A supernatural serial killer stalks a teenage girl after she smokes pot, drinks beer, dances half-naked and has casual sex.
It’s an image that’s moved beyond cliché and into the realm of “meta-horror,” when the genre comments on its own obsessions with slut-shaming and male power fantasies. Meta-horror may have reached its ultimate expression in Joss Whedon’s “Cabin In The Woods” (2012), which reimagines the tropes of horror films as a dark, Lovecraftian ritual that also implicates the viewer, wagging a finger at us for enjoying the gore and the terror quite so much.
Shant Hamassian’s 2015 short film “Night Of The Slasher” (2015) is also meta-horror, but it takes place on a more personal, even intimate scale. Jenelle (Lily Berlina, expressing a great deal with almost no words) works through a literal checklist of horror tropes to deliberately attract the killer. The scar on her neck tells us she’s encountered him before, and we soon realize she’s out for vengeance.
Slasher’s biggest claim to fame, after dozens of successful festival appearances, is that it’s shot in a single-take. The camera never pulls away from the action, rendering the battle between the killer and Jenelle inescapable — we are unable to look away, not granted any mercy by the editor. It’s an impressive feat for the cast and crew, but it’s also genuinely engrossing for the viewer.
A lot of the film’s humor centers around Jenelle’s lover, known as “The Bait” (Scott Javore), who comments that he looks too old to be a high school student and comically loses his virginity before being stabbed to death.
Meanwhile, Berlina gives an impressively physical performance that’s matched by Adam Lesar as the supernatural slasher.
I chose to write this film on a deep and personal level because I personally had to deal with a traumatic moment in my life. Making this film was an exploration on how to cope with those painful memories and to tell a story on how to not let the past control our lives.
That emotional core takes the film further than a simple deconstruction of a genre. Jenelle stared into the abyss in her first encounter with the killer, and now she can’t stop going back to the edge. She takes the viewer along with her.
I caught up with Hamassian, Javore and Lesar at SXSW where they were enjoying some movies in between shopping Slasher around to investors in hopes of turning it into a full-length film. While they waited in line to see “Demoliton” outside Austin’s historic Parliament Theatre, I asked them a few questions about the origins of the short and its future.
Here’s some excerpts from our conversation:
Kit O’Connell: I guess my first question is, is it hard to deconstruct horror after “Cabin In The Woods”?
Shant Hamassian: You’ve gotta find new ways to make meta-horror. It’s just going to keep inverting on itself. … you make it more personal and and draw from life, the more closer your film will reach a human level. Night of the Slasher isn’t just about horror tropes, it has a human element. … We relate to it as people relate to horror as a culture.
And I put myself into the movie as much as possible, my personality, my experiences. I wanted to tell a story that had actually some heart, intelligence in it, instead of just trying to be witty on the surface. Being witty and clever is window dressing, you have to have a purpose and a message underneath all that, and that’s what we wanted to bring into this story.
At this point, an Austin police officer showed up and began harassing the driver of a nearby parked car, derailing the conversation just as Javore was about to offer his input.
Scott Javore: Ready to go back to it? I have such a short attention span.
What he was talking about, the heart, that was one of the things that was most important about my role and how I had to approach was I had to be really sincere, like on the page that guy could have come across as really corny … you wanted people to really get sucked into this guy, to have him be really sincere, to have his interaction be really sincere, and maybe hopefully for a second you forget that there’s horror about to come.
Kit: He’s a genuinely friendly, caring dude that wants to help out his schoolmate.
Scott: Totally. You have to feel that. A lot of times when I watch horror, you see, we don’t really care if the guy dies or not, we don’t really believe him … what I wanted to achieve was people to say ‘that was nice, he guy was real …’
Kit: I loved the joke about him being too old to be a high school student. That was a great little gag.
Scott: Shant did a great job of making me look older, not younger, to play the part.
Kit: It took me back to all those classic movies where there’s a 40-year old playing the high school jock.
Adam, there’s this little move you do at one point as the killer …
Adam Lesar: The spider walk!
Kit: How did you develop that?
Adam: I didn’t develop it. It’s a creation of Shant’s. And he made me do it a lot of times. It’s hard to do. And we did it in rehearsal. We shot the film three times to make sure we got the movements down and my legs were really really sore.
Kit: What inspired that crazy little movement, where did you get that from?
Shant: I wanted to do a creepy contortionist sort of looking thing — because she’s on the ground being chased, and I thought it’d look a lot creepier if the killer lowered himself down to her level to chase her as a way to mind-fuck her during the chase.
Kit: Does the killer have a name?
Shant: Oh yes! But we will not reveal his name until the feature. He’s got a great name but we’re holding off on what his actual name is.
Kit: Without giving away the farm, what’s your vision for the feature?
Shant: The short film is a compression of the screenplay, the script that I wrote, and I put all the best parts of the script, and it takes place in the middle of the film. So the short film gives you … hints of the backstory, and gives you hints of what’s to come after the short ends.
So in the feature film you get to see the backstory, and how the character develops, and how she ended up where she is, and you get to see where she goes and how she changes to defeat this supernatural killer, this invincible force that keeps coming after her.
Kit: And the feature will also be one take?
Shant: No, it actually takes place over several days or months, but every time the killer comes out, it’s always one take. So we can never cut away — there’s no editing to escape, it’s all happening in real time. You’re stuck with the killer, we’re stuck in the frame, in the shot.
Kit: So you did three takes of the short? I would assume way more takes to not screw that up.
Adam: We filmed it three times. So we filmed rehearsals. We did three filmed rehearsals that were cut together so we had the film to watch and study to get our movements down.
Scott: I’ve never been in something that had so many — there were some shots that had six or seven different camera movements and a lot of different blocking and positioning all within one hidden cut … we had to do some twenty to thirty times. The scene where the girl is drinking the beer, we had to do that scene over twenty times, and she was really drinking water out of the beer bottle, she had to throw up to get it out of her system. She just kind of went off to the side …
Lily Berlina is a champ. She’s a hell of an actress.
Shant: The funny thing is I wouldn’t tell people that she did that, I like to keep it private, but she’s like ‘No, I want people to know this, so people know how hard I worked for the film.’
Adam, pointing to Scott: The funny thing for this guy is that right after that the scene they film is where they kiss.
Kit: So she’d been puking over and over again and you had to make out.
Scott: The amazing thing about Lily is she was totally fine. It was a seamless transition. She’s that professional.
Shant: She’s just that perfect.
Scott: … We found out she has this heart of a champion attitude. She was positive and tenacious. She was always saying ‘Let’s do it till we get it!’ We really lucked out.
Adam: I don’t think anyone has the heart of a champion like Lily does.
Kit: Which fits the character so well, she’s so driven. I saw her subverting the final girl trope a little. Can you comment on that?
Shant: She’s like a first and final girl, we can say that. She’s a combination of all the girls. All the knowledge combined in one person. She’s the lead character, so we’re going to stick with her for a while in the feature. I don’t want to give anything away though.
Kit: What are some of your favorite horror films?
Adam: I really love “The Fly!”
Scott: I hate to say it, but I think it’s “Scream” probably.
Shant: Why would you hate to say it? It influenced me heavily. When I first saw it, years ago, and I still look back at it and think it was some really cutting edge stuff for the time and today.
Kit: When it first came out, it felt like there’d been nothing else like it.
Shant: “Scream” almost put the death nail in meta-horror films, but I do take inspiration from Scream because meta-horror films of today are more comedic and less serious. Scream took it with more seriousness, with real developed characters. With real personalities, they were real human beings and that’s what I wanted to bring back, and I’m just a huge fan of the original series and Wes Craven was a genius at it. And the writer who wrote it …
Adam: Kevin Williamson.
Shant: Kevin Williamson, he’s phenomenal.
So, the film that made me want to become a director was “Evil Dead 2.”
Kit: What about Evil Dead 2?
Shant: What about it?
Everyone laughs as if it’s obvious ‘what about it.’
Shant: Evil Dead 2, when I saw it, I was like 17 at the time, and the film had been out for years. I saw it in the early 2000s, and I thought wow, this is a really progressive film, it’s ahead of it’s time. I couldn’t believe it came out in ’86. The camera work was stunning, and they had to use practical effects. It was just mindblowing to see. And it was so imaginative. I was like a comic book artist and I used to drew all the time and do comics. The images you’d get — What?
A hipster couple stumble past, leaning onto each other to stay standing.
Scott: Those two people are SO high!
Kit: It’s getting to be that time of night.
Shant: Films today can put anything on the screen, with the special effects that you have. We hadn’t had “Spiderman” or “Transformers” or all the Marvel movies. But when I saw Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2,” i thought wow, you can put whatever you can imagine on the page onto the screen, and there are ways to do it no matter what resources you have. It made me think differently, more three-dimensional in real life instead of just drawings on a page.
Kit: Will that inspire the effects work for the final version?
Shant: Well it won’t tonally be like Evil Dead 2, it has its own vibe.
Kit: What about practical versus CG?
Shant: There is CG or composite shots in the short, but no one notices it. We use it as minimally as possible, to amplify the realness instead of making it the effect itself, so it’s there to polish … people can’t tell where the composting shots are.
Kit: I didn’t notice at all! So how’s it looking? Are there people interested? You got people sniffing around?
Shant: Lots of people sniffing around.
Kit: That’s wonderful. I’m really hoping for this!
Shant: The idea was to make a short to inspire a feature, and now we are very realistically close to that goal. We’re taking meetings with major production companies, and it’s very exciting for all of us.
Kit: Is there anything else you want to add about the film?
Shant: Is there anything you want to say, anything that inspired you?
Scott: The tables have turned!
Kit: I’m on the spot now. Oh no, you’re asking me questions!
I describe a moment near the end of a film where the parents arrive home as Jenelle and the killer fight.
I was horrified by that moment — are they going to see it? They were interrupting this intimate moment between the killer and the girl, such an amazing moment. I really dug that.
Shant: Were you afraid the parents might get killed?
Kit: It almost felt like ‘coitus interruptus.’ They were coming into her date. She had a boy over … not just her date, but the killer too.
Shant: It’s her private little thing going on.
Kit: Yeah, that’s what horrified me more than worrying about them getting killed.
Adam: I love when they come in, what he says, the dad. ‘I swear to God, if I catch her with a guy I’m going to kill him …’
Scott: It’s very cool to be part of a movie and to go from casting … to see it from casting, to sitting in on the casting for the female lead, to everything that we go through and to making the movie. And now, 15 months after it’s shot, we’ve got Shant taking all these huge meetings … and to be at SXSW, it’s just come so far. 130 festivals, and here we are having a great time with this project still.
Kit: 130 festivals?!
Shant: It’s over 120.
Scott: I’m notorious for rounding up.
Adam: How much money do I owe you Scott?
Scott: Exactly! But it’s a testament to what strong work, really well executed, really well conceived, but it’s also fun, to see how much legs it can get. A lot of people are making movies, but Shant is making really good movies.