Meet the smart young misfits who are
revolutionizing indie horror movies
E.L. Katz left Florida in the middle of the night, speeding east toward Alabama down the same stretch of freeway where Ted Bundy was arrested after a killing spree at Florida State University. Katz’s goal: to make and sell his first feature film with Adam Wingard, a fellow high school dropout he’d met the year before.
His other, more immediate, goal was to ditch the carload of suspiciously friendly tweakers trying to lead him down a dark road instead of back toward the highway as promised. When he’d stopped at a gas station to ask for directions, these four strangers had smiled so big at him that they looked hungry, and as Katz followed them out to the parking lot, the clerk had hissed at him to be careful. Filled with a sudden dread, when their car turned left, Katz turned right. Wherever he was going, he’d have to find it on his own.
At 20, Katz had been on his own for years. His father and newish stepmom — his mother died when he was 6 — had tried everything to straighten out the troubled teen, even shipping him off to a reform school in Lake Tahoe, where a key part of the curriculum was snowboarding. He’d quit that, too, and moved back to his native San Diego, where he lived with a drug dealer, was a roadie for punk bands and worked for minimum wage at CVS.
But he was too bright — and too bored — to be just another screw-up, so at 19, Katz moved as far away from his routine as possible: to a trade school in Florida. He figured he’d spend 13 months getting a degree in music recording, then spend his life setting up speakers at concerts and writing for zines on the side.
Then he met Wingard. A slender kid with a soft Southern drawl, Wingard was a foot taller than the burly, big-grinning Katz. Even in this school for misfits, they were the misfits. “We were these weird kids that weren’t hanging out with anybody,” Katz says. After bonding over their love of horror movies, Katz soon switched his focus to film.
Both guys were ambitious, Katz newly so. But if you think it’s hard to make it in Hollywood when you're living in Hollywood, it seems impossible when you're living in Winter Park, Fla. After graduation, Wingard moved home to live with his newly divorced dad and three brothers in Marion, Ala., an hour’s drive from the nearest movie theater. Katz stayed behind, wondering what came next.
Annoyed to find himself adrift again, Katz called Wingard. “Just come to Alabama and crash out at our place and maybe we’ll make a movie,” Wingard told him.
That same night, Katz jumped in the car, survived the drive and arrived in a place he’d never been to start the next chapter of his life.
Neither Wingard nor Katz was old enough to buy beer, but they were determined to write, direct and sell a feature by the end of the year. “There was no other plan,” Katz says. “Everything felt possible because we were really young.”
This town of 3,500 was the last place on Earth to make a Hollywood movie. But then again, that’s not what they wanted to make.
The masked home invaders of You're Next
by Amy Nicholson
THE INDIE HORROR REVOLUTION
Horror is for renegades. When you grow up loving scary movies, you’re automatically a weirdo. You’re the kid doodling demons in your school notebook and memorizing the covers of videotapes — Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste — that your parents won’t even let you rent.
But if you’re weirder still and decide to spin your love of horror films into a career, you’re heartened to realize that it’s the easiest genre to make. Unlike action flicks and comic book blockbusters, you don’t need explosions and CGI. And unlike dramas and comedies, you don’t need a name star. Jackson and his hometown friends shot his alien splatstick Bad Taste for $26,000 — all he needed was victims and buckets of blood.
And so a generation of writers, directors, actors and producers — all in their early to mid 30s, all based in Los Angeles — found each other and together found their voice by making horror films. While a parallel class of young filmmakers on the East Coast found critical acclaim directing micro-budget mumblecore dramas, L.A.’s indie crew is carving a riskier path to lasting success with micro-budget cerebral chillers that eschew cheap kills and studio interference. Call it mumblegore.
Instead of mimicking schlock slashers, they’re giving them a twist: merging found footage and '80s nostalgia into the retro-splatacular V/H/S. Instead of pointlessly slicing eyeballs, they’re turning the screws with capitalist nightmares like Cheap Thrills, in which two poor men argue over the price point for chopping off a finger. Instead of casting half-assed actors, they’re starring in each other’s films, like the smart home-invasion flick You’re Next, which had as many moonlighting directors in the cast as professional actors. And instead of compromising their visions, they’re figuring out how to win audiences and respect on their own terms: V/H/S played Sundance, Cheap Thrills won the Midnighters Audience Award at SXSW, and You’re Next was acquired by Lionsgate for a wide summer release.
In the process, they’re making horror films that expand the definition of horror. L.A.’s indie horror filmmakers are scared of a lot of traditional things: zombies, succubi, Satanists, sanity-scrambling TVs, haunted VHS tapes, killer bats, ghosts. But what scares them most are the small, wicked ways in which humans destroy each other. Under the surface of their films are everyday terrors: desperation, power, greed. Who needs monsters when you can make ordinary men act monstrous?
The most shocking violence in V/H/S is when a gang of kids forces a girl to take off her shirt. Cheap Thrills and You’re Next are fueled by money-hungry maniacs. The upcoming The Sacrament needs barely any blood to horrify audiences with its story of a documentary crew that visits a Jonestown-type cult and accidentally triggers a mass suicide.
Horror is constricted by trends. When one flick hits, studios race to make ripoffs. Halloween begat a decade of slashers; Paranormal Activity spun endless reels of fake found footage. Hostel launched a shuddering number of torture-porn gross-outs, and The Ring made everyone mine Japanese and Korean cinema for more ghoul girls with black hair.
Mumblegore shuns the big-studio trends. It’s leading the pack and trusting that audiences will follow. And its hard-fought success suggests a new path for the future of horror — and Hollywood.
More than just a gorefest, Cheap Thrills is a capitalist nightmare. Click on the image to view its trailer.
KATZ'S PERILOUS GAMBLE
Cheap Thrills star David Koechner has dastardly plans for that hot iron (top), while Joe Swanberg gives cold comfort to Amy Seimetz in A Horrible Way to Die
In Alabama, E.L. Katz and Adam Wingard’s big debut was a disaster.
Home Sick was about a party-crasher who kills the hosts’ enemies and then keeps killing. As neither would-be filmmaker had a job, its production was their full-time obsession. For two kids, they were determined to look legit: Home Sick was shot on 35mm film with a union crew.
Wingard was the director and direct conduit to his dad’s free chili, which kept them and the other six guys in his father’s house — which now included Katz’s younger brother, Peter — fed. Katz wrote the script and spent his mornings cold-calling film distributors to ask for money. He also managed to get The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Bill Moseley, who flew in to play the villain after Katz emailed him the script.
But the older professionals chafed at taking orders from a 19-year-old director, and the film itself was just, well, dumb. “It’s a piece-of-shit movie that should never be seen,” Katz admits. “We felt like we failed.” Now what?
Fate had at least one idea, and it involved L.A.
While they waited for Home Sick’s for-hire editor to stop dragging his feet and finish the film, Katz and Wingard agreed to drive across Alabama to cover a set visit in Mobile for the horror magazine Fangoria for extra cash.
The film was Dead Birds, a horror-Western written by 24-year-old Simon Barrett. It wasn’t a big production — the budget was $1.5 million — but it had Michael Shannon and Isaiah Washington in the cast. Katz and Wingard were impressed.
And Katz and Barrett immediately hit it off. Only three years older than Katz, Barrett — a black-belt martial artist with a Jason Statham vibe — had just taken the plunge and moved to Los Angeles when Dead Birds was sold. Instead of a full-time screenwriting career, he paid the bills as a private investigator. (Barrett deflects questions about that time by swearing that it was very dull. “The firm that hired me wouldn’t be thrilled to hear me talk about it too much, because it is supposed to be fairly clandestine,” he insists. “Besides, they wouldn’t want their clients to go, ‘Wait, the people that are doing these investigations are aspiring horror screenwriters?’ ”)
Barrett showed a way that a young horror writer could get gigs in Hollywood. And so with Home Sick shelved, Katz followed Barrett to L.A. But instead of quick success, they both got mired in the studio swamp of writing for-hire scripts for never-produced films.
With bigger budgets came endless meetings, interminable delays and a longing for the freedom they’d enjoyed in Alabama. It frustrated Katz to spend two years working on a Sam Raimi screenplay for no credit and no money, or to have his spec script for a cartoon hook the interest, but not the investment, of DreamWorks. Distributors wanted horror films — they always want horror films — but the current trend was torture porn, and if a girl wasn’t getting eviscerated, the suits weren’t buying. Katz sighs, “We both were trying hard to do weird stuff in an industry that sometimes looks at genre in a formulaic, incompetent way.”
To stay focused, Katz and Barrett launched a writers’ group. The only rule: no compliments. To stay social, they launched a beer blog where they groused about bars with no chicks.
“Our writing was very angry and embarrassing,” Katz confesses. “We thought we were being ironically douchey, but you read it and you’re like, ‘No, you’re just a little shithead.’ ”
MUMBLEGORE'S BOY WONDER MEETS HIS LEADING MAN
In Hollywood, Katz and Barrett were hustling to fit inside the system. They were outsiders, but they weren’t alone.
Across the country, AJ Bowen also was wondering if he’d made the right gamble. A high school band president who’d played substitute tuba for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he’d lost his full scholarship to Indiana University when he asked to switch his major from music to theater. Forced to return home to Marietta, Ga., he sold his tuba to buy a car and worked construction gigs until he realized his good grades had earned him a scholarship to the University of Georgia. He entered their drama school “with a very large chip on my shoulder,” he admits.
His professors told him he was terrible. He ignored them. For the kids who couldn’t get into mainstage productions, Georgia had a student-run troupe. It’s there that Bowen met a tall blond director named Jacob Gentry. He found himself thinking, “Who is this arrogant asshole?”
Gentry had an excuse to be cocky: His first short, a bit called Terminator 3: School Day, aired on MTV when he was just 15. Motivated, the teenager started a film production company, available for weddings and bar mitzvahs. “They just thought we would do it for cheap,” he shrugs.
Georgia didn’t have a film program, so Gentry cobbled together his own, wheedling his theater classmates to act in movies he shot on cameras his friend David Bruckner borrowed from the journalism department. Says Gentry, “We just combined forces and made a lot of goofy stuff.”
Once Gentry met Bowen, he and Bruckner knew they’d found their leading man.
“The minute we started making films, you just go, ‘He’s going to be a movie star',” says Gentry. Not that the films they made — riffs on Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting — were ready for prime time. Laughs Gentry, “We just looked like children, like Bugsy Malone trying to play dress-up.” Still, before graduation they’d shot and edited countless shorts and two full-length features.
Flush with proto-success, Bowen went to New York — only to end up a Starbucks barista. (Matt Damon, a customer, advised him, “Just get in something. Do stuff. Eventually, someone is going to see it.”) Gentry headed to Atlanta to shoot commercials. Within a few years, he ended up shooting his first feature, a little-seen Faye Dunaway flick called The Long Goodbye, which he dismisses as a messy Magnolia.
But at 25, the former teen prodigy realized he’d strayed from what made him first fall in love with film. “I had wanted to be John Cassavetes and got away from my love of Steven Spielberg and Jim Cameron,” Gentry admits. “Blood effects and kills, that’s the ultimate expression of a director turning the screws on his audience. It’s playtime.”
Gentry decided to about-face from his Dunaway detour. With Bruckner and their friend Dan Bush, he decided to shoot a risky sci-fi horror flick called The Signal with three directors, three segments and three wildly different tones. Total budget? $50,000.
In the meantime, Gentry’s old friend Bowen had arrived in L.A., determined to follow Damon’s advice to stay visible. In three weeks, he landed the lead in a 99-seat production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, a gig that led — improbably — to a starring role in Creepshow 3. Bowen invited Gentry to fly out to L.A. and visit the shoot.
“Jacob saw me making what he thought was a Universal film — which it wasn’t, they just rented out the spot,” Bowen says. The friends snuck onto the set of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and Gentry asked Bowen to come home and star in The Signal as a murderous cuckold whose scrambled TV tells him, and the rest of society, to kill.
One year to the day after Bowen moved to Los Angeles, he flew back to Georgia for the film’s 10-day shoot. Afterward, Gentry joined him in L.A. for good.
And then The Signal got into Sundance and everything changed.
Mumblecore director Joe Swanberg's Skype-centric horror debut in V/H/S
Meet the players
A smart, cynical black belt who penned the scripts for Dead Birds, You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die
This Alabama native chugged cough syrup to better understand the robo-tripping sequences in Pop Skull.
The brainy, blonde producer who co-created V/H/S and now handles development and acquisitions for Snoot Entertainment.
An ambitious screenwriter who found his voice when he switched over to directing with Cheap Thrills
Click on each photo for bio information
MAKING MOVIES, MAKING CONNECTIONS
Other Mumblegore mavens
TI West specializes in slow-burning spook stories, like the babysitter-in-peril Satanist flick The House of the Devil and the haunted-hotel thriller The Innkeepers with Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, both of whom would later act in E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills. The prolific director’s next film, The Sacrament, stars AJ Bowen as a Vice magazine journalist who stumbles into a Jonestown-style cult with a dangerous stockpile of machine guns and poisoned Kool-Aid.
A teen prodigy whose first short debuted on MTV when he was 15, Jacob Gentry cut his teeth in Atlanta, where he shot a largely forgotten Faye Dunaway drama, before embracing his true love — intellectual sci-fi chillers. After Gentry’s The Signal premiered at Sundance, he directed three teen slashers for MTV before returning to indie flicks with his upcoming film Synchronicity. His dream project: a karaoke samurai film starring AJ Bowen, which already has a catchy trailer.
This year, Amy Seimetz rocked arthouses with an offbeat mindgame called Upstream Color. Sundance dubbed her an “It girl” and AMC made her the new lead on The Killing, but in her downtime, Seimetz is mumblegore’s favorite leading lady. She has portrayed an alcoholic in love with a serial killer (A Horrible Way to Die), a pampered heiress (You’re Next) and a chipper cult member (The Sacrament).
David Bruckner (center) met Jacob Gentry at the University of Georgia, where he eagerly loaned the would-be filmmaker video cameras borrowed from the school’s journalism department. After graduation, they teamed up again for The Signal — Bruckner helmed the tense and brutal intro segment — before he went off on his own to shoot an installment for V/H/S. Currently, Bruckner is directing The Amityville Horror: The Lost Tapes for Miramax.
A tuba player–turned-thespian, AJ Bowen gave up his music scholarship when he decided to become an actor. Silky-voiced and bearded, Bowen is mumblegore’s go-to star, playing the (often psychopathic) lead in such key films as The Signal, A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, The House of the Devil and The Sacrament. He’s also unanimously considered the best karaoke singer of the group.
When Joe Swanberg launched mumblecore with micro-budget movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL and Alexander the Last, he had no idea it would mutate into mumblegore — and that he’d play such a large part in the new genre. While Swanberg has moved into the mainstream with flicks like this summer’s Drinking Buddies, he’s also acting in horror films like V/H/S and You’re Next, and even directing his own with the upcoming 24 Exposures, which stars Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard.
Film festivals are an odd ecosystem. Once a movie gets into one — especially a big one like Sundance or Cannes — its cast and crew won’t unpack their suitcases for a year. It’s a traveling circus. Every hip filmmaker with the new, cool flick spends a 12-month cycle being flown around the world, bumping into others just like him outside theaters from Berlin to Toronto to Hong Kong. As these are small-budget movies, no one has much money. During the day, they survive on free snacks at industry mixers. At night, everyone heads to whichever party has the best open bar, and afterward, someone’s guaranteed to suggest karaoke.
Every filmmaker has the same three goals: Sell your film, promote your film, and make connections for the next one. It’s exhausting. Everyone always has a cold. But a smart, young auteur whose film won’t have 1/1,000th of The Avengers’ advertising budget knows he’s responsible for catching that next red eye and charming that 100th horror website. Plus, you never know who you might meet — and how they might figure into your future.
“The festival circuit is totally essential, not just for the development of their careers but for the development of their support network,” says Stephanie Trepanier, the market, new media and hospitality director of Fantasia International Film Festival, a well-respected genre fest in Montreal. Part of her job is helping new talents make connections. “I’m at the bar every night until 3 a.m. because I want to be sure that people meet each other.”
In 2006, the year The Signal got into Sundance, the cool kids on the festival circuit were Gentry and Bowen, a hipsterish director named Ti West hyping a hunting trip thriller called Trigger Man, and a New York auteur named Joe Swanberg, the face of mumblecore.
Also around were Keith Calder and Jessica Wu, an ambitious 20-something L.A. couple who were launching Snoot Entertainment and shopping for smart buys. Calder had just produced the satirical slasher All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which triggered a ripple effect that reached Katz. “Wow, there’s a really hip horror movie that has an indie sensibility,” Katz noted, years before his path would cross again with Calder and Wu.
Magnolia bought The Signal for $2.5 million. “We made it for $50,000 — I thought we’d sell it for $51,000 to foreign markets or whatever,” recalls an astonished Gentry.
The director returned to Los Angeles with new festival friends, introducing Bowen to Ti West at the Roost in Atwater Village, and soon had a three-picture offer from the place that had given him a shot as a teen: MTV. The series was called My Super Psycho Sweet 16, a slasher riff on the teen materialism MTV had popularized.
It proved to be the hands-on film school Gentry always wanted. “I get no respect for those movies,” he says, but they gave him a crash course in Steadicams and makeup trailers and car explosions — and quintupled his budget. (And honestly, they’re pretty good.)
While Gentry’s fortunes were literally multiplying, in Alabama, Adam Wingard was trying to do more with even less. Wingard had gained a key lesson from Home Sick’s mutinous crew: learn to light, shoot and edit himself. He’d make his next project, Pop Skull, alone for $2,000.
Co-written by Katz, Pop Skull followed a brokenhearted kid who gets high on Robitussin and sees, or thinks he sees, ghosts. When his friends weren’t impressed with the drug sequences, Wingard — who had never gotten high before in his life — spent the next two months chugging cough syrup and re-editing his movie until the visuals matched the insanity he saw in his head.
“The movie ended up becoming almost like a 3-D film, but instead of the 3-D, the glasses you would wear was taking Robitussin,” Wingard says. “I think my work changed after that film irreparably — I think my brain did, too.” With a hook like that, it was Wingard’s turn on the festival circuit, and, next, to make the move to L.A.
TEAMING UP IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE
Any kid with a digital camera can make a film. But to get it seen, he needs someone who believes they can sell his talent. For the mumblegore crew, that was Roxanne Benjamin.
As an undergrad at Belmont University in Nashville, Benjamin spun a part-time job at the Belcourt Theatre, the local arthouse, into a second education in film financing when the head of the board of directors tapped her for a job in programming, then acquiring, shorts for the Documentary Channel.
She got a graduate degree in entertainment business at Carnegie Mellon, wrote her thesis project on Southeastern state filming incentives, and moved to Los Angeles, where she interned at Focus Features and Paramount Vantage.
Benjamin had posh credentials, but she was still the goofy kid who grew up watching USA Up! All Night and once spent a year in France living with nuns. While she loved low-budget horror flicks (“Growing up near Pittsburgh, everything is just ‘George Romero George Romero George Romero’”), Benjamin felt they could use a stronger female influence behind the scenes.
“The whole idea of the survivor girl is always going to come from the male fantasy of the girl next door — she’s an object of desire and all she’s doing is just fending off desire for an entire movie,” Benjamin says. “Having a chick on board, you can filter out that obviously terrible misogyny.”
One winter, she drove her beat-up car to Sundance and emailed horror sites asking if they could use any freelance reviews. Brad Miska, who ran a site called Bloody Disgusting, replied. He was so impressed with Benjamin’s taste that when he launched Bloody Disgusting Selects, a small film distribution company, he brought her on as the head of acquisitions.
That meant making the rounds at festivals — where she ended up meeting a host of talented young horror filmmakers. “At every festival, it’s always, ‘We’re doing karaoke,’” she says. “That’s how those relationships are formed.”
THE COST OF CREATIVE FREEDOM
As it turned out, Benjamin, Wingard, Katz, Gentry, Barrett, Bowen and West all had their home bases in Los Angeles — technically, within 10 minutes of each other in an Eastside triangle with points in Atwater, Silver Lake and Los Feliz. That made friendship outside the festival circuit practically inevitable.
Benjamin met Barrett at horror movie nights at Katz’s apartment. Katz met Bowen and West on the sidewalk outside the New Beverly. On Mondays, they did karaoke at Bigfoot. During the week, they helped each other’s careers.
Five years after Katz introduced them on the set of Dead Birds, Wingard and Barrett paired up to make a tragic serial killer romance called A Horrible Way to Die, starring mumblecore actors Swanberg and Amy Seimetz. They needed an actor to play the murderer, so on Katz’s suggestion, they hired Bowen, whom they’d all admired since The Signal.
Meanwhile, Benjamin and Bloody Disgusting’s Brad Miska were producing their own found-footage horror anthology, V/H/S. They reached out to every interesting filmmaker they’d met on the festival rotation. Benjamin enlisted Wingard, West, Swanberg and Barrett, and then Barrett introduced her to Gentry.
Gentry had to say no, because his MTV movies forced him to join the Directors Guild of America, which raised his minimum price point beyond what Benjamin could afford — the perils of midlevel success. But even though he was ineligible, he connected her to his old classmate David Bruckner, who agreed.
And there was a second silver lining: Gentry and Benjamin started dating. “Everybody asks me, ‘Do you regret not being able to do V/H/S?’ ” Gentry says. “I’m like, ‘Fuck no,’ because I would have never met my girlfriend, Roxanne.”
MOVIES FOR MAKING OUT
What’s striking isn’t just the mumblegore group’s interconnectedness. It’s that these ties, and this creative output, couldn’t have happened 10 years ago.
The increase of small film festivals is one factor: Throw a dart on a map and you’ll hit a town craving extra glamour. But the main cause is the advent of video-on-demand.
In 2003, a no-name movie had to flog DVD sales, a costly risk for producers and its intended audience, who had to gamble $15 on a film that could suck. Streaming services like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime have cut per-screening prices to pennies, in turn promising their subscribers a bounty of flicks. That means producers who keeps costs low — very low — are guaranteed to recoup their investment.
If, that is, the producers are making horror films.
“This is the new drive-in era,” says Devin Faraci, editor in chief of BadassDigest.com. “Kids just need something to make out to, and the easiest stuff to make and sell is going to be horror. It goes back to the way that weird, old exploitation movies used to happen. There’d be the money guy who would say, ‘We want to make a movie. It’s going to be called 10,000 Virgins Go to Hell. You have seven days to do it, I need seven tits and two decapitations for the trailer — go.’ And then the guy who made it would put whatever he wanted in between those tits and the decapitations, and we’d get some really weird, arty and strange films.”
Likewise, between kills, these mumblegore movies are daring to try something different, something inspired by the flicks their filmmakers soaked up on the festival circuit: drug-addled graphics, psychological subtext, ’80s kitsch and truly uncomfortable black humor.
“They’re really melting the genre walls,” Faraci says. “Instead of worrying about, ‘Am I getting enough monster in here?’ what they’re worried about is, ‘Am I making the movie that I want to make?’”
Freedom comes at a cost. Right now, mumblegore is in an unsustainable sweet spot between invisibility and expectations. The only way its auteurs can keep making what they want is if they accept a micro-budget ceiling, or if they can convince Hollywood to trust them with millions and creative control. (Yeah, right.)
If, like Gentry, they score a bigger-budget flick, then they risk getting shoved out of their niche. Or like Ti West, they could level up by directing a studio picture like Cabin Fever 2 only to be so unhappy with studio interference that they plead, unsuccessfully, to have their name removed from the credits. West has since returned to making smaller films where he calls the shots.
There’s a third option: Make a cheap festival film that’s so good that a studio will buy it outright and spend its own marketing money for a theatrical release. That’s what happened to Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, a witty home-invasion flick produced for $1 million by Snoot Entertainment and purchased by Lionsgate for double that.
“Snoot saw something in us that they wanted to explore further,” Bowen says. “They raised the platform to pull something off that Lionsgate could get behind.” You’re Next is a touchstone for the mumblegore movement. Barrett wrote the script, Wingard directed it, and Bowen, Seimetz, Swanberg and West made up half the cast.
“I was like, ‘You don’t want me in the movie, go get an actor,’ ” West insists. The director claims what finally swayed him to accept the part of Seimetz’s boyfriend was that he and his friends could work during the day, “and then also we’ll hang out and do karaoke. It might have been the clincher.”
Besides, he jokes, “The moments that I am in the movie is mainly just me and [Swanberg] improvising about film festivals and just being dickheads, which is what we do anyway.”
With a promised seven-figure marketing budget, You’re Next was supposed to be the gang’s major calling card. But Lionsgate shelved it for two years, finally releasing it this summer against the surprise smash Lee Daniels’ The Butler. As Bowen wryly notes, “A bunch of mumblecore kids aren’t going to beat Oprah.”
You’re Next recouped Lionsgate’s investment but must await its November home video release to turn a profit.
Adam Wingard's You're Next featured many mumblegore friends in acting roles, including directors Ti West and Joe Swanberg and writer Simon Barrett. Click on any of its promotional posters to view its trailer.
A SCARY RISK – AGAIN
Mumblegore's Must-See Films
Addicted to TV? Grab an ax. When televisions, radios and phones begin simultaneously broadcasting a grating frequency in The Signal, people start stabbing and shooting everyone they see. This is particularly bad news for Mya (Anessa Ramsey), whose abusive husband (AJ Bowen) has just learned she’s cheating on him with another man.
Shot in Atlanta for $50,000, The Signal is split into three segments by three very different directors. The opening is an action drama, while the closing is a tragic romance. But it’s the middle section, a chipper black comedy, that scored then–25-year-old filmmaker Jacob Gentry a three-picture deal helming MTV’s My Super Psycho Sweet 16 trilogy.
In You’re Next, a dinner party in a mansion in the forest starts awkward and gets savage when this family of 1-percenters gets sliced up by a trio of mask-wearing home invaders disguised as a fox, a tiger and a lamb. As the wealthy folk are totally useless, it’s up to one son’s Australian Outback–raised girlfriend (Sharni Vinson) to fight back on behalf of the clan — even if they don’t quite deserve it.
Directed by Adam Wingard from a script by Simon Barrett, You’re Next is a who’s-who of the mumblegore movement, with actors AJ Bowen and Aimee Seimetz joined by directors Ti West and Joe Swanberg in key roles. Lionsgate bought the film from Snoot Entertainment for $2 million after a successful premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival but shelved it for two years, finally releasing it this August against the surprise hit Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Found footage gets a retro kitsch twist in V/H/S, an anthology showcase of mumblegore writers and directors including Simon Barrett, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Ti West and David Bruckner. The framing device tracks a group of pranksters who break into a house and find a corpse surrounded by stacks of snuff films.
In one, three dude-bros try to film a secret sex tape starring — whoops! — a man-eating succubus. In the climax, a group of grunge-era friends (including one dressed oh-so-topically as the Unabomber) arrive at a Halloween party toting a nanny-cam and stumble onto a black-magic ceremony.
Producer Roxanne Benjamin and her Bloody Disgusting Selects partner Brad Miska dreamed up the ultra-low-budget concept, which felt like such a fresh take on the first-person horror trend that V/H/S debuted at Sundance. Magnolia Pictures snapped up the film and also its sequel, V/H/S/2, released just a year later. A third installment is rumored to be in development.
Katz was happy for You’re Next’s semi-success. A decade after he and Wingard gambled everything on Home Sick, his old buddy had directed a studio film, and, along with their new gang of friends, had his name on posters all over L.A. Yet Katz was still creatively frustrated. His Writers Guild of America membership prevented him from writing a short for V/H/S — not that he was asked, anyway — and the former dropout was competing for jobs against writers with Ivy League degrees. Says Katz, “There was a part of me that felt very outclassed.”
He was making a living as a for-hire writer, but not only had he traded in his voice, nothing of his was getting produced.
“When you see something actually get made — when it’s not this theoretical Word doc — suddenly you start to investigate the time you put in things that don’t happen,” Katz says. “I felt like I’d thrown my lot into the normal world, tried to be a normal Hollywood screenwriter, and I was missing out.”
His management suggested he try TV. But his new wife, Mette-Marie, whom he’d married after a whirlwind courtship, suggested he double down on his passion for indie horror. What if he scraped up a $100,000 investment and directed his own movie?
“I had been making all these careful decisions,” Katz says. At heart, though, he was still that kid who loved to take risks.
He had just the script to do it. At a monthly dinner party he’d launched for a group of 40 genre screenwriters as a way to pool their knowledge, Katz had come across a draft of a taut and pitiless thriller about two high school friends, two rich strangers and a drunken night of escalating dares.
“It almost functioned like a play,” says Katz. He reshaped it into Cheap Thrills and convinced four great actors to play the leads, including arthouse Everyman Pat Healy (Compliance) and smarmy comedian David Koechner (Anchorman), who portrays the manipulative millionaire.
Cheap Thrills debuted at this year’s SXSW, where it made headlines as both the Midnighters Audience Award winner and the festival’s first purchase.
“It’s insane that that’s his first feature,” says Benjamin, now director of development and acquisitions at Snoot. Her company immediately snapped up Katz’s directorial debut in an intense bidding war, which they won by partnering with the Alamo Drafthouse. “It shows such a strong talent for him as a director, which is funny because we always saw him as a writer before.”
Cheap Thrills hits theaters in March. In the meantime, Katz and the gang are following their mantra: Keep active.
Katz is working on his second film for Snoot, and the company is also funding the group’s next wave of flicks: Barrett and Wingard’s The Guest, a psychological action thriller with notes of Moliere’s Tartuffe, and Gentry’s return to indie filmmaking with a sci-fi thriller called Synchronicity, in which Bowen will play the lead.
As for Bowen, he’s currently touring the festival circuit with West and Swanberg for the found-footage Kool-Aid cult flick The Sacrament — even as Swanberg flew to Montreal’s Fantasia to debut his first mumblegore film, 24 Exposures. In that film, Barrett and Wingard star as a detective investigating a series of murders connected to a fetish photographer. And on the side, Benjamin, Miska, Barrett and Wingard recently produced V/H/S/2, where they signed new-to-the-franchise directors Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto at 2 a.m. in a karaoke booth at SXSW.
That’s the present. What’s the future? Will L.A.’s mumblegore crew find that Hollywood still stigmatizes horror filmmakers, or will Hollywood catch up to Cannes? Three years ago that prestigious festival programmed almost no horror films; now it plays a dozen.
And what about the gang itself? Will they chafe at being lumped together or resent the first person who successfully breaks away into a fulfilling studio career? Can they persuade highbrow audiences that there’s no shame in a good scare?
“We were really in the dark trying to figure out what we were doing, what we were good at — it took some time because the shit that we wanted to make wasn’t formed yet,” Katz says.
No matter what happens next, they’ve come a long way. “A 20- and a 21-year-old filmmaker were talking to me and they said, ‘You might not know this, but Home Sick was a big inspiration for us,’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘No way.’ They were like, ‘Well, you and Adam worked on Home Sick and then went on to make good movies.’ ”
Scenes from V/H/S. Click on the lower image to view its international trailer.