Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Digging Up The Dirt with KillDozer and Michael Ballif (The Witching Season, They Live Inside Us)

From time to time we all get lost in the "streaming maze" where every title just starts to melt together in a never ending loop of "what should I watch?!". One night in early October I was trapped in such a maze until one title complete with amazing poster art work stuck out and screamed WATCH ME!!!! I am  happy to say that I did. That title The Witching Season on Amazon Prime. A horror anthology show that was so fun and made with so much love that I had to dig up the dirt on how it came to be. 

KillDozer: What inspired you to bring The Witching Season to life? 

Michael Ballif: It really spawned from my love of anthology shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. Those were my first real introduction to the horror genre when I was a kid and they always stuck with me. I loved the idea of making my own version of something in a similar realm, though targeted more towards adults who grew up with those shows. I also felt like creating a series would be a great opportunity to work with new people. I've been lucky to have made some lasting relationships from it.

KD: The Witching Season is obviously a labor of love. What did it take to get funding and bring it to the screen?

Michael: What little we had to work with was all self-financed, but it was practically a zero budget production. Most everyone who worked on the project did so for the experience, I think. And although the budget was small, we wanted to make sure we didn't cut any corners and made this thing look as good as it possibly could. The series' existence is a testament to the passion and love everyone involved dedicated to make it happen. 

KD: Did you have all the episodes written before you started production? Was this always meant to be a series?

Michael: It was always intended to be a series but I only had the first episode written and ready to go initially. I knew I wanted it to be a variety show of horror, sprawling various sub-genres from one episode to another. I felt like a slasher film would be a good way to start things off, because traditionally they are somewhat straight forward in terms of story and suspense. Of course, "Killer on the Loose" has its own unique Witching Season twist, which we tried to create for every episode. It ended up being a great template to set the tone of what future episodes should look and feel like. 

KD: Was it an obvious choice to place the series during Halloween or did you ever question how you would set the stage for The Witching Season?

Michael: It was the other half the equation, really. When I decided on doing an anthology I knew there needed to be something unique about it. I fell in love with the idea of capturing stories that happen during the "Witching Season", similar to how Tales From The Darkside would tell stories about the darker side of life. I am also fascinated by the Halloween season and (attempting) to capture the aesthetic that comes along with it. 

KD: I've seen the series described as "fueled by nostalgia", do you think this is a fair description? 

Michael: It's definitely intended to be a bit of a "throwback" style series. Something you might have found on TV in the 80's or 90's. Of course that's all the rage now with shows like Stranger Things, but at the time we started making TWS it felt pretty unique. Not that I'm complaining; I love Stranger Things, and I think it's cool that more and more stuff like this is getting made. 

KD: How did you go about choosing writers for the series? Was there anyone you reached out to that was unable to work on The Witching Season?

Michael: Originally my plan was to write and direct every episode. But as post production on the pilot began taking much longer than I had anticipated, I asked James Morris (who plays the "masked killer" character in the first episode) if he would be interested in writing the script for episode two. That way he could be writing while I was finishing up the edit. He took a short story I had written about a killer rabbit and adapted it into a screenplay. When I read the script I genuinely loved it but was so clearly in James' voice that I felt like it made the most sense for him to direct it himself. Fortunately he agreed and ended up writing the screenplay for and directing episodes three and five after that, and I took on the rest. 

KD: Do you have any personal favorites amongst the episodes?

Michael: I ended up doing the cinematography for the entire series, but "Princess" was the first episode that I shot and didn't direct myself. It was also the first project of this scale that I had ever worked on in this way, and I think for that reason it stands out the most. As filmmakers, we tend to get so close to the things we make that we can't really see them the way an audience does anymore. It's the one episode I can look at the most objectively, so I enjoy watching it. Plus I think it came together really well. James and the cast did an excellent job. 

KD: What is casting like on an independent project like this? 

Michael: We shot in our home state of Utah and utilized a number of local Facebook groups to set up auditions. That was one of the best ways to find new people. But we also worked with actors who we had either connected with or worked with in the past. We even had actors reach out to us because they heard about the project and wanted to be a part of what we were doing. There are a lot of talented people in the area that we've been fortunate enough to work with.

KD: As far as special effects go, did you know what you wanted to go with in terms of digital vs. practical? Were you held back by your budget or does a small budget inspire creativity? 

Michael: I think you're absolutely right about that. I find that having a smaller box to work within forces you to be more creative. I tend to think that if you can do an effect practically, in camera, that's usually the best way to go. But sometimes pairing a practical effect with some digital enhancement can yield some fantastic results too. The best example of this is in "Not Alone" where the alien creature appears in the corner of the room. For that effect we simply had our actor wearing a pure black spandex suite. He also wore long paper fingers. You know the kind you'd fold up in elementary school? Like that. But we spray painted them black. The effect of the creature only worked when I went into After Effects and darkened the corner of the room so you could barely see what it was in the corner. If you were to look at the raw footage you would laugh at how ridiculous it looked. 

KD: Has the series opened up the door for future projects? 

Michael: It definitely has. It allowed us to build up a small following of friends, fans, and family who ultimately helped us finance our first low budget feature film, which is in production right now. Just about everyone involved in The Witching Season is creatively involved in the making of the film in some way.

KD: What has been your experience with genre fans watching the show? Have you ever screened anything from The Witching Season in front of a theatre crowd?

Michael: From what I've seen, it seems like most die-hard horror fans understand what we were trying to do with it. It's been really cool to see people react to a project that felt so weirdly personal to me. I honestly didn't know if people would be into it or not, especially the Halloween element. But people seem to enjoy it. 

We submitted every episode to a number of different film festivals around the world and have been fortunate enough to attend a few of those screenings. One of the most notable was the Utah Film Festival in 2018 where "They Live Inside Us" screened for a packed crowd. It was awarded "Best Utah Made Film" at the festival, going up against even some big budget feature films. That was a big moment for me. 

KD:  How were you able to get The Witching Season on Amazon? Are you happy with that decision?

Michael: Amazon launched their Video Direct feature a while back, which allows independent filmmakers to release content to the site directly. It's a pretty amazing resource to have. I compare it to a filmmaker in the 90's having the ability to walk into a video store and place their film on the shelf to be rented to the public. It's pretty unheard of and offers the ability to tap into a huge marketplace filmmakers otherwise would need to jump through many, many hoops to get into. It's been great and has really helped us get the series seen by as many eyeballs as possible. 

KD: What can fans expect next? Where can we go to follow your work and stay up to date?

Michael: I'm wrapping up production on my first feature-film right now, which is called They Live Inside Us. It is an adaptation of the fourth episode of The Witching Season taking the same concept of the short -- about a writer who goes to a notoriously haunted house to find inspiration for his next project -- but expands upon many of the ideas. It takes everything I love about horror and Halloween and compiles it into a movie that I think genre fans are going to love. I am hoping for the film to be released at some point towards the end of the year. I am also planning to do a second season of TWS at some point in the near future, once this feature is complete.

You can stay up to date with progress on that and other projects through my production company Witching Season Films.

KD: If you could combine The Witching Season universe with any other film universe what would it be and why?

Michael: I'd love to make a Goosebumps film set around Halloween time, but for adults. Any takers?

KD: If you could erase any of the recent horror remakes from history which would it be?

Michael: I don't like to hate on remakes, but I wish the recent IT remake was scarier than it was. I enjoyed many parts about it, but it just wasn't scary and the opportunity was there. 

KD: What films have you seen in the last 2 years that have inspired you?

Michael: Hereditary has been majorly inspiring to me. I love that movie. Also, Justin Seaman's The Barn is amazing.

KD: What is your favorite piece of film memorabilia?  

Michael: I wish I had some cool film memorabilia but I really don't. The holy grail would be to own an original screen-used Haunted Mask from the 90's Goosebumps TV series. That'd be rad.

Check out The Witching Season streaming on Amazon today!


Friday, October 18, 2019

Listener Sam Reviews: Eli

Before I watched Eli, I went through the cast and crew, and its director, CiarĂ¡n Foy, stood out. He has a unique name, but I couldn’t recall quite where I’d seen it. It turns out, he directed a film from 2012 called Citadel that really stuck with me. It’s about a man whose family is repeatedly brutalized by a pack of feral children. It’s an excellent and oft-overlooked film that at its best feels like a feature-film version of Chris Cunningham’s "Come To Daddy" music video, in the best, most terrifying way.

Foy is also responsible for a made-for-TV flick called The Wilding (which I haven’t seen), and 2015’s Sinister 2, which is a lousy follow-up, but not necessarily poorly directed. Both films heavily feature child-based horror. Seeing that Foy had a track record for making films about creepy kids, and knowing the quality job he did on Citadel, I was excited to see what he could do with Eli

Eli revolves around the titular character, a kid who’s allergic to everything -- a bubble boy -- who when inside, is relegated to a plastic enclosure, and who has to wear a hazmat suit when outside. His parents take him to a special care facility that promises to cure his illness. While there, he’s haunted by ghosts.

From the get-go, Eli presents itself a strange genre mash-up. It has elements of medical, supernatural, haunted house, and creepy-kid horror combined in a way that made me immediately nervous. “How the hell are they going to make this work?” I thought as I passed through the first act. They introduced so much that it seemed impossible to do so and still make a coherent film. Fortunately, Eli is largely successful in this venture, and while the multifarious plot threads are still messy, it ties them up in a satisfying, if campy, way.

The film, in essence, is a mystery. It presents us and Eli (Charlie Shotwell), the titular protagonist, with the task of unraveling just what his illness is. In doing so, the film presents a number of possibilities, clues, and suspects. 

Eli’s father (Max Martini) seems to have anger issues and frequently low-key accuses his wife (Kelly Reilly) of infidelity. The wife and mother, on the other hand, also seems profoundly off, and leads us to think that Eli could be a victim of Munchausen-by-proxy. The doctor they take him to (Lili Taylor) is almost a caricature of a sadistic doctor. He makes a creepy friend at the facility, who might be up to no good. It’s even ambiguous as to whether the ghosts are trying to help or hurt him…

...And we get that all in the first fifteen-or-so minutes. 

Like I said, it’s a lot.

And yet somehow, they manage to pull it off. I’m inclined to credit the writers for this success. Eli is written by Ian Goldberg & Richard Naing, the writing team behind The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and David Chirchirillo, probably best known for 2013’s Cheap Thrills. They manage to somehow cram a ton of different ideas into a singular vision, which ties up in a clever (and yes, maybe a little ridiculous) way that filled me with horror-lover glee.

Within this plot, we get an interesting take on horror. Eli primarily delivers its scares in the form of brutal medical procedures inflicted on a child. Eli has his bones and brain drilled while fully awake and minimally anesthetized, and these sequences are harrowing and uncomfortable. They reminded me of a joke that an old bitter doctor once told me:

At the procedure’s inception, bone-marrow transplants had an extremely high mortality rate and were extremely painful for the patient. -- The joke: Three patients have leukemia and will die without a bone marrow transplant.

The first patient takes their chances and accepts the procedure but dies in agony as the doctors drill into his bones to extract the marrow.

The second patient, still thinking they have a chance, also opts for a bone marrow transplant. They survive the procedure but die in agony due to complications.

The final patient, having seen how the other patients suffered, opts to die instead.

His doctor said, “Excellent. You’ll die, but first, let’s give you a bone marrow transplant!”

I’m not sure it’s actually funny.

Nevertheless, some of the most affecting moments are when the doctors drill into Eli’s femur to inject him directly in the bone marrow. I found myself gritting my teeth and cringing for the entirety of the sequence. The fact that it was inflicted on a child only helped serve its grotesque purpose.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many other scares. The ghost sequences attempt jump scares, but none of them landed for me, and they never seemed to build enough tension to get a great release. I may have winced once or twice, but I never found myself particularly scared, just momentarily startled. This, however, might be a problem with the medium more than the film itself. Being a direct-to Netflix release, I watched this on my home theater, and though I was watching in the dark on a decently large screen with an adequate sound system, I feel like scares just don’t land as well at home as they would have in a theater.

Anyway, beyond the cleverly crafted plot and the medical trauma, the element of Eli that most impressed me was the overall production design. The facility where the film is set is half haunted mansion and half medical facility. The production design and set decoration make it feel simultaneously sterile and barren, and decrepit and dusty. 

Certain elements, such as the airlock that the characters must use to enter and exit the facility, feel like sci-fi set pieces, and have unique designs that tie cleverly into the film's twisty plot. Other sets, like the dining room and bedrooms, are almost surreal in their sparseness. A table and chairs or a bed, nightstand, and cabinet, with virtually nothing else to accompany them. 

The choices are bold, unique, and help immerse us in the world of Eli. This feels particularly important because the setup, at times, feels downright ridiculous. Even though severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) is a real thing that, once-upon-a-time, created a real need for children to live in a bubble, the idea still seems absurd on screen. Because of this, it would be easy for the film to fall into absurdity and surrealism, and at times it skirts the edges but ultimately manages to stay the course.

The final touch that helps solidify Eli’s tight production design is the slick, interesting palette. The house and medical staff therein are drenched in teal, blue, indigo, and violet. Throughout most of the films, this palette is extremely cohesive, and we see little more than highlights in other colors. This helps gloss over some questionable CGI that at times is noticeable, but never really took me out of the film. In fact, there are some computer-generated crane flies that looked great when they showed up.

With regard to the visuals, I also loved the exteriors at the beginning of the film. It features beautiful drone shots of Louisiana. Lush wastelands of overgrown swamps, untended and barren fields, and marshy wetlands, all devoid of humanity, save for our lead family’s car. There’s even a scene at a grimy motel that, while not particularly plot-relevant, gives us a gorgeous sense of the suburban decay that the characters live in.

Finally, the film has some really unique effects work when dealing with the ghosts. They spend a lot of time communicating via fogged/steamed-over glass and mirrors, and the filmmakers use this to deliver some unique scares. In one scene that really stood out, Eli sees a ghost in the fogged section of a mirror, wipes it, and the ghost vanishes. I also liked how the ghosts move at times, vanishing and appearing extremely suddenly and unpredictably. 

Eli is not without its flaws, however, and the performances in particular really fall flat. Maybe I’m being too harsh a critic, but Hereditary really set a new bar for parental grief performances, and the parents in Eli don’t quite surpass it. A lot of the emotion is flatly delivered, and even though it helps serve the film’s many mysteries, it’s too rigid to feel anything other than surreal. 

The best performance by far comes from Charlie Shotwell as Eli, who shows an impressive range of acting skills, and does an especially convincing job at being furious when no one believes that he’s seeing ghosts. Sadie Sink also does a commendable job as Haley, though her role is small. Combined with her performance in seasons 2 and 3 of Stranger Things, she is proving to be an impressive young actress.

I also alluded to some questionable CG. In particular, the exteriors of the house are downright bad. Most of them are unnecessary and only serve to remind us that the film was probably shot on a sound stage on pre-constructed sets. Now, I could be wrong, and these shots may not be CG, but if I'm right, it’s almost worse and would imply some pretty poor choices as to how the shots were used and color-corrected. 

I don’t want to linger on the ending too much, though I think it bears a bit more mention. It just tickled me pink how bonkers it was, and it manages to tie up a ton of loose ends. There’s almost undoubtedly a few plot holes leftover, but I just don’t care. I watch movies to have fun, and I got some genuine goddamn fun from Eli’s finale. You’ll understand when you see it.

Netflix’s horror line up has had its share of ups and downs. They did a great job with Gerald’s Game, The Ritual, and Apostle, but other films like The Perfection, Velvet Buzzsaw, and The Silence have really fallen short. While not the best they’ve released, Eli falls into the better half of Netflix’s horror releases and is a great addition to this year’s slate of Halloween releases.

Eli is available on Netflix as of October 18th, 2019

-Listener Sam

Monday, October 7, 2019

Listener Sam Reviews: Along Came the Devil 2

In preparation of watching this, I caught the first one, which was a surprisingly ambitious little film about a girl with an abusive past who finds herself tormented and eventually possessed by a demon, culminating in an exorcism. It has some narrative and pacing problems, but I was impressed by the lighting and cinematography, some of the scares are well-delivered, and while the performances are unbalanced, the leads are good enough to carry the film along.

All that said, the lack of budget showed, and the film relied a little too much on exposition to drive the plot. As a writer myself, I understand how this can come about, it’s simply easier and cheaper to shoot conversations than it is to keep scares themselves coming throughout the film. Though it hurts the film, it’s hard for me to fault it too much. 

With that in mind, the director, Jason DeVan, showed a lot of potential and it left me interested in seeing what he could deliver with more experience and resources. Thus, I was excited to see what his followup had in store.

Along Came the Devil 2 (ACTD2, from now on) immediately shows improvement over the first, kicking off with a solid, The Changeling-inspired scare sequence. The quality of filmmaking is clearly higher than the first, due in part to more interesting cinematography from cinematographer Jay Ruggieri. The increase in camera movement and the higher-quality daytime exteriors really show, and the nighttime shots help deliver better scares.

ACTD2 also features a fantastic lead performance from Laura Wiggins (Rings, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase) as Jordan and excellent follow-up performances by Oscar-nominee Bruce Davison (X-Men, X2, Itsy Bitsy) as Reverend Michael and Mark Ashworth (The Magnificent Seven, Assassinaut) as Mark. It also features a fantastic performance from Cassius DeVan who is at his best as a creepy kid. Overall, these performances kick the film up a notch and help smooth out some rough patches that I’ll discuss in a little bit.

ACTD2 picks up where Along Came the Devil left off, as Jordan, the sister of Ashley (the predecessor’s lead), is called back to her dreary home town because of a mysterious phone call about the degrading mental state of her sister. 

When she arrives in town, however, her sister is nowhere to be found, but her estranged, abusive-but-now-reformed father is in town, and the Reverand knows something she doesn’t. We, of course, having just watched the original Along Came the Devil, know that her sister is possessed by a demon and locked up beneath the church.

This premise is both where ACTD2 succeeds over its predecessor, but also where it falters. The plot itself is far more interesting than the first. While the antagonist in the first is “The Devil” and his along-coming to do devilish things, ACTD2 has a much more human element, which is significantly more engaging. The main conflict, as best as I can tell, is Jordan’s struggle to figure out what happened to her sister.

Unfortunately, in many ways, ACTD2 suffers from the first movie. Knowing what happened to Ashley means that any potential sense of mystery is diminished, and we, the audience, view the film waiting for the protagonist to catch up with what we already know. In addition, Jordan never actually finds much out about her missing sister. This causes the second act to drag heavily. While she runs into plenty of dead ends in her search, Jordan never seems to find meaningful success, which makes it difficult to stay engaged, despite the quality of Wiggin’s aforementioned performance.

During the second act, I ended up having a lot of questions about the nature of the film itself. As it drags, it also follows Reverend Michael and Mark (Jordan’s Dad) as they go about their day-to-day.

During this time, it becomes unclear quite what this film is trying to say. Maybe I missed it, but I couldn’t find a theme other than “The devil is bad, folks” which isn’t quite serviceable in modern cinema. It was around this point where I started to wonder, “is this a faith film?”. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I began to ponder whether being a faith film makes it okay to have such a simplistic plot.

Obviously, in a faith-based horror film, the battle between good and evil almost always needs to be present to some degree. The Exorcist is the classic example, and this movie knows it and reminds us through constant references. The Conjuring and the rest of the Waniverse also fit the bill. In both cases, however, the battle of good versus evil is manifested in a few tangible, worldly forms, and lets us explore the human elements of horror. God and the Devil take a back seat to fear that all audiences can relate to.

For example, The Exorcist is really about a man’s faith being tested in the face of pure evil. Similarly, The Conjuring is about evil testing the bonds of a family. In both these examples, evil manifests as something other than the divine. In The Exorcist, it’s Regan and in The Conjuring, it’s a house. In ACTD2, throughout the second act, there is no human element to ground this struggle, and as there’s also no mystery, there’s just not much to it. I found myself waiting for how Jordan would fight the devil other than in the form of a futile search.

Around minute fifty, I found myself losing interest. We had no tangible devil, little-to-no conflict, and a protagonist that had seemingly nothing to do.

Then the third act started…

(Obligatory spoiler warning)

Here’s an excerpt from my notes, around minute 60 (excuse the handwriting):

At this point, I was really hoping something would emerge to introduce conflict, and holy crap did it deliver in spades. 

Until the third act kicks off, Jordan’s father had existed within the movie but hadn’t really done much other than act as a vessel for exposition. Just as the movie starts to flounder, Satan himself grants us a little miracle, when he possesses Mark and turns him into an awesome, despicable villain, effectively saving the film.

Let me lay it out beat-by-beat.

First, Mark starts drinking again, despite having gone sober following the dissolution of his family.

Second, Mark’s wife climbs into bed with him, unaware of his demonic eyes, razor-sharp teeth, and the knife clutched in his hand.

Third, Mark stabs his wife in the belly, killing her.

Fourth, Jordan walks in on Mark RAPING HIS DEAD WIFE’S CORPSE!

What the fuck is this movie?

Every preconceived notion I had about this film was instantly dispelled. I went from pondering the nature of faith films to wondering if faith films are allowed to depict necrophilia.

Jesus H. Christ.

What follows is an amazingly tense third act as Mark goes full Jack Torrance and chases Jordan and Xavier (who until now had been little but a creepy kid to help facilitate scares) around with an axe.

The remaining twenty-or-so minutes are tense and blood-drenched, shockingly so, given what had been depicted prior. It ends on an extremely exciting note, setting up for a sequel that I can only imagine would be completely bonkers.

Now, I’m not necessarily the kind of discerning viewer who needs an injection of necrophilia to make for a good horror movie. In fact, I tend to dislike movies that are overly cruel or mean-spirited. In ACTD2, however, it evokes such pure shock that I can’t help but respect it. The extreme twist this film takes really turns the film on its head and brings it from a mediocre-average demonic-possession flick to something truly special.

Is Along Came the Devil 2 a great movie? Not really. It still suffers its budget, and it’s hard to deny the dragging second act. That said, it’s definitely worth a watch. Jason DeVan is a talented filmmaker, and I suspect he’s a solid writer as well (don’t get me started on what low budget productions do to great screenplays). I’d love to see what he can do with a budget and maybe a little bit of producer oversight.

This is also a great vehicle for Laura Wiggins. I’d only been briefly introduced to the actress via Rakefet Abergel’s excellent short “Boo” (which is currently making the festival circuit. Keep an eye out for it and her future projects). As you’ll see in this film, she’s got a ton of talent and really helps carry the film with her passionate, convincing performance. Thankfully, if IMDb is correct, She’s lined up to feature in an impressive slate of films in the next few years.

If I had to make one suggestion before watching this, it’s to avoid the first. This film may be a tad more confusing because of it, but I think that by dodging it, you’ll be able to re-introduce some of the mystery into the second act. Then, you can check it out, as it functions well on its own.

Regardless, ACTD2 is an entertaining, surprising, and shocking film that’s definitely worth your time.

Along Came the Devil 2 will be available in select theatres and on VOD Friday October 11th.

-Listener Sam