One of the most pleasant surprises for me at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was attending the U.S. premiere of the independent “body horror” entry Contracted by prolific 25-year-old writer/director Eric England. Eric attended the 10/16 show of Contracted at CIFF and “fell in love with Chicago.” This interview was conducted shortly afterwards via e-mail.
MGS: The thing that impressed me the most about your film was its overall spirit of fun and the way you balanced horror and comedy. The late night audience I saw it with at CIFF was laughing from beginning to end. This sense of fun is something that’s missing from a lot of other recent horror movies I’ve seen, many of which have budgets much bigger than yours. What do you see as the relationship between horror and comedy?
EE: I think that horror and comedy go hand in hand. They play off each other as a release valve and they’re very similar. One sets up a joke, the other a scare. The only difference is the payoff. I actually don’t see Contracted as a true horror-comedy, but it absolutely has humor in it and sometimes I feel like people are afraid to laugh with the film. But they shouldn’t be because I definitely didn’t try to take everything in it very seriously. So I’m glad the audience in Chicago was able to pick up on that.
MGS: The “body horror” subgenre is strongly associated with the 1980s and the films of David Cronenberg in particular. Were there any specific movies that influenced Contracted or were you more inspired by real-world fears about sexually transmitted diseases and the concept of losing control over one’s own body?
EE: Definitely the latter. I actually wasn’t as well versed in Cronenberg and body horror as I am now. When I set out to make Contracted, I just wanted to make that kind of film. Then the comparisons to Cronenberg and “body-horror” started to get brought up and I was like “yeah, I guess I see the relation.” So I didn’t really set out to make a film in the vein of those or any other as much as I just wanted to make a reverse engineered sub-genre film involving an STD as the device.
MGS: Contracted opens with a very creepy and cryptic scene involving necrophilia that seems to hint at the origin of the virus. Were you ever tempted to clarify exactly who the B.J. character was and what his motives were or did you always intend for that aspect of the film to be shrouded in mystery?
EE: I’m a big fan of ambiguity in film. It polarizes some audiences and I’ve been criticized for it in the past, but I love things that make you come to conclusions for yourself and I try to reflect that in my films. So mystery was definitely always the goal with B.J. and his back-story. I wanted to give you just enough information on him to piece together what was happening and leave the rest to your imagination — including what he looks like.
MGS: I was also very impressed by the special effects make-up in the film, which seemed for the most part very old fashioned and not CGI-enhanced. It seemed like the idea was that Samantha was rotting from the inside out but very rapidly over a span of just three days. How exactly did you work with your make-up artists in showing the progression of this deadly disease?
EE: Thank you so much for picking up on that and mentioning it. We had an amazing SFX make-up artist in Mayera Abeita and she was given literally no money to transform Najarra and she killed it. She did tests and experimented and was just an all-out rockstar. I also have to give a lot of credit to Najarra herself for pulling off the performance while in the make-up because that’s definitely not easy with what she had on and had to go through. Mayera and I worked pretty closely together on figuring out what things would look like and how they would happen as well as making them feel believable. I was pretty detailed in the script with what stages I wanted at certain points of the story, but Mayera was huge in keeping it on track, executing it and consistent, along with my AD David Buchwald who was a huge savior in scheduling and saving us time to manage the make-up process.
MGS: I think Najarra Townsend’s performance is also central to the success of the film. She has such an interesting look and a very real, “un-actorly” presence onscreen. The whole time I was watching her I was thinking “Where have I seen her before?” After I got home, I looked her up and was delighted to find out that she was the little girl in Me and You and Everyone We Know. Were you aware of her beforehand or did you find her through a traditional audition process?
EE: I was aware of her just in a general sense, but Matt Mercer (co-star/co-producer) is the one who turned me on to her. When we had a couple of go-to actresses fall through, we were ready to try a traditional route of auditioning and he suggested Najarra. Right off the bat from her headshot, I loved her look, but I was afraid she was too young, so I asked her to come in and read. The moment she walked in the room, I just knew. She blew me away and as soon as she left, I told Matt that I wanted her to play Samantha. After a callback, she completely killed the reading again and I knew she was the one. I lucked out completely because not only is she an amazingly talented actress, she’s also an incredible person and someone I grew very close to while shooting. That’s so important when shooting a movie like this and I think it shows. You have to trust someone to carry a film like this, not only on camera, but off. Najarra was just the total package for me.
MGS: What are your filmmaking plans for the future?
EE: For the future, I just wanna try and continue to make edgy and interesting films that hopefully stand the test of time. My big thing is versatility. The horror genre is such a niche place, but horror is such a broad term and I think there’s a lot of ground to explore. So I never wanna do the same thing twice if I don’t have to. So moving forward, I just wanna continue to do films that feel different from what I’ve already done, but continue to show growth, not only for me, but for the genre as well.
MGS: Best of luck, Eric. I greatly look forward to your future work.
EE: Thanks, Michael. You too!
Contracted will be released by IFC Films on November 22. You can learn more about Eric on his official website: http://ericengland.blogspot.com/
October 21st, 2013 at 9:17 am
Great interview! I think EE’s comment about the apprehension felt towards laughing with the horror is so right on. I remember seeing “Dead Snow” at the Musicbox Theatre and I wanted to laugh, and I could feel that everyone else in the theatre felt the same way. Finally, people began gradually giggling and it was a great release for the tension that had built up.
October 21st, 2013 at 9:29 am
Exactly. I love his comment about horror and comedy playing off each other “like a release valve.” The film builds up a lot of tension through showing Samantha’s body mutating but that tension is then released through the comic relief of how Samantha’s friends react to her (“Dude, what the fuck is up with your eye?”). Of course, we also laugh sometimes out of sheer nervousness. I loved how everyone at CIFF laughed at the title card “Day 3 of 3.” It just seemed so . . . ominous!
October 21st, 2013 at 11:37 am
Do you know if this available on DVD yet? Am trying to watch all things horror in case I teach a section on horror next semester.
October 21st, 2013 at 11:45 am
It’s not available yet. It looks like IFC Films will be giving it a “limited theatrical” and video-on-demand release on November 22nd, followed by a DVD release (probably early next year). I too would love to show this in a class the next time I teach the horror movie.
October 21st, 2013 at 2:02 pm
Great job with the interview. Eric England seems like a pretty interesting person. I am glad the audience at the Chicago International Film Festival appreciated it. And yes the plot of “Contracted” does sound like Cronenberg considering it’s body horror elements. I can’t wait to see it:) Anyway, here are some lists I think you might be interested in
October 21st, 2013 at 10:29 pm
Hope you get a chance to see it, John. Good American horror films are in short supply these days.
October 22nd, 2013 at 12:24 am
I actually think good and very good ones are in considerable apply. Sadly in the last decade, I only gave two American horror films * * * * stars (out of * * * *). Those are George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. I have given plenty of horror films during that decade and since the release of Raimi’s film * * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *) as well as * * * stars, but no * * * * star ones. It is a pity because horror films are personally my all time favorite genre. The Western is my personal second favorite.
October 22nd, 2013 at 6:54 am
I haven’t yet seen Land of the Dead (in spite of the fact that I love Romero’s original Dead trilogy) but I agree that Drag Me to Hell is one of the best Hollywood horror films of recent years (behind The Conjuring and Insidious). I also really like Ti West’s last couple films (House of the Devil and The Innkeepers) as well as John Carpenter’s The Ward (very underrated) but those are, of course, independent films. The best recent horror films being made anywhere in the world have come out of Asia and Europe — particularly Scandinavia.
March 25th, 2014 at 11:58 pm
I saw this on Netflix and aside from a few places where it was a slight stretch for me to suspend my disbelief, I really enjoyed the film. However, I have to be honest here. The later stages of makeup took me out of the film. I am going to be blunt here- the producers should be ashamed of themselves for not paying their FX Artist- just because you can get something for free doesn’t mean you should. The fact that you didn’t pay your makeup artist really shows as the ‘subtle’ veining totally looked unnatural and painted on. Had you paid here she would have no doubt taken the time to do a proper makeup job.