The best storytelling is often the simplest, with no splashy special effects necessary.
Cue the new short horror flick “The Killer of Grassy Ridge,” now on Amazon Prime.
“It’s my very first film, so I’m learning every step of the way,” director Johnny K told WTOP. “I just wanted to challenge myself to see if I can make a movie in 60 days. … It took me 62 days, [but] what I did not expect is all the reception that we’ve gotten all across the world. That’s the part I never saw coming. So, it’s been a great ride.”
Johnny K grew up in East Tennessee before moving to Alexandria, Virginia, in 2003.
“I already knew the locations that I wanted,” Johnny K said. “We filmed on a friend’s property out in Front Royal. It just had the look that I needed. Then, of course, I knew I wanted those opening beautiful mountains, and as much as I love the Shenandoah Valley and Skyline Drive … I had to go back home over Christmas break last year.”
Opening with a shot of Roan Mountain in East Tennessee, the rest of the film unfolds on the mountainous terrain of the Shenandoah Valley, where an injured female hiker (Heather Stone) encounters an axe-wielding mountain man (Michael Stumbo).
“It’s about a killer stalking the Shenandoah Valley,” Johnny K said. “We have two actors in the film. … Heather is from right here in Arlington, and Michael is out in Winchester. … If Michael had asked for extra mayonnaise on his sandwich, it would have destroyed our budget. I think we ended up shooting the film for about $500.”
The low budget inspired the idea of just two actors in one main location.
“Everything was driven by our restrictions and our limitations,” Johnny K said. “I knew we could go out into the woods and film a self-contained story convincingly without having to have a lot of expensive extras, huge crew and a lot of highly-trained cast.”
Instead, he emphasized visual storytelling and minimal dialogue.
“I always had the idea of starting the film off as big as I possibly could, [with] the big shot of the mountains, then I wanted the film to end in a small room with only one character,” Johnny K said. “Even though it’s only a nine-minute short, I wanted to make it as dynamic as I could between the big mountains versus one character sitting alone.”
These precise images are laced with a brooding tone that keeps us on edge.
“I wanted it to be a little unnerving,” Johnny K said. “I also wanted it to take place in a setting that everyone was familiar with. We’ve not all been in Victorian mansions or haunted caves or anything like that, but everyone at some point in their lives has taken a walk through the woods. … Your mind starts playing tricks on you.”
Hats off to composers Mattia Cupelli and Doug Maxwell for truly suspenseful music.
“We actually won Best Score at Sandgrounder Film Fest in the U.K.,” Johnny K said. “The music kind of acts as the third character, so we had those visuals and then we put the music on top of it, and I’m very happy with the results.”
He also won Best First-Time Director at the Florence Film Awards, not too shabby for a film shot on a $400 Nikon D3300, an entry-level DSLR camera with only natural light.
“I took a page from Emmanuel Lubezki’s work in ‘The Revenant,'” Johnny K said. “When I found out they filmed that with zero artificial light sources — it was basically all lit by natural light and firelight — I thought, what a great tool for a guerrilla filmmaker. … We had about six hours of daylight. It was an absolute race against the clock.”
He also remembered the lessons of his childhood filmmaking idols.
“[John] Carpenter, when you look back at what he was doing in the late ’70s [with] ‘Halloween’ and his version of ‘The Thing’ … he was doing a lot with very little,” Johnny K said. “[Then], Steven Spielberg. … I’m a child of the ’80s. I was the target audience for films like ‘E.T.,’ ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ ‘Jaws’ is actually my favorite film.”
Here’s hoping Spielberg and Carpenter check out “Grassy Ridge” on Amazon. They’ll see a killer new filmmaking career rising like an eerie fog over the Shenandoah Valley.