Spotlight on indie horror ‘In the Dark’ + interview with director David Spaltro

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A skeptical grad student and a paranormal specialist investigate a potentially haunted home and the troubled woman inside whose affliction may be beyond the capacity of either of them to diagnosis.

In The Dark was an attempted shot of energy and breath of fresh air in a popular, but overcrowded genre marketplace, combining both the appeal of the thrills and chills that is a staple of the horror genre, as well as a strong, original story, headed by a female cast of some of NYC’s most talented actresses. A lovingly bloody valentine to the inspirational works of Stephen King, John Carpenter, and 1973’s The Exorcist; the film’s strikingly haunting visual images from cinematographer Gus Sacks is complemented by over 50 minutes of original music by award winning composer Fritz Myers of Platitude Music (IFC’s “White Reindeer”, “Sushi Girl”, Best Soundtrack, 2012’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival).

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Most FC readers know I don’t watch horror films, but here are some excerpts of reviews of In The Dark:

“Right from the opening scene that will chill you to your core, ‘…In the Dark’ is a deft use of suspense and darkness… it successfully dissolves any comparisons to The Exorcist and becomes something original… compelling performances and a story that really hooks!” – Ain’t It Cool News

“Nightmarish and filled with an atmosphere of dread… a movie that boasts a good story and strong cast.” – TwitchFilm

“…the all-female lead cast is phenomenal, and it’s great to see ladies in a horror movie not used as sex bait or the tired Final Girl trope.” – Horror Film Central

“***…stands tall above other indie horrors of its ilk, largely due to Spaltro’s background in dramatic storytelling…rare to see cinematography of this standard in a low-budget horror… A chilling movie.” – Flickering Myth

Check out the trailer:

 


I had met writer/director David Spaltro three years ago when he had his Midwest premier of his drama Things I Don’t Understand at TCFF. So it’s nice to see him return to Minnesota and premiere his new film, this time a psychological horror In the Dark. I love that David’s films are always filled with intriguing female characters, and this new one actually has a mostly female ensemble! So check out my Q&A with David about making the film, the casting process and some of the horror/thriller filmmakers who’ve inspired him.

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Q: This is your first foray into writing and directing a horror feature, what makes you decide to tackle this genre?

A: It was sort of just fortuitous timing, really. I had been in development on a third feature film Wake Up in New York, and slated to go into production in Spring 2014, but that Winter hit a financing snag that sort of put the breaks on it at the time. I was a little burned out after all that work, and not sure if I should take a break and go back to trying to get that back up again, or look at a different project, when I was contacted to meet with an investor who wanted to make their own feature, a horror film, and needed a script. I took the meeting, thinking it was just to write a film, and ended up being offered the reigns to direct it as well, after pitching a few story ideas and what was possible.

It was a mad dash to complete the script, but literally 14 months after that meeting, I was able to hand the investor a completely finished horror feature. I had no real intentions of delving into the genre, at least at that point, but I was starving creatively to try something different, and saw it as a good chance to grow and learn as a storyteller, and add something different to the character drama/comedies I was known for, while hopefully still retaining my particular voice. It was a unique, very rare instance where someone says they have a particular budget, offering a writer-director the freedom to play with that canvas, as long as it’s within the confines clearly of a horror genre film and something they can use commercially.

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Q: What’s the inspiration behind the story of possession? Is ‘In The Dark’ more of a slasher or body horror flick or more of a psychological thriller?

I wasn’t sure what I was going to tackle with the genre, and what i found after researching a lot of my favorite horror in literature and films, was the ones that really, REALLY worked had at the center a core story or dramatic artic with fleshed out characters you cared for, and then the genre tropes were used to heighten that story and tell it better. I came across a really strange medical paper written by a psychologist that was very bland and technical in it’s structure and the way it described the maladies, the way you would read in a medical encylopedia or about any rare disease… this one just happened to be about demnonic possession. I found that odd mix of real science and things beyond science to be really interesting and kind of used that as the seed moving forward, and of course wanting to tell a story with strong female leads.

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David directing Lynn Justinger & Fiona Horrigan

Q: The film deals with the issue of mental illness, how did the research process go before you start writing the script?

I used my own personal experiences with people through my life, and definitely read some articles and books. I feel like whether it’s mental illness or (if you believe) in true demonic possession, there’s something really terrifying to us about being alive and being out of control of ourselves, body and soul. I can’t imagine what it would be like to deal with that, and also be the people in the world of someone dealing with that. More than any ghost, monster, or slasher the loss of self and shattering is something pretty terrifying to me.

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Q: What made you decide to have a female ensemble cast for your first horror feature? Would you elaborate about the casting process? 

I had pretty much written for the role for all four leads in the film. Grace Folsom, of course, is just phenomenal. She’s my favorite actress i’ve worked with in how she just gets my material and the way she powerfully elevates everything and everyone in a scene with her. She’s a gift. Lynn Justinger I met and worked with briefly on “Things I Don’t Understand” and have been dying to collaborate with–we’re still developing a few projects together, and this seemed like a great chance to work with her and also do something so completely different then she was used to, and she just crushed it. We recently screened in her hometown in Buffalo and picked up the audience award.

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Grace Folsom + Lynn Justinger

Fiona Horrigan and Catherine Cobb Ryan I met in two separate workshops, and was bowled over by their work and also their desire to work with me, so it gave me a great chance to work with four strong ladies of different ages and backgrounds. That’s osmething that I think will always be important to me—not that every project and every character will have to be female moving forward, but making sure whatever the story and arc, the female characters are well rounded and fleshed out and serve the story. No eye candy or explotiation allowed.

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Q: Lastly, what’s been some horror filmmakers and horror/thriller films that’s inspired you?

I was a really big fan of “It Follows” by David Robert Mitchell and “Babadook” by Jennifer Kent that kind of gave me the confidence to go in the slow burn true horror style.I sort of rekindled my love for the horror genre, and definitely dove into a lot of old favourites, as well as viewing a lot of films from different periods and international locations. The ones that always stuck out for me, and that I most drew from were the early films of George Romero, Wes Craven, and of course John Carpenter who’s really sort of the spiritual Godfather of this film. A personal favourite of mine that I think is most an inspiration from his catalog was Prince of Darkness which is really about science confronting faith and superstition with just a lot of dread and character work. It’s really surreal, too. Also, the works of Stephen King and how a lot of his stories don’t even become horrific until about 1/3 of the way in, he very slowly draws you into a very enjoyable story with rich characters that you care about, and then when he starts unleashing Hell and darkness on them and the reader, you’re just terrified and disturbed because you totally forgot what you were getting into.

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I wanted that same kind of mood, atmosphere, and dread in the film. Also early seasons of the X-Files, their camerawork and mood, was something I wanted to reference. In a lot of ways, Lynn is my Scully and this is my attempt at an X-Files episode. Of course, everything lives in the shadow of The Exorcist, so I tried to steer away from too much in that realm, as anything that comes after is just some form of knockoff. It’s untouchable in its ability to not just generate fear, but emotion from an audience. You’re exhausted and moved after watching it, even today.


Glad seeing you again David, and nice meeting you
Kayla & Fiona!

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What are your thoughts of In The Dark? 

TCFF Roundup – Part 1 – A Late Quartet, Things I Don’t Understand & Problem Solving the Republic Reviews

Whew, this week has been quite a whirlwind! I saw a total of 13 films and attended four educational panels in the last nine days. Most of the films have been good to excellent, so even with a couple I didn’t really enjoy, it’s still a nearly a perfect record.

TCFF certainly has a super packed schedule all the way down to the homestretch. The nine-day film fest has come to a close last night with LUMPY, the Minnesota-shot dramedy by MN-born writer/director Ted Koland, starring Justin Long and Addison Timlin who were present at the panel earlier in the day. I didn’t get a chance for a one-on-one interview with Long, though I did meet briefly with Ted Koland and congratulated him on his film.

Justin Long & Ted Koland at the LUMPY panel – photo by James Ramsay

Below is a recap and review from Friday,

FRIDAY

Saw two very good films today, they couldn’t be any more different from each other yet both have intriguing stories about people dealing and coping with a dark chapter in their lives.

Things I Don’t Understand

Written/directed by David Spaltro and starring Minnesota-born Molly Ryman. I was very impressed with the character-driven story and also Molly’s excellent performance. June and I had the pleasure of interviewing David to talk about his film and also listened to Molly talk about her character Violet during the ‘Strong Women in Independent Films’ panel.

Thanks to David for sitting down with June and I at the ShowPlace ICON lounge to give us some insights about his film. Check out the full interview.

Meeting both David and Molly are easily one of the highlights of covering the film fest for me. David told me TCFF is the 16th point of their film tour all over the country, going to one film festival to the next. In fact, right after the panel, David was off to the airport to the the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita Kansas. They’re both so talented with so much going for them in their careers, yet they’re so down to earth and so fun to talk to.

Congrats to both David and Molly on the success of Things I Don’t Understand. Here’s my review of the film:

This film centers on grad student Violet who’s studying near-death experiences which led her to actually attempt suicide. After her failed suicide attempt, Violet becomes withdrawn and somewhat morose, plus she also has to deal with being evicted from the Brooklyn loft she shares with her two roommates. At the advise of her therapist, Violet reluctantly visits a terminally ill girl in a hospice and their unlikely friendship becomes her catharsis to start appreciating life again.

I sympathize with Violet right away though she’s not exactly likable at first. She’s sardonic and lacks self control, but you know deep down she’s a good girl. Spaltro frames her story well and surrounds her with interesting characters. Her two room mates, artist Gabby (Melissa Hampton) and a gay French rocker Remy (Hugo Dillon) also have personal issues of their own, but you could say they’re the comic relief of the movie. And then there’s the cute but mysterious bartender Parker (Aaron Mathias) who befriends Violet but refuses her advances.

It’s intriguing to watch Violet’s journey throughout the film, how her relationships with Parker and Sara (Grace Folsom) who’s dying from bone cancer changes her as the film progresses. Despite the dark theme though, director David Spaltro peppers the film with fun and lighthearted moments, so it’s definitely not a complete downer.

Like many of us who seek to figure out the basic questions of the meaning of life and what happens when we die, it’s certainly a thought provoking film that David has explored with care. One thing though, I feel like the themes of faith and spirituality aren’t explored as deep as I’d like, it merely scratches the surface and lacking conviction. That said, I appreciate that it’s at least being talked about and I’m also thrilled that David has crafted a compelling and multi-layered female character in Violet, something we need to see more in Hollywood.

I’m not surprised that this film has been winning all kinds of awards in various film festivals. It’s a bummer that somehow the movie appears very dark in the theater screens, as the cinematography in NYC looks beautiful. The day after the film screening, David told me that it wasn’t supposed to be so dark, and he gave me access to re-watch the film again.

Kudos to David once again and to Molly and Grace for their affecting performances. The scenes between Violet and Sara are very moving without resorting to overt sentimentality. I look forward to David’s upcoming film Wake Up in New York, hopefully it’ll be shown at TCFF again!

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A Late Quartet

When people think of Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s films this year, they’re likely going to think of Seven Psychopath and The Master, but I’m glad I’m able to see both of them together in this smaller independent drama. The story centers on members of the world-renowned string quartet Fugue, comprised of Peter (Walken), Robert (Hoffman), Juliette (Catherine Keener) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Soon we learn that the oldest member of the group, Peter, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which inevitably shakes the group in ways none of them could imagine.

In the wake of Peter’s medical revelation, the rest of the members deals with their own turmoil. Robert and Juliette faces a marital stride due to infidelity, on top of Robert’s pent-up rivalry with Daniel, as he’s no longer content with being the second violinist. To make matters worse, Daniel suddenly discovers his once-repressed passion involving a romance that certainly brings even more complication to the already-fragile group. One thing for sure though, the group wants to stay together as Fugue has been an integral part of their lives for more than 20 years.

This is director Yaron Zilberman‘s first feature film and what a great venue to display the fantastic acting prowess of the talents involved. Nice to see Walken in an understated role, he’s the most ‘normal’ guy in the group (imagine that), but he plays his part brilliantly. Hoffman’s role is much more explosive as Robert deals with unbridled ego and lust that threatens to break his marriage. Keener is always wonderful to watch, she definitely has the elegance and grace to play Juliette though her character is the most enigmatic of the four to me. Last but not least, the Ukranian actor Ivanir also plays his part of the über perfectionist violinist who’s been so obsessed with his music that he hasn’t had time for love. Imogen Poots has quite a memorable part as Hoffman & Keener’s daughter, she definitely holds her own against her much older, more experienced co-stars. Her scene with Keener in particular is quite gut-wrenching.

Though both contains beautiful classical music and also has a similar name, A Late Quartet is quite different in tone from Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet. This one feels like it’s got more depth in terms of character development and deals with such raw emotional situations that stays with you long after the credits. It shows that beneath such flawlessly-played music, there are real and flawed people behind them, struggling through change and relationships like the rest of us. It’s a compelling picture of humanity, and it’s such a treat for the senses not only for the musical arrangements, but also the lovely cinematography. I adore the gorgeous scenery of New York City in the Winter time, everything just looks so romantic! I highly recommend this for any fan of the actors involved, I sure hope this won’t get lost in the shuffle when it opens in limited release sometime in November.

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Problem Solving the Republic

Unfortunately I couldn’t see this one as it’s showing at the same time as A Late Quartet, but I’ll definitely try to see it when it’s available on VOD. It’s a Minnesota production and shot on location in Minneapolis, even just looking at the bizarre genre-bending tagline made me curious enough to see it. You can check out the TCFF interview with writer/director Elliot Diviney on TCFF Youtube Channel.

Below is the review by Emery Thoresen:

Problem Solving the Republic is a Minnesota-made political satire, that uses musical numbers and slap stick humor to tell its story. The humor turned out to be more entertaining commentary than knee slapping jokes. The movie had a charm akin to the campy-horror-movie genre, in that it isn’t for everyone, or, it doesn’t try to appeal to everyone, but viewers who do subscribe to the genre will have a good time watching this. It reminded me of Super, both movies incorporated  superheroes and animated inserts – like a comic book. They both share a similar sense of humor, but Problem Solving the Republic isn’t nearly as violent, super natural, or sad as the Rainn Wilson feature.

I started to get restless in the last couple minutes, it could have been because I had been seeing so many films all day, but it was more likely due to how long it took to wrap the story up. Overall it was a charming movie, the bloopers before the credits were memorable, along with the snap shots of the cast that rolled with the credits. I really enjoyed the characters and actors they chose.

During the discussion afterwards, the director and producer talked about the difficulties they encountered in creating a local film with a small budget, in less than a year. Through their brief explanation they kept pointing to people and mentioning names of contributors, it turned out that a surprising number of people in the audience have had a hand in making this film – which made the laughter and reactions much more genuine.

The TCFF was the premiere, it will be showing at The Riverview Theater in November, but in the mean time pre-ordering a copy online is always an option. Remember, it is always good to support local talent, and this could be a warm-up to election day.

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Check out the trailer below:


Stay tuned for Part II with reviews of Saturday films
and also my Top Five Favorites from the film fest!


Thoughts on any of the films above? Well, I’d love to hear it!

TCFF: 6 Films. 2 Days. 1 Programmer’s Personal Picks

Call it the Ultimate Film Fest Experience. With only 2 more days to go, there are still a bunch of great films playing at the ShowPlace ICON Theatre through Saturday. If you haven’t been able to catch any of the films during the weekdays, but you’re ready for a TCFF movie marathon this weekend, then you’re not too late!

Earlier today I sat down with Steve Snyder, TCFF’s Artistic Director—who’s also TIME.com’s Assistant Managing Editor—to list his recommendations for the last stretch of the film fest. After screening about 200 submissions including a mix of features and shots, and circling other film festivals around the country with executive director Jatin Setia, here are Steve’s picks are that you can still catch at TCFF.


Get your tickets now before they sell out!  Oh and check out this
Amazing Ticket Deal of Saturday Movie Marathon.


FRIDAY:

6pm – Things I Don’t Understand (independent)

I’ve mentioned this on yesterday’s post when I met with director David Spaltro. Well, this film has won Best Feature Film and Best Actress for Minnesota-born actress Molly Ryman in various film festivals. Steve calls Molly a ‘MN star is born’ and this is one of the films that he’s most thrilled about that he was able to get it screened at TCFF. Both David and Molly will be in attendance for a red carpet spotlight and Q&A after.

Having recently chatted with him, I’m even more intrigued by his film and can’t wait to see it. I will post the transcript of the interview when it’s ready, but check out the trailer below:

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9pmA Late Quartet

This is also on my most-anticipated list. I mean the cast alone should get you to rush to see it. Christopher Walken + Philip Seymour Hoffman + Catherine Keener playing members of a string quartet struggling to stay together in the face of death, competing egos and in-suppressible lust. Great thespians making beautiful music together? Steve said you can’t miss this, and I tend to agree. You can view the trailer here.

SATURDAY:

10:45Bay of All Saints

Winner of Audience Award, Documentary at SXSW 2012: In Bahia, Brazil, generations of impoverished families live in palafitas, shacks built on stilts over the ocean bay. Steve said that not only is the subject matter intriguing, but the incredible access director Annie Eastman was able to get to shoot this film gives it a uniquely intimate portrait of the individual stories of poverty shown in the film.

12:45 After I Pick the Fruit

This is a documentary that follows the lives of five immigrant farm worker women over a ten-year period as they labor in the apple orchards and fields of rural western New York, migrate seasonally to Florida, raise their families, and try to hide from the Bush-era immigration raids that were conducted in response to September 11, 2001. This doc is more of an investigative journalism of sort, which illuminates a community that is nearly invisible to most Americans. Director Nancy Ghertner will be in attendance.

These two documentaries are also my picks I’ve listed on this post.

3 pm Take Care

Two estranged women tread cautiously into each other’s lives and their newfound friendship creates a mirror of self-discovery in this character-driven indie drama. I actually have had the pleasure of seeing this one earlier this month and I absolutely agree with Steve that this one is definitely worth checking out. It’s rare to see a meaty role written for a woman, let alone two in one film. Both Ryan Driscoll and Elise Ivy are both fantastic here, and the revelation for both characters are quite intriguing to watch. Don’t miss Ryan Driscoll and director Scott Tanner Jones in attendance for Q&A.

5:30 Dead Dad

When their dad dies unexpectedly, estranged siblings Russell, Jane and their adopted brother, Alex, come home to tend to his remains. Don’t be put off by the title, even though it deals with the loss of a loved one, it’s also about a celebration of family and how they come together to achieve a proper goodbye. Steve said he’s very impressed how the actors could pull off such complex characters. He even went so far as calling it some of the best acting performances of this year. Trailer below:


So, what are you waiting for? Get your tickets now »


TCFF Day 6: Nobody Walks Review

Day six at TCFF has come and gone. So far I’ve seen over a half dozen films, on my way to completing the 11 movies I set out to do. I think that’s about hit the maximum number of films I could handle in a week before things become a blur and I’d have a hard time reviewing each of them.

Before I get to my Day 6 review, I just want to share that my highlight of the day was chatting with director David Spaltro, whose sophomore film Things I Don’t Understand will have its Minnesota premiere@ TCFF on Friday at 6 pm. It stars Minnesota-native Molly Ryman as Violet Kubelick, a brilliant young grad student studying near-death experiences, is now withdrawn and closed-off after a mysterious, failed suicide attempt. Check out his film’s official site for more info, it’s been winning all kinds of awards in the film festival circuit.

I’m thrilled that David has agreed to an interview with me and fellow blogger June later this afternoon, yay! He’s the nicest director you’ll ever have the pleasure to meet. Stay tuned for my interview post!

Now on to the review:


NOBODY WALKS

Confession: This is the kind of film I normally don’t gravitate towards because of the subject matter. But hey, sometimes as a film blogger, stepping out of one’s comfort zone once in a while is a good thing and a film festival is a perfect venue for that.

Nobody Walks centers on Martine (Olivia Thirlby), a young New Yorker traveling to L.A. to finish her film with the help of Peter (John Krasinski), a married 30-something living in the Hollywood Hills area. It’s not a good sign when within the first five minutes I’ve got a dreadful inkling that I would not like this movie. The way Martine is introduced at the airport, making out with some guy she just met on the plane sets the tone of the rest of the film and also about her character. Later on we learn that she’s an artist, though it’s unclear what kind of artist she is and it’s never fully explained why she came all the way to L.A. to finish her movie.

One thing for sure, the tomboy-ish Martine is effortlessly seductive. She gives such a sensual vibe that men just can’t help being drawn to her. Peter is no exception, within a couple of days working with her, it’s inevitable that the start getting physical. Neither of them seems to have much remorse over this, not the husband who’s married with kids, nor the seductress on the brink of ruining someone’s family. The sexual tension practically ricochets off the screen, not just between Martine and Peter but everyone else in their circle: Martine and Peter’s assistant David, Peter’s wife Julie with her therapy patient and Julie’s 16-year-old daughter Kolt discovering her sexuality.

I don’t know if ‘glorifying’ is the right word but I feel like the writers and director Ry Russo Young puts so much emphasis on sexuality that the characters feel so one-dimensional. My impression of this family is that they’re a bunch of well-off, self-absorbed people who live such a comfortable existence that life is all about instant gratification. There is barely any nuance in any of the characters, save for Julie (played by the immensely likable and talented Rosemarie DeWitt) who still has some scruples left in her when temptation comes her way like a storm. But even so, her conversation with her young daughter about men and relationship leaves me scratching my head. Let’s just say if I were Kolt, I’d be even more confused about what I’m supposed to think or do.

To be fair, I think there are some interesting ideas here and the cinematography has that intimate sense that makes it atmospheric. There are also some fun scenes in relation to sound effects towards the beginning of the film. The performances are pretty good overall. This is the first time I’ve seen both Olivia Thirlby and John Krasinski in a feature film and I think both have screen charisma as lead actors. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always liked DeWitt and it’s nice to see her get adequate screen time here and she’s perhaps the most likable character in the film for me. Dylan McDermott and Justin Kirk also have a memorable supporting part. Unfortunately, none of the characters are well-developed. In fact, up until the end of the movie, I still have no clue just who Martine is and why she does what she does. Enigmatic is one thing but vacant is another and I feel that the protagonist falls under the latter, and she is impossible to root for.

It’s unfortunate that I got my first intro to the co-writer, Lena Dunham through this post on Cinematic Corner, at the time I hadn’t seen any of Dunham’s work but now I realize that some of the characters on her HBO show GIRLS are similar to Martine. Needless to say, I did not enjoy this movie. The whole thing just rings hollow existentialism to me, it communicates nothing of value and the film has a ‘cooler than thou’ vibe that really puts me off. The topic of infidelity is already so dismal, it certainly doesn’t help that in this one, there’s barely any redeeming quality to enliven it.

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Has anyone seen this film and/or film by the filmmakers/writers? What are your thoughts?