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In Making Horror Film, Scary Truths

Churchill grad Jonathan Stein produces '70s-style “Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun.

The 1970s horror film director Vin Crease doesn’t exist.

But try telling that to the Hollywood acquisition executives and film engineers who watched Crease’s 1972 psychedelic horror “Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun” after Jonathan Stein, a 1988 Winston Churchill High School graduate, discovered the lost film stock four years ago.

“Slaughterhouse” was released on DVD Sept. 27. The film follows troubled young actress Jennifer (Cheryl Dent), who after being released from a psychiatric institution takes up with a sinister group of nomadic hippies.

The group defies a seer’s advice to stay away from an abandoned house and decides to crash there. People start dying. Jennifer has to stare down — or embrace — her demons.

Here is what “Slaughterhouse of the Rising Sun” is not: It is not an early ‘70s exploitation flick that disappeared after the death of psychotic director Vin Crease and Jonathan Stein turned up 30 years later. It is not a gore-fest like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and other horror films that came in the later '70s and the '80s. And it’s not what most people expect.

Stein, a freelance film producer, and director D.C. Mann made the movie beginning in 2001 and wrote the fake Vin Crease/lost footage backstory to go with it. They spent months studying the early '70s horror genre to make their film a precise replica and then had technical specialists process the digital video to make it look like old film stock.

The result was a replica film good enough to fool film experts, and something Stein considers a major accomplishment even if it isn’t a financial success.

“You go to Blockbuster, you go to Hollywood Video and there’s one movie on the shelf,” he said. “We wanted to make something different.”

Stein had met Mann briefly in the mid-1990s working on another project. In late 2001, Mann came back to him with nothing but a title and a simple concept.

“We wanted to pay homage to … the kind of movies we used to see as a kid that we shouldn’t have seen,” Stein said. “We grew up watching these movies. Sometimes we didn’t know what they were … but we couldn’t get them out of our heads.”

The pair watched dozens of period films—famous films, made-for-TV films, out-of-print films — preparing to make their own. What they discovered was perhaps different from what they remembered, a genre Stein called “post-hippie, pre-disco” and “more bizarre than scary.”

“Jonathan gave me a stack of films [and said,] ‘You’ve got to watch this. … this is what we’re going for,” Dent said.

The films were campy and a bit contrived and seemed always to be gnawing at the edges of some larger meaning. The gory deaths were suggested rather than shown. The same was true of the social and political issues of the era.

“A lot of these movies dealt with Vietnam, but they really wouldn’t deal with it. They would just have a character” with suggestive emotional baggage, said Stein.

Stein and Mann had the same idea.

“We didn’t really set out to make a scary movie. We set out to make sort of a comic book movie really like what these movies really were,” Stein said. “We wanted to touch the sort of heartbeat of what was going on at that time in America. We tried to stay as true as possible, and we were criticized for it.”

In centering on a gimmick—the idea that it’s really an early-'70s horror movie — “Slaughterhouse” resembles the 1999 faux home-movie documentary “The Blair Witch Project.” But Stein abhors the comparison, and it’s easy to understand why.

“Blair Witch” made $30 million in its first weekend at the box office, in large part because audiences thought it was real. The fact that people didn’t get it made it something that Hollywood could sell.

“Slaughterhouse” doesn’t have the same advantage. Some people see the cleverness—others just think it’s a bad movie.

“It’s not successful in that people don’t know about it and don’t know that it’s not a typical slasher film,” Stein said. “People are renting it and going, ‘This is not what I wanted to rent.’”

But for Stein, “Slaughterhouse” was a labor of love. He financed it with $50,000 of his own money, after taking a hit in the stock market decline around 2000. He found actors mostly through networking and the actors worked on spec — not knowing for sure whether they would eventually be paid. They shot in ten 18-hour days in “really horrid” winter conditions. He still hasn’t made his money back.

Stein said that in spite of the challenges, the final result was exactly what he had envisioned and that he considered it an accomplishment.

“We took a risk and it doesn’t always pay off,” Stein said.

THEN A DISTRIBUTOR came along.

“The distributor, ThinkFilms, they were very excited about the film,” Stein said. “They loved it 100 percent. Of course when it got to marketing, they didn’t know what to do. They were afraid to sell it as kind of a cool psychedelic '70s kind of movie.”

So Hollywood did what Stein said it always does when it faces marketing dilemmas — it pressed “Slaughterhouse” into a mold it doesn’t fit. The cover art and DVD title menu suggest one of today’s bloody R-rated horrors, exacerbating viewers’ confusion.

Still, ThinkFilms has made “Slaughterhouse” widely available. It never reached the box office, but is available through the movie rental chain Hollywood Video, the on-line service Netflix and various on-line retailers.

Stein said he feels “really, really blessed” that the film got distributed at all. Many small-budget movies — and some big-budget ones — never see the light of day. Now that “Slaughterhouse” is out there, audiences will have years to discover it and make their own evaluation.

“I have a feeling, and people tell me this, that it's going to take a while for people to find the film,” Stein said. “It will end up gaining a cult audience over the years.”

Dent called it “the little indie film that could.”

“For what we did and what we set out to achieve, [it was an accomplishment],” she said.

Still, she said, “I would have loved to see the marketing off the hook. … I really thought it could have been the next ‘Blair Witch.’”