SA’s first splat-stick film explodes onto the big screen.

Posted: August 17, 2010 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

First published in the Sunday Independent.

“I believe there are four reasons why people are fascinated with splatter films.  Curiosity is the first one.  What’s it going to look like when someone’s head gets shoved into a plastic bag and beaten to a pulp?” – Alastair Orr muses on the genre after shooting South Africa’s first splatter flick, The Unforgiving.  “It’s our animal instinct, our innate, undeniable taste for blood. Voyeurism is the second.  We are able to watch these grossly inhumane acts and not actually participate in them. Third is the rush when seeing these images; feeling grossed out and feeling scared. When you are feeling these emotions there’s no space for confusion, or your work problems, interest rates, traffic; this is the only thing you’re feeling and it’s raw.  Everything else is so far removed. The last reason I feel you would watch someone being mutilated is because maybe you feel they actually deserve it.”      

A ‘splatter’ flick is a sub-genre of horror that focuses on the very graphic depiction of blood, guts and gore.  In a typical flick, the characters are systematically, and quite theatrically, tortured and mutilated. The plot is usually wafer thin and good rarely triumphs over evil.  The first splatter film to really popularise the genre was George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).  More recently is the runaway success of the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre; which is like a splatter flick but with added sexually suggestive imagery.  The film, Saw which was made for $1,2million, grossed over $100 million worldwide, while Hostel, which cost less than $5million to produce, grossed over $80million.  The low production cost of this type of film is one of the reasons young Orr became involved in the process.

The film stars Claire Opperman and Ryan Macquet who are stranded along a Johannesburg freeway. A madman picks them up and proceeds to do ‘unthinkable’ things to them.  They both survive, but during interrogation sessions by a crime detective, played by Michael Thompson, it becomes clear that they wish they hadn’t. As the horrific events slowly and grotesquely unravel, all is not what it initially seemed, and the truth is far uglier than anyone can imagine.

Orr, who also wrote the script, has worked on numerous award winning music videos, television shows, films and commercials. He is co-owner of Kamikaze Motion Pictures. The Unforgiving is his feature film debut and is inspired by the early work of Chris Nolan and splatter pack graduates Eli Roth and James Wan.  The Unforgiving was shot over eight weekends from March 2009 to the first week of June.

Claire Opperman was born and raised in Benoni and studied drama and media at the University of Pretoria. She then performed at the State Theatre and in several short films.  Is she our next Charlize from Benoni?  Orr remembers meeting Claire for the first time, “She had this beautiful bleached blonde hair,” he recalls. “And the whole way through the audition I kept thinking to myself, man, the blood is going to look really good dripping through that virgin white hair.  Claire had an internal strength that I can’t quite describe. I needed someone with a bit of darkness in their eyes, a bit of depth in their soul. The dialogue that I had written was just words until she read them, until she turned them into a story.”

Apart from being strangled with a plastic bag and having her face smashed to a pulp, Opperman’s character also has to endure a brutal rape.  “Because of the terrible subject matter, I didn’t spend too much time talking Claire through the process and character decisions, it just got too dark,” says Orr.  “Instead I would say, ‘Claire, you need to get from A to B in 30 seconds, that’s how long this shot’s got to be.  Oh, and you’re going to be crawling over this rubble and glass with your legs tied to an arm chair. When you get to that rock, turn on to your back, and try and make a phone call’.” Before she could ask if I was serious or not the camera was rolling and I called ‘action!’ It was so physically demanding on the actors that you could really only do a shot once without Human Rights getting involved.”

Opperman says she is a splatter flick fan and that she was thrilled to be offered the part.  “I had a very understanding and patient crew. If we were ever in a situation where the scene was uncomfortable, we approached it carefully, and in a very mature manner. The funny thing is that one can never research the notion of violence. We all have an instinctual need to protect ourselves and that force was evident in all of the violent scenes.  I found the film as a whole very emotionally challenging. There were days when we were all tired, frustrated, cold, and really run down. However I feel that’s where the magic lies. When I was vulnerable, physically and emotionally, I felt it easier to connect to my character.”  However, Opperman says she is delighted with her role and says she would most definitely do another splatter flick as it is a genre that she feels comfortable with.

Ryan Macquet who plays the lead role is perhaps better known for his work in Scandal, Jozi Streets and One Way.  “There is no work out there for actors, so I created my own. Alastair knows me quite well, and he wrote a script that he knew we could realistically turn into a film, and he wrote a character that would be challenging but with in my range.”

The film was shot in Vosloorus, on the East Rand, 30kms out of Johannesburg. Orr says the film’s location perfectly suited the mood and context of The Unforgiving.  “We found this abandoned Spanish style farm house off the N3, that must have been quite opulent in its day,” he explains. “Now everything’s been taken away, the only things left are the walls and these over grown palm trees. You definitely got the feeling that something bad had happened there. It was always so cold in that house. It was in the middle of nowhere but you felt trapped, claustrophobic, you never wanted to spend more time than necessary in there. Someone decided to build a compost heap just outside this house, so it smelt like death and decay.  You couldn’t walk into the house without stepping in this muck, so your feet always reeked of this smell, wherever you go it’s this smell.”

Orr says they visited abattoirs to hunt for animal bits that could be substituted for human anatomy.  “One scene required a drill going through a wrist and a kneecap so we settled for a lamb’s forearm, using the elbow as our kneecap.” Orr explains. “We packed some pork chops around the elbow to give a bit more weight and put a pair of jeans over the joint and drilled into that. We added a pipe of our own blood mixture running near the motor of the drill so it sprayed out violently as it hit the flesh.  Everyone who’s watched it has been too grossed out to ask how we did that scene. We used 15 litres of ‘blood’ – enough to drain 3 average human bodies. It was a homemade mixture of custard powder, dishwashing liquid, water, large amounts of golden syrup and red, yellow and blue food colouring.”

He says the cast did a lot of screaming, so much so that the Police came to check if everything is ok.

Claire had a three hour, screaming, grunting and groaning session.  Orr reckons there are about 8 minutes of screaming and grunting in the film which runs for a total of 80 minutes. 

“I remember when we were filming a scene that involves Claire getting injected with a needle in the eye that I had to look away because it was so brutal,” Orr recalls. “What I didn’t realize was that our director of photography and our sound guy had also turned away half way through shot so these actors were just going at it without anyone to call cut. I knew we had nailed that scene because of the way we reacted. We all gathered around and gasped together as we watched the take on the LCD. The producers were happy because no one wanted to eat lunch that day.”

The twenty-five-year-old filmmaker says he loves the freedom that this genre of filmmaking offers.  “Apart from crazy characters and story lines, you can really go nuts with the camera shots and sound and score. There are basically no limits in a film like this and that is what I love. Also, something like this hasn’t been done in South Africa before, so there’s nothing to compare it to. Starting off on a clean slate means you get to set the rules.”

Orr believes that horror films are the product of the collective consciousness of fears within a public group. “These are the kind of things that keep me up at night, that keep parents awake because this is the world their children have to grow up in.  I don’t live in a world where people burst into song and dance.  I don’t live in a world where a man in tights is going to fly down and save the day. Yes, the fears of the world keep me awake at night, and the only way to get rid of them is to make films about them. I wish I could take the credit for pushing the boundaries of violence in cinema, but unfortunately the violence in The Unforgiving is nothing new to modern audiences. I think South Africans will be shocked to see it happening to their own people. I think it will be a shock to hear people screaming and shouting and begging for their lives with a South African accent.”

“The last ten minutes of The Unforgiving is a blood bath, and I think you would need serious psychological advice if you find yourself laughing through this.”

Orr says they are currently busy raising finance for the next movie.

The Unforgiving premiers at Monte Casino on 19 August, and it will then be released nationwide, at selected Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro cinemas from 20 August.  To watch the trailer, visit their website at www.theunforgiving.co.za.

By Astrid Stark

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