Jason Stutter talks up The Dead Room
Jason Stutter is hoping to put the fear back into Kiwi cinema audiences this Halloween.
The writer-director of cult films like Tongan Ninja and Diagnosis: Death is back with another distinctly New Zealand genre film, a haunted house movie inspired by an 1970s urban legend.
Evoking memories of Hollywood horrors like The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and The Conjuring, The Dead Room follows three investigators who discover just how haunted a Central Otago farmhouse is.
Stutter says he first came across the story when he was in Hawera making his 2010 Ronald Hugh Morrieson-adaptation Predicament. "A bunch of us were at this bar discussing New Zealand stories that we thought could make a good Gothic horror and this one guy piped up about this story that he had heard about these teachers who went to a place out of Queenstown. I was kind of intrigued by it and then I forgot about it, until me and my wife were in Thames visiting her Mum and we found this New Zealand book of ghost stories and myths in an antique shop. and here was this story again. Apparently ghosts opened all the doors and windows in the house and had been heard to walk down the hallway. These teachers went into prove it was a load of rubbish and came out terrified."
Intrigued enough to begin researching the project, through a contact, Stutter, to his surprise, managed to track down the actual house. "At first, the owner didn't want us to know anything about it, but gradually he opened up a bit and let us come down to measure it up and shoot some footage, so we could recreate it at Avalon Studios."
However, while there, strange things began to happen at the house. "I don't know if it was just because somebody told us. I don't believe in ghosts, but I just felt the vibe of this place and felt something was really amiss. Then, when we played back the footage from the house, there were all these weird digital dropouts that I'd never struck before."
Thankfully the rest of the production went off without a hitch and Stutter is proud of the end result. "It's a throwback to the kinds of movies I liked when I was 13-years-old – the original Amityville, The Shining. A lot of modern movies start with a bang and a hiss and a roar and then run out of steam – we wanted to make a horror that was about setting the audience into a spooky environment and slowly building and twisting and twisting the story, until hopefully we have them on the edge of their seats."
Keen to stand out amongst the large number of genre films made each year and to create as immersive a cinematic experience as possible, Dead Room producer Kevin Stevens came across a company called Acoustic Systems who used soundwaves to add "atmosphere" to theme park rides.
The audio technology, called Rumble, is designed to hit the bass frequencies of most cinema's sub effects speakers, creating a physical reaction similar to dread, or that feeling you might get when you think you have left the oven on.
Stutter says the great thing about Rumble is that it doesn't require any additional equipment, "it's basically about how the movie's sound has been mixed".
Refining the technology and film using Wellington test audiences, he says it helps audiences get swept up into the story. "What I love about watching movies in America is that often people are going for a really good time – a collective experience. We want New Zealanders to have that with our movie."
When asked about his own favourite "collective cinema experience", without hesitation Stutter cites James Cameron's 1986 action sci-fi Aliens. "I think I might have been 13, I might not have been," he laughs. "I was so scared of that movie. I had such a great time. I love going to the cinema. I'm always hoping that have an emotional connection to whatever I'm seeing and, with horrors, I'm always hoping they're going to scare me."
Delighted to have received the R13 censorship rating they were aiming for, Stutter says it was a difficult balance trying to make a film that was suitable for young teens, but also wasn't too light. "It has no violence, swearing, or anti-social anything. It's an R13 really just because it's scary. We showed the woman who designed our poster an early cut and afterwards she was shaking – that when we knew we were onto a good thing."
Unlike certain other horror franchises seemingly more interested in a short cinema release to help sell DVDs and on-demand viewings, Stutter says his film is specifically designed to be seen in cinemas.
"At this stage, we aren't going to release this one on any other platform in New Zealand and if you don't see it in a cinema you're going to miss out on the biggest part of the fun. You've got to see it with a big audience – the right audience."
He says he's particularly excited that they've secured the big room at Wellington's Embassy Theatre on Saturday night – Halloween. "We've tested it out and it really shakes in there, it's going to be great."
The Dead Room (R13) opens in selected New Zealand cinemas on October 29.