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Will Belzec be the belle of the ball?

A few years ago I was on the phone with my brother, Jeremy talking about our favorite subject, horror movies, when he suggested an idea for one. It was, I thought, a fresh angle in the zombie genre -no easy feat. The demon seed was planted and I sat down to write it; after, of course, learning the software of Final Draft (for screenwriting). Six months later I had a script, Belzec: The Made Undead. We are talking 2 hours or so of writing and research and rewriting almost every night of the week. But it wasn’t my first foray into long form writing. I’ve written three novels, two of which you can find on Amazon. So, the hard work was not alien to me. As a matter of fact, I loved it. A writer writes. I tore into that script ravenously like a zombie into flesh.

But then I tried to get it made. Now that’s hard. First I tried working all my connections made during a long career in advertising, querying producers and filmmakers I’d met along the way. I got some interest. Lots of constructive criticism. But, alas, no serious bites.

And so I decided to enter Belzec into various film festivals around the country, of which there are many. Kind of like a fisherman setting out lines, and utilizing the incredibly helpful Withoutabox platform, I put my script out there.

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Boom. The script was accepted into one festival after another. Wow, I thought. That’s more like it! Still, I had experienced my share of literary rejection so I tempered my expectations. And then I started winning. A lot. In 2011, Belzec: The Made Undead received the following honors:

1st Place Chicago Horror Film Festival “General”
2nd Place Nevada Film Festival “Horror”
1st Place The Indie Gathering “Horror”
2nd Place Waterfront Film Festival “General”
1st Place Action on Film Festival “Horror”
1st Place Action on Film Festival “Sci/Fi”
Semi-finalist: Landlocked Film Festival
Semi-Finalist: SoCal Indie Film Festival
Finalist: First Glance Film Fest
Finalist: Write Movies Competition
Official Selection: Naparville Film Festival
Honorable Mention: Hollywood Screenplay Contest
Honorable Mention: Shockfest

I went to several of these events to receive my prizes. What a crazy thrill that was! Along the way, I met all kinds of scribes, filmmakers and fascinating characters. I picked up an agent. Flew to Hollywood. Talked with directors. The whole shot.

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First prize, The Chicago Horror Film Festival
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First prize, Action On Film
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First place, The Indie Gathering (Dig that trophy!)

And yet, it still didn’t get made. Like a videogame warrior, I did not give up. I revised my script and this summer entered it into a few more festivals, including one of the best shows representing the horror genre, Shriekfest. In my first go-around, Belzec didn’t even place at this show.

This year, I am a finalist at Shriekfest, one of twenty scripts selected from many hundreds, perhaps thousands; I don’t know. But I’m in it and I’m thrilled. The script is also an official selection in several other shows. But Shriekfest is the darling. My cramped fingers are crossed.

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Zombie movies are everywhere. I know; I’ve seen them all. But there is always room for one more. Particularly one with gravitas.

And while I don’t expect Legendary Pictures to call, there are myriad other companies out there specializing in horror. Bottom line, I wrote something I would want to see. Something I’m passionate about. My good friend, John Coveny (The Closer, Trust Me, Longmire) once told me to write about what I love. And so I did. Belzec: The Made Undead was/is a labor of gory love.

Getting this movie made is my Great White Whale. It’s at the top of my bucket list -right up there with seeing my three daughters graduate from university. Should Belzec ever be produced it’s highly unlikely my daughters would see it. It’s pretty gnarly. Still, when I overhear them bragging about how their daddy made this commercial and that poster my heart just bursts. Imagine what they would say if their pops created a monster movie. That, my friends, is what success looks like.

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Behind the camera, back in the day…

Most of you know I’m a big horror fan, in particular when it comes to the zombie-apocalypse genre. Something about the end of the world makes me happy.

“Slumdog Millionaire” was swell but for me Danny Boyle will always be the director of “28 days Later” and “28 Weeks Later.” I believe the visual intensity he brought to Slumdog was absolutely learned making the above-mentioned horror films.

Like a lot of people, I’m frothing at the mouth to see the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying novel, “The Road.” Early reviews promise no compromise in the delivery of McCarthy’s bleak, dystopian vision. John Hillcoat directs from a script by Joe Penhall.

Another Academy Award winning director, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) just released a novel he co-wrote with author Chuck Hogan. The Strain is a vampire tale but, rest assured horror fans, it is far removed from the fey Twilight series. Thank God! Maybe 14 year-old girls and bored suburban housewives find those vampires threatening but I’ve had roommates who were more frightening. The Strain is about a gruesome virus let loosed upon New York. The resultant strain of vampires are hideous, blood thirsty monsters. They want to eat not forge relationships.

From what I’ve read online, the gifted director tried to sell The Strain to cable TV but the project got nixed. So he teamed up with Hogan (himself an accomplished thriller writer) and created the novel. It is apparently book one of a trio.

What’s also cool is there are films advertising The Strain on the Internet. I’ve posted one above. These “commercials” were made to look like movie trailers and, indeed, they had me fooled. The fact that they are for a novel should give readers and writers of the printed word a reason to cheer. Imagine: viral films made for a book! The fact that they are so baddass should give horror fans a thrill.

For my first novel, The Last Generation I also made a faux trailer. For legal reasons, I couldn’t really use the film. But it’s pretty cool. Take a look. If you’re smitten, The Last Generation is still available online. Right next to The Happy Soul Industry.

images2“I want to be in commercials too!”

Writing about horror movies has me thinking about the various genres one finds in advertising films: comedy, drama, suspense, documentary, testimonial…

But where’s horror? For the life of me I can’t think of one intentionally frightening TV commercial. Certainly, there have been scary spots. Crispin’s infamous car crash commercials for VW shocked us all. (By the way, several years before the Crispin campaign, Leo Burnett did the exact same thing for the Seatbelts Commission. Though produced, I don’t think the commercials ever ran. Management found them too harsh. Fools.)

Anyway, scary as VW’s commercials were, one would be hard pressed to label them as horror. By definition (“inspiring repugnance and dread”) they fit the term but one can’t categorize these films that way. Horror usually has a supernatural element, something outside the bounds of human reality. Demons. Ghouls. Ghosts. Creatures of malevolence. The undead. Filming a car crash –no matter how horrifying- does not make a horror film.

And the countless commercial parodies of famous monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc) absolutely are not horror films. Most are scary bad. “What’s in your wallet?” The mad doctor asks his hunchbacked assistant in Capital One’s evermore-grating campaign. Horrid but it’s not horror.

Public service often uses brutal imagery to make its point. Limbless people, wasted away drug addicts, and so on. But again, these are not horror films. More like documentaries or testimonials.

Several years ago my team on Altoids set out to be the first to create true horror films. Given Altoids’ “curiously strong” mantra the goal seemed appropriate. The campaign’s rich history of creative innovation made us even hungrier for the challenge. My two able lieutenants, Noel Haan and Andrew Meyer fabricated several marvelous scenarios, which we sold to the client. Even after years of successfully breaking the rules, our client was nervous (somewhat understandably) about making true horror pictures. “We don’t want to scare consumers, Steffan,” they argued. “Not really.”

We were determined. The execution I was most passionate about featured an unholy child, alone with her music box (reminiscent of an Altoids tin), sitting cross-legged on the floor in an attic. Bent over it, she slowly winds the creepy toy, causing it to emit a painful and cryptic sound, each note building more and more tension. The fear becomes palpable. Right before the ungodly toy springs open we cut to black. Super: Altoids. The Curiously Strong Mints.

Had Pandora’s box (the Altoids tin) been truly opened? What Hell hath the girl unleashed?  As any true aficionado of the genre will tell you, the true horror is in never knowing for sure.

In pre production, I recall discussing the spots with none other than director, Wes Craven. We were that serious, that hell-bent on creating horror. Alas, Wes had another film to make and we had to move on. Never the less, we made our commercials. So far, I cannot locate my favorite but “Circus Freaks” is on Fire Brands. It’s a nifty film, but it’s not scary. Is it horror?

In the end, I doubt true horror can ever be captured in a TV spot. Instead, we’ll just have to settle for “ghost ads” at Cannes.

images-14images-23Ladies, Ladies…There’s plenty of blood for everyone!”

I’ve been a devoted horror aficionado since childhood, when I regularly snuck into the Parkway Theater in Chicago (now, I believe, a Lenscrafters) to watch wildly age-inappropriate triple features with my miscreant peers. Horror, Kung Fu, and Detective were the most popular genres, with Horror being the going away favorite. In many ways, my dark side was shaped in this grind house. Here, I became a lifelong devotee of Hammer Films, the UK production company best known for Christopher Lee’s canny and lurid Dracula. Being a 12 year-old boy, imagine my (psycho)sexual awakening leering at the scantily clad brides of Dracula as they emerged, always in sheer nightgowns, from their coffins in the cellar. I swooned every time one plunged her pointy fangs into each of the gentleman lured by wanton desires –hers, theirs and mine!

As I got older, my tastes in horror evolved to include the burgeoning Zombie genre. Danny Boyle’s “28 Days/Weeks” pictures are current standards, but, to this day, nothing compares to George Romero’s blunt and terrifying Night of the Living Dead. I defy you to watch it alone, in the dark, in a basement as I did some 30 years ago.

Much has been written about the Zombie/Apocalypse genre, especially given the spate of above-average movies in the last decade. Cormac McCarthy’s upcoming “The Road” should be a jewel in this gruesome crown. Critics rightly point to society’s collective fear of imminent apocalypse (global war and warming, overpopulation and pestilence) as reasons for the genre’s growing popularity. Undead people (often our loved ones!) relentlessly trying to eat us are at the heart of our deepest, darkest fears. Mine anyway. That and focus groups.

With this segue in mind I want to talk about a movie I saw at the Chicago Film Festival, now in limited release. “Let The Right One In” is about a bullied young boy and the special bond he forms with the little girl who moves in next door, who also happens to be a vampire. At times lurid and frightening, it is the intelligence and beauty of this Swedish film that make it stand out. Sweden is grim and cold and the two unlikely characters find certain warmth together, not to mention bloodshed. A lovely film. Go see it, regardless of your age, sex or temperament.

And for those who crave a far scarier ride, pick up a DVD of “The Signal.” Imagine an LSD trip with zombie-like psychopaths. And the psychopaths are…you! No mere shock fest, this 2007 low budget film imagines all of us as killers, our sanity undone by strange undulations emitting from our televisions, computers and cell phones. That conceit is not new, but everything else about this movie is. The acting and direction are first rate. I was blown away.

Trust me on both of these films. They are that good.