Interview: Horror Producer Peter Phok Talks Terror, Collaboration, And The Best Horror Movies – Forbes

With so much horror movie and horror series content being viewed in celebration Halloween today, one of the most successful horror producers of the past decade — Peter Phok — speaks about his journey to the small and big screens, his collaborations with some of the biggest names in horror filmmaking, some of his favorite productions, and his experiences as a Cambodian-American filmmaker in Hollywood.
Official poster for Shudder series “Deadwax”
If you’ve checked out my recent list of the top 10 best horror movies of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and its companion article listing the top 10 best horror movies of the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s (so far), my picks for the top 10 scariest moments in horror movie history, and my selection of the top 10 best Christian-themed religious horror movies of all time, then you’ll know several of Peter Phok’s movies are on those lists, and for good reason.
After working on a slew of horror films at Glass Eye Pix, Phok now runs Phok Productions where he’s helped create exceptional horror content for TV and film, including several collaborations with writer-director Ti West, including the recent X and its prequel Pearl — as well as the upcoming sequel in the series, MaXXXine.
I had the honor of speaking with Phok about his career and some of his most thrilling work, just in time for Halloween. So here is our conversation, and I encourage you to seek out the films we discuss as well as the series Deadwax if you want to experience many of the best horror productions of the modern era.
So, without further ado, read on for my Halloween interview with horror producer extraordinaire Peter Phok!
Film Producer Peter Phok
MARK HUGHES: Thank you for speaking with me today, and let me wish you an early Happy Halloween!
PETER PHOK: Likewise! Yeah, it’s a favorite holiday of mine, especially in the world I work a lot in.
MH: So let’s dive into it. First of all, this being Halloween season, I’d like to reach back a bit in time a few years and talk about your work with horror streaming service Shudder and the series Deadwax. It’s a terrifically creepy premise, and anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it I will highly recommend should check it out. Can you talk about how the series came about and what it was like working with Graham and Shudder?
PP: Absolutely, and thanks so much for asking about Deadwax and recommending it to everyone. I’m very proud of Deadwax… Graham Reznick is an incredibly multi-talented collaborator. He’s the writer-director of the series Deadwax that’s on Shudder, but I know him from way before, actually. Graham grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and went to high school with another collaborator of mine, Ti West.
While Graham was at NYU and we were at School of Visual Arts, Graham was a very talented musician and sound designer at a very early stage of his career. So I worked with Graham on multiple films that I produced with Glass Eye Pix, including Graham’s first feature I Can See You. When Graham approached me about Deadwax, he had basically already developed both the concept and was working toward fleshing out some of the scripts for this episodic series that Shudder had commissioned.
The years I spent at Glass Eye under Larry Fessenden’s direct leadership taught me to be— we were very filmmaker driven there, and it was such a great place for artists because everybody’s ideas and concepts were really just like universally supported. We always leaned into supporting one another.
So with Graham, I said, “Whatever you’re brewing, I’m there for you.” And I’d just relocated to Los Angeles in 2017, so, we sort of hit the ground running with it. While we didn’t have an abundance of resources, and there are certainly challenges that lie with that, that wasn’t something that I had been familiar with dealing with in my years working with Glass Eye. Sometimes you’ve got to make the best of the resources that are afforded to you.
Graham wrote this incredible neo-noir thriller set in LA, about a vinyl hunter who’s hired by specific clients to seek out very rare, elusive records on traditional vinyl — something I already knew Graham was doing in his personal life, as a huge record collector himself. And I just loved the idea. There’s a lot of other short stories and movies similar to this sort of concept, but I think where Graham took it is an interesting and unexpected direction. There are some sci-fi elements in it that I really enjoy. We’re really proud of it, and it was very much a pleasant experience working with Shudder in one of their first early original series offerings.
MH: Has there been any consideration of doing a second season or spinoff?
PP: Well, there’s definitely been a lot of talk about the possibility of a second season. Certainly when it initially premiered on the platform, and then every time I do talk to Shudder I bring up, “Hey, when are we doing season two?” Because I’d love to go back there, and I think the more you put it out in the world and the more fans ask for it, the better chance we have of getting them to eventually say, “Yeah, let’s go.”
Graham has lots of ideas for where season two would take us. The Etta Price character and the world of Deadwax — I think there’s a lot more to explore there, whether we do it in a series format or as a feature. So yeah, there’s always the possibility.
And with that, I continue to check in with Graham every now and then. He’s often writing in the video game world, but I do check in to see what he has for narrative series and feature offerings. He’s a really great collaborator.
MH: If folks haven’t seen Deadwax, this is a perfect time to check it out as part of their Halloween viewing.
Now I’d love to discuss your work, including at your new company Phok Productions. I’m a fan of Stake Land, and I remember when it came out and I thought it was a terrific indie horror movie, and I love The Sacrament and The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil, X and Pearl. There are so many films you’ve made that are among the best in modern horror. Could you give a brief history of how and why you decided to form your own production company with Phok Productions?
Official poster for “The House of the Devil”
PP: Yes, and just to be clear, while Phok Productions is my production company and it’s been around for a little while and is where I’ve been developing projects, some of the titles you mentioned were not necessarily produced by Phok Productions but were more my time spent with Larry Fessenden’s company Glass Eye Pix in New York. But Phok Productions is a production company that’s seeing the productions I’m doing both commercially here in Los Angeles and New York. It’s a full service production company.
To talk about where all of these projects came from, I have a love of and admiration for movies and cinema. While it didn’t come together at the youngest of ages, I have early memories of seeing movies like The Blob that haunted me as a young boy, then later discovering movies in high school. I grew up in the ’80s and then high school was in the ’90s, so there was a lot of great thrillers and horror coming out like Wes Craven’s Scream that really opened my eyes to what horror could be.
And then off to film school I went, where I met Ti [West], whose love for horror specifically really opened my eyes to a lot of more independent horror, like early movies of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. So I was exposed to that, and then it was like our time spent making short films at SVA led to meeting Larry [Fessenden] and ultimately getting involved with his company, which was very much fiercely independent and an advocate of artists, and which was really into horror and thrillers.
Larry is like a big kid with action figures throughout his office, and lots of movie memorabelia from different genre pictures. It just felt like such a playground, and what we found also is that audiences — genre audiences and horror audiences — have such a wide range of tastes. I think if you have an idea for a concept for horror, there’s going to be an audience for it if you’re true to that idea, and if you commit to it and can execute it.
So I was just following the filmmakers, and I was just lucky to get to work with so many talented and interesting filmmakers, from Ti to Jim Mickle, to Graham and Glenn McQuaid. And I just continued to have support — like, I think with filmmaking there’s a lot of gatekeeping involved in getting into the industry, and I certainly had my own challenges of finding my way. That was something I wanted to not continue to be the case. I certainly would not want to be a gatekeeper, and want to be openly sharing of information and always support young filmmakers who want to move into this industry and commit to it.
MH: You talked about your early horror influences, and Ti West and the horror movies from the ’80s and ’90s. You both seem to also have a particular interest and respect for ’70s horror filmmaking. The House of the Devil and X for example both had some nice homages and influences like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Rosemary’s Baby and others. Does ’70s horror also resonate with you as a horror filmmaker?
Official poster for “Pearl”
PP: Oh absolutely. A lot of the movies made in the ’70s back then weren’t coming out until the ’80s, and I grew up in the ’80s. But I don’t think I was discovering it until much later, but it certainly was an influence for Ti. I mean, we grew up in an era of the home video store, whether it was a mom and pop shop or— everyone knows of Blockbuster Video, but then there was also Hollywood Video at the time. And so we would often in high school and college just go to the video stores to look and try to find a discovery.
That was sort of the fun of it. It was very similar to the themes in Deadwax of just finding something rare and maybe not seen or not so popular.
And Ti uses those influences in his filmmaking. Certainly with The House of the Devil, that is set in the ’80s, but it’s not like people back then just went out and redid their entire homes and bought new furniture and new appliances, it’s basically [stuff from] the ’70s that carries over. And I think that’s why those movies resonate so authentically, because of that attention to detail that Ti brings to his movies so accurately.
He works with incredible production designers like Jade Healy and Tom Hammock… I think the attention to detail in the aesthetic, I think that’s what sells it, so a lot of effort is put into making sure everything rings true to that era. In X, if you track down all of the music, you’ll know that it’s all accurate to the period.
MH: Exactly. And X and Pearl of course are part of a trilogy, and they’re both wonderful films. Can you tell us anything about what to expect from MaXXXine, the third film in this series?
PP: Mark, I wish I could. But I don’t think we even know yet. What Ti has up his sleeve is going to be— it’s potentially going to shock us all.
We all look forward to that journey, and that is part of the process. You know, they talk about movies and how they’re made, once in the writing and once in directing, and then finally in the editing and post production. So we’re way too far out to have any insight as to where we’ll go, but I think it’s going to be quite memorable.
MH: So you have a new horror film coming out soon called The Sacrifice Game, can you tell us anything about that yet?
PP: Yeah, I can talk a little bit about The Sacrifice Game. That’s Jennifer Wexler’s sophomore feature. If you’re on Shudder, then you can check out The Ranger, that was her first feature offering.
Jen is a colleague of mine from Glass Eye, and she’s a real student and fan of horror. It’s in her blood, and she’s been in the horror world personally and professionally, starting as a young woman growing up on the East Coast.
The Sacrifice Game is a period film set in an era of “satanic panic.” It’s a big step up from what she gives us in The Ranger, with an ensemble cast and a movie that involves some sacrifices for sure.
MH: You mentioned gatekeeping earlier, and I’d like to talk about your experiences as an Asian-American filmmaker in Hollywood… What have been some of the unique challenges you’ve faced, and the unique opportunities you’ve had to see those blindspots in the industry and use your position to try to push back and open more doors in Hollywood?
PP: Thanks for asking. So, I’m Cambodian-American and first born of my family in New York. So growing up in New York, I gotta say that New York is what they refer to as the melting pot of the world. I grew up in Long Island in the suburbs, and was kind of exposed to all types of ethnicities and religions. And that was my view of the world, it was normal. If you’ve ever been to JFK [Airport], you see everybody coming through. So that idea of racism and segregation was odd to me, but our country is seeped in it. There’s a lot of history.
The gatekeeping I was referencing was that of Hollywood itself, right? And now that I’ve relocated, it’s certainly a wider world out here, and often throughout my career I represent as the only Asian in the room or in the meeting. So I’m an advocate, but it is interesting and more of an observation that I can’t think of any specific instance where that held me back, but it’s something that we’re always sort of fighting against — for more representation and acknowledgement of different experiences.
When given the opportunity and the power to influence, I’m going to take that on in terms of casting and seeking more representation on screen as well as off screen and behind the camera.
I’m starting to recognize other filmmakers who are of Cambodian descent — in fact, I just met David Siev, who has a documentary called Bad Axe that’s coming out in November, about his own family and set in Bad Axe, Michigan. I thought it was incredibly endearing and opens an insight into the lives of Asian-Americans in this country. I thought it was incredibly brave and worth the watch. I’m excited for my own family to go see it when it comes out in a few weeks.
MH: It feels like we go through periods where we see more representation, and everyone’s like, “Oh look how much things have changed,” but then inevitably everything kind of slides back into the old ways of doing things and doing business that starts to exclude people again and representation goes down again.
I know this may sound like a trite question, but do you think there’s something we’re missing that can bring about fundamental lasting change, so that it doesn’t have to constantly be these peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys, as Spike Lee put it when talking about the same thing where every several years there are more than a handful of award nominations and attention towards Black filmmakers and everyone says, “Have we turned the corner?” and he’s like, “It’s more like going in a circle.”
PP: Right, right. Well I think it’s a case of change doesn’t come overnight. It takes time, and time for adoption, and I think what we’re seeing even in today’s politics is ugly rhetoric from the past starting to rear its head and face again. So I think movies have to bring awareness, I think all entertainment and all media has a responsibility to bring awareness. But to make it a little more permanent, audiences have to really be seeking it, so when something breaks through I think there has to be support for it. Whether you like the final product or not, just [remember] the fact that a lot of energy was put forth into making it.
Which is all why I just mentioned Bad Axe, I heard about it and I’m like, “I’m going to talk about it,” because that’s the way to bring awareness to it and to advocate for it. It’s a lot easier when I think it’s really great, as I do. So yeah, I think that’s it.
And yeah, it’s a film industry, there’s a business side to it. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of competition in this industry from the content, from the streamers to the exhibition. They have different benchmarks, but at the end of the day it’s about them committing to it [representation] on their end when they have the means to.
This industry often talks about “more representation, more diversity,” but it has to happen with the decision makers. They have to support those voices and raise them, because there are more of the minority filmmakers out there who have the concept and the intent, but what we need is the industry to say, “Hey, let’s give them a bigger platform and opportunity,” and not just jump to the lowest common denominator that might move the needle with subscribers. I think if you develop it just like you develop anything and put it out there, then people will come and check it out.
What was really interesting was, last year with the global phenomena of the Korean show on Netflix, Squid Game, and how we overcame subtitles and language. Everyone tuned in, and obviously it’s genre, but they were captivated by it and I think that’s exciting. It became part of the zeitgeist. And before that, for a movie like Parasite to then take Best Picture was incredibly exciting.
So there’s promise, and we’re seeing it in more mainstream movies from the studios, like Crazy Rich Asians and what that movie was able to do — and hopefully it will continue to do with its sequels or spinoffs.
But I still think it comes down to grounding these stories in a very relatable sense and having universal themes. Because that’s the way I’ve come to watch movies growing up. Those characters may not look like me, but I can relate to what’s happening. I think that’s at the heart of why international cinema is as strong as it these today, because we’re transcending borders. With streaming, worldwide distribution of titles is helping. We’re getting to see as American audiences more international titles, and then likewise international audiences are getting to see different sides of American culture.
MH: This is Halloween, so I have to ask — what are your favorite Halloween movies? Do you have a handful of films you love or that maybe a lot of people haven’t seen that you recommend they check out?
PP: To be honest, I probably don’t spend enough time revisiting movies that I love, because I’m so eager to see what Halloween season brings, because it tends to be a popular time for the release of new horror.
But if you were going to put me on the spot, I’m a big fan of Alien. I’m a sci-fi guy, so I love stories that take place in space. And when we were talking before it dawned up me, thinking about movies of the ’70s and ’80s, I was thinking about David Cronenberg’s The Fly. That might be fun to go back and rewatch, because it was so believable in a way, even though there’s a big leap of faith you take with the technology of that movie. The practicality of “okay, there’s a scientist and there’s a little incident that happens, and now he’s got to deal with it,” I think there’s something really fun about that.
I find myself often scrolling through a lot of streaming libraries looking for something to watch, but not quite ever wanting to commit, and then I’m like, “Let me put on something new.” Because that discovery I talked about, going to video stores and looking for something — I think we’re all just feening for it, and living in this streaming era we have less patience for it and want instant gratification. We hit play on something that has cool cover art, you know, or there’s one or two names — whether it’s talent in front or behind the camera — or just positive word of mouth. That goes a long way, too. Everyone has their different motivations for why they watch something.
MH: I’m so glad you mentioned The Fly, because that’s always on my list whenever I’m talking about the great horror movies of all time and the ones I as a teenager in the ’80s I loved so much. And I write a lot of horror screenplays, and my cowriter Phil Moe had never seen The Fly before, so we watched it together recently and it completely blew his mind.
PP: Yeah, now I probably will put on The Fly since it’s been such a long time since I watched it. It is very fun to watch a movie like that with someone who hasn’t seen it, and I think that’s always the best reason to rewatch and revisit a movie, with someone who hasn’t yet had that opportunity. It’s such a delight to see reactions.
That’s something I’m also starting to notice in viewing habits now, is that while we celebrate— I’m so glad to be involved with X and Pearl, A24 really taking a shot and greenlighting both movies and then putting them out this year in theaters, wide. And while we were delighted to have the movies out, Pearl last night just hit streaming, so it’s available now. I think what’s cool about it is that there will be an audience that may not be right on the curve of watching stuff right upon release, but they’ll get to it. And when they do, that discovery is what I think is also really fun.
I’ll occasionally get a note here and there from someone who’s just discovered a classic title. If anyone out there takes you up on watching Deadwax and they enjoy it, please hit me up on social media, because I’m so proud of that and all of the titles I’m involved with. And I’m sure the filmmakers behind them would appreciate it as well.
One benefit we have of working in genre is that they tend to become perennials, where each Halloween season some of my catalogue gets promoted again, because everyone enjoys to revisit movies like The House of the Devil showing up on lists. So I’m always flattered by and appreciative of that fandom…
We love the craft and making the movies, because of those experiences growing up as kids. And maybe we still do, as we joke that we’re just kids making movies, now we just grew up a little bit, but we’re still young at heart when telling the stories. And it’s wonderful that it continues to connect with audiences and still finds new audiences.
MH: So what else do you have coming up that we haven’t talked about yet?
PP: Well, since we’re chatting, while I’ve produced a number of horror and thrillers, I did jump on board [a different type of project] with my producing partner Christopher Warner. Christopher is an executive producer on the recent Halloween Ends. And we worked on this young adult novel adaptation called Dear Zoe with Brenda and Marc Lhormer, starring Sadie Sink. It’s coming out on November 4th in some cities.
It’s very different. It’s a story about loss and recovering from grief, which takes many different forms. So I want to mention that, for once we’re on the other side of Halloween. I think Sadie is incredible and I can’t speak enough about her, and certainly her stardom from being in Stranger Things and A24’s The Whale as well.
MH: Dear Zoe is the film set around the September 11th terrorist attacks, is that right?
PP: That’s right, yes. The story is a novel by Phillip Beard opening on the morning of 9-11, set in Pittsburgh. He’s a Pittsburgh native, and Marc Lhormer also grew up in Pittsburgh, so he basically had the rights to the book for a long time and set out to make this. And in 2019, we were able to take the movie into production late that year. Of course, in early 2020 while we were in post production, we ended up extending our post due to the pandemic, and then we just felt strongly that the movie needed to wait for audiences to be able to go see it in theaters.
So we’re finally able to come out and share it. And our partners at Freestyle are putting it out day and date, so you can check your local listings to see if you can see it in theaters, but otherwise you can see it on streaming, which makes it really convenient.
Big thanks to producer Peter Phok for taking time to talk with me for this special Halloween interview. I hope you enjoyed it, dear readers, and have a Happy Halloween — be safe and mask up, this is the season for it!


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