Ah, first love. We have all experienced it. I’m sure for some people it is a pleasant memory, but I think for most of us it is a series of mistakes, embarrassments, and regrets. Slamdance hit CLINGER captures all the horror of young love, and delivers it back to the audience as, well, a horror film. In Clinger, Robert and Fern have a perfect relationship… for the first week. But as the couple passes their couple anniversaries (week anniversaries that is), the cracks begin appear. Robert is sweet but smothering. Fern has dreams that surely will take her away from him, so she might as well end it before anyone gets hurt. Famous last words. Just as she tries to break up with Robert, a freak accident beheads him, and she is left with just his memory. Until he comes back, and tries to continue their relationship from the afterlife.
A much funnier version than LIFE AFTER BETH, Clinger lives on the fine line between comedy and absurdity, with bold, over-the-top performances that capture all the frustrations of high school love. The film starts logically enough but spirals into ridiculousness in the best possible way.
Vincent Martella plays Robert, who is sweet but poorly prepared for rejection. Jennifer Laporte is Fern, your typical high school girl just trying to get by, who doesn’t really want to be an honorary member of a teens-killed-by-beheading support group. To her credit, she gives it one last try when Ghost Robert begins to haunt her with his stalky love, but they just can’t make it work. When she tries to exorcise him from the land of the living, Robert turns on her.
The film goes from funny to hilarious with major set pieces like a chase through the house by demonic teddy bears and a power tool showdown at the track meet. In addition to just being a fun film, Clinger also really says something about love, and the power of obsession, in a way that is universally appealing (and frightening). I had a chance to speak with the team behind the film after their Slamdance world premiere about how scarred their high school experience must have been, and about going back to that same Houston high school to shoot.
“Michael and I and Gabi all met at St Johns,” says producer/co-writer Bubba Fish, “Gabi and I would make short films together and Michael would put on plays and cast Gabi and I in them.” All three of them went to different colleges, Fish at USC, director/co-writer Michael Steves at Wesleyan, and cinematographer/co-writer Gabi Duncombe staying in Houston to attend Rice. “We had known for a while we wanted to make our first feature right after school,” says Steves, “just to kind of see if we could do it” – so they all returned to spend the summer back in Houston and make a film. However, they didn’t necessarily know which film they were going to make, and arrived at CLINGER after a few false script-starts. “You go through a lot different ones until you find one that feels like the right movie,” says Steves,
They knew they wanted to make a horror movie, being fans of the genre, and found a premise that could speak to all of them, because first love is universal. “It’s about a moment that happens to a lot of young men,” says Steves, “they think that because they love a girl, they deserve to have her love them back, because that is what high school movies teach guys.”
This is true, an it’s really been an issue since John Hughes started making films, every nerdy or outsider guy grows up thinking they’ll get the hot girl at the end if they are just sweet enough an hold a boombox over their head, and every mousy girl in glasses is really a swimsuit model who just needs to let her hair down. “He thinks that he deserves her love because he’s nice and loves her and cares about her,” says Fish; “Michael came up with the basic pitch and told me over the phone just as we were going head first into another idea about cannibals.”
With an idea set in High School, it only seemed natural to go back and shoot it at their own high school. “We’ve all shot things in LA and other big cities and experienced what it’s like when the whole city wants to shoot in that city and how difficult it is,” says Fish; “when you go somewhere like Houston and everyone’s like ‘you’re making a movie? That’s cool! – they really open up and do everything they can to help.” Steves says the film could not have been made without the help of the Houston and Texas communities, especially people like Alfred Cervantes from the Houston Film Commission, and all the restaurants that fed the team, like Pappas and El Rey. “We had a lot of BBQ and Mexican food, Snap Kitchen, etc.” says Steves, but not surprisingly, the biggest credit has to go to St. Johns, the primary location of the film. According to Steves, “they helped us every step of the way,” even filling in for locations not specifically at the high school.
For the army of evil teddies scene, “we were planning to shoot that at Bubba’s house,” says Steves. “The day before, we realized that we can’t cover Bubbas house in blood. So we talked to St John’s and said tonight we have to build a bedroom inside your theater, inside your Sound Stage, a black box theater. They said ‘OK, what’s the scene.’ Well, a guy in his underwear gets torn apart by a demon teddy bear. They were like OK!’” Fish jumps in to correct the director: “I don’t think they even asked the scene… I don’t think they even wanted to know. They are a Judeo-Christian school – a good, moral school with lots of good traditions. I think they kind of felt like it was better to not ask.”
Just before departing for Slamdance, the team had the opportunity to screen the feature at St. Johns for backers and supporters. “A really awesome moment, because the community finally got to see the movie,“ says Fish, “Hurricane Clinger is what we call it because it ‘destroyed so many lives,’ — I am saying that sarcastically when you print it.” The film was also largely funded through Kickstarter – they had asked for $10,000 and raised $15,000, and then a little more afterwards to help send them to Slamdance. “It takes a village to raise a feature,” says Fish, “my dad said that to me. I was like: ‘wow so many people helped out on CLINGER,’ and he says ‘well, it takes a village to raise an idiot. He’s very supportive by the way.”
Maybe one of the reasons the team was so able to get people to sign on to help is that this is not a typical horror film, where young attractive archetypes get terrorized in the woods. This is a comedy that just plays out to the extremist absurd, becoming a horror film almost as an afterthought. “The whole movie is a metaphor for the traumas of your first relationship and learning how what it means to love someone and earn their love,” says Steves, “The thing that is awesome about horror is you can talk about real issues and relatable issues in a way that is incredibly fun to watch.” Being a horror film though, allows you a certain leeway to be bigger, with set pieces that stick in the audience’s mind, as well as take chances. “You are invited in horror to be weird and experimental,” says Steves, “other genres want you to be normal, if you’re normal and a horror movie, you haven’t made a good movie.”
A perfect example of this is the sequence already mentioned, theattack of the teddies. Just as the film draws inspiration from the John Hughes films of the eighties (serving as sort of a worst-case scenario counterpoint), Clinger also draws upon the style and fun of the practical-effect horrors like Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive, and Gremlins.
“Almost all of the effects in the movie are practical,” says Steves, “done by a practical effect artist from Houston who did a lot of his work during the 80’s.” As part of this aesthetic, the teddy bears were done as puppets. “Most films would’ve done this with CGI,” says the director, but “puppets have this… they’re scary but there’s something also really charming and fun about them at the same time.” They actually become the perfect example of the film. Robert tries his hardest to be sweet and cute, but instead it comes off as horrifying and creepy.
Another nice example of this is the song he writes Fern, and serves as a running theme/joke for the film. According to Fish, that was written by Eric Radloff, lead singer of a band called Bear Attack. Hang on… Bear Attack? “No relation to the…” Fish trails off, “I never even thought about their name being Bear Attack. They’re a fantastic band from USC. We actually use the song ‘Broke’ during the sex scene. And that escalates when his head falls off.” The lyrics were given to Radloff and he wrote a song that, according to Fish, “could be happy and kind of annoying and then like creepy and dark when he asks her to die for him.”
Even with a winning premise, the film would be nothing without a really sharp ensemble that sells the ridiculousness of it. In addition to Martella and Laporte, also worth noting is the fantastic performance of Fern’s older sister Kelsey, played by Julia Aks, who is like the reincarnation of Lisa Kudrow. She really believes you she can cure trauma with sock puppet therapy. “There’s something charming about how much of an asshole she is,” says Steves, “she brings humanity to every role she pays. This character is potentially an unlikeable cartoon. … She commits to everything. You’ll actually see her in our next movie. You won’t see her face because she plays a demon. She takes a character that doesn’t have necessarily a lot of dimension on paper and brings something totally new and human to it.”
And what exactly is that next film? “It’s called Cold Descent,” says Steves, “it’s a horror western set in 1870s about a group of people on a midnight train to Atlanta that turns out to have something scarier on board.” The team actually finished shooting the film the week before they arrived at Slamdance. According the team, the film got financed right after Clinger got into Slamdance, and because of it, so if there was ever a question if playing a major festival matters, this would seem to answer it. And Slamdance, which specializes in first time filmmakers and showcasing work that is a little more off the wall, was a great launching place for Clinger.
“The coolest thing about it is there’s been so many movies that I couldn’t possibly categorize,” says Steves, “it’s hard to imagine that our movie would never see the light of day without a festival like Slamdance being willing to show it because it’s a movie that doesn’t fit into a box.” Fish agrees: “I love their desire to take risks. They really want to take a risk on you and that’s like really flattering.”
CLINGER plays it’s second festival next week, here in Austin at the RxSM Self Medicated Film Expo, which basically plays a similar role to SXSW as Slamdance plays to Sundance. Clinger screens March 13th at 7 pm at Spiderhouse. Later that night you can see one of my other Slamdance favorites, Body and admission is free for both! In fact, there are several Slamdance films playing the festival. More information is available here: http://www.rxsm.org.