Tuesday, October 23, 2012

a high school horror movie story.

When I was in high school, I thought I was quite the creative individual. I was a clarinet-playing, oral interpretation-performing/judging, alto-singing/lip-syncing, play-writing, constant photograph-taking dork who was known to dabble in acting (but only when the role was AWESOME, a la Wayne from Wayne’s World).

If you were paying attention, you’d notice that I included play-writing in my laundry list of artsy activities. When I was a junior, my friend Allison and I were recruited to write the spring one-act play. The one-act alternates between drama and comedy, and this was a drama year. The subject? A bullied high school kid takes his classmates hostage. Kind of a downer, but for a couple of 16-year-olds, I think we did just fine. The following spring, we were once again called upon to write the one-act. This time, it was a comedy about high school students who inexplicably find themselves drawn to sing. Allison was in charge of music and lyrics, and my friend Bob and I took on the script. We called it High School: the Musical. What’s especially notable is that we wrote and performed this play in 2005: an entire year before Disney and its High School Musical. Coincidence? Hmm…

So anyway, remember that business about script-writing. We’ll come back to it shortly.

Not too far from my parents’ house is a little abandoned house at the end of a quarter-mile-long driveway. As a young bachelor, my dad lived in that house with a friend of his. When my parents were first married, they lived in that house. After I was born, they brought me home to that house.
The house then...
We moved out in 1989, and the house has gone way downhill in the meantime. I’m not sure what happened to it between 1989 and 2001 (or so), but that year, a bunch of graduating seniors decided to fix it up and make it their summertime party house. It was still a pit, and it was aptly nicknamed “the Hole.”
...and now.
If that house wasn’t obliterated by the time those Arlington alumni moved in, it certainly was when they moved out. It’s really kind of sad. Before it became the Hole, I used to walk there and explore the empty rooms: one of them still had the ABC wallpaper my grandpa Harvey put up for me when I was a baby.
This fantastic wallpaper was also around.
Ever since that summer, the house has sat empty. Raccoons and birds made themselves at home inside, and the weeds took over the yard. My summertime strolls became less frequent as the grass grew higher and the door more obscured. Besides, I wasn’t too keen on meeting an angry raccoon inside, should I even make it that far.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2005 that my friends and I rediscovered that old house. It began when my friend Bob and I began taking portraits/glamour shots of each other. Say what you want, but it was cheap fun – Bob even ended up using a couple of them as senior pictures. Anyway, we were always on the lookout for new and exciting backgrounds, as there were only so many pictures that could be taken in my yard. Since the weather was downright pleasant, I suggested we pay a visit to that old house. Nothing says “artistic portraiture” like abandoned houses, right?

Bob and I took our first trip over there, took some artsy pictures, and promptly became infested with ticks. Bob, who had never been there before, made an off-handed comment about how it would be the perfect setting for a horror movie. Our respective lightbulbs came on simultaneously. With a perfectly creepy abandoned house at our disposal, why WOULDN’T we make our own horror movie?!
Complete with creepy barn!
Of course, we wanted all of our friends to be in it, so we created our characters accordingly. Our characters, for the most part, were thinly-veiled versions of their real-life counterparts. Bob’s and my core group of friends (Sarah, Meagan, and Tiffany) were all willing participants. Through the years, they had become used to – maybe even fond of? – our many harebrained ideas. To fill the remaining roles, Bob recruited a couple of theatrically-inclined individuals from our high school. Our cast was complete.

After we had assembled our cast, we needed – surprise! – a script. But to write a script, you usually need a plot. Pff, minor details. Bob and I cobbled together what could loosely be construed as a plot: a bunch of dumb kids go on a road trip, get lost, spend the night at an abandoned house, and one, by one, get killed off by someone/thing mysterious and unseen. Of course, the survivors become distrustful, blaming one another for the demise of their friends. If this story sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is: it’s the same plotline of countless crappy horror movies the world over. Bob and I didn’t mind, though: it was OUR movie, therefore it would be a work of genius.

While we hashed out the script, we assigned the movie jobs. The two of us, of course, would be the directors. Bob was responsible for all the creative stuff (set design, costume design), while I was in charge of procuring props (”executive producer”) and creating the soundtrack. However, we did need all hands on deck for the most daunting task of all: cleaning up that pit of a house.

The only word even comes close to describing the condition of that house is “squalor.” A layer of filth coated absolutely everything, and the carpet was hidden under a layer of animal dung. Obviously, it reeked to high heaven. No one in their right mind would stay at this house if they were lost, not even our less-than-intelligent movie alter-egos. We needed to make this house somewhat presentable, and it was going to take a hell of a lot of elbow grease.

I can’t tell you how many hours we spent cleaning that house. We ripped up the carpet and we scrubbed the counters. We removed the leftover junk from its days as a party house, and we used up countless bottles of Febreze to make the air less toxic. Many summer days and many pairs of rubber gloves later, our house had reached the point of “eh, good enough.”

After the house was clean-ish, we needed to figure out how to make this house seem like it had been occupied in the recent past. Two major obstacles stood in our way: a lack of furniture and an abundance of tall grass obstructing the door (and entire yard). My parents, God bless them, are the two most supportive human beings on the planet. Mom scouted Goodwill for cheap furniture, providing us with a small table and a couple of wall hangings. Dad attached his industrial-sized mower to the back of his tractor and obliterated the tall grass. When Bob and I located a cheap recliner at Goodwill, Dad even allowed us the use of his pickup to bring it home.

With the furniture in place and the grass mowed, there were a few finishing touches to be made. Bob and I added scores of tea-lights (the house, of course, had no electricity), plus some coloring pages taped on the upstairs walls (we thought this would amp up the creep factor). Our interior set was more or less complete.

A great deal of the movie was slated to take place outside. With its run-down barn and various collapsed structures, the surrounding property was inherently creepy. There were bones scattered about from the livestock that had once roamed the area, and there was even a broken-down ice cream truck painted to look like the Mystery Machine. It really was the perfect place for a horror movie.

With our script finished, our house furnished, and the outdoors thoroughly scouted for locations, it was finally time to begin shooting. Just kidding – it was time for publicity shots! Yes, I photographed each cast member (except for Meagan, as she was supposed to be the mysterious stranger/killer) because we thought we needed publicity shots. 
We tried to look serious and sad. We mostly
ended up looking goofy.
I put together the soundtrack and burned copies for each cast member. Bob created torn-up t-shirts (each torn up differently, of course) for every character, and he worked on producing a black shroud-like thing for our mystery killer. We even gave it a title: Gravel. (For a while, the working title was The Bunny, as Tiffany had been startled by a rabbit hiding in the bushes one day. We were looking for a scary title, and Tiffany said, “I think we should call it The Bunny because that bunny was TERRIFYING!”). In short, we did everything BUT film.

You may be wondering if we, in fact, did any filming at all. We sure did: we filmed exactly one time. Bob’s parents were kind enough to grant us the use of their video camera, so a good portion of our one filming day was spent trying to figure out how to use it. In our day of filming, we didn’t even make it through the opening scene. We were awfully proud of that scene: everyone is getting ready for this trip, and each shot of each person has a.) a different background song and b.) some semi-clever way of working in the credits. For example, one of the characters is eating cereal, and the text on the back of the cereal box announces who the set designer was. Bob and I had managed to get all the props put together that would make up the credits, but our planning was flawed (as always). Only four of us were available to film that day, for one thing. Another glaring problem: we had no editing software of any kind, so we had to film in sequence. Plus, our “film soundtrack” consisted of playing the designated song loudly in the background of the scene and hoping it was picked up by the camera.

You will probably not be surprised to hear that our grand film was never completed. For one thing, when you have seven cast members between the ages of 16 and 18, scheduling can become a problem. Between the seven of us, there were at least eleven part-time jobs, not to mention summer camps, family gatherings, and five of us getting ready to head for college in the fall. It’s damn near impossible to squeeze movie filming in amongst all that, and none of us wanted to give up any of the fun summer stuff. Plus, we simply ran out of time. Bob and I didn’t get our bright idea until April, which only really gave us until August to finish our film. There were just way too many things standing in our way. Luckily, lack of ambition wasn’t one of them.

That was the summer after my senior year of high school, so effectively, it was the last summer of my childhood. Even though our movie never came to fruition, I am so glad we spent the summer trying to make it happen. What better way to spend your last childhood summer than with your best friends, working on something that you believe tirelessly in but is totally unrealistic? I couldn’t have asked for a better summer.

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