threw my head back too hard and it was streaming down my throat. So that was fun," says Lawless.
With death, mystery, and plenty of peppermint, Hell Town hits all the marks of a satiric slasher film. "Hell Town is like some of my other [high school] films on crack. The rivals are bitchier, the cat fights are bigger, and everything's more gruesome," says Balderson.