It's no exaggeration to say this year feels like a horror movie. And now, a few filmmakers are making it official.
All over YouTube, you can find inventive homemade horror shorts taking the pandemic as inspiration. (They come from Brazil, from Canada and from, well, Funny or Die.) And a new movie Host, filmed over twelve weeks in quarantine and entirely on Zoom, debuted on the horror channel Shudder last week.
Call it "quar-horror."
Among the most chilling of the YouTube offerings is Stay At Home, part horror movie and part PSA from a filmmaker in New Orleans.
"I literally just grabbed a box, and I set up the camera on a tripod and gave myself a scenario," says Kenneth Brown, a former Uber driver turned horror auteur. "And the story started to build and build and build."
Brown went to film school, and you can tell. Based on the myth of Pandora's Box and the evening news, Stay At Home is elegantly lit and crafted. As of this writing, it's racked up nearly 200,000 views on YouTube.
Part of what makes Stay At Home so effective — and heartfelt — is the insistent drone of news anchors discussing the mounting carnage. "That's everything I need to say as far as reaching African Americans, which is the population most vulnerable to this virus," says Brown, who is Black himself.
But escapism is also the point, say Nathan Crooker and James Gannon. Their upcoming quar-horror, called Isolation, just wrapped principal photography. The two produced the film; Crooker is also its director. Isolation is an anthology; nine interconnected shorts by different directors who filmed their movies using only resources immediately available to them.
"This is where our brains went," Gannon says. "Instead of making bread, we were like, 'what can we do with how we're creative?'"
Everyone involved in Isolation observed strict quarantine, the producers say. The directors made their movies at home, with family serving as cast and crew. Each explored different terrifying aspects of today's world, from conspiracy theories involving 5G towers to the world of two small siblings whose mother has died. (Crooker and Gannon say their parents filmed a fake ending, to reassure the little kids that everything was OK.)
"I think there's something to be said for a cathartic experience," Crooker says. "We want to respect that this [pandemic] is something real and we don't want to make light of it. But horror can be a way to process our worst fears."
A group of girls hold a virtual séance over Zoom during lockdown in Host, streaming now on Shudder. Host may be the first quar-horror feature, and it effectively exploits what's inherently creepy abut Zoom: garbled audio, inexplicable dropouts, those weird fake backgrounds used to disguise where people actually are, and special effect filters that add horns or animal noses to human faces.
"Really, we had this great opportunity to freak people out with something that's become part of their daily routine," says director Rob Savage, with evident satisfaction. "Because this is how so many of us have been communicating over the past few months."
Filming Host in less than three months, he says, wasn't as hard as you'd think. The actors were all his friends, and because productions were shut down, a lot of talented professionals were out of work. So makeup artists, cinematographers, editors and even stunt people were willing to pitch in and help solve problems around actors filming themselves at home. For example, he says, the stunts were done using composite shots.
"So you'll have a character wander in from their bedroom into their kitchen," he explains. "But it won't be their kitchen. It'll be a stunt person's kitchen and they're wearing the same clothes. And they'll perform a crazy stunt and then we'll do a hidden cut and you're back to the real actor."
Savage says he occasionally directed his cast using the chat function on Zoom. It's part of a way of existing now, he says, in a reality that stresses and frightens us. Horror movies are one way we talk about our nightmares, even the ones
Sitting at home, we need other people, he says. We need their vision, excitement and passion. And we need to see what scares them.
This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory, and adapted for the Web by Neda Ulaby and Petra Mayer.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
2020 already feels like a little bit of a horror movie, right? Now some filmmakers have made it official.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Quarantine-themed horror movies are a thing right now. You can find homemade ones all over YouTube, like this short film where an evil puppet tries to lure a man into leaving the house.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I know it's scary out there now. But, you know...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No, you don't know. You're not even real.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) OK.
MARTIN: Spoiler - things do not end well for the puppet or the person. And now a new feature film made entirely on Zoom during quarantine is showing on the horror movie channel Shudder. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Kenneth Brown is among YouTube's new horror auteurs. His short scary movie "Stay At Home" has racked up about 200,000 views. The New Orleans filmmaker dreamt it up while locked down and bored.
KENNETH BROWN: I literally just grabbed a box, and I set up the camera on a tripod, and I gave myself a scenario.
ULABY: The box appears at night on Brown's doorstep along with a cryptic note.
BROWN: And I just started acting, and the story started to build and build and build.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAY AT HOME")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Breaking news today on the coronavirus pandemic...
ULABY: With the evening news as backdrop, Brown decided to film a cautionary tale with some escapism mixed in. Same for producer James Gannon, who's nearly finished his quar-horror movie called "Isolation." It's an anthology - nine different shorts by nine different directors.
JAMES GANNON: You know, this is where our brains went. Instead of making bread, we were like, what can we do with how we're creative?
ULABY: The filmmakers, Gannon says, made their movies at home with family often serving as cast and crew. Each short movie explores different aspects of the pandemic.
GANNON: One of the shorts deals with conspiracy theories and 5G towers. Another short deals with children.
ULABY: Not the horrors of home-schooling them, unfortunately. If you're not a horror fan, a reminder - fans love scary movies as catharsis and as a way to process our fears.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOST")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Is there any one there?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Is there anyone there?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Please come forward.
ULABY: A group of girls hold a virtual seance over Zoom in a new movie called "Host." It's out now on the horror movie channel Shudder.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOST")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) What was that?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) OK.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Amy (ph), was that you?
ULABY: "Host" was filmed in less than 12 weeks during quarantine in the U.K. The whole film was made entirely over Zoom. Director Rob Savage says he instructed the actors over the chat feature occasionally. The cast did their own makeup, lighting and even location-scouted in their own homes.
ROB SAVAGE: The first thing we did is we got them all to film little video tours of their house and to start suggesting what are the places in your house that you feel most creeped out in? Where would you least like to be after dark?
ULABY: But the creepiest place, honestly, is just on Zoom. There were plenty of scares to be milked in the garbled audio and inexplicable dropouts...
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM ECHOING)
ULABY: ...Or those artificial backgrounds that just seem so uncanny and those strange special effects that put horns or animal noses on people's faces.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Whoa.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character) Emma (ph). Emma, turn the filters off. Come on.
SAVAGE: You know, really, we just had this great opportunity to freak people out doing something that's now a part of their daily routine.
ULABY: When we sit at home, stressed and frightened, Rob Savage says, we need other people. We need their vision, excitement and passion, and we need to see what scares them. Horror movies are one way we talk about our nightmares.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANTLERS' "DIRECTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.