Nightmare Maker Rolfe Kanefsky

Writer-director Rolfe KanefskyNIGHTMARE MAN is one of the “8 Films to Die For” opening tomorrow as part of this year’s After Dark Horror Festival. The fest, which made its debut last year, finds independent horror films that are too “small” to warrant individual distribution, packages them together (to save distribution and advertising costs), and puts them into 350 theatres for ten days. That may not seem like a lot, compared to a summer blockbuster that winds up on over 4,000 screens, but in this post-drive-in age, when the major studios almost completely dominate the theatrical market, these movies would go straight to video obscurity; instead, they get some well-deserved exposure and a shot finding an audience that would otherwise overlook them.

NIGHTMARE MAN is a good example of a low-budget, high-quality movie benefitting from the festival treatment. Writer-director Rolfe Kanefsky’s effort was completed in 2006, screened for one week at a single theatre in Los Angeles, and appeared in numerous film festivals, generating some good reviews and favorable reactions, and yet it could not find a decent distribution deal until After Dark Films stepped in. Although more of an outright horror film than Kanefsky’s previous tongue-in-cheek efforts, there is still a quirky, playfulness in the way that NIGHTMARE MAN toys with audience expectations. This intelligence apparently eluded the Hollywood distributors who turned the film down, but horror fans should embrace it warmly, now that they will get the chance to see it.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: How did NIGHTMARE MAN become one of this year’s “8 Films to Die For”?

ROLFE KANEFSKY: That’s an interesting story. Basically, we finished the film in the summer of 2006, and we started to bring it to film festivals like Shriekfest. We screened it at Fangoria Weekend of Horrors. That was the first time ever for horror fans and websites and magazines. We took a chance and said, ‘Let the fans decide the fate of the movie.’ Luckily, everyone really embraced it, and people got behind the film. They loved Tiffany Shepis in it. We were getting great reviews, winning a lot of awards at film festivals: best picture, director, actress. We hired a producer’s rep. We thought, ‘Okay, we should be able to do a good deal with the film.’ Then we found out that there was a big glut of horror films on the market, and nobody was buying any – or paying any money for horror films at least. We were just not getting any real offers. It was getting very discouraging. The producer’s rep finally quit, saying, ‘I can’t sell it; nobody wants horror.’

I was depressed. I went down to Comic Con in San Diego last August, just to get away from it and spend too much money that I didn’t have. Down there, I saw there was a table, a booth, for After Dark. I knew some of the filmmakers from last year who did the horror fest: Mike Mendez, who did THE GRAVEDANCERS, and Richard Brandes, who did PENNY DREADFUL (I met him at Shriekfest – his film was there, too). I went over to the table and I just said, ‘How do you pick films for the festival?’ The woman there was one of the directors for the festival; she said, ‘We go to film festivals, and companies send us movies. Are you a filmmaker, and do you have a film?’ I said, ‘Yes, yes - on both points’ and gave her a DVD screener. Two weeks later I got a call from another woman there who said, ‘We lost your film. Can you send it to us again?’ So I did. Two days later, they called me up and said, ‘We watched; we loved it; and we want it as part of the festival.’

That’s how it happened. It literally was me just walking in off the street, as the filmmaker, when nobody could sell it and the rep didn’t know what to do with it. We got it to the right place at the right time and basically won the lottery.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: The film actually got brief theatrical exposure at the Sunset 5 Theatre in West Hollywood last year, before Shriekfest.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: We had a small screening for reviewers and critics, because we were trying to get more attention on the film. We said, ‘If we kind of open the film up, we can get reviewed in the LA Times.’ We did, and we got good reviews in the Times and some of the trade papers. Again, we thought, ‘Okay, so now it’s not just a direct-to-video film.’ We were just trying to do everything to get attention and make this film stand out from the glut of other films. We thought, with a small release, with the LA Times, with film festivals, with forty-four or forty-five good reviews, that would matter. But no, because it’s all about who’s in it. Not that horror films have ever really been about who’s in it. With FRIDAY THE 13TH and BLAIR WITCH, it’s ‘Does the film work, and do the fans like it?’ But studios and distributors don’t know a good horror film from a bad horror film because usually they don’t even like horror films. So it’s like, ‘We’ll just get any film and slap a good video box on it, and it will sell whether it’s good or bad.’ Which was getting depressing, because you put effort and try to make a quality movie, and no one really cares.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE How did this experience compare to your previous films?

ROLFE KANEFSKY: Well, every film is its own story. It’s never the same way twice. The roller-coaster ride I went on with THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE, my very first film, when I was twenty years old – that was unbelievable. It was made independently on very little money in 1989; the film was finished in 1990. When we shot the film the horror market was huge; then the market collapsed. Our film was also a comedy-horror film, which everyone seemed to like but again studios and agents didn’t understand. They were, ‘Well, it’s too scary to be funny and too funny to be scary.’ This was six years before SCREAM, which proved it can work very well, but we had no names. We opened that movie, too, in New York and California. It got really rave reviews, which I was surprised at. We had a screening for everybody, and nobody showed up. Then after the LA Times’ Kevin Thomas gave it a rave, we got calls from every major studio. They all saw it, but they didn’t really understand it.

JAQUELINE HYDE was another one. We did a sort of sexy female take on Jekyll and Hyde. That one we got sold to Warner Home Video, which was great. That was my first HD [high-definition] movie. It showed you can make a film very inexpensively and still get picked up by a major studio. A lot of times the better films are going straight-to-video than the ones getting theatrical releases.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE How does the After Dark experience compare to the distribution of your previous films?

ROLFE KANEFSKY: My other films have been released, if at all theatrically, in just one screen, one market, just to get some exposure. This year, it’s three hundred-fifty screens nationwide with a $10 to 20-million campaign. I’m seeing commercials on AMC, Sci Fi Channel, MTV, IFC, and billboards all over the place. There’s no question this is the biggest exposure any of my films have ever gotten for myself and everyone involved.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: When you become part of the After Dark Fest, is it almost like joining a club with the other filmmakers? Do you feel like part of a group?

ROLFE KANEFSKY: I would hope so. So far no. There’s a big party coming up where some of the other filmmakers will be. So far I’ve not met any of them, and I’ve not seen any of the films. It’s a great idea. The festival is still trying to find its legs in organizing itself. Right at the last minute they were still choosing what the eight films were, and people were complaining about the theatres being announced – it took a long time. But it is quite an endeavor. Trying to release a film festival nationwide had never been done before, and last year it was like Number 6 in the Top Ten box office, which had never happened – that a film festival actually made it into the U.S. box office charts.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You had to upgrade NIGHTMARE MAN TO 35mm for the After Dark release.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: We shot the film on HD 24-p. We used the Panasonic Vericam, which was very good. I had an excellent D.P., Paul Deng, who shot my previous films. We did it, just in case – the pie in the sky – something like this were to happen. Luckily we did, because it happened. We did the blow up to 35mm; we did the Dolby Digital Surround mix, and it looks and sounds wonderful. Whenever you do a blow-up, it’s never 100% perfect, but I’m 95% very happy with the way the film looks and sounds.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You have said that, over the course of its running time, NIGHTMARE MAN evolves through three decades of horror films: the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: I wrote, a couple years ago, a screenplay that began with a movie within a movie. I wrote this three-page scene that had these twist and turns. A friend of mine and the composer, Chris Farrell, read it and said, ‘That’s really cool – I want to see that movie!’ I always remembered that. After shooting JAQUELINE HYDE, I was in post-production waiting to use the editing machines, and I had a week free. I wanted to write a screenplay, so I decided to see what it would be like to try to make that three-page thing into a movie. It took me about seven days. It’s kind of a slasher film. It’s got a little bit of a quirky sense of humor, though it is much more of a straight horror film than I’ve ever done – an attempt to do a throwback that takes you through the decades of horror films while twisting the genre around.

In some ways, it’s very straight-forward – you’ve seen the story 900 times before, but we do it a little differently. What I wanted to do was start it off with the ‘70s, where things are a little more subtle, and you have the shadows and the creaks – very much TRILOGY OF TERROR and DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK – the great TV movies of the ‘70s as inspiration. Then moving into a 1980s FRIDAY THE 13TH movie, a slasher film – although trying to begin the film almost with the third act of a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie, where you have the final girl on the run from the killer. So I played around with the whole structure: you don’t start with the kids packing their car and driving up; when we meet the kids, they’re already there. It’s not giving you time, hopefully, to breathe; you’re really riveted to what’s happening with the action, and you get into the story. So it takes you into the ‘80s and then moves into a little bit more of the supernatural that touches on the Sam Raimi EVIL DEAD films in the third act.

I thought it would be a fun way to give the audience a little bit of everything. Hopefully they would embrace that and say, ‘Oh, that’s cool! It’s not exactly where I thought it was going to go.’ You lead the audience down a path where they are almost sure they have figured it all out, and then you pull the rug out from under them. Luckily, most of the audiences have embraced that.

Nightmare Man - real or delusion?

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You play around with audience expectations regarding whether the supernatural element is real or fake. First you tell them one thing, and then you tell them something else.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: I became a huge horror fan when I was fourteen. I saw FRANKENSTEIN and all the monster movies when I was four years old, but after I really started watching horror films and seeing all the conventions and the clichés, right from THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE onward, I said, ‘Let’s play around with that.’ I mean, why make the same movie you’ve seen a million times before?’ Why does it always have to be a ‘cat scare’ – where a cat jumps out of nowhere? I spoof that in THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE. If you really look at my films, my first film was making fun of the conventions and the clichés of horror films: I wasn’t making fun of horror films; I was just making fun of some of the lazy filmmaking in horror films.

The second film, THE HAZING, I was playing around with the characters. I said, ‘Let’s take a bunch of characters who you think are your typical clichés and turn it into THE BREAKFAST CLUB, where suddenly the kids act like real people, so you don’t know who’s going to live or die, because they are not saying and doing the things that normally get you killed in a horror film.

In this film, I said, ‘Now let’s play around with the plot.’ Let’s take a plot where you think, ‘Okay, it’s woman on the run. There’s somewhat of a psychological element where you don’t know is she crazy; is someone trying to get her or is it a supernatural thing?’ You have questions, so it’s not just FRIDAY THE 13TH: there’s Jason; he’s going to kill you. I thought that would keep you more engaged. But then, trying to do it smartly. When they realize there’s some danger, the kids call the police and get through. They have weapons in the house. Let’s have them turn off the lights; let’s have them lock the doors; lets’ have them not do the things… So the audience can say, ‘If I was in that situation, that’s what I would do. They’re not doing the dumb things to get themselves killed.’

So there’s always this element of how do you do a horror film that still has to fall into the genre, without making fun of the genre but still doing the conventions, but in a way that’s not stupid or lazy, like a lot of people do. It’s a delicate balance. How do you play off those conventions and let the audience stay with the film without having them say, ‘He’s such an idiot.’ There are a few places in the movie where people do make a mistake, but people do panic and make mistakes. It just takes a little more thought as a writer, saying ‘Let’s try to keep it a little more intelligent.’

I’ve always said that. In Hollywood, especially distributors say, ‘Give a horror crowd enough blood-and-guts and T-and-A, and they’ll be happy.’ I’m always like: No, I go to all these conventions, and the horror audience is very intelligent. They want to like your film. They’re very loyal, and they want to support the film, but if it’s bad they’ll yell at the screen and say, ‘You’re an idiot. Don’t go into the basement!’ You want to give them respect. If you get them thinking, ‘Okay, this film is trying to do something smart, I’m with the film,’ rather than, ‘He deserves to die.’

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You shot the film up in Big Bear.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: In the summer, which was tricky because 90% of the movie is at night. In summer you only have seven hours of night. The last day was a sixteen hour day. We were doing a little bit of daytime when they’re driving, and the night stuff; we shot seventy-eight set-ups in one day. Which is my record. Paul Deng did an incredible job.

We had to go there because we couldn’t afford to go to the local places. You have to have fire marshals and water trucks, and we just didn’t have that in the budget. We just brought everyone up to Big Bear, two hours out of L.A., and put everyone up in houses in the area for two weeks.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Coincidentally, another film that screened at last year’s Shriekfest was also shot in Big Bear, PENNY DREADFUL.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: Oh yes, that was funny. They screened one day after another [at Shriekfest]. In a lot of ways, the first fifteen minutes of NIGHTMARE MAN is the whole movie of PENNY DREADFUL. It was funny because when I wrote the script, I wondered how much I should milk the woman alone in the car. I figured you could do it for about ten minutes, but then you had to get out of there. So I give them credit for trying to do a whole movie that way!

There are similarities in some of the events that happen in the car, but where the films go is very different. Our film has a lot more surprises and twists and turns. PENNY DREADFUL is much more a straight-forward movie, taking a claustrophobic situation and making the most out of it.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You must have been surprised when you sat through PENNY DREADFUL.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: I sat there with my producer, Esther Goodstein. We both looked at each other, saying, ‘Oh my god!’I knew even one of the big jumps in the film. I said, ‘They’re in a car the whole movie; they have to do it.’ And sure enough they did it. Then they saw our film the next night and saw the similarities. They had Rachel Miner and Mimi Rodgers and a budget that was much higher than our budget.

The funny thing is once you see NIGHTMARE MAN and see the whole revelation of what it is, if you go back and watch it again, it all has a different take, because you realize the reasons why everything is happening. Everything does explain itself. When I wrote it, I said, ‘You have the people going to the asylum; the car runs out of gas; the cell phone doesn’t work. Wow, this is really original!’ But by the end of the movie, you understand why all of this has happened, so it’s not as stupid as you think it is. There’s a reason for it. So you say, ‘Okay, I see it now.’

Which I think is a problem with these films at festivals today. There are so many submissions that they watch the first ten or fifteen minutes and turn them off and make their decision. If you did that with Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, you got a movie about a bank robbery. You don’t know anything about a psycho!

I watch that nowadays with audiences, horror crowds. They’re very supportive of horror films, but they are also at fault because when anything new or different comes along, they’re very hyper-critical. Yes, they like to knock the ninth sequel of FRIDAY THE 13TH, but they go see those things. But if something new comes along, they’re like, ‘Who’s in it?’ or ‘How big’s the budget?’ People didn’t care about that when FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN came out. It wasn’t about that; it was about, ‘These are the good movies!’ I notice that a lot now on the Internet. People are like, ‘This looks like a cheap film, not a $20-million studio film.’ No, it’s not, but you don’t like the $20-million studio film, either! So you might as well give the independent film a shot.

I’ve always said it’s actually against studio policy to make a good, effective horror film. What I mean by that is that a studio film that’s spent so much money wants to appeal to every demographic so they make the most amount of money. A good horror film wants to disturb you and get under your skin and freak you out. So they will kill a character you like. But then when a test audience sees the movie, they say, ‘I don’t want to kill him because I like him.’ But that’s the whole point; that’s why we are going to kill him. But a studio will test that and say no and tone it all done. So David Arquette survived in all the SCREAM movies. Those things happen all the time. All the really good horror films were – except when the studios decided to stay out of it, like THE EXORCIST – they were not studio films. They were independent films: HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. People need to remember the films they love – where they came from.

Something like this – 8 Films to Die For – when they try to release eight original, non-sequel, non-remake, non-Japanese remakes of sequels – it’s great. Adam Green’s HATCHET – what he was trying to do with that film is wonderful – to make a stand-alone film. I thought it was a lot of fun.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Adam Green says some of the same things you do about the horror audience, that they will pay to see a remake of HALLOWEEN, then go onto the Internet Movie Database message board and complain that it sucked.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: Yeah, exactly. And they will buy it because they have to complete their collection; they have to have every film.

It’s nice that After Dark is trying to do this. You’re not going to actually get eight great movies every time, but you’re going to get some stuff you wouldn’t have seen and exposure to films that you would never have had the chance to see in theatres. NIGHTMARE MAN was at that situation where the film was going to sit on the shelf for another two years or get a four-hundred screen theatrical release. Well, I guess we’ll go with the theatrical release!

I’m rooting for everybody. The more everything succeeds, the better it is for the business. That’s why I don’t understand the purpose of people on the Internet trashing the genre that they love. You’re warning people against seeing a movie that they’re going to rent anyway. You’re just putting out bad vibes all over the place.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Despite the low-budget, NIGHTMARE MAN has some computer-generated effects.

ROLFE KANEFSKY: There are a few CGI shots in the movie. I wanted, like a lot of people, to go more for the on-set stuff, because CGI – unless you really know how to combine it with the live effects – tends to look like CGI, so I try to stay away from it. A live-effect is still better than a bad CGI thing that takes you completely out of any reality. So we only use CGI a few times, sparingly, and you can really only notice it in the final attack, because it’s a vapor thing. Al Magliccetti, who did the CGI with Eye Candy, did a wonderful job, and it was really cool. If you know how to use it properly, it’s fun. This combines live effects that we did on set with some CGI enhancement.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: At Shriekfest, you mentioned being pleased with using CGI extensively only during the climax. Had you considered using it throughout?

ROLFE KANEFSKY: We never intended to use more. We never intended to use that much at the end. We got a deal with Al, and we realized it would help if we saw something, because it was really an invisible kind of attack. Tiffany gave an amazing performance, but it helped to put something in there.

I just like that the film, as most films should, continues to get better right up to the ending. My films just start and go up-up-up, so it doesn’t stop right till the end. So at the end we used a crane and all these toys and devices that people were surprised about, saying, ‘Oh my god, they suddenly have a crane!’ People asked, ‘That shot where it pulls up into the sky – what did you shoot that on?’ “Uh, a crane.’ People are surprised because at that point you don’t expect it. It just gave the film a little more of a visual dimension at the end, saying, ‘Now we’re going all-out.’ I think, actually, GRAVEDANCERS did that, too, with that wonderful finale; it just got massively big. The effects kicked in – which some people liked and some people didn’t.

CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Since NIGHTMARE MAN was completed over a year ago, you must have some new irons in the fire?

ROLFE KANEFSKY: I’ve got a lot of stuff in development. I haven’t shot anything since then, really, but there are some things that have been announced. My next film that I’ll be directing, probably, is called CALLER UNKNOWN. It’s a script I wrote. It’s kind of ‘WHEN A STRANGER CALLS meets FRIDAY THE 13TH.’ Kids in the woods and a killer with a cell phone. Kind of a cool project. A producer named Mark Frydman and Alain Siritzsky are going to be producing it, maybe in March or April, as a $2-million film, which would be really great. I’m hoping Tiffany Shepis will be in that one again. There’s a really good potential franchise. I see this as my most straight-forward movie, but hopefully done with a bit of intelligence. You know, another movie about a group of kids being killed in the woods! Well, yes, but you can do it well, or you can do it badly. Why don’t we try and do it well?

We just recently announced myself and Tiffany Shepis and my producer Esther Goodstein have just started our own company that we are launching with Tiffany Shepis’ directing debut. We’re going to produce it. I wrote the script. The company is called NIGHTMAREWORKS SKG: Shepis, Kanefsky, Goodstein. [laughs] The first movie is…I’d call it a supernatural splatter-comedy. It’s called THE DEVIL’S PIES – like a sorority; only they’re so stupid they misspelled it. It’s about two really dumb girls who decide to pledge the hottest sorority on campus and surprisingly get in, but it’s because the girls worship this devil-creature in the basement that needs virginal sacrifices, so they think these two girls would be perfect. Only they’re so dumb that they wind up foiling the girls’ attempts left and right and end up saving the day and confronting Satan himself. It’s a little bit of Tiffany’s Troma influence crossed with some of the stuff I’ve been writing, because I recently wrote BLONDE AND BLONDER, the Pamela Anderson and Denise Richards film. We’re hoping to start shooting [DEVIL’S PIES] in January in Arizona. Those are the most recent things that look like they’re underway, and then I’m attached to a bunch of other cool projects that hopefully will happen.


About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

Comments are closed.