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Friday, February 5, 2021

‘Hack/Slash’: Tim Seeley and Todd Lincoln Remember “The Ultimate Slasher Film” That Never Was [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

With this installment, we’ll be exploring the long-mooted yet sadly unproduced film versions of Hack/Slash, the long-running horror/action comic book created by Tim Seeley. Set in a world where supernatural slashers are real, Hack/Slash follows Cassandra “Cassie” Hack, a young woman who takes it upon herself to hunt down and kill slashers with the aid of her faithful sidekick Vlad, a hulking but loyal brute who hides his disfigurement behind an iconic gas mask.

For this article, we reached out to both Mr. Seeley and filmmaker Todd Lincoln (The Apparition, V/H/S Viral: Gorgeous Vortex), who developed the earliest iteration of this adaptation. Both men were kind enough to share their experiences on this project, how it would have brought the story of Cassie Hack to the big screen, and why it ultimately never came to pass.

“In 2004, I did the comic. As soon as we announced it, we started getting inquiries from people about doing a film version of it,” Mr. Seeley explains of the film project’s origins. “This was right after 30 Days of Night had an option for a million bucks. There was this sort of little mini-boom on the rights for comic book horror stuff. I had just started in comics two years before that. We heard from various producers. We had these two guys contact us, who went and represented it for us. We shopped around a bit. At the time, Rogue Pictures, which was headed up by Andrew Rona, was very interested in it. Rogue was part of Universal … it was sort of rebranded as the horror division of Universal, as far as I understood. Their sort of edict was to make more Chucky movies and that sort of thing, so Hack/Slash was perfect. So we got this offer for it, and it just blew our minds that someone was that interested. They bought the rights at the time via Universal.”

Describing his own early experiences with the project, Mr. Lincoln notes that he was one of the comic book’s earliest fans. “I actually bought the first issue of Hack/Slash the day it was released at my local comic book store and was blown away. I immediately saw it as a movie. It was the biggest no-brainer concept I had ever stumbled upon in the wild. I attempted to option it from Devil’s Due Publishing, but the rights had already been acquired by producers Adrian Askarieh and Daniel Alter at Prime Universe. By crazy coincidence, Adrian and Daniel approached me about Hack/Slash at the exact same time.

“For our first meeting at their office, I brought in several of my vintage, big box VHS slasher films, laid them out on the conference table and told them that the Hack/Slash movie should feel like a non-stop, dark ride rollercoaster combo of what these VHS covers and horror posters have always promised us. Soon after, Rogue Pictures/Universal contacted my agent Craig Gering at CAA to see if there were any projects I was interested in directing. I went into Rogue with the Hack/Slash comics, pitched them the movie and explained why this is what comic book and horror fans want to see. They immediately got it. We made a deal and we were off to the races. It was also important to me at every step of the process to check in with and involve Hack/Slash creator Tim Seeley. He and I became good friends. I constantly reached out to him to ask what he thought Cassie and Vlad would say or do in certain situations.”

“They moved really quickly,” Mr. Seeley reveals. “We were super impressed. Todd and I got along great. It was like … ‘This is going to happen!’ There was this big moment in there where I was like, ‘I’m breathing rare air! I’m gonna have this big media property! There’ll be ten movies!’ We got as far as scouting locations. Comcast came in and bought NBC/Universal. At some point, the company that was Universal sold off Rogue to Relativity Media. And then, just everything changed.”

Before we get to this version’s eventual dissolution, a quick look at its beginning: once Mr. Lincoln was signed onto the film as its writer/director, he partnered with co-writer Martin Schenk to adapt Mr. Seeley’s wild comic to the screen. “Martin and I were on a steady diet of slasher films, tacos, candy, and walking brainstorm sessions,” Mr. Lincoln describes. We’d take turns writing and playing survival horror video games. We worked really well together and filled up endless legal pads with illegible scrawl. He brought a lot to the table and was especially great with all the suburban/urban survivalist touches for Cassie and Vlad’s nomad lifestyle.

Our goal was to create the ultimate slasher film. A smart, scary, new-generation, hard-R frightfest with all the small details and character work of the best auteur films (not the boring ones). The heart of this movie is Cassie. A vulnerable, sympathetic, traumatized, socially inept, American teenage girl who is driven by fate and circumstance to save and protect the type of people she hates. She’s not some invincible Hollywood movie heroine. She’s a scrappy, reluctant, neo-goth/punk/dark wave girl who has fashioned her own style out of bargain bin clothes and is ready to beat the shit out of slashers with her spiked baseball bat. Cassie killed her own slasher-mom and now drives around the U.S. in a junker van, hunting slashers with her only friend in the world, Vlad. Vlad is kind of like Chewbacca meets Hellboy meets Lenny from Of Mice And Men. A self-taught, rejected freak, germophobe, and man-child. He’s logical, caring and protective with great fighting, technical and medical skills. Cassie and Vlad are blue-collar heroes with no money, no weapons supplier and no real training. They steal food from buffets, eat pork rinds from truck stops, and squeeze salsa packets between crackers. They also have the added level of stress fighting slashers, because they don’t have health insurance. And they’re never sure if the stains in their carpeted van are ketchup or blood.”

In adapting the comic book to the screen, Mr. Lincoln points out that his film wouldn’t have been a direct adaptation of any specific comic book arc. “The story was an entirely new Hack/Slash adventure, but the film stayed true to the style, heart, and voice of the comics. We even took some moments and lines of dialogue from the comics. Fans were absolutely going to get the Cassie and Vlad they know and love. We did Cassie’s origin story in a graphic, dynamic, rapid-fire, Midnight Cowboy kind of way to completely avoid being one of those dragged out, bullshit origin story movies. Instead, our script opened by dropping you right in the middle of Cassie and Vlad’s latest slasher mission. Cassie is embedded with a group of teenagers who are being stalked and killed by their town’s masked slasher. We watch Cassie decimate him in a smart, but brutal way. Over the course of the film Cassie and Vlad face a diverse lineup of unique, terrifying slashers in different towns, environments, and cool set-pieces. This script was an on the run, on the hunt, blood-soaked, road movie/buddy movie with Cassie ultimately making her way back to her hometown to once again face her undead slasher mom.

“Tonally, the planned movie was more grounded and serious than the comic. We were playing this straight, suspenseful, and bloody, with intermittent moments of levity. Nothing overproduced, over-lit or over-color graded. This is not a parody. This is not a self-aware, post- modern, tongue-in-cheek, campy retro-trip. No caricatures or clichés. Some of the teenage characters would be closer to something you might find in a modern-day version of River’s Edge or Twin Peaks or Over The Edge or Lady Bird. Teenagers with their own unique layers, contradictions and secrets. The goal was to create something special. Not just a love letter to slasher films, but a film that reconstructs, reinvigorates and elevates the genre in the same way that Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Terminator, Jaws, and Kill Bill did for their respective B-movie genres. We were going to make the slasher film scary again. I brainstormed with previz and FX people on creating new, inventive, vicious kills that would rival or top the kind of fatalities you see in Gun Media’s recent Friday The 13th or Mortal Kombat games. We also planned to bring on Tom Savini as a kill consultant.

“Our version of Hack/Slash fit in with and tied together all slasher films. The well-known slasher movies don’t exist as movies in Cassie’s reality. In our script, all fictional slashers and horror territories really exist. Haddonfield, Springwood’s Elm Street, the Bates Motel and Camp Crystal Lake are all real places that Cassie and Vlad have either already been to or will be going to in the future. That being said, the film would not have been set in some typical, quaint, overly designed, Hollywood horrorworld-looking movie universe. Instead, it would look exactly like present-day suburban America and explore the edges of suburbia. This was a horror film for a new generation.

“We worked on a multitude of drafts. Similar to the Hack/Slash comics, we even had a draft that included Chucky from Child’s Play as one of the slashers. It was the more subtle, terrifying version of Chucky from the first Child’s Play movie. We also explored having [Brian Pulido’s classic supernatural comic book villain] Evil Ernie in there since he was also featured in the Hack/Slash comics. But since he’s not a traditional slasher and there’s so much more to his story … it was hard to make it work. It felt like Evil Ernie needed his own standalone movie that could be more fantastical.

“Additionally, we played with having a dream slasher, which made for a really cool sequence, but it was challenging because there really can only be one dream slasher in this kind of universe. We also discussed including other known slashers such as The Prowler, Harry Warden from the original My Bloody Valentine, and Cropsey from The Burning, but there were complicated rights issues. At the end of another draft, Cassie and Vlad, exhausted and wanting to just have a shower and sleep in a real bed for a night … pull their van over to a roadside motel … and we reveal an old flickering neon sign that reads ‘Bates Motel’.

“Some of those easter eggs and slashers, as well as more obscure ones might have ended up in the film. But as I said, we decided to keep it more grounded for the first movie and create our own original, homegrown, handmade, terrifying masked slashers as if we were making a low budget independent horror film in the early 80s, but set today. Our rule was that each new slasher needed to be scary enough and deserving enough of their own film in order to be included.”

Mr. Lincoln reveals here that all looked very promising for the project at this early stage of pre-production. “Rogue had kind of given us an early greenlight. They were allocating money for us to generate next-level concept art, storyboards and location scouting. I was meeting with actors and key crew members. We had a great team and were in the zone. My plan was to shoot the film on Super-16 Anamorphic and I was talking to DPs such as Daniel [The Texas Chain Saw Massacre] Pearl and Dean [Halloween, Psycho II] Cundey . We met with Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero at KNB about doing the makeup effects. For the role of Vlad, we were talking to actors Michael Clarke Duncan, Michael Shannon and Derek Mears. For Cassie, I was considering and talking with actresses such as Megan Fox, Scarlett Johansson, Willa Holland, and new up-and-comers. Everyone was beyond excited. It was going to be the dream version of Hack/Slash. Then one night we received the unexpected news that Relativity was acquiring Rogue Pictures … which meant our execs were out of a job. Everything came to a complete stop and that was the end of it. A total regime change. We tried our hardest to find a way to still make it happen. Unfortunately, the new Relativity execs did not truly appreciate or understand Hack/Slash or its fans. It felt like a death in the family.”

Once Mr. Lincoln exited the project, Relativity set about finding a replacement. After considering music video director (and eventual Charlie Countryman helmer) Fredrik Bond for the job, the company eventually tapped Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th remakes) to call the shots for Cassie and Vlad. Mr. Seeley describes: “When Marcus came on, he’d had this sort of long tenure of doing slasher reboots for Platinum Dunes. He was full of enthusiasm, had lots of cool ideas, wanted to keep it close to the comic.” However, Mr. Nispel eventually exited the project as well. “Something happened in there at some point,” Mr. Seeley says. “I don’t know what. He was such a nice guy. The creatives were always so cool, and were always trying to meet a vision they thought I had for it. It was always the lawyers and executives that didn’t give a shit.”

As the project continued to be developed and passed from executive to executive, it began to change in dramatic ways. Mr. Seeley continues: “There were lots of versions. For whatever reason, and this still goes on now, when they do adaptations of a hero character, it sort of suffers from origin-itis all the time. They all need to tell that first story. It’s a sort of distrust of the audience, I think. So there were versions that had the origin, and versions that did not. I think the interesting thing – and to this day, it still happens – is that the sort of serial nature of Hack/Slash makes it hard for people to adapt it to a single film. Even though, to me, it doesn’t seem that hard, because in comics you can just drop in in media res and just say, ‘Here’s this hero!’ and go! They didn’t spend a lot of time in the 60s and 70s when they told superhero stories. They didn’t spend a ton of time on origin stories. It was like, ‘Strange visitor from another planet, now he fights bad guys!’ It wasn’t a big deal, right?

“So it’s always kinda gotten caught up in that. My take on it was always like, don’t worry about the origin. Tell it before the credits. In the first comic, we literally do that. We just tell ’The Strange Story of Cassie Hack’. It’s a two page spread in the beginning, that’s the story, and then you just launch into an adventure. But I think the film version of this has always struggled with that a little bit, going back and forth between ‘Should this just drop us in, or do we have to set up this whole origin?’ There was always this sort of thing where, ‘Well if you set up the origin, then you don’t get to use Vlad.’ And some people don’t want to use Vlad, because it’s not sexy. It’s just this weird back and forth.”

Whoa, wait a second, hang on. There were versions of this project that wouldn’t have featured Vlad?! “Yes. [After Mr. Lincoln left the project] there were versions where someone put on the film for awhile who detested Vlad said, ‘No one wants to see an ugly guy.’ He was written out, and then he was written back in as a vampire prince. Like a handsome, sexy, vampire prince. There was always this sort of reticence to put [the comic book version of Vlad] in there. It’s weird now. This was pre-Guardians of the Galaxy. So Drax the Destroyer, whose onscreen personality is sort of more similar to Vlad than the comic book version of him … like, now it’s okay to have a weird, silly guy. But at the time, it was deemed ‘not sexy’, and it would scare away teenage girls or something. Again, these would be decisions made for like three months, and then be completely obliterated. It would depend on whether or not the executive working on it was a fan, or inherited it, because so much of this was just corporate bullshit. A new executive would be put on it, and they’d just clear out everybody else’s stuff and put their own taint on it. They’d just mess with it until it was no longer recognizable. Then somebody else would come in and say, ‘What is this shit?!’ I have seen every bad thing you can see in an adaptation.”

Mr. Seeley also notes that, as with the version of the project under Mr. Lincoln’s watch, Cassie might have gotten into crossover territory with some noteworthy slasher icons. “I don’t know how far this stuff got. But very early, there was a version of this that planned on spinning Cassie off from another movie. I have no idea how far it got, but there was a treatment that was basically like, ‘Hey, we could spin her off from Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash [a proposed but ultimately unproduced sequel to 2003’s slasher mashup Freddy vs. Jason, to have featured The Evil Dead’s Ash in the hero role]. That was a version I heard about, but I don’t know if it was real! Maybe it was discussed for a week, I think. There was another that would’ve taken advantage of the fact that it was Rogue, and start her out with Chucky. Again, I don’t know how far these got. But yeah, I saw stuff that indicated that might be a way to go. Which, I think that would’ve been cool as shit, y’know? But obviously, hitching your wagon to that sort of stuff … this was pre-2009, when you’ve got the beginning of the MCU and a well-established version of spinning characters out of stuff. There was just no sort of template for how to do something like that. There was nothing existing for them to figure out how to do that legally. So if it was discussed, it was probably immediately shot down by lawyers.”

As the development hell that Hack/Slash slowly found itself mired in continued on, Mr. Seeley found himself less and less involved in the creative process. “When it was under Rogue, and when it was first under Relativity, I was absolutely in the loop. Especially under Rogue. I was always in the loop. I was like, “Wow, this is how it is to work in Hollywood?! This is fantastic!’ But then, as things went on, I got pushed out. I would only hear about that stuff later. I would find about another version of the script existed after an executive had gotten tossed, or whatever. It was such a weird process. It started out very collaborative. Working with the director, working with the screenwriter. Then later versions wouldn’t involve me at all. I wouldn’t have any idea what was going on. I’d have to hear it from friends who live in L.A. who went in for meetings to find out what was going on.”

In 2015, a decade after Hack/Slash was eyed as a film property, Relativity Television announced that screenwriter Skip Woods (Swordfish, Hitman) would be developing the comic book as a television series. “There was always this discussion, because it was a serial approach, that it should be TV,” says Mr. Seeley. “Rogue had the rights for both [film and television], so that was always a consideration. But when they started this, TV isn’t what it is now. This is pre-streaming, and all that sort of stuff. [Early on] it had to be a movie, to have that level of budget. It was still all about having a theatrical release, because that’s where the money was. Now, obviously things have changed a lot. At some point, with some version of the Relativity Media guys, that was a version that was pursued. I don’t know how far that got, or what sort of legal ensnarement that would have had. So much of it changes by the temperature of the day of the way media is going. I was kinda just unlucky to get caught in this capitalist hell-trap. It’s never a creative decision, it’s a portfolio decision. I don’t know if it was at some point pressured to expand into streaming and stuff, or if that was a big factor. Whatever version of it happened for awhile seemed to change when the regimes changed again.”

So what exactly does the future of Hack/Slash look like right now, as far as a film or television adaptation? Mr. Seeley is at a loss on this. “I don’t know! I get an e-mail at least once a week from directors, actors, talent agencies … there’s always interest. It seems like that would be enough, I guess? There are people out there that want to do it. I just don’t know what the political situation and the legal situation with it is right now. [Pre-pandemic], I had just had conversations about getting it going again, and writing a treatment, and all that sort of stuff. [After the pandemic], Hollywood got very worried about it. ‘Is it worth it to pursue something? Is it more valuable not to?’ It seems to me, part of the way things have shifted in the last nine months – and this is from an outsider – is that there’s less value in making things, and more value in holding onto assets. I think the studio approach to this now is ‘Let’s just own a bunch of stuff.’ It’s like having stocks. Making things, creating things, working … is not valuable. But having assets, collecting stuff – that is valuable. Again, it’s the ultimate capitalist hellscape, and it seems like Hack/Slash is wrapped up in that.”

And as for Mr. Lincoln? Does he feel as though his original take on the material might yet see the light of a projector? “Anything is possible. I’d certainly be open to it with the right team and right budget. I continue to be a fan and collector of the Hack/Slash comics to this day. Tim Seeley and I still talk about all the possibilities. Either way, I want to see the movie done right. Whether it’s me directing or someone else. This property more than deserves to be a pop culture phenomenon, especially in this age of IPs. It’s hard not to imagine an alternate timeline where our version of this movie was made and went on to spawn sequels and spinoffs. For the past decade there would have been Hack/Slash merchandise in stores like Hot Topic and BoxLunch, exclusive collectibles at Comic-Con, costumes and masks at Halloween stores, teens texting each other Hack/Slash memes and GIFs. I’d still love to get us back on the right timeline and make this film or visit this world in another form such as animation, a video game, VR/AR/MR, or a Neuralink consensual telepathy experience. Or perhaps I’ll end up choosing to produce and co-finance the film with some of our original gang. My overall take would be fairly similar, but I would quickly write or oversee an entirely fresh script to add even more details, surprises, scares and kills. Right now, I’m focused on new projects and doing my part to push the horror genre forward. I’m also developing an original, relentless, new-style slasher film. I think audiences need it now more than ever.”

In wrapping up, Mr. Seeley looks back on his creation’s popularity, and the trouble it’s had in making the leap to another medium. “It’s such a bummer. I’ve created all kinds of stuff, made all kinds of stories, and the one people love is Hack/Slash. I’ve tried getting people to love other stuff. They like it, and it’s popular enough, but nothing is like Hack/Slash for whatever reason. I feel like that’s it. That’s the one I made that people care about, and I can’t really do anything with it. It’s painful, it’s such a frustrating situation.”

His final thoughts on the whole Hack/Slash film/TV project struggle reads more as a word of caution for optimistic creatives out there: “There’s this sort of perception out there across in the world that L.A. is like the most liberal place. It’s not. It’s socially liberal, but financially it is the most right-wing, conservative thing on earth. Like hyper-capitalist. So when you go into this, if you’re a young creator and you’re just starting out, just be aware of that. They sort of sell you on this idea that everything is ‘Creators are great! We love screenwriters!’ It’s not. It’s as corporate as can be. It’s absolutely designed to fill a stock portfolio of someone richer than you. It’s always going to settle on the side of someone who’s got money, and take it away from someone who has less. That’s how it’s built, so be careful as a creative. That’s my big advice for people. And as far as Hack/Slash goes, you can just buy the comics! That actually benefits the people who made them. You can always support Hack/Slash by buying the comics.”

Very special thanks to Tim Seeley and Todd Lincoln for their time and insights.


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