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An Interview with John Strysik, Director of The Spirit Gallery

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2019

John Strysik on (re)Search my Trash


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Your movie The Spirit Gallery - in a few words, what is it about?


To me it's about putting your trust -- dedicating your life -- to something unseen. It could be positive, as love is; or negative, as in ideology or cults or "true" religions.


With The Spirit Gallery being set in art circles, is that a world near and dear to you, and is The Spirit Gallery based on any actual experiences with artists, agents and the like?


Art has always fascinated me. But what is "art"?

I think the first art was magical and transformative, the earliest being the paintings found in the Lascaux caves which are 20,000 years old. Great art can transport us and probably did the artists of Lascaux.

That's a rare happening, but it happened to me seeing Tutankhamun's Golden Mask when it toured back in the 70s. There was art, magic and a transcendent experience all wrapped up in one. I think it inspired Catch's "masks" in the movie.

Haul, the agent, is a bit "on the nose" but yeah, anyone in the arts have to deal with people like him.


Speaking about art, what can you tell us about the actual artworks featured in your movie?


The paintings were done by a friend of mine named Frank Garvey. He called them "Wall Of Ashes" and they are a kind of modern day Hieronymus Bosch. Frank was making videos based on his paintings in San Francisco and I used his cameras making The Spirit Gallery. He's in the the movie; the sleazy guy outside the art opening telling Haul to come back in and meet some Japanese collectors who "wrap their sushi in 100 dollar bills." 


(Other) sources of inspiration when writing The Spirit Gallery?


I originally thought of it as The Picture of Dorian Gray played backwards.


The Spirit Gallery features some quite amazing practical special effects - so do talk about those for a bit, and how were they achieved?


By a mad genius named Rod Matsui. I met Rod on a different horror video project called Dark Romances. This is back in the mid 80s when I was directing Tales from the Darkside. Dark Romances was intended for the Playboy Channel and was supposed to be a series of erotic horror shorts. It never made it to Playboy but was released on VHS and might get a DVD release soon. Anyway, Rod created all the boil and slime effects and the masks.


What can you tell us about The Spirit Gallery's approach to horror?


Growing up Catholic, going to Catholic schools, I had the non-verbal horror of scourging and crucifixion drummed into my head since before I could remember. Obviously a lot of that spewed into The Spirit Gallery.

As to horror in general I love the classics -- the 1930s Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy are still my favorites.


Do talk about your directorial approach to your story at hand?


It's a kind of a dance with the actors -- but it is all about the actors. Also, as a director do your home work! Have a shot list, but keep it flexible enough to incorporate things that happen during the shoot.


What can you tell us about your key cast, and why exactly these people?


Well, we auditioned them at Garvey's studio in San Francisco. Jim Burkhart, who plays Catch, acted in Garvey's videos so I knew him. Holly Riddle and the rest just answered an ad and got the parts.


A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


It was a tough shoot. No money and a very small crew jumping around San Francisco. I try keeping a relaxed set but sometimes it can get tense, like seeing the strings moving what we called "the bacon face" at the end of the film. But overall everyone was very dedicated and did a great job.


You've made The Spirit Gallery almost 25 years ago - so watching it now, how does that make you feel?


Yeah, well old -- and grateful that Tony Masiello and his SOV Horror are reanimating it. It had a very limited VHS release in the 90s and I kind of forgot about it. But watching it again I have to say it still works. Of course, there are a million things to improve, but it holds up and many reviews have had great things to say about it.

I think if you like "Love, Lust and Severe Mutation", as the tag line goes, The Spirit Gallery is worth a watch.


Any future projects you'd like to share?


Lately I've been writing plays. My first called Villainy ~or~ Holmes' Own Story about America's first serial killer was produced last year in Los Angeles and may be getting three new productions next year. I have two others in the pipeline -- Death, with Benefits based on the true story of the "Killer Grannies of Santa Monica" who took in homeless men, insured them for millions, then murdered them for the money. It's like Arsenic and Old Lace with more arsenic and less lace. And  Doctor Dee, based on Queen Elizabeth I court astrologer Dr John Dee, who thought he talked with angels, and may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare's Prospero in The Tempest. That looks like a 2020 Hallowe'en production, so get yer tickets soon! 

Some Villainy:


What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?


Seeing Citizen Kane in high school on 16mm and then Un Chien Andalou by Bunuel and Dali completely by accident in Chicago. Bunuel became my favorite filmmaker, and there is an obvious Catholic connection there.

I studied film at Columbia College in Chicago and got a scholarship sponsored by William Friedkin, who started his career in Chicago.


What can you tell us about your past filmwork?


Best to IMDb me -- the gory facts are all there.


According to my information, The Spirit Gallery was the last film you've ever directed - why is that then, and did you ever feel the temptation to return to the director's chair?


It's a weird business and there's been many a project that I wrote or co-wrote that's been optioned but never made.

I think in my heart of hearts I'm more a writer and that's why playwriting is so appealing. Samuel Beckett was my first art god -- seeing his Endgame really changed my life.


Since I'm pretty fond of Stuart Gordon's Stuck, you just have to talk about that movie for a bit, and what was it like working with Stuart Gordon?


Going to school in Chicago I was a fan of Stuart's Organic Theater, which did some pretty amazing and bizarre productions. Plus if you wanted to see naked women, Organic Theater was the place to go! I didn't know Stuart in Chicago, but met him much later in Los Angeles doing a book called Lurker in the Lobby, which is a kind of guide to films based on HP Lovecraft stories. I should mention that I'm a huge fan of HP Lovecraft and one of my student shorts was an adaptation of HP's The Music of Erich Zann, which is still in distribution. Me and my co-writer Andrew Migliore interviewed Stuart for Lurker in the Lobby and I pitched him a script I wrote called Deathbed, saying it was about everything you could do in bed. He dug that. The film was made through Charlie Band with Stuart producing. That led to Stuck and other projects, the aforementioned optioned-but-not-made kind.


Stuck was based on a true story that happened in Fort Worth, Texas in 2001. A homeless man hit by a car, stuck in the windshield, hauled down the street and dying in a garage. The woman who hit him was named Chante Mallard -- Google her for the full story. Anyway, Stuart found the story and we were both struck and strangely inspired by the insanity of it.

BTW, the star of Stuck -- Stephen Rea -- was directed by Samuel Beckett in Endgame, so circles within circles...


Writers, filmmakers, whoever else who inspire you?


Luis Bunuel above all -- then Whale, Welles, Kubrick, Polanski, Lynch -- the great 70s directors like Coppola, Scorsese, etc. The 70s were fantastic years for American filmmaking. I got to see Lynch's Eraserhead when it was originally released as one of the first "Midnight Movies", and that was a profound and inspiring experience.


Your favourite movies?


Any done by the aforementioned.


... and of course, films you really deplore?


I grew up loving comic books, but the comic book CG franchises that keep growing like cancers are amazingly boring to me.


Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?


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Please support Tony Masiello's SOV Horror in his mission to preserve shot-on-video features of the 80s & 90s: - if you're interested in The Spirit Gallery or Tony's other films you can get them there -- perfect stocking stuffers for the coming solstice.


Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


Just thanks for your interest -- greatly appreciated.


Thanks for the interview!




© by Mike Haberfelner

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Robots and rats,
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love and death and everything in between,
Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

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Your Bones to
a collection of short stories and mini-plays
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from the post-apocalyptic
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the twisted mind of
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Your Bones to

the new anthology by
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On the same day
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... and for the life of it,
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A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
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written by
Michael Haberfelner
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD