Thorns, the latest prominent independent horror production from Michigan, features horror icon Doug Bradley (Hellraiser) amidst a classic clash of religion versus science—or, in this case, religion through science. Michigan native Douglas Schulze (Hellmaster, Dark Heaven) crafts a Hell of a story, quite literally, at the famed Motion Picture Institute in Troy, Michigan, and the lush exteriors of Copper Harbor, sending its unassuming and unprepared hero on a terrifying quest for discovery and possible redemption in the eyes of the God he once abandoned.

In the film, Schulze once again draws on the talents of Dark Heaven star—and Ypsilanti local—Jon Bennett to play former priest-turned-NASA employee Gabriel, sent to investigate the circumstances behind a suspiciously unresponsive observatory. When he arrives, Gabriel quickly learns that the station is transmitting a mysterious signal from a derelict satellite, seemingly at the outer edges of the solar system; a hellish force enters the observatory through the broadcast, throwing the location into disarray and threatening a cataclysmic global event. That is, unless Gabriel and his new, unconventional ally, a mute nun he finds chained up in the observatory (played by Cassandra Schomer), can stop it.

Thorns - Gabriel

According to Schulze, “The genesis of Thorns began with a desire to make a straight-up monster movie with practical makeup effects … The thinking was Thorns would be an homage to a classic era when great films like [John] Carpenter’s The Thing, Alien, and Hellraiser gave us wonderful makeup effects.” The desire to create a throwback creature feature is evident once the film’s principal antagonist and the physical representation of its hellish presence, the Necronaut, claws its way out of the chest of scientist Dr. Malik (Fenton’s Bo Shumaker).

Although Schulze originally wanted to set Thorns during the ’70s and model it after a cult drive-in horror flick, he claims that “as the story took shape with the main character being an ex-priest now working for NASA, I felt the notion of searching for God in the cosmos required a more contemporary setting.” The director and his effects team, including SFX artist Daniel Phillips and VFX artist Matthew Jarjosa, all design a grisly and memorable monster from the bowels of Hell, basking it in murderous red lighting and discordant electrical signals. The demon, donning a sleek black outfit with a bloody upside-down cross and a head wrapped with thorns, is undoubtedly one of the standout elements of the movie and accomplishes Schulze’s original dream of ’70s- and ’80s-style monster goodness while bridging that modern gap.

Thorns - Doug Bradley

Although Bradley, best known for portraying the legendary practical monster Pinhead in Clive Barker’s cult classic Hellraiser, was not on set with the Necronaut creature, he praises Shumaker’s performance. He claims the Michigan actor “officially joined the special effects makeup brotherhood,” per Bradley’s recent Bloody-Disgusting interview. Indeed, Schulze confirms that Bradley was isolated from the rest of the cast, meeting them for the first time at the film’s screening in New York, but says, “for the crew and myself it was a pure joy getting to watch him bring his scenes to life. Occasionally an actor can be so spot on that all you can do as a director is sing their praises. We often went with Doug’s first takes because he was spot on with delivery every time.”

Seeing the veteran Bradley command the screen, even from an isolated setting, and breathe so much life into the character of Archbishop Jenkins is a joy to watch. Of course, the rest of the cast also brings a high level of passion to their roles, surrounded by an experienced and equally passionate crew. Schulze and his team’s efforts have reaped some rewards already. “There are a handful of important horror genre festivals around the world, and in the top 10, you’ll find SITGES, Frightfest, and New York City Horror Film Festival, and Thorns was invited to screen at all three alongside some heavy studio films,” the filmmaker says. “It’s very validating to be recognized in an international arena for horror when there is so much content being produced. I think it’s a major form of validation and separates you from the pack.”

Thorns - Sister Agnes

The writer-director is understandably thrilled about his project reaching international audiences among heavy-hitting genre films. With Michigan filmmakers’ and lawmakers’ ongoing efforts to revive the state’s film tax incentives, it is more important than ever for independent productions, including Thorns, to reach out-of-state markets and succeed. In-state, Metro Detroiters can now see and support Thorns in select Emagine theaters, having opened this past Friday, with expanded distribution measures in the works.