Leaving the dramatic realm of his award-winning Things I Don’t Understand and . . . Around for the more paranormal and psychological, filmmaker David Spaltro (BFA 2005 Film and Video) recently celebrated the release of his new feature, Dark Exorcism (Breaking Glass Productions), which is now available on demand. The exorcism thriller revolves around a skeptical grad student’s study of a haunted Brooklyn home and the secrets a family hides. Needless to say, the student gets a little too close and things get way too spooky. With the Halloween season upon us, I caught up with Spaltro via email to discuss his new film and to find out what his 10 favorite Halloween movies are.
What drew you to the horror genre?
Oddly enough, I had no intention of making a horror film. After making my first two feature films I’d been sent several horror scripts that, coupled with the output in the market, made me sort of lose my interest in the genre. I loved it as a kid, but a lot of stuff was just so cheap, redundant and exploitive—particularly to women.
A feature film I’d been developing fell apart due to some producer and financing issues, and I’d been introduced to the investor of Dark Exorcism, who had a certain amount of money and knew he wanted to make a horror film, but had no story or script. It was an intriguing situation because, of course, I wanted to make a film and so long as I met the criteria of the budget and it was a horror film (with his script approval), I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, which as a storyteller was enticing.
I ended up falling back in love with horror as a genre, watching some classics and some great new works from domestic and international filmmakers, and realized at its core that horror is great for storytelling because it allows you to tell stories that are most often “about something else” and use the horror as a metaphor. Dark Exorcism is really about sexual abuse, toxic family dynamics and the past bleeding down. I just made the internal demons into literal demons.
How did you come to this story? Did you find that any particular challenges or discoveries came with writing a horror film?
I really wasn’t sure what direction to go in because I hadn’t been planning a horror film, had never really attempted the genre, and once you lose the thrill of the blank canvas and have to fill it, it can be a bout of indecision, anxiety and writer’s block. I watched a lot of favorite films, went back to Stephen King paperbacks and short stories, and was given my biggest inspiration with an article about a Columbia professor and psychologist who wrote this scientific paper on a case of demonic possession. I was very taken with the story because the actual paper was written so dryly and methodically, as if he was talking about a rare case of cancer or something, but the subject matter and the things he talked about were so beyond the pale and horrific. That science butting up against the paranormal and finding a middle ground helped form the backbone of the story, and the dynamic between some of the main characters, so it wasn’t just skeptic versus believer, but both having shades of those feelings.
Horror seems particularly ripe for specific treatments that turn into their own subgenres. Is there a look or vibe you were interested in?
What I found worked best in the horror that I most responded to growing up, and from immersing myself again in the genre, was when it was grounded in reality and detail before taking the audience on a ride. Stephen King’s books in particular, they have such horrific moments and dread, but it’s all because he spends the first one- to two-thirds of his books just telling a story, developing realistic characters and situations that you care about and relate to. Then he sends you and the characters to Hell, and it’s all the more visceral and unsettling. I was going for substance over style as an aesthetic . . . and not just because of an incredibly low budget.
Given that the exorcism genre is strong, are there any films you were particularly inspired or provoked by? What’s new or specific to Dark Exorcism?
Clearly, when making any kind of possession film you’re going to be standing in the shadows of the Mt. Everest of them, and that’s [William] Friedkin’s The Exorcist. That film just holds up so well today as horror and a drama. It’s beautiful. I think if anyone is attempting the genre, just accept that there’s no new ground you can really do that won’t be compared to that, and just try and find a story you want to tell first that utilizes that.
I tried to break away from that by avoiding the whole priests and spinning heads, and focusing on making an event that was intelligent, verbose, methodical and beyond any one particular religion.
Do you identify with a particular character at all? Are you more of the skeptic, the believer or the mischief-maker?
I like to think I’m probably most the “atheist in search of a miracle.” I’m open to all things, and have always been interested in mysteries and the unexplainable, but it’s not easy for me to sort of give in and believe. I think that might also be the storyteller in me, constantly in search of narrative and perspective, but not trying to stake a claim to any one position. Maybe I also just like having a few mysteries, and don’t feel the need to know as much as peruse.
If someone wanted to do a movie marathon this Halloween, what should they watch (after Dark Exorcism, of course)?
There’s so many to choose, but here’s my all time top 10 Halloween programming list (in no particular order):
1) The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
2) The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
3) Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)
4) Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
5) The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
6) Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)
7) Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)
8) The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
9) Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
10) The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)