Exclusive Sin-Jin Smyth Review

Posted by: Sheila Roberts
I recently had the pleasure of meeting filmmaker Ethan Dettenmaier who graciously invited me to join him at Warner Brothers Studio to attend an advance screening of his exciting new feature film, "Sin-Jin Smyth," which he wrote and directed. Prior to the screening, we discussed his film over coffee on the patio outside the studio’s Starbucks where we were joined by cast member, Camden Toy, who plays the ghoulish cemetery watchman in "Sin-Jin Smyth." Fans will remember him as the Ubervamp in WB’s "Buffy and the Vampire Slayer" television series. Ethan clearly admires him and introduced him to me as the "modern day Lon Chaney" because of his extraordinary physicality and ability to transform himself.
 
Both Ethan and Camden consider Lon Chaney one of the great filmmaking pioneers of the silent era and spoke about his long lost artistry and how he used to carry his make-up in a lunch pail and apply it himself. Camden described how as a young boy he enjoyed transforming himself into various characters by experimenting with different kinds of make-up, inspired by his father, a talented make-up artist who worked with the legendary Wally Westmore.
 
We proceeding to the screening room where we were joined by Lota Hairston-Hadley, the film’s producer and Ethan’s wife, and several more cast members including Eileen Dietz (who played a pivotal role in "The Exorcist"), and Larry Haney (who plays a member of a Federal IMD Board of Inquiry). Two sound technicians (Richard Burton and Brian Best) also attended the screening to evaluate the film’s potential sound design. Ethan explained that I would be seeing a rough assembly of his film: "All the threads are together, but some scenes are missing. The character development is also not in the rough cut, as not all the characters are introduced." I was told their scenes would be added later. In the meantime, titles were used to indicate which scenes were missing. He also told me, "There was zero sound design at this stage." (I could hear the noise of the fans in several scenes.) And added, "There are no effects in the rough assembly, and the film has not been color corrected yet. Some scenes intended to be nighttime will still look like they were shot in the daytime."

The rough cut of "Sin-Jin Smyth" ran approximately 55 minutes, and, after seeing it, I can honestly say that this is one smart, stylish, and very original film. While "Sin-Jin Smyth" is very much a horror film, it crosses over into the action and thriller genres as well, making it somewhat of a hybrid. And it uses some very cleverly placed humor to lighten up its darker moments. The film’s plot is deceptively simple in what is actually a rather complex story: every Halloween at midnight, the devil appears simultaneously in two places -- the high plains of India –and a quiet cemetery in Kansas.
 
One night the Field Listening Post of an isolated Federal Field Office on the Kansas frontier receives an emergency action message from a small town across the state line. Two of the station’s Marshals, one a former Staff Sgt. who just wrapped up military service in Iraq, the other, a trigger happy, renegade double agent (played by Richard Tyson and Roddy Piper, respectively), are assigned to report to the town of Shin Bone, Kansas to retrieve a mysterious prisoner with no past and no identity. They arrive only moments before a tornado hits. All the action, including the midnight prisoner transfer, occurs over Halloween weekend during a hellish storm. The script has lots of terrifying twists and turns on the road to hell, and Ethan makes sure his film doesn’t miss any of them.
 
Even in its incomplete state without any post production enhancements, it’s clear this film is well written, solidly directed, and tightly paced. The acting is solid and the characters are well developed. The filmmakers have succeeded in creating an extraordinary atmosphere using imaginative lighting combined with the creative use of fog, smoke, and/or wind to establish and maintain the film’s unsettling tone. The tornado warning and storm elements add additional texture to the look and feel of the film. Much of the film was shot on location at The Sable Production Ranch in Canyon Country northwest of Los Angeles. The film’s locations are well chosen, especially the desolate farmhouse and surrounding area. The set decoration evokes a ghostly, surreal ambiance and artificial trees were brought in to enhance the atmosphere. The filmmakers took advance of the creek used previously when Disney was shooting "The Haunted Mansion" to maximize the film’s production values.

The kinetic camerawork and atmospheric lighting by Director of Photography Denis Maloney support the director’s vision and set the film’s creepy, disturbing vibe -- from the opening shot of Halloween trick-or-treaters stumbling unexpectedly into the cemetery watchman, to the Federal Marshals taking Sin-Jin Smyth into custody in the shadowy corridors of the Shin Bone jail, to their blind pursuit of him through rows of crops in a dark cornfield, to their exploration of a spooky, abandoned farmhouse and subsequent battle with a rogue swat team. The fluid movement, clever camera angles, and ethereal lighting (jack-o-lanterns, flashlights, hanging lanterns) combine to create an eerie, supernatural ambiance that makes you believe that the film’s characters are perpetually in jeopardy. Often the camera itself becomes a character in the film, stalking the Federal Agents as they, in turn, stalk their prey and are stalked by it.

What makes this film so exciting is the absolutely fabulous cast that Ethan has assembled that includes some of the best known actors in the horror and action genres such as Kevin Gage (who has played countless bad guys in "Heat," "G.I. Jane," "Blow," "May"), Richard Tyson ("Black Hawk Down," "Kindergarten Cop," "Three O’Clock High"), Roddy Piper (Of the WWE/WWF, "They Live"), Jeff Conaway ("Grease," "Taxi," "Babylon Five"), Reb Brown ("Uncommon Valor," "Big Wednesday," "Captain America"), Camden Toy ("Buffy and the Vampire" television series), Eileen Dietz ("Exorcist," "The Clonus Horror," "Helter Skelter," "Constantine," "Creepshow 3"). Supporting cast members also include Lewis Smith ("Southern Comfort," "Buckaroo Banzi," "Wyatt Earp"), Lee Ving ("Clue," "Streets Of Fire," Lead singer of the punk band FEAR), Jacqueline Moore (of the WWE/WWF), Billy Duffy (of The Cult), Chris Doyle ("Darkman," "Army of Darkness"), Greg Travis ("Tool Box Murders," "Showgirls," "Starship Troopers"), John Philbin ("Tombstone," "Point Break," "Children Of The Corn," "Return Of The Living Dead,") Gary Kasper ("Batman Forever," "Vision Quest"), Jake Furey ("Battle Dome" television series), Charles Cyphers ("Halloween," "The Fog," "Escape From New York"), and the very sexy Jenna Jameson ("The New Devil in Miss Jones").

Ethan told me that he looked for actors who could create memorable characters that wouldn’t lose their impact on an audience and would leave a lasting impression years after the film wrapped. When discussing his cast, he told me, "The actors are iconic for their roles." He said this was especially true of Camden Toy whose ability to transform himself, combined with a high level of professionalism and years of experience, allowed him to nail a scene in one take or replace dialogue at a moment’s notice without rehearsal – something many actors today are not able to do. He also cited the talented Eileen Dietz who played the demon that possessed Regan in "The Exorcist."

The chemistry between the film’s leads, Tyson and Piper, is convincing, and there are some very funny verbal exchanges and physical comedy between them during the film’s scariest moments that lighten the tension and provide some comic relief in an otherwise dark film. They make us believe their characters have worked together a long time and know each other very well. The two characters have an amusing, sometimes acrimonious love-hate relationship, which is conveyed especially well in the scenes where they bicker over whose turn it is to face danger. Ethan joked about how studio executives had at one point suggested a love angle be added to the film. He wondered if perhaps they had something more in mind for these characters along the lines of "Brokeback Mountain."

Ethan explained that he had originally wanted to cast the lead singer Brian Johnson from AC/DC then, David Bowie for the role of Sin-Jin Smyth, but circumstances made that impossible. Instead, the role was offered to Jonathan Davis, the lead singer of Korn. Ethan said this was a lucky break that worked out perfectly. He clearly has a lot of respect for Davis and the work he did on this film. Indeed, Davis turns in a great performance as the title character. Ethan explained that he chose to have Davis made up so that his character did not resemble his rock persona. This way he would be seen by an audience as the Devil played by Jonathan Davis, rather than Korn’s lead singer playing the Devil. Ethan’s version of the Devil is something completely different from anything I’ve ever seen. It may or may not be straight out of hell, depending on your personal point of view, but it is certainly grabs your attention.

Ethan described the making of "Sin-Jin Smyth" as a "home grown project" and quite a learning process: "I had a long talk with my wife, and she decided to back me up and pull the trigger. We turned "Sin-Jin Smyth" into an investment. We retained a securities attorney in New York who helped us design an LLC. Then we started to build it out from a financial stand point. We hired a UPM (Unit Production Manager) to draw up a budget and an AD (Assistant Director) to give us an operational production schedule. Then we did research tailored to this specific genre and whipped up a cost and profit comparison sheet of other films that made box office history on limited means. From there, we pulled together a cast and an inventive crew of experienced Department Heads to handle Production Design, Cinematography, Make-up, FX, Stunts, Project Coordination, Sound, Property, Catering, everything. Next, we scouted and picked out our locations. I storyboarded the entire film and put together a specific shot list that included an A, B and C scenario with scenes I could omit if pressed for time.
 
From there, we started rehearsals, and I put everyone to work designing the aspects of the film that they would be responsible for. I hired a local kid to start the comic book, built a website (which is currently getting over 2.2 million hits a week and currently includes an online retail store), sourced out a three-part book deal for the publication of the script, novelization of the script, and a possible production journal in print. Then, after some quick research on what it would take to get a video game going, I went after distribution. We then looked into insurance, looked at format tests, sourced out processing and post production quotes, started to test the FX, Make-up, and Camera, and geared up to make the best film we possibly could."

Ethan began his film career in the Warner Brothers mailroom, worked his way up to a script doctor, and has worked as a writer for producers such as Jon Divens ("Blade," "Blade 2"), Steven Seagal ("Out for Justice," "Under Siege"), Idiom Films, Rock A Way Pictures, and BMT Films Canada. When he decided to direct "Sin-Jin Smyth," he told me he knew he had a lot to learn so he set about surrounding himself with the best people – the best cinematographer, the best production designer, the best make-up, FX, sound and lighting technicians, and stunt coordinator, etc. – and he always asked questions if he didn’t understand something and encouraged his crew to tell him if something wasn’t right. He said he was blessed to have such a talented, hardworking, and congenial cast and crew that worked exceptionally well together and made coming to the set each day a genuine pleasure. He also told me he was "extremely lucky to work with generous actors" who gave his project their very best efforts.

Ethan discussed the challenges of directing, including working with one actor who had made a career out of playing bad guys. He was so good at it that Ethan had to ask him to tone it down a little in order to "put a little more jeopardy into his character." Otherwise, the audience might not believe these characters were genuinely scared and fighting for their lives and therefore not buy into the scene. Ethan also described applying reverse psychology when dealing with another actor who knew exactly how to make eye contact with the camera to create what Ethan described as the "GQ" look, but not the look Ethan wanted for that particular scene. What was his strategy? He told the actor that he looked "weak" when he did that, which convinced this actor to do sometime else more appropriate to the scene because the last thing the actor wanted was to appear "weak." Ethan spoke too about the difficulties of working with perpetually smiling children in what was supposed to be a frightening film, and how a decision was made to eliminate a dog from one scene because it interfered too much with the production.

Ethan described his David and Goliath fight with the studio over the project. At one point, studio executives bluntly told him, "There are no good guys, only bad and worse." They suggested he add a love angle to the story, use a younger (and less experienced) cast, and perhaps insert an exorcism into the third act to make it more interesting. Ethan, however, refused to compromise the integrity of his project and fought the system to get his film made his way. He had no interest in making a film that would roll everything into a happily contrived ending. Instead of selling out and making a film for people within the studio system or succumbing to bad suggestions for formulated rewrites just to secure financing, or worse, accepting offers to buy the script, he stuck to his original ideas and directorial vision and insisted on filming the project as he had written it. His uncompromising approach paid off when at a recent industry screening of the rough cut, there was loud applause from the same executives that had earlier suggested drastic changes. Ethan also described the challenge of making sure every production dollar ended up on the screen. He recalled paying a $21,000 SAG completion bond in advance and then being frustrated by SAG’s delay in refunding it until three weeks after production was completed. In his opinion, this was $21,000 of value that could have ended up on the screen instead of earning interest in SAG’s bank account.

All in all, it was a fun and exciting day. I especially want to thank Ethan for his generosity and for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet with me and share the latest news about his project with our readers. I enjoyed having the opportunity to see the rough cut of Ethan’s new film and meeting so many interesting and talented people that are very committed to the project. And I can’t wait to see Ethan’s film when it’s finished. "Sin-Jin Smyth" is definitely going to be one of 2006’s coolest films and an indie shocker that will be well worth seeing. Be ready to expect the unexpected because Ethan knows how to give an audience as much as they can take. And one thing he can truly say about this film is that he did it his way!

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