Friday, February 16, 2007

THE HOUSE BETWEEN, Episode #1: "Arrived"

This is the first installment of the sci-fi serial, THE HOUSE BETWEEN. In the first episode, "Arrived," written and directed by John Kenneth Muir, singer-songwriter Astrid (Kim Breeding) awakens to find herself in a strange, empty old house. Among those she encounters in it are a strange squatter in the kitchen, Arlo (Jim Blanton), the "one step at a time" scientist, Bill T. Clark (Tony Mercer) and the difficult, secretive Travis (Lee Hansen). This is the first of seven episodes in the first season, produced by Joseph Maddrey. From the Lulu Show LLC

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The House Between "Arrives" tomorrow

The House Between premieres tomorrow, with the first installment, "Arrived." Assuming no technical delays or glitches (yeah, right!) the show should be uploaded and "on the air" by noon. We'll see. Please be patient, and check back here a lot tomorrow.

In the meantime, enjoy some behind-the-scenes photos from the making of the show. Some of these you may have seen before, others perhaps not. In the photo to the left, the cast and crew is in the foyer, setting up a shot in "the house at the end of the universe."

Left: Tony Mercer (Bill Clark; far left ) readies himself for action, while special effects guru Rob Floyd (center) applies finishing touches to Florent Christol's (Sange; right) make-up. From Episode # 6: "Trashed." Why is Sange tied to the staircase? It's just that kinda show...

Another view from "Trashed." Tony's laid out on the floor, while Alicia Wood (Theresa), Lee Hansen (Travis), Kim Breeding (Astrid) and Flo (Sange) wait for me to call action.

Alicia and Jim (Arlo) prep for a shot in the kitchen. I *believe* this is from episode 2, "Settled," during shooting of what I called "the trial" scene.

Kathryn (left, producer and my very pregnant wife...) watches while Lee, center low, tapes his so-called "hostage video." Lighting co-directors Bobby and Kevin are watching from the door frame. Tony paces in the kitchen, going through his paces for a lengthy monologue.

Before we even started shooting, on the night of June 3rd, Rob Floyd (right, back to us) was choreographing stunts. Here, Jim (Arlo) and Kim (Astrid) rehearse for their first meeting.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The House Between: Two Days To Go

The countdown to the premiere of "Arrived" continues. Right here, Friday morning (and on The House Between page), the first installment of the seven-part first season commences. I hope you'll join me for the show!

To let you know a little bit about "Arrived" (my director's notes, so to speak), the introductory tale went through four drafts, the last dated May 18, 2006. I incorporated the very clever notes given to me by my producer, Joe Maddrey, as well as the feedback of my exec producer, Kathryn, and on June 4th, 2006 we began shooting the 38 page script. This is also the only episode we did a cast reading for too. It was a valuable experience, and I wish we had continued the process. time! No time!

Gazing back at the script, which introduces the characters and concepts of the series, I recall now that we didn't shoot one scene in "Arrived", numbered 9E (starting on page 34). It's a two-page sequence between Astrid (Kim Breeding) and Bill T. Clark (Tony Mercer), set in her bedroom, that we ultimately deemed expendable. Why? Well, that was our first day of shooting, we shot for sixteen hours to get the episode in the can (which runs at 29 minutes) and everybody agreed that the scene - though charming - was somewhat redundant and didn't add much to the story or the relationships. One of these days, I'm going to corral Kim and Tony to do an audio reading of it, for the DVD Extras. I still like the scene and wish we had it, if for no other reason than to further define the boundaries of the "friendship" between Bill and Astrid. Knowing where we "end" with this subplot, it would be interesting to have more stuff to define the "beginning"

What are my other memories about shooting "Arrived?" Well, the very first shot of the day - the first day of the show - one of our very hot lamps fell over and burned a spot in the carpet. That wasn't fun, but our lighting directors are both brilliant and inventive. Kevin and Bobby designed the "look" for the show, based on a one sentence description I gave them, that I wanted shadows to be "the furniture" in the house. These guys delivered, and delivered big time.

After that initial mishap, it felt like pretty smooth, if grueling - sailing. My fellow director of photography, Rick Coulter, and I both had scrupulously prepared shot lists for the entire day, the entire episode. I'd estimate we followed them till about 12:00 noon or so, until we realized that they were actually slowing things down, and pretty darn impractical in the face of reality. You know how generals say a war plan doesn't survive it's first encounter with the battleground? Well, in my experience, neither do storyboards and shot lists. I think it's fair to say we kept an eye on the lists when we got into a pickle that day, but mostly, we were gaining confidence and figuring out the logistics of how to shoot as we went. I had a shot list for day two, "Settled" and never looked at it.

From what I hear from the actors, our "Arrived" day was one of the toughest and most nerve wracking, especially for Tony Mercer, Lee Hansen and Alicia A. Wood, who basically had to wait long spells in the green room until we were ready for them. I don't think Tony and Lee went before the cameras until well into the afternoon. And Alicia was there for the last, late late shot of the day. Not that the others had it easy, either. Jim had a big dialogue scene early in the day, starting with a physical confrontation (beautifully choreographed by Rob Floyd), and Kim started out the day and the show...mostly nude. How's that for an intimidating debut?

My wife, Kathryn, the executive producer on this endeavor, never liked "Arrived" on paper as much as the later scripts, but even she has been bowled over by how well it flows, how well it cuts together, and what great performances the actors deliver. Yes, this is a super-low budget show, with seven half-hour episodes shot in seven days, but much is achieved in spite of limitations. Even if on later days we were more experienced, quicker, and better equipped to leap over hurdles. For me, there is just something magical about this first chapter.

So, in preparation for The House Between, Episode 1: "Arrived" on Friday, check out this selection of series clips again:

Monday, February 12, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: When A Stranger Calls (2006)

When a Stranger Calls... idiot answers.

The 1979 film When A Stranger Calls remains a model of horror movie ingenuity, elegance and simplicity. The first twenty-minutes of this film form a perfect vignette. As you might recall, it's a harrowing, stomach-churning set-piece involving a babysitter (played by Carol Kane) in a suburban house at night, dealing with an obscene phone caller who just won't quit. He keeps telling her to "check the children" and she learns, from a police phone trace, that the killer "is inside the house." She tries to escape, and the terror mounts...and it's all brilliantly vetted.

This set-up and revelation takes perhaps twenty glorious moments in the original. In the lackluster, incredibly stupid 2006 remake, the revelation of the killer's location (in the house!) comes after a long hour of tedium. Yes, this movie is so idiotic an endeavor that it takes what we already accept as given (a killer in the house...) and attempts to play this factoid (also revealed in the trailers...) as a the top of Act Three. That's stupidity on a master's level.

This is what I wrote about the original When a Stranger Calls in my book Horror Films of the 1970s:
"The opening vignette of When A Stranger Calls is, without exaggeration, one of the most terrifying scenes ever put to film, and a masterwork of suspense...Director Fred Walton pulls out all the stops to make this scenario effective as a babysitter named Jill copes with a true horror: a killer inside the house. Walton begins well by establishing Jill's isolation, filming her in long shot as she talks to friends on the phone, unaware of the horror to come. Then, Walton teases us with "jolts" in the night, little noises that put the audience on edge (such as the refrigerator ice maker kicking in). These noises serve not only to jar the audience, they remind viewers that Jill is a stranger in the house. She is not knowledgeable about the territory..."
What I might also have noted in a review of the original is that When A Stranger Calls builds its horror successfully by landing terror in the most mundane of situations and locations. The house in the original seventies film is just an average American house on an average middle-class street. Nothing special. We identify with how "normal" the babysitter routine in this typical environment is, and that's crucial for the forging of terror. We must believe in it; it must be related to reality enough that we can all imagine ourselves trapped in that house. Or a house like it. Maybe even a house where we babysat...

It truly takes superior incompetence to mess us up a simple, elegant premise like this one: a teenager trapped in a house with a psycho. Yet director Simon West is clearly up to the task of ruining a great idea. First, the house in the new film is ridiculous and fanciful in its "Hollywood" conception. This dream mansion includes a vast nature habitat in one room (with a convenient pond in the middle), all the lights turn themselves on and off by themselves based on habitation, and there's even an elaborate guest house too, bigger than most average homes in America, I'd wager. Fireplaces activate by remote control, as do recessed plasma TV sets. Oh, and the house stands on the edge of a misty lake, and consists almost entirely of two-story window panes. In other words, this is the kind of home that exists only in stupid Hollywood movies. There's nothing familiar, routine or simple about it, and so the movie loses all sense of reality almost immediately. This is a fantasy, not a horror most people (except the super rich...) can identify with. I don't know about you, but I've never been in a house like this, in a location like this.

Secondly, West assiduously telegraphs every single scare and would-be surprise in the film so you can practically clock them. For instance, he takes us on an "exposition" tour of the alarm system, reminds us of the live-in domestic help on the third floor, mentions the son from college in the guest house, and periodically re-introduces a cat named Chester...who's always good for a jump-scare when things get dull. Which is a real danger here. Anyone who's ever seen a horror movie will guess exactly when and how each of these "red herrings" is going to come up and serve the plot. There's not a legitimate jolt to be found in this remake.

Adding insult to injury, Camilla Belle, the actress who plays "Jill Johnson," the babysitter, is vapid and callow in the extreme, unable to project intelligence, wit or charm. She's not assisted by the dreadful script, which requires Jill to be insipid and foolish for most of the film's running time. For example, it takes her half the movie to call her parents and tell them she's in danger. When she leaves them a message, she doesn't bother to indicate that she's having a life-threatening emergency here. She says "call me when you get in," or words to that effect. How about shouting "help!"? It's been a long while since I've seen such an ineffective performance hold sway at the center of a major, A-list Hollywood film, but here it is, in all it's rancid, embarrassing glory.

Actually, I'm sort of amazed at just how bad this film is on virtually every level imaginable. Even the sound effects are a joke. There are little yellow birds living in that habitat I wrote abou aboet, yet when they fly by Jill to generate a scare, it sounds as though giant leathery dragon wings are flapping in a vast cavern. What the hell?

Remaking When A Stranger Calls was a fool's errand anyway. We already know all the punchlines -- "the call is coming from inside the house" and "check the children," -- so why make us wait a tedious hour to recite them? And why not give them to us in surprising, unexpected ways? Why make the audience suffer through endless shots of the impossibly gorgeous house? Why replace the brilliant first scene of the original film with a disastrously directed and edited new first scene: a montage at an amusement park where roller coaster rides are inter-cut with the screams from an off-screen (and confusing) murder. This scene is a catastrophe in conception too. The very first shot of the film depicts a house that looks like an upper-class arts-and-crafts mansion...on the edge of a carnival fairgrounds. Come on, just how likely is a conjunction like that? In modern America? I mean, the carnival basically stands in the backyard, it's so bloody close.

Everything in this remake is plastic and two-dimensional. From the depressingly bad performances to the idiotic script, to the obvious direction. And sadly, this is a horror movie that doesn't even have balls. In the original, the killer suggested "check the children," and when Jill did so...she found them dead. He'd murdered them. This PG-13 remake wants to play it safe, so Jill rescues the children, and the killer hardly seems to notice them, purposefully allowing them to escape at one juncture, in favor of the babysitter. That's just...shitty.

Note to Simon West: playing it safe represents the antithesis of good horror. A good horror film needs to take risks, keep us unsettled, uneasy, and on the edge of our seats. Especially if it's a remake, and we already know the twist and turns. Don't trot out a thirty year old story, and take 60 minutes to do what it did better in 15.

This is really one (along with 2005's The Fog) for the horror hall of shame. What a total and complete botch-job.