A villain who sews up the mouths of his victims while espousing views on nihilism and the idea behind being a modern savage. A detective who has to use an early version of the internet to track down his missing daughter. Featuring bondage, gruesome scenes, and a character who begs to be slayed, Strangeland isn’t a normal horror movie.
The brainchild of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Strangeland is a relic of late-'90s horror cinema. Rather than delighting in upending the tropes of the genre - a fashionable horror trend at the time - Snider’s slasher film maintains an air of realism that gives it a sense of deep foreboding absent from many of its contemporaries.
Made with almost no money and inspired by a failed rock opera, Strangeland was a labor of love by Snider, the film's writer, producer, and star. More than a vanity project, this 1998 horror film was slaved over, and ultimately wound up in the used VHS bin of every video store in America.
Strangeland isn't an easy movie to watch. Even for seasoned gorehounds, the film's images of women with their mouths sewn shut and people kept in cages can be hard to watch. Released in 1998, long before Saw and Hostel brought extreme gore to the mainstream, Snider's film was a shock to the MPAA when the initial edit of the film arrived on its doorstep.
Snider has spoken at length about his back-and-forths with the MPAA and having to make cut after cut - in some instances removing scenes that simply suggest something happens without actually showing it. The final edict from the MPAA arrived close to the film's release when the board insisted that the film required more edits than previously established, sending Snider and the rest of the post-production team back to work. Rather than completing another re-edit, however, Snider simply had to add an extra warning to the film's rating descriptor. He explained the new warning, and his fondness for pushing the MPAA, to Lollipop magazine:
"This film is rated R. Contains extreme violence, nudity, profane language," they made us add, "and scenes of torture." No movie’s ever had that put on it before. I was pretty proud of that.
Snider has made it clear that he wanted Strangeland to be as factual as possible. That means no one coming back to life, no unstoppable slashers getting up again and again, and no dream demons (unless you count an appearance by Robert Englund). The accuracy in the film extends to the tattoos, piercings, and scarifications of Captain Howdy. There are no random pieces of metal in the character's face, and according to the film's writer and star, he did intense research to make sure he looked the part.
Luckily, Snider had an ace in the hole when it came to research. Keith Alexander, a body modification guru, was playing guitar for Snider in his live band, Dee Snider's SMF. Snider was able to chat with Alexander about the body mod scene on long van rides. Alexander gave him advice and pointed him toward various research materials to help him flesh out the design of Captain Howdy. Snider explained:
Keith was in the band Carnivore, which was Pete Steele’s first band of note. I met him when I was researching the film. He has his own shop called Modern American Body Arts in Brooklyn. He’s a premiere brander and does scarification. He’s also hooked deep into the S/M and fetish world and was kind enough to share much of that with me. On these long drives between gigs, we’d just talk for hours. He’d say, "Read this book, watch this video, check out this website." He was paid to be the consultant and help design the piercings and brandings for authenticity. I didn’t want to just throw a bunch of metal in a face. There is rhyme and reason, the way people do things in the body mod community.
According to Dee Snider, he loves being a writer. After spending the 1980s as a hair metal god, he's since said that writing appeals to him because he doesn't have to look a certain way or be a certain kind of person as long as he can craft an interesting story. That being said, when it came to casting Captain Howdy, Strangeland's ripped, tatted-out bogeyman, he couldn't imagine anyone in the part other than himself. He told Lollipop:
I have not wanted to be an actor. I have dreamed of being a horror icon. Since I wrote "Captain Howdy," I envisioned it as being more, and I’ve always seen myself playing this part. As a writer, I created him from the ground up, so I don’t know if I could be as effective as an actor in another part. I’d like to think I could, but I wouldn’t say I’m an actor’s actor and I can play anything.
It's obvious from the first time Howdy appears that Snider threw himself into the part. He's shredded, covered in faux-ink, and has his body covered in modifications, branding, and scarification. Snider knew the character inside and out, and was clearly willing and able to get into not just the physicality of Captain Howdy, but his mental state as well.
By the end of Strangeland, Captain Howdy has run the gamut of human experience. He's committed vicious acts against teen girls he met online and attempted to off himself by hanging from hooks in the back of a BDSM/nü-metal club. He's been stuck in an insane asylum, become reformed, and then turned back to his malicious ways after nearly getting taken out by an entire town.
Snider works hard to make sure every character - aside from the teenage victims - comes across as an animal by the end of the film, which makes his views on inmate rehabilitation oblique, to say the least. He is evasive when it comes to his feelings on who in the film is good and who is bad, as well as whether someone can be truly insane or if we all have some kind of control over our lives. He explained in an interview:
I just wanted to play with that whole concept of good and evil. It’s a little vague. In the end, when he comes back to get revenge on the people who hurt him, who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy? If Gage had done his job and made that call... He’s a cop - that’s what you do! But he couldn’t. And we understand why he couldn’t. But whose fault is it that the guy is now back and madder than ever?