“A shocking revelation turns a teenage boy’s world upside down in this chilling look at the evil that can lurk below even the most wholesome surface. Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer) is a Boy Scout, a volunteer at his local church, and the dutiful son of an upstanding, community leader dad (Dylan McDermott). Only one thing troubles the quiet Kentucky town he lives in: the unsolved murders—in which ten women were brutally tortured and killed by a psychopath known as Clovehitch—that rocked the community more than a decade ago. When Tyler discovers a cache of disturbing images in his father’s possession, he begins to suspect that the man he trusts most in the world may be Clovehitch—and that his deadly rampage may not be over. With unrelenting tension, director Duncan Skiles crafts a picture-perfect vision of the all-American family—and then piece by piece rips it to shreds.”
Of all the films in the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, the one I was most interested in seeing was IFC Midnight’s The Clovehitch Killer. There’s always something intriguing about a serial killer in a small town, and lord knows I love myself a creepy familial aspect to anything. I was fully expecting director Duncan Skiles to craft a film which hinged as much on aching tension as it did on actual physical violence, if not more so, and I was not disappointed.
Not only does the director elicit fantastic performances from the young Plummer and always-excellent McDermott (who really seems to be embracing a creepiness in the wake of American Horror Story), but the work of Madisen Beaty as Kassi, the young woman with whom Charlie explores the mystery of Clovehitch is excellent. The multiple layers he gets from Samantha Mathis as Charlie’s mother, Cindy, is nothing short of wonderful, as well.
Not content with being an excellent thriller in general, The Clovehitch Killer also plays with non-linear storytelling and perspective in a manner that’s refreshingly interesting, yet also provides a deeper idea of the story being told. Despite being a serial killer tale — of which we’ve seen many iterations — Skiles’ work from writer Christopher Ford’s script explores small-town America so well, it felt like I was looking at some twisted memories from my youth.
So, with all of that, it was a real pleasure to be able to speak by phone with director Skiles ahead of the film’s BHFF East Coast premiere earlier this week.
Why did you want to direct this script? It seems so different from your past work.
I came up with the idea myself, from reading a bunch about serial killers I was fascinated by, and I felt like I hadn’t really seen a movie that was capturing the feeling that I was getting. I’ve done a lot of comedy stuff, but I’ve also done a lot of suspense that’s not really represented on the internet; my early stuff in film school was horror comedy. I really enjoyed creating tension, and I feel like I might be better at it than straightforward comedy.
I can definitely see that. There is a lot of tension in this movie, but it also has this visual element I really like. What led to the decision to shoot this with that sepia tone? Was it to evoke the idea of photographs, which are so integral to the plot?
I was very influenced by Funny Games, which I thought was interesting for its contextualizing a very dark story within a very vacation home atmosphere. That mix, to me, was unsettling. Also, the original The Vanishing, from 1988, kind of had that vibe going on; there was a kidnapping from a crowded gas station in the middle of the day.
The approach was to have this sort of dark story and treat it with a certain mundane approach. My cinematographer, Luke McCoubrey, got it. He’s the one who built the light that we shot with. That’s the philosophy that we went with. I don’t know if we were going for something that was retro. It was more normal and not typical horror.
One of the things I enjoyed about the way the movie tells its story, I’m almost loathe to talk about, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
I think it’s best experienced if you go into the movie not knowing anything about it.
Did you have any experiences with the sort of church that exists in the film? It reminded me so much of one in my hometown — the kind where kids wanting to be in school plays had to submit the script for approval to a council — that it really brought back some memories.
That’s funny, that’s exactly what I had to do to get permission to shoot in this church. We went to a couple churches, and the one we shot in, I had to sit before a council of church elders and leaders and talk about the story. The main concern was that we wouldn’t be swearing in the church.
I grew up in the Bible Belt. I wasn’t religious, but I grew up around a lot of people and churches and I went to a bunch of churches in Kentucky before the shoot, in pre-production, just to get a feel for what it’s really like. The church that we did end up shooting in was just super-nice, they were very welcoming. The pastor invited us to a sermon, and he worked our movie production into the sermon, and I felt very grateful to have met him.
Along with everyone else, Madisen Beaty and Charlie Plummer are just perfect in this. How does one get such natural performances from teenagers, who are asked to exist in this sort of in-between space? The character of Tyler has this thing where he wants to be a teenager, but he’s kind of kept childlike and protected by the church.
Step one: hire good actors. Casting was a long process, but Charlie came on early in the process. I liked him from the moment I met him. I felt he was really smart, as an actor; uniquely so, for someone his age. He was 16 at the time and he made a lot of subtle choices. Sometimes, more subtle than I wanted, so it was a good collaboration with me sort of pushing him, and him doing what a normal teenager would do, sort of representing authenticity and normality really well.
Madisen came on two weeks before we shot, because the person we had had to pull out, and I just got lucky. The casting is the most important, and I think if you can just hire people who are good, you can get a lot of mileage out of it.
This is a very scary movie that is surprisingly bloodless. Was it a conscious decision to let the audience create the horror in their mind, rather than showing them?
Oh, yeah. For sure. It’s almost like a truism about the genre at this point that what you don’t see is scarier than what you see. [The Blair Witch Project] remains one of the scariest movies ever made, in my mind, and all that you see is that movie is some sticks. The story about Jaws with the intent being to show the shark a whole lot more, and then having malfunctions with the mechanical shark making the movie so much better.
But, personally, I’m averse to violence on screen. I don’t like torture porn at all. I like violence in certain contexts, like when it’s creative — like Army of Darkness or Robocop or something like that — but people getting injured in this type of story? I don’t really like that. I knew that we had to go to a dark place in order to get this very tense feeling, and that was uncomfortable to shoot. That was my least-favorite thing to shoot.