Horror films are just as unpredictable to create as they are to watch. Audrey Cummings, director of Berkshire County, knows this. In her latest work and first feature-length picture, she presents all the ingredients necessary to the babysitter in peril story. However, even with so much aligned in her favour, the process to completion has been rigorous, demanding, and rewarding.
Berkshire County is set in a place where terror seethes behind every corner. A seemingly routine jaunt through the woods turns grim very fast. Normal high school life in a sleepy town gives way to a haunted house and a trio of masked slashers.
The film weaves fairy tale elements into the horror on screen. “We had little red riding hood, the big bad wolf, and the three little pigs,” says Cummings. Each familiar story is combined to create a new and startling concoction of panic and blood.
So crucial to the story is the house where the babysitting takes place. This creepy stone mansion that Cummings describes as “Hansel and Gretel” proved to be as unpredictable and surprising for the production team as it did for the film’s audience.
Found on Craigslist, and located outside of Toronto, Cummings rented the house for six weeks. She allowed for extra time in order to maximize the space and orchestrate an intricate chase scene. The homeowner even allowed the crew to use all of his eclectic furniture on set. And then, when it was finally time to start shooting, the house went into foreclosure. Even the lightbulbs were cleaned out.
This drove a wrench through a number of Cummings’ plans. Instead of having a custom home-built bar for the kids and babysitter to hide in, the director and writer, Chris Gamble, had to go back to the drawing board.
“Every single minute, something goes wrong,” says Cummings. “One of the main things I’ve come to realize is that overcoming your biggest problems [during filming] creates something totally different and wonderful that you weren’t expecting to happen in a scene. And sometimes, the scene ends up being stronger than it would have been.”
Because of the last minute change of plans, Gamble was forced to re-write the scipt and incorporate the family moving out into the plotline. In fact, the empty house added to the eeriness of the film. The living and the dead clash under one frightening roof.
The house scared the cast and crew as well. Alysa King, the actress who plays Kylie the babysitter was scared to sleep there during production. Even Cummings, who is not afraid of horror’s gore, found herself creeped out. “I remember going to the house at night and it was pitch black. There were no street lamps and I remember thinking, ‘This is how horror movies start. I’m going to die on my way to my car in the country.’” After getting lost numerous times during the first few days of shooting, she found a floor-to-ceiling tiled room in the basement. All that was inside was a sink and a drain.
King plays Kylie as both a tough and vulnerable leading lady. While still cutting her teeth as an up-and-coming actress, Cummings knew King was right for the part. Even though over 200 girls from across Canada tried out for the part, King was Cummings’ first choice. King’s Kylie featured the right balance of personality for the role and the director found her able to do this naturally.
Of particular note was King’s readiness to do anything during the cold nights on set. At one point Cummings wore three parkas, blankets, a heated pad around her waist, and heated boots to keep her warm. In contrast, Alysa was out there running around in a ripped t-shirt.
The majority of the film’s horror plays out with Kylie trying to protect herself and the kids she is babysitting from getting abducted and killed by three violent people in pig masks. There is, however, another more subtle type of horror that plays out in Berkshire County. That horror is adolescence.
Kylie’s arrival at the house is almost a relief from what she experiences at school. After she is unknowingly recorded fellating an arrogant boy named Marcus at a house party, she becomes the laughing stock of her peers. She’s pushed to the ground and has several cartons of milk spilled atop of her head. Teachers get involved and Marcus fails to sympathize with her. Her mother then calls her a failure.
The empowering element here is that Kylie is able to rise from the embarrassment and exhibit more resolve as the threat to her life becomes increasingly apparent. It becomes less of a cautionary tale and more of a heroic one. Even though Kylie can’t escape who she is she has the power to change how she views herself by taking control of her life and not letting go.
Crafting the suspense of the film itself served Cummings’ artistic interests. As a fan of genre film, the opportunity to dive into horror was obvious. “It chose me,” remarks Cummings. “I don’t have a choice in the matter. Genre chose me.” She has always liked the sensation of being scared. “There’s something about being scared out of your wits. Your hair is on end. All your senses become alive [during and after the film]. Every car driving by. Every sound. Every horn. People cutting in front of you on the street.”
Cummings finds the horror audience a fun audience to make films for. During Berkshire County’s world premiere at Los Angeles’ Shriekfest, she experienced an enthusiastic and vocal group of people heavily involved in the events on screen. At one point an audience member yelled for Kylie to kill another character. This type of audible participation has inspired her to continue making films for this specific audience. Just like in the sci-fi world, fans arrive at screenings in costume.
Shriekfest, once referred to by The Huffington Post as ‘America’s preeminent celebration of horror,’ proved to be another unpredictable moment in Berkshire County’s trajectory. After getting selected as the fantasy, sci-fi, and horror festival’s closing film, it won the Grand Jury Award for best horror feature. This was a major landmark win for Cummings as she became the first female director to win the award in the film festival’s fourteen-year history.
Nervous for the premiere, Cummings even had to run to the projectionist during the screening to raise the volume of the audio. After the film started to roll, the director could feel the crowd jiving with the events on screen. However, she was not prepared for the Grand Jury winning turn.
“You only have one world premiere with your film so you want it to be at a big festival. I was really happy that our world premiere was going to be at Shriekfest,” the director recounts. “That was really cool – to win that prize off our world premiere. It’s the first time we were showing it. We all flew down to LA for the world premiere and we weren’t expecting that at all. It was so shocking and so amazing.”
Cummings now has a chance to see Berkshire County spread to a wider audience. It starts its run in Toronto on Friday June 5th and will reach eighteen Canadian cities in total. It is also playing internationally, in ten US cities. She is also planning for two sequels of the film to further advance the story. With more opportunities to showcase and develop her work, the Quebec-born director is in a position to become a known name in the horror film circuit. And most of all, she can keep scaring the audience she loves.
Berkshire County opens Friday June 5th at the Carleton Cinema in Toronto.