For most artists, creative expression is the highest form of freedom you can exercise. As artists mature and refine their vision, they become seekers of new ways to exploit and manipulate their methods for new forms of art. Some indulge in the excesses of life to achieve this. Others, like the four-person team known as Dark Red Horror, have discovered a winning formula for terror from the “constraints” of minimalism.
Composed of the husband/wife duo of Mason (writer) and Tabitha McDonald (set designer), Jeff Payne (actor, editing) and Dustin Miller (sound and music), the group has embarked on their most ambitious project to date — a series of films named after each month.
The latest film, September, is being screened at the annual Atlanta Horror Film Festival. Mason and Tabitha sat down with BeatsBoxingMayhem ahead of Saturday’s premier to discuss their unique approach to horror.
The name Dark Red Horror was immediately striking to me. We know in horror the word red can mean anything from danger to gore or passion. What’s the philosophy behind the name?
Mason: When we came up with Dark Red, we weren’t thinking in terms of gore. It was more of a vibe and lighting style, to be honest. We went through tons and tons of names. A lot of them were louder than hours. They were trying too hard to be something.
Dark Red is simple and subtle. I guarantee when you watch September you’ll understand that’s exactly what our style is — extremely simplistic and very subtle. There’s no dialogue. There’s only one character. The whole movie takes place in the course of an evening.
It’s more of a style that we’re going with more than anything we want to show.
Creatively, what was the process of framing an entire film around just one character?
Mason: September is actually a part of a series. Each series is the name of the month. I originally wrote September as a standalone thing. I wrote it before I even formed Dark Red. It was an idea I wrote down and shelved.
When we formed Dark Red, we discussed what our first project should be and I said: “I had this super quiet, hyper-simplistic kind of story.” They read it and loved it.
If I’m totally being honest, there’s zero gore. We wanted to make a movie that was as non-gory as possible but also as terrifying as possible. It was a challenge but we like to limit ourselves. I feel like whenever an artist is limited, you get some of their best product.
A good example is my favorite band, The White Stripes. It’s two people — a girl on the drums and a guy on the guitar. They’re limited, no bass player or any other effects. They limit themselves to create their own kind of art form.
Tabitha: That old adage of extreme constraint breeds creativity. We found that brings the best out of us.
Are the storylines connected through each month?
Each story is connected. But we wanted each to be a standalone story in the sense you could watch one and not need to see the others to understand and enjoy it. But they are definitely connected.
Tabby, after Mason writes everything, what is your process to create the landscape and bringing the vision to life?
Tabitha: It’s not necessarily challenging, but it can be tedious. Our process is I take everything and lay it out in front of me as I visualize it. Then we sit down together and analyze what works and what doesn’t. We do that about 10 more times. [laughs]
Mason: I would argue we do that about 50 times! [laughs]
Tabby: It’s a really tedious process. We take our time to try and see it from as many perspectives as possible to find the perfect flow. Sometimes it can be hard to translate a story from paper to screen.
I’m pretty sure Jeff is a nice guy, but he’s highly unsettling in the trailer, particularly his eyes. Was that cold stare something you asked for or was it improvised?
Mason: Let me tell you about Jeff Payne. He’s the personification of a horror fanatic. If you can think of a horror movie he probably owns it on eight different formats. He eats and breathes horror. Jeff got married in a Freedy Krueger outfit.
Jeff does not normally like to act but he’s really good at it. He has a very striking stare and those really deep, sunken blue eyes. I asked him to put on some glasses and we did a few makeup tests. After that, I said, “Dude, you gotta play this!”
He plays a serial killer. We took a quiet, sociopathic approach — a really calm and in control killer. I mimicked my directing style off of his state of mind. His character is all about control and things being exactly where they need to be and how he wants them to be.
Towards the end of the story, something happens where he’s not in control anymore and we completely flip the directing style to reflect his new state of mind.
Tabitha: I would say Jeff is a super loud and rambunctious person, not like the character at all. He is all about hiking, going to metal concerts and watching horror movies.
Do you feel there’s been a resurgence in horror film quality or just more mainstream attention?
Tabitha: I think it’s both. There is more horror in the mainstream but everything is super accessible now. It’s not that people didn’t want to make horror before but now everyone can. You can take your iPhone, get some friends and food coloring to make a slasher. It’s that easy…
Mason: I agree with that. I do feel sometimes you’ll get lulls in horror and others where it shines brightly. Lately, horror has been better. To be honest, between 2000 and 2010, I don’t know what happened to horror. It was terrible!
After that hump, quality horror started coming back in. As you can tell, I like the subtle and atmospheric approach. Those questions are scarier than the gore and jump-scare horror. Films like It Follows and The Babadook are really simple in their approach.
The lower budget stuff is way better because they’re limited and have to think hard about their approach and be really creative. We’re getting more creative minds now because of the digital revolution.
One of the appeals to horror movies is you get a “safe thrill.” Despite any horrific visuals, you’re still in a safe environment as the viewer. But with September, what can the viewers learn about themselves if anything?
Mason: The viewers will realize that less is more. Sometimes I feel like other films focus too much on dialogue and exposition. Some filmmakers hold the audiences’ hand instead of letting them form their own opinions.
We don’t do that at all. We don’t even tell you the name of the guy. We let the viewer watch and develop their own takes.
Tabitha: Outside of being a filmmaker, I feel like any viewer will take away that any human can be scared even if you think you have control of the situation. That control can be taken away and put you in a terrifying position. This is a reminder not to take that control or life for granted because anything can happen to take that away.
Tabby: We work really closely as a team. We have very different roles between the four of us and that’s a key component to making our films work. We tell our stories in a different way because of the various perspectives.
Mason: We’re trying to be minimalist and pure. We could hire a whole crew if we wanted to. We want to keep it as small and as contained as possible…
Tabitha: We’ve found when we step outside of those boundaries our product isn’t as strong. The four of us working together makes the strongest product by far.
September is screening at the Atlanta Horror Festival this Saturday (October 27) during the Straight Creepin’ Shorts Program #10 starting at 7:30 p.m. Visit http://darkredhorror.com/ for more information on future projects.