Nicholas McCarthy is a young writer-director whose first feature, the low budget chiller The Pact is still playing in UK cinemas. This Is Horror’s John Llewellyn Probert tracked Nick down after being impressed by his horror debut (you can read John’s review of The Pact on his House of Mortal Cinema) to ask him a few questions:
When was the first time you watched a horror film, and how did it affect you?
NM: Though I don’t remember the very first horror movie I ever saw, as a kid I was addicted to a television programming block coming out of Boston when called ‘Creature Double Feature’. It was where this channel would dump all its old horror, science fiction and monster movies, most of them being from the 1950s. The one that made the deepest impression on me was a 1958 Universal B-picture called The Thing That Couldn’t Die, about a severed head that hypnotizes people (!). It scared and fascinated me and I still carry a lot of its images in my head today.
What was it that first attracted you to horror?
NM: I suppose if I was to psychoanalyze it was because I was raised a Catholic. I was the youngest and probably left in front of the television more, and the mixture of the blood and gore of the story of Christ with the hours spent watching movies about things like giant ants eating people kind of hard wired my brain. As I got a older and started to make films, I realized how cinematic the genre was. Atmosphere is so important to horror films, no matter how big or small the movie, and that really comes from a director versus anything else.
What achievement are you most proud of?
NM: I remember coming home from the first day of shooting The Pact. It had gone really well and I felt like we were going to make a really interesting little horror movie, which to me was important since I had spent my life being obsessed with interesting little horror movies. After finishing that day and getting everything I wanted, I was truly proud I had pursued my dream for so long to get there.
What are you working on now?
NM: After The Pact premiered I went and wrote another horror film. It channels some of the same ideas as The Pact and I think could be an incredibly dark and frightening movie. We will be shooting it in the fall.
Who do you admire in the horror world?
NM: There are a lot of people I admire in the genre, but the name that instantly comes to mind is David Cronenberg. His career has been fascinating. That first decade where he mined his own niche of personal genre films, producing masterpieces like The Brood and Videodrome, is endlessly inspiring to me. Even as a director for hire, he’s always engaged. I would be honoured to have a career even somewhat like his.
The Pact has quite a EuroHorror feel to it – was that ‘genre’ of film a conscious influence in its making?
NM: Although I didn’t fashion The Pact as any kind of homage, the influences of my favorite movies are obviously there in my choices as a director of the material. What I did really without thinking was channel a lot of Argento and Italian horror, I guess since that stuff has captivated me since I saw Suspiria when I was 16 years old. Ever since then I’ve watched a lot of European genre films and the influence is unavoidable. I remember early on in the shoot, asking my cinematographer Bridger Nielson to put the camera way up high, peering at the action through a light fixture. We were looking through the monitor and he just says “Wow. Very Italian.” I hadn’t thought of it — but he was right. It was just how I saw the thing.
Were the ‘flying’ effects in The Pact difficult to achieve? It almost looks as if you used a mechanical revolving room like in Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street.
NM: The flying around stuff was what’s called ‘wire work': the actor is put in a harness and pulled and dragged around with ropes. It’s one of the few places in the movie where we used CGI, we had a digital FX artist paint out the ropes. What was difficult was directing action like this – it’s easy to get carried away with what’s happening because it’s so crazy so you have to keep in mind that you want with each shot, keeping in mind you are trying to tell a story. For my actress, it was physically pretty brutal. The producer bought her a massage the next day since she was so banged up.
How did you go about casting The Pact?
NM: We cast the movie traditionally, holding auditions, which is a process I enjoy. There are so many interesting actors out there, and you always are looking for that moment when someone walks in the room and just transforms what you’ve written. It’s such a cool thing. It’s also unique because you work so hard together and afterward you have this exact starting date of your friendship – you know where you were when you met this person who’s now in your life.
Do you prefer gore or psychological horror?
NM: I prefer both! I think it’s all about whatever story is being told. I watch as many older, less explicit genre films as newer ones. It’s all interesting to me.
How important is it to unsettle a viewer?
NM: It’s funny, for whatever reason, that’s kind of been the hallmark of these little short films I made and now the feature, and the scripts I’ve written have that quality too. There’s something about nervous anticipation that I like, I can’t explain it.
How do you evoke fear?
NM: I always go back to mining the feeling of dread, which I think is something we learn in childhood. A fear of something unknown in the closet – or a fear that your parents will be angry at you. It’s a primal feeling.
What scares you?
NM: I think The Pact makes a point that ghosts are scary, but real people are scarier! Because the things people do to one another – physically emotionally – are where so much of horror seems to come from.
Why should people watch your films?
NM: My goal with The Pact was to make something absorbing and scary. If that sounds like a good time, give it a shot. Plus, every time someone watches The Pact, I will not kill one of these kittens.
How far is too far when it comes to horror cinema?
NM: There should be no limits. As viewers we just have to measure the voice of the filmmaker and decide whether we trust them or not. And even then, if we’re not sure, that can be an interesting experience, to see how far you can stretch yourself. Martyrs was the only film I felt the urge to fast forward, but I’m glad I didn’t. It felt cathartic at the end. I loved that movie. Would I recommend it to anyone? I’m not so sure. I think it’s a very personal experience that the movie provides.
How do you think horror cinema will evolve in the next ten years?
NM: I try not to think of the future because there are so many great films to discover that’ve already been made. Just because they are 5, 10, 70 years old doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant.
One positive thing that’s happened in the past decade is the market for horror has exploded and that means more voices, so we’re bound to get something interesting. I’m always excited to see something new.
Could you recommend a horror film that you think our readers should see?
NM: For some reason, the movie Last House on Dead End Street comes to mind. I hadn’t seen this until it was released on DVD a decade back and my friend Paul Gaita brought it over to watch. When it ended we were stunned – it really feels like a nightmare unfolding, there’s no film like it. It possesses a quality I love, which is a sense of the uncanny. Last House on Dead End Street almost feels like it was made by the devil himself, and that’s no small achievement. This lapsed Catholic is impressed!
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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