By Stephen Appezzato
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – From time to time, SModcastle Cinemas will showcase an indie project that punches far above its funding.
On Saturday April 22 at 1:30 p.m., director Tom Ryan will screen his horror film anthology, “Return to The Theatre of Terror,” at the cinema, paying homage to the classic horror anthologies of his childhood.
Inspired by works such as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits,” Ryan wanted to honor the genre he and many others enjoyed growing up. “Return to The Theatre of Terror” consists of four short horror and sci-fi films – “Soothsayer,” “Splinter,” “Haunted” and “Robot” – each telling a unique tale.
Ryan, who studied media arts at Jersey City State College (now New Jersey City University), has been in the industry for over 10 years. Growing up he had a knack for classic horror and sci-fi staples, but it wasn’t until the introduction of digital media formats that producing films became easier for new directors. “I found I was able to do a lot of the things that you used to really require funding to do,” he said.
Filming for the anthology kicked off in 2020, beginning with “Soothsayer,” and Ryan persevered through the many new challenges brought about by a lockdown and pandemic.
“We wrapped that one a week before COVID hit, and we didn’t think much of it because at the time it was announced that we were going to be in lockdown for two weeks,” Ryan said.
During the initial two-week halt, Ryan and the crew worked on editing “Soothsayer.”
Though, as Ryan – and the rest of the world – soon witnessed, it was only the beginning of the pandemic. “It left us in a really precarious position where we weren’t sure if we’d be able to finish.”
But the anthology’s production size actually benefitted it in the long run: Ryan navigated the lockdown-related challenges far more easily than most film productions. Taking the necessary precautions to protect the health of his crew and others, “we decided to go on with the show and we wound up shooting right through COVID and making sure everybody was healthy and making sure that everybody felt comfortable about it,” Ryan said. “In actuality, we got through shooting the other three short films without any (COVID-19-related) incident,” he added.
Though, like many long-term projects, a few unforeseen issues arose during the filming process, creating unique challenges for the crew.
“The really interesting thing about when you’re doing independent films is there will always be obstacles that you couldn’t have possibly foreseen,” Ryan said.
“I try to be very prepared for every film that we work on and I try to look for every possible issue that could arise during the production” but, “you always arrive on set and there’s the one thing you didn’t think about.”
In one of the more memorable instances, while filming “Robot,” despite the months of pre-production work and logistics, the weather took a leading role: A hurricane hit the set location, knocking out the house’s electricity and plumbing. Amidst torrential downpours, the crew trudged on. “We just shot as much as we could that day before our batteries ran out, and we got a lot of great stuff.” Luckily, the issue was resolved the next day, allowing the crew to complete the filming.
Unlike many lower-budget indie film productions which tend to stay in one place to minimize costs, Ryan filmed his four features all across the state, taking advantage of New Jersey’s diverse location offerings. From Belvidere to Jersey City, the anthology incorporates a variety of unique sets that were planned months in advance.
Ryan also took a moment to reflect on the industry-wide trends he’s witnessed.
“I do see independent horror growing,” he said. “I think we’ve seen the recent success of a couple of independent horror films that had limited theatrical runs, that garnered much more money at the box office than they actually cost to make. I think that’s starting to get peoples’ attention, that you don’t need to pour millions into a film in order to guarantee a good return or in order to come out with a good product.”
Ryan raised the point of the increasing prominence of streaming services in the entertainment industry, and their impact on the market. “It’s a little bit harder to get attention on your project because of the amount of streaming services and they’re all creating their own content and originals. And so, it’s a little bit harder, but at this point I think it’s moving in the right direction,” he said.
Saturday April 22, film junkies and casual fans alike can enjoy a screening of “Return to The Theatre of Terror,” what Ryan calls a “family-friendly” horror anthology – if your family is into that kind of thing – that has something to offer for all tastes. For tickets, visit smodcastlecinemas.com.
The article originally appeared in the April 13 – 19, 2023 print edition of The Two River Times.