Horror in store: Wreak Havoc Festival to premiere Stephen King adaptation
*Editor’s note: The name Devlin Burke was misspelled in the print version of this article, and has been corrected online.
Those prolific picture-makers at Wreak Havoc Productions are back in action – readying the fifth annual “Wreak Havoc Horror Festival,” which runs Sept. 20 and 21 at RED Cinemas in Greensboro, and putting the finishing touches on their latest production, Uncle Otto’s Truck, based on the Stephen King short story, which will enjoy its world premiere at the festival.
“We received 123 submissions this year and whittled it down to an official selection of 47 short films, six feature films, and two VR (virtual reality) films,” Dan Sellers, president of Wreak Havoc Productions and screenwriter/editor/producer/director of Uncle Otto’s Truck. The selection process was incredibly difficult this year, but we were thankful to have more screen time to play with than in years past, which allowed us to accept more films than we ever have. This is our biggest official selection yet!” (For a complete list of the selections, see www.wreakhavochorrorfilmfest.com.)
“I’m really excited for the move to RED Cinemas,” said Wreak Havoc vice-president Sammie Cassell. “The expansion of the festival, the ability to get food and eat in the theater, seeing our films on a big theater screen – it’s exciting! And North Carolina has brought it this year! Killer Assistant, from South Carolina, is a funny short. Here There Be Monsters is amazing, and my favorite feature is Artik (about) a comic-book serial killer – that movie got me!”
“Every year the films we select continue to surprise me and this year is no different,” Sellers said. “One thing we’ve managed to do is provide a wide array of horror films, so there’s something for everybody. We’ve got brutal and gory slashers, we’ve got hilarious, goofy comedies, and we’ve got dramatic emotional thrillers, too. I’m also proud to say that this year’s festival features the most local filmmakers from the Triad and the Carolinas in previous years. Attending the festival is a great way to meet and mingle with other filmmakers.”
In addition to Uncle Otto’s Truck, in which he acted, produced, and catered, Cassell also appears in the festival selections Silent Breath, directed by Josh Mabe, and It’s All Fun and Games, directed by Brad Thomasson.
Sellers and the Wreak Havoc contingent were able to secure permission to film Uncle Otto’s Truck through the “Dollar Baby” program, in which King gives his approval to make an adaptation of one of his short stories – for one dollar. The author, however, retains all rights to his work and the films cannot be shown commercially without his approval.
Perhaps the best-known example was one of the first: The Woman in the Room (1983), which initially appeared in King’s 1978 anthology “Night Shift” and marked the directorial debut of a fledgling filmmaker named Frank Darabont. King was impressed enough to grant Darabont the rights to adapt another short story, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (originally published as a novella in King’s “Different Seasons”). The resulting feature, 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, was one of the most acclaimed King adaptations ever, earning seven Academy Award nominations and cementing Darabont’s status as a filmmaker. He has since helmed the King adaptations, The Green Mile (1999) and The Mist (2007).
As one of the most successful writers in history, King is understandably protective of works bearing his name. In 1992, he successfully sued the producers of the feature film The Lawnmower Man because it was billed as “Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man.” Anyone who’s seen the movie or read King’s original short story, which was written in 1975, knows there’s scant resemblance between the two.
“Per our contract with Mr. King, we’re fairly restricted by what we can do with the film,” Sellers explained. “We’re not allowed to sell the film with screenings, home-video, digital screening, or theatrical distribution. We also cannot sell merchandise for the film, either. One of the most important rules is that we use the credit ‘Based on a Short Story by Stephen King’ as opposed to ‘Stephen King’s Uncle Otto’s Truck, which is something I’m totally fine with, as Mr. King wasn’t part of our production but provided the source material, written 30-plus years ago.”
Aside from a few alterations, Sellers says the film is a faithful adaptation. “I didn’t think it was so important to transcribe the story into screenplay format but to adapt it and make it our own film. Some things have been cut out or condensed, and we swapped the gender of the main character – the narrator – as well. Having said that, almost all of the monologue and dialogue come straight from King’s words.”
Originally published in Yankee magazine in October 1983, Uncle Otto’s Truck was later included in King’s best-selling 1985 anthology “Skeleton Crew.” It’s a brooding tale of supernatural retribution, set in King’s familiar stomping grounds of Castle Rock, the setting of so many of his stories and novels.
“I was not familiar with the original story by King before researching Dollar Babies,” Sellers admitted, “but I read it and fell in love with it, and pursued the rights to make it. Uncle Otto’s Truck is one of the short stories that take place in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, so I was excited to have the opportunity to play in that world.”
Once they’d obtained permission, Wreak Havoc sought production funds from donors to make their cinematic dream a reality.
(Truth in disclosure: Yours truly was a donor, because I thought it would be cool to have my name associated with a Stephen King film.)
“I’ve been a fan of Stephen King’s work since I was a kid,” Sellers said. “His novels and short stories are so well written and fun to read. He uses an economy of words and cuts through a lot of the bullshit, but that’s just his writing style.
“The thing I probably enjoy the most about King’s work is the inter-connectivity that you sometimes find between characters and locations. That’s something I’m taking advantage of with our film, [and] the use of Stephen King ‘Easter eggs’ hidden all throughout the film.”
As Sellers previously noted, one change from page to screen is that the narrator is female. Then again, in George A. Romero’s 1993 adaptation of The Dark Half, Julie Harris played a character written as a male, and in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Morgan Freeman’s Red was originally an Irishman. Jennie Stencel, former WXII on-air personality and artistic director of The Idiot Box comedy club in Greensboro, was tapped for the role, and according to cinematographer Zack Fox, “was absolutely the best person for it.”
Stencel had not read the original story “until they sent me the script, but I loved it,” she said. “My mother loved King and anything macabre.”
The shoot “was hot, and I think we spotted some species of bugs never seen before,” she quipped, “but Wreak Havoc was amazing. Everyone works so hard, and really, my favorite part was how willing everyone was to try something in a new way. I’d love to work with them again. I think we made a really amazing film.”
Fox, a long-time Wreak Havoc collaborator, concurs. “Dan and I have developed a nice on-set short-hand and trust,” he observed. “He lets me take nice creative liberties. I pitched the idea of using a weird mixture of tilt-shift lenses and wide angles, and he completely supported it. I think everyone will be very pleased with how it comes out. The ‘above-and-beyond’ part of the shoot was our lead special effects/makeup artist Matt Patterson, and his wife, Michelle. They did an incredible job on the on-set effects with the blood and gore.”
Cassell had read Uncle Otto’s Truck “and I re-read it when Dan mentioned doing a short,” he said. “I absolutely love Stephen King! My mom gave me a copy of ‘It’ my freshman year in high school, and I fell in love. I then proceeded to catch up on all his books. To me, King gets the coming-of-age story better than anyone – with a twist. Those years can be strange and intimidating and scary, and King takes that to the nth degree.”
In addition to Stencil and Cassell, the cast includes Tom Gore, Lilie Butler, Devlin Burke, and Mike Burke as Uncle Otto. As for the titular truck, “I honestly can’t remember,” Sellers confessed, “but its name is Festus. I think the main components are (from) 1951, but it has parts from different trucks as well.”
Mike Burke, an unabashed King admirer, was also acquainted with the story. “I read it years ago and really enjoyed it,” he said. “I’m a fan of his work – he is a master storyteller. He takes normal people and puts them in extraordinary, and twisted, circumstances. One of the first books of his that I read was ‘The Stand.’ I love the way he took a horror trope – big scary virus eats the world – and showed how it impacted real people. ‘It’ scared the bejeebers out of me. I was living alone in an apartment, reading late at night, and frequently had to put the book down and walk away – sometimes even putting a newspaper to cover the book! He painted such wonderfully chilling pictures and evoked the small towns of the ’50s. As a child of the ’50s and ’60s, the reality resonated with me, making the horror more on point. Even books that I didn’t like at first reading, like ‘The Tommyknockers,’ I re-read later and found them delightful.”
Although Uncle Otto’s Truck is a short, Burke recognized the depth of the character. “I’ve done theater for 40 years; I love a role I can play with like this. What Otto perceives becomes his reality. His resignation and acceptance of his eventual doom is very appealing. And I got a chance to hang out on the set with one of my sons, who plays the young version of my character. That was a real joy.”
The production, Sellers said, “went fairly smoothly for the most part. It was a ton of hard work and very long days, with a lot of traveling involved. Principal photography was three days in the rural mountains of southwest Virginia. We had a few more days of second-unit shooting and voice-over recording in Greensboro, Mount Airy, and Madison. But it’s done, and I’m thrilled with the footage we have. I can’t wait for people to see it!”
This, of course, is only the latest Wreak Havoc production. In 2018, they unleashed a pair of documentary shorts — Ghosts of the Carolinas and Trouble Will Cause (the latter an examination of the infamous Lawson Murders on Christmas Day, 1929) – and earlier this year saw the release of Countdown to Midnight, a follow-up to their 2017 short Midnight Shift. Coming next is the short drama Sea Salt Wind, which marks Fox’s debut as writer, editor, producer, and director.
In addition, they continue to produce the self-explanatory Wreak Havoc Film Buffs Podcast, which recently celebrated its 100th episode, and the Carolina Haints Podcast, which explores Southern legends and myths, and which is scheduled to return for a third season on Sept. 20, the day the festival opens.
The fifth annual Wreak Havoc Horror Festival will take place Friday, Sept. 20 and Saturday, Sept. 21 at RED Cinemas, 1305 Battleground Ave., Greensboro. Tickets for one block of screenings are $8, tickets for two blocks of screenings are $12, one-day tickets are $16, and two-day tickets are $24. For advance tickets or more information, call (336) 230.1732 or visit the official RED Cinemas website or RED Cinemas Facebook page. You can also check out the official Wreak Havoc Facebook page.