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It’s May 1, 2012, when I land in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a set visit to the then-shooting Declan O’Brien written and directed flick Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines, and the first thing I notice after the eleven-hour flight from Los Angeles to Munich, Germany, and the two-hour connecting flight to Sofia is the seemingly foreboding signage in the airport, which reads…
“Welcome to Bulgaria. Tell Your Friends and Family.”
I’m a bit delirious with jet-lag and interpret this as a warning (perhaps I’ve seen Hostel one too many times), and follow the production assistant who greets me to her van. It’s eleven at night, and a handful of arriving passengers about me clutch their leashed dogs in an attempt to keep them from tussling with the stray canines which meander about the terminal’s exterior (I would soon learn that Sofia’s population of homeless dogs hovers around 11,000). This too doesn’t seem very inviting, and nor do the concrete and graffiti-laden housing structures which line the sides of the highway as we drive towards Sofia. It resembles the Eastern Bloc, and I entertain myself with the thought that the production assistant/driver which held the sign with my name written on it at the terminal may perhaps not be who she pretends. What had I gotten myself into?
I would soon find that as in many cases, first impressions can be entirely deceiving.
The production van arrives to Arena di Serdica Residence Hotel at the end of Budepeshta Street, just off Boulevard Knyaz Aleksander Donduvoc, near midnight, and I depart. The hotel is five stars, built in 2007 atop the III AD Roman remains of the Serdica Amphitheatre. In fact, these remains have been partially excavated and can be seen from the front lobby, as the central shaft of the building opens onto them.
Amazed at this, I linger for a bit, then check into my fourth floor hotel room and set up my laptop. The first thing I realize is that Pandora doesn’t work in Europe, and not looking forward to a week without music, I flip on the hotel room’s flat panel, which had been pre-set to Citi, a Bulgarian video music station. (What followed were five days of Katy Perry, Flo Rida and Rihanna pumping out of the room’s high-end sound system, and my subsequent and surprising appreciation of all). The second thing I notice (and was actually prepared for) was the inoperability of my iPhone, which led to five glorious days of digital silence. No texts or calls and therefore no distractions, and the ability due to such to see many a complex thought through to completion. This was a gift unto itself.
After situating myself, and too wired from the flight, I hit the ground running, with an AM stroll through the deserted streets of Sofia, camera in hand. There’s nary a car in movement, and small stands called ‘Kleck shops’ (Bulgarian for the word ‘squat’) sell alcohol (you can drink it on the street), cigarettes, coffee and snacks, most of them twenty-four hours a day. Most interesting, however, is the juxtaposition of modern architecture/restored buildings and the decayed, as urban blight is extensive. Graffiti mars most of the latter (as does damage remaining from the Allied bombing raids during WW II), although I’d learn the subsequent day that gangs, with the exception of the Russian mob, don’t really exist in Sofia. (It’s simply Bulgarian youth emulating what they glean of Los Angeles urban culture through media.)
Passing Café Boya across from Arena di Serdica, I make a mental note to dine there and also to investigate the business which resides beside it. Signs which forbid hypodermic needles, guns and cameras adorn its glass doors, just below a neon sign which glares garishly in red, ‘Kama Sutra.’ Is it merely a strip club, or something more nefarious? (Prostitution is legal in Bulgaria, although pimping is not. Coupled with the country’s poor wages and the legal age of consent being a mere fourteen years, I’d witness in the following days scores of young girls sadly flaunting their wares along what has been dubbed ‘Hooker Highway,’ the blacktop we’d take on the way to the set of Wrong Turn 5.)
Departing, I purchase a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label over an Espresso from a nearby covenience store (interestingly to me, something I never drink, while the latter I would grow quite fond of) and head back to di Serdica, casting open my hotel room windows onto a glorious view of Sofia’s cityscape and its moon-lit, cobblestone streets, and after a nightcap while watching random strays climb the dilapidated stairs of the abandoned building which flanks the hotel, as well as some requisite Facebooking to the sounds of Citi, I dive into O’Brien’s script for Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines.
Truth be told, I’m a not big fan of O’Brien’s Wrong Turn 3, and while I did a set visit in 2011 to his then-shooting Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings in Brandon, Manitoba (you can read that here), it wasn’t until the premiere of the latter that I became a fan. That film, in all its B-movie goodness, at least for me and apparently to the Screamfest audience to which it played, won us over. With Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines, O’Brien continues that formula on the page. It’s gory, inventive, darkly comedic, moves along at a brisk pace, and broadens the universe of the hillbilly family, while hitting the notes of the franchise which fans have come to expect. It’s also 30 Days of Night in structure, although with an ending entirely bleak.
With the sunrise streaming through my opened windows, I wake to a now bustling Sofia. Bulgarians meticulously sweep their storefronts as throngs commence their work day. I put on a pair of running shoes and head out for roughly a six-kilometer loop of the city, a city which I’m apparently fast starting to fall for. Sofia’s architecture in the light of day is nothing short of astonishing and is populated by bustling parks, cafés and museums, all framed by the peaks of the Vitosha Mountains. The May weather is crisp, and the air clean. Post-run and shower and with bloody feet (don’t run on cobble-stone streets in Chuck Taylors), I with little difficulty exchange US dollars for the Bulgarian leva at a nearby bank, finding that the exchange rate is definitely in my favor, and then head to Café Boya.
Just prior to my trip, over martinis with my friend Cerina (Vincent), she had made some observations regarding Sofia (where she’d previously shot Return to House on Haunted Hill), and as I seated myself at a sunlit-dappled sidewalk table, they immediately rang true. Ninety-nine percent of Bulgarian women are drop-dead gorgeous, and if the curb traffic was any indication, then her statement was undeniable. If you nod your head ‘yes,’ it means ‘no,’ in Bulgarian, and vice versa. Stay away from the Russian mob. And most importantly, order a Shopska salad.
The waitresses at Boya prove forgiving of my poor Bulgarian, and quickly we bridge the language barrier. I order a Starobrno beer, a Shopska salad and fresh Black Sea prawns as electric streetcars rumble down Dunduvoc, and Sofia drivers egregiously ignore the few stop lights which are operational, and then inquire in regards to Kama Sutra. My Bulgarian waitress (drop-dead gorgeous) tells me in broken English, “Oh, that’s a whorehouse. Bad people! Stay away from there.”
Good advice. Also good advice from Cerina, as the Shopska salad was indeed all that she said it would be.
Next up: Dread Central Hits the Set of Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines at UFO Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria. In the meantime, check out a behind-the-scenes clip below.
Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines debuts on unrated Blu-ray, DVD, and, for the first time ever, Digital Copy on October 23rd from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Free tickets to the US premiere of Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines on Thursday, October 18th at 7:30 PM at Screamfest in Los Angeles, CA, can be obtained by clicking here.
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