Growing up, everyone has ’that thing’ that they remember scaring them. The basement with the lights off, that painting in your father’s office that looks like it’s staring at you, that one thing that you give a wide berth when you’re alone because you just don’t trust it. For me, that thing was Pennywise the Clown.
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I grew up in a house with a father who loved Stephen King. His bookshelf was full of first run hardcovers of all of his big books. The Shining, Carrie, the then-released Dark Tower novels, but the one that always drew my interest was the cover with the green lizard-like hand reaching through the storm drain at the paper boat. IT, boldly written in red, always called out to me for some reason. I didn’t know what it was about, I didn’t know whose hand that was reaching through the storm drain, but there was something almost hypnotic about it. So when, in 1990, a TV miniseries adaptation was announced on ABC - my dad wasn’t going to miss it. And for some reason, neither was I.
When the film premiered, there I was - all of 5 years old - sitting right next to my parents watching Pennywise terrorize the Loser’s Club, completely unaware that soon I’d be terrorized myself. For nearly a decade, from kindergarten through the 8th grade, I’d have the same recurring dream: Pennywise the Clown was in my closet, waiting to come out in my nightmares so we had to beat him again. It was only when I saw it again, older now, that I saw the seams of my childhood’s boogey man and realized that maybe it wasn’t that scary. Up until that point, I refused to watch it again.
Having a base level fear like that does something to you. At night you hate it, you go to bed and you stare at your closet knowing full well a white painted face is waiting to peer back out at you. But during the day, you start to miss the fear and that leads you to chase it. You want to seek out that feeling, like a high. Wanting that dash of adrenaline that only a good horror film can give you.
That led to watching Pet Sematary, once again entirely too young, and seeing something so terrifying: A possessed child - younger than myself - killing people. That’s a horrifying concept. There was one scene that left a lasting impact: Gage is hiding under the bed, and he slices ol’ Jud’s Achilles tendon, disabling him just enough to finish the job. That was the first time I remember the fear of something in cinema being brought into the day light. Every time you’re playing in front of your bed, little Gage could very easily be waiting under there. Just plotting, waiting with a surgeons scalpel, ready to slice at my ankles.
From there, watching a horror movie at Halloween became a staple in our house. After trick or treating, my family would all sit down and watch a scary movie. These were my formative, pre and post puberty years. For the first few movie nights, my mother would be sure to grab at me during every scary scene and cover my eyes, saving me from the horrors presented. The problem with that is that all it does is flexes your imagination. I saw the build up to the scare, and now I’m in the dark but can still hear the musical cues and the jolts as people jump in the room. But I’m completely in the dark, unable to see what is eliciting that response. Naturally, I didn’t see what Michael Meyers did in that moment, I didn’t see what Jack Torrence did, nor did I see what Ghostface did in Scream. I just heard it, so in that dark space between the TV and my mother’s hand, I created my own scares. In that dark place, I searched a deep place to find my own horrors, things that may have been beyond the filmmakers.
1999 was the early days of the internet and people didn’t really understand how powerful a tool it could be to virally market something. Enter The Blair Witch Project. I was 14 at the time, and staying at my cousin’s place in Langley BC. Somehow, he had acquired two tickets to a pre-release midnight screening of the film. I knew nothing about it so we took to the Internet and found a website claiming this was real footage of these students, that they actually went missing. Not believing the Internet to be a place where people lied, I took the bait and we showed up for our screening completely unaware of what we were about to see. This was my first experience with viral marketing and I was totally taken by it. I watched that film to its conclusion, completely convinced that there was a witch in the Maryland woods, and these teenagers found it. We went home that night and I was so scared by the experience that I cried myself to sleep.
That kind of viral marketing was never really able to be captured again until 2007 when Paranormal Activity started shaking the internet. Instead of showing footage from the film, the ads all showed people in their seats at the theaters, their eyes glowing from the night vision mode on the camera. Instead of seeing the scares in the trailer, you saw the reaction to the scares. Clearly - this film was terrifying. And it was. I saw it alone when it came out in wide release and when I went home that night, I was completely shaken by it. It’s one thing to go out into the woods in search of something scary - it’s an entirely different thing when the scares come to you in your own home. Worse yet, is that they do it while you’re sleeping, when you’re at your most vulnerable. Suddenly even the most cozy domestication is perverted by these supernatural forces making you question every noise your house makes. It was this fear that started the gears in my head, even if I didn’t know it yet.
When Insidious came out, once again the buzz was huge. This film was the scariest film ever made they said. The title alone was so brash that it was hard not to think about it - James Wan is the master of the thesaurus. The opening credits reminded me of those endless “When you see it, you’ll shit bricks” memes that have for some reason died off. This was another movie that scratched on this itch of no longer being safe in your home, something coming in that you can’t stop or can’t control. But this one adding the extra layer of involving children, putting extra stress on the parents where they not only have to protect themselves, but their kids.
As a recently married man who wanted kids, that added an extra level of apprehension beyond the usual. So when that first child came along, all of this knowledge from all of these films led to the experience of fatherhood carry an extra bit of baggage. The What Ifs? What if there’s something lurking behind the crib at night? What if our kid grows up to resent us, and acquires a scalpel and really strong dexterity for a young child? What if he is playing outside and finds himself at the entrance of a storm drain where a smiling clown awaits? It’s one thing to worry only about yourself, but now you have to worry about a defenseless child? Why did I watch all of these movies?
Then - in 2016, when I had an opportunity to direct my first movie, I drew on those experiences from my youth, I drew on the new experiences as a father to craft a story that I would have watched growing up. That’s what I loved about horror movies, not just the experience of watching it, but the experience of how you feel afterwards. The pieces of the films that you carry with you long after the credits have rolled, and that is what I try to capture. That little something that would leave you shaken after watching, wary of the ceiling vent above your head, about the baby monitors, about being home alone. Or the fear when you kid goes upstairs to play, or even staying in a vacation rental. Having directed three horror films now, I will continue to search for those moments in life that you can twist into a fear inducing moment - regardless of how benign they may be.
Because horror can be anything, even the smallest things.
Born and raised in Calgary Alberta, Brandon has worked all of his professional career in Las Vegas, Nevada where he works as a commercial director. His first feature film experience was producing for Colin Minihan on the 2015 shoot of “It Stains The Sands Red”. Being a father and drawing from his own experiences, he made his first feature film “STILL/BORN” which was a huge hit worldwide. His second film “Z” made waves on digital platforms and in the box office globally. His latest film, Superhost (Trailer), is now streaming on Shudder. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter.