G. Hallenbeck directs Prudence Theriault in London
After Midnight (l); Jeff Kirkendall at the Dead of
Winter film festival (r).
number one for aspiring fright-film auteurs: When it comes
to creating a bloated corpse sans Hollywood budget, pay attention
to the little things, or else you just might start to resemble
your handiwork a little too closely.
there we were, out in the middle of the lake in a little rowboat,
trying to film this scene in which a dead body is dumped overboard,
when things took a bad turn,” remembers director Joe Bagnardi
about the filming of Edge of Reality, one of 12 films
screened as part of the recent Dead of Winter film festival
held at the New York State Museum. “Maybe it was a few rocks
too many, or the leaves taking on more water than we expected,
but the next thing we knew, the sack we were using for our
dead body was dropping like an anchor—a really heavy anchor.”
In order to make a second or third shoot possible, explained
Bagnardi, the sack had been fastened to the boat.
we couldn’t lift the ‘body’ back out, so we just paddled around
in circles for a while,” he laughs. “It took a while, but
eventually some of the crew figured out that something was
wrong, and came out in another boat to rescue us.”
Yes, when it comes to making scary movies on the cheap, the
devil is in the details.
were the lessons gleaned from Dead of Winter, a two-weekend-long
celebration of independent (scary) moviemaking around the
Capital Region. The first of its kind in the area (for horror-centric
subject matter, that is), Dead of Winter (held Jan. 22-23
and 29-30) cast a spotlight on the work of five local filmmakers
who’ve managed to carve a bloody niche for themselves in the
world of low- and no-budget horror over the last decade or
Even the early screenings (beginning around 10 AM) attracted
a substantial audience—a level of attendance that, admit some
of the filmmakers, was higher than anticipated. Whether the
high turnout was the product of Capital Region horrorphiles
or indie-film buffs, many of the filmmakers said that the
crowds helped ease one fear in particular of the event’s organizers:
that the Capital Region had no interest in seeing the scary
potential of their own neighborhood.
are some beautiful cemeteries around the region, and we’ve
been thrown out of the finest of them,” laughed filmmaker
Bruce Hallenbeck during last Sunday’s panel discussion with
the festival’s filmmakers. Like Bagnardi, Hallenbeck has been
making horror films since many of the festival’s audience
members were still in diapers. The potential for a good scare,
agree both veteran directors, has never depended much on the
Take, for instance, a scene in Latham-based filmmaker Jeff
Kirkendall’s first film, Night Therapy, in which the
main character—played (in the grand tradition of low-budget
moviemaking) by Kirkendall himself—is asked why his business
hours begin when the sun goes down.
the ambience,” grins Kirkendall’s character. “It’s all about
You see, for many of the region’s eminent scaremeisters, there’s
a particular appeal in keeping things local.
The abundance of old buildings and secluded acreage in upstate
New York has provided ample opportunity for standard fright-film
fare, and the improvisational use of familiar buildings and
locations catch the eyes of a hometown audience.
Referring to the Egg, Hallenbeck chuckles, “You know, I’ve
always wondered what might come out of that thing when it
hatches.” The Empire State Plaza landmark doubled as an alien
spacecraft in The Risen, the second film from Albany’s
Brandon Bethmann and Eric Szmyr. Bethmann and Szmyr also used
exterior shots of the city’s Legislative Office Building to
depict the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Central Intelligence
Agency. And many of the festival’s filmmakers have found the
Capital Region to be more than accommodating to independent
we had to do was ask—and show them a copy of the script,”
says Bethmann when asked how he and Szmyr were able to set
much of their first film, Raising Hell, in and around
the most well-known landmarks in downtown Albany. In the film,
a fictional New York governor enlists the aid of a supernatural
demon to ensure his reelection—a story that, at one point,
called for an actor portraying one of the governor’s aides
to be attacked by the film’s 7-foot foam-rubber monster in
the bus stop along Washington Avenue, just outside of the
state’s Department of Education building.
Of course, in the post-9/11 world, independent fimmakers have
had a much harder time achieving that level of accessibility
and freedom, says Szmyr, making scenes from Raising Hell—in
which a gunfight erupts in the plaza and a suspicious stranger
walks around the Capitol in an overcoat, sunglasses and briefcase—all
the more memorable.
Overcoming challenges, how ever, is all part of the fun, according
to the festival’s featured moviemakers.
While several of the films shown during Dead of Winter ran
less than 30 minutes, many of the movies were of the feature-length
90-minute variety, with Bagnardi’s Shadow Tracker: Vampire
Hunter—featuring Hallenbeck in the title role—topping
out at a full two hours. Maintaining a cast and crew of local
talent over the course of such an extended endeavor—and without
pay, in most cases—was, according to many of the filmmakers,
a horror story in itself.
tend to be really excited when you start out,” says Kirkendall,
“but they become less so as the film goes on for night after
night and weekend after weekend.”
The premiere of Hallenbeck’s vampire-hunter flick, London
After Midnight, on the first day of the festival, marked
the climax of a seven-year project for the director. Along
with enduring a computer crash that sent a significant portion
of the film into the digital hereafter, a major rewrite had
to occur when David Louis, the lead actor, was diagnosed with
cancer during filming. The show eventually went on, though,
with some script-tweaking that had Louis and fellow actress
Prudence Theriault switching roles for the conclusion of the
film. He became the “damsel in distress” and she rushed into
danger to save him.
Tarantino’s always ripping my stuff off,” laughs Hallenbeck,
comparing his use of a sword-swinging heroine with director
Quentin Tarantino’s swords woman from the Kill Bill
But while many of the festival’s filmmakers looked forward
to the big-screen opportunities that a Hollywood debut might
offer, Hallenbeck says he’s perfectly content with his chosen
genre these days: low-budget exploitation horror, or “boobs
and blood,” as he puts it.
don’t care what size the screen is, as long as it gets shown,”
reasons Hallenbeck, who, like Bagnardi, has had several films
picked up by straight-to-video distributors.
And that opportunity, according to many of the festival’s
filmmakers, is one of the few advantages to working in the
horror genre. Many of the major independent film festivals
frown on low-budget horror: “The Blair Witch Project
was a fluke,” asserts Hallenbeck. “The success there was in
the marketing.” The market for straight-to-video horror films,
however, is booming.
was on the Internet one day and found a site in Thailand that
was advertising Blood of the Werewolf” (a 2002 Bagnardi,
Hallenbeck and Kevin Lindenmuth collaboration), laughs Bagnardi,
who also recently discovered Shadow Tracker in frequent
rotation on a satellite television channel devoted to low-budget
While the directors say the profits from these projects have
been few and far between, anything left after paying off the
film tends to be rolled over into the next project.
definitely don’t do this for the money,” says Bagnardi.
So why burn your face with zombie makeup night after night
and endure overnight shoots in freezing temperatures?
tell you the truth, this is why we do it,” says Kirkendall,
gesturing to the audience assembled in the museum’s theater
for The Temptress, the last of his four films being
screened that day. “Sure, you can throw your film on TV at
home with your friends, but sitting in here with an audience
is what it’s all about. Even if you don’t get laughs where
you might have wanted them, and you get some where you probably
shouldn’t—if people are responding, that means they’re not
completely bored with what you’ve created.”
Many of the festival’s filmmakers see digital-based filmmaking
as the most likely sign that festivals like Dead of Winter
eventually will become a more frequent occurrence, thanks
to a host of aspiring new auteurs. In fact, said Hallenbeck,
a local horror-film competition might be added to the mix
in future years if the festival continues to draw a crowd.
Whether that comes to pass or not, the Dead of Winter’s scaremeisters
are hoping that this year’s festival will go the route of
any movie monster worth his body count, and return next year
for a sequel—or two, or five.