In any big 2023 “Year in Film” summary, there are likely to be some very obvious entries. The cultural phenomenon that was Barbenheimer will no doubt play a lead role, as will the writers and actors strikes. Then there are major hits, such as The Super Mario Bros Movie, and the Oscars-dominating Everything Everywhere All at Once.
But any half-decent write-up should also mention a micro-budget British slasher.
Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey — made for considerably less than $100,000 — sparked international headlines when it was released in February, largely due to a childhood-bludgeoning premise about a rampaging, murderous Pooh (and Piglet), having already been on lists of the most anticipated movies of the year. It would earn almost $6 million internationally, an incredible sum for a film that had been initially destined for the straight-to-digital dungeons (and putting it high on the list of features with the best budget-to-box-office ratios). The film’s spell in the media sunshine was only extended when in March it was suddenly pulled from cinemas in Hong Kong having unwittingly strayed into a Chinese crackdown on Winnie-the-Pooh imagery that was sparked by memes likening the character to Xi Jinping. And then last month it hit the newsstands again when a teacher in Florida accidentally played the decidedly R-rated film to a class of fourth graders.
Directed by Rhys Frake-Waterfield and produced by Scott Jeffrey, the duo behind prolific micro-budget horror banner Jagged Edge Productions, Blood and Honey was originally merely one of numerous $20-$30,000 titles they were putting out (Jeffrey has amassed 115 credits to his name in just a few years). But its unexpected theatrical success propelled the filmmakers several rungs up the ladder. A sequel was quickly announced, as were various other films taking a bloody axe to several childhood favorites, including Peter Pan and Bambi. An entire universe of low-budget family favorites gone bad was discussed.
Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2, which has a budget estimated at 10 times the first film (still a fraction of the cost of most blockbusters’ catering allowance), wrapped filming in September. As part of the expanded sequel’s production, acclaimed Olivier Award-winning and BAFTA-nominated thespian Simon Callow joined the cast (the original were mostly first-timers), while a dedicated prosthetics team was brought on board. The action and brutality have been turned up, with scenes such as one in which Pooh brandishes a chainsaw on fire, while the sequel also hopes to maintain the enjoyable ridiculousness of the entire premise (there’s a scene involving a game of Poohsticks but using body parts instead of sticks).
Now in post-production, Blood and Honey 2 — which landed international pre-sales through Premiere Entertainment (ITN handled North America) — is aiming for a cinema release exactly a year after the first, around Feb. 14, 2024 (making it a somewhat unusual Valentine’s Day date).
The plan, according to Jeffrey and Rhys-Waterfield, is to keep building up the quality of their new franchise, releasing a new, better and bigger-budgeted Pooh film each year to ensure it keeps its fanbase, while at the same time putting together their unlikely universe.
Speaking to The Music news, the two discussed getting Callow on board, how their new monster compares to the original (clue: it’s not wearing cleaning gloves bought from the downstairs shop and a shirt off Amazon), and how Jeffrey actually came to play Christopher Robin (and his fears of taking on the role). They’ve also given THR the exclusive — and terrifying — first close-up image of their new-look Pooh.
I had thought that all the noise from the first Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey had died down, but then it was back in the news recently when it was accidentally played to 4th grade students in a school in Florida.
Scott Jeffrey: The timing of that was so good, because we had our U.S. physical release. We’d literally just released, and that happened.
Are you sure it wasn’t a carefully orchestrated PR stunt?
Jeffrey: No! We were actually talking to film execs, and they were saying, “let’s try to get the teacher in number 3.”
How is the second film shaping up?
Jeffrey: It truly is much better. Last year, we made about 45 films, and the Winnie-the-Pooh one was just one on a conveyor belt. We just saw on Twitter that Winnie-the-Pooh had gone into the public domain and thought “ok cool, we’ll do that in April.” But now we’re in a position where the sequel has turned out really well. We had a substantially higher budget than the first. And we’ve got a little problem at the moment because there are too many deaths in it!
Frake-Waterfield: Number two is better than number one in every single aspect. Because we’ve gone into this knowing on what platform scale it’s going, whereas in the first one, we didn’t really have much of an idea. We obviously didn’t expect it to go to the masses it did. This time we’ve gone into it knowing that will happen, so a lot more time can be dedicated towards it. I’ve not really worked on anything else this year. And that’s why all areas are now a massive jump up compared to the first. For example, the look of the creatures is quite an important thing. Before we had a mask bought online, some cleaning gloves from the shop downstairs and a red lumberjack shirt from Amazon. The whole monster was about £630 ($770). But this time we have people doing the prosthetics — it’s a company that has worked on Harry Potter’s Voldemort and Star Wars. And they’ve been in charge of the redesigns of the creature. And that’s why Pooh looks a bit more scary. There’s an extra level of detail there.
So if the original Pooh cost $770, how much is the new one?
Frake-Waterfield: The prosthetics alone for the creatures ended up being over $20,000. So it’s a humongous difference. But it’s worth the investment because that’s your creature. That’s what people are watching horror for. So cost-wise, I’d have to say it’s like probably over 10 to 15 times the original.
Is there any fear, now you’re spending a lot more, that a lot of the success of the first movie was down to the curiosity factor and that might not carry on through to the second?
Jeffrey: Yeah, there’s definitely extra stress and extra pressure. But it’s got a bit of a fan base now. People message us all the time saying that they really like it and they want more content. But I’m aware that it does need to make a bit of a jump in terms of quality because of the scale. So expectations are a bit higher. And people want to see the franchise progressing in order to make it a long-term horror series. It’s continuously improving.
Scott, you’re also playing Christopher Robin in Pooh 2. Alongside your low-budget horror filmmaking, you’ve got some solid acting credits already but what was behind you getting in front of the camera for this?
Jeffrey: I’ve kind of only done classy, serious stuff previously — like an indie drama where I played a boy on the spectrum, and Malpractive on ITV and Dr. Jekyll coming up with Eddie Izzard. So when Rhys asked me to play Christopher Robin, I was a bit like “shit.” I wanted to do it for Rhys, but this is the first role where people want to be nasty and spiteful about you. As a producer, I don’t care. But as an actor, it’s incredibly intimidating going into a space when people can be horrible. With horror, critics dig into it regardless of how good it is. They just hate the genre.
Speaking of your cast, I spat my coffee out when I read that noted thespian Simon Callow was going to star. How on earth did that happen?
Jeffrey: I’d worked with him on Dr. Jekyll and I really liked him, and when the script came about, I suggested Simon Callow for the role. But I never thought he’d really say yes. But we sent it to his agent and he read it and about a week later we got a reply saying “Simon would love to do it.” I remember turning to Rhys and being like “He said yes!”
Frake-Waterfield: He’s so good and has this really big dramatic scene with Scott. He really elevates the films.
How is the Bambi slasher, Bambi: The Reckoning, coming along?
Jeffrey: We were actually meant to be shooting Peter Pan’s Neverland Nightmare but we weren’t quite ready with the script. I was meant to direct Bambi but switched to Peter Pan as it’s more my style. I’m pushing Peter Pan until April, and Bambi starts shooting in January. So we’re very much prepping right now. It’s going to be wild.
So you still have plans for a low-budget film universe of children’s characters gone bad?
Jeffrey: That’s definitely the plan. And I want them to interact with one another. There’s going to be easter eggs in Winnie the Pooh 2 about two films that have not been announced yet. Just a little tiny wink. Same in Bambi. They’re very much connected, but it’s not in your face. And then later down the line, I guess when we run out of ideas, is where they’ll start meeting one another.
Given the success of the first and the fact the IP is free to use and exploit, have you noticed any copycats trying to replicate what you do?
Jeffrey: Yeah, and it’s been a little frustrating at times. But it’s fine. What we’re trying to do is give ours little signature touches and a certain quality. We really fought for the budget of Winnie 2, and I know it’s still not a lot, but I really want to keep doing that with future films. We’re not just going to bash something out anymore. We have to keep a consistency and only make stuff we actually think is an interesting concept. Winnie-the-Pooh as a slasher is interesting. And with Peter Pan, we’ve got a Tinkerbell addicted to pixie dust like it’s heroin.
Frake-Waterfield: For our films to reach audiences and build up a universe and keep being theatrical, they need to be good. We’ve had other people try to rush stuff out. Last summer someone made a Peter Pan horror film after we announced ours, and they were trying to make it look like it was us who had made it. But they just rushed it out. And that’s not the game we’re in anymore. You can’t just smash out a film in seven days.