One of the extras is trying to escape. Legs pumping furiously, racing down the carpeted hallway of the film set, swerving as the director approaches with his hands menacingly outstretched . . . then another swerve but too late: a sound tech has blocked the right turn and . . . squish. The victim of this on-set fatality is an exotic cockroach that eluded its insect handler. But would you expect anything less during the shooting of a horror film described as “bugs, sex, and rock & roll”?
Creeping Crawling is a locally produced “entomological anthology of terror” centered on macabre encounters with bugs. “Insects become the psychological punishers,” says director Jon Russell Cring of the swarms of six-legged extras. “It’s about the shift that, because of man’s perversion of nature, the insects have turned on man.”
The anthology is framed by students interviewing entomologist Dr. Abbot (Cesar Di Parra), an expert on colony collapse. The doctor has strong opinions about human interaction with insects and a dark view of humanity, which he relates to the students by telling them three tales.
The first tale is RID, an erotic thriller about a young woman (Anna Shields) who fakes being a nurse to get a job caring for a comatose young man, and is then tormented by fleas—though the comatose patient has a different reaction.
Part two, Bugger, is more comically disturbing. It takes place in an office where a nebbishy office worker attracts the suspicions of two water-cooler sleuths (cult scream queen Raine Brown and kick-boxer John Hernandez) along with a fetishist fatale named Ms. Cootie and a homicidal maniac called the Praying Mantis Killer.
Part three, Grubbery, concerns a bizarre eating disorder and two models (Sarah von Ouhl and Laura LaFrate), one of whom becomes pregnant but is afraid to tell her fiancé (Kevin Craig West). Including a relatively large-scale and promisingly disgusting special effect by effects wizard Ken McBain, Grubbery is described as “a slow descent into the true cost of vanity.”
“They’re morality tales,” says Cring. “What I’m always looking for a film to do is to connect. I’m using bugs instead of demons or ghosts. They’re more recognizable. I have difficulty connecting to horror if it’s too based in the supernatural. It’s too easy to do the usual horror conventions. I want to make movies that other people aren’t making.”
The inspiration for Creeping Crawling came from a real-life incident that Cring and his wife, cinematographer Tracy Nichole Cring, recently experienced: an infestation of fleas from a friend’s cat that reached nightmarish proportions. “Horror comes from horrible,” says Cring. “Reality is stranger than fiction, so when you put something in a film that actually happened, it has a different gravity to it.”
Creeping Crawling’s structure of interlocking tales is homage to Cring’s love of classic horror anthologies such as Tales From the Crypt and From a Whisper to a Scream. “That’s where I got the idea for the narrator, the entomologist,” he says. “And anthologies like Night Gallery. I love anything by Rod Serling, because they’re stories of ordinary people getting caught up in extraordinary circumstances.”
Cring came close to casting Karen Black as the narrator after meeting her in Los Angeles. The Academy Award nominee and horror-film star was impressed with RID and enthusiastic about the project. Her agent was rather less so. Cring, who has more than 40 short films and full-length films on his resume, works in a genre called microbudget, where production costs are usually well under $10,000. A microbudget, he says, “is a million-dollar idea made for $1,000.”
“What’s the best part of a movie?” he asks. “The characters. Movies that cost $200 million and have a 20-minute fight scene at the end, they could do it for half that amount, have a 10-minute fight scene, put more money into the characters, and have a better movie. And still have money left to do 10 more films.”
Cring started Creeping Crawling even before his previous film, Tattitude, had completed the festival circuit.
“There’s no such thing as independent film anymore,” he says. “You have people deciding what you are going to see, like at Sundance or Cannes or Tribeca. It’s basically another studio system. It’s generally the film that costs the most, and that has the most stars, that wins the festival.
“It’s not sour grapes,” he adds. “As someone who has done 14 feature films that were self-financed, I can say there is no correlation—none—between how much money is spent and quality. You can make an important film about anything,”
Describing his directing style as “master and commander,” Cring has found that he’s particularly good at casting and working with actors. “I like to cast people who have aspects of the character already, and then I push them to see if they will surprise me, if they’ll do the unexpected,” he says. He mentions Shields, a local theater actress who proved to be an effervescent natural in her debut film as the hapless caretaker. And he says that model and TV personality von Ouhl, and LaFrate, a runner-up on America’s Next Top Model, break the stereotype that models can’t act.
Creeping Crawling also has more star power than his previous films. In addition to Capital Region-based film actor West, there’s Brown, a bona fide star of low-budget horror (Sculpture, Braincell), and Di Parra, also a New York City actor with indie credits (Chop Shop). “About half the actors were bused up from the city,” Cring says proudly.
Proximity to New York City and its film industry was one of the reasons that Cring and his partner-wife relocated to the Capital Region from their longtime home in Tennessee. One reason, but not the most important reason: Cring explains that after deciding that they wanted to get out of the Bible Belt, Tracy did research and came across a ranking of the Capital Region as the second-best place in the country to start a new business. “And it’s progressive,” he adds. “I spent years going up against the Southern attitude of religion and tradition. “I was stuck.”
Quitting their jobs with a “regionally successful” horror filmmaker who churned out “unoriginal dreck,” the couple headed north. “It was so gratifying,” Cring says of his former job. “I learned everything not to do.”
Within days of moving to Albany, Cring had met his creative collaborator, Joshua Owens, a cinematic jack-of-all-trades from Troy; and was receiving assistance from the Schenectady Film Commission. “All of a sudden, I was making contacts with all these people,” he says with lingering astonishment. “In the South, no one ever helped me.”
Before he relocated to Albany, all of Cring’s films were written by his father, Jonathan R. Cring, a traveling evangelist and prolific blogger. His last film, however, Tattitude, was written by Owens, and Creeping Crawling is the first ever collaboration between Cring and wife Tracy (with a segment by Owens).
“The story was like an organic thing. It took on a life of its own,” he says of the script. “And the locations here are amazing,” he adds. (Settings for Creeping range from an eerily generic office suite in Schenectady to an atmospheric Italianate mansion in Tivoli.) “In microbudget, having great locations and great crews can really set your film apart.”
In the less than three years he’s been here, Cring submitted two short films, Know Candy and Sandy Creek Lodge (both described as “a spooky mind trip”) to WMHT’s TvFilm series, and both were selected for airing. He placed second with Four on the Floor in the feature-film category in the 2010 Electric City Film Fest at Proctors in Schenectady. “An audience for these films is out there,” he enthuses.
Creeping Crawling is scheduled to premiere locally in October. “It’s the most epic thing I’ve done,” says Cring. “We’re definitely going to get it out there. This one might break.”
“His own passion for the process galvanizes all it touches,” says Owens of the film. “Jon raised his own bar by finding a unique voice in the horror genre.”
But no matter how well Creeping Crawling is received, Cring won’t be going Hollywood–or even mainstream indie. In 10 years time, “I’ll be doing the same thing, only I’ll be bitter,” he jokes.
“No, I’ll be doing the same thing, only grander. And people will still be saying, ‘How do you make the films you do on so little money?’ ”