Horror has many dimensions still to be explored, says DP, director and writer Sean Ellis in describing his film screening in the Camerimage Film Festival’s main competition, “Eight for Silver.”
A dark and brooding story of evil’s long tail, the film is Ellis’ fifth feature since an impressive debut with the surreal “Cashback” in 2006 and follows his Prague-shot true-story thriller “Anthropoid,” a remarkably detailed and accurate account of the most successful assassination plot of World War II against a top Nazi commander, Reinhard Heydrich.
“Eight for Silver” opens theatrically in the U.S. next spring or summer and is also set in the past, on a French country estate where a different kind of overlord tempts fate with evil deeds. But in this case the veil of time allows for an immersive world in which curses, monsters and possession come around to ensure a terrifying dose of karmic payback.
Ellis, who is next directing and shooting a “quite exciting” English-language re-conception of 2016 Spanish revenge story “The Fury of a Patient Man” with his current team, LD Entertainment and Piste Rouge – his first feature he hasn’t written – says “Eight for Silver” was inspired by a love for horror classics.
“I wanted to go back to a genre piece,” says Ellis. “I’m a big fan of horror films. Films like ‘Alien’ and ‘The Thing’ had a big influence on me.”
Setting the film in the 1800s adds a dimension of strangeness and fear, Ellis says.
“I felt it needed to be a period film – they’re more cinematic. When you do a period piece you’re creating a world. I think cinema is about visiting other worlds.”
At the same time, this tale of a wealthy landlord who hires mercenaries to brutally put down a group of Roma who may have a legitimate claim to some of his land seems to connect with the contemporary world in many ways, says Ellis.
“It’s really weird how this echoes what’s going on today,” he says, citing the film’s themes of powerful elites trampling the rights of refugees as the security of the poor is ignored by the uber wealthy.
But as the production rolled along in the Charente region of western France – a seemingly eternally misty and ethereal landscape – Ellis and his crew began to feel “Eight for Silver” was paralleling still another modern crisis.
After filming his characters retreating to a church and locking themselves in to hide away from a mysterious threat to their lives that has rolled into their world, Ellis and his team learned of the COVID pandemic and thought, “This is pretty crazy how much this is reflecting what’s going on today.”
As for his choice of menace, Ellis says he wanted to explore new ways to think about the concept of a predator stalking a community.
“I started to think of the wolf in terms of addiction and you are a slave to your addiction,” he says. “I call the addiction the beast. That’s when I came to the idea: What if the actual beast was carrying you inside, imprisoned inside?“
That image led Ellis to the idea of a kind of werewolf that audiences haven’t seen before, he says.
“I kind of love the werewolf mythology but I hadn’t loved where it had gone. It felt like zombies had been updated and we could do many different things with that. There was just this cliché of what the werewolf was.”
“Eight for Silver” certainly takes the idea of the sharp-toothed and insatiable monster down a different path in imagery that has a richness and stillness that’s distinct from his previous work.
“I would say ‘Anthropoid’ was my handheld film,” Ellis says. “Going into this I originally wanted a completely static film.”
Shooting on 35mm with anamorphic lenses, the director makes thorough use of the timeless rural landscapes his story is set in – particularly during a brutal attack on a band of Roma. The scene, incorporating waves of violence wrought by white men on horseback wielding muskets and torches, is entirely contained in a single distant long shot.
“You’re holding the audience prisoner to it,” Ellis says. “They’re witness to it. They can’t look away.”
Later, as monsters begin appearing, seemingly to avenge the massacre, Ellis says he found old-school special effects and animatronics more powerful than CGI.
“We tried to do as much of it in camera as possible,” he says, “because I always think it looks better.”
After a screening at Sundance, he adds, he decided – in addition to the need for haunting musical themes – to cut down much of the original CGI while also tightening run time. “It’s so helpful to have a test screening,” he says. “You sometimes don’t know if you’ve gone too far or are showing too much.”
Ellis is also taking on lighter fare, he says, and will be directing and shooting a film called “In the Miso Soup,” “definitely happening next year – I think that one’s going to be really fun.”
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