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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [June 28, 2013]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] Zombies, torture porn, and found footage are three horror subgenres that I've grown especially sick of over this past decade (as have film festival directors). So when I came across Shallow Creek Cult -- described as found footage about two guys who discover a cannibal cult in the woods -- I was not hopeful. It sounded like a combo of found footage and torture porn, a blend that has yielded some of the worst horror films of recent memory.
But I was happily surprised -- Shallow Creek Cult turned out not to be torture porn. It has little gore, instead using story and lighting to create a creepy atmosphere -- along with genuine surprises and engaging characters.
In some ways Shallow Creek Cult resembles The Last Exorcism, one of the better found footage horror films. Both films draw authenticity and ambiance from their Louisiana locales. And both films surprise us with sudden and unexpected Lovecraftian turns.
But if The Last Exorcism's $2,000,000 budget is considered low by Hollywood standards (and it is), then Shallow Creek Cult's $2,000 budget is positively micro -- a term often used for today's new breed of grassroots, regional filmmakers.
What do you get for $2,000? Mostly two guys with a video camera, in the woods and then inside a house. That's all The Blair Witch Project had to offer, and, as with that seminal film, Shallow Creek writer/director King Jeff demonstrates that effective scares can be achieved with story, acting, and lighting alone.
Jeff's story is simple. Two guys visit a lonely campsite. One of them stumbles upon some cultists while they're feasting on human flesh. The cultists pursue the guys into a house. Throughout the night, the guys try to protect themselves while the cultists try to break in and get them.
Despite the found footage film glut, Jeff told the Hollywood Investigator that he "felt there was still something fresh to be done. All found footage films have everyone die at the end. I wanted to end differently. To make a film about characters who go all out to survive at any cost -- hence the infamous baby scene.
"And the footage would be turned over instead of found. I liked the ending where Jessie is a guest on some Internet program, discussing what has gone on since the cult tapes were seen. I thought that made it feel original, like we were doing something different."
Its ending defies the usual formula in several ways, but Shallow Creek Cult's biggest asset is its creepy turn when one of the men discovers that the cultists might not be human. That revelation evokes the moment in Jeepers Creepers when the killer -- who we'd thought was a typical crazed slasher -- suddenly sprouts demon wings.
While Shallow Creek's makeup effects are not as impressive as those in Jeepers Creepers, Jeff knows how to stretch what little he has. His monsters' hands and faces look like those 1950s rubber suit monsters (see below), but we don't notice it so much because we only catch glimpses of them, in the dark or on low-resolution TV security cam monitors. That, and our willing suspension of disbelief, allows for a creepy/scary viewing experience.
The two men are played by King Jeff and Gorio, his brother. Thair acting is not all that bad. Their lines are delivered so casually, they sound improvised on set, rather than scripted. Improvisation can help amateur actors appear more real, whereas, if given a script, they might recite it in a wooden or stilted manner. Improvisation can also yield much verbiage, but that can be fixed with tight editing so the film does not feel padded.
But Jeff says that his film contains no improvisation. "That is what we wanted it to sound like, [but] the dialogue was all scripted. We stuck to it word for word. The trick is to say lines in a natural way that sounds real and improvised. One way is through overlapping dialogue -- talking over each other's lines -- which we do several times. And just fumbling a little through your lines, to sound as though you have no idea what you're about to say, a la Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.
"Most found footage films are improvised, but I'd rather be more in control. Waiting around until you get the improvisation you're looking for is not my cup of tea. I'd rather know what's what. It's the type of acting style that my brothers and I love to do. Relaxed and realistic. It makes for shorter shooting days as well.
"We did a short mockumentary, Interview with the Red Shirts [above], which was inspired by the red shirts on Star Trek. We did that in 2001, sometime around then. One of the things we achieved then was the natural, realistic-sounding dialogue that was actually scripted."
As for that $2,000 budget, it "mostly went to the other actors at the very beginning, and costumes and masks, and mini DV tapes." Jeff says he was able to keep his budget low because "We did all the camerawork, editing, music, even the animation at the end." All the main parts were played by Jeff and his brother -- the two leads and the (masked) cult members. "Where I run out to shoot the cult member on camera, that cult member was me. Ah, the magic of editing!
"I'm a self-taught filmmaker. I've been at it since 1992. I learned by being on the set of other films, in the beginning as an actor or extra, and read a few books, and watched movies. I started out making shorts, then went into features. The only way to improve your craft is to make films. Pretty soon a boxer has to step away from shadow boxing and enter the ring with a real opponent."
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