Opening in limited theaters and on VOD platforms this Friday is Jessabelle, Lionsgate’s new haunter from Saw VI director Kevin Greutert.
In the film starring Sarah Snook, Mark Webber, Joelle Carter and Ana De La Reguera, “Returning to her childhood home in Louisiana to recuperate from a horrific car accident, Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) comes face to face with a long-tormented spirit that has been seeking her return — and has no intention of letting her escape.”
Bloody Disgusting checked in with Greutert to talk about the many films that influenced his latest genre offering. Here’s what he had to share:
“Every director wants his or her film to be unique. I’m no exception. But in the course of dreaming up a movie and guiding the crew and cast through the process of realizing that dream, it’s often necessary to find references in art and the world to help give the team a sense of how the finished movie should look and sound.
And naturally directors often turn for these references to the things they know best: other films. After all, there are thousands of decisions, large and small, that go into making a movie, and only so much time. When you’re under the gun and you need to quickly convey to a team of people how you want a scene to play, sometimes your best tool is to say something like, “Have a look at how they did it in The Ring. Let’s try to top that.” In the end you create something unique, but still part of a long tradition.
This process of guiding the team starts at the script stage. In the case of Jessabelle, I asked the writer, Ben Garant, to craft the story so that the audience experiences the whole movie from the perspective of the main character. This is the approach you see in films like Fight Club, and it has the uncanny effect of leaving the audience wondering if the reality you’re experiencing on screen can be trusted. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari and I talked at great length about techniques for amplifying this effect in the way the movie is lit and photographed, which led us back to films like Jacob’s Ladder and the ones listed below.
Jessabelle came into my life as a beautifully written script about a young woman who is forced to return to her childhood home in Louisiana, and must contend with a jealous spirit who now inhabits the house. The sumptuous visuals and creepy sound elements already existed on the page, and it was up to me to bring them to life on the screen.
So here are Five Classic Thrillers that I asked members of the cast and crew to watch before we filmed Jessabelle — for inspiration, techniques, and just to have a good time.
The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)
I first saw this film at revival theaters when I was a teenager, and watched it again and again every time it came to town. Richard Chamberlain plays an attorney in Sydney, Australia, who is asked to defend an aboriginal man accused of a tribal murder, which leads him into a world of terrifying visions. In the course of this quiet but disturbing film, Chamberlain learns that there is a greater reality in the aboriginal Dream Time than in his own modern world view. I’ve always been a sucker for the idea that by civilizing, humanity has left behind long-forgotten feelings, powers and sensitivities that may still be perceived in some cultures, and I think The Last Wave got me started on this way of thinking.
I love this movie because of the way it conveys dreaming. Every scene in the film is infused with images of water — rain on windows, overflowing bathtubs, and of course the eponymous Wave that reveals in the end what is really happening. Each night, Chamberlain awakens in a storm to a strange sound off in the distance, a sound that has been seared into my mind for decades: an inhuman, lilting, rhythmic whine, like the bleating of a dying sheep, that gets closer and closer to the house, until we see an impossible silhouette outside the window. I asked my sound designer, Greg Hedgepath, to watch this film so we could try to understand just what qualities made this sound element so haunting and other-worldly. Ample use of the didjeridoo in the music score goes a long way to enhance the exotic atmosphere.
Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)
I hadn’t actually seen much of the Twin Peaks TV show when I saw this spinoff film late at night on opening weekend. It’s tonally very jarring, with insanely silly cop goofiness intercut with bleak implications of father/daughter incest. The story is nonlinear, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, at least not to someone unfamiliar with the show (I boycotted my television for many years around that time). But it’s not the plot that counts here.
When I walked out of that theater, I was genuinely disturbed, and didn’t want to go to sleep alone (something else I did a lot of back then…) Just as Lynch intended, this movie gets under the skin and quietly seethes.
And again, Fire Walk is at its most powerful when it is depicting dreams and the subconscious. I would go so far as to say that David Lynch has brought the cinema language of dreaming to its highest point, and has been imitated but never bested. There’s a sequence that lived on my laptop during the shooting of Jessabelle that I shared as often as there was someone willing to watch it. Laura Palmer hangs an eerie framed photo on her bedroom walls. It depicts a doorway into a dark, featureless room. In her dream, she enters this room. The sound turns to reverberant sludge. Lin Shaye waves Laura down a dark passage, toward encounters with a backward-talking dwarf (of course…), Special Agent Cooper, and a signet ring. Then Laura opens another door — and is looking into her own room, at the same picture hanging on the far wall, but now she’s in the photo, looking back at herself. What does it all mean? You could conjecture all night. It’s more than the sum of its parts, and as a visual poem, it deftly indicates a reality that cannot be directly perceived or described.
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
The four segments of this Japanese ghost anthology are very different from one to the next, but all beautifully crafted. It’s the first section that I have pointed out as a reference for Jessabelle as well as my current project, Visions. In The Black Hair, a man abandons his faithful wife for a wealthy woman, and returns home to spend a night of reconciliation with his wife, only to awaken and realize what is actually in his bed.
This film opens with a classic title sequence created by filming ink dripped into a tank of clear liquid, and letting the abstract patterns slowly fill the screen. But it’s the brilliant, subtle sound design that really stands out for me. There are very few films that ever are allowed to get truly silent, and Kwaidan is a pioneer in this regard. The icy-quiet encounters with the ghost feel like death itself, with just a few accents from Toru Takemitsu’s abstract music score to let you know from time to time that there’s nothing wrong with your sound system. More recently, this technique was used to excellent effect in Under the Skin; I don’t want to spoil for you one of the greatest scenes of the year if you haven’t seen it, but it’s a great example of using silence to cinematically convey the state of death.
Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987)
In its depiction of Louisiana as a hellish underworld of death and decay, this movie is a visual treat, and in some ways could be a one-stop reference for just about any Southern Gothic horror story since then. Mickey Rourke is private detective Harry Angel, hired on a gig that takes him to the darkest corners of New Orleans and beyond.
Angel Heart takes place in the world of the main character’s mind. Secrets and corruption and sensuality all sumptuously fill every nook, creepily photographed by Michael Seresin. In such crafty hands, Louisiana looks like a different country, maybe even a different world, and the production design is meticulous and beautiful.
And of course Lisa Bonet does a naked voodoo dance with a chicken. Let’s be honest: that’s the real reason we all watched this movie so many times. Jessabelle also has an amazing voodoo dance ritual, but we could only dream of the R-rated glories of Angel Heart. Still, I think we did a fine job in our own effort.
The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
My favorite ghost story of all time, this film was made by editor-turned-director Robert Wise long before he shot The Sound of Music to much different effect. Based on a Shirley Jackson story, it’s a classic tale of a group of people who spend the night in an enormous Rococo mansion, and must face their demons. This movie scared the crap out of me when I was a kid, particularly the scene in which the nightmare force bends the ornate wooden door from behind. It’s still effective today.
What’s so amazing about this movie is that you never actually see a ghost. Its presence is brilliantly suggested through actor performance and sound design. David Boulton’s richly dark black-&-white photography is also a key player.
The most effective scary movies will always be the ones that draw the viewer’s own imagination into the game, because then it gets personal. We each have our own secrets, traumas, and phobias, as well as dreams and desires that can’t easily be put into words and images. As soon as the monster gets articulated on screen, it becomes something that doesn’t feel as true to our real lives, and isn’t so scary anymore. But a film that looks us in the eye and seems to know the unique demons we all harbor — that’s truly disturbing.” -Kevin Greutert