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Horror Film Aesthetics

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Tabloid Witch Awards

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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor.  [October 11, 2005]




[]  The Tabloid Witch debuts this year as the official award of the Hollywood Investigator's annual horror film contest, now in its second year.

Last year's winning short film, Stiffs by Sid, secured a DVD distribution deal after being profiled in the Investigator. Afterwards, all its featured films were screened at the World Horror Convention.

This year's films (below) will screen at Loscon Los Angeles's LAX Marriott hotel on Saturday evening, November 26, 2005.

The Tabloid Witch Awards has grown, attracting many more entries than last year. Picking the best of the best was a challenge. After reviewing winners and honorable mentions below, we'll tell you what the featured films did right, what pitfalls they avoided -- and what YOU can do to win next year!


* Best Horror Feature -- Mole


Rich Mauro and Anthony Savini's Mole evokes The Blair Witch Project in that it's yet another gritty film about three people who enter dangerous terrain to film a news story. But don't imagine this is some unoriginal knock-off The cast is excellent, the story is tense and imaginative, and the grainy videography well captures the creepy locale -- the rat-infested tunnels under New York City.

Mole, begins with an ambitious TV reporter (Sam Tsao) tired of flower shows, who and seeks to do an exposé on the homeless people who live in New York's abandoned subway tunnels.

Recruiting a cameraman (John-Luke Montias) and tunnel expert (James Cox), Tsao goes underground, meeting two homeless men who tell the reporters about "mole people" -- people born underground, living their entire lives in darkness, and are now barely human! Urban legend or reality?

As happens to yuppies who leave the comforts of civilization, the reporters and their guide become lost, their lights dimming, their supplies diminishing. To worsen matters, it seems Mole People are stalking them. Whereupon these civilized New Yorkers revert to Lord of the Flies/Deliverance.savagery, fighting off the homeless, the mole people -- and each other! -- in a desperate bid to survive.

"The idea came from the reality that people live underneath New York for shelter, especially during the winter," said Rich Mauro to the Hollywood Investigator. "Most homeless people refer to them as 'moles.' My girlfriend talked about how creepy it'd be to live in darkness underneath the biggest city in the world. I thought, what a great premise for a horror film!

"We shot some of the film in a tunnel in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. Most underground explorers know this old subway tunnel. If you search the Internet under 'abandoned subway tunnels,' you'll decipher where we found it. But I think it's been closed off since. Other tunnels were shot in Brooklyn, in an old brewery."

Shot in low light, Mole.has the grainy documentary look of the Blair Witch. And as in Blair Witch, that gritty looks adds to the story.

"We shot on the Sony PD 150," said Mauro.  "But I don't recommend it. There are better DV cameras out now. I was so unhappy with the Sony PD 150, I spent a lot of money (more than the cost of the camera) putting a post-production 'film look' onto the film, creating a gritty, edgy look that I'm happy with. I edited on Final Cut Pro, a great program."

The cast is uniformly excellent, from the leads to the bit players, offering seamless performances.

"The casting was the work of [executive producer] Gill Holland and his company Cineblast," said Mauro. "I knew Jim Cox, but Gill had a list of actors he wanted, so that's how we got Sam and John- Luke.

"John-Luke was nominated for best actor at the Toronto Online Film Festival for his role in Mole."

Mole only runs an hour, making it not-quite-a-short, yet difficult to distribute as a feature. (One of two one-hour features submitted to the Investigator this year.)

"A 90-minute Mole.premiered at the NoDance Film Festival in Park City," Mauro said. "After distributors passed on it, instead of killing myself, I went to the editing room to rethink it. When I re-cut Mole to one hour, everyone said it was a mistake and would never sell. But I chose to edit the best film, without being confined to a time requirement.

Since then Mole.has sold in England and Germany, and got U.S. DVD distribution as Psychotic Tendencies, "part of a box set of horror films."

Mole.won Best Horror Feature at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival. Both Mauro and co-director Anthony Savini (no relation to Tom) are NYU film school grads. Mauro previously directed Nick and Jane.


Horror Film Aesthetics


* Best Horror Short -- Legion


Running at 27 minutes, Legion: The Word Made Flesh presents a somber tale of demonic possession, the sets alternating from the darkly sumptuous to the glaringly stark.

Like the highly underrated.Lost Souls, Legion's beautiful photography varies from sepia tones, to dense color saturations, to brightly over-exposed shots, all of it aesthetically supporting the tale of a defrocked priest and desperate mother trolling the occult underground in search of someone to exorcise her daughter's demon.

"One impetus for Legion was a longtime friend with cancer," said filmmaker Robert Sexton to the Investigator. "She'd spoken of the different cures and treatments she'd undergone, how they weren't working and how desperate she was becoming."

"She'd spoken of faith healers, gypsies, and such. I met some of them and was not too impressed. It seemed all they talked about was the money, not the cure. My friend finally succumbed to the disease.

"But what if one of those gypsy faith healers had worked?

"I called my friend Steve Dandois, a talented screenwriter, and tossed the idea of charlatan faith healers and possession. He dug it and we wrote the screenplay.

"I'm a big fan of movies such as Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, but I didn't want to do an exorcism movie. In Legion I dealt with movie archetypes. I took pre-conceived notions of characters and movie genres that you already know and tried to twist them into something new -- hopefully, without you realizing what was happening until it's too late."

Legion is grippingly atmospheric, the motel and southwest locales supporting the character's dreary desperation.

"Principal photography was shot in and around Los Angeles," said Sexton. "I took a road trip to Mexico, Texas, Arizona and the Salton Sea for exterior shots. It was depressing, looking for and then finding the most hellish -- but perfect! -- locations. Those establishing shots scream of desolation and despair. Death was in the air."

Legion was shot on several formats: 35mm, super 16, and HD video. Then during post-production, Sexton hired Marshall Plante at The Syndicate to color Legion. The result is a visual feast, veering from washed-out images to those richly saturated with warm tones. "I use them for a lot of my music videos and commercials," said Sexton, "so Legion does.have a high-end, commercial feel to it. Marshall did a great job."

Legion was then edited on FCP HD, sound design done with Pro Tools. "Raz, my editor at, did the color matching for the insert shots as well as some of the effects shots," said Sexton. "Raz is crazy. Good crazy, not bad crazy."

Legion was photographed by Bobby Eras -- but Eras wasn't Sexton's first choice. Ominously, filming began with a real-life tragedy!

"My first Cinematographer was a DP from Chile," said Sexton. "He was fantastic. Great cinematic style. Two days before we were to begin shooting he was was in a terrible motorcycle accident and lost one of his legs.

"We had to put the project on hold for obvious reasons, and in the interim I met Bobby on a music video I was doing with Danny Carey from Tool. Bobby and I hit it off and we decided Legion would be perfect for both of us."

Apart from stunning visuals, the cast is first-rate, headlined by David Stifel as a world-weary ex-priest in search of an exorcist who can deliver.

Sexton found his actors through casting director Marshall Moorehead.

Originally a musician, Sexton studied film at the School of Visual Arts in New York before moving to Los Angeles. "I then attended UCLA Extension programs. Bullshit seminars."

He's now a seasoned director of commercials & music videos. "I needed a better-paying gig [than music], and a career that was more loving, caring, nurturing and considerate of the creative process -- like the film industry."

Sexton has directed another film, The Disassembly Line. More info about Legion can be found at his company's website, Hollywood Asylum.





* Honorable Mention


We received so many more entries this year -- some films that would have won last year didn't even get an Honorable Mention this year.

This means that filmmakers who did get an Honorable Mention have reason to be proud -- the field was very competitive!

Shorts remain the primary calling-card for independent and student filmmakers, and like last year, we received more shorts than features.

In fact, all of this year's Honorable Mentions are all shorts.


* Hollow


Abortion's guilty aftermath is the theme of Jennifer Soemantri's Hollow, a 9-minute short about a wealthy young couple haunted one Halloween night by a mysterious trick or treater. Yet Soemantri said the abortion theme grew out of the story.

"From the get-go, I wanted a ghost kid haunting adults in a house on Halloween," said Soemantri to the Investigator.

"I wanted a plot compelling enough to allow both adults to have an equal 'investment' in the kid. Although Paul [Wes Armstrong] is 'out of the loop' until Esther [Lisa Ruud] tells him her secret, I didn't want him to just be another character that happens to be in the house when the ghost arrives. I wanted him involved with the kid. My writer [Stephanie Jones] and I decided that there wasn't a stronger link than to make both adults his parents.

"It was never my intention to make a pro- or anti- abortion film. The theme deals with consequences and taking responsibility for one's actions. In Esther's case, regardless of whether of not it's a legal or 'politically correct' choice, I was more interested in whether it was the right decision for her to have an abortion.

"I knew the movie would be controversial, as it is often the case with abortion. The audience's reaction has been hot and cold. Some miss the point and believe it's purely an anti-abortion film, but thankfully the other half understand that the abortion is just one part of the overall story that helps drive the narrative forward."

Hollow has striking art direction, cinematography, and costuming. Bright Halloween oranges and primary colors are set against gleaming surfaces and glass, strikingly photographed in off-kilter angles and distorting wide-angle lenses.

The cold set decor reinforces the context of a selfish yuppie couple choosing materiality over maternity.

Hollow's couple live in a sterile world, controlled but unstable, its repressed lies and secrets ready to collapse with the first intruder.

"I shot a family friend's house," said Soemantri. "My art director came on board late.  She added the red fabric in the elevator to make the scene more intense. But the interiors were already there. I'd already put up the Halloween props, the spider webs and spiders.

"I took care of the costuming myself. The actors mostly wore their own wardrobe that I'd chosen for them. I purchased the bright orange-red shirt for Paul.

"I had a wonderful DP [Scott Boettle]. We met several times before production to go over the looks -- every meeting was easy and fast because we were on the same page. Production went very smooth. Hollow was shot over two weekends, Friday and Saturday of each weekend, in 8 hours."

Hollow.was shot with a super 16mm Arri and edited on Final Cut Pro.

The film is non-SAG. Soemantri found her cast by advertising in Backstage. Contrary to conventional film school wisdom, she often casts children and animals. "I've had nothing but wonderful experiences with them," she said. "I love working with children, though it has its pros and cons. One of the best things is their natural spontaneity and innocence, in addition to performing their roles. If you're lucky, you get the best of both -- the 'natural' and the 'acted' -- and an excellent performance."

Soemantri stresses the importance of the casting process. I don't mean finding a child who's been doing this since they're a baby (although that never hurts), but to find one who's receptive and who you can work with closely. You're always going to work more with children, so you need someone who's not going to tune you out after five minutes.

"Nakoda Shires [the ghost boy in Hollow] was very professional. Although he was only nine years old, he'd already had plenty of experience doing commercials. So he was familiar with how a set works and took directions well. His mom is a total pro.

"An important aspect of working with children is the parents. Some child actors have incredibly demanding parents, and I lucked out on that end. The key is to find a parent who's supportive in the enjoyment and the art of the job, rather than the 'cool' aspect of their children being 'actors.'"

Hollow has appeared at "more than 25 festivals and screenings" and has won four awards: New York Independent Film Festival (Best Horror Short); Big Apple Film Festival (Best Short Film); Key West IndieFest (Award of Excellence - Short Film); and Worldfest Houston International Film Festival (Remi Award - Fantasy/Horror).

"There've been some distribution possibilities this past year," said Soemantri, "but the deals wouldn't have been the best for Hollow, so I've held off on distribution. But I'm always on the lookout for a great distribution match!"

Born and raised in Indonesia, Soemantri is an NYU film school grad who's worked as an assistant director on commercials. More information about Hollow can be found at Soemantri's website.


Horror Film Festivals and Awards


* Slinky Milk


Slinky Milk is surely the oddest entry this year, a surreal, black & white short (only 5 minutes) that appears to take inspiration from Un Chien Andalou. Naturally, there's no "story," but rather, a series of sex and death images inside a snowbound house.

Oh yes, the film does have a slinky -- which a young man strokes in mastubatory fashion.

"I often wonder where ideas come from," said director Jamie Renee Williams to the Investigator. "Slinky Milk's images are the subconscious interpretation of 20 years of exposure to American horror films. But if there must be any definite influences, John Water's.Pink Flamingos, in all its absurdity, would be one."

Unsurprisingly,,Slinky Milk is a product of film school. "Slinky Milk was born out of a [University of Virginia] class assignment. Our mission was to create a 16mm black & white film that was both horrific and Mondo. We were to uphold a 'vow of chastity' which included showing all action offscreen, two shots of the human interior, and radical vantage points."

So Slinky Milk.was intended to be Mondo. But what is Mondo?

Williams explained, "I say Mondo, loosely defined, as taking situations and hyperventilating them to the extreme. I suppose that when mixed with the horror genre, Mondo can take on the effect of surrealism. But the original intent was a film of Mondo, or rather horrific and extreme, proportions.

"Of course,,Slinky Milk's genre is open to interpretation. I'm not a film critic or theorist, but a filmmaker. I can't predict the infinite experiences people can have with any film -- especially with my films!"

Slinky Milk's grainy black & white photography supports its surrealist (ehr, Mondo) aesthetic. Williams thinks it worth the extra effort. "Film requires more thought and planning prior to filming [than does video] because every second costs. You can't rewind and re-record. Film takes a certain commitment that video doesn't require. Film doesn't give the immediate image feedback which video provides, so you must be able to predict the relationship the film and camera will have with the light in the room, the colors in the room, the movement in the room.

"And from an artistic perspective, film still does not compare to video, despite the advent of the 24p video. Film has its own look, its own feel and smell. Black & white reversal stock is especially nice because of its high contrast. Darren Aronofsky took advantage of this in.Pi. The black & white aesthetic was perfect for Slinky Milk as it captures the internal monologues of the two characters."

Although video is cheaper, Williams added, "Good filmmaking isn't about money. It's about making the best of what you've got. We had imagination on our set, and that was key.

"The entire film was shot in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.  Total duration of filming: a mere 12 hours in one day.

And that snow you see -- paid for by the graces of a good old fashion Virginia winter."

Williams recently graduated the University of Virginia with a B.A. in Anthropology. "But I studied film for the last two years of my university career under the auspices of [Slinky Milk producer] Kevin Jerome Everson, filmmaker immaculate," she adds. "I'm now living in Okinawa, Japan for a year or two, until I apply to film school. Films will be done here, absolutely!"

Slinky Milk screened at the University of Virginia's 2005 Salmagundi Film Festival. Apart from that home turf performance, the Tabloid Witch Honorable Mention is Slinky Milk's first official recognition!



* Cadaverous


Necrophobia is the theme of Michael Fiore's Cadaverous, the tale of a medical student whose grades suffer because he can't stand the sight of the corpses he's forced to study and dissect.

Confronted by a stern professor, the student tries to overcome his fear by "familiarizing" himself with the dead.

"Cadaverous went through several incarnations while I was an [undergrad film] student at NYU," said Fiore to the Investigator.

"The original script was very campy, but I didn't want to make a campy B-film. Camp is easy to make. I wanted to make something with a balance of humor, drama, and creepiness. [Film school] was a nerve-racking period in my life as the future was uncertain regarding my upcoming graduation and a film career ahead. I wanted to make the film about fear and uncertainty.

"When I was in high school, I had a science teacher that I bumped heads with all the time. I'd tell him that I didn't need to waste my time with his class, as I was going to be a filmmaker. The teacher's response was, 'You'll never be a filmmaker ... you won't amount to anything.'

"Between that moment in my life, the challenges of film school and the fear of failure, the premise of Cadaverous developed. In it, Professor McCarthy (Lee Moore) tells the necrophobic medical student that he has 'nothing to offer the medical profession.'

"Cadaverous.was also inspired by the works of talented filmmakers who've come before me.  Hitchcock stands out in mind. And Robert Zemeckis, Rod Serling, and David Fincher.  Fincher's The Game looks precise and pre-planned; every shot is necessary. I went into production with the entire film storyboarded and the final film matches those boards almost identically. This was helpful with our limited time and budget."

Despite being an NYU student, Fiore shot his film at Wagner College in nearby Staten Island. "My parents attended the school and met there. The college was extremely supportive and gave us their Main Hall for the duration of their Spring Break. We had complete control over the environment, which was very helpful."

To find a cast, Fiore advertised in Backstage. "I knew I wanted a certain look for my leads, especially the gaunt and nervous medical student. When I sifted through the hundreds of headshots I'd received, Todd Batstone and Lee Moore grabbed my attention.

"I saw about 50 actors for each role. Funny enough, Todd and Lee were the first two to read for their roles. I knew immediately that, based on look and now performance, they were my guys.

"I continued to meet other actors, but I knew down deep that I'd found my leads."

Cadaverous.was shot on 16mm film. "I edited over 4 to 6 weeks, working 12 hour days, on an Avid Media Composers," said Fiore. Upon graduating NYU, he spent the better part of a year completing post-production.

Cadaverous has aired on The Sci Fi Channel and KQED-TV in San Francisco. It was screened and honored at "over 25 festivals."

Fiore has since worked as editor on Jim Breuer: Heavy Metal Comedy, American Dummy, and Everyday Hero, and has directed commercials and promos for A&E Television Networks. He's slated to direct a low-budget feature for Moderncine this fall.



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