If we were playing a word association game and I said, “Elijah Wood” the odds are that most people would not respond with “horror.” However, he’s working to change that. His fascination with horror films reaches back to when he was seven and is, in part, thanks to having a brother who was seven years older than him. Elijah Wood tells me, “[My brother] would rent movies with his friends and I would get a chance to see these movies I wouldn't have been otherwise able to see because my mom wouldn't let me.” Of the movies that he saw then, there are two that still stand out in his memory: Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Truth or Dare: Critical Madness, a direct-to- video movie horror movie. On the latter film Wood recalls, “The imagery of that movie was embedded in my mind. I don't really remember it giving me nightmares or scaring me but the imagery was very much ingrained in my brain.”
In 2010 Wood was working on the early stages of a new film project on which Daniel Noah was writing and Josh Waller would be directing. In the course of meeting for that project a close friendship developed between the trio and they decided to start SpectreVision, a production company based on their shared affinity for horror films. Wood tells me, “At the time a lot of the great examples of horror and genre pictures were coming from Europe or Asia or South America, so the impetus of the company was a reaction to there not being a space in the U.S. that was consistently generating these kinds of films or at the level of quality that we really loved.”
To date, SpectreVision has had a hand in six produced films, with three more currently in development. On some of the projects SpectreVision has been involved from the beginning, including A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Cooties, their most recent completed project. Other films are labeled under “SpectreVision Presents,” which are completed films that they have decided to help support and find a wider audience for. These films include Toad Road and the Scandinavian import LFO. The thing that underlies all these projects is the purpose that SpectreVision was created to implement. As Wood explains, “Our aim with the company is to showcase its artfulness, that there's beauty in it. The same approach that you would take to a non-genre film or a non-horror film, in terms of taking the subject matter seriously, you can do the same thing with horror with really exciting results.”
Our aim with the company is to showcase its artfulness, that there's beauty in it...in terms of taking the subject matter seriously, you can do the same thing with horror with really exciting results.
Wood thinks that Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night perfectly represents the type of films that SpectreVision aims to make and the type of filmmakers that they want to support. He explains, “On paper it’s crazily divisive and not commercial at all - it's in black and white, it's in Farsi, it barely has genre elements, but the primary character is a vampire. The film is extraordinary and then it found an incredible audience.” The thing that clinched it for them was meeting Amirpour. Wood continues, “It's one of those kind of things that you meet someone and you know what they're capable of. You know they're going to do great things.”
SpectreVision tries to pick the films they want to develop from a purely creative level and not simply for the guarantee of a financial return. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that “passion projects” are financially difficult but SpectreVision has decided to push back against that way of thinking. Daniel Noah says that those are exactly the type of projects they want. He continues, “Our pledge to each other is that we always have a heart response to material. We like to get behind films that have a sense of vitality but that might have difficulty getting made elsewhere.”
Elijah Wood is adamant that they work to push against the view of horror films as B grade and schlocky. He continues, “Very early on, one of the founding principles was that, at our best, we would like to push the bounds of what one considers a horror film to be…I think for us challenging people's expectations is a really exciting notion.”
Cooties, SpectreVision’s latest offering, definitely pushes the boundaries of horror films. It’s a horror comedy co-written by Saw writer Leigh Whannell and Glee co-creator Ian Brennan and is co-directed by first-time directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion. The film stars Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, and Jorge Garcia as elementary school teachers that are trying to get out of their school alive after a bad chicken nugget starts a chain-reaction that turns the youngsters under their charge into zombies.
Horror films are best when experienced with a group of people rather than by yourself…it's still a sacred experience. But different films require different approaches.
Cooties has been released on video on demand alongside its theatrical release. Since SpectreVision was founded VOD has become a much more prevalent reality and has become a larger part of the calculus in film distribution. Wood tells me, “It feels like there are so many distribution models, so many approaches, it's different for every film. Obviously, we want all of our films to have some theatrical play. Horror films are best when experienced with a group of people rather than by yourself…it's still a sacred experience. But different films require different approaches.” Ultimately, he sees it as a win for both film audiences and filmmakers, leveling the playing field and giving both groups access to each other that they didn’t have back when the only avenue for independent and international films was art house theaters and independent video stores. He concludes, “It's really interesting and it's exciting because it feels like there are so many options. It comes down to the film itself. If an audience connects to it, that will change the course of that film's experience and its release.”
SpectreVision is also helping to support filmmakers and to advance their vision of what horror films could be through SpectreFest, the film festival they created in conjunction with Hadrian Belove and their friends at CineFamily in 2013, and which is now in its third year. Wood describes it as another organic process: the original idea was for SpectreVision to guest program the movies around Halloween, specifically horror and genre films. That conversation led into the idea of taking the whole month of October and turning the weekends into a horror film festival. While SpectreVision sometimes includes their projects in SpectreFest’s programming, Wood tells me, “It's mainly about showcasing other films that we love. It's another way to promote filmmakers and films that we think are great, films that we think people should be seeing.” Josh Waller adds on, “[It’s] one of the things that makes what we do so gratifying. Our experience is that genre filmmakers are one big family who will get behind anything they believe in, whether it's their project or not.”
It's an incredible time and we've seen this sort of wave emerge over the past number of years.
SpectreFest is adding to the continuing horror renaissance that Wood sees in the U.S. He says, “There has been a sort of sea change and a similar upswell of great horror and genre filmmakers in the U.S. It’s an incredible time and we've seen this sort of wave emerge over the past number of years.” He believes that much credit belongs to horror film festivals: the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness, the Chicago Horror Film Festival, and Fantastic Fest, among others. All these festivals provide filmmakers with the opportunity to meet other like-minded people who want to support each other’s creative endeavors. This sense of community stretches from the filmmakers to the fans of these films and of horror films in general.
Wood also credits the discerning taste of the fans for the high level of recent horror films. He says, “I find that more often than not, they're not just into horror movies. They tend to be really educated cineastes and people who care about cinema as a whole,” adding that he is proud to be counted in their number as a fan of these films and not just an actor and producer. He concludes, “It's a particularly exciting time for independent genre and horror because it feels like it is very alive and well and it shows no signs of stopping.”
SpectreVision and Cinefamily’s hand-picked horror and genre film festival, SpectreFest, runs through the month of October in Los Angeles.
This article was originally posted in the Moviepilot Magazine – Fear Issue.
Words: Francesco Caporusso