By Yun-hua Chen.
Where I really drew inspiration was from the older classic films like Scream by Wes Craven, and like Halloween by John Carpenter. My hope was to really take those real classic ideas and melt them with these newer things like SAW and Unfriended….”
Shook, which is streaming exclusively on Shudder, the VOD platform specializing on horror, thrillers and the supernatural, is a playful horror with turns and twists that are intentionally absurd and hence comical. Mia, a make-up influencer, is threatened over the phone and has to solve a series of medical quiz to prevent people she loves from being killed. Reminiscent of both classic horror and screen horror, it reflects our daily reality with Instagram images, instant messaging, smart home devices and live streaming, and shows how images, as well as our addiction to images, can be the ultimate nightmare.
Shook’s director Jennifer Harrington talks to us about the making of Shook and her understanding of horror.
You worked with Alesia Glidewell on the script. Where did the idea of your script come from? How did you develop the script together?
The idea generated with her. She has done a lot of work with influencers and in that world, especially make-up influencers. She and the producer Tara Craig came to me with the idea and asked me to write the script. I didn’t know much about that world at all, I kind of just dove into it and was blown away, how that influencer world works and how many people are involved and how huge it is. I took her basic idea, fleshed it out and pitched it back to them. It was a back and forth from there.
Did Shudder come onboard later on?
It came onboard later. Initially this was just very much a scrappy little independent movie that we tried to get made. Once we got it made and it came out ok, we showed it around and Shudder picked it up.
This is your second feature-length horror. What attracts you most in working with this genre?
When I was a kid, I was super into horror. I had access to it because my friend’s older sister worked in a video store. I inappropriately watched way too many adult horror movies when I was around ten and really loved it. What’s funny is that I didn’t find them scary at all when I was a kid, and now they terrified me. I feel I have a lot of understanding of how other classic horror films work and I have a deep level of appreciation for the early films of the genre, but now as an actual movie-watcher, I don’t watch that much horror because it freaks me out. I have been moving more towards comedy in my writing as well. I have this deep horror background and education, but as I got older, it feels realer and scarier to me.
How did you edit the film if you get terrified yourself?
There is this scene with needles in the film, and I am really scared of needles. Pretty much everything I am scared of, I put in the movie. When we were filming it, it was really hard for me. I couldn’t even watch the monitor because it was really hard. And then at one point, my stomach got so upset with really loud gurgle and it ruined the scene. Everybody was laughing. When I was editing, it was really hard too. It was very hard looking at that over and over again. As an editor, you eventually became desensitized to it because you had to see it so many times. Even though it’s creepy and weird, you just get used to it.
Both your previous Housekeeping (2015) and the current Shook (2021) are about a woman being stuck in a house. Do you think the horror experience of being stuck in a house has taken a different dimension after our shared lockdown experience?
Yes, for sure. I have always been fascinated with that style of horror films anyway. This idea of thinking you are in a safe space and you are not. You are still very vulnerable no matter where you are. I think now it’s so much more relatable than it ever was because everybody is spending so much more time at home. In your own space you could really feel that the outside world is very far away, and you are very much insulated in your home environment. But that’s very scary because you are not, and somebody could mess with you from anywhere. Especially in this time when we are in our safe little spaces and we are still freaking out about everything that is going on outside. The idea that the outside can still come in and can still affect you. I think it’s especially freaky at the moment.
It’s basically a one-woman show. How did you choose Daisye Tutor in the casting process? What made me you feel that she is your Mia?
It was so hard to find her. We did a lot of casting. We saw a lot of great actresses, but none of them were quite right. We needed somebody who we felt could carry the whole film, that you would want to watch the whole time, and who could essentially act against the phone or a laptop. They needed to be able to self-generate with their own experiences. We were about a week away from shooting and we still hadn’t cast her. It was super stressful, and I was really freaking out. At that point I was talking to everyone I knew about this. And I was talking to our DP Richard Wong, an incredible DP and a director in his own right and super talented. I was like, we are shooting in a week and we don’t have our main lead, and he was like, you know, my friend’s girlfriend is an actress. And I was like, great, can you ask her to record a scene. So, she self-taped a scene and sent it. I didn’t think anything of it. At that point I have already seen so many self-tapes from so many actresses, but the second I watched her, I was like, oh that’s her. That’s it. She just has something extra. She has a very different look first of all. This sounds so shallow, but I just felt, I could look at her face for a long time because it’s interesting. She just has something that stood out and felt like a full-fledged person instead of just a pretty face. The character is not a super likeable character. You wanted somebody you still wanted to watch anyways despite this person making really stupid choices, just being generally totally self-absorbed. She brought that aspect as well, and it just totally worked out.
Shook is reminiscent of SAW with the game concept, Searching and Unfriended, with its multiple screens. What are your sources of inspiration and what do you want to do beyond these films?
It’s interesting. I have seen it being compared a lot with SAW and Unfriended and it definitely borrowed a lot from those as far as general structure and tropes and stuff. Where I really drew inspiration was from the older classic films like Scream by Wes Craven, and like Halloween by John Carpenter. My hope was to really take those real classic ideas and melt them with these newer things like SAW and Unfriended and hopefully create a different feeling when you put these two together. I would definitely say that my inspiration consciously came more from the old school horror films.
And the funny ones as well….
I definitely like to have humor in horror. My first film has zero humor, just really dark. As I was moving forward in my creative journey, I just leaned more and more towards humor. It is more true to who I am and I really like the melting of the two, seeing something really shocking and then it becomes absurd and what it is about us and our reactions to these things. Pushing something so far that it becomes funny. This is where I am kind of going next. I saw the script last year or two. It is described as a sci-fi action comedy, but it has weirdly a lot of the same elements, like weird random extreme violence. I feel it’s taking one step further towards the comedy side of things and a step away from the horror side of things.
It’s funny that not everybody is going to get what you are doing. I have seen some comments online that were like, that’s so unrealistic, why would she do that? It’s supposed to be funny. The whole movie should feel fun. It’s more about commenting on how all these things in our life work and showing them in a ridiculous light.
You mentioned your new project. What is that about?
What I am writing now, I don’t go for realism. I’d like to look at the world through an exaggerated lens. So, the script that I am working on now, again, a lot of story tropes that we are familiar with, like detective stories and horror stories, looking at these traditional tropes and hopefully spinning around a bit and having fun with them. With a woman as a main character as well.
Why do does often have to suffer in horror?
It’s going to be the very controversial part of the film. I am aware that it is a thing in horror, and people don’t like it. Usually in horror films it is used primarily just for shock value, I feel. People often have very extreme reaction to it because there is something so vulnerable about an animal. They seem so defenseless. That is different from showing violence towards adult human. The reason why I had it in my film is none of these, but actually, one, I am a huge dog lover and actually volunteer in an animal shelter and I am involved in animal rescue. And I really was just thinking, what was the most horrible thing that I could think of, and that to me was the most horrible thing that I could think of. But also, you know, it’s having fun with the whole movie. Who are you more worried about, Mia’s friends or the dog? And playing around with that. And the idea that you are more worried about what’s happening with that dog and that sounds awful. Playing around with that is interesting as well, I think. For some people any kind of depiction of that is really difficult, and I guess I want to play around with that idea.
How was your experience working with Chico the dog?
I cast Chico because I really just thought, it looked perfect for what I had in mind. It turned out that this was Chico’s first film. So, on the day when we went to shoot, Chico was definitely kind of learning on the job. It was pretty hard, but very cute. Chico could get most of the stuff done. The dog that we had at the beginning of the film was a much more experienced film dog, so we were able to shoot much faster. Chico was a lot harder because she just would get very distracted. It’s a male dog in the film, but Chico is a female dog. It was hard, but so fun to have dogs on site.
Can you tell us a bit about your social commentary behind, about our ways of image consumption, exhibitionism, pretending to be someone else?
Like I said, I didn’t know much about the influencer world until I started researching it for the project. I was really blown away by these videos which get millions and millions of views, which was so surprising to me. The more I watched, the more I got the feeling like this veneer, I am pretending to be this person and it’s actually very transparent. You can tell that this is all an act. And you wonder, who are they really? It comes down to that, we all do it to some degree, only posting our successes and sharing our happy times and not necessarily our bad times, which has definitely been explored before. For me what was interesting was these people not just showed the positive side of their life, but actually created a new personality. That to me has to mess with your mind after a while. You start to have multiple identities. What does that mean about your relationships with these people online? If they are creating identities too, how real are these relationships? For me, it was about exploring these alternate identities that people created and explored and if there is any meaning ultimately.
On a meta-level, are you going to do some sort of marketing on Instagram too?
There is a meta-level happening right now. There is a lot of posting about it online and stuff. At first, I was really involved in looking at everything, and then there were trolls that came out and said horrible things. And I felt, oh my god, this is straight out from the movie. And then, I have to take my own advice and just step away. I have really stepped back from all that. I know a lot of people have been posting on Twitter, Instagram and all that.
In all your roles of filmmaking, editing, directing, producing, which is your favorite role?
Right now, I am just really enjoying writing, working on stories. I love all these things, and they are all very different. I don’t know if it is because I am like hooked up in a house anyway. It doesn’t seem super fun to shoot on the set right now, with goggles and masks and stuff.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.