Movies, Monsters, and their Makers

Films have the ability to scare us senseless or kickstart our adrenaline in a single take. Even as the world continues to spin in a state of overwhelming uncertainty and the 24-hour news cycle is plenty scary enough, we still find ourselves turning to horror films for thrills and distractions at this time of year. This Halloween, we are reflecting on cinematic moments of a particularly scary and spooky nature that have left a significant impression on our collective conscience.

Horror and thriller films are unique in their ability to distort the “safe” and “normal” into something far more sinister. A balloon. A goat. A pair of scissors. The list goes on. In the spirit (!) of this holiday, we asked some of the SFFILM Makers community to weigh in on the spooky films that have made an impact on them and their work. Their responses were…a little scary.

KEISHA RAE WITHERSPOON & JASON FITZROY JEFFERS
SFFILM Westridge Grantees

FILM PICK: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb isn’t necessarily the first film anyone would think of as horror, but the harrowing events currently unfolding around us beg its reconsideration. The classic Cold War satire was already just as frightening as it was hilarious upon its release in 1964, depicting a nuclear holocaust barely two years after the very real Cuban Missile Crisis, but it takes on an strangely more ghastly vibe in the light of this confounding year: ineffectual, power-drunk, old white men leading the free world without input from anyone else? Idiotic, labyrinthine conspiracy theories about bodily fluids? The apocalypse itself? Both 2020 and Strangelove have them in spades.

It’s already one of the most praised and written-about films in history, but it’s still easy to overlook how it blends cinematic approaches that shouldn’t work together — documentary-like depictions of Americans at war with each other brush up against bathroom humor and sexual innuendo run amok — without careening into unwatchability. The result is quite the opposite: a masterwork that simultaneously captures the sheer absurdity and absolute horror of modern existence. There’s really nothing else like it, and it takes on new meaning with each passing year. Even if you’ve seen the film a thousand times, it’s worth pulling it up right now, right this second, to watch the scenes of Sterling Hayden’s Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper — lit in chiaroscuro, an uncomfortable close-up just under the face — as he sinks deeper into madness, spewing his crackpot ideas that feverishly beckon nothing less than the end of the world. Familiar much? Watching those scenes again now, in the heat of election season and a spiralling pandemic, Dr. Strangelove suddenly doesn’t seem like satire at all. It’s nothing less than an accurate reflection and the shit is terrifying.

Our work tends to dive into the barely-investigated corners of modern existence — particularly in the lives of African diasporic people — which seem implausible, too odd to be true. Dr. Strangelove takes a very real possibility — that the people who run the world are just as likely to run the world into the ground — and moves it out of our peripheral vision, inviting us to consider its likelihood, no matter how absurd it may seem. This approach seamlessly weaves social commentary into a compelling story without ever once becoming sanctimonious, leaving the audience both thoroughly entertained and walking out of the theater with probing questions and strange new emotional frequencies that their daily lives often leave them too distracted to even ask or feel.

We especially enjoy horror films that provide chair-wetting scares along with sly commentary on our humanity. Consider George A. Romero’s Living Dead movies, for example, weighing in on everything from the social upheaval of 1968 to crass consumerism at the dawn of the 80s. Or David Cronenberg’s The Fly, steeped in blood-curdling body horror unleashed as a result of scientific “progress.” Some of the best horror tells us a great deal about ourselves, the stuff we’re often too afraid to look at.

We’ve all had an exceptionally turbulent and unsettling year, one that still hasn’t ended and that will certainly affect us in ways we can’t anticipate just yet. It makes you wonder what kind of horror films will emerge from our collective unconscious after it’s silently churned through all this insanity. We can’t wait to see them when the time is right, for as scary as they may be, they might just help us process all we’ve been through.

Keisha Rae Witherspoon is a Miami-born filmmaker. Her work is driven by science and speculative fiction, with aims to create works that reveal the nuances of diasporic folks. Her most recent short film T screened at Sundance 2020 and went on to win the Golden Bear at Berlinale. She is one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film 2020”, and co-founder and creative director of Third Horizon, a Caribbean collective that also hosts an annual film festival in her hometown. It was named one of the “25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World” by MovieMaker in 2019.

Jason Fitzroy Jeffers is a filmmaker and journalist from Barbados whose work focuses on giving voice to the often-marginalized stories of the tropics. As a journalist, his writing and directorial work has appeared in the Miami Herald and American Way and on The Intercept. As a filmmaker, he has produced award-winning shorts such as Papa Machete (2014) that have screened at film festivals such as Sundance, BlackStar, TIFF, and more. The most recent, T, was the 2020 winner of the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at Berlinale. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of the Caribbean filmmaking collective Third Horizon, which stages the annual Third Horizon Film Festival in Miami, a showcase of cinema from the Caribbean, its diaspora, and other underrepresented spaces in the Global South.

LACI DENT
SFFILM Westridge Grantee

FILM PICK: Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In, the original Swedish horror/drama, made an indelible impression on me when I first saw it. It’s one of the films that really hooked me and got me interested in a career in filmmaking. It also sparked my love for genre. There are a lot of impactful elements within the film but I think the main one is it’s boldness. It does a great job of painting a complicated portrait of a girl monster who is much more than her story function as a vampire. It’s a film that goes beyond the mythology and really hits at deeper darker themes of loneliness, isolation and what it ultimately means to be a human being on this planet. The style of the film really mirrors these themes most beautifully. The pacing is super slow and unnerving. The color palette is a perfect melding of cool tones and darkness.

Ultimately, I appreciated that this is a film about the complications of girlhood. I think the struggles that the girl vampire Eli goes through is a strikingly impressive metaphor for coming of age as a girl in a world that doesn’t really belong to you. A world that hasn’t yet learned how to work you into the foundation of its core values — which is horrifying! I think that the filmmakers really understood horror’s potential to make such social commentary and they did so masterfully.

Let the Right One In has influenced my current work in many ways. I’m really fascinated by the idea of girl monsters and feel like I was inspired to write my own after reflecting on my experience watching the film. In my opinion, there are many parallels between Black girlhood and the complicated position that Eli finds herself in. This really informed my work as I began to think about the larger metaphors that are present in the coming-of-age story of young black girls growing up in southern Louisiana where I’m from. Moreover, Let the Right One In is a great example of horror’s potential to connect audiences on a deeper level and bring awareness to larger socio-political implications. Let the Right One In does all of these very cool things while still managing to excite and horrify through it’s genre tenets. It effectively “says something,” but the statement it makes doesn’t pull you out of the shockingly gory story for one second. It’s a balance that I’m currently working to master in my own storytelling.

I think what’s at the heart of the horror/thriller genre and what’s been there consistently through time is experimentation. Many storytellers working in the field have managed to convey so many fascinating ideas and metaphors. I don’t think that this potential will ever go away and it’s what continues to excite each new generation. I’m excited for the future of women in horror as both directors and writers. In the last decade we’ve seen a renaissance of female horror filmmakers entering the conversation and that’s really exciting to me.

With this being said, I think that we’re also expanding upon the tried and true “final girl” narrative in exciting ways and opening the door for even more fascinating connections in horror — ideas that are meant to both connect and thrill. This is being done across the board by male and female directors alike. We are seeing how socio-political themes can be delved into given the wave of exciting work by new horror filmmakers and how our collective histories can be explored. At the end of the day, what’s being conveyed is that you can really just do what you want. While I do enjoy a lot of personal, meaningful horror, I’m also a huge fan of the stuff that’s not that — horror films that are just made for the sake of fun.

Laci Dent is an award winning filmmaker, writer, and production designer from New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a storyteller who builds atmospheric worlds through her passion for genre fare and dark, probing narratives. She received an MFA in Directing & Production from the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television in 2018. While at UCLA she received the Lew Wasserman Production Award and the Gina Prince Bythewood/Mara Brock Akil Four Sisters Scholarship for her achievements in screenplay writing. She also became a semi-finalist in the 2018 Disney/ABC Writing Program with her sci-fi/thriller teleplay Black Gods. Upon graduating from UCLA, she founded the genre-driven production company Nite Cloud Films. In 2019, her short film Into the Night received grants from The Future of Film is Female and the Panavision Filmmakers Program. She is currently at work developing her debut feature film project, a horror drama film project entitled The Girl. The project received a SFFILM Westridge Grant 2020 and support from The Black List and Women in Film LA as a participant in their Writer’s Residency 2020. The Girl was subsequently featured and covered in the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline, and IFP’s 2020 Project Forum as a narrative feature selection.

PETE LEE
SFFILM Rainin Grantee

FILM PICK: Mister Vampire/ 殭屍先生

I was five years old when my four-year-old best friend barged into my living room and asked if I wanted to watch Stop Breathing for a Minute that night. Stop Breathing for a Minute / 暫時停止呼吸 was a supernatural kung-fu movie about a no-nonsense exorcist — Uncle Nine, aka Priest Unibrow — who defended his tiny village against a series of menacing corpses and heartbroken ghosts in about a dozen movies over the next decade, all the while keeping his temple full of horny disciples out of trouble. For five-year-old Pete Lee, this film was a Big Deal, because 1) every child in my kindergarten was hopping around like reanimated corpses (according to the lore, corpses that have undergone rigor mortis cannot move around easily, so they must hop to catch their prey), and 2) my parents were on their way toward becoming missionaries, and anything that dealt with the occult was banned in our household.

To be a Christian on our cozy little island of Taiwan in the 80s was to be a tiny (but well-funded) group constantly losing fellow faithfuls to Buddha, local gods, rising cults, or <gasp> atheism. Spiritual warfare, according to my parents, was constant and vivid. My meek father rarely raised his voice to people not named Pete Lee — unless you were possessed. Exorcism was colorful and exhausting and life-affirming, like an anime battle. The occult was taken very seriously in the Lee household. Had they known Stop Breathing for a Minute was really Mister Vampire or 殭屍先生 (which literally translates to “Mister Hopping Corpses”), they would’ve whooped my ass and shown up to my neighbor’s house with scriptures and fruit baskets to have a word about The Word with them.

Instead, some genius distributor re-titled the film after one of the memorable scenes — in which Uncle Eight and his disciple had to hold their breaths to avoid the sightless corpses from detecting them. It was a thing Taiwanese distributors would frequently do to Hong Kong movies — sometimes for political reasons (those were the final days of a fascist regime), and sometimes just marketing one-upsmanship — either way, that lone decision changed my life.

The low-budget Mister Vampire was directed by a young man named Ricky Lau, and starred a bunch of stunt dudes who spent their whole career getting their asses kicked first by Bruce Lee, then Jackie Chan. The film blew up, spawned countless knock-offs, sequels, series, and even video games. It went on to re-shape Asian cinema for decades to come. Ricky Lau took stories told to him by his exorcist uncle and injected slapstick gallows humor to them, with impressive practical effects. The formula would later propel Hong Kong cinema into its golden age — where they projected their own anxieties on the cusp of a new regime onto characters also facing giant historical rifts 100 years before them, all the while pushing insane stunts, groundbreaking effects, and pitch-black comedy to new heights. Basically, imagine if one tiny city, uncertain of its fate, produced twenty Sam Raimis within the span of five years.

Just as all of that was getting real good, my family moved to the States. It was pretty painful to have to go from Mister Vampire to Spooky Encounters II to Stephen Chow movies to Demolition Man. That complete void of fun kinetic stories, paired with the complete absence of seeing anyone even remotely close to resembling me, led me to try my hand at filmmaking.

So now, 30 some odd years later, just as we are once again uncertain of our fates — we are beginning to see filmmakers telling intensely personal stories via the genre films that they grew up watching. For me, it seems like the perfect time to reanimate a hopping corpse or two.

Pete Lee is a Taiwanese-born filmmaker and photographer based in San Francisco who is perhaps best known for his elaborate dumpling parties, kung fu movie screenings, and hatred of predatory landlords.

SONTENISH MYERS
SFFILM Rainin Grantee

FILM PICK: Interview with the Vampire

There is ceremony in watching movies with my dad. The excitement of agreeing on what to watch with him has been the same since I was a kid. Making popcorn in a big stainless steel pot. Learning how to properly toss the popcorn, evenly distributing the butter and salt just right. We’d watch films of all genres, but the most exciting nights were when we watched “a scary movie.” The nights my mom wasn’t home and we’d mischievously watch films that explored much darker and more gruesome worlds.

I remember watching Interview with the Vampire (1994), and even as a kid being struck by how character-driven it was. The brilliant performances made the characters feel tactile, as they grappled with their vampiric existence. I remember the “forever young” sequence with Kirsten Dunst. When she hides the rotting body of a grown woman out of admiration and envy — wondering why her adolescent body does not develop like this woman’s. We watch her spiral as she attempts to cut off her own hair, and looks in the mirror in horror as it grows back again and again — that sequence never left me. It was a fascinating coming-of-age dilemma. A coming-of-age that would physically never arrive for her. And then a few years later, I saw Blade (1998) and realized, “Oh! This world includes me too!” While nothing beats Wesley Snipes’ magnetism, there was a social hierarchy and fabric embedded in the movie I wanted to see more of.

Now that I think about it, what my feature screenplay Stampede has in common with Interview is this hybrid of genre and period. But I wanted to take this character-driven hybrid and ask my own questions about power and powerlessness in the plantation era. And to completely center women whilst asking those questions. The performances and characters in Interview with the Vampire were so clear and tangible. And it makes me wonder what a film like Interview would be like if it centered on Black women characters? What does immortality mean to a Black woman during a time where Black Death and violence against the Black body was a norm? (And am I referring to the past or present when I ask that question?)

I’m honestly still developing my appreciation for the horror/thriller genre, and educating myself on horror classics, but I think there is so much to extract from them and keep with us. Like this moment in Blacula:

Willis looks in the mirror and doesn’t find his own reflection.

WILLIS
What’s goin on man? I can’t see myself!

BLACULA
I’m afraid that’s one of the misfortunes of the cursed.

WILLIS
This really ain’t hip man. A man has got to see his face!

I want everything under the sun for the future of horror. What makes horror a valid genre is that we all know fear — but let’s not pretend that we’re all afraid of the same things. There’s so much to draw from narratively; so much more is possible than in mainstream filmmaking. I don’t mean that every horror film should be jam-packed with a message, but whether identity (ethnicity, class, ability, etc.) is incidental or intentional — it rejuvenates the genre in a way that excites me.

I felt that way when I saw The Girl with All the Gifts (directed by Colm McCarthy). Which is really a straightforward zombie movie, but with a young Black girl protagonist named Melanie who gives a captivating performance. And I felt that way more recently when I saw Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, where a zombie virus dominates the Earth, and the only people immune to it are indigenous populations. I’m here for both of these films, and everything that can exist in between.

We all know fear, and I love how horror transports the viewer into the survival journey of the protagonist. I’d like to think that we as a society have become more empowered and have more sophisticated views of our world, and can make more mirrors in the horror and genre movies we make.

Sontenish Myers is a Jamaican-American writer-director based in Harlem, NY. She is a graduate of NYU’s Graduate Film program where she’s now an adjunct professor. In her work, racial identity, womanhood, power dynamics, and the heroic journey are often explored. She is particularly interested in doing so across genres, from drama, science fiction, fantasy, to dark comedy. Her short film Cross My Heart won the Alexis Award for Best Emerging Student Filmmaker at Palm Springs International Shortfest and the Vimeo Staff Pick Award at Hamptons International Film Festival for its “outstanding performances from its two young leads and a nuanced directorial approach.” Myers is developing her first feature film, Stampede, which was accepted into the 2019 HIFF Screenwriting Lab, Film Independent Screenwriting Lab, and IFP Week 2019. It is also a selected script on the Black List, and a recipient of the SFFILM Rainin Grant and Tribeca All Access Grant.

CEYLAN ÖZGÜN ÖZÇELIK
SFFILM Rainin Grantee

FILM PICK: Carrie

What impresses me most about Carrie, a beautifully disturbing coming-of-age film, is that the titular character doesn’t let anyone shut her down emotionally, despite all the suffering they’ve caused her. On the contrary, she unleashes her power on everyone who traumatized her. In that sense, the prom scene is one of the most iconic and sinister finales in genre history.

As a brutal scare fest that has a strong influence on the horror genre particularly in its themes of emotional abuse, high school cruelty, and teen angst, Carrie is among the few horror films to earn Academy awards recognition as well. From the very first shower scene to the blood-soaked ending, Carrie is not just another female-led revenge movie but a tragic and dark growing-up tale. The anger inside that character influenced me to build a memorable finale in my short fiction film 13+, where a little girl awakens her magic and destroys “hell” to build her very own “heaven” instead. Just like what’s said in the logline of Carrie: “If only they knew she had the power.”

Additionally, Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922), and queer, avant-garde pioneer filmmaker Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet / The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) are two of the boldest silent horror films to me. Both were and still are very provocative examples of organic terror. As the first feminist film in history, The Smiling Madame Beudet features a woman trapped in her marriage who dreams of killing her abusive husband.

As fear is the primary element in the horror/thriller genre, the films that leave a mark through their social relevance are the films that grab the audience’s attention by making them step into primordial archetypes buried in the subconscious and memories. The horror genre often represents society’s collective nightmares, past and the future, and raises questions about human behavior. It’s a common misconception that horror movies relax us by making us escape from reality. In fact, genre films are both about the “imaginary” and “unrealistic” yet with historical, social, and political facts interwoven. A good genre film is never conventional but controversial.

Ceylan Özgün Özçelik is an Istanbul-based filmmaker who studied law at Marmara University. Between 2003–2015, she produced and hosted culture-art shows for radio and television. After having made three short films, Ceylan’s debut feature as a writer and director, Inflame, had its world premiere at the 67th Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama Special section in 2017. Inflame won the Gamechanger Award at SXSW and has screened at a further 40 festivals worldwide. She is currently working on her new project Witch Trilogy, comprising a short fiction film, a documentary feature, and a fiction feature. She was an artist-in-residence at Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg in 2018.

The SFFILM Rainin Grant is now accepting applications for 2021 grants. For more information, visit sffilm.org/makers.

Presenter of the SFFILM Festival, SFFILM is a year-round nonprofit organization delivering screenings & events to 100,000+ film lovers annually. www.sffilm.org