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HORROR'S DIVERSITY REFLECTED IN 2007 TABLOID WITCH AWARDS

by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor.  [October 3, 2007]


 

 

[HollywoodInvestigator.com]..Winners of the 2007 Tabloid Witch Awards horror film contest reflect the genre's exploding popularity around the world, and the diverse themes and messages that the genre is capable of conveying.

In its previous three years, the Tabloid Witch Awards received horror films from England, Germany, Hungary, Canada, Australia, and Taiwan, but all winners were American. That changed this year. The Tabloid Witch will now be flying her trophy to winners from England, New Zealand, Canada, and Argentina.

And America too, of course. Most winners still hail from the United States, and most of those live in the Los Angeles area.

Some winning films already have DVD distribution, while others have only played at festivals, and others have received no distribution at all -- the Tabloid Witch Awards will be the public's first chance to see them.

The Premiere Screening of 2007 Tabloid Witch Award winning films will be held at the Santa Monica Public Library, with filmmakers participating in a Q&A, on October 27, 2007, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.  The screening is free and open to the public; no tickets or reservations required. First come, first seated.

An Encore Screening, with filmmakers Q&A, is set for Thanksgiving Day weekend at Loscon 34 in Los Angeles. No additional fee will be charged to Loscon attendees to see the screenings.

Entertainment industry folk (agents, managers, producers, executives) will be notified of the screenings. And now, our winners...

 

 

* Best Horror Feature: Death Knows Your Name

 

A Lovecraftian sense of inevitable doom permeates Daniel de la Vega's Death Knows Your Name (one hour, 29 minutes). This moody, murky supernatural film was shot in Argentina for only $15,000 (US dollars).

It opens with a psychiatrist Bruce Taylor (Rodrigo Aragón) haunted by mysterious nightmares -- which are shared by a patient (Kevin Schiele). When Taylor unearths a skeleton buried in an abandoned wing of the asylum, a plague is unleashed and the mystery deepens.

The plague in a hospital evokes the J-horror film, Infection. The moody, sepia colors evoke such recent supernatural fright fare as The Ring, Gothika, and Lost Souls.

What were the influences behind Death Knows Your Name?

De la Vega hoped to create something original, which he says is not easy an easy feat in horror films. Even so, he adds, "I believe Demián Rugna's script does it with flying colors. Infection and Gozu.were important references while planning the art direction. But our greatest reference was Prince of Darkness."

You wouldn't that Death Knows Your Name was shot in Argentina unless you read the credits. Like the Swedish pop band ABBA, de la Vega's actors spoke in English to widen the film's marketability. "Unfortunately, there is no market for horror movies in Argentina," said de la Vega. "If I want to make horror movies, I have to make them in English. Luckily, things are starting to change in my country, so it is probable that my next movie will be in Spanish."

Despite its $15,000 budget, Death Knows Your Name is a visual and aural feast. A beautiful work that looks deceptively expensive, like a big budget studio production shot on 35mm film. "The movie was shot in high definition video," said de la Vega. "It's an extremely low budget movie. I had two weeks to find my actors, two weeks more to rehearse. That's how independent low budget films are. You never have enough time to do what you want."

Finding his actors was "hard and risky," he says. "You can find excellent actors in Argentina. You can find people who speak fluent English. The problem is to find people who can do both at the same time." Luckily, his cast is talented across the board. There are no weak performances.

Death Knows Your Name was shot in 2005 at Lanari Hospital and Tornu Hospital in Buenos Aires. "The script was written according to the locations we had," said de la Vega. "All scenes (except the ones at the cemetery) were shot in one location. That was the only way to do it in 21 days."

It's hard to top the gore found in such classics as Zombie, Suspiria, and Evil Dead. Modern gore films, such as House of 1000 Corpses, are often nostalgic rather than ground-breaking.

Yet remarkably, Death Knows Your Name succeeds in pushing gore to imaginative new heights. It has a woman (Veronica Mari) giving birth to ... well, suffice to say that the film's delivery room scene should become as seminal among gorehounds as Zombie's eye-gouging or Scanners's head explosions.

De la Vega says that Simon Ratziel achieved his viscerally shocking birthing scene without CGI, using only "the delicate balance" between framing, lighting, mounting, and makeup FX."

De la Vega earned his film degree at the Instituto Nacional de Artes Audiovisuales (ENERC) in Argentina. He's previously directed Jennifer's Shadow (aka The Chronicle of the Raven), starring Gina Philips (Jeepers Creepers), and is currently preparing a third horror movie, White Coffin.

Death Knows Your Name "has yet not been distributed to festivals," said de la Vega, "although I hope this may soon happen." He may be contacted through his website and blog.

 

 

 

 

While we received many feature film entries this year, they don't compare to the avalanche of shorts. Shorts remain the "calling card" for both student and indie filmmakers, making it the more competitive category. We've thus expanded the Best Horror Short award into three categories: Dramatic Horror, Comedic Horror, and Animated Horror.

 

 

* Best Dramatic Horror Short: The Crypt Club

 

Amid all the slashers and zombies and "torture films," The Crypt Club.(23 minutes) is a welcome return to classic, ghostly horror. A morality tale set in a creepy cemetery on a snowy night.

A teenage girl (Kerry Segal) longs to join "The Crypt Club," the Goth clique at her high school.  But first she must pass through their rite of initiation -- desecrating a grave. She doesn't like the thought of committing a mortal sin. As it turns out, the grave's inhabitant is none too pleased either...

"I'm sure that my Catholic upbringing contributed the themes of guilt, conscience, and consequence," said filmmaker Miguel Gallego. "I'm not a Goth, but the Goth sense of alienation provided a common background for the girls and also fueled the story idea of peer pressure. What you would do to belong? If you don't fit in with the outsiders, what's left? So the pressure was really on 'Julie' to go along in order to belong.

"My wife (and co-producer) Nancy Moore points out that my childhood as a Spanish-Canadian, in a predominantly WASP town, contributed to The Crypt Club's theme of the outsider trying to fit it. Hmmm?"

Gallego also found inspiration in an urban legend about teenagers in a cemetery. "There's a dare for one of the girls to find a cursed statue, 'Black Aggie,' and leave a token to prove she'd made it that far. When the girl doesn't return, the friends go searching and discover her -- scared to death -- at the foot of the statue."

Gallego had long worked as an assistant director in Toronto. He made The Crypt Club because he "realized the only way to move into directing was to direct a short 'calling card' film."

Casting director Juli-Ann Kay joined the project on the strength of the script. Agents weren't going to earn much from The Crypt Club because it came under ACTRA's low-budget contract (TIP). "But Juli-Ann submitted the script with cast breakdowns. When the agents realized there were meaty leading roles for three girls, they sent dozens of submissions.

"Kerry Segal read for Liesl (the bully) and blew us away, but her short stature made it hard to believe she could intimidate the others." Segal was instead cast as the initiate. "When Alison Pill read for Liesl with a cold stare, we knew she'd work great opposite Kerry's fire."

Gallego's cemetery looks spooky because it was built to scare. "I spent months searching for a cemetery that looked right and would allow us to film at night. Most cemeteries aren't keen to allow filming of a story involving a gravesite desecration.

"So we created our own cemetery at a park in Scarborough. Every gravestone, statue, the entry gate, was either a prop rental (treated and aged by production designer Maureen Sless), or a fabrication by co-producers Louise and Ray Mackintosh at Caligari Studio."

The Crypt Club was shot with an Arri 3 camera on super-16mm film, then transferred to DigiBetacam tape. The offline edit was done on a PC with.Adobe Premiere 6.0, followed by an online edit and color timing done with the DigiBetacam masters at Toybox (now Technicolor).

The film's soundtrack features a spooky choir, composed by Nicholas Longstaff. "[When] Nancy and I heard that choir music over the film's visuals, it gave us chills," said Gallego. "I realized then how important music and sound design would be in creating the right tone. The visuals provide information to the audience, but the music and sound provide the emotion."

Longstaff recruited the all-girls choir from Appleby College. He composed the music as a continuous piece in several movements. "The lyrics are in Latin from Horace's Ode #4 and deal with the theme of mortality," said Gallego.

Gallego studied film at the University of Toronto and the American Film Institute. He's worked as an assistant director on dozens of feature films, TV movies, and TV series. He's taught acting and filmmaking at Notre Dame University (Indiana) and Sheridan College (Ontario).

The Crypt Club has screened at over 45 festivals in Canada, the US, UK, Argentina, Ecuador, Poland, and Korea. It's aired on TV in Canada and Argentina.

Gallego may be contacted through his website and MySpace page.

 

 

 

 

* Best Comedic Horror Short: Skin Deep

 

Skin Deep is one sick puppy of a film. Perversely funny, so much so that it remains inoffensive despite its warped forays into necrophilia and infant abuse. (You might abuse "Lucy" yourself -- she is one savage baby!) Imaginative, creative, colorful, inventive, and hilarious. Many films brag about being twisted and edgy; Skin Deep delivers.

Running at 9 minutes, Skin Deep retells the Frankenstein.story (with shades of It's Alive) in bright, primary colors, on German expressionist sets. The protagonist is a Victorian Era mad scientist who builds the baby girl that his corpse bride can't give him. But then his stitched-together baby daughter turns medieval on him.

"Skin Deep came to mind when reading a Twilight Zone screenplay about dolls that came to life," said filmmaker Erasmo Romero III. "I thought, perhaps a child should be made like a doll, to complete the false family of a man.  Frankenstein.was a great influence. Especially the bond between man and child/monster."

Visual influences include silent films, Cirque De Soliel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Corpse Bride, Phantom of the Opera, and Gerald Brom's artwork.

Skin Deep.benefits from actor James Rollyson...Like any great comedic actor, Rollyson has an expressive, rubbery face that twists into a broad range of outlandish mugs. His acting is hammy, but appropriate for his satirical, over-the-top role.

Romero had wanted someone with a theatrical background, and had seen Rollyson perform in a piece by Joseph Fontano, who puppeteered 'Lucy,' the savage infant.

Skin Deep is enlivened by its inserts of comic book cartoons and models, and by exteriors that were obviously shot on stage.

"I wanted a theatrical approach, with sharp and distinct shapes, and bold colors," said Romero.  A world "set in Victorian/Edwardian attire, with splashes of German Expressionism. My DP, Joseph Kolber, was a miracle worker for lighting."

"The animations were hand drawn, taken into Photoshop.for color, then edited into Final Cut Pro," said Romero.

He is enrolled at the Art Institute of California, Los Angeles, where Skin Deep.was shot on a Sony DSR 370 MiniDV camera.

Skin Deep has played on YouTube. The Tabloid Witch Awards will be its premiere festival screening. Romero may be contacted through his MySpace page.

 

 

 

 

* Best Animated Horror Short:.The Scab

 

We received a surprising number of animated shorts this year, yet none came close to the artistry, originality, and powerful emotional undercurrents of Jim Minton's The Scab (2 minutes), based on a poem by Michael Arnzen.

Like a visual poem, the film is an oblique description, in this case, of an ugly girl's sad existence.

Is she a carnival sideshow freak, or does she merely feel like one? Is she merely a normal girl with a low self-image?

Like the Arnzen's poem, the film leaves you without answers, only food for thought.

The Scab was "entirely done in the Mac," said filmmaker Jim Minton. He used digital photos, Photoshop, Poser, and After Effects. "The girl is a poser body, cut apart and animated in After Effects. I found a texture and overlaid it per scene, as appropriate for scale."

The Scab.is part of a longer film (17 minutes), Exquisite Corpse, which is really a series of short-shorts shot in a diversity of styles, both animation and live action, and all based on Michael Arnzen poems.

"I don't keep track of time," said Minton. "It bums me out when I realize how much time I've put into a project. I'd imagine 80 hours on Scab..Exquisite Corpse has taken me three years. In my free time, mostly."

The Scab has screened at film festivals in Texas, Canada, Virginia, and Los Angeles.

Minton studied visual communications and illustration at San Diego State University. "I worked as a broadcast designer and art director from 1975 through 1985," he said. "I've been an independent designer ever since." He may be contacted through his website.

 

 

 

 

* Honorable Mention

 

Honorable Mentions are not easily won. We select fewer films than some other festivals, which run multiple days, whereas the Tabloid Witch screenings only run one day.

Once again, we received far more entries than in our previous year. Thus, many worthy films had to be turned down.

This means that an Honorable Mention win is truly something to take pride in. These films topped many competitors from talented artists to attain the few available spots. These films are among the cream of contemporary horror.

As always, short films dominate Honorable Mentions, partially because we received so many more of them -- roughly five times as many shorts as features.

 

 

 

* Dead Noon

 

Dead Noon's ambitions far exceed its $4,000 budget. Running at an hour and 17 minutes, this supernatural retelling of High Noon borrows stylistically from Quentin Tarantino.& Richard Rodriguez, with Old West period shots that are beautifully composed and colored, enhanced by arresting and imaginative visual effects.

"I'm a huge fan of Westerns," said co-writer & director Andrew Wiest. "That I was born in Montana and raised in Wyoming no doubt adds to the Western perspective. As for Rodriguez, the guy is an influence on me, but I think the style is more the result of making a movie for absolutely no money and using creativity to solve problems rather than, as Rodriguez would say, using the money hose to flush problems away. If anything, I consider Dead Noon to be a love poem to Sam Raimi."

Dead Noon is also informed by Christian themes. Following a game of poker beside a lake of fire, Satan allows a deceased outlaw (in a darkly charismatic performance by Robert Bear) to return to the modern West so he may kill off the bloodline of those who murdered him.

As in High Noon, a sheriff (Scott Phillips) must choose whether to flee with his new bride (Elizabeth Mouton, who infuses her role with impressive emotional depth), or stay and face the outlaw.

"I love the horror genre because it's one of the few genres where you can explore religious ideas," said Wiest. "The nature of good and evil, the concept of God and Satan, the fall of man, afterlife, redemption. Many of the great horror movies have had Christian themes. In a strange way, horror films are the most morally rigid films made. You sin, you die. Them's the rules."

Wiest shot most of Dead Noon in Cody, Wyoming, including in Old Trail Town, "an outdoor museum of sorts. Getting locations was easy.

Both [co-writer] Matt Taggart and I grew up there. Most everyone was open to us shooting on their property. We didn't bother with permits. Once the movie was picked up by a distributor, there was paperwork." Additional scenes were shot in Kalispell, Montana, and Douglas, Wyoming.

Most of Wiest's cast are from Los Angeles and were in his first feature,.Pizza, Pesos, and Pistoleros. "I was introduced to them through Robert Bear, a fellow Wyoming boy. Most were living in L.A. and came to Wyoming for the shoot. I'm lucky to have good friends willing to work for me for nothing, despite that they're accustomed to getting paid to act."

Wiest's crew consisted of family and friends. His sound man, Jason Scott, had done sound for Disney. Wiest also praises James Teague for executing some 800 visual effects "with limited equipment for no pay. He dedicated a year and a half of his life to it, working pretty much non-stop.  An incredibly loyal friend."

Dead Noon was shot on a Panasonic DVX-100 Mini-DV, with much post production, done on Magic Bullet,.Final Cut Pro, and Adobe After Effects. "The effects were the most time consuming part of the process," said Wiest. "We only planned for a 100 effects, but that ballooned to 800. Jim is such a whiz, he'd pull off something, which resulted in me pushing him to see what else he could do. We worked on the effects nonstop for a year. Thirteen, fourteen hours a day, every day. Didn't sleep or eat much. Quite unhealthy, really."

Wiest has no film school training. His self-education began at age 13 (he's now 28) with a VHS camera, editing between two VCRs. His feature, Pistoleros, screened in a New York festival in 2005.

Dead Noon was picked up for distribution by Barnholtz Entertainment before it was finished. "Lionsgate has now agreed to take it," said Wiest. He expects a release in early 2008. "The sale of Dead Noon has opened a few doors for me. Production companies and distributors return my phone calls. I'm shopping a script, a family film I wrote with my dad that seems to be garnering interest."

Andrew Wiest may be contacted through his MySpace page.

 

 


 

 

* Night of the Hell Hamsters

 

We received three Ouija board films this year, the best by far being Night of the Hell Hamsters, a 15 minute comedic horror film with production roots in both England and New Zealand.

A babysitter dares her boyfriend to play with an Ouija board. They inadvertently call down a demonic hamster god, which takes possession of their pet hamster, turning it into a killer hamster. A talking killer hamster.

Night of the Hell Hamsters is beautifully shot, funnily scripted, with hilariously gory special effects. The colored lighting evokes Bava's.Black Sabbath (inspiration for both Suspiria and Norman J. Warren's.Terror). The babysitter's kick-ass attitude reminds one of Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead, or Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil.

"Influences are Evil Dead, particularly Evil Dead 2, and Re-Animator," said filmmaker Paul Campion. "I wanted to make a fun, slightly over-the-top, short horror film that would entertain a festival audience. The reaction has been fantastic, especially in the U.S.

"The film was originally an idea for the 48 Hour Film Festival. Teams across New Zealand have 48 hours to write, shoot, and edit a 7 minute film." But instead of making his film, Campion returned to London to direct music videos.

"The idea for Hell Hamsters.stuck in my head. I got back in touch with the writers on the 48 Hour Festival team I was on, and we developed the script I found producer Elisabeth Pinto through a UK filmmaking website,,Shooting People. Once she came on board, the production ramped up quickly. I was working in London on the visual effects for The Da Vinci Code, which I quit to make Hell Hamsters."

Pinto set up auditions in London. Actors were required to fight hamsters. "The nose biting scene for the guys," said Campion. "Wrestling with the hamster on the floor for the girls." He eventually cast Stephanie Ratcliff and Paul O'Neill.

Hell Hamsters was shot at a costume designer's house in London. "It was beautifully decorated," said Campion. "I was terrified we'd damage it.

Production designer Yasmine Al Naib put a fake floor down in the kitchen so we could get the shot of Karl laying in a pool of blood. We protected the walls and floor in the lounge with plastic during the crotch blood-spraying scene.

"Yasmine and the whole crew did an amazing job clearing the mess we made."

Night of the Hell Hamsters's beautiful, stylized colored lighting, and its judicious use of wide angle and zoom lenses, help create a spooky, supernatural atmosphere to balance its comedic story. Also amazing is a panoramic shot of the hamsters filling the streets of London.

"The film was shot on professional Digibeta cameras in 16x9 Pal Anamorphic format," said Campion. "All credit for lighting goes to Ben Robinson and Jono Smith, the two DPs. Ben, in particular, is a huge Dario Argento fan.

"The hamsters in the street was a digital matte painting by Max Dennison, head of Matte Painting at Weta Digital on all Lord of the Rings films. Wayne Howe, also an animator on Lord of the Rings, did the levitating animals." (See the hamster levitating alongside Ratcliff, above.)

Campion began life as an illustrator. "I specialized in horror illustration, mainly book covers. After trying to break into the industry as a concept artist, I retrained, doing a Masters Degree in computer animation, then moved to New Zealand to work on the visual effects for all Lord of the Rings films. I've since worked on visual effects for Constantine, Sin City, and 30 Days of Night. I'm trying to move into directing."

Campion is originally English, but now lives in New Zealand. While Hell Hamsters was shot in London, much of its post production was done in New Zealand. The film has played festivals in the U.S., Australia, England, and Canada. Campion may be reached through his MySpace page.

 

 

 


* By Appointment Only

 

A young woman (Belen Greene) is stranded in a small desert town. The town seems so placid, the waitress (Nancy Sinclair) so friendly, the folks so helpful. The woman hitches a ride to her appointment to meet with a real estate agent.

The driver (Matt Ryan) seems to want to warn her. But the woman persists. So they drive through the desert, till they reach that house -- where evil lurks.

An old-fashioned, Hitchcockian atmosphere pervades John Faust's By Appointment Only.(20 minutes), both for its American Gothic suspense story set in the southwest (shades of.Psycho), and for its production style: the car ride was obviously shot in a sound stage.

"While I love 'arty farty' and dysfunctional family films," said Faust, "my true passion is psychological horror/freaky shit." His first drafts were "a haunted house mystery, ala Clue, minus the comedy," yet he ended up writing a Hitchcockian suspense tale with a supernatural twist.

"As far as the truck scene being shot on a stage, I purposely set out to do that," said Faust. "To give it that 'Hitchcock' feeling, to make it seem surreal, to make it feel like they were passing into anther time/space, to give it an edge -- and because no one does that style anymore.

"[Also], we'd looked at shooting on a ranch road that was a quarter mile long, but by the time you get a process trailer, and all that goes with that, it's too much money. It also eats up tons of film, and film ain't cheap. The stage was free and available and easier to film.

"So James and I set out to the Mojave desert, and found a road that was almost a straight mile long. We filmed the 'plates' on an HVX mounted to his car. I didn't want to green screen it, because you can always tell when something is green screen.

"The stage was in Pasadena. The town was on the Blue Sky movie ranch. The house is a state-owned park in Mentryville, Santa Clarita. My production designer grew up out there, and remembered while we were searching about the house. The kicker to filming in Santa Clarita is since it's a high fire zone, you need a 400 gallon water truck and a fire marshal, at $80 an hour, watching your every move."

By Appointment Only has an excellent cast.  Matt Ryan displays conflicting emotions across his subtly nuanced face. Belen Greene is vulnerable yet hard, with a Sally Field quality. But outstanding performance is from Nancy Sinclair, as the waitress with a dark secret.

"Nancy will definitely be in the feature version," said Faust. "I found everyone but Belen through multiple casting sessions. The usual casting websites and postings.

"I needed the driver to be the typical Midwestern average Joe. To find that in L.A. was a task, because every actor works out, shaves and waxes, has highlights, and is tanner than beef jerky.

"I needed a real guy you'd find in Oklahoma. A 'pretty actor' came close, but was trying to show off his 'assets' to my casting director a little too much. [But] Matt Ryan blew us away. He was crying and screaming and rolling in the floor."

John Faust moved to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania in 2001 for "the business." He attended the Art Center College of Design, where he shot.By Appointment Only on super-16mm film. When "super16 is scanned into high def, it gives it a really grainy effect, and you can get a 2.35 aspect ratio," said Faust. "The equipment was from Clairmont. The camera was an Arri."

By Appointment Only has played at over 16 film festivals in the U.S. and Australia.

John Faust may be contacted through his website.or MySpace page.

 

 

 

 

* The One That Got Away

 

We've always received horror comedies, most of them pretty bad. Many filmmakers confuse goofing off with friends in front of the camera with hilarious "parodies."

That changed this year. We saw many strong horror comedies in 2007, films that actually had creative stories and talented acting. Skin Deep and Night of the Hell Hamsters, both hilariously over-the-top gorefests, were two of the funniest.

The One That Got Away shows another side of horror comedy. Eschewing outrageous gore for social satire that targets both speed-dating and reality TV, this Canadian short (11 minutes) features a nebbish young man who can't find the right woman. His air of hapless despair evokes Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam ... with a touch of Norman Bates.

Nicholas Humphries says his film is inspired by Christopher Guest, The Blair Witch Project, "and a whole lot of every relationship I ever had. Mostly, though, it was born out of production constraints. I'd won a cash prize from the National Screen Institute in Canada for Larson.and wanted to put it into a movie. It wasn't much cash, and we had no time to shoot, so I set the film in my apartment and wrote a mockumentary so we could shoot quickly."

Humphries found his cast at film school. "Working at the Vancouver Film School, I saw many actors in action, so I rarely cast from auditions. I'll watch work that they've done, track them down, and beg them to be in my movie.

"I met Shane Kolmansberger while I was working at VFS. The guy auditioned for every student film that ever put out a casting call. [And] Claire Lindsay and I were in a short together. We were characters in a wedding party. Neither of us had lines, so we just made faces at each other all day. I wanted to work with her again."

Despite his job at VFS, Humphries never attended film school. "I took film history at the University of British Columbia. That led to a job at VFS after I graduated.

"Once there, I re-invented my job so I could produce all the student films coming out of the writing department. There was a lot of equipment lying around over the weekends, so I began gathering other employees that wanted to make their own stuff too."

The One That Got Away was shot in Humphries's apartment. The restaurant scene was in the school cafeteria on a Sunday. The film was shot on a Sony HD.

Although Humphries cites.Guest.as an influence, The One That Got Away has a distinct Woody Allen feel to it, as neurotic urbanites lament the difficulties of modern dating and relationships. One may call it "psychos in love" -- but don't assume you know the ending. Despite its brief length, the film takes several unexpected twists.

So far the film has not played in any festivals. "Its cross-genre qualities make it difficult to place," said Humphries. "It's a horror short, but I also wrote it hoping to make people laugh. At the cast and crew screening, I think people were afraid to laugh. They didn't know if they were allowed.

Nicholas Humphries may be contacted at: thenicholashumphries@gmail.com.

 

 

 


* The Signal

 

With so many slashers, vampires, and zombies out there, it's always nice to get a sci-fi/horror film for a change. Something with malevolent space aliens and UFOs, like The X-Files or The Hidden.

Filmmaker CJ Johnson fills the need for "men in black" type conspiracy sagas with The Signal (36 minutes), a tale of government agents trying to head off an alien invasion.

Yet Johnson (who cast himself in the role of a federal agent) denies any X-Files.influence. Instead he interprets The Signal as "24.and Traffic, with a sci-fi/horror twist."

"The idea came when I asked myself, how many realistic portrayals of an alien invasion have there been?" said Johnson. "I wanted a story that weaved together different characters, all unknowingly intertwined. I wanted each character to go through their journey in a different genre, so to speak, which is why every story is unique."

The result is an ensemble drama (much like Traffic) set to a music soundtrack that sounds inspired by Hal Hartley.

The Signal was shot on locations that reinforce the tale's turbulent emotional undercurrents. For instance, the stark desert vistas in one gun standoff dramatically underscore humanity's impending doom.

"I shot in places that showcased California," said Johnson. "In Los Angeles, Malibu, and San Bernardino. I asked favors of friends to use their apartments. None of the locations were homes of actors. I shot where there wouldn't be a lot of people. The Malibu scenes are a secret spot where friends and I go surfing. Not a lot of people know about it, so filming wasn't a pain.

"The most difficult location was the desert. We drove to San Bernardino on one of the hottest days of the summer in 2006. We didn't get permits. Because it was so hot, there wasn't a single soul in sight. One of my actor's face turned red and he became teary-eyed. I felt dizzy. It's amazing my crew and cast didn't throw a fit. It was the fastest I've ever seen anybody work and nail lines.

"I found some of my actors through friends. Others were actors I've worked with on other projects. Several of my friends have appeared in TV shows and independent films. The casting process was simple, because I already knew what these actors were capable of. I chose those I knew could bring my characters to life."

The Signal was shot on digital video, regular format, on a DVX 100 A. "The effects were the hardest tasks of the film, and the bulk of post production," said Johnson. "I've many friends and colleagues who are talented FX guys. I myself do FX. The 'black eye' FX were not difficult. The hardest were the 'signal' effect. My animation guy did a good job."

Johnson hopes his short film will be picked up, either for a TV series or feature film. "The Signal was intended as prologue to an ongoing conflict between aliens and humans. It could easily be a franchise. I'm drafting a feature version. The short is circulating film festivals. I've gotten positive response from people who've seen it."

Johnson has lived in Virginia and the Marshall Islands. He attended the Art Institute of California, Los Angeles, majoring in video production. While an intern in at MTV, he was cast as "Stud-Coach" in the reality TV show, MTV's Wanna Come In?. He's directed music videos, including "Motherless Child", which was chosen for BET’s Ya Heard?.Independent Music Videos Contest.

Johnson has joined other filmmakers to form IP Films, which has several films in development, including Johnson's feature length film, Night Terrors. He may be contacted through CJJohnsonbiz.com.

 

 

 


* Fast Forward

 

A 12-year-old girl (Casey Halter) longs to wear the skimpy dresses she sees on older women. Her mother (Kathy Weese) doesn't approve. The girl complains that she's "not a child anymore." She wishes she were older.

As horror fans know, you must be careful what you wish for...

Fast Forward (18 minutes) wasn't the slickest film we saw this year, but it has two things going for it: (1) unlike some entries which only sought to scare, Fast Forward actually had a theme. Like a Twilight Zone episode, its story was about something. And (2) it features an outstanding performance by child actress Casey Halter.

"Terry Fisher had written.Fast Forward as part of a trilogy of horror films," said director Jason Holler. "The idea was to have a new director take one of each three films. That's where I came in. I'd never directed a short before, or even a feature."

Fast Forward was produced by Full Circle Studios, shot in and around Buffalo. "We used one Full Circle partner's home for Casey's house," said Holler, "and a neighbor of one of the partners' for our other house. The old style homes of Buffalo provided great exteriors." The opening scene was on Elmwood Avenue, near the downtown area, outside Urban Outfitters. "Everyone was very accommodating and excited to see how the process of filming worked."

Cast auditions were advertised in a local newspaper. "We had a good turnout," said Holler. "We had them read a character from the film.

"Casey Halter was one of many talented young actresses that auditioned. I believe she went to a local Theater of Youth acting group prior to filming, but had no experience acting for films. She was extremely professional, and always willing to adjust her tone or mannerisms for the film. She was probably one of the easiest actors I've ever worked with."

Halter thankfully avoids Hollywood's opposing cliches for children. Her character is neither as an obnoxiously sophisticated brat, nor a sugary cute moppet. She's an ordinary girl of average intelligence, who falls prey to a sinister neighbor (Mary Ann Reisdorf), who promises that a "magic ring" will grant one's fondest wish.

Fast Forward.was shot a Sony DSR-500 with DV-Cam tape. "We used Full Circle's crane and dolly for some shots," said Holler, "and did all post-production in Final Cut Pro and After Effects."

Holler graduated from Canisius College in Buffalo with a degree in digital media arts. He's worked on corporate, educational and entertainment video productions. He left Full Circle in January 2007 to form his own company, Holler Media Productions.

Fast Forward has seen no distribution. "The only time this was shown as a 'world premiere' was for cast and crew at a Dave & Busters backroom," said Holler.

Information on Fast Forward may be obtained through Full Circle Studios. Holler may be contacted through Holler Media Productions.

 

 

 

 

* The Strain

 

A wife senses something amiss when her globe-trotting husband returns home early, back from another disease-infested hellhole. As an international health inspector, it's his job. But this time, his wife begins to suspect, he's brought back ... something.

The stark clean furnishings, the cool acting style, the theme of a transformative disease, remind one of David Cronenberg's 1970s films, particularly Shivers. But writer/director Mike Doyle cites other influences behind The Strain (17 minutes).

"There isn't one specific influence," said Doyle.  "I wanted to domesticate a monster movie. You always see monster movies placed in the middle of nowhere. I thought it would be cool to see a monster in a home where you assume you're safe."

Yet The Strain is a traditional monster movie. It slowly builds its tension, then releases it with sudden shocks. Low, creepy background music broken by sudden ear-shattering noise. The monster, seen mostly in shadows, resembles a werewolf. Doyle says "a werewolf without fur" would be more accurate.

Doyle cast friends for the roles of the husband and detective (Jared Crain and Carl Ezold), always a risky tactic. Luckily, Crain's deadpan coolness, and Ezold's grim demeanor, work well in the film. "What's strange is that they're both comics," said Doyle, "and they're both really damn funny."

Fifteen actresses auditioned for the role of the wife, given to Alexandra Boylan.

While the house's sterile decor aesthetically reinforces the couple's cool, deteriorating relationship, the house was chosen mainly because it was available; a beach house in Del Mar, owned by relatives, loaned to Doyle free of charge. The only other location was an office in Pasadena, rented for $100.

The Strain.was shot in HD on a JVC GY HD100 U with a mini 35. "Eric MacIver who owns Indie Rental in Hollywood was the DP," said Doyle. "He did a kick ass job and is great guy. I highly recommend him."

Like Humphries, Doyle never attended film school. "I dropped out of Orange Coast Collage. I went to The Actor's Workshop in Laguna for four years. It's hard to learn about the film industry while you live in Orange County, so I moved to Los Angeles, got an internship at Cinergi. After eight months, I picked up another internship at Nomad/Lightmotive, Roland Joffe's company. After six months, they gave me a job as a PA on Roland's Goodbye Lover. An eye opening experience.

"A couple years later, I got into writing screenplays. I signed with Hohman, Maybank & Lieb because of a comedy spec I wrote with another guy. We wrote a couple other projects on spec that didn't go anywhere. [Then] my writing partner quit. I realized I didn't want to be a writer for hire, though I wouldn't turn down the job. But it led me to The Strain, my first crack at directing. I loved it."

The Strain's premier screening was at the L.A. Short Film Festival, on September 9.

 

 

 

 

* 3:52

 

Native American spirits (good and evil) battle for the soul of a troubled young woman in 3:52, a 12 minute short that uses the supernatural as metaphor for one's personal "inner demons," rather than as an actual threat.

"Growing up a part of the Native American Church, we were taught about religion through a spiritual perspective," said filmmaker Shawna Baca. "I wrote 3:52.after my uncle died from a failed liver. His body shut down from years of alcohol abuse. I wanted to tell a story about how our inner demons can consume our lives."

3:52.was shot under a SAG contract and stars Ugly Betty's America Ferrera. "I hired a casting director, Leah Magnum," said Baca. "We held auditions, with the exception of America. I met her at the National Association of Latino Independent Producers conference. She was presenting an award at the Gala. I talked the president of Nosotros.into introducing me, so I wouldn't appear like the fifty other filmmakers who approached her.

"I sent America the script. She emailed to meet me. My producer and casting director dealt with her agent and lawyer, and we made the film. America had already done Real Women Have Curves and was in negotiations for Ugly Betty. We did 3:52 right before she started shooting the pilot.

The film was shot over three days. "I shot at a house in Encino that was my editor's house," said Baca. "Nosotros let me shoot at the Ricardo Montalban theatre for two days for free. We shot on 35mm film, after Panavision gave me the New Filmmaker's Grant, which was a free 35mm camera package.

"The Native Americans I cast are actors, but both men are authentic Native dancers and they own their own regalia (costumes). The drumgroup are friends of mine and agreed to come in and perform a song."

Baca never went to film school. "I've worked in entertainment for a while, but not in production. I started a theatre company in San Diego in 1999. I then moved to Los Angeles to learn about film." She wrote & directed her first film in 2001.

3:52.has not yet been distributed, partially because doing so would require more payments to SAG. As Baca explained, "With my SAG contract, I'd have to bump up the contract, and there's just not that kind of money in shorts.

"It's been to about a dozen festivals and won two awards. Best of the Nalip on View 2006, and Audience Choice Award at the San Diego Women's Film Festival 2006."

Baca may be contacted through her website.

 

 

 

 

* Grace

 

A woman is so determined to have her child, she refuses an abortion even after the fetus is declared dead. Instead, she turns to a controversial maternity center that's pioneering an experimental technique, one that will enable her to bring her "dead" daughter to full term...

Grace (6 minutes) is a sparse, visually innovative film that revisits thematic territory covered by The Unborn, It's Alive, and Cronenberg's The Brood. Like Skin Deep, Grace has a horrific baby girl. But since Grace.has no humor to dilute its horror, its infant truly horrifies.

(Counting Death Knows Your Name, that's three films this year with gruesome births of horrific spawn -- is this a new trend in horror?)

"The genesis of the film is real medical science," said filmmaker Paul Solet. "When I heard that, often, when a woman's unborn child dies, she'll carry the corpse to term unless labor is induced, the idea for Grace.was born. It was so horrific, in a broadly accessible way, I was immediately thrilled, totally excited by the subject matter. I had the first draft within a few weeks.

"As for influences, It's Alive is a favorite of mine, and The Omen and Rosemary's Baby. These films don't present horrors for a specific demographic. They aim at cultivating horrors for humanity as a whole."

Solet hired Kennedy Casting to obtain his "wish list" cast of Liza Weil and Brian Austin Green. "Kennedy Casting joined Grace after our producer showed them the script," said Solet.  "They loved it and volunteered to come on board. I met Brian and Liza and we got along wonderfully.

"We didn't have money to pay anyone, so it came down to the strength of the script, and the actors' belief in me to pull it off. The rest of the casting was conducted from Jason Kennedy's studio in Hollywood."

Grace's mondo bizarro "birthing clinic" set was built in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. The car accident was shot in Griffith Park, "for which we needed a permit," said Solet. "The only other location was a baby store in the Valley. The owner loved horror movies and was very generous."

Even more than most short films, Grace aspires to be a feature. Solet shot Grace as a calling card to investors, hoping to raise money for a feature version. It's more a digest of the (planned for) feature than a true stand-alone short. Thus.Grace feels incomplete. The unusual costumes and art direction in the maternity center are left unexplained.

"The purpose of the radical production and costume design was to show the extreme end of the visual and stylistic spectrum of which I was capable," said Solet. "The short needed to get your attention in a way the feature will not. You'll find more subtle design in the full length piece."

Being a "calling card film" was one reason that Grace was shot on 35mm film. "The intention was to demonstrate to potential investors that I have chops enough to pull off a multi-million dollar production which would be shot on 35mm," said Solet, "so showing a mastery of the format was important." But he also wanted film's "celluloid feel" so that.Grace would have "an organic look."

Solet studied film and screenwriting at Emerson College. He's cowritten "a creature feature with Eli Roth." Solet's horror short, Means to an End, won several awards on the festival circuit and was distributed on Fangoria's Blood Drive 2 DVD.

Grace.has been seen on FangoriaTV and some dozen festivals. "It's a pitch film for the feature, which I wrote first, and from which the short was distilled," said Solet. "It was designed to stand alone, which allowed it to make a festival run. But the intent was always to get the feature made."  Which should happen soon. "We've gotten a cast-contingent greenlight from a studio. So casting pending, we're aiming to wrap principal photography before 2008."

Solet may be contacted though his MySpace page.

 

 

 

* Zombie Love

 

A zombie boy falls in love with a mortal girl. So he dons makeup and woes her disguised as a mortal. But can he stop his zombie buddies from eating her? Will she overlook his rotted flesh smell? Does romance lie ahead, or just cold leftover meat from the honeymoon?

Zombie Love (37 minutes) is not so much a horror comedy than a musical comedy that happens to have zombies. In terms of genre, it's closer to The Munsters and Young Frankenstein than to dark horror comedies such as Evil Dead. Still, it's a fun romp, with playful tunes, break-dancing corpses, a talented cast, and a surprise ending.

"I wanted to do something fun that I'd enjoy making as well as watching," said writer/director Yfke van Berckelaer. "A classmate and myself came up with the title.Zombie Love a few years earlier and thought it'd be funny to see that playing on Broadway next to the Phantom.

"Zombie Love is a love story about two people from different worlds who want the other to love them for who they are, but insecurities make them believe that could never be the case. Everyone wants to be liked and accepted for who they are. The theme of acceptance is universal."

As is van Berckelaer, Zombie's Love's cast and crew are all students at the California Institute of the Arts. "All the actors came from the theatre department. The two male leads Id worked with before and had written the parts for them. The rest we found through auditions. We'd have them audition a song and a scene. For call backs we'd have them read together. Especially for the couple, that was very important -- you can't fake chemistry!

"It was great working with an all-student cast and crew because most of us had never worked on a film before. It felt like a true collaboration because we didn't have a lot of expectations. We just wanted to see if we could pull it off and have fun along the way. We weren't afraid to try new things and experiment. Like, for instance, the Bollywood scene."

Zombie Love was shot on super-16 film. "I love the look of it," said van Berckelaer. "It both embraces the grittiness of old school horror, but also has the color range of a musical. We got lucky with our equipment. Panavision provided the camera. Kodak helped with the film stock. We got a grant from the Royal Dutch Fund of the Arts. The school provided the rest."

While many musicals begin with the songs, for Zombie Love, the script was written first. "Which is weird in a way," said van Berckelaer, "but was also necessary. The lyrics incorporate the story so we had to write them first, otherwise no one would understand what was going on." She found a composer and recorded the songs a week before filming. The actors lip-synched their songs on set. Another composer handled "underscoring" and "created the orchestrations" during the editing phase.

Van Berckelaer studied film theory and history in Amsterdam before moving to Los Angeles to attend the California Institute of the Arts. Zombie Love is her thesis film. Her distribution "consists of me, a dvd burner, and a website.that you can order the film through." She may also be contacted through that website.

 

 

 

* Additional Winners

 

We added two new trophies since last year: Best Visual Effects and Best Make-Up Effects. For those who didn't win, it may not mean that their work was bad, only that their competitors are also very talented.
 

Some roles are so pivotal, they make or break a film. Had child actor Haley Joel Osment fallen short, The Sixth Sense would have failed. So too Casey Halter carries Fast Forward. There's not a false note in her performance.

Casting directors should take note of our 2007 Best Actress winner.


 
Generally, comedic actors get no respect at awards time. There were certainly many fine dramatic performances to choose from this year, particularly Matt Ryan in By Appointment Only.

But James Rollyson's Skin Deep co-star was a butt-ugly puppet, and still, Rollyson delivers an expressive performance that remains a delight to watch over repeated viewings. He deserves Best Actor honors.


 
Nancy Sinclair not only steals By Appointment Only with her wide-ranging emotional shifts, but she blows away every adult actress we saw this year. Choosing her as Best Supporting Actress is a no-brainer. She had no competition.

 
Nor does any supporting actor come close to Kevin Schiele's performance as the possessed and insane patient in Death Knows Your Name. His screen presence is powerful, riveting, and compelling. We watch even when we want to turn away. He wins Best Supporting Actor with ease.

 
We admit it. We love Bava and Argento and Warren. We're also suckers for colored lights. Of course, any lighting must be used aesthetically, to support the story and create an atmosphere.

Which Ben Robinson and Jono Smith do in the lively and funny Night of the Hell Hamsters. They win Best Cinematography.


 
Jimmy Crispin (aka Juan Pablo Olguin) mixes layers of ghostly whispers and ominous music to create an eerie atmosphere of impending doom, earning him Best Sound for Death Knows Your Name.

 
Dead Noon.would be an entirely different film without James Teague's incessant barrage of imaginative visual effects. The flaming corpse outlaws (right) are but one example out of dozens. (Or one out of 800, according to director Andrew Wiest).

James Teague easily wins Best Visual Effects.


 
No photo can convey the visceral shock you'll feel upon seeing that thing emerge from Melissa (Veronica Mari)'s womb in Death Knows Your Name. And it was all done without CGI.

Simon Ratziel earned his Best Make-Up Effects win.


 
Nicholas Longstaff composed a haunting and beautiful score for The Crypt Club.

But Joseph Y. Kamiya's music for Skin Deep not only sets the mood, it parallels the story, supporting its every emotional shift. Alternatingly stodgy, dark, sinister, playful, melodramatic, poignant to the point of bathos, and creepily humorous. Kamiya wins Best Music Soundtrack.

 

* The Final Tally

 

Tabloid Witch Award Winners

 

* Best Horror Feature Film ..................  Daniel de la Vega & Demián Rugna  (Death Knows Your Name)

* Best Dramatic Horror Short Film ......  Miguel Gallego (The Crypt Club)

* Best Comedic Horror Short Film ......  Erasmo Romero III  (Skin Deep)

* Best Animated Horror Short Film .....  Jim Minton & Michael Arnzen  (The Scab)

* Best Actress ......................................  Casey Halter  (Fast Forward)

* Best Actor ........................................  James Rollyson  (Skin Deep)

* Best Supporting Actress ..................   Nancy Sinclair  (By Appointment Only)

* Best Supporting Actor .....................   Kevin Schiele  (Death Knows Your Name)

* Best Cinematography .......................  Ben Robinson & Jono Smith  (Night of the Hell Hamsters)

* Best Sound ....................................... Jimmy Crispin  (Death Knows Your Name)

* Best Visual Effects .............................  James Teague  (Dead Noon)

* Best Make-Up Effects .........................  Simon Ratziel  (Death Knows Your Name)

* Best Music Soundtrack .....................   Joseph Y. Kamiya  (Skin Deep)


 

Tabloid Witch Honorable Mentions

 

* Andrew Wiest, Matthew Taggart & Keith Suta  (Dead Noon)

* Paul Campion, Hadyn Green & Mike Roseingrave  (Night of the Hell Hamsters)

* John Faust  (By Appointment Only)

* Nicholas Humphries  (The One That Got Away)

* CJ Johnson  (The Signal)

* Jason Holler & Terry Fisher  (Fast Forward)

* Mike Doyle  (The Strain)

* Shawna Baca  (3:52)

* Paul Solet  (Grace)

* Yfke van Berckelaer  (Zombie Love)

 

* Horror Film Trends & Lessons for 2007
 

Reviewing entries over the course of a year exposes one to current trends in horror. Here's some of what we've seen:

 

    1. Few women. In 2006 most entries had all-male casts. This year saw plenty of female talent in front of the camera, but still very few behind the camera. The ratio of female to male director wins this year (1 to 6) roughly parallels the submissions. Many more men than women are making horror films. Why?

    2. Childbirth horrors. Three winning films (Skin Deep, Death Knows Your Name, Grace) had nightmarish births or babies. All written & directed by men. Who says women can't write for men ... or men for women?

    3. Ouija boards. Aside from nightmarish births, we saw plenty of ouija board horror films this year. Wonder why?

    4. Film school not necessary. Film schools continue to supply many winners, yet several winners had no film school training. So if you never attended, don't be discouraged. You can learn filmmaking outside of school.

    5. Zombies and slashers. We saw plenty in 2006, and more in 2007. We love them when they're innovative, or at least very good, but that's rare. Usually they're tired copycats of ripoffs of remakes of spinoffs of sequels. Halloween and Zombie are extraordinary. Most of their copycats don't come close.

    6. Less torture. We saw plenty of Hostel-inspired (albeit uninspired) torture films in 2006. Far fewer in 2007. The torture cycle seems to be dying a quick death. Based on what we saw, we won't miss it.

    7. Strong scripts attract talent. Bummed because you don't have access to movie stars? Grace, The Crypt Club, and 3:52 all attracted top casting directors and star talent on the strength of their scripts. If you can write, you can attract stars.

    8. Don't plead poverty. Sometimes an entrant will emphasize their low budget, the implied message being: "Please be kind to my film and overlook its flaws. I didn't have the money to do it right, so it's not fair to judge me harshly."

We do seek the good aspects in a film, despite its flaws. Yet when a $15,000 film like Death Knows Your Name is as polished as big budget studio horror, it's time for filmmakers to stop pleading poverty.

Learn your craft. Write and rewrite. Light with care. Compose shots with thought and purpose.  Record clean sound. Cast trained actors. Do post-production to polish your sound and visuals.

Your competitors are producing first-rate films on a shoestring. If you expect to beat them for the limited number of trophies, festival slots, and distribution deals, you'd best put away your excuses and improve your skills.

Copyright 2007 by HollywoodInvestigator.com

 

 

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