Sunday, September 18, 2011

Horror Movies Supply Promising Vector for the Disease

So, good news: The Tolltaker has been accepted into the Big Apple Film Festival. It's screening as part of a midnight program of horror shorts a few days after Halloween. The specific date is Friday, November 4 at Tribeca Cinemas on Varick Street in Manhattan. And it is indeed a midnight screening. They start rolling at 12 and continue until 2 a.m.

When I found it was part of a collection of horror films, I have to confess to feeling a little disheartened. Not because I have anything against horror films - they're one of my favorite genres (although the list of truly stellar horror films is woefully short). Instead, I was a little worried about being relegated to a genre ghetto, one that programmers at the "important" festivals shun like a beggar turned away from a rich man's door.

Still, that also gives me a new audience to pursue. The horror audience is huge and insatiable. No matter what the economic times are, horror movies always make money. The downside is that often this audience has the lowest possible expectations for the movies they choose to see. Rank exploitation is the method, and the formula usually involves college-age kids getting dispatched in ever-more-gruesome ways, after obligingly getting naked and copulating to satisfy the audience's other base lust. Anything that doesn't fit this mold tends to be dismissed as unsuitable.

The thing is, the audience for stories like The Tolltaker is potentially huge. It was crafted from influences which themselves have proven immensely popular. If it can be considered horror (which again would, I believe, create a problem with the audience's expectations), it's closest to the Dean Koontz/Stephen King style that weaves horror elements into character-based stories set - for the most part - in the recognizable, everyday world we're all familiar with.

Now, a lot of Stephen King film adaptations have been laughable abominations. Saying that their film is going to wind up like a Stephen King film would be good reason for most filmmakers to shudder in uncontrollable anxiety.

But even though we have to accommodate a Children of the Corn, we also get movies like The Green Mile, Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption. Those last two aren't even horror films at all. And in The Green Mile the "horror" element is closer to a quasi-religious mysticism.

The difference between these two classes of Stephen King films, between the beloved classics and piles of putrid excrement, centers, I believe, on the filmmakers' focus. When the horror elements alone in a Stephen King movie are highlighted, you get just another cheesey horror flick, where we the audience are supposed to be scared out of our wits by some form of supernatural hocus-pocus or another.

When the people these things are happening to are put front and center, then the movie has the potential to transcend genre and touch people with all sorts of divergent tastes. And that takes good, old-fashioned story-telling skills, the number-one skill being the understanding that just as every verb in a sentence has a subject, every story has a main character. Making that character live in his mind is the most important piece of preparation I believe a story-teller can undertake as he sets about his task.

To every rule, there is an exception: in the Stephen King movie The Shining the characters were less of a focus than the setting and circumstance: being locked through an entire winter in an empty, isolated hotel with at least one - and maybe several - malevolent spirits after you. But the filmmaker in this case was just as exceptional as the film - Stanley Kubrick, who was endowed with the gift of being able to see farther and more penetratingly than most other people. I believe that, like any legendary artist, he had insight into things that remain a mystery to the rest of us.

So that's what I'm aiming for: creating a world that's recognizable and engaging so that the more fantastic elements (which I love just as much as good story-telling) have the greatest impact, the greatest meaning.

In any case, a niche provides a toe-hold, and if a horror audience turns out to embrace The Tolltaker, then I'll use that as a way to build an audience into the more mainstream audience beyond.

As always, I need help spreading awareness, and the movie's Vimeo link, as far and wide as possible. I've used this line enough that I guess it's turned into a sort of catch phrase for this effort: spread the virus. There, I said it again. It feels good.

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