Cheap Kills

A festive spirit infuses the cast and crew of the film Realms of Blood. After all, there's a near-decapitation planned for later tonight. The tony Coral Springs home in which they've gathered is the location for the final scenes of Painkiller, one of four separate stories that constitute Realms. It's just past 8 p.m. on this Tuesday in early September, and they're waiting for the cameraman to arrive from Miami.

In a nutshell, Painkiller is the story of a soldier whose face was disfigured after being doused with chemicals during the Gulf War. He returns home to his wife, whom he kills in a mad fury after she shuns him. His madness becomes final as everyone he meets begins to look like his wife, and he is obliged to murder them too.

The madman -- named Painkiller for his gruesome admonition to victims to "feel my pain" -- is played by Bob Glazier, a balding, wiry, 57-year-old with a cherubic smile. At this moment, he and makeup artist Gina-Marie Rooney are in the bathroom, where she is doing her best to eradicate that pleasant visage.

Painkiller's prey this night, Nick Colameo, jokes around in the kitchen with producer/actor Jon Fish. Colameo, a Bronx native, is tall, with skull-short hair. Tattoos run the length of his arms, and inch- diameter rings dangle from his nose, ears, and left brow. He is not made up; in fact, more often than not, Colameo gets a "makedown" for his roles. Fish is a Shakespearean-trained actor with clean-cut good looks and perfect teeth.

Director Robert Massetti and others lug furniture around and set up lighting and reflectors. The 38-year-old filmmaker is dark-haired and stocky, with a full oval face. Clean-shaven tonight, he at times sports a pointy goatee. In several publicity stills, he's been photographed using "monster lighting," which is a beam cast upward that creates disquieting facial shadows. In those shots, Massetti looks like someone you might cross the street to avoid a face-to-face. The technique was a staple back in the days of classic horror films that starred the likes of Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.

The cameraman arrives and starts to set up. Massetti kills time explaining the action for this segment of the movie, then concludes: "Painkiller is a roller coaster of emotions. When Nick finds his girlfriend dead on the lawn, it's a very touching scene." And shortly thereafter, the grief-stricken fellow will get his neck snapped.

Massetti is at the directorial helm of South Florida-based Fear Film, a fledgling production company whose written mission is to create "thrilling, cadaverous, hypnotic, independent entertainment pieces that spread FEAR throughout the world and beyond." Massetti and business partner, Fish, are vying for a space in the quickly burgeoning domain of "no-budget" films. The field has exploded with the availability of low-cost digital movie cameras and the demand for more and more DVDs by teens and young adults. The fledging company has already risen slightly above the pack: In January, will distribute Fear Film's first release, called Phobias, which is a DVD compilation of two short films, When Shadows Lie Darkest and Blackout.

Glazier emerges from the bathroom looking quite hideous. His face and head are a crimson, blistering mess, and his eyes appear as menacing ivory orbs. He sneers and reveals discolored, jagged teeth. "These aren't makeup," he announces proudly, then clarifies: "I wear false teeth. These are an old pair that I beat on with a hammer and then drilled some holes in."

The following three hours are spent filming what will likely amount to fewer than five minutes on-screen. Dressed in a black topcoat, fedora, pants, and gloves, Glazier, who was a regular extra in Miami Vice and Bad Boys II, takes his spot behind a six-foot potted plant just inside the front door. One of his male victims lies dead in the center of the living room floor. Colameo is to run through the open door, see the body, pause, and then approach it slowly. In his demented state, Painkiller perceives the man as his wife. Thus, Massetti will separately film both Colameo and Jennifer Sgambati, who plays Painkiller's wife, entering the house, and then intercut both images during editing.

Colameo runs through the front door almost a dozen times before Massetti is satisfied, leading the actor to quip later, "This is a physical role."

"I want you to build your anger up," Massetti instructs Colameo for the scene in which he turns and stands face to face with Painkiller. "First shock, then walk slowly toward him. Just ad lib whatever comes to you." Colameo does as asked: "Who are you? Did you do this? Did you kill her?" After about a dozen takes, however, Colameo cracks up the cast by lobbing the question, "Did you kill her, dude?" It's clearly time to rein in the ad libs; he finally settles instead on the more appropriate direct address of "you sick, twisted fuck."  

Later, Sgambati mimics Colameo's movement toward Painkiller, only now the deformed veteran imagines that his wife is glad to see him. Her improvised dialogue, however, also leads to comical anarchy on the set. "It's me, Mia," she coos to her boil-covered hubby. "I've come back to you. You look so good."

"'You look so good'?" howls the soundman.

The death of Colameo's character is filmed last. Painkiller is to grab Colameo's head and rotate it 180 degrees. In other words, he'll be gazing down on his own back. This effect will be achieved, in part, by the high-tech trick of Colameo wearing his T-shirt backward. The rest will come from quick edits and Colameo's willingness to live with a stiff neck for the next week. "I just hold Nick's head, and then he twists fast when he's ready," Glazier explains. "That way, I won't hurt him by chance."

As Massetti discusses the scene with Glazier, the actor suggests a dark one-liner for the madman: "Don't turn your back on me while I'm killing you." Still, Glazier notes, tonight's murder doesn't come close to a scene shot a few weeks earlier during which Painkiller yanks someone's head off and throws it in a ditch.

Given its cinematic history, South Florida is an apt home for Fear Film. Herschell Gordon Lewis, the so-called Godfather of Gore, moved from Chicago to Miami in the early 1960s and made a plethora of bloodstained films. In 1963, he shot the proto-slasher Blood Feast, a no-budget reel that involved a caterer collecting body parts to offer up to an evil Egyptian spirit, leading to buckets-o'-blood and innards. Blood, along with 2000 Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red, remains an influence on horror films to this day.

"He started the whole thing with Blood Feast and Gore Gore Girls," says 35-year-old Tim Ritter, a low-budget filmmaker who got his start in Palm Beach County. "He was doing the no-budget gore films with 35mm film and throwing them into the drive-ins. He inspired quite a few of us."

While still in high school in 1984, Ritter directed and edited a feature-length Super 8 film called Day of the Reaper. He self-distributed it to video wholesalers, catching the first wave of the budding direct-to-video market. He subsequently wrote and directed the first installment of the Truth or Dare? movie series, which introduced the indomitable and bloodthirsty Coppermasked Madman. Ritter moved to Kentucky in 1997, where he continues to make low-budget films and just published his first novel, The Hammer Will Fall.

"There's so much talent down here in South Florida -- and Florida in general," Massetti says. "I think Florida could be another California but hopefully not the same ideals, maybe an independent community. This is really a great place to film: warm, lots of sun."

Fear Film stakes out a claim somewhere between the genres of shock gore and suspense/thrillers. "A lot of filmmakers at this level, especially the horror genre, are trying to get recognized with extreme gore or doing something that's never been done before," Massetti says. Eric Stanze of St. Louis is perhaps the best known of this breed of shock-gore directors. For example, Stanze's film Scrapbook is the depiction of a serial killer torturing and raping a young woman; at one point, he sodomizes her with a wine bottle until she bleeds.

"I like good gore in a movie but only for a good reason," Massetti declares. "We're trying to set ourselves apart by making movies with good stories that are character-driven, that can actually scare you and make you think."

When Shadows Lie Darkest is minimally bloody but long on moody atmosphere and a growing sense of madness. (Don't fret, you bloodthirsty kids: among the film's jolts is an adz plunged into a man's chest.) The lead character, Fish, experiences a series of nightmares involving grisly murders. He begins recounting the episodes to a faceless psychiatrist... or is the shadow-shrouded shrink part of the nightmares? Dean the Bug Guy, portrayed convincingly by Colameo, is a misogynist who might be real or might represent the evil within the lead character. The 26-minute film's quick edits and recurring symbolism (e.g., a dying insect and ceiling fan blades) feed the anxiety.

Blackout has a more conventional narrative and at 45 minutes has more time to develop its main characters, played by Fish and Katharine Leis, an Orlando-based actress. Leis has apparently murdered her husband and is questioned by police, who then improbably release her for the time being. Fish befriends her, with obviously suspicious motives, and she subsequently pleads to spend the night at his house after her roommate kicks her out. Fish consents but warns her that he's been having some problems with the electricity at his house, and, well, she'd better have a flashlight handy.  

Massetti's Deerfield Beach apartment building seems an unlikely venue for fear: It's a pink, two-story building west of I-95 that overlooks a tranquil golf course. Regardless, the two-bedroom flat is the ol' reliable for interior shooting. (The white-tiled living room floor -- and a fair amount of furniture -- was awash in fake blood for the making of Blackout.) And there are plenty of clues that a fright fan dwells within, most notably a man-sized, black-cloaked, toothsome creature suspended on a wall. "It was my Halloween costume last year, and it's just kind of stayed there since," Massetti blandly notes. There's nothing boastful or arrogant in Massetti's manner. In fact, at times while speaking, he comes across as downright bashful.

"I grew up on horror films," Massetti explains about his preferred cinematic genre. "Classic horror films. They stuck with me. I can't create moody pieces with these light, bright comedies. I like something that's visually interesting with this dark and brooding story."

He considers George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, to be the greatest horror films made. "Night shows what people do in a crisis situation," Massetti says. "There are things coming at them, yet they're fighting amongst themselves over pretty petty stuff. It's the character study of human nature that I love about that film. It's us attacking us. You see the characters going through this no-win situation. It blows my mind.

"You shouldn't run away from what you're afraid of. That's why I think horror films are so important -- to confront your fears. It's the same in a nightmare where there's a monster chasing you. If you stop in your dream, turn around, and confront it, it makes you stronger."

Yes, he confesses, his real fears are in his films. "I don't like to admit them, but they're in there. If I'm not afraid of it now, I was at one point. It's a kind of psychology for me."

Massetti was born in Chicago and was barely into his teens when he first saw the movie that would set his course of life: Star Wars. "I saw it 20, 25 times," he recalls. "I was considering a career as a lawyer, but that movie made me feel: This is what I want to do, make movies that make people feel this way. I saw filmmaking in a different way with that movie."

The high school he attended didn't offer filmmaking, so he took the closest thing to it: film history. When the final exam came up, Massetti proposed making a film instead. He turned out Night Prowler, a ten-minute slasher on Super 8 named for a popular AC/DC song at that time. He edited it with splicing tape.

His parents were lukewarm to his announcement that he wanted to become a filmmaker. His father, he says, ultimately gave him the kind of qualified approval not uncommon to young artists: "Yeah, you're probably not going to make it, but if it's what you want to do, then pursue it."

He enrolled at Southern Illinois University in 1982, which at the time had a well-regarded film school, he says. When he began taking film classes in 1984, however, the movie genre he so loved met resistance. "My initial film instructor was a woman who didn't like sex or violence in films," Massetti remembers. Undaunted, he made his first short film, Obsession, about a guy who becomes fixated on a girl and her boyfriend. "He kills him to get her," he says. "So I had this scene where the guy stabs the boy. We shot it on campus, though we hadn't told anyone in the campus police. At one point, the guy's got a nylon over his head, blood on his hands, and he's running all over campus." Although he escaped the wrath of the law, the instructor was less forgiving about the content and graded him down because of it.

"I didn't know how to react," he says. "So just to spite her, I made a movie called Violence. The main character watches violent scenes on TV. Then you go into his mind where, in strobe effect, he's destroying stuff -- getting it all out -- and then he comes back to the screen, which is now blank." After the instructor graded down the ten-minute film once again, he "had a little debate with the school" about what he considered censorship. "The film department didn't do anything to support me, and that's really why I dropped out."  

Before leaving school, however, he made his first comedy short, Pretty Woman, which he entered in the Canadian International Film Festival, where it received a special commendation.

After a year-long break, he enrolled in the film school at Columbia College in Chicago, where he found screenwriting the most valuable experience. "If you can learn how to write a screenplay, you know how to make a movie," Massetti declares. "That's the bare bones of a film." He remembers that Martin Scorsese's ex-wife taught the advanced screenwriting class he attended.

His final thesis project at Columbia was a short on 16mm film called Alone with Grandma. "It was about a small child, through his eyes, left alone in a house with a decrepit grandma who he saw as a monster because she was so old," he says. Unable to find an authentic-looking granny, he cajoled his younger sister to play the part with a mask. "I shot her dark and quick," he explains.

He graduated from Columbia in 1988 feeling confident about filmmaking but immediately at a loss about how to break into the business.

"The school didn't teach the business side of it," he explains. "I didn't want to go to California because I didn't feel prepared to go; I didn't know who to go to. That would have just been a bigger pool to be in. I was lost for a while." On a lark, he and a friend moved to South Florida in 1992 with just the clothes they wore and enough money to get by for a month. He managed a movie theater for a while, then a video store, then a nightclub. "I was still trying to figure a way to get into the film industry," he recalls of the passing years. Then he met his future partner for Fear Film.

Jon Fish dwells in a capacious west Hollywood apartment, a sea of beige leather furniture filling the high-ceilinged living room. Fish's creative energies are spent in the production room, where tables lining two walls are piled with computer, scanners, and other digitalia. The 31-year-old Fish and his wife, Susan, own Avalon Productions, which partners with Fear Film. Created in 1997, Avalon has produced everything from music videos and advertisements to infomercials and television pilots. Fish's first love, however, is acting. Avalon, in essence, has been a vehicle to foster that passion.

Originally from Maryland, Fish has acted on-stage since high school and also went to business school. In 1994, he attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he studied classical theater acting. By 1995, he was living in South Florida, lured here, he says, by a friend's claim that modeling work abounded. "But you know how it is," he explains. "You have to pick up a part-time job, then it becomes full time, and you spend less and less time doing what you wanted to do in the first place. I decided I wanted to get back into acting, and a friend suggested I look into commercial and television acting."

Around that same time in 1997, Fish became acquainted with Massetti while both managed the same nightclub. They quickly learned of each other's interest in film. Fish owned a High 8 video camera, and despite Massetti's self-professed snobbery toward anything but film -- "You're taught in film school that this is the only medium," he says -- the duo began hatching a plan to produce a movie short called When Shadows Lie Darkest. "It was just for fun," Fish declares. "It wasn't supposed to turn into anything."

Massetti recalls: "The movie came about because I had these infamous Halloween parties for quite a few years, and I wanted to make a movie to show the guests." The filming of Shadows, which began September 5, 1999, could best be described as episodic; the 26-minute film wasn't completed until March 2001.

In explaining the fitful making of Shadows, Massetti almost doesn't know where to start. "We had so many problems trying to get this movie done," Massetti laments. "I wasn't really organized and didn't know everyone well." Shooting, in the first place, was limited to weekends because that's the only time he could gather enough crew. He was quite pleased with initial scenes shot at a Fort Lauderdale park. However, the lead actress in that footage then took a trip to Texas where, while riding on a mechanical bull, she was thrown off and smashed her face upon landing. Massetti told her he'd shoot around her until she recovered, but she eventually told him she was no longer interested. "It was getting closer and closer to Halloween, and I didn't want to finish it quickly and make it substandard," he says. With that mindset, he regrouped and rewrote the screenplay to use the completed footage as a flashback.  

"Getting people together was a big challenge," he adds. "All of them were interested in films, but their daily lives were more important. But most of our problems were with locations. We shot at a public pool one time, and it turned out to be too noisy. So we went to another pool, but the sun was starting to go down, and we started losing our light. It took two, three months alone to get those scenes." Oh, yes, and then there was Hurricane Irene in October 1999. The one problem they didn't have was funding: The film cost only about $200 to make.

Though Massetti wasn't satisfied with the final edit of Shadows, the Fort Lauderdale Film Society was supportive of the project and agreed to show the film at Cinema Paradiso in April 2001. The movie had rekindled the filmmaker fire in Massetti, and it was around this time that he conceived of Fear Film as a production company.

"I wasn't really happy with what Hollywood was producing," he explains. "I hadn't seen a really good horror film in a while. I said, 'We should get in there and make these movies the way they should be made. It's a viable market. There's a lot of horror fans out there. We could make a niche at this.'"

Fish agreed fully, realizing by then that there was a talented collection of people in Florida craving a shot at making a film -- even if they weren't paid.

"It's very hard in the acting industry and film industry to get your name on credits," Fish explains. "Imagine a new director out of film school. How does he get his name on anything? He either has to shoot it himself or sell somebody on the fact that he can do it, which is difficult if he doesn't have any credits. Same with actors or makeup artists or grips. So when we let the industry know that we were going to be shooting some independent projects, they were like, 'Bring me on.' We all kind of went that way: I don't care if we don't make any money on it; let's do it so we can have some credit to our name. This was a way for us to break into the industry."

The crew almost immediately began shooting Blackout, this time using a superior-quality digital camera. The film was completed in just two months for a little more than $200.

Depending upon how you look at it, what happened next was either plain old dumb luck or a flash of movie magic.

Enter onetime Florida film maker Tim Ritter: "I was on one of those horror chat-room Internet things, you know, where fans get in there and talk about stuff," he recalls. Someone on the site mentioned Massetti's films, which piqued his interest. Ritter was still making films, but he was also a consultant for Sub Rosa Studios, a leading, low-budget production company. Sub Rosa also distributes films on its Website, which claims a million hits a month. He contacted Massetti and got a look at Shadows and Blackout. "I thought, 'Wow, this stuff is spectacular considering budget and equipment and the limitations, especially compared to what's being released now.' The acting quality is many notches above what a lot of people are able to get at that level. It's just so hard to find believable actors. Everything about [the film making] is solid." He releases a self-effacing laugh. "I've done quite a few of these movies, so I know how hard it is to get that quality. I thought it was better than my stuff, and I've been doing this, who knows how long, 20 years?"

Ritter's support led to a distribution deal with "It actually gives us an audience to see our movie," Massetti says. "It gives us worldwide distribution. We're probably not going to make a lot of money with it, but knowing that my film is available to the public really makes me feel successful." His goal is to finish Realms of Blood this year so it can be released on DVD by next summer.

So who's buying these low-budget films? "I would say the target audience is 17- to 34-year-olds," Ritter says. "A little younger if they don't have real extreme stuff in there. But diehard splatter films? Probably 16 and up. Best Buy has tons of B-movies of all kinds. Last time I was there in the horror sections, there were teenagers buying armfuls of the stuff."  

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Massetti has gathered the three main actors to rehearse for The Cologne, one of the four segments that make up Realms of Blood. Colameo plays a loser with the ladies who believes his luck will change after buying a fragrance guaranteed to drive women paroxysmal with lust. And indeed, his fortune does change -- from bad to worse after he ignores the directions. Today, Colameo wears a black Slayer T-shirt and full regalia of facial hardware. His object of desire is played by Christine Ashe, an auburn-haired beauty wearing a short skirt and sandals with five-inch cork heels. Fish plays Colameo's workplace foil and also has designs on Ashe. Written by Ritter, Cologne is a blend of horror and dark comedy.

"We could put a lot of comedy in this 'cause it's gonna be sick in the end," Colameo pronounces as the four discuss just how droll they should play it.

"Do you want me to play this so stereotypically bitchy?" Ashe asks. "I mean, the way it's written, I'm soooo mean."

Advises Massetti: "I was looking at it that you're a nice person but this guy's such an annoyance to you that you don't know how else to get it across to him. A lot of this is going to be from his perspective. It's going to be surrealistic. The world through his eyes is really weird."

They read through a scene in which Colameo brags about selling four life insurance policies that day, then asks Ashe if she'll go with him for a sub sandwich dinner. She and Fish openly mock this nerd.

After a half dozen run-throughs, Massetti says to Colameo, "What's bothering me when you're doing your lines is that your New York accent is still coming through. You seem kind of tough." Colameo, who started out as a production assistant and has no formal training in acting, cracks everyone up as he tests out other accents. A swishy, gay voice gets an immediate thumbs down.

"I can do Jewish," he suddenly announces. "Hey, guys... oh, wait, I can only do Jewish women." His accent seems to disappear when he ratchets his voice up a notch and gets nasal.

"Nick is a devout horror fan," Massetti says of Colameo on another day. "We hit it off right from the beginning. Even though he'd never acted before, in his mind, he thought of it as easy and had a great performance [in Shadows].

"I believe filmmaking is a collaborative effort. If the actors develop the characters, they become them and come up with things I don't even think of. I encourage my actors to put in their two cents, to try something different. Then I have something to work with in the editing room."

Massetti doesn't end the artistic cooperation there, however. The soundtracks for his movies include tunes by local bands Death Becomes You, Deadstar Assembly, and American Pie, whose lead singer, Sheyenne Rivers, has a role in Realms of Blood. "We think independent film and the music scene down here should work hand in hand, because they're in the same boat: trying to get exposure," he says.

Massetti and Fish believe Florida could become an underground film mecca if the scattered players networked more. "There are a lot of smaller companies or groups of people trying to create film in Florida," Fish declares. The solution, they propose, could be a roaming industry gathering, monthly at first, then perhaps weekly.

Fear Film is already gearing up for its next film called The Woods Are Alive, whose screenplay was also penned by Ritter. In it, a Britney Spears-like pop star is attacked and raped by some fans. That leads to turmoil in the singer's family, so they decide to take a trip in a camper to get away from it all. And doggone it, they stumble onto a family of mutant cannibals living in remote woods. " knows that this kind of story does well with their distribution outlets," Massetti explains. "It's not really the type of movie I'd really want to do, probably more gory than I'm used to. But then, I don't have to make it that way.

"Every time I make a movie now, it's to please myself. If you get to know me, you'd be able to see me in all my films, no matter what they are. I learned to go deep inside myself. Even though it's entertainment, it's still an extension of myself," he avows, then pauses and looks a bit embarrassed about the next confession: "Like my child."

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