Queen of the Dead is a new surreal horror film written and directed by Justin Bernard Head of Slasher Films.
In Queen of the Dead, a young woman is stalked by a masked cult that want to make her their leader.
Watch the film now!
A Q&A with writer and director Justin Bernard Head
Congratulations on the release of Queen of the Dead this evening! A visually stunning film with a tense atmospheric quality throughout. How did you come up with the concept for the film?
Justin Bernard Head: Thank you so much and thank you, especially for the kind words. Well, the conception of Queen of the Dead came from wanting to do a lot of things. I wanted to make a film about a cult, I wanted to make a film that was very surreal and I wanted to make a film that was in black and white. I love black and white horror movies from the ’30s and ’40s. I had tried making a black and white horror film in my teens (my first film) to lesser results. This was an opportunity to make something much more gothic and so I really honed in everything I wanted to do based on those core elements I just mentioned. I also felt this was an opportunity to shed some light on Wicca. I conducted a lot of research on the founder of Wicca and the core elements of the religion. It especially helped that my production designer, Francesca Parodi, really took to the Wiccan aspect of the script. Buying up all kinds of items, trinkets and applying her own knowledge of the subject herself. I also distilled it down to focusing on this female protagonist who, much like the ones in my previous two films, Renaissance and I Laugh on the Outside, was dealing with an existential crisis. So the film becomes this very surreal and existential journey almost about finding what her place is in all of this.
Understanding that Queen of the Dead is a surrealist horror movie, were you influenced by other films in this subgenre?
JBH: Yes, I took heavy influence from the films of a horror movie producer from the 1940s named Val Lewton. I took elements from Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, but I took major influence from his film The Seventh Victim. It’s about a woman searching for her sister who she soon finds is part of a Satanic cult. My main protagonist gets her name Jacqueline Gibson from the sister in The Seventh Victim. There were also films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, Eyes Wide Shut, Haxan, The Innocents, Onibaba, City of the Dead, The Wicker Man and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls that were big influences. Heavy influence from the works of David Lynch, particularly Eraserhead. A couple of non-horrors such as the surrealist shorts Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising really informed Queen, particularly the former. Also a thriller from the ’50s called Night of the Hunter.
The cinematography is top-notch here with the majority of the film shot in black and white. Tell us about your vision and the mood you created.
JBH: Thank you! Shout out to my DP Ayrton Carrazco on that, he truly has a keen sense for bringing visuals to life. I wanted to create this dark, gothic, brooding mood piece that reflected both the black and white horror films of the past as well as informing the protagonist’s inner struggles. The only bright spots are flashbacks shot and presented in color to reflect a different time frame. I was also very into creating a dark world that only got stranger as the film went along until it reached its zenith. It must also be said, Ayrton was innovative in that I wanted to film to especially reflect those older films in their aspect ratio, presented in 4X3 square full frame. He had bought this anamorphic lens from a company Vormax Lens. He didn’t want to just shoot the movie 16×9 and then crop it in post to full frame. So he got the idea to mount the anamorphic lens, sideways and thus meaning the image would be stretched horizontal as opposed to most anamorphics which stretch vertically. Also opposite is the image is stretched horizontally to create a widescreen vista. Since we were going the full frame route, the image was stretched horizontally and was condensed vertical to get that box frame. Adding to this was our location choices and production design. I chose a lot of locations that were very vintage to reflect that older look but also to give things a sense that the film could take place at any time. Might not be modern day but might not be that far in the past either. There’s a timelessness that I love implementing in my films.
I wanted to create this dark, gothic, brooding mood piece that reflected both the black and white horror films of the past as well as informing the protagonist’s inner struggles—Justin Bernard Head
The miniature effects, including the cemetery set, really stand out. Why did you decide to include miniature work in the film?
JBH: I had always wanted to experiment with miniatures and I had two years prior made friends with Charles Land who was experienced with making latex moulds and also miniatures. He had an opportunity to make a latex severed head for my previous film I Laugh on the Outside and I knew he really wanted to put his skills in making miniatures to use. So when I wrote about the cemetery in the script, I really wanted to give Charles this new chance to shine. Also, I’ve always loved miniatures in movies and I am very much all about practical effects work in my films. So I really thought it would be neat to have miniatures in the film. Regardless of whether it looked perfect or had that miniature look, I was fine either way because I was all about everything having both a homemade feel as well as giving the movie a sense of artificialness like a lot of older horror movies do. What’s funny is the miniatures took a whole day to shoot. In fact, some of it was still being knocked together on the shooting day because of Charle’s attention to detail. He was looking to get everything right down to the last speck. So as a result, we devised multiple shots, Ayrton and I, as opposed to the one wide establishing shot that was originally planned because of Charle’s extra work. We literally shot the miniatures in his apartment, on the floor of his kitchen and we engulfed the whole place in fog. So when he opened the door, after we finished shooting, the fog was rolling out of his apartment!
There are some really standout scenes in Queen of the Dead. Without giving too much away, tell us one of your favourite scenes to film and why?
JBH: My favorite scene would actually have to be the first scene in the cemetery because it has such an odd artificial look to it. It was literally a small set in our assistant director Brandon Petersen’s garage. We had grey backdrops all around, fake grass bought from hardware stores, Halloween decoration headstones and the room was shrouded in fog. We had our cult members dressed in black gowns, which were graduation gowns, and Halloween masks I got from the 99 cent store. It’s my favorite partially because of the look, with the fog and shot choices, it feels like its taking place in another world, not in a cemetery you could find anywhere nearby. The lighting also helped with that as Ayrton lit the scene entirely with blacklight to give it this odd glow. It’s also my favorite scene because of how much hard work went into making it. That scene was shot in late July on a day that got to be 90 plus degrees outside, which meant it got to be 100 plus degrees inside. My assistant director and I had rules in place. One was that only essential crew such as sound crew, camera or director, of course, was allowed on set once we started shooting a scene with actors to limit the body heat in the room. Two was once we got done with a few takes of a shot, we switched out actors with crew so we could set up the next shot. Third and most important rule was to stay hydrated. In between scenes, we had Brandon’s living room to relax in and get our heads together on what we were shooting next. It wasn’t a fun scene to shoot it must be said, especially to live through but looking on it now knowing what we went through, makes me appreciate that scene all the more.
Sponsored Feature: Slasher Films