Interview: Kevin Vanhook, director Haunted Prison

Over the last year and a half, director Kevin Vanhook has helmed four horror films: ‘The Fallen Ones,’ ‘Voodoo Moon,’ ‘Slayer’ and now ‘Haunted Prison.’  

You may have seen Vanhook’s work on Sci Fi Channel or Anchor Bay DVD. If you did, you may have noticed how each film strives to be more than just another widget off an assembly line of cheap scares.

At 9:00 PM on October 14, ‘Haunted Prison,’ starring Jake Busey and Stacy Keach, will premiere on the Sci Fi Channel.

It may be Kevin Vanhook’s most accomplished fright fest yet.

Recently, Vanhook sat down with Monsters & Critics to share the ins & outs of delivering solid genre thrills under a tight Hollywood system.

M&C:  What were the origins of ‘Haunted Prison’?

Vanhook:  I was dealing with some producers where we were going over a group of ideas to move forward on projects primarily for Sci Fi Channel (and) for Anchor Bay.

In having those conversations, one of the comments the Sci Fi guys made was that they really wanted to see a great Halloween film, something with ghosts.  And I didn’t really have a great haunted house story. 
As we started exploring it, we started throwing out the idea, “what if this was more of a prison?” 

Something that had a darker history and then perhaps it’s got this underlying thing about always being this home of executions.  There’s been so much death in the prison that that’s why the ghost activity was there.

In essence the story of “Death Row”, which is called “Haunted Prison” for the Sci-Fi Channel premiere, deals with a young group of filmmakers in college who have decided to do a documentary on this allegedly haunted prison, Isla De La Roca Penitentiary.  As we open up, they’re interviewing the last surviving person who ever actually worked (at the prison).  There was a great massacre fifteen years ago and pretty much everybody was slaughtered.  This guy survived and went a bit crazy.

(We) then cut to the prison and realize that a group of jewel thieves are holding up inside.  The young documentary group also arrives.  Both parties think the other one is doing something screwy because almost immediately mayhem ensues as we have people  starting to die left and right by the hands of the ghosts and the prison itself.

M&C:  And that’s where the fun begins.

Vanhook:  Yes.  And it’s pretty quick.  I mean it’s definitely the fastest paced film I think I’ve done.

M&C:   With a sizeable ensemble cast.  Is it difficult writing for that many characters as well as directing them?

Vanhook:  One of the greatest challenges for me on this film was dealing with the idea that I wanted to create distinctive personalities and voices for this many people and one of the things I’m very proud of is our casting. 

We work with a guy named Paul Weber for casting and I do my best to get across to him the types of people I have in mind.  He’s cast three of my films so he’s got a pretty good feel for the kinds of actors I’m looking for.

M&C:  The cast is quite believable and very entertaining and obviously you start off great because you have Stacy Keach on screen.

Stacy Keach photo by Melissa Di Meglio (c) 2006 Starz Productions

Stacy Keach photo by Melissa Di Meglio (c) 2006 Starz Productions

Vanhook:  Stacy’s wonderful. The role of Elias (the surviving prison guard), when I originally envisioned the script, was one of those roles that could shift among a handful of really strong actors. 

(When) Stacy Keach was proposed I thought it’d be great because not only is he a wonderful actor, he’s great to work with. He’s also kind of associated with prison films and that sort of thing. He currently plays a warden on “Prison Break.” Before he walks in the door you believe that he would be a guard.

M&C:  What about Jake Busey as Marco, the leader of the jewel thieves?

Vanhook:  I thought that it would be great to have this kind of person who can pull off the levels of madness. I had seen Marco as being a little bit more of a jerk than Jake begins playing the character. I think Jake wanted to make that arc a little bit more pronounced, you know, a little more likeable at the beginning.