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It’s increasingly rare to be surprised by a new movie’s existence entirely, particularly when it’s connected to an established IP. Studios inundate audiences with advertising in an effort to remain at the forefront of their minds while fervent fans dig up every crumb of information from the second a project is announced, leaving precious little to the imagination by the time a film hits the screen.

Blair Witch‘s covert reveal, The Cloverfield Paradox‘s unannounced release, and Split‘s connection to Unbreakable are recent examples that, regardless of the reception to the films themselves, generated buzz thanks to the element of surprise. Five years ago, writer-director Adam Green pulled off a similar achievement with Victor Crowley, the fourth installment in his Hatchet franchise.

Victor Crowley was produced in secret, only to be revealed to an unsuspecting audience at a free Hollywood screening that was advertised as a 10th anniversary celebration of the original Hatchet with cast members from all the movies in attendance. Green proceeded to tour with the film at theaters around the country before it arrived on Blu-ray and DVD, all within a span of six months.

“I came really close to checking out in 2014,” Green tells me. A divorce, the death of his friend and Holliston castmate Dave Brockie, and the closing of Holliston‘s network, Fearnet, all in the span of a month sent him spiraling into a reclusive state. “I really did not want to be here anymore. Doing this movie really recentered me and put me back with my family, my friends. It was the movie I needed to make at the time.”

Green first conceived of Hatchet as an 8-year-old horror fan. He finally brought his loving send-up to ’80s slashers to the screen in 2006, followed by Hatchet II in 2010 and Hatchet III (on which he handed the directing reins to Studio 666‘s BJ McDonnell) in 2013. Although fans would continue to ask him about the franchise’s future, he definitively stated that the story he wanted to tell was done.

It was masters of horror Wes Craven and George A. Romero – to whom the film is dedicated – that inspired Green to head back to the swamps of New Orleans. Craven’s passing in 2015 caused Green to question his own worth and legacy, then Romero personally requested that Green host his panel at a horror convention two months later. Receiving a brief pep talk from one of his filmmaking heroes afterward had a profound impact on Green. “George really made me see that something that I do does matter to people and that it makes them happy,” Green recalls.

Green started working on the script for Victor Crowley as soon as he returned from the convention. Upon completion, he started to get the band back together, but some were apprehensive. “It always looks on the behind-the-scenes like we’re having the best times making these movies, but we’re not,” Green confesses. “They’re fucking hard! They nearly kill everybody who works on them, because we just don’t have the time or money… But it’s always worth it when you get to see it with an audience and see how much they appreciate it.”

The filmmaking process is always difficult, but the odds stacked against Victor Crowley make its existence nothing short of a miracle. With a budget of $400,000, principal photography on the 83-minute film was a mere 11 days followed by two skeleton-crew days for pick ups – an astonishingly short time to make any competent movie, let alone a secret production with an ensemble cast and close to a dozen on-screen death scenes.

The joy in doing this was trying to keep it a surprise,” Green explains. “If we were going to do it again we wanted to not have any hype whatsoever and just suddenly show it.” There were a few leaks along the way, but thankfully no one ruined the surprise for the masses. That said, Green promises the potential next installment won’t be kept a secret, as he doesn’t believe he could pull it off again.

Green cites his film family – the close-knit group of collaborators he surrounds himself with on every production – as the most important asset to getting the movie made. All involved were sworn to secrecy. Most of the roles were written specifically for his friends, but the few actors who auditioned didn’t know it was for a Hatchet movie. The script carried the fake title Arwen’s Fancy Dinner and didn’t include the epilogue, while it was referred to as Arwen’s Revenge on set – both named after Green’s beloved Yorkie (who also serves as his The Movie Crypt podcast mascot).

The original Hatchet trilogy takes place back-to-back-to-back, with each sequel picking up the literal second the previous entry left off. Victor Crowley, on the other hand, is set a decade after the events in Honey Island Swamp that left at least 40 dead, but don’t mistake it for a reboot; it follows the original continuity with returning characters, callbacks, and ample Easter eggs for fans to discover.

Parry Shen – an integral part in all four films, albeit as three different characters – leads the ensemble as paramedic Andrew Yong, the lone survivor of the brutal massacre. With a new tell-all book, Andrew hopes to prove his innocence and set the record straight about local legend Victor Crowley (horror icon Kane Hodder), who’s cursed to haunt the swamp where he was killed by his father in a freak accident.

At the behest of his pill-popping publicist (Sleepaway Camp star Felissa Rose), Andrew returns to the scene of the crime a decade later for a big TV interview. Meanwhile, a budding film crew – director Chloe (Katie Booth), actor Alex (Chase Williamson, John Dies at the End), special effects artist Rose (Laura Ortiz, The Hills Have Eyes), and actor/tour guide Dillon (Dave Sheridan, Scary Movie) – also head into the familiar territory to shoot a mock-trailer for their indie movie about the murders; a nod to Hatchet’s origins. That leaves a whole mess of people roaming around the swamp that Victor Crowley calls home.

From the 1964-set prologue in which a young man’s (Mystery Science Theater 3000 host Jonah Ray) marriage proposal goes horribly wrong to the ongoing tension between Andrew and his ex-wife (Broadway actress Krystal Joy Brown in her film debut), a theme of lost love runs throughout Victor Crowley. “This movie was a big catharsis of dealing with a bunch of shit and trying to do it in a comedic, fun way,” Green says.

The most impactful sequence of the franchise comes as scream queen Tiffany Shepis’ pregnant character slowly drowns. It wasn’t until Green started touring with the movie that he had a revelation about its resonance. “Usually when there’s a kill in a Hatchet movie, everybody’s clapping or laughing, but everyone was silent.”

He opens up, “All I ever wanted in life was to have kids. More than a career, more than anything, that was the big thing. At the time that I wrote the movie, I felt like I missed the boat on having children.” The emotion behind the writing is complemented by an affecting performance that proves Shepis is worthy of more than the campy B-movies with which she’s often associated.

The film also boasts the most suspenseful moments of the franchise, including a sequence that beat Halloween 2018 to the punch with its clever use of a motion-sensor light, and a strong case can be made for it being the funniest entry as well. What elevates the series above most horror-comedy hybrids is that, although the characters are often funny and the death scenes are over the top, the killer is always taken seriously.

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Victor Crowley marked Green’s first project without cinematographer Will Barratt, who was unavailable for the gig but served as a producer and was on set when possible. Jan-Michael Losada (The Last Halloween, Don’t Kill It) admirably fills his shoes behind the camera, providing a consistent look with backgrounds bathed in cool, blue moonlight. Green credits Losada for helping the production stay on its tight schedule. “He and his team were so fucking good and so fast!”

Despite the franchise’s continued success, each subsequent movie has had a lower budget than the previous entry, but Victor Crowley puts every cent on screen. Per usual, the gleefully gory death scenes are all accomplished with practical effects, headed by franchise regular Robert Pendergraft and his Aunt Dolly’s Garage. While it’s impossible to top Mrs. Permatteo’s head-ripping death from Hatchet – one of the all-time great slasher kills, as far as I’m concerned – the blood is plentiful. Even the plane crash – no easy feat on a shoestring budget – is impressive.

The scope and body count may be a tad more narrow than the previous Hatchet films, but Victor Crowley never feels restrained by its limitations. In fact, the intimacy benefits the final product. While Hatchet II and III occasionally struggled to elevate their abundance of ancillary characters beyond mere slasher fodder, Green efficiently develops Victor Crowley’s smaller cast. There’s no shortage of victims, but you care when they die.

Using genre storytelling vocabulary, Booth, as the intrepid filmmaker, is telegraphed to be the new final girl only for her to be killed off in a Psycho-esque subversion. Ortiz, reprising her blink-and-miss-it role from Hatchet II (a connection that isn’t addressed in Victor Crowley but will come into play in Hatchet 5, should it come to fruition), is the real final girl. The character may not seem to be a far cry from her foul-mouthed pixie on Holliston at first glance, but Ortiz is ultimately playing against type, punctuated by a meaty monologue.

Impractical Jokers Brian Quinn, in his first substantial acting role, displays some comedic chops beyond reality TV – although, since the role was written with him in mind, his character is not a far cry from his actual personality. Rose chews so much scenery it’s hard to believe there was any set left to film on, but it’s Sheridan who’s the MVP in the laughs department; nearly every line that comes out of his mouth is chuckle-worthy.

Beyond the secret production, Victor Crowley also features several surprise appearances that remained under wraps until the film was widely available. Most notably, a mid-credit scene sees Danielle Harris return as Marybeth Dunston, the franchise’s hero who was presumed dead following the events of Hatchet III. In Hatchet tradition, this sequence could lead right into the fifth installment.

Having already defeated actors who portrayed Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund in Hatchet), Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff in Hatchet II), Candyman (Tony Todd – who makes a brief cameo in this one – in Hatchet II), and Jason Voorhees (Derek Mears in Hatchet III), Victor Crowley finally kills off a Michael Myers in the form of Tyler Mane. I hope Green can get Doug Bradley in Hatchet 5 to add Pinhead to the horror icon hit list.

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Five years later, Victor Crowley remains a satisfying resurrection. A slasher sequel rarity, it packs genuine surprises beyond the gore and laughs fans have come to expect. “I’m insanely proud of what we did, especially with what we had,” beams Green. “That movie never should have been as good as it turned out. It was so successful, which was amazing. The tour, every night was incredible.”

Green already has two more Hatchet installments planned out, although if or when they happen remains unknown. “I think at some point we’ll most likely do another one. It just sort of happens, where all of a sudden I can’t stop thinking about it, I want to do it, and then phone calls start getting made, and the family assembles, and we do it,” he explains.

“It would have to be that everybody’s ready to do it. I can tell you there’s plenty of people that are. I just got a call this morning from a very important person in the series. I’m just not ready.” In the past, Green has been able to pursue other projects in between Hatchet movies, but the pandemic put a halt to his long-gestating adaptation of Greg Taylor’s Killer Pizza. Originally set up as a feature at MGM in 2011, it was reworked and ready to go as a TV series before the world shut down.

“There’s a couple things happening now that I’m really excited about that I can’t talk about, but hopefully I’ll do some of that and then maybe I’ll be ready to come back to [Hatchet].” Green notes shifts in the film industry and content consumption as a major hurdle – but, as Victor Crowley proves, if anyone can beat the odds, it’s Green.

Five years is the longest gap between Hatchet movies, but the series remains as popular than ever. It has spawned two action figures from NECA with another one the way from MEGO, a mask from Trick or Treat Studios, a comic book series from American Mythology, apparel from Fright-Rags and Terror Threads, and even a Victor Crowley VHS from yours truly. Green recognizes that he has the loyal Hatchet army to thank for everything.

I just want to thank the fans,” he states with authenticity in his voice. “It’s such an overused thing to say, but it’s so different with [Hatchet], because this was completely made by fans. It was never marketed in a real way, it was never on a million screens; it’s always been this grass-roots thing. To see what it’s become 17 years later, and that there’s such a desire for more, is mind blowing. I wish this could happen for everybody who ever tries to do this, because it means so much more than people will ever understand.”

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