In 2009, Frank Sabatella directed his first feature–Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet. It’s an exploitation heavy slasher about college students who unwittingly summon the ghost of a maddened murderess searching for the daughter she birthed in a mental asylum. It’s low budget 70’s-inspired grindhouse with a focus on kills over character–and it’s fun for what it is. With a decade between his first feature and The Shed, however, I took my time with the director to ask How would you say you’ve progressed as a filmmaker?
Sabatella: I have become become a much better writer–or I like to think I have! How I approach story and character. From that production to this production, I’ve just come to the conclusion that it’s better to revolve your story around character than just being like ‘here’s a cool scene, here’s a cool scene, here’s a cool scene.’ As a director, I think I’ve just become more into my own as far as knowing what I want and knowing how to achieve what I want and really knowing what is necessary in a production to produce the desired results.
The Shed is a film that feels at once to be something happening now and thirty years ago. What did you consider when balancing modern fears with retro inspirations?
Sabatella: When it comes to youth culture, I don’t think things are all that different today than high school was thirty years ago. There are fundamental changes, because of technology, social media, etc–but I think the core emotions of that time of anyone’s life, that specific age group, and that specific sort of socializing in a high school environment, I think it’s universal. It’s something that I’m hoping people who are young adults now and high school kids now, and people who are older can also connect to it.
Speaking of technology and social media–there are no cell phones or computers or any technology in The Shed. Is it meant to muddy the waters as to what time the film takes place?
Sabatella: I wanted it to be an analog world, and whether that’s the result of neglect and poverty or is it that this is happening thirty years ago–I kind of wanted that to be ambiguous. But also as a writer and director, I think that cell phones are a huge pain in an ass in horror movies, because it makes it much more difficult to put your characters into trouble. And then, if you do, you have to figure out a way to avoid a cell phone, and there’s only a few ways to do that. Either the battery died, or they lost it, or there’s no reception, and it just gets very tiring for me. It’s more fun just to leave them out of the picture entirely.
How you kill even the landline in The Shed is an interesting turn from horror’s usual motif of suburban, comfortable victims who have their lines cut by outsiders. In Stan’s case, he’s isolated because the phone bill hasn’t been paid. How do economic anxieties play a role in the film?
Sabatella: If you through the locations throughout the film–the locations, the clothing, everything about it has this presence of neglect and decay. I wanted that decay to not only be reflected in the environment but also in the characters. It’s so saturated. These neglected, decaying characters living in these neglected, decaying environments, this is how they react. This is how they respond from where they’re capable of responding in an emergency situation. Or a horror situation.
Everyone has their own ideas and canon for how monsters like zombies and vampires act and behave. What influences did you use for your vampires?
Sabatella: I wanted them to be scary, of course. I wanted to make them very scary and monstrous. I wanted to keep things fairly traditional in terms of what do these vampires do. They drink blood, and they destroy people, but they’re also killable by the rules of the vampire. Sunlight, stake through the heart, and decapitation. Those are the classic vampire cinema death rules, so I wanted to keep that intact and have that as a tribute to classic horror cinema. And the look of my vampires comes from Lost Boys, Fright Night, and Near Dark. That kind of thing.
Was there anything that you really wanted to do in The Shed but couldn’t due to budget or whatever reasons?
Sabatella: Yeah, totally! In the script the death scenes and kill scenes are a bit more elaborate and a bit more gory, and we just didn’t have the time or the budget. Because I wanted practical effects, a lot of that had to be scaled back to fit in with our production. One thing specifically was actually showing vampires totally engulfed in flames. That’s something I had wanted to do. It’s very difficult to do on a small budget, and I didn’t want to do it with CGI, because I didn’t think it was going to look right. I wanted to keep the effects as practical as possible.
What draws you to horror?
Sabatella: It’s always been a part of my life, as far back as I can remember. Watching monster movies as a kid, through my young adult years, my teenage years. It’s always been what I gravitate to. I just love it.
Do you have any idea what you plan on tackling next?
Sabatella: I’m working on possibly developing one of my shorts–The House that Cried Blood–into a feature film. It’s a haunted house film. Another story I’ve been working with is about two girls experimenting with witchcraft, and they’re conjuring an evil entity for revenge,and the entity turns on them with horrifying results.
The House that Cried Blood is an objectively cool title, and a fun short, so I’m down. Whatever feature comes next, though, let’s just hope it doesn’t take another decade to reach our screens.
The Shed releases to limited theaters and VOD on November 15, 2019.