Written and directed by Brian Cavallaro, Against the Night tells the story of nine friends who decide to sneak into an abandoned prison to film their own ‘ghost-hunting’ video. As members of their team begin to disappear, they quickly begin to fear that they may not be alone. Filmed in Philadelphia, Cavallaro believed that the prison setting helped establish an atmosphere of dread from the outset.
“I’m from Philadelphia and, as a kid I took a tour of a penitentiary called Eastern State Penitentiary,” he begins. “I thought it’d be a great place for a genre movie. It’s got unique architecture, decaying walls. All the stuff that makes for a great horror movie. I set out to do that and, as I was on my scouting trips to Eastern State Penitentiary, I found that it would be more like shooting in a museum. They were saying that it was fine to shoot there but we couldn’t have any blood on the walls or run down any hallways and I thought that that doesn’t sound very fun. Then, I found that there were other prisons in the city that look very much like Eastern State Penitentiary that are less protected and that’s how we came upon Holmesberg Prison, which is a great location.”
Although the benefits of filming on location far outweigh the negatives, there are always challenges to overcome. For example, while shooting at Holmesburg, Cavallaro was forced to improvise his techniques in areas without electricity.
“You didn’t see it in the movie but [Holmesberg] is an operating prison,” he clarifies. “So, the yard that we filmed in has inmates out there during the day. Our holding area was sometimes used as a holding area for prisoners and that’s attached to the more condemned area where we filmed. Our holding area was great. We had running water, lights and all the things you need to make something work but, when we actually filmed, we had no electricity. So, that was a bit of a challenge. There was no help to speak of. So, you were out there and, it was pretty creepy.”
Along with the challenges of on-location shooting, Cavallaro also was working with a cast of unknown actors with limited experience. Nevertheless, despite the potential for difficulty, he was very impressed by his cast’s talent and hard work.
“They were great, actually!,” he recalls. “I had a hard time. Obviously, when you’re working with a low budget, you don’t have script supervisors sitting next to me the whole time. The only thing I just tried to keep them on task with the intention of the scene. So, sometimes I kind of liked how things were going in terms of the emotion and then, I’d try to pull back and say ‘Don’t forget. We have to get from this scene to this scene.’ But they were super talented! Half of them were local from Philadelphia and the other half came down from New York. I was very, very happy at how they all worked together.”
While any director is influenced by other artists in their craft, horror is a particularly interesting genre unto itself. Whether it’s the supernatural terror of The Exorcist or the more grounded terror of The Blair Witch Project, every horror film has a different style and emphasis. However, in the creation of Against the Night, Cavallaro says that his greatest influence came from a genre that one might not expect.
Says Cavallaro, “Beyond [any particular] films that have influenced it, I’m also a fan of that genre of reality TV shows. Not necessarily in the believable kind of way but just in the sense that I’ve had to cut my teeth in the industry. I’ve worked on a few [reality shows], learned some of the tricks of the trade and thought that this would be kind of a fun way to approach [our film].”
Interestingly, regardless of their budget or ‘star power’, horror films seem to consistently be the genre that makes money. With this in mind, Cavallaro believes that much of the popularity of the genre stems from our culture’s overall interest in the afterlife.
“I think we must be [fascinated by the paranormal] because of the amount of content that’s out there. And I think that we want to believe that there’s something out there more than us. I think that there’s many different versions of that. I’m always interested in the fact that many Asian cultures see ghosts as a completely positive entity. Obviously, we have different feelings about that. I think, ultimately, we just want to believe that there’s something more than us.”
Furthermore, it still remains somewhat of a mystery as to why we seem to enjoy being scared as an audience. On the surface, fear appears to be an overtly negative feeling… and yet, time and again, we find ourselves drawn into a darkened theatre asking to feel the anxiety and dread of horror. In light of this, Cavallaro believes that much of the appeal lies in our desire to problem-solve.
“I’ve read other interviews and seen other podcasts where other people answer that and I don’t know if I’ve ever had an answer that I buy,” he argues. “But I guess you’re always prescribing yourself to a character to any film you’re watching where you wonder what it’s like to be in that situation or that protagonist. But I think that, in scary movies, you’re allowed to have that experience without any real danger and you’re also can do the problem-solving to figure out how you’d get out of that situation. So, you always hear people in the movie theatres saying, ‘Don’t go in there? Why would you go in there?’ They’re saying it out loud because that’s what they’re thinking. They’re trying to problem-solve themselves out of that situation.”
Given the fact that there’s such a wide variety of styles within the horror genre, there has always been much discussion regarding how one creates the best scares for the audience. Though many have debated this issue with few firm answers, Cavallaro feels that it ultimately comes down to the effectiveness of sound design and music.
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” he confesses. “You’re ensconced in a struggle because there’s things that you see often that kind of get you every time but you also want to do something different that you haven’t seen before. Sometimes it doesn’t work. It’s almost like telling a joke. If you’re telling a joke that you’ve never told before, you’re not really sure how it’s going to land. You really can’t undermine the power of sound design and music, either. I was really lucky in this department as well because there were plenty of times, looking at the rough cuts, where I was like this doesn’t work at all. Then, of course, you get to put a little bit of music behind it and the crescendos made me say ‘hey, that’s not bad’”
Against the Night is available on demand as of March 27th.