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Bruce G. Hallenbeck directs Prudence Theriault in London After Midnight (l); Jeff Kirkendall at the Dead of Winter film festival (r).

Lesson 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.

“So 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.

“Well, 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.

Such 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 so.

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.

“There 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 filmmaker’s location.

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.

“It’s the ambience,” grins Kirkendall’s character. “It’s all about the ambience.”

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 productions.

“All 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.

“People 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.

“See? 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 films.

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.

“I 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.

“I 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 films.

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.

“You 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?

“To 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.

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