Blumhouse spoke with Fessenden, Graham Reznick, and GEP Producer Jenn Wexler (among others) about the development and use of the term “DEATHWAVE” to label horror movies with elevated plot and characterization.
By Jerry Smith
Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock for the last five years, you’ve noticed the same thing that I have: horror films are becoming something more than what they had become for almost a decade. Gone are the cast of whatever WB or CW channel-filled adaptions of the too witty for their own good Kevin Williamson adaptions. No, we’re not getting I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, URBAN LEGEND of even the torture-filled films that quickly became the new tone of terror afterwards, when American filmmakers did their best to outdo the powerful and thematic French Extremist films of the early 2000’s. Within the last few years, genre films such as THE BABADOOK, AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR, HONEYMOON, STARRY EYES, CHEAP THRILLS, SOME KIND OF HATE and various others arrived and offered something that our beloved genre had been lacking for quite some time: a full developed story, characters that were motivated by more than just being chased by slashers or tortured for your gore enjoyment. These characters were placed inside of stories that meant something and had themes. They bypassed the former films that were lacking in depth and substance, ones that were in genre films that overpopulated the marketplace prior to their arrival. Sure there were always films that were emotionally resonant and powerful, such as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, ROSEMARY’S BABY and so on, but this was something different. This new wave of films and filmmakers were offering stories that were able to find their place deep within the tastes and hearts of horror fans, and though there were some who weren’t a fan of those types of films (Christopher J. Jimenez wrote a piece for Sinful Celluloid on how horror is dead because of those kinds of films), the general consensus has been one of praising these films.
Last year, while looking through my Twitter feed, I stumbled across a word that was able to immediately catch my eye: DEATHWAVE. Just the sound of those two words put together were enough to cause me to look up everything I could on what it meant. It seemed like a movement, almost a manifesto of sorts, and to be honest, it sounded like something close to the films I had been currently writing. Naturally, it was time to investigate, and when visiting the set of an upcoming anthology film produced and directed by my friend Adam Egypt Mortimer (Director of SOME KIND OF HATE), I noticed that he was wearing a shirt that read…DEATHWAVE. Naturally, I had to ask about it, and our conversation opened my eyes to what the term meant and what it insinuated.
Fast forward to this year’s Fantastic Fest film festival in Austin, TX. In between films, I sat at a table talking to my friend (and excellent writer/producer) Heather Buckley and somewhere in between talking about an upcoming film I’m working on and her upcoming projects, the term Deathwave came up, and I described to Buckley my understanding of it. “You should write a piece on that, and talk to as many people as possibly for it”, she said. So, I reached out to quite possibly everyone I could contact, who were either supporters of Deathwave or quite the opposite: people who see it as just another label that the genre doesn’t need. The conversations and interviews were very divisive, and with good reason. Both the pro-Deathwave people and anti-Deathwave term people all had valid points that I felt were important to write about, so that’s where we are now. Blumhouse readers, this is quite the epic piece, with statements from legendary genre filmmakers like Larry Fessenden, notable producers such as Travis Stevens and Jennifer Wexler, actors such as Noah Segan, Publicists/festival programmer Kaila Sarah Hier and many more. We’ve decided to split this into two parts and we genuinely hope you like reading it, that it inspires some thought on the subject and that it asks you what you think. So, here we go: DEATHWAVE – The New Movement or Just Another Label?
Adam Egypt Mortimer (Writer/Director – SOME KIND OF HATE, Ballistic, HOLIDAYS)
BLUMHOUSE: Let’s talk about the origin of “Deathwave”.
MORTIMER: When we talk about the origin of it, there are two things. The first being when did I come up with this awesome/stupid word for it versus what is the origin of trying to describe what kind of movie it is, so there’s two particular things. Let me talk about both of those things. As far as the first time I said the word “Deathwave”: I had kind of worked in isolation, without having a bunch of friends around me who were into the same thing and into horror. When working on SOME KIND OF HATE, I was lucky enough to have Josh Ethier (Actor/Editor, SOME KIND OF HATE, ALMOST HUMAN, THE MIND’S EYE) edit it and he would always talk about all of these people. He’d say things like, “Man, we should show this to Joe Begos, We should show this cut to Mickey Keating or Graham Reznick”, so they could give me feedback. He kind of put me in touch with all of these people, who would watch edits of the film and give their feedback. There was this key moment, when Josh invited me to this Fourth of July barbecue at Jen Yamato (Entertainment Reporter for The Daily Beast)’s house. I’d really like to call that moment the birth of Deathwave, the 4th of July, 2014. I went along, and Mickey (Keating) was there, Roxanne Benjamin, Joe Begos (ALMOST HUMAN), Dennis Widmeyer (STARRY EYES), all of these people I never would have known. I noticed all of these people having tattoos of things like DAWN OF THE DEAD, in the way that people used to have band tattoos. Travis Stevens was there too. I was there, standing around thirty-five people, all of which were making these emotionally relevant, personally driven, low budget horror films. They were all making their own films, but seemed to have a singular vision and were almost connected in a way. I mean, Josh Ethier edited so many of those movies.
There’s something important about recognizing that there’s this organically created movement, maybe not even a movement, but a moment. A moment in time and space. There was this group of people who had realized with very little money and the understanding of what a horror film is, that you can tell contemporary and very emotionally relevant stories. I thought to myself, “I have to be able to describe this to people who are not standing in this room with us.” I didn’t really want to define it, but I wanted to describe it, so that’s when I started saying “Deathwave”. I immediately went home and started tweeting about it, and I think I sent you the original tweets about it, how it was so cool that these people grew up on John Carpenter but turned that love into their own personal artistic vision. In a small way, I said it to be silly, but in another way, it’s pretty serious, and it’s like death, really dealing with death and grappling with the idea that death is 100% going to happen and it’s the worst thing that you can imagine. So in Deathwave, it can be silly and fun, but we can’t help but address the true reality that death is on its way.
Graham Reznick (Actor/Director/Sound Design – UNTIL DAWN, I CAN SEE YOU, V/H/S, THE SACRAMENT)
REZNICK: “DEATHWAVE” is, for me, not about dying or gore or violence as the name might suggest. “Death” in this case means change, transition, metamorphosis. Over the last two decades we’ve reached an oversaturation point of passionless studio horror films, artless remakes, and bland cash grabs all made for the wrong reasons. Because many of these films are made inexpensively and yield a large profit, we’ve learned to praise the financial success of the genre – but we’re in danger of losing our sense of artistic power and responsibility. Truly great horror films are meant to challenge us and force us to examine our place in society. If horror becomes solely a celebration of body counts, blood splatter and box office mojo, we will be missing a profound opportunity to use a popular mainstream genre to tell stories that are personal, that have purpose, that explore and confront our collective existential uncertainties. We need a response to this mortal malaise – we need to destroy the cynicism that has brought us to this point. DEATHWAVE is the death of the cynical model, and it is the wave of passionate, sincere filmmakers and storytellers who want their work to have meaning and impact. Those who associate with this wave feel we have no choice or alternative to our approach because if our stories have no meaning, it will spell the death of our culture – and “death” in this case will mean “to disappear.”
Larry Fessenden (Actor/Director/Producer – Glass Eye Pix)
BLUMHOUSE: The term “DEATHWAVE” was coined by SOME KIND OF HATE director Adam Egypt Mortimer as a way to describe genre films that are in a lot of ways elevated from just being typical slash and dice films. Films like those of Mickey Keating’s, Mortimer’s and various others as well. When I mentioned that your work has always felt that way to me, Mortimer said that in his opinion, you’re the John Cassavetes of horror and that if anything; you’re the godfather of the Deathwave movement. What is it that you think has made your films so influential to up and coming filmmakers and so resonant?
FESSENDEN: I think my films have a deliberate and determined vulnerability, dealing with melancholy and loss as much as the horror tropes that I clearly love. I have tried for authenticity in my work, tried to get at nagging truths about things as I see them. There is nothing calculated or commercial in the work (just ask my investors) and so the movies are inspiring to young filmmakers that come from a more idealistic place as they start out in the business. I have also championed the do-it-yourself approach which again is inspiring for those with few resources and a dream. Maybe most of all, I take horror movies seriously. I’m telling scary stories that matter to me, the viewer can tell that. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea of course.
Kaila Sarah Hier (PR, Programming – Fantastia, Ithaca International, Boston Underground Film Festivals)
HIER: I like to think I have a pretty solid outsider’s account of the development of the Death Wave movement. Without getting too autobiographical, I think it could be what inspired me to get more involved in genre cinema- and I don’t think I’m the only one. I used to be so disconnected from Horror movies- both new additions to the genre and the pillars that make it thrive. It was something I missed out on growing up and felt left out of for my lack of foundation. Then I found myself stumbling into some of the early incantations of the Death Wave genre (specifically, I recall, the spotlight on Adam Wingard films at Fantasia in 2011 that had me glued to my seat and inexplicably drawn to the screen) – these horror films that seemed to trigger an emotional connection within, that were enthralling in a whole new way, and that didn’t necessarily have to come with a mental encyclopedia of scary movies. These films were such standouts to everything else in the festival programming, and they all seemed to build off of each other in themes and tones without ever feeling repetitive or competitive. Meeting the people behind these films cemented this impression. The Death Wave genre developing before us is so rich with collaboration and it comes out beautifully in the films that focus on personal stories and intimate portrayals of characters made possible by the trust these film makers approach each other with while building these projects up.
From the position of a publicist I’ve had the thrill of seeing these films be very well received by audiences. Even a flawed film is easily recognized as impressive for its style and unique approach to horror themes, and people are responding very strongly to both the characters and the stories that are being made. Death Wave is interesting in that respect because it doesn’t just appeal to Horror junkies who acknowledge all the influences, but to new fans of the genre, and is often a ‘gateway drug’ inspiring new viewers to delve deeper. There’s no denying that Death Wave films resonate strongly with the world we live in and have announced themselves as the next wave of horror cinema.
It’s funny how long it took to put a name on it. When I was first approached with the concept of Death Wave and what it meant it was like a puzzle piece long lost falling into place. I’d tried and failed to put a name to the movement before and it was rewarding to finally see it justified. There was just such a sense of there being something there, lurking and growing. By the time it finally found a name it was already very much a movement that everyone involved felt the pull of. Naming it has just made it more accessible to the public, thus ultimately bringing it to the forefront of the modern horror film genre and bringing both the audiences and the filmmakers closer together through its representation.
Jennifer Wexler (Producer –BENEATH, ABC’S OF DEATH 2, DARLING)
BLUMHOUSE: The DEATHWAVE vs “These films shouldn’t be labelled” thing is quite an issue between different filmmakers right now, what are your opinions on the idea of that term and also the collective films and people it describes?
WEXLER: From a branding perspective, if a name like Deathwave draws attention to these kinds of films then I’m all for it. Sometimes you need to label a thing to build hype around it and draw eyes to it. But I don’t think filmmakers should take the label too seriously. If you focus too much on trying to fit into some kind of label, I think the storytelling is at risk of being diluted. I think the label could potentially be distracting for some filmmakers. When you approach filmmaking backwards, trying to get your story to fit under an umbrella—that’s when you end up with the same kind of thinking as the studios—chasing after a thing because it’s being deemed cool and popular. All that said, if branding these films “Deathwave” makes it exciting for viewers, and draws more people to the genre, and carries the message that the genre can be deeper than blood & guts, then that’s great. I think we all just need to take it with a grain of salt.
BLUMHOUSE: It’s hard not to notice that within the last couple of years, we’ve seen such a large amount of “elevated genre films” as they’ve been called, films that emphasize on character development and great storytelling just as much as “hey let’s have awesome kills” like a lot of other genre films were going for at the time. Films like HONEYMOON, STARRY EYES, CHEAP THRILLS, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and more recently, DARLING, have shown influences outside of the genre as being just as important as the genre influences. What do you think brought this change in intentions within the genre?
WEXLER: I love the movies mentioned here, but I also think that this type of film has been around for a very long time. Just to list a couple favorites, THE SHINING, ROSEMARY’S BABY, ALIEN, THE DESCENT. I think maybe something that has changed is the cost to make a movie. You can do a whole lot more now for a whole lot less than you used to be able to, across all stages of production. It’s still certainly not easy to make a movie, but I do think it’s becoming much easier to find financing, go through production and post, and market your own film every year, without having to rely on some corporate entity to make it happen. So I think this is allowing people who love these elevated genre films to go out and create their own. The Auteur is coming back, because in this kind of indie filmmaking, you don’t need the approvals of 15 different executives every step of the way. Larry was able to make HABIT because he made it completely outside the studio system, and was able to really explore that world as an auteur. The changes in technology are allowing more filmmakers to do that and this stuff that we crave—substance!—is appearing more often and being more recognized by festivals and press.