A local demon's curse lives on in the locally-produced horror film 'Saint Lucifer's.'
By Matthew T. Everett
MAY 29, 2000: "That damned place is a shrine in the antechamber of Hell."
That's how a 19th-century postmaster describes an East Tennessee monastery in the fictional story behind Saint Lucifer's, a grim and gruesome independent horror film being produced in Knoxville this summer. The monastery had been, according to the story, the scene of a series of brutal child-torture ceremonies in the 1850s, and had long been regarded as haunted by a ravenous ancient demon named the Hungry One.
The Hungry One's lurking malevolence had been felt before the events at Saint Lucius monastery, first by the Cherokee inhabitants of the area and then by a group of white settlers who were consumed in a nocturnal onslaught of the demon's pet giant rats. And his presence was felt after the monastery closed, when the site was home to the Saint Lucius mental asylum, where the maniacal administrator, Dr. Leviticus Hayes, enacted bloodthirsty and sadistic rituals on the patients.
And, as the movie has it, the site is still haunted by the Hungry One.
John Riggs, a local self-styled mentalist, investigator of paranormal activity, and the screenwriter for Saint Lucifer's, says the movie is a mix of local legends and facts based on an abandoned mental asylum off of Lyon's View Drive. The asylum really was once part of the Eastern State and Lakeshore mental health facilities, and Riggs says horrible stories about the area have circulated for years. While tales about the monastery and the settler-devouring rats are fictional, Riggs is convinced that there's a sinister force at work behind other stories, like the supposed reports he mentions of abuse and cruelty at the facility between the 1940s and '60s and the rumors of satanic activity at the abandoned building in the 1970s, after land around the building had been flooded, cutting it off from the rest of the Lakeshore facility.
"It's a mixture of fact and urban legend," Riggs says, sitting in the tiny west Knoxville office of Ambrosius Productions, a commercial video and film production company that is helping to produce Saint Lucifer's. It's a strange place for the birth of a horror picture, housed as it is in a manicured suburban office complex with pristine landscaping and what seems like acres of parking. Heavy and jocular, with a gleam in his eyes that's more mischievous than sinister, Riggs thumbs a heavy book titled The History of Witchcraft in his large hands as he talks about the movie. "I thought it would be a great place for a movie, that something evil lived there and got out. I know a little bit about the history of Lakeshoremy grandmother was a nurse there, and she talked about the rats and abuse, and I worked there a couple of years while I was in college. A lot of gruesome things happened out there. You have to wonder if more than human evil was involved."
Riggs joined David Roberts and Andy Anderson of Ambrosius and producers Harry Dinwiddie and Sergio Valenzuela last fall to found Otherworld Pictures. Except for Dinwiddie"I cry at Benji movies," he saysthe group shares a love of horror movies, from classics like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to '50s camp like The Giant Leeches, a copy of which perches on a table in the Ambrosius office. They all drop references to H.P. Lovecraft and the Basket Case movies like other men talk about sports statistics.
None of the five had any experience in the film industry before beginning work on Saint Lucifer's. Roberts had worked as a projectionist in Texas while he did freelance video production work, and says he used to spend more time watching movies at the theater than watching television. Riggs, who performs mental tricks under the stage name Jon Saint-Germain and writes trade books for magic societies, simply focused his interest in the supernatural and the stories about Lakeshore into the screenplay, his first. Now they think they can not only sell Saint Lucifer's, but that they can establish East Tennessee as a hub of independent filmmaking.
Since the fall, Otherworld Pictures has tried to create a national underground buzz with its website (http://saintlucifers.com) and the endorsement of the white-guys-in-makeup shock-rap duo Insane Clown Posse. ICP will appear in a brief cameo and add new music to the soundtrack, along with their associates Twizted and local hard rockers Galaxie. Hundreds of ICP fans have logged on to the guest book at the Saint Lucifer's web site, though most of the messages they've left are unprintable.
None of the members of Otherworld Pictures will reveal plot details, nor will they reveal the special effects that will be used in the movie. But information about the legends around the abandoned asylum and the movie's characters has been available on the website for several months, leaving fans with plenty to speculate about. And there are several shots of the Hungry One's glowing yellow eyes.
"There will be obvious comparisons to The Blair Witch Project because of the Internet thing," Roberts says. "With the story there's no comparison, but we learned a lot from that. We learned that you can build an audience."
The story centers around four college students and, presumably, their fight against the newly-unleashed forces of the Hungry One.
The stars are all veterans of the Knoxville stage: Michelle Torres plays Abigail Brennen, a young woman with a lifelong interest in the occult whose aunt, a practicing witch played by Nancy Dinwiddie, uncovered the lurking evil at the asylum in the 1960s; Jack Paglen plays Rob Clifford, a young man with a tormented past who is obsessed with Abigail; Kathleen Kaplan plays Deana Montgomery, Rob's girlfriend and Abigail's roommate; and Damon Pitt plays Josh Collins, described by Torres as "the hunky nice guy." All four of the principal actors have worked together in the University of Tennessee's Clarence Brown Theatre, on productions ranging from The Seagull to The Threepenny Opera, and Torres and Paglen will travel together this summer to Slovakia for a performance of Orestia.
During rehearsals, the actors read from the script to prepare for their videotaped performances, adjusting their stage training to the different expectations of a film audience. "The specificity of action is different," says Torres, looking decidedly unhorrific in a lacy white blouse and bright red skirt. "Of course you pay attention to it on the stage, but generally, from night to night there are small shifts. On film you can't do that... On film, looking down or up is a big choice. It's a big change getting used to it."
These rehearsals, which will continue until shooting actually begins this summer, are generally low-key, but the incongruity of producing a horror movie in an innocuous office complex in Cedar Bluff has created some minor problems.
"The secretaries in some of the other offices have complained," Paglen says, grinning. "They said it sounded like someone was being murdered in here."
Murder may not be central to the plot of the movie, but it certainly plays a role in the events leading up to the actual storyline of Saint Lucifer's. A secondary character, who will appear in the prologue to the movie, is Dr. Leviticus Hayes, played by Clarence Brown actor Tony Cede-o. Hayes was the administrator of the fictional Saint Lucius asylum in the 1960s when reports of abuse first surfaced. The scion of a prominent Tennessee family and committed narcotic addict, he degenerates under the spell of the Hungry One into a debauched madman who performs unnecessary lobotomies on patients and engineers sadistic, unspeakable ritual abuse at the asylum. The abuse is eventually uncovered by Abigail's aunt and a state official, masquerading as an orderly, played by Steve Dupree. The asylum is closed, but the Hungry One's power lingers, awaiting a rebirth.
Riggs is introspective about the movie, insisting that it's not just a story about a monster living under a hill in East Tennessee who comes alive to devour a group of college students. He says it's not campy, like The Evil Dead, the one great classic of East Tennessee horror movies, and it's not a postmodern horror movie about horror movies.
"Philosophically, Saint Lucifer's is retro-horror, back to when horror had a story to tell," Riggs says, tugging at the trim salt-and-pepper beard above his ICP T-shirt. "It's got plot development, the mythic structure. There are even elements of the hero's journey in it."
But the filmmakers insist that Saint Lucifer's will be a terrifying picture. "There are two prologues, about 10 minutes each, that will have the audience either squirming or headed for the aisles," Roberts, the movie's director, says. "There's one scene where my first inclination was, 'I don't want to direct this scene.' Then I figured that if it got a response like that from me, what kind of response would it get from an audience?"
An eight-week production schedule begins in early June, with most of the shooting to be done, appropriately enough, at night at the John Williams home on Dandridge Avenue in downtown Knoxville. While it's not as creepy as the abandoned asylum building that influenced the story, Riggs says the Williams property has its own gruesome reputation.
"The lady across the street said it has a slave history," Riggs says. "There are unconfirmed rumors of dozens of bodies buried out there... There's supposed to have been a lot of spooky activity out there."
Unlike most feature films, Saint Lucifer's will be shot entirely with digital video, which Roberts says is just as good as traditional film but much cheaper and more easily adapted for computer-generated special effects. It's also a growing trend, he says, especially among independent filmmakers.
When production is complete, the members of Otherworld Pictures will try to sell the film to a major distributor for national release. With attention from the website and support from the ICP, the filmmakers expect Saint Lucifer's to draw big crowds across the country.
"It's a return to the good old supernatural horror-suspense stories," Roberts says, contrasting the movie to the recent trend of self-referential, campy Hollywood horror movies. "There's a big twist at the end, and you'll care about what happens."
It's hard to tell exactly how successful Saint Lucifer's will be. The producers won't discuss financing, and they have yet to get a distribution deal. And, though Roberts claims that the script is exceptional, no one outside the production has seen it.
The members of Otherworld Pictures, however, are committed not only to Saint Lucifer's but to several projects over the next few years. Roberts says they have other script ideas waiting for development, and that they intend to establish themselves as part of a noticeable East Tennessee film industry.
"Saint Lucifer's is going to be some pretty horrible stuff, and it's homegrown, made right here," Riggs says. "It'll be scary."
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