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Toy gory: Why all your favorite childhood icons are becoming movie monsters

Toy gory: Why all your favorite childhood icons are becoming movie monsters

The filmmakers behind "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey" and "Mickey's Mouse Trap" reveal how they are turning famous kiddie-friendly characters into adult-slaying psychos.

Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield was shooting the horror sequel Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2 (out March 26) in London last year when the filmmaker was hit with the realization that his life had taken a turn for the strange.

"We have a big set-piece at the end of the film which involves a kind of underground rave," says the Brit filmmaker. "I remember turning up on that day, and we've got 80 people all dancing, having a good time, and then, out from the curtain, comes Winnie-the-Pooh with a big bat and a bear trap, and then chaos ensues. I do remember thinking, this is absolutely mental."

Scott Jeffrey produced the film with Frake-Waterfield and also plays the role of Pooh's former friend Christopher Robin under his acting nom de plume of Scott Chambers. For Jeffrey, the strangest moment of the Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2 shoot came while filming a scene inside a car when his character is menaced by the movie's titular bear, who is wielding a chainsaw. As the actor-producer recalls, "I’m inside the car, and a chainsaw that is on fire is bursting through the car, and the camera crew is telling me, 'Go on, Scott, get closer to the chainsaw, get a bit closer!' And I was just thinking, 'What the hell is going on?'"

<p>ITN Studios/ Jagged Edge Productions</p> 'Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2'

ITN Studios/ Jagged Edge Productions

'Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2'

It is a question that could be asked more generally about the slew of recent and upcoming horror movies that have taken beloved childhood icons and repurposed them as movie monsters. That list includes not one but two retellings of the Cinderella story Cinderella's Revenge (out April 26) and Cinderella's Curse (release date TBD) and a slasher movie starring a certain famous fictional rodent titled Mickey's Mouse Trap, which will be released later this year. The latter is directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Jamie Bailey, who has taken advantage of the fact that the 1928 short "Steamboat Willie," which features the first appearance of Mickey, fell into the public domain at the start of this year.

Bailey describes Mickey's Mouse Trap as concerning "a bunch of kids around 20-, 21-years-old, they're at a place that's like an arcade, and they quickly find out that they're locked into this place, and someone has been possessed by Mickey Mouse and starts killing people." And there's more! In addition to Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2, Frake-Waterfield and Jeffrey recently produced filmmaker Dan Allen's ominously-titled Bambi: The Reckoning and are currently prepping Peter Pan's Neverland Nightmare, which Jeffrey will direct. After that, Frake-Waterfield says, the pair will start work on their "next batch of films, which we’re going to be alluding to at the end of Pooh 2."

This unlikely gold rush has its roots in Frake-Waterfield and Jeffrey's U.K.-based Jagged Edge Productions, which the pair founded in 2020 and initially specialized in low-budget straight-to-VOD movies with eye-catching titles like Crocodile Vengeance or the Jeffrey-directed Dragon Fury. Then, the founders realized that the character of Winnie-the-Pooh, as depicted in author A.A. Milne's first collection of stories about the lovable bear, would enter the public domain in 2023. So, they decided Jagged Edge should make a slasher film with outsized versions of Pooh and his pal Piglet as the homicidal villains. Frake-Waterfield says he and Jeffrey are "both obsessed with horror, and we're always trying to think, what would really excite us? What concept would get us really excited and buzzing? We thought about that one and were like, yeah, I'd really love to see it; Scott would love to see it, so we said, let's go ahead, let's make it. We didn't expect it to blow up to the size it did."

<p>ITN Studios/ Jagged Edge Productions</p> 'Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2'

ITN Studios/ Jagged Edge Productions

'Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2'

Frake-Waterfield wrote and directed Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey on an initial budget of just £20,000, which allowed for neither stars nor much in the way of special effects, with the actor playing Pooh forced to wear a simple mask and what the British filmmaker describes with a laugh as "literally a pair of cleaning gloves." Despite the project's small-scale nature, the director was careful only to include elements and characters found in Milne's original book and nothing added by Disney in the subsequent animated films featuring Pooh, such as the cartoon bear's red shirt. In the film's title, Frake-Waterfield even kept the character's name hyphenated, as had been the case in Milne's book, to make clear that he was not infringing on Disney's copyright. As the director says, "It’s such an easy thing to overlook, the hyphens, but they are very important."

When stills from the film were released in 2022, the images swiftly went viral, something Jeffrey discovered when he got up to use the toilet in the middle of the night. The filmmaker recalls that he "was scrolling on my phone, and it was just relentless. Then I Googled it, and it was like, oh my God. It was exciting, and then I was also like, oh s---, we need to reshoot some of this because it was just such a cheap film." Thanks to the movie's virality, and after £30,000 of additional photography, Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey was picked up by Fathom Events, which opened the movie on nearly 1,500 screens in February 2023.

Frake-Waterfield and Jeffrey are far from the first filmmakers to put a dark spin on child-friendly tales. Neil Jordan's 1984 film The Company of Wolves, an adaptation of Angela Carter's short story, scarily retold the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, while Osgood Perkins' 2020 movie Gretel & Hansel explored similar terrain. As Cinderella's Revenge director Andy Edwards says, "There’s been dark retellings of fairytales over the years. Partly, it is novelty, seeing characters you know and love in a horror scenario, but if you go back to the Brothers Grimm stuff, they’re pretty horrible anyway. These are stories which were originally quite dark and then were sanitized by Disney, and now I think we’re just going back to the roots."

<p>Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate</p> 'Imaginary'

Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate

'Imaginary'

Jeff Wadlow is the director and co-writer of the Blumhouse-produced film Imaginary (out this Friday), about a supernaturally powered evil teddy bear. Asked about the appeal of combining a toy with terror in this fashion, the director can barely answer between chuckles.

"I mean, ruining people’s childhoods is so much fun, are you kidding me?" he says. "There’s so much twisty evil fun you can have with this notion of taking something that was innocent and precious for large groups of people and showing how it can be sinister and manipulated and how it might not be what they thought it was. It’s so fertile and juicy."

The success of Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey once again proved the appeal of blending cuddly icons with violent mayhem while also showing how filmmakers could repurpose hugely famous, just-out-of-copyright characters without being sued. When writer-actor Simon Phillips first approached Mickey's Mouse Trap director Jamie Bailey about making a movie in which Phillips would play a homicidal version of Walt Disney's most famous creation, the filmmaker was all ears, appropriately enough.

"The case study was Winnie-the-Pooh," says Bailey. "The cartoony aspect of it really struck a nerve in people, and they got an immense amount of press for it. And the big thing is, they never got sued by Disney. We knew that Mickey Mouse's copyright was coming up, so why not take a stab at it."

<p>Into Frame Productions</p> 'Mickey's Mouse Trap'

Into Frame Productions

'Mickey's Mouse Trap'

While some might regard Mickey's Mouse Trap as a mercenary hijacking of an iconic character, Bailey recalls being genuinely thrilled shooting scenes with Phillips portraying the titular villain.

"As you asked me that question, I have goosebumps," he says. "I got giddy as I was filming it. There were times on set when I was filming something, and Simon had this mask on and was peeking around the corner, when I just was like, oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening."

Bailey and Phillips were careful that their Mickey resembled the version featured in "Steamboat Willie" rather than subsequent iterations found in material to which Disney still has the copyright. Bailey explains they "tried to do everything stay within the certain guard rails. Mickey’s eyes are all black; we didn’t use anything but black gloves. Basically, he looks like the 'Steamboat Willie' version. We recently got a legal opinion from our copyright lawyer in the United States that basically gave us a clean bill of health."

Scott Jeffrey insists he has no problem with other filmmakers following the example of the Winnie-the-Pooh crew as long as they follow the legal niceties.

"We do live in a time where you can buy a camcorder and make a film tomorrow, and I want people to go out there and do well," he says. "The only thing I worry about is people not doing their research properly. It’s such a key thing because it only takes one thing [mistake], and then an example is made out of someone."

<p>ITN Studios/ Jagged Edge Productions</p> 'Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2'

ITN Studios/ Jagged Edge Productions

'Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2'

For the moment, Jeffrey and Frake-Waterfield's bear-based movie empire shows no sign of going into hibernation. Made for a much larger budget than its predecessor, Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2 boasts effects by the Prosthetic Studio whose founder Shaune Harrison was responsible for Ralph Fiennes' Voldermort makeup in the Happy Potter movies and a cast that includes Four Weddings and a Funeral actor Simon Callow. Frake-Waterfield is "very excited for everyone to see it. I feel like there’s a big jump up in the quality of the film: the performances, the story, the gore, the creatures, everything.

The sequel also features the debut appearance in the horror series of Pooh's pal Tigger, who entered the public domain this year. Frake-Waterfield says there has been no shortage of suggestions from fans about which beloved characters they would like to see turned into monsters further down the line.

"They’re like, we need Roo, we need Kanga, we need all these characters," explains the director. "And part of me’s thinking like, f---ing hell! Like, most horror films have one villain. Am I going to have seven in [the third film]?"

Fathom Events is releasing Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2 in cinemas for a three-day run starting March 26.

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