Sunday, January 25, 2015

Vacationing with Vlad

This week, we have a review of the new independent horror film A Dark Souvenir, but first, we were also lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview the movie's writer, director and editor, Matthew Pillischer, who has some insights about his movie, other movies, and what new artists could face when venturing into the realm of moviemaking.

Midnight Channel: Why a horror movie? Have you always been a fan of the genre, or was it just this one idea you found interesting?

Matthew Pillischer: I love horror, scary movies. I remember making haunted houses for my mom in my room when I was like 8 years old. Not sure where that love of scary came from, but it's always been there.

MC: My sister and I were both into horror at a pretty young age as well. Night of the Living Dead, The Thing, anything that was on TV back then. What are some of your favorite horror movies you’d recommend?

MP: Well some of them are typical: The Shining, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween...I also really liked foreign films that are generally creepy: Michael Haneke, and Ingmar Bergman has probably been my biggest filmmaking influence over the years.

MC: Hour of the Wolf was pretty creepy.

MP: Yeah, love Hour of the Wolf-- that's gotta be his scariest. But also just love the humanity in his films, the characters, the pain and sorrow, the realness of life. Lately I've really liked Ti West (especially House of the Devil), Pontypool, Resolution and The Dawning for low budget indie horror. Also love Rosemary's Baby-- that sort of slow build movie is one of my favorites.

MC: A Dark Souvenir has a “based on true events” disclaimer at the beginning, which always makes me wonder which events a movie is referring to. Do you mean the history of Vlad and the sea fort, the Copenhagen honeymoon, something totally different?

MP: Honestly, I just put it in there because it creeps so many people out. It's a little overplayed to do that.  It's also kind of an inside joke because truly the movie features a lot of our real lives-- like all the European footage and wedding footage, which of course was real and our wedding and our honeymoon.

MC: So it’s not referring to Dracula’s spirit hitching a ride back to Philly.

MP: Hopefully no. But I like that as a catchline for the movie....

MC: Did you get the inspiration for the movie from visiting the sea fort, or did you already have the movie in mind when you went there and film all the fort footage with that in mind?

MP: No, I got inspiration while we were at the fort. It was so creepy and cool. I'm always writing movies in my head, at least once a day, and I'm always taking photos or videos with my iPhone too.  So, as I'm shooting the footage at Trekroner Sea Fort and thinking of a movie idea (my movie ideas are typically horror, though sometimes drama), that's where it began. I started writing the story on the plane ride back from our honeymoon and it evolved slowly over the next 2 years as we shot it.

MC: It’s part of the whole Vlad the Impaler myth that I had actually never heard of, which leads into the whole movie being a pretty unconventional take on Dracula’s curse. That one particular image, the waterspout face, seems to be a sort of iconic image of the movie, on the website and the Facebook page, and so on. Did it just stand out as something especially creepy?

MP: Yeah, the reason the Vlad story is a little different is because I sort of squeezed it in after writing the idea of a general haunting coming back with this couple after their honeymoon. It wasn't Vlad the Impaler at first, but then I had the idea that maybe I could work that in. So I asked some people, some twitter followers and friends, and they all said, Why not? That's where that came from. The image of the fountain head is just some of the creepy footage I collected that yes really stood out as something creepy. And all the things I've chosen have symbolism to me on many levels.

And I should say, this movie has been a bit of a one-man-band. The marketing images I've used thus far have all been my creation, though I just hired a friend artist Jay McPhillips to design the real cover art and poster. It's not going to be that image, but a cross of the forest (where Frieda wanders after popping some pills), and a mixture of "freaky Frieda." The two images faded into each other. Should be done and up on our sites and social media soon, Jay's almost done.

MC: What other sort of symbolism and thematic elements should people pay attention to in the movie? There are a lot of things that stand out — the statue face, the waterspout, the recurring circle on the ground — and there’s that quote that starts it off….

MP: Right. Well, there's a lot of themes I was working through. The quote in the beginning is a clue. We are Jewish (my wife Karen was raised Jewish, and I've become very involved culturally since she came into my life), we are deeply involved in our synagogue, and we are deep social justice people-- activists, organizers. A lot of the movie explores some very controversial things within the American Jewish community that are taboo to talk about -- the trauma of the Holocaust, and how that victimization has led to extreme fear in many American Jews of another mass pogrom always around the corner (somewhat justifiable based on history of the oppression of Jewish people). But that fear has led some to the point of being willing to further victimize other communities-- namely Palestinians. So all that is in this movie too, underneath.

But not many people may get that unless I point it out, and it doesn't need to be about that to enjoy it, I think. It's just an added layer that I needed in the process.

MC: Do you have any advice for other new filmmakers hoping to break into the industry? Particularly for horror or science-fiction films, as there’s that whole other thing that comes into it, the special effects and makeup and so on, which you don’t necessarily have to worry about in, you know, a romantic comedy. Even in a horror movie that’s focused primarily on dialogue and atmosphere — like you said, a slow build.

MP: Hm. Good question. I think aspiring filmmakers have to ask themselves a couple of questions: why do I want to make movies? Usually it's a combination of art (self fulfillment, or therapy in my case) and wanting to make money doing something cool. That's how it is for me, but more because I just NEED to make art to feel alive. If you really want to make a career out of this, it requires more calculation, more of a business plan and sense. I don't really have that, and this is an awful, awful business to break into. The biggest advice I could have is focus on keeping costs ultra ultra amazingly low, so that any money made is almost instantly profit.

Work with friends to start, which is what I've been doing. They'll invest in your idea even if they're not sure what the fuck it is, because they like you. But on the I NEED TO MAKE ART side of things -- just go out and do it. Figure out what kind of story you can tell based on the resources you have. Make something. It won't be perfect, it might not even be good.  But a bad completed film is better than a great film idea that is never made. Know what I mean? It's easier said than done, but if you want to make movies in your life you should make sure to go out there and do it before you're dead in the ground.

And find great people to work with. Surround yourself with amazing people who are inspiring. I don't have anything particularly great to say about effects. I did all mine myself, super no budget.  They look decent I think. I am super lo-fi, and you can make things work.  Sound is more important than image in many ways. That's crucial to remember in horror/sci-fi genres. Get great sound, you can't fix bad sound.

MC: The sound stood out. On watching the movie again, there were bits of dialogue and sound effects I didn’t catch the first time because of our heater running insanely loud when it comes on. And the music was creepy — I’ve seen several indie horror films now with some exceptional music that heightens the atmosphere. The part where John is attacked at work, in particular — when I first watched it, I don’t think I heard Frieda’s voice.

MP: Oh cool -- yeah, that whole scene is the sound obviously. And the main climax where Frieda is on the 9-1-1 call, obviously is mostly sound. I like movies that do that, cut the lights, and it's actually dark, hard to see. And you're hearing people fumbling around in the dark. Some of it is music, some of it is sound design, some of it is sound effects. I actually recorded my cat when he was sick and making horrible noises, at first to show the vet and then later I slowed it down and that's a lot of the sounds when the spirit is around.

MC: Lastly…where do you go from here? After the initial release of A Dark Souvenir is over and done with, do you already have another movie in mind?

MP: I have a couple in mind that I'm developing -- "Tila's Last Halloween" would be a mixture of a coming of age movie about a teenager going out on her last trick-or-treating mixed with a horrifying satanic cult movie (that tries to steal her newly adopted baby brother, and she has to grow up and save him). "Brown's Blood Massacre for Christ" (or something equally ear-catching) would be a horror movie where the Abolitionist John Brown is the killer, and it's all slavemasters being slaughtered (would play on identifying more with the killer than with the killed). And as I said, I'm basically always thinking new ideas in my head, but these are the two I'm most drawn to, that could also have subtle political undertones.

MC: Thanks for talking with us, Matthew Pillischer! Writer, director and editor of A Dark Souvenir. We look forward to seeing your next work.

MP: You're so welcome!  Max, thanks so much for the work you do on your blog, I enjoy reading it, and I'm looking forward to future posts and staying in touch.

A Dark Souvenir (2014)

A Dark Souvenir is our second sort-of-vampire movie in a row, though in this case, as noted in the interview, it's partially autobiographical, as well as featuring a new and unusual take on Count Dracula's curse. We start out with John and Frieda, a newly married couple enjoying their honeymoon in Scandinavia. During the course of their vacation, they end up taking shelter in an old sea fort during a rainstorm and learn something of the place's dark history, which is tied up with the defeat and capture of Vlad the Impaler.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, the two of them find their lives unraveling thanks to a series of ominous occurrences. They receive threatening letters from the former owner of the house, who claims that they are living on stolen property. The house is broken into, but nothing is taken. Their pets start to vanish. John develops a strange rash on his side which seems to be an animal bite, and he's attacked at work -- something he has no memory of when he returns home. Shadows seem darker, and a mysterious black-robed figure with the stone face of a waterspout gargoyle roams the halls of their home at night.

Like Absentia, A Dark Souvenir finds most of its horror in broad daylight, and in a slowly mounting dread, rather than in gory spectacle against a backdrop of blue-screen night. There's an unsettling sense of a house fracturing from within under the stress of everyday hardships as well as the intervention of outside forces. It's a long time before anything actually horrific happens, and everything before this establishes John and Frieda as a likable, intelligent, artistically-inclined couple in their 30s, making it all the more disturbing when their behavior starts to become erratic and the intrusion of the spirit that's caught a ride home with them becomes more aggressive and direct. You know things can't end well for them, but you want them to somehow manage to escape their dark houseguest.

A Dark Souvenir is super low-budget, and as with most indie horror movies to come out in the last four years or so that are worth watching, this works to its advantage. Absentia was a monster movie whose monster is all the more frightening because we never see it head-on. The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh was a slow-boiling movie where very little even happens, but manages to keep you on the edge of your seat all the same. A Dark Souvenir is similarly spare in its presentation, and just as strange, explaining none of its recurring symbols and dreamlike imagery outright. Its final minutes, a confrontation with the unknown in the pitch-black house, are as creepy and tense as anything I've reviewed in recent months.

Available On: A Dark Souvenir is not currently available on any of the usual streaming services, but here's some information about how to see it online or order a physical copy on DVD. It has recently become an Official Selection at the 2015 Maryland International Film Festival.

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