By Steve Newton
I still remember the major buzz I got when I saw my first full-colour, three-page spread in famed horror mag Fangoria back in ’88. It was for a Vancouver-shot movie called Watchers that I’d done a set-visit piece on, interviewing the director, stars, and FX artists–and later on, by phone, even author Dean Koontz himself.
It was a huge thrill to interview Koontz, one of my fave novelists ever, right up there with Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and Stephen King. And I thought Watchers, published in ’87, was one of his best.
The only downside to the whole experience was how awful the movie turned out to be.
Anyway, here’s an edited version of the story that appeared in Fangoria #79.
How many times can a genetically-altered life form leap off a cabin porch and menace two screaming females? Plenty, according to Jon Hess, director of Watchers, a film based on Dean R. Koontz’s best-selling 1987 novel.
On a soggy June night in the dense woods of Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Hess has had martial arts expert Philip Wong, dressed in a creature outfit designed by FX man David Miller, attempt the task more than 10 times. It’s the penultimate scene in the movie, wherein Barbara Williams and Lala Sloatman (Frank Zappa’s niece, by the way) try to escape the hybrid monster by making a mad dash for a pickup truck. But the monster, called the Outsider, beats them to it. Let’s hear it for genetically-altered life forms!
“It takes time,” explains the soft-spoken Hess, after they’ve finally gotten the trajectory of the beast just right. “We took a long time creating the monster, and during scheduling we didn’t have that much time to do any tests on film, so a great deal of that stuff is going slowly. But the second unit has picked up a lot of good stuff.”
Watchers, which will be released by Universal Pictures in November, is 31-year-old Hess’ second time out as director, following up The Lawless Land, an action/adventure pic shot in Chile and produced by Roger Corman, who also once owned the rights to Watchers. Last winter, Hess produced the giant rat sequel After Food of the Gods. He says that Paul Haggis’ Watchers screenplay is quite a bit different from the Koontz novel itself.
“We took some liberties,” he states. “The whole relationship between the boy and the dog is different. In the novel, it was a 35-year-old man. We thought that a 35-year-old man and his dog weren’t as appealing as a kid and his dog.”
The animal in question is a golden retriever named Fur Face (Einstein in the book), an escapee from a top-secret government lab. The pooch has been genetically equipped with an astonishingly human-like intelligence. The dog’s real name is Sandy, and it is trained by Glen Garner.
“He’s wonderful,” says Hess of the canine thespian. “But he takes a lot of time, as all animals would. I remember John Huston coming to the American Film Institute [where Hess studied] and saying, ‘Two things to stay away from are animals and kids.'”
Fur Face’s nemesis in Watchers is a nasty creature programmed for violent combat, a weird cross between a dog, a bear, a baboon, and a few other critters. It’s the sort of thing that–in Koontz’s version, anyway–liked leaving eyeless decapitated heads lying around on kitchen tables. In other words, it would make mincemeat of Cujo in no time flat. FX whiz Miller, who created the original Freddy Krueger makeup, says his Outsider resulted from several people’s ideas.
“What I originally came up with was closer to what was in the book,” Miller reveals, “but it had to be changed because there were a lot of people who wanted input into it. Everyone sees Koontz’s monster differently. We started out with a baboon, and there’s some dog in it. They even said “alligator-jawed” at one point; that’s why the teeth are all pointed in there. And it’s got human characteristics, too.”
For the monster’s head Miller came up with a computerized, radio-controlled mask, and one of the people on the Lynn Canyon set who takes a turn fiddling with the controls is star Corey Haim. At 16, Haim is already known to fear fans through his heroic portrayals of werewolf and vampire stalkers in Silver Bullet and The Lost Boys, respectively, but this is the first time the young actor has had any hands-on experience with makeup FX.
“When I did SIlver Bullet,” recounts Haim, “I was expecting to see a lot of gore. But I was real little, and they made me leave after the wrap to go home to sleep, so I never really got to see anything. On this movie I get to see a whole bunch of things. It’s really interesting.”
Watchers is actually the third Dean R. Koontz book to be made into a movie. Two novels from 1973, Demon Seed and Shattered (written under the pseudonym K.R. Dwyer) were filmed in 1977. Koontz was pretty happy with how MGM’s Demon Seed turned out, but he calls Warner Bros. Shattered (now shown on late-night TV as The Intruder) “one of the worst film adaptations of all time.” It was made into a French film starring Jean-Louis Trintignant.
“He’s a wonderful actor,” grants Koontz, “but it really is one of the dumbest films I’ve ever see. It’s insufferable.”
Upcoming movie adaptations of Koontz’s books include Phantoms, the film rights of which were sold to Howling producer Steven Lane and Bob Pringle. And under option is The Servants of Twilight, originally published in 1984 as Twilight under the Leigh Nichols name. As he did with Watchers, Koontz plans on staying away from any involvement with the screenwriting process.
“I don’t like screenwriting as much as novels because it’s collaborative, whereas a novel is your own stubborn viewpoint and it remains untouched,” he nods. “Even if they ask, I don’t really want to do screenplays. And in the case of Watchers, nobody asked.”
Koontz has read one version of the Watchers script, though, so he’s aware of the differences between it and his initial creation. “I know they’ve changed the male and female leads to a 15-year-old boy and his mother, which is a dramatic change. I realize that when film people come to a novel, they’ve got to find a way to compress the story and yet keep the essence. If they make radical changes that work and the picture’s good, then fine. If they make radical changes and the picture doesn’t work, then the author has a right to bitch about it.”
The author says he never even thinks about an eventual movie adaptation when he’s writing a novel. It’s only later, when it’s in the hands of his film agent, that he starts to wonder.
“Then I allow myself to think, ‘Hmmm. If somebody did pick this up, how would I like to see it done?’ With Watchers, now that I’ve had time to think about it, of course I would have liked to have seen somebody like Spielberg pick it up and bring to the screen not only the terror, but also some of the humor and emotion in the book. And I think, from what I saw of the screenplay, that they’ve done a good job with the throat-clutching parts, but the rest of it I’m not sure about. I’m kind of gritting my teeth, waiting for a screening.”
Oh lordy. I’m pretty sure that when Koontz finally saw that screening of Watchers there was a lot more teeth-gritting going on. And some serious gnashing of said chompers too.