By MARK BENEDICT
CASTLE OF HORROR is by no means the only podcast dedicated to conversations about vintage and contemporary horror films. But it’s definitely one of the best. This four-person crew goes deep, often parsing a movie sequence by sequence. Their style is by turns scholarly, slangy, and profane. Jason Henderson, the moderator, brings a vast knowledge of film history and a keen sense of narrative. Julia Guzman, the self-styled color commentator and resident horror-skeptic, brings a game but questioning spirit. The episodes are often smarter, deeper, and more entertaining than the movies under discussion.
Satan’s School for Girls is a perfect example. The film itself, a 1973 made-for-TV movie, interesting only as an artifact, is the definition of non-essential. But the CASTLE OF HORROR episode about it? Totally essential. The whole crew’s funny in it, but horror uberfans Drew Edwards and Tony Salvaggio are straight-up hilarious, especially when they discuss the film’s catchy, twist-spoiling title. Also, in this episode and all the others, there’s a palpable sense of friendship. It’s not fake; they are friends. Jason and Julia, in fact, are married. Listen to a few episodes and they’ll feel like your friends, too. It’s a safe haven in crazy times. But not that safe. This is a horror podcast, after all. We recently had the opportunity to chat, by email, with all four members. Topics included recent and upcoming episodes, life outside the podcast, and the singular thrill of seeing a vampire on roller skates.
How did the CASTLE OF HORROR podcast originally form?
Julia: Jason said to me one day, “I’m starting a horror movie podcast with a couple of buddies. Do you want to participate?” A hundred thoughts immediately went through my head, including: “I hate horror movies.” “I love my husband and would love another way to spend time with him.” “I AM opinionated.” So I said yes, despite the fact that I hated horror movies. I stuck with it because it became so much more than talking about movies.
Tony: We really just wanted an excuse to hang out again and talk about movies. Jason, Julia, and my wife Rain and I hung out quite a lot for years, but everyone had more and more adult responsibilities and we didn’t see each other as much. Drew was a good friend we would hang out with at comics events. We wanted Julia on board because we had fun hanging out and she could keep us grounded and provide a fresh perspective. The podcast gave us an excuse to hang out regularly, even if we had other things going on. At its core, it has always been about getting good friends together for a really nice break like the old days. It’s not as slick as some podcasts, but I think our strength is our friendship and camaraderie.
This summer you did a Satanic Panic series—films that feature the devil or at least a fear of the devil. What’s up next for the podcast? As a theme, the devil is pretty tough to top.
Drew: I think the Satanic Panic retrospective is one of my favorites. Mostly because we’d already done all of the top-tier devil movies. So, we were left with a bunch of truly strange cult movies. For me, it made for some nice discoveries with Race for the Devil and some epic rants when we got to Satan’s School for Girls. Stuff like that always makes for a lively discussion. Coming up, we’re doing a kind of callback to our earlier dinosaur retrospective with an episode on Planet of Dinosaurs, which is a sort of groovy, low-rent, B-movie that just happens to have really awesome stop-motion animation. Then it’s all about Kolchak, baby! We’re doing Night Stalker and Night Strangler back to back. Beyond that, we’re still kicking ideas around. The discussions about which movies are going to come next often turn into epic Gmail threads. We’re always trying to find that balance between each other’s personal taste, what’s available, and perhaps most importantly, what will make for a juicy topic.
Tony: We usually have plans for arcs or retrospectives but we are fairly fluid with where each of those fits into a schedule. I personally want to do some more Kaiju or horror movies from Hong Kong and perhaps some more movies that revolve around music.
Jason, you really zero in on writerly concerns like pace and structure. But you also note incidental pleasures, like an era-specific feel. For instance, in the episode on Fright Night Part 2, you astutely point out that it lacks the original’s folkloric vampire-next-door plot, but you still enjoy the sequel for its intense ‘80s vibe. Are there any script sins, though, that can’t be forgiven? And in your view is FNP2 a legit good movie or just a fun mediocre one?
Jason: This horror movie podcast is essentially an opinion podcast, so of course there’s all the room in the world to base your judgment on a film on anything that you like. The more I’ve been doing it, the more I’m not even sure what a movie really even is, but it’s become clear to me that when we talk about films, we mix and match with all the different things a movie can be for us. A lot of people talk about movies as though the purpose is to tell a story that is completely believable, and so those people have a hard time enjoying a movie that maybe doesn’t make any sense or includes special effects that are not convincing. My feeling about it is: that’s one way to look at movies, but more often than not I’m looking at the movie as though it were a work like a vase or a sculpture; the work is the work and we as viewers have to engage with the work on its terms. That’s why I get frustrated when I hear people say, “Oh, this scene really took me out of the film,” and I’m thinking, “That’s not necessarily what movies are for, we don’t need to be hypnotized the whole running time to find the movie valuable.” Often, I really enjoy a movie that might be completely nonsensical, but I like the graininess of it, or maybe the wacko politics of the film because it was written by somebody with unusual ideas. As you mentioned, I really love movies that are extremely stamped with the visual vocabulary of a particular period. And I almost don’t care what period that is, but if it’s clearly stamped 1970s or 1980s or 1950s, I just enjoy seeing that vocabulary expressed.
Fright Night Part 2 is a really interesting example because it lacks all of the charm of the original, but it’s an excellent example of itself, which is to say a 1980s monster movie that is at least trying to be original from moment to moment. You do have that one good moment of the roller-skating vampire under the bridge. We live a long time and there are many hours in our lives, so to be honest, a lot of times I’m happy to come away from a movie with a single image that I find memorable.
Drew and Tony, you both seem like you were born loving horror. In particular, you seem like huge fans of the grisly, hard-R horror films of the late-century, pre-digital era. That period feels like a golden age to a lot of us. In your opinion, what’s the single best decade for horror and why? Also, what films of the new century have most impressed you?
Drew: It’s funny, I’ve often noted an overlap between my tastes and Tony’s and sometimes I wonder if that’s because we both grew up in rural settings. I practically lived at the drive-in as a kid and then later on, at the video store. When there’s nothing to do, horror and sci-fi offer a lot of escape into fantastical worlds. I love the 1980s and I do think it was a golden age, especially in special effects and building iconic characters. But when I think about the films that truly shaped me into a lifelong horror fan I have to go back to the 1930s and ‘40s. Stuff like Bride of Frankenstein and Wolf Man. The Universal Monsters cycle. Or even the Val Lewton films. Without those I don’t think we’d have what came after, and there are some awe-inspiring, dreamlike movies from that era that I will always go back to for inspiration. With modern horror, there’s been some cool movies the last few years. I loved Us, Ready or Not, and my big personal favorite Crawl. Indie horror movies like Late Phases and Beyond the Gates are also really worth checking out. There’s also been some great TV horror in recent years. As of this writing, I have really high hopes for the rest of Lovecraft Country, which so far has pulled off two amazing episodes. In terms of sophistication and style, I think big-screen horror might be in danger of being surpassed by the ol’ boob tube.
Tony: That’s tricky because nostalgia definitely comes into play there. My formative horror years were definitely the ‘80s. That era of VHS discovery is still one of my all-time favorites. The anything-goes-nature of that era and the thrill of going to a local rental store and finding something new made it special. The bonds I formed with my siblings and friends over horror from the VHS age really solidified both my love of genre film, and a lot of the metal and dark rock that I gravitated towards. But if I stay rooted in the ‘80s, I forget about the great movies that led up to it. I started my journey with Universal Horror, Giant Monster Movies, and the like, and then discovered more and more off-the-wall ‘70s stuff that blew my mind. So, although I think the ‘80s is still my favorite, I love to think of the genre as a whole and find gems from the black-and-white era up until today. As long as there are deep emotions, inner fears, and unrest in the world to be dealt with, there’s going to be horror. It’s always good to keep digging for the good stuff. As far as new century movies, the one that sticks out and that I recommend the most is Aterrados (English: Terrified). That movie was the first in a long time that made me come home and want to turn the lights on, watch some comedies, too scared to go to sleep lest the nightmares come. Other stuff I really dig in the past few years: Sinister, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Void, Color Out of Space. That’s five off the top of my head, but there’s a LOT more. I’m constantly thinking about really cool horror from all over the world.
“I’ve come to realize that I like a lot of horror movies. Some are funny, some spooky, some brilliant, some beautiful. Even the ones I don’t love have nuggets of wonderfulness…I’ve come to appreciate the value of the full range of emotions, including fear. ” Julia
Julia, in a way, you’re actually the lynchpin of the podcast. You’re the voice of reason that says, “Wait, though. Let’s not overlook the fact that this movie is excessively gross and doesn’t make much sense.” At the same time, you’re flexible. You find things to like even in gorefests you’re not crazy about, like the music score in the original Dawn of the Dead. And once in a while you’re unexpectedly enthusiastic about a curio like Satan’s School for Girls. Are you more invested and having more fun than you originally expected?
Julia: Lynchpin?? Oh my gosh, flattery will get you everywhere! To your question, Yes! I’m an extrovert. I love to talk to people! And there are no three people I’d rather talk to any day than Jason, Tony, and Drew. It doesn’t matter what the topic is; we will always find a way to have an interesting (LONG) conversation about it, delving into mental health, addiction, spirituality, what makes good art and music, relationships, and on and on. The horror movies are just the framing device really. That said, I’ve come to realize that I like a lot of horror movies. Some are funny, some spooky, some brilliant, some beautiful. Even the ones I don’t love have nuggets of wonderfulness. Tony likes to say that everything we review is the product of people’s hard work. It’s true, and it shows. I certainly couldn’t do better than the worst films we’ve watched. So I do try to say something positive about most of the films we see, but I also like to point out the ugly things others may be overlooking.
When I used to say I hated horror movies, I was thinking of two things: 1) I don’t like feeling scared. 2) I don’t like gore. Regarding the first, I’ve become inoculated to most horror films and rarely feel scared watching them anymore. The ones that DO scare me make me appreciate the creativity and effort they had to put in to get me there. I’ve also come to appreciate the value of feeling the full range of emotions, including fear. As to the second, I still hate gore.
Tell us about your other endeavors. You all appear to lead very full, very creative lives.
Drew: 2020 marks twenty years of my indie comic Halloween Man, which is currently published as an ongoing series with related spin-offs by ComiXology. From late August to the end of October there is going to be a new Halloween Man comic released every few weeks, with a wide variety of monsters. Dinosaurs, mummies, vampires, even a Christmas Witch! I’m especially excited about the anniversary issue, which is going to be an art jam issue. It has a beautiful cover by Nicola Scott and is filled to the brim with talent. Sergio Calvet, an old fan favorite, came back specifically for some very special pages. And believe me when I say this, what happens on those pages is going to change the direction of where Halloween Man is going. I’m very proud of the whole thing and can’t wait for people to read it. I also am heavily involved in the Austin music scene thanks to my wife Jamie’s band Danger*Cakes. Castle of Horror fans will already know her voice, as she has been a frequent guest on the show.
Jason: I write books, but I’ve become a publisher, so that also keeps me busy. In the last year, designer In Churl Yo and I founded our press Castle Bridge Media, first to put out a series of anthology horror books with amazing writers from best-sellers to newcomers, called The Castle of Horror Anthology. This summer we expanded into novels, publishing In Churl’s pandemic SF book Isonation, then my 1950s horror book The Book Man, the first in a series I’m doing under the name Peyton Douglas. Our next Castle of Horror Anthology is very exciting, called Women Running from Houses, and it’s all inspired by Gothic horror.
Julia: I come from a bi-cultural background. My parents are Latin-American immigrants and spoke Spanish in the home, but I was born and raised in the U.S. So I’ve always been interested in immigration. Over the last decade, I turned it into a career and now have my own immigration law practice, Guzman Immigration, in Colorado. It’s a truly challenging, but rewarding, job. That and raising two daughters has kept me plenty busy. When I’m not doing that, I’m singing: choir, solo, improv, karaoke, whatever.
Tony: My main focus has been on my two bands. I’m the lead singer and bassist in Deserts of Mars, a stoner rock spacey band. I also play “guitar bass” in Rise from Fire, a dark rock band I formed with my wife, who does the vocals, and a cool drummer friend. I used to be a video game animator as well, but I channeled that knowledge into helping the animation studio as a technical director at my current job. I’d like to get into film restoration at some point, because hidden gems, and the meticulous nature of the discipline, fascinate me. Music, movies, and games are the driving forces in my life. Music especially, cranked loud and with passion, is where I find solace from the craziness of the world.
Apart from the upcoming season, what episodes or series of the podcast would you recommend that new listeners check out?
Drew: One of the things I love about the podcast is that we cover a VAST array of different kinds of movies within the confines of our subject. I love that we did an entire series on musical horror movies, for example. I love that we did an episode on the animated Batman vs. Dracula movie. I think there is an episode or retrospective for every kind of horror fan. We’ve covered everything from B&W classics like the 1931 Dracula to recent stuff like Doctor Sleep. But if I have to pick just one, I think our episode on The Exorcist really knocks it out of the park and is new-listener friendly.
Jason: I’m so predictable. I love the weird and woolly, so I would say definitely the evil baby stuff, like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. Plus, I really loved our recent discussion of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Julia: The episode that springs to mind for me is Embrace of the Vampire, because of the epic tantrum Tony throws upon learning that Jason had not ever actually seen the atrocity he just forced Tony to sit through. It’s among the funniest things I’ve ever heard! Other than that, I would say listen to the episodes on movies that you love or that are truly awful.
Tony: I really dig anything we have done with Universal, Hammer, or Kaiju movies. On a personal level, I really like the very near and dear to my heart ‘80s Trick or Treat, Green Slime, and Phantasm. Our recent Monster Dog episode was also super fun because we all love Alice Cooper. For some reason people really like my reactions on Embrace of the Vampire even though I don’t like ripping on movies. Whenever possible, I like to lift up instead of tear down.
“One of the things I love about the podcast is that we cover a VAST array of different kinds of movies. There’s an episode or retrospective for every kind of horror fan.” Drew