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During grades 4 through 6, I was in a program that required students to put together two large-scale projects over the course of the school year. There was a written report, an oral presentation, and the more "stuff" you had to go with it, the better. For my final project, I took on... movie monsters.
In addition to a report about the characters and the movies that feature them, I had pictures of famous monsters torn from the pages of Famous Monsters and some truly bitchin' drawings I made, including one of Frankenstein's monster recoiling from torch-wielding villagers that bore the caption "Frankenstein hates fire." My intended coup de grace was a Super-8 monster movie. As a juvenile filmmaker in the days of Super-8 filmmaking, this was a hard enough stunt to pull off, but I had to go and turn the "pretty much impossible" into the "wicked totally impossible" by attempting to do stop motion animation with clay figures. What the hell was I thinking?
It may shock you when I say that thanks to my procrastination and... you know, the inherent difficulty of making a stop motion movie, the film didn't happen. The clay figures did, though, so I settled for turning in some dioramas.
Recently I watched Zombie Girl, the 2008 documentary that chronicles the making of Pathogen, a zombie movie written and directed by the then-12-year-old Emily Hagin. It's not surprising that I felt a kinship with Emily, a horror-movie nut who wants to make her own. The feature took years to complete (school gets in the way, you know) and, at times, strained her relationship with her mother, but in the end, Hagin told her tale of the walking dead on her own terms. Pathogen certainly bears the marks of a 12-year-old creator in terms of the script, yet it's surprisingly good for a homemade flick. It boasts perfectly ghoulish makeup, plenty of blood, and even a decapitation. The effects are impressive, perhaps even more so since, in true do-it-yourself fashion, they were created largely in the Hagin family craft room. The Texas Filmmakers Production fund awarded Emily a $1000 grant to use toward post-production and distribution. The DVD is available at the Cheesy Nuggets website if you want to see some true ars gratia artis.
Obviously, I greatly admire Hagin's gumption. At the same time, I couldn't help but think... what if I had a computer and a digital video camera when I was 12? My monster movie vision would have been realized! This line of thought is completely pointless, I know, but sometimes it's fun to play the bitter old woman part. Now, going digital wouldn't have made claymation much easier, and it certainly wouldn't have made me procrastinate any less. But that's not the point!
The point is, the advent of technology means that anyone can
make a movie. D.I.Y filmmakers are screening their efforts at
film festivals, making them available for purchase or download on the Web, getting them onto the shelf at your local video store. The face of "indie horror" is certainly changing; there was a time when the term referred to something like John Carpenter's Halloween. Budgeted at roughly $300,000, it was long the highest-grossing independent movie until The Blair Witch Project
topped it twenty years later. That film's budget was a mere $22,000.
Even that number seems high today as D.I.Y. filmmakers engage in some
sort of cinematic equivalent of "Name That Tune": "Oh yeah? Well, I can
make that movie for ten bucks!" and it might just be true.
But at that price, you're bound to lose quality. Microbudget movies often fall apart when it comes to the technical aspects, in particular in the areas of sound and lighting. I've watched many a "no name" movie that might have been good enough save muddied sound or a too-dark picture.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes
Sometimes, though, a microbudget film makes its way to the big leagues, or at least into the public consciousness. The trailer for The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a "found footage" documentary about a serial killer who terrorizes the sleepy New York town where The Facts of Life took place, has made its way onscreen in front of major studio releases, a major coup for filmmakers John Erick and Drew Dowdle. After critical acclaim for Poughkeepsie, the Dowdle brothers helmed another found footage/POV horror film, but this time they had studio backing and a significantly larger budget: You may have heard of the recent hit Quarantine? Yeah, that was them. Next up, they'll be working on an entry for the M Night Shyamalan-produced "trio of thrillers" Night Chronicles. Not bad -- I guess "shaky cam horror" isn't dead after all.
After producing the notorious pseudo-snuff August Underground trilogy, writer/director Fred Vogel made the more palatable Redsin Tower. While made on a shoestring budget, Tower has earned critical acclaim, largely for the fantastic practical FX.
Amateur Porn Star Killer
Another "found footage" snuff-style offering (notice the trend here?) that's earned wildly divergent reviews, Amateur Porn Star Killer wears its $45 budget like a badge of honor. I've always found the title confusing -- does it concern an amateur killer of porn stars, or a killer of amateur porn stars? No matter the case, writer/director Shane Ryan's rough effort proved successful enough to warrant two equally-cheap sequels. When I say "rough effort," I'm not even referring to the movie's content. APSK undoubtedly tests the viewer's patience with dark screens and frequently unintelligible dialog. As it's a "found footage" film purportedly created by a killer who's not going to be concerned with technicalities, it's difficult to say whether it's a clever (if frustrating) conceit by Ryan or it's simply... a $45 film.
But no matter
the shortcomings these D.I.Y. flicks may have, I adore the spirit
behind them, from the creative spark of an idea and the "Let's do
this!" to the stamina required to see a movie all the way through. The
relative economic ease that now accompanies backyard filmmaking gets
people to be creative, and to my thinking that's always a good thing,
even if the outcome is sometimes lacking. As with bigger budget movies, the cream will rise to the top, the persistent and talented folks will only get better.
A fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she'd have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules. She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor's edge of danger and intrigue.