Welcome to #FestiveFrights! A new programme of Christmas-set horror shorts that we’ll be rolling out over December. You can expect a new short film every Friday in the lead-up till Christmas Day, with another couple during the week too. Each film will be accompanied by an interview with its filmmaker on what inspired their spooky yuletide tale. Today, we’re kicking off this series with Mark Kuczewski’s Deathmas. A slick, one-take scare involving a group of friends with an unsettled past. So, sit back, enjoy, and happy holidays!
How did you come up with the idea for Deathmas?
I had made a Christmas horror film the year before called the The Last Night of Christmas that was great fun to do and combined two things I love, horror and Christmas. Every year when I bust out those Christmas film favourites like Home Alone or Die Hard, I also line up all my holiday horror films, like Black Christmas and Krampus. I drew a lot of inspiration from these. Deathmas was my contribution to Christmas; a simple story about a bunch of friends that get together for the holidays, and unleash a demon.
I love that you incorporate the conventions of the genre and twist them. Was subgenres of horror were you drawing upon when developing the concept?
Horror is such a large genre, so subgenres is definitely a way of narrowing down both what I enjoy watching and making. I tend to sway more towards the monster or paranormal side of the genre. I think I prefer the stories that can’t take place in our world because film has always been about escapism to me.
Subgenres are great for giving the audience an idea of what to expect, an anticipation for what’s to come. Teen or demon horror is where I would put Deathmas, and I’m sure you can tell I drew upon some other films in that genre. Evil Dead was a huge inspiration. The characters in Deathmas mention a book they had been messing around with, referencing the Necronomicon, and then the character smoking outside is called Ash, the same as the protagonist from Evil Dead.
What inspired you tell it in a single take? And how did you find pulling that off?
I have always loved the idea of doing a single take. I think single takes and cleaver blocking with the actors are a great way of enhancing important moments within film. The scene in Jaws where Brody chats with Vaughn as the ferry transports the car across the water is a great example of this. The blocking of the scene makes the actors move closer to the camera leaving the camera static and without the need of cutting. The effect is the scene becomes more intense and the audience become more involved.
How quick was production, did you shoot it over a single evening? How many takes did you shoot?
Shooting took place over one night. I think the time we had allocated for the filming was three hours of shooting and two hours of setup. We had four actors in total and they all had separate timings for the scene. I thought it was going to be a little more difficult to pull off, but it actually worked almost like a play, with cues and exits. Because the actors always had something to do, it helped to keep all the timings consistent and easy to follow.
I think each take ran around four minutes, with some time in between to reset and look at the scene to see what had worked and what we needed to change. We did a total of five takes but I believe in the end, it was the second take that made the final cut. The film was incredibly easy to edit only being one shot. After I finished the sound design and colour grade, I think the total production from filming to release was a couple of weeks.
The movement of the demon character is so unsettling. How did you develop that performance with your actor?
The movement for the demon was a big part of the film and the character. A large part of the Demon’s time on screen is spent watching her through a window in a wide shot, so her movement is really important in letting the audience know even from afar, that she’s possessed. Natalie Winter, who plays the demon, and I discussed the idea that the human body was like a glove to the demon. We decided that the body would be harder to control because she’s only just been possessed. Natalie is an accomplished stage combatant, trained in Performance Capture, so her skills in these areas made her perfect for the role.
What’re you working on at the moment?
I have just finished my first feature script. It’s an anthology horror with each story exploring a different monster. It takes place in the north of England around the Yorkshire moors where I grew up. The stories range from a young girl dealing with her mother’s new found taste for blood, to a bunch of friends who get stranded trying to find a rave, who become hunted by the beast of the moors.
If you’d like to watch more Christmas-set horror shorts that are featuring throughout December as part of our #FestiveFrights programme, click here.