We talk with the talented filmmaker behind the new, must see indie horror film “Trespassers”, Orson Oblowitz and discuss what makes this film so special.
As we swing into the season of the summer blockbuster, IFC Midnight has a new slasher in its line-up for a limited release starting on July 12th. We got a chance to talk with the film’s director, Orson Oblowitz about his film, why the slasher genre can still have new tricks up its sleeve, and much more.
Originally titled Hell is Where the Home Is, Orson Oblowitz’s Trespassers is one of the newest releases from IFC Midnight. This blood-soaked thriller combines the best of the slasher genre with the best of home invasion thrillers — and is the perfect way to spend those sweltering summer nights. I recently got the opportunity to sit down and chat with the film’s director about Trespassers, his upcoming projects, and our shared love of genre film.
Arguably two of the most successful sub genres of horror, slasher films and home invasion thrillers certainly know how to prey on their audience. And Trespassers is no different.
When a group of four friends go on a trip to the desert for a drug-fueled weekend getaway, things take a turn for the worst. And they find themselves battling not only treacherous outside forces, but the individuals they thought they knew and trusted most: each other.
Oblowitz doesn’t hesitate with the scares – some of which are quite shocking and play homage to some of the classics, including The Strangers and Scream. But it’s his focus on making the horror interlaced with real, human drama and interpersonal conflict that really brings something special to the film.
Fans of the genre will surely delight knowing that this ambitious feature is in the hands of someone who, like us, has a deep love of both film and genre film.
Oblowitz explains his inspiration for the film.
“I mean, I love the genre of home invasion, sort of shock thrillers. I’ve loved them going all the way back to the older noir ones. From PRIVATE PROPERTY, DESPERATE HOURS, STRAW DOGS to Hitchcock — all the way to the more modern ones, like THE STRANGERS and DON’T BREATHE. All of these films I love. So the script was the slasher, Giallo kind of SUSPIRIA, OPERA, those kind of films. The opportunity to combine them also to have a really strong, dramatic side to the film was what, to me, separated it and really allowed me to kind of also make a real human drama.”
Some critics of slasher films have said throughout the years that this particular sub genre has become stale. Horror lovers are all too familiar with tropes and the formulaic rendering of these films. We’ve even cheered for films like The Final Girls and Cabin in the Woods that have riffed on them.
So how does one go about keeping things interesting? Is there a way to make a slasher film or a home invasion film that thinks outside the box?
“You keep the characters interesting by giving the characters depth and real issues and real, emotional baggage and trauma and complexities to subvert you from the obvious tropes,” said Oblowitz. “There’s only so many ways to eat a cookie… there’s just certain beats that these types of genres hit, and I wanted to play into that. There’s a moment in the film where Victor goes ‘Why would you open the door? Don’t open the door.’ We’re (the audience) in on it.”
“It’s showing very human, very flawed characters going through their own personal crises.”
For me, this was one method Trespassers used that set it apart. Fans of Scream and Kevin Willamson’s script will appreciate the playfulness in Oblowitz’s directorial choices that echoes Wes Craven’s classic. It’s clear he wanted to keep the audience immersed in the nightmare he created and the terror that lurks in every frame.
Also, it turns out that Oblowitz’s own roots are connected to the master filmmaker himself.
“Actually, my drama teacher in elementary school was Wes Craven’s daughter,” said Oblowitz.
In my opinion, Oblowitz has all the early markings of a promising filmmaker, and definitely showcased his lofty ambitions with Trespassers, which is certainly not a small feat for the director’s biggest feature to date. His first feature, The Queen of Hollywood Boulevard, is currently streaming on Shudder.
Oblowitz had an ambitious project ahead of him, and overcame some challenges during filming — both with the necessity to shoot the majority of the film at night and the fact that the entirety of the film takes place in one location. One of my favorite aspects of the film was the continuity in how the majority of the film takes place over the course of a single evening, which really allows the audience to feel like they’re in the thick of the events that unfold on screen.
But that can be a challenge for filmmakers, especially independent ones like Oblowitz.
“We had to shoot a film that mainly took place at night in a house that was full of glass windows, so that constituted everyone having to be up from about 4 pm to 4 am, 20 nights. So that was the first challenge. I think it really created a fun atmosphere. We all had a blast being together. We were like a circus family. I haven’t worked with as big a crew as this film, so that was a whole new learning experience.”
“And beyond that, just the idea of how to keep things interesting within this contained environment. How do the characters keep the tension up, how do they keep the action coming when you least expect it, how do we cut the corners without looking like we’re cutting the corners? It’s a film that requires a lot of heavy stylization, heavy violence… a lot was how to keep this going, keep this interesting and not fall into the pitfalls of single location, low budget horror films.”
Obviously taking notes from Brian Bertino’s cult classic, The Strangers, Oblowitz had an unexpected tie-in to his film with a member of his crew.
“Our one executive producer, Sonny Mallhi, was the producer of THE STRANGERS. So it was really cool to get some of his insight on how they did that film and what that process was like,” said Oblowitz.
Given that the film takes place primarily at night, the sunbathed initial setting of a desert paradise fades into a neon-soaked sunset scape that adds a haunting backdrop and allowed Oblowitz to play with lighting and color in a way most in these sub genres typically don’t.
Instead of being isolated in a cabin in the woods or anticipating terror in a sleepy suburban backdrop, I found myself treated to a technicolor dreamscape that gave off the vibe of a psychedelic rave and echoed films like The Neon Demon.
The glass house – an Air B&B sort of situation – where the main characters are staying also adds a fun aspect for the audience. It never really allows the viewer to settle even before the action kicks into high gear. This is, in part, to numerous films creating pieces of the final product for Oblowitz.
And fellow movie aficionados will surely recognize nods to more than a few beloved genre films.
“I love film and film history. Since I was a kid, my escape and my comfort zone has been watching movies. So I was pulling from a lot of references,” said Oblowitz.
“Look-wise… I wanted it on one hand to be very stylistically real and authentic kind of like GOODNIGHT MOMMY and THE STRANGERS. There’s a shot taken from MOONGLIGHT, kind of trying to be like real human dramas. And then adding the twists of like Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, and those kind of primary set colors. Nicolas Refn, he’s kind of my filmmaking idol, in a way. THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK… we were playing with high drama and these very intense, kind of 70s/80s, very visually stimulating horror thrillers.”
Couple that with music by Jonathan Snipes, who is responsible for the music behind films such as Starry Eyes, Room 237, and Snakes on a Plane, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
“Jonathan (Snipes) bought a pair of vintage doorbell chimes to create the custom doorbell sound on the house then incorporated that sound into the score so it was a motif throughout,” said Oblowitz.
Of course, nothing is as beloved in horror as a good twist or two. If you look at recent films like The Perfection, one of the constant positives that followed the film’s release was the fact that few people were able to see the twists coming. Many horror films tend to be harshly critiqued when they are too predictable, when the twists are overdone and stale, or when a film relies too heavily on the “jump scare.”
I asked Oblowitz about what he, as a horror fan and director, tries to do to keep his audience guessing.
“It’s all about subverting their expectations, making them look left when everything that’s about to happen is on the right. That was a big challenge for me, I had never done that in a horror film. I had never made horror shorts. But I’d watched a lot of them and analyzed them. And I was working with Noah Rosenthal, my DP. We really planned out and shot listed the whole film beforehand. We did diagrams to really try to create visual subversion.”
“The script Corey (Deshon) had written, it was on the page… on the page, he was constantly subverting your attention,” said Oblowitz.
“Something we struggle with in horror, we all see it and sometimes it works great and sometimes not, we don’t give the characters enough credit. We don’t make them human enough sometimes. And in this case, we tried to give the characters real issues and complexities. So when the horror starts, you’re almost not sure where it comes from because you’ve been so involved in these characters’ lives.”
This is another film that really gives that ‘monster’ quality to the ‘human’ characters in the film. And that’s before the real meat of the story starts and the blood starts flowing. Sometimes, the most terrifying aspects of humanity are found within ourselves, and Trespassers plays to that very well.
Tried and true horror lovers might even find themselves out of their seats with this one because Oblowitz and his cast and crew have carefully crafted the scares to destabilize us and dig deep into the anticipation that hardened horror fans always expect.
“Your first job (as a director) is just to be the audience. Sometimes we’d be doing scenes, and I’d even turn my back to the camera and just listen to it — and just be like ‘Is this real? Do I believe this?’” said Oblowitz.
Leaning on his characters’ instincts was bolstered by a cast that, as Oblowitz said, “really got it.” Fan favorite Fairuza Balk (The Craft) returns in an unexpected role that will have fans cheering to have her back on their screens. The cast is completed by Angela Trimbur (The Final Girls), Zach Avery (The White Crow), Janel Parrish (Pretty Little Liars), and Jonathan Howard (Thor: The Dark World).
Oblowitz gushes about his exceptional cast.
“I have nothing but the most positive things to say about the whole cast. They all brought their A-game, they trusted in us, they never complained. There was one night where we were shooting stuff without the core cast. I asked ‘can you all hang out a little while? I just wanna shoot this one thing for you.’ I didn’t shoot them for another six hours. They stayed for one shot. They were so tired, but that was the vibe.”
“Every time a character had to exit the film, mainly because they were exiting their lifespan as the character, it was very sad. We were constantly making jokes about how we could rewrite them back into the film.”
Fairuza Balk redid her own character, billed only as The Visitor, from the original script, and it’s much different than fans are used to seeing from her.
“You’d be amazed at the amount of prep work she did to create that character. That character was written much more funky, more badass, and she was like ‘no, no, we’re going art school elementary school teacher here,’” said Oblowitz.
In my opinion, her performance alone is worth the price of admission, although she is flanked by other talented actors that comprise the core cast.
“It was a make or break part of the film, and she really brought it.”
I, personally, love horror with underlying social commentary, and Trespassers didn’t disappoint. But the commentary was covert enough to entertain audiences that aren’t as keen on digging for a deeper meaning.
Really, what unites many horror films is the depth of the human condition itself. What makes slashers and home invasions so effective in scaring audiences, as they have done for decades, is their ability to prey on people who are vulnerable just by living their day to day lives. Whether it’s the attempt to have a nice weekend getaway with friends or even just when we settle in for a quiet night at home.
The notion that something malicious could be watching and waiting nearby is enough to make most people nervous, at the very least.
“It strikes us at the core of our psyche, and I think horror reflects society even when it doesn’t mean to. I think if you look over the last hundred years of cinema, you see styles of horror and sci-fi really reflect the political and social ennui at the time,” said Oblowitz.
Watching Trespassers was an experience. And while crowds are rushing to see larger budget summer blockbuster films in theaters, I recommend trying to catch this indie flick on the big screen while you can. While many indie films don’t make it to the big screen, Oblowitz formatted this one to be seen in theaters, despite the fact that it’ll be somewhat of a limited release for consumers.
“If you can see it during that week in the theater, definitely see it in the theater. I think that’s where it works best. I’m a proponent that films play best in a big, dark, loud room. We shot it for the movie screen. But it’s also going to be available for rentals as well. But play it loud!”