DVDanger: 68 Kill
Writer/director Trent Haaga gets nice and sleazy
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Tue. Aug. 15, 2017
How do you make a rocking exploitation movie? According to Trent Haaga, you ask. That's pretty much how the writer/director got to shoot his new guns-blazing road trip 68 Kill.
Haaga, whose new movie arrives on VOD this month, knows exploitation from all angles. He cut his teeth at the Great American Grind institution that is Troma. Weird fact: His first credit was playing the role of Jerry in 1999's Terror Firmer alongside Joe Lynch as Clothespin Boy. Eighteen years later, 68 Kill played alongside Lynch's Mayhem as part of the SXSW Midnighters.More recently, he's penned a slate of Lifetime movies, with deliciously lurid titles like Deadly Daughters aka Killing Mommy, and the Courteney Cox-directed TalhotBlond. If that sounds like something he does just to pay the bills, Haaga recommends not sleeping on these TV mashers. "They're in my wheelhouse," he said. "They're scorned ladies with murder-revenge plots and things like that. I'd never watched a Lifetime movie the first time I wrote one. I didn't know what to do, so I just did what I do, and they were like, 'We love it, it's so edgy and dark and weird."
Edgy, dark, and weird is how Haaga made a serious name for himself in genre circles with morally complex works like the disturbing noir of Cheap Thrills, and zombie reinvention Deadgirl. Both films are beloved by other genre directors, and have both prophesied and helped shape the modern cinematic landscape. "Post-horror is the buzzword of the day," he said, "but I feel like I did my post-horror films before post-horror." So just as Deadgirl turned the undead on their head with a savage takedown of toxic masculinity, "68 Kill goes against the grain of what people are making, and so when you do that, it's a big gambit. You don't know if people are going to go, 'Oh, this is fresh and different,' or, 'Oh, you're not being serious enough.' Now I'm hoping that I'm predicting the next swing of the pendulum into crazy exploitation films."
The fact that 68 Kill took the SXSW Midnighter Audience Award shows his timing might be right. It's a classic trailer park noir, with nice-but-dim Chip (Criminal Minds' Matthew Gray Gubler) falling down a rabbit hole of murder and money, with his enraged ex Liza (AnnaLynne McCord, Secrets and Lies) hot on his trail.
The script is the first time Haaga has adapted from an existing work, Bryan Smith's 2013 pulp novel of the same title. It's a real change from the bulk of Smith's back catalogue, which has generally veered into heavy horror territory like the Depraved series and The Killing Kind. Haaga said, "I'm a voracious reader, and I'm always looking for people writing on the edge, doing things on the fringe. … So when one of my favorite horror authors wrote a really contained pulp thriller, I read it, and in many ways, it was a book that I would write. I grew up in the Midwest, I lived in a trailer park when I was a kid. I feel like I understand these people."
But just because he liked the book, that didn't mean it was going to be easy to adapt. There are lawyers and agents and … yeah, not so much. Haaga said, "It was really easy to reach out to Bryan, because he and I are really fringe-y. I don't have a manager or an agent, he doesn't have a manager or an agent. We just emailed each other and hashed out pretty simple terms of a deal. I think he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever,' because he had other people from quote-unquote Hollywood try and woo him before, and most of the time, nine times out of 10, 19 times out of 20, the movie is never gonna get made. So I think he was like, 'Whatever, dude,' but I just kept hammering at it and hammering at it."
This was always going to be a small movie, but Haaga punched above his weight getting Gubler and McCord aboard (for which he credits friend and horror auteur Richard Bates Jr., who had worked with both on 2016's Trash Fire).
That said, he had to work a little harder to make sure that the part of Dwayne, Liza's psychopathic brother, didn't go to a big-name actor. After watching Austin-made Zero Charisma, he knew right off that he wanted local actor Sam Eidson for his film. "This guy is an amazing actor, I love his look, and he was able to take a character who was kind of an asshole, a real jerk, but he gave him so many more levels than you would expect."
There were bigger names in contention, who may have brought more money with them, "but I told Travis Stevens, my producer, 'The guy only has 12 words – not 12 lines, 12 words – in the entire movie, but I know this character is going to pop off the screen.' Because of that whole 12 words thing, I know that there were some bigger actors that were like, 'We think the material's cool, but c'mon, really? You're going to give me a character that only has 12 words?' I said, great, because I wanted Sam the entire time."
68 Kill is on VOD and limited theatrical release, starting this month. Read our SXSW review here.