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Exclusive: Dread Central Visits the Set of Donner Pass

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It’s Saturday, March 13, 2010, when Dread arrives to the snowy set of director Elise Robertson’s horror feature Donner Pass. Penned by Scott Adams and executive produced by Mouncey Ferguson, who financed the film, the independent feature tells the story of an unlucky group of teens who, while on a ski trip in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, encounter George Donner, an entity with a taste for human flesh, and unfortunately for the group, it’s for their own.

Setting foot into the remote mountain cabin that production has secured, and at present is being utilized as base-camp, I meet associate producer Duncan Ferguson, who fills us in on the status of Donner Pass, starring John (the voice of the Crypt Keeper) Kassir as ‘Epstein’, Adelaide (Power Rangers R.P.M.) Kane as ‘Nicole’, Desiree Hall as ‘Kayley’, and Antonio Trischitta as ‘Brody’, with the cast rounded out by up-and-comers Erik Stocklin and Colley Bailey and seasoned vets Thomas Kopache, Eric Pierpoint, Joel Stoffer, Russ Russo, and Kevin Kearns. Jude Walko is line producer.

The first night out here was rough, man!” says Ferguson of the start of Donner Pass‘ fifteen days of principal photography, a film being surprisingly shot on Super 16mm – when most indie projects have gone the digital route. “Fifteen-degree weather and sideways snow is a difficult beginning to any shoot, but it really registered on camera, which is the most important thing. Today we are going to shoot the discovery of Brody’s body, which is filleted open and frozen in the snow.” (FX man Ralis Kahn is on-hand to provide the gore — more on that later.)

Exclusive: Dread Central Visits the Set of Donner Pass

A friend of (producer) Mouncey and (director) Elise’s, Scott Adams, had this screenplay that was floating around,” says Ferguson of the inception of Donner Pass. “Mouncey read it and thought it had a great plot that would work well as an independent film. He kept coming back to it because a) the story is great and b) he thought it could be shot for a reasonable budget. The thing about horror is that it’s really a director’s genre. Horror aficionados don’t care as much about who your star is or how large your budget may be. What they care about are authentic scares, so in that regard we think we’re making a film that people will want to see.

Director Robertson, who previously helmed the documentary Ralph Ellison: An American Journey and who as an actress has tallied an impressive television resume (in addition to her credit as a character fabricator on Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas) joins the conversation.

This is the first horror film I’ve ever directed,” she tells Dread, “but I really liked the dramatic arc (of the script) and the character development and story-telling, and I love the fact that this horror film is a character film. There’s a horror that happens within the group of teenagers that parallels the horror that is happening outside, so there is danger from within and danger from without. I feel like the characters are very well-drawn, more so than what you see in a lot of horror movies.

We are trying to create a movie that has plenty of gore and kills and blood, but it also has characterization,” she continues. “My favorite horror film is John Carpenter’s The Thing, where all of the characters are so incredibly well-drawn, and you set up this world where you really care about them, and then the horror comes in,” she pauses. “I’m very much of the classic 70’s and 80’s horror films. I like to care about the people who die.

As for those who are set to die in Donner Pass, actor Antonio Trischitta emerges from the cabin, made-up by Kahn to look as if he’s been frozen solid by the elements (a mixture of Elmer’s Glue and Chrysal flower preservative mimics frozen eyelids and drool, we are told), and this scribe questions Robertson as to what unpleasant demise she’s gearing up to shoot. Several, we learn.

Exclusive: Dread Central Visits the Set of Donner Pass

The shed at the bottom of the hill is what we are shooting tonight,” says the director, pointing to a rag-tag set-piece that looks authentically straight out of 1849. “It’s the period opening of our movie that takes place with the Donner party, which will be the bloodiest. We’ve got five gallons of blood for that scene. It’s going to be a big night, because ‘George Donner’ is going to return to camp!

And that area they are digging,” she gestures to a large pit currently being excavated in the snow by several bundled crew-members, “is where we are going to stage today the ‘Brody corpse’ scene.

When you are out here shooting on location, you realize why Alfred Hitchcock always shot in a studio,” says Ferguson (jokingly) of the elemental challenges, “but on the other hand you really can’t replace the look of a real sugar pine forest covered in snow, and I think it also helps the actors because they’re able to see their breath in frigid air and realize the isolation. Hopefully, that should impact their performance in a meaningful way.

As it turns out, though, in addition to the challenges of shooting on location, finding the right location was equally as daunting for the production team.

Exclusive: Dread Central Visits the Set of Donner PassOne of the funny things that had happened was that we had found a perfect one in December where we could physically shoot everything on one property,” says Robertson, “and in late February two weeks before our shoot started, we went to discuss the price and logistics with the owner, and he stopped returning our phone calls. So finally we went and knocked on his door, and he invited us in. We sat down, and he said, ‘I’m having some hesitation about having you shoot your film on our property because there are presences that might be disturbed by the content of your movie.’ I was looking at Jude (Walko) thinking, ‘What does he mean by this?’ The owner went on to say that he had ‘visitors’ and ‘other people here aside from us,’ and finally I asked him, ‘Do you mean ghosts?’ and he said, ‘We don’t use that word.’

It was very funny, but he was dead serious about it,” Robertson continues, “and he said he didn’t want to be responsible for anything that might happen to the crew or to the film (stock) if it was to be developed and we were to find that there was nothing on it. So then we had to really scramble to find alternate locations, and we got this cabin three days before production started.

The trials and tribulations of location scouting aside, the director tells us that she’s “blessed to have these incredible craftsmen working with me, particularly Ralis (Kahn), who’s very experienced in the genre. I’m bringing what I have as a character director, and he’s really helping me to understand what the horror fans want. We also have a great stunt coordinator with tons of experience in Don (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) Lee, who’s helping us with the action sequences, so I’m deferring to him in that regard, and already some of the stunts we’ve done have been super-cool.

At that FX-man Kahn emerges from the cabin, toting an eviscerated prosthetic corpse as well as a bucket of silicone entrails, and Dread joins the splatter-artist as he sets up the ‘Brody corpse’ scene (effectively a bit of old-school movie magic: a false bottom platform which will allow actor Trischitta’s exposed head and arms to mesh up with the mutilated dummy corpse, while his own body remains hidden beneath the platform and snow). We ask Kahn, who’s previously provided the effects for such films as The Collector and Resident Evil: Extinction, what particular hurdles the wintry environs have provided him.

Exclusive: Dread Central Visits the Set of Donner Pass

We can’t use FX blood to dress the snow,” he says. “It just turns pink! So I’ve been using red candle wax.

With the crew prepping the shot (Trischitta’s covered with snow while Kahn dresses the corpse with the previously mentioned entrails and a jug of blood), Dread suggests Donner Pass‘ content’s similarity to the 2009 horror/black comedy Ravenous (which stars actor Robert Carlyle as a ‘Wendigo’ who consumes his fellow snowed-in travelers) to director Robertson. She replies, “I myself found that film a little kitschy, but the subject matter is a little similar. For a while there we were calling the ‘Curse of Donner Country’ the ‘Wendigo’, but now we aren’t using that term. We see a possibility here for a whole kind of new monster that’s not quite a vampire and not quite a zombie, but somewhere in-between.

This being a horror film, we bet there’s been some discussion regarding a possible franchise as well, as sequelization is a tried-and-true component of genre filmmaking.

We’ve got parts two and three sort of outlined,” winks Robertson, who directs her DP Bobby Scott in preparation of the shot in which a trio of actors stumble across the frozen corpse of Brody, “and we’ll go from there.

The thing, though, that I think is going to set our horror film apart from others,” injects producer Ferguson, “is that Elise’s toe-hold is in drama and she understands the way actors work together. She’s relentless in that regard. So I think our character development will be above par, and as a result the film should be absolutely terrifying because you’ll actually care about the characters of Donner Pass and, consequently, what happens to them.


Donner Pass – Teaser Trailer
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Our thanks to the cast and crew of Donner Pass for taking the time to chat with Dread Central on-set, and for more be sure to visit our Donner Pass photo gallery, which is full of lots more behind-the-scenes images.

Exclusive: Dread Central Visits the Set of Donner Pass

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AHS: Cult Review: Clowns, Cults, Politics, and Peters

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Starring Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Billie Lourd, Cheyenne Jackson, Frances Conroy, Mare Winningham, and Allison Pill

Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk


** NO SPOILERS **

It’s here. We’ve reached the end. The newest season of “American Horror Story” has ended and now we are here to provide you guys with our season review of AHS: Cult.

Spoiler free.

To start things off let me say I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “American Horror Story”. It breaks down like this: I enjoyed the absolute hell out of the first season of the series (“Murder House”), couldn’t get through “Asylum” (I know, I know, I’ve tried), dug “Coven” for what it was, really enjoyed “Freak Show”, and again I couldn’t get into “Hotel” or “Roanoke”.

That’s the story of me and “American Horror Story”. Plain And simple. But what did I think of the new seventh season of the notorious horror anthology series? Let’s find out.

Back when the seventh season of AHS was first announced (then going by the title “AHS: Election”) I was immediately intrigued by the new season because I heard it would not include any supernatural elements. Like the fourth season, “Freak Show”.

Now I’m a fan of ghosts and weird creature-men with drills for d*cks, don’t get me wrong. But the series has thus far relied almost exclusively on horrors of the supernatural variety (other than “Freak Show”) so this major change of pace was again welcomed by this guy.

Instead of vampires, aliens, and witches this season relied on terrors of the mind. Psychological fears and anxieties. The horrors man does to man. Deep issues.

Oh, and clowns. Like a lot of clowns.

But just because this new season didn’t include anything supernatural, that doesn’t mean the 11-episode season wasn’t filled with twisted visuals and horrifically disturbing acts. No, sir. This season boasted some showstoppers including S&M, gimps, and a house of horrors that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rob Zombie flick. It was all good.

But let’s backtrack a bit here.

Allow me to rundown the season’s plot for those who may be unaware. “AHS: Cult” tells the tale of a world post-election night. The literal dawn of Trump’s America. In one corner we have Sarah Paulson’s soccer mom, trying to fight through life with a series of crippling phobias (including clowns, holes, blood, and being a good person).

And in the other corner, we have Evan Peter’s angry, white (blue-haired) male, looking to seize Trump’s new position of power to bring about the end of… Actually, I want this to be a spoiler-free season review, so I’m just going to say the dude’s got big plans.

Like Manson-size plans. Let’s leave it at that.

With these two characters established, the new season then proceeds to send them spiraling into a collision course of political sabotage, intrigue, and clown-based nope, nope, nope-ing that can only end with one – or both – of them dead as Dillinger.

Overall “AHS: Cult” belonged end-to-end to Mr. Evan Peters. The young actor has continued to show his striking range from season to season of Ryan Murphy’s horror show and this season was no different. Peters’ turn as not only Kai, the blue-haired leader of the titular cult, but as infamous leaders such as David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson – to name a few – owed this season.

I can only hope he doesn’t pull a Jessica Lange and opt-out of more AHS next year.

Speaking of top performances, “AHS: Cult ” showcases some other chilling and memorable turns with Alison Pill’s strangely vulnerable, put-upon wife character being the best next to Peters in my eyes. This actress needs to be in more films/TV!

Along with Pill, actress Billie Lourd killed it time and time again. The “Scream Queens” breakout star and Carrie Fisher spawn was yet again a highlight in her second Ryan Murphy series. Bet she has the starring role in next season. Mark my words.

Add to that, the season also boasts a handful of fun cameos, including John Carroll Lynch’s return as Twisty the Clown, Emma Roberts as a bitchy reporter that will do anything to end up on top, and Lena Dunham as SCUM Manifesto writer Valerie Solanas. The cameo cast killed it and I wish they would have been present for more episodes. What are you gonna do?

On the sour side of the season, I didn’t dig Sarah Paulson’s character. At all. But I’m sure that was the point. Right? I’m still not sure. But, boy, I wouldn’t even want to be stuck in line behind her at a Starbucks for three minutes, let alone spend the better part of this season’s 11-hours with her and her whiny bullshite. Urgh.

That said, she pulled it out by the finale. That’s all I’ll say.

In the end, I enjoyed this season as much as – if not more – than any other of the series. “Murder House” will still no doubt go on as my favorite season of the series, but “AHS: Cult” will rank third after season one and “Freak Show”.

While I was on the fence about the season after three episodes, the show ended up ditching Paulson’s character (and/or shifting her arch) after a lull so the episodes picked up quickly. Whenever the season turned its focus back towards Peters (in whichever incarnation he was playing at the time) the show got better and better. Every time.

Not a bad way to spend my Tuesday night for the past 11 weeks.

Bring on season 12.

  • American Horror Story: Cult (2018)
3.5

Summary

The seventh season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story was Evan Peters’ show all the way through. The young actor pulled out all the stops time and time again to make what may have been a lackluster supernatural-free season a winner.

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The Axiom Review – A Stylish and Clever Slice of Independent Horror

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Starring Hattie Smith, Zac Titus, Nicole Dambro

Directed by Nicholas Woods


The Axiom is an ambitious, well directed, impressively acted and stunningly shot independent horror film that has just a few, teensy little flaws holding it back from greatness (and therefore will have to settle for just being really, really good, instead).

The first thing you realize when watching The Axiom is that this is a beautiful film. Everything is framed and shot in a lush and stylish manner, but one which is always tonally appropriate for the scene.

The second thing you’ll notice, and keep noticing as the film plays out, is that the movie really struck gold with this cast. Not only is there a total lack of the sort of stilted and unnatural acting seen in countless other microbudget horror affairs, but the performances are genuinely fantastic across the board. The main characters are believably chill and relatably normal in the early scenes, and the acting remains just as impressive once things start getting a bit more… intense. It’s not often that an independent horror film has so many good performances that it makes it hard to pick the movie’s acting VIP, but that is undeniably the case here. Taylor Flowers delivers what is probably the showiest performance (and does it very well, indeed), but the entire cast really is quite good.

The central premise of the film is both interesting and original, and touches upon the real life fact (given some recent attention in the ‘Missing 411’ books and documentary) that a lot more people sure seem to go missing out in the woods than seems reasonable, while simultaneously weaving all sorts of folklore, fairy tales and urban legends into the mix. It’s also clever in the way that it very naturally reveals aspects to the relationships between characters that serve to later – or sometimes retroactively – explain some of the more questionable decisions they make or attitudes they display. While that may sound like screenwriting 101, it’s surprising how many films fail to do this. The Axiom rewards the viewer’s attention in other ways as well, with many aspects of the movie that initially feel odd or unnatural receiving reasonable explanations (within the context of the movie) by the end. It’s not quite as challenging (or as rewarding) in this regard as, say, something like Session 9, but it does add a nice layer of complexity to the storytelling.

The film’s score, by Leo Kaliski, is also quite good. There may be a moment here or there where the music hits an overly familiar beat, but overall it not only fits the movie’s tone, but does quite a bit to help set that tone as well.

The only thing that I don’t feel the movie quite pulls off – and I’m trying to be vague here, because I feel like the less you know going into this film, the better – is some of the makeup effects work. The gore stuff is very well executed, but some of the other stuff feels like it was crafted with the intention of shooting it in a more… stylized manner. Instead, filmed as it is here, the result is sometimes less than impressive and can fail to make the impact that the movie seems to be implying that it should. And while some of what the makeup effects lack in execution is made up for with the ingenuity and creativity of their design, it’s still a bit of a shame when they don’t quite pull them off because, aside from a few niggles that I have with the writing, the effects are the only aspect of the film that occasionally fails to live up to the high level of technical proficiency that The Axiom otherwise demonstrates.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS:

  • Man, the acting in this movie is really good. The dialogue may stumble once or twice, but these actors always sell it anyway.
  • Give back Mia Sara’s DNA, Hattie Smith!
  • If you’re going to put your female lead in shorts this small, I hope you’re not sensitive to viewers unleashing a nonstop parade of “Has anyone seen my pants / OH GOD WHERE ARE MY PANTS!” jokes.
  • “You just pop this here ‘Blair Witch Stick Person / Anarchy sign’ sticker up on that there windshield of yours, and them park rangers? Well – heh heh – they won’t bother you none, no sir.” Hmmmmm…
  • The film really is shot amazingly well – better than a lot of mainstream releases. Cinematographer Sten Olson has a real future ahead of him.
  • As does writer / director Nicholas Woods, for that matter. Any director who can get this level of quality out of their cast and crew on their first ever film is someone to keep an eye on.
  • “I’ll make a run for it and get help,” says the female lead, and I’m like “Yeah, let her go – she has no pants to weigh her down.”
  • The gore effects in the movie are both realized and utilized very well.
  • Welcome back to horror movies, “I’ll be right back” dialogue spoken unironically by and/or to ill-fated characters.
  • The Axiom
4.0

Summary

In the end, The Axiom is a solid and entertaining flick that manages to wring a level of quality and originality out of the somewhat tired “Don’t Go in the Woods” horror subgenre not seen since 2012’s Cabin in the Woods. The cinematography and acting are hugely impressive, it features a nice, unnerving score, the premise is original and captivating, and the whole thing moves at a nice pace that helps keep the film’s flaws from dragging it down.

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Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation – First Trailer and Artwork!

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As a fan of flicks like Mad Monster Party, I was surprisingly pleased with the last two Hotel Transylvania affairs. For my money you can put the classic monsters in just about anything, and I’ll watch it happily, and these animated features feel like a natural progression of the 1967 Rankin and Bass classic. Which is why I’m looking forward to Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, and if you are too, check out the film’s new trailer and poster.

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, who co-wrote the film with Michael McCullers, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation features the voices of Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, and Mel Brooks.

Look for it in theaters on July 13, 2018.

Synopsis:
In Sony Pictures Animation’s Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, join our favorite monster family as they embark on a vacation on a luxury monster cruise ship so Drac can take a summer vacation from providing everyone else’s vacation at the hotel. It’s smooth sailing for Drac’s Pack as the monsters indulge in all of the shipboard fun the cruise has to offer, from monster volleyball to exotic excursions, and catching up on their moon tans.

But the dream vacation turns into a nightmare when Mavis realizes Drac has fallen for the mysterious captain of the ship, Ericka, who hides a dangerous secret that could destroy all of monsterkind.

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