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Central Standard

Kansas City Filmmaker Todd Sheets On Making Horror Movies

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3

Don't ask Todd Sheets about the first horror film that he made.

"It's godawful," he told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR's Central Standard. "Anything I made before '93 I kind of disowned."

Sheets started making horror movies in the late 1980s in Kansas City. He quickly earned a cult following; he was even dubbed the "Prince of Gore."

He grew up going to movies. His first childhood memory was of seeing Night of the Living Dead on a triple bill. From that point, he was fascinated by the genre.

He was raised at the grindhouses — theaters that would show mainly exploitation movies all day and half the night until midnight. That's where the "B" movie came into play, he said; they were the second movie on the bill that was paired with the "A" pictures, which were studio productions.

The movies that the grindhouses showed were crazy, he said.

"That kind of stuff seemed normal to me. We were always sitting around, trying to figure out ways to shock people ... it wasn't malicious, it was more like, 'oh boy, wait 'til they get a load of this,'" he said.

He enjoyed the excitement of these films and he liked how they didn't resemble other movies, with their off-kilter camera angles and saturated colors.

When he started making movies, he was lucky because he hit the cusp of the video boom, he said.

"Distributors needed product, and the product was more the low-budget, the "B" movie stuff. As Joe Bob Briggs said, the 3 Bs: blood, breasts and beasts," he said.

"We basically hit all the things that the major studios are afraid to touch. The independent guys have to touch it because that's what gets us in the stores," Sheets added.

"We were the films that people actually bought and took home from the video stores, and that's what made the video stores huge at the time ... we took pride in supplying them with movies that people would want to watch."

In 1993, Sheets made Zombie Bloodbath, the first film where he really put in a lot of effort, he said.

Then, the Great Flood of 1993 happened. A lot of locations where they wanted to film were submerged. He remembered filming at Park University, and when they'd stop at 3 or 4 in the morning, he'd take a load of zombies to help sandbag the river.

He also recalled seeing coffins shooting down the road. But he didn't want to put that in his movie.

"Even though I'm a horror filmmaker, I still thought it was in bad taste," he said. "For me, I just didn't want to cross that line."

Making horror movies has not desensitized Sheets to real-life horrors.

In 2005, he lost Dennis Kingsolver, a friend who died at the Catacombs Haunted House in an elevator shaft accident.

"We grew up together; he was like a brother to me and he died basically right there in my arms. It was a horrible, horrible thing," he said.

"A lot of people complain that horror will make you desensitized," he said. "I've shot the grossest stuff you can imagine, and it did not affect me in any way like that; it did not desensitize me to the reality of death and the horrible things out there."

Sheets took a break from making movies after losing his friend. He described Kingsolver as one of his biggest supporters, one who gave him the sixth floor of the Catacombs to use as studio space.

"I think his passing hurt me in so many ways, I didn't feel like (making movies) anymore," he said.

After a seven-year hiatus from filmmaking, he missed it, and he was planning on coming back. He had started writing a script when, in 2012, he had a heart attack.

He needed quadruple bypass surgery and was in the hospital for 31 days. He thought he would die in there.

"I did make myself  a promise that if I do get out of here, I'm getting back to what I love. I'm going to make horror movies," he said.

While in the hospital, he finished the script that he had been working on. That film, The House of Forbidden Secrets, came out in 2013.

His latest film, Dreaming Purple Neon, makes its world premiere Friday night at Screenland Armour.

He describes it as a return to old-school filmmaking, with no computer-generated special effects.

"It will remind you of the glory days," he said.

"You've got the splatter film kind of mentality going. It's gross — I'm not going to kid. We've pushed every button known to man on this one."

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.