The horror genre has long been a space for cultivating creativity and pushing boundaries — often early in a filmmaker’s career. George A. Romero’s first feature “Night of the Living Dead” kicked off the modern zombie film genre, Robin Hardy’s name became synonymous with his cult classic, “The Wicker Man,” Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez shook the film industry with their bare-bones found-footage-style film, “The Blair Witch Project” and Jordan Peele spoke to the horrors of racism with his groundbreaking “Get Out.” This summer, a new trio of directors who chose the horror genre for their first features hope to make an impact.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s “Censor” (now in theaters), which was a breakout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is about a by-the-book censor in 1980s London who starts seeing parallels between a disturbing video and her own life. In exploring Britain’s “video nasty” era, which launched intense public debate around the notion that slasher films would poison minds, Bailey-Bond wondered: If a movie could be considered so terrible that it drives society to commit crime, what effect would it have had on the censors in the room? The premise allowed her to create a handful of original video nasties for her film, one of which was inspired by 1970s folk horror, like “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” and another that emulated the work of the Italian giallo director Lucio Fulci.
By the time Bailey-Bond turned to filmmaking, after studying performing arts, she had already internalized many of the classics, like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “The Evil Dead” and “Basket Case,” the latter of which was also a feature directing debut. “I was drawn to darker characters, or trying to understand the parts of ourselves that we push away,” she said. “I hadn’t come to the genre thinking, ‘I’m making horror.’ It was almost like horror chose me.”
As she embarked on a series of short films, she found freedom within the genre. “There’s this imagination that you can kind of let rip in horror,” she said. That imagination took her down dark and rich visual paths with “Censor” that stretched as far as her mind — and budget — were willing to go.
She said that making a horror film about the genre itself sparked something in her. “The relationship we have with the things we see onscreen I find fascinating. To be able to really explore that communicates something about who I am as a filmmaker.”
For S.K. Dale, the drive behind his debut feature was to tell a visceral, edge-of-your-seat story. “Till Death” (in theaters and on demand July 2) fit the bill. The script (by Jason Carvey) made the 2017 BloodList, a list of the top unproduced horror screenplays. In the film, a woman, played by Megan Fox, is handcuffed to her dead husband’s body in what is part of a cruel revenge plot against her.
Dale credited filmmakers like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg with sparking his interest in the horror/thriller space. Like them, he hoped to find his voice and visual style within the genre before moving onto bigger projects. For Dale, horror’s appeal, particularly for his generation of filmmakers, comes down to its embrace of originality. It’s “one of the final genres where an audience is willing to see an original story, not based on I.P. or a book or comic or anything like that,” he said.
With his directing experience having previously been limited to shorts, Dale had to sell himself and his vision to the producers. “For them to bring me onto the team, they really wanted me to have a strong idea of what the story should be,” he said, “and that took a lot of brainstorming.”
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Dale said that over weekly meetings, he threw every type of scenario possible at the producers. “It was really finding what worked.” Carvey’s original script, written with a lower budget in mind, was more contained than the final product. Dale said that when the two completed a rewrite together, they were able to go bigger with the third act, expanding the action beyond the walls of the house.
As the pandemic has given us a new lens through which to view stories of isolation, fear and existential dread, the director Sean King O’Grady wanted a project that could contemplate these ideas in a thoughtful and personal way.
His film, “We Need to Do Something” (streaming at the Tribeca Festival),” deals with a family stuck inside a bathroom during a tornado warning, something the writer Max Booth III experienced in his own life. Family bonds unravel and shift as isolation — and a fear of what’s behind the door — settles in.
“I realized that this was it,” O’Grady said. “It captured all the anxiety and all the terror that I think we’d all been feeling for several months at that point, but it also wasn’t a pandemic movie.” He emphasized the importance of making sure it would entertain. “I wanted people to walk away from this having a good time,” he said. “I think that if you can feel all of that emotion, if you can be scared one minute, if you can be laughing the next minute, that’s absolutely what we were going for.”
Working in a cramped garage-turned-soundstage in Michigan had all the trappings of a horror film for these times. For 15 days, the cast and crew walked over from the adjacent hotel and spent hours on end together in a small space. But it made things easier, too, since they shot sequentially and — without giving too much away — the set became progressively more “lived in.”
For O’Grady, making his debut with a horror feature was everything he ever wanted. “You really get to flex your muscles. If you’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since you were a kid, and you wanted to elicit an emotional reaction from an audience, you get to do that with horror. If you’ve wanted to do special effects, you get to do that with horror.” And he hopes that his work will be recognized like some of the talented first-timers that have come before him. “There’s just a great history of people making fantastic first films in the horror genre. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that legacy?”