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“On the Set of Severer 5

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Jason Vorhees,  Michael Meyers,  Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lecter have more in common than just pride of place as star monsters of their respective iconic horror franchises.  Each of them devolved,  in due time, from entity so fearsome as to hardly be showable—as though the camera itself were recoiling—to in-jokey, elbow-in-ribs audience pal. 

Suzanne Ostich has a few thoughts as to why this trajectory is so common as to be cliché. 

“What is this genre that we work in all about anyway?,”  she asks,  leaning toward this reporter and enthusiastically chopping one hand against the other palm,  her brown eyes intent behind square-rimmed  glasses.  “Torture—mental and physical torture.  Death.  Madness.  These are the big themes in all of horror.”

She holds my gaze,  still leaning in. 

“In other words,”  she says,  “chaos—the abyss.” 

She sits upright and says,  “So think about that,  huh?  Here we have a genre that’s entirely about how human life is so close,  all the time,  to realms that most of us prefer to not think about at all—or at least hardly ever.  Those great bad guys stand for madness and the inevitability of death.  So when a franchise is just starting out and the bad guy is unknown,  that’s as scary as he can ever be to the audience.  Once you show his face,  he’ll never be as unknown as the thing he represents.  And then we start thinking we know what’s out there in the dark.”

We are on the set of Suzanne and Martine Ostich’s next movie,   Severer 5. When it was announced,  pre-Covid,  that the Ostich Sisters would be picking up directing duties on the Severer franchise,  eyebrows went up among the very-online cohort of horror purists who have lionized the sisters for the three independent productions that first won them recognition as this generation’s foremost innovators in the genre.  But based on what I saw while visiting the set of Severer 5,  the anxiety of those fans is quite definitely misplaced. 

The Ostich Sisters have not sold out;  they have not given up their punk-rock edge,  or compromised their indie cred,  to earn a studio paycheck.  Quite the contrary,  the studio is taking a steep gamble in handing control of its profitable Severer franchise to the incomparably brave Ostichs. 

butcher knife

Like sisters out of Shirley Jackson,  Suzanne and Martine Ostich  communicate through a personal system of flowing gestures,  expressions and verbal shorthand that can seem nearly telepathic.  On set,  they will stand apart in a two-woman huddle and radiate that cordoned-off exclusivity you sense in old shots of JFK and RFK conferring.  Their collaborators often describe them as a single mind that lives between two bodies.

Suzanne is two years older;  she has a slightly butch affect and a tendency to sound at once like a brassily outspoken doctoral candidate and an undetterable pitch-maker at ease with movie-biz lingo hyping story appeal.  Conversely,  the beautiful Martine is quiet,  but has mischief  in her sparkling sapphire eyes.  In interviews,  she smiles sweetly while Suzanne does most of the talking,  but when she does speak up,  her words may be as cutting as her tone is soft. 

Horror has traditionally been a male-dominated genre—in terms of its creators, if not  (always)  its audiences—and so the Ostichs’ still recent rise to prominence,  with cult following blooming into fame,  has been as unlikely as unprecedented.  And just as the sororal team’s independent-to-studio trajectory is a path walked by past genre filmmakers,  with the journey rendered unusual this time by the gender  of its protagonists,  so each of the three films that the Ostichs made before Severer 5 follows a familiar horror template,  yet puts such a spin on its execution of expected beats that even a horror devotee  (one who knows her Audition from her Creep,  her Wolf Creek from her Wicker Man)  may not only start in her seat at an exquisitely timed jump scare,  but continue to be haunted by the film days or weeks later,  by its indefinable, intangible strangeness,  as though the sisters’ vision—which reanimates what had been frozen in a familiar shape and re-electrocutes the archetype’s menacing, beating heart—had seeped from off the screen,  into the air of your life.

710 Never Road, their first, was released in the fall of 2013.  Hardly anyone saw it during its initial run.  Many critics were so dismissive of what looked like a standard-issue haunted-house flick that the reviews,  when you read them today,  almost seem to be competing not to discern the Ostichs’ talent. In particular,  there was glaringly little praise of the subtle, sensitive portrait of Diane  (Chloe Brice-Kinder,  in her debut)—a twelve-year-old child of divorce who moves with her  mother into a drab, single-story bungalow on an all-American cul-de-sac.  The all-female cast wasn’t much noted,  either; and no contemporary review seems to have mentioned 710’s preoccupation  with screen technology,  even though  (nine-year-old SPOILER alert!)  the  film’s final shot tracks in on the screen of Diane’s haunted iPad,  closer and closer,  until the iPad screen and the movie screen become one.  (Try watching it on your iPad!).

The movie starts out making quiet references to E.T. and Poltergeist,  but the Ostichs are up to more than trendily invoking  eighties pop-culture atmospherics—here,  Spielberg’s spooky suburbs.  The setting is the suburbs because the subject is childhood,  and the disorientation of its intersections with events in the adult world.  More specifically,  it is a portrait of girlhood,  and the Ostichs for the first time create a landscape that evokes horror touchstones of the past  (The InnocentsThe ChangelingThe Orphanage),  while perfuming their storytelling with a quality that is shivery,  feminine,  different

Shot to suggest the visual grain of films of earlier decades,  710 is  nevertheless a movie about living in a new world.  Diane is lonely and  troubled,  and withdraws almost entirely into her devices,  so busy social-mediating with friends whom she no longer lives near that she is oblivious to the ghost  (or ghosts)  in her home until they enter her phone and tablet.  It’s a horror movie about childhood becoming entwined with  new and untamed technology.  We feel compassion for Diane,  yes—but  there is also a distanced fascination with her predicament.


On the Set of Severer 5

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