– Samson Aslanian, co-creator of TORMENT
Thank goodness for unique names. When it comes to film research, you’re always happy to see a subject with a distinctive name, since common names can send you into Google seizures. The underrated thriller TORMENT (1986) gave me both in co-directors/writers/producers Samson Aslanian and John Hopkins. Sharp-eyed horror fans will probably recognize their names as production manager and assistant director, respectively, in the credits for THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1982) and THE POWER (1984), the first two features from another directing duo, Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter. Care to guess who I was able to locate? Not only was Sam Aslanian easier to find, he was also easy to approach and within days of our initial contact we were talking his feature debut TORMENT.
A first generation Armenian-American, Aslanian was born and raised in the city of San Francisco. Growing up, he had the desire to become a comic book illustrator and later a psychologist; little did he know that a vocation awaited him that would benefit from both interests. It was while in high school, where he enjoyed studying drama and art, that Aslanian first caught the filmmaking bug. “In twelfth grade they had advanced placement art and I was really excited,” he explains. “So I went in the first day and I realized they were going to do filmmaking for that semester. At first I was bummed and going to change classes, but then I thought I should just stick it out and I just really, really liked it.”
Post-high school Aslanian pursued college, but still felt unsure of his direction. It was a fortuitous meeting with a guidance counselor at San Francisco City College that soon sent him on his way. “I was sitting across from this really crusty counselor who had seen it all who goes, ‘So, kid, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I think I want to be a psychologist’ and he goes, ‘Is that what you really want to do?’ And I go, ‘No. No, I really want to be a filmmaker’ and he goes, ‘Then why the hell are you sitting here telling me you want to be a psychologist?’ And he pulls out stuff from USC and UCLA and showed me if you do this, this, and this you can get into these schools.”
Released theatrically by New Image in April 1982, THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (aka PRANKS; aka DEATH DORM) landed right in the middle of the slasher cycle and proved to be successful enough to warrant a second feature. The same team quickly reunited for the supernatural film THE POWER (1984) with Aslanian and Hopkins again picking up the same production duties. It was while wrapping up this sophomore feature that talk of a third film began. Having seen success in directing/writing duos, Obrow split his friends up into groups of two and gave them a specific twist to build a film around. Naturally, Aslanian and Hopkins were paired up with each other and quickly came up with their spin on Obrow’s plot point, which we won’t reveal here.
“John Hopkins and I went on a walk,” he reveals of the film’s genesis, “and we talked about the old ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. John remembered this one where there was a killer loose [after a] nurse and they lock up the house and they realize he is in the house. We kind of took that and riffed on it. Literally the TORMENT you see we came up with in about 45 minutes.”
The duo took their idea to Obrow who, surprisingly, didn’t like it. Not wanting to let a good idea go, they asked if they could develop it and Obrow agreed. Thus, TORMENT was born. By now living as roommates, Aslanian and Hopkins spent the next few months writing their script. “We would work on a job,” he says, “or I would go to school and come home and then we would spend the evening writing.”
Funding was obviously the first step. As with the two earlier features they had worked on, Aslanian and Hopkins looked toward their film school friends for support. “We went to our families and friends,” Aslanian explains of the film’s financing. “John put in a lot of the money, he had some family money. My parents and sisters put in money. It wasn’t very much money. It was back then, it seemed like the weight of the world to us. We had these cocktail parties at my parents’ house where we invited friends over and we sold $500 dollar shares [in the film].” In total, they amassed $100,000 to begin their film, which would ultimately it cost $160,000.
This support from friends also extended behind the camera. Many alumni from DORM and THE POWER returned and, in a bit of a role reversal, Stephen Carpenter worked as the director of photography for his former assistants and Jeffrey Obrow served as a production consultant. And Stacey Giachino, associate producer on both Obrow/Carpenter films and co-writer for DORM, came on as line producer.
Next up was casting the film, which proved to be hard despite the film only offering four major roles. Warren Lincoln, the obsessive boyfriend in THE POWER, came over to play the role of the young detective Michael Courtland; veteran stage star Eve Brenner essayed the role of Mrs. Courtland; and Taylor Gilbert was chosen via casting sessions in San Francisco to play Michael’s fiancée Jennifer.
The Aslanian home isolated via movie magic:
Filming took place over the course of 1984 with an initial shoot 10 day initial shoot and a few subsequent shoots to pick up sections. “It was shot piecemeal because we could never keep a crew for long enough to shoot a whole feature,” he relates. “So we shot in sections. The crew was our friends – David Cunningham, Walter Gorey and Chris Hopkins – guys that we went to school with who did multiple jobs. So when they were available, we’d say, ‘In three weeks we want to go and shoot for four days, can you take a couple of days off school?’”
He was great at sitting with them, going over their dialogue and blocking them. I’m not saying I didn’t do that and he didn’t work on the camera stuff too. It is just that is kind of how it split up after a while where I became more interested in the visuals and lighting schemes and John worked very well and hard with the actors.”
Working with trained theater actors such as Brenner and Witt also improved the production. There is a section in the middle of the film where the two elder characters play a bit of cat-and-mouse. This is Aslanian’s favorite section of the film and it was enhanced by some improvisation from the actors. “We would meet mid-morning and let those two improvise and then we would type that up as the evening’s scene,” he says of the organic developments. “It was just so much better than the stilted stuff we’d been writing. It was just a lot funnier and a lot fresher. [Witt] came up with the ‘Good Ship Lollypop’ thing. He had two daughters and said that’s what he sang to them. And so now he is demented so how would he [sing it].”
With their endeavor complete, the filmmakers began shopping their product around. As with the preproduction period, they knew the importance of getting it into the hands of the right people. “Sometimes young filmmakers make a movie and then don’t get the top quality people afterwards – the right attorneys, the right producers representatives. Our representative at the time was Jeff Dowd,” Aslanian says. Interestingly, Dowd – an eccentric who would later be the basis for Jeff Bridges’ character in THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1999) – was representing another thriller at the time by a directing duo. That film was Joel & Ethan Coen’s BLOOD SIMPLE (1984). Amusingly, a positive review of TORMENT in the L.A. Times compared it to Coen brothers’ debut.
One of the many atmospheric shots in TORMENT:
With Dowd’s help, the film was screened to various companies over the course of a week and eventually found a home at New World Pictures. “There were other people who wanted it, but they just weren’t willing to pay as much up front,” Aslanian recalls of the film’s studio courtship. “New World paid $400,000. We paid the crew, accountants and production representatives. In the end, for 25-year-olds making movies, we ended up with a nice payday.” Yes, TORMENT is that rare cinematic beast – a low budget film that actually made the creators money.
|TORMENT ad from Illinois|
New World rolled the film out across the country with 100 prints. Aslanian and friends were there front and center when the film opened in Los Angeles, only to find out their low-key ending didn’t satiate viewers hungry for blood. “We went to see it the first night in Westwood when it opened,” he says. “The audience – a bunch of UCLA kids – were really into it. And then it ended and the credits come up and the whole audience erupted in boos. And we were like, ‘Ohhh, shit.’ We were on such a high though. We were just so happy that it was out. It was a three year process. We were exhausted but happy to have money in our pockets and glad that it had good reviews. It was too late to do anything. In retrospect, we should have gone through the floorboards with a TERMINATOR kind of ending.”
TORMENT folks circa Halloween 1986:
Top (l-to-r): Jon Penney (co-editor), John Hopkins, Sam Aslanian, Earl Ghaffari (first AD, co-editor), Michelle Ghaffari
Bottom (l-to-r): Greg Hollobaugh (formerly Unknown Suicidal Man), DD Aslanian
“The first thing that happens is they didn’t want both characters to be African American. One brother is the Sheriff and the other brother is a con coming out of prison on parole. They said, ‘The other brother has to be a white guy.’” Aslanian relates with a sense of astonishment. “And then Warner Bros. chickened out on the White Supremacist thing. They said, ‘Let’s just make them mercenaries.’ Mercenaries that do what? So much was based on that fact that White Supremacists thought the white citizens of this town would fully turn against the Sheriff because he’s black. And in the end, they didn’t and stood right by him.”
(photo by Marc Webb)
Ironically, with only one feature film from the 1980s to his name, Aslanian has made a huge contribution to current cinema. While at DNA, he discovered and helped to develop two major talents – future blockbuster directors Francis (THE HUNGER GAMES) Lawrence and Marc (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN) Webb. “We started them both off as baby directors straight out of college,” he explains, “and we developed them into good music videos directors. Those guys work harder than anyone you’ve ever seen work in your life.”
Aslanian retired from the music video industry in 2005 (“I get bored after a while,” he jokes). He is currently a fine art photographer specializing in the artistic use of old film stock and has just released a collection of his work, Perspective Napa Valley. When asked for his thoughts on the film from 30 years ago, he is surprised and impressed that they were able to get so much done on so little amount of money. Even more impressive is that it was a 100% collaborative effort, a feat usually susceptible to conflict and tension. “It was very much a co-writing, co-directing, co-producing situation,” he says of the union that bore TORMENT. “John couldn’t have done it without me and I couldn’t have done it without John.”
Note: This entry should really read "Written by Bill Picard and William S. Wilson." Mr. Picard, the Internet's Miss Marple, not only turned me onto the film, but helped provide valuable research and questions for Mr. Aslanian. Also, we tried out damnedest to find John Hopkins, but such a common name combined with a certain private research University made that a tough one to crack. If you are out there, I hope you get a chance to read this and thanks for the movie!