Zombie Genocide for your Halloween viewing pleasure

Happy Halloween, folks. Here’s a little seasonal gift for you. Zombie Genocide is the first of six films that I made with Andrew Harrison (as Midnight Pictures) between the years 1991 and 2005.

It was hard making a film on a shoestring budget at a time when our home computers didn’t even possess hard drives. No digital gunshots, no digital blood spatters. Nothing was easy, not even the editing, which had to be done on the camcorder, shot for shot, as we filmed. But the joy of the work was its uniqueness; in the early 1990s almost no one was making movies as a hobby. We persevered for two and a half years to make this, and the result is a little homegrown horror flick that has a strange charm.

Ballycastle Film Festival

Ballycastle Film Festival 2008Andrew Harrison and I spent a very enjoyable weekend on the north coast of Ireland at Ballycastle Film Festival. On Saturday morning we hosted a 90-minute presentation on doing special effects with little or no money. Using a lot of audience participation, we demonstrated how to produce see-through ghosts, fake punches, meat cleavers in throats, etc.

Later in the day we held the premiere of our latest Ballycastle Film Club production, Do Not Disturb, which went down a treat with the audience. Various filmmakers arrived throughout the day, giving talks and showing movies. Later in the evening, most of the movies filmed by the club in 2007 were shown, in anticipation of a special award for the Best Film of the Year. Our movie from October, The Siren, won, to the delight of the cast members who showed up. Andrew and I were presented with a fantastic Oscar-style trophy, and all the kids who took part in the movie were presented with a framed certificate.

Here’s hoping Ballycastle Film Club goes from the strengh to strength in the future. It’s great that a little seaside town has this activity for young people.

Ballycastle Film Club presents Do Not Disturb

On 1 March Andrew Harrison and I headed up to the north coast to make our third film with Ballycastle Film Club. In preparation, my mind had drifted to a memorable short story that I read about ten years ago in the pages of small-press fiction zine RQC (short for Really Quite Cosmic). The story was “Student Seance” by James A. Tucker. I decided to write it as a script from the ground up, without re-reading the original. I wrestled a bit, as a Christian, with a subject matter; it’s difficult telling a fantasy story featuring an occult activity that you believe is genuinely dangerous, but I found a balance that I quite liked. Sadly, I’ve no way of notifying James that we’ve made a movie out of his story, or of even asking permission. But it’s a non-profit movie, and I hope he would be delighted by our choice rather than offended. Maybe he’ll discover the movie one of these days if he Googles his name.

At Ballycastle Film Club, I was delighted to see the return of some old faces, as well as some new ones. Do Not Disturb was premiered yesterday evening at Ballycastle Film Festival, and received a hearty round of applause. Hope you enjoy it, too.

The Ballycastle sea monster arrives

On Friday evening Andrew Harrison and I travelled up to Ballycastle for the premiere of The Siren, a movie we made a few weeks earlier with the town’s filmmaking club. We had a brilliant turnout – over fifty bums on seats. The film went down a treat, generating a lot of (intended) laughter, and a hearty round of applause. It’s a wonderful feeling to see people get so much enjoyment out of something you’ve toiled over. Philip Henry, the man who wrote the novel on which our movie is based, also attended the event. I’ve corresponded with Phil online for several years, and it was great to finally meet him.

Aside from a few pre-production shots, the whole movie was shot in one day over a mere five or six hours. Amazingly, it’s about thirteen minutes long. I hope you enjoy The Siren as much as our little gathering did …

Chapter 1 of 2:

Chapter 2 of 2:

The Ballycastle sea monster – on camera

Andrew Harrison and I spent Saturday up at the north coast, where our friend Harry Hamill runs Ballycastle Film Club. Nine kids, aged ten to fifteen, showed up, and we filmed a short monster movie that I had scripted earlier in the year: The Siren, loosely inspired by Philip Henry’s novel Mind’s Eye. It was a hard day’s work getting everything done on time, but it was a whole lot of fun – especially watching Emma drag Alex into the freezing cold ocean on his back. Such enthusiasm! We also had a chance to use some excellent cameras, supplied by the Film Club.

The photograph (kindly supplied by the Ballymoney Times, who showed up to cover the event) shows Harry, myself and Andrew, with Alex, Emma, Lee and Alanna. If you look closely, you’ll notice the grotesque fingers from Don’t Look in the Attic. Those are actually the legs from a life-size model kit of a facehugger from Alien!

Andrew and I will be editing the film over the next two weeks. It will be premiered at a Halloween festival in Ballycastle on Friday 2 November. Right after that, we’ll be sharing it online, of course.

Welcome to The Dead Club

Last weekend, Midnight Pictures was invited to travel up north to the seaside town of Ballycastle, to do a one-day filmmaking workshop with the town’s already established Film Club run by our friend Harry Hamill (who stars in several of our own films). Only two people showed up to take part (maybe due to the rain), which meant we couldn’t film our intended story. Nevertheless, Andrew Harrison and I didn’t let that dampen our enthusiasm. A quick scout around an adjacent ruined building got us thinking along post-apocalypse lines. It really was a fantastic location (as you’ll see). And what post-apocalyptic scenario did we choose? Do you really need to ask? Well, for the first time since 1993, Midnight Pictures returns to where it all began … zombies!

I’m quite proud of how this movie turned out. We managed to record a complete six-minute movie in the space of five hours, complete with zombie make-up and blood (courtesy of some art paint we found on the premises). I spent yesterday and today editing the movie, and it was a real joy seeing it come together. I was especially pleased with the climactic fight scene, which felt genuinely tense to watch.

Hope you enjoy The Dead Club

Saul’s Pupils causes offense at festival

Last Friday evening, Andrew and I were invited to participate in a Halloween Festitval at the seaside town of Ballycastle. The first evening consisted of a large-screen showing of our 2002 film, Saul’s Pupils, followed by a Q&A session. About 1000 leaflets had been distributed, promoting the event. We discovered that the printing company had made a serious blunder on the leaflet. Instead of writing “18+”, they wrote “12+”. Now, anyone who has seen Saul’s Pupils will know that it’s not exactly what you’d call family friendly; it contains a lots of unnecessary cussing and lots of gore.

We had about twenty-five bums on seats, and several of them didn’t look a day over thirteen. Oh dear. Anyway, what could we do but get on with showing the film? Everything went well until about halfway through, when a woman in her forties suddenly got up and left. Ten minutes after that, a row of three girls in their late teens got up (right after the scene where Trent disposes of a body by cutting it up into smaller pieces). I was standing around at the back of the hall at the time, and one of the girls approached me on her way to the exit, saying, “This is definitely not for 12-year-olds.” I shrugged and said, “It wasn’t my decision.” Thankfully, the rest of the audience stayed put (including the youngsters, who appeared unfazed by the violence), and we received a hearty round of applause, and a few cheers, as the credits rolled.

I don’t feel particularly bad about the walk-out. Part of me is amazed, because it’s the sort of thing you expect from a big-budget movie like The Exorcist, not a shoe-string outfit like Midnight Pictures. The funny thing is, during the original premiere of Saul’s Pupils, there were about one hundred and fifty persons present, and nobody walked out. I guess Friday’s experience illustrates how important is it to tell your audience what to expect. “Contains graphic violence and bad language” is a pretty important piece of information to include on any advertising.

This has got me thinking about the issue of good and bad taste. As a Christian, you would expect me to take a fairly conservate view, but the truth is I struggle to make my mind up. Usually, I want to avoid anything gratuitous, because it’s hard for me to defend it, and these days I don’t think I’d want to make a film quite like Saul’s Pupils. However, I also think it’s important to show death as death (if it’s part of the story). Watering it down minimises how devastating it is. The violence of the likes of The A-Team – where bullets fly and nobody ever gets killed – is more questionable than the back of somebody’s head being blown off by a shotgun blast. Showing the latter to under 18s is regarded as questionable (even though it’s the truth), but nobody ever questions the dangerous subtext of The A-Team, which is aimed at children: “Shooting real guns never kills anybody.” The truth is, western civilisation has certain hang-ups. I find it interesting to watch films from other countries (especially Japan), because different cultures have different hang-ups … and different permissions. We’re sitting here in the west thinking that we have to be oh-so careful about this and that, when all we’re really sitting in is a culture trap. The most offensive scene in Saul’s Pupils, where a body gets dismembered, is pretty hard on the senses. And sure, it could have been cut, and maybe it should have been cut. But it actually has something to say: “Look, everybody. If you murder someone, this is what you have to go through to get rid of the evidence. It ain’t nice to watch, and it ain’t nice for the murderer, either.” Another point of possible offense in our film is that it’s women who get targeted for murder, not men. We could be accused of being mysogynistic, but Andy and I actually had an important discussion about this: if you were a man and you were planning to kill somebody – it doesn’t matter who – would you target a man or a woman? You’d choose a woman, because the kill would be easier (statistically, at least). And that’s the truth.

Then there’s that part of me that sometimes does want to include graphic violence, in special cases where the gag is just too good to pass up. In a (possibly) forthcoming film, Shadow of the Dead, we’ve got a scene where a zombie gets its head blown off with a shotgun in a totally original and shocking and hilarious context. Is this explosion of brain matter really necessary for the story? Nope. But it is a hoot? You betcha. I have to ask myself, is it right to turn grisly death into a source of humour? Is it a reflection of how messed up we are, that we laugh at it? Should I be trying to rise above this instinct? But then, in the interests of consistency, consider the school movie, Cat Trap (which you can download on the sidebar), a film that would never offend anyone. It finishes with a schoolboy being dragged off-camera by a panther and eaten. It might be non-gratuitous, but the event is the same kind. And clearly, it’s designed to make the viewer laugh. Why should the same idea – laughing at a grisly death – be offensive in one context and not another. When you break it right down, it’s simply a matter of western civilization having a hang-up about gore.

You know, when all’s said and done, I think the best advice to myself is “Lighten up, Sloan.” There’s nothing morally upright about been squeamish to gore. In fact, if surgeons had that trait, a lot of people in their care would die. With Don’t Look in the Attic, Midnight Pictures has moved away from gory material for the time being. But if we ever make Shadow of the Dead, it’ll be impossible to stay away from it. Can you imagine a zombie film without gore? Flesh-eaters without the flesh-eating – that would be very odd.

Of course, I’ve seen movies that are simply about gore and nothing else. Good story-telling is sacrificed, and a collection of brutal set-pieces are strung together and called a movie. I have no respect for this kind of film. I guess my take on the whole thing is that I want to tell entertaining stories that surprise the viewer/reader. And if those stories happen to have brutal elements, so be it. The only way to please everybody would be to rip the heart and soul out of everything you come up with.

I should say that I am not guilty of the honour of writing Saul’s Pupils. That was one sick and twisted individual called Glenn Poole. 😉

Plotting a movie: Two heads are better than one, especially when you’re spooked

Something amazing happened on Sunday evening. Andy was at my house. We were in the living room chatting, while the sun was going down. When it was dark, Andy looked out of the window and said, “There’s your mate.” (This was in reference to Arnie, whom I was expecting to call.) When I looked out of the window, I couldn’t see Arnie’s car in the driveway, which was odd because he never leaves it out on the street. I said, “There’s no one there.” Andy replied, “I could swear I saw somebody walking down your driveway.”

Okay, now I was a little unnerved. But, being a big manly man, I quickly waved off the irrational notion of someone skulking around my property in the dark. Andy reckoned he probably misjudged what he had seen at the top of my driveway; somebody was probably walking past the driveway, not into. But it bugged me that he had to use the word “probably.”

I received a text from Arnie to say he couldn’t make it, so Andy and I got on with our chat. After a bit, he said, “Darryl, would you mind closing the blinds. I hate the thought of glancing out of the window and seeing somebody staring back at me.” I did so.

There was a spooky mood in the air now. We ended up talking about the trapdoor in my hallway floor (something I’ve mentioned previously in the context of sewer manholes). I said, “Imagine you get up in the middle of the night to take a pee, and you walk along the hallway in the dark, unable to see much of anything. And when your foot comes down on the trapdoor, you’re surprised to discover that it’s sitting up at an angle, as if someone or something is peering out. The weight of your foot closes the trapdoor, and you’re left wondering: What the hell is underneath me? It starts banging the door, but is unable to shift your weight. But what can you do? You’re all alone in the house and you can’t take another single step.”

Andy and I started bouncing ideas off each other for where the story could go next. A couple of hours later, we had a pretty neat short film all figured out. We have no definite plans to make it, but we’re excited. Comparisons are unavoidable with the theme of our previous film Don’t Look in the Attic, but this one goes in a different direction (and we’d never call Don’t Look in the Basement, you’ll be glad to know). I don’t want to say too much, beause I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I’m just trying to convey something of the magic that happens occasionally and unexpectedly when Andy and I get together. Two heads are most definitely better than one.

What’s interesting is that Andy would have went home two hours earlier, and the story would have remained undiscovered, if not for the fact that he happened to glance out of the window at a particular moment and spot somebody walking past my driveway whom he thought was walking in. Heck, never mind Andy; the existence of the story hinges every bit as much on the walking dude doing what he did at the exact moment that he did. It also depends on Arnie cancelling. Without all these factors, Andy and I wouldn’t have creeped ourselves out and started talking about trapdoors. It seems amazing to me how a terrific story can be born into the world hanging on such a thin thread.

P.S. If anybody is wondering what has become of The End of the World and Beyond, I’ve decided to abandon the enterprise. I need to concentrate on where my passions lie (i.e. writing and filmmaking), or I’ll end up spreading myself out too thin and getting nothing done. I am, however, committed to the idea of podcasting my fiction. Is There Anybody Out There? went down a treat and generated a lot more feedback than The End of the World and Beyond.