For movie lovers of a certain age, childhood memories tend to be viewed through a specific lens. Every little triumph and tragedy takes on a blown-up, cinematic grandeur; the world seems bigger than it was, the old neighborhood more vast, the morning bus ride to school magical (at magic hour!) rather than mundane. Lens flares might even be added for dramatic effect.
We remember our lives as we saw our favorite movies: in 35mm anamorphic. And now that the generation raised on widescreen escapism has come of filmmaking age, they’re doing everything they can to bring back the look that defined their childhood.
This hits me as I sit in a dressing room outside of a production facility in glamorous Inglewood, California. Director Steven C. Miller is showing me a montage of footage from his still-in-the-making low-budget horror movie UNDER THE BED. I’m kind of stunned by the quality of the images. These are just shots of the two main characters – Neal (Jonny Weston) and his younger brother Paulie (Gattlin Griffith) – riding their bikes through a sort of Everytown, U.S.A. residential neighborhood, but the RED camera paired with the anamorphic lenses – the same lenses used on STAR TREK and SUPER 8 – gives the footage an early-‘80s, big-studio feel. Cinematographer Joseph White’s camera slowly pushes in and pulls back as the kids glide through the frame. Though Miller has hedged a little by temp scoring with John Williams’s main theme from E.T., the images are the images, and they’re damned impressive. This is a long, long way from the grimy, gore-soaked horror movies of the modern era. This is truly Amblin-esque.
The premise of UNDER THE BED also feels beamed in from the 1980s. Simply put, it’s about two brothers who must do battle with a none-too-friendly creature who emerges at night from under a bed in their house. Imagine a version of LITTLE MONSTERS where Howie Mandel will stop at nothing to murder the shit out of Fred Savage, and you’re in the ballpark.
“I love horror movies that play themselves very straight,” says Miller. “Like everything is about the feeling. It’s about the mood, the atmosphere. And I happen to love a bedroom. I think bedrooms to be can be the scariest place in the world.”
Though Miller only has sixteen days to complete his film, he’s eschewed the jittery hand-held aesthetic favored by too many time-constrained directors; instead, he’s shot the interior action with the same controlled, slow-creeping menace that made everything from THE EXORCIST to POLTERGEIST so phenomenally unsettling. Even better, at least for a ‘70s and ‘80s horror aficionado like me, he’s sworn off CG in the creation of his bed monster. This nasty hulk of a creature is all practical, and there are no plans to augment it with digital trickery. Happily, this goes double for the damage the monster does when he gets his mitts on someone.
“I love things I can see, touch and feel,” says Miller. “To me, onscreen just makes it better. I love for the audience to go in and know for a fact that that thing was in the room with us. It’s scary on film, because… it was created scary. There’s something about that that, to me, goes back to making POLTERGEIST. You automatically were terrified that everything could be there. And everything in this movie is 100% practical.”
This includes blood, which the film’s star Jonny Weston is completely coated in when I sit down to chat with him – and yet he’s in relatively good spirits despite the fact that he can’t get comfortable in a chair. “We take like an hour to get all of this crap on,” he says. “Sometimes it gets on from the shooting though, like just transferred from people.”
For most of my time on the set, I’ve been sold on the mood and the look of the movie, so I ask Weston (who recently landed the lead role opposite Gerard Butler in Curtis Hanson’s surfing film, MAVERICKS) to give me some background on his character and the story. “I’m just kind of like a young kid who gets sent away for burning his house down,” he explains. “He kind of was going nuts and got sent away. The film starts when I come back, and it’s about me readjusting to home life and facing all of this shit that’s in the house. My character is pretty much just trying to deal with all kinds of weird stuff. I think the biggest thing is he doesn’t know how to deal with it himself, and he’s forced to protect other people.”
This includes his little brother Paulie, played by Gattlin Griffith, a bright young actor who, as the son of in-demand stuntman Tad Griffith, has been around film sets his whole life. “Basically, Paulie is hiding and trying to get away from this monster that’s under his bed,” says Griffith. When his brother, Neal, comes back, he’s got a better chance of doing it.”
As is often the case in horror movies where kids are in jeopardy, the adults are either absent or completely disbelieving. “They’ve got nobody else to rely on,” says Grffith. “Their mother died trying to protect them, and now their dad just thinks they are crazy. So it’s just them together by themselves.”
As you can see in the above image, Neal is forced to invent weaponry with which the brothers hope to fight off the monster. There does seem to be a touch of GOONIES-style gadgetry in UNDER THE BED, but at a certain point, the film gets much, much rougher.
“I made it a point, throughout the first forty-five or fifty minutes, that we are only getting pieces of the creature,” says Miller. “Movies that I love that do that are like SIGNS. M. Night [Shyamalan] did it really well, where you would just get a leg or you would get an arm or you would get something that kept you going. We even have a transformation scene in this movie, where I transform the bed frame into a creature. So we try to bump up any kind of interesting thing we could do like by not showing it completely. We give the audience enough until, when we finally do see it and the first kill is so ridiculous and out of control, everybody is just like, ‘Yes!’”
Soon after talking with Miller, I’m shown one of the kills, which is so ludicrously over the top there’s no chance this movie will escape with a PG-13. But films like this need danger. This is one of the things I appreciated about James Wan’s INSIDIOUS: when kids watch horror movies, they don’t want to be coddled; they want to be scared out of their minds. And the only way to really push them over the brink is to give them a monster that actually wants to kill them.
Miller understands this. He grew up loving the same horror movies as the rest of us. This is why he threw himself into a wild sixteen-day shoot: he misses the mixture of awe and terror these movies used to evoke.
“We want something that takes us on an adventure,” says Miller. “This is a family drama for forty-five minutes that just happens to get fucking violent.”
UNDER THE BED is currently in postproduction, and slated for a 2011 release.