One of the greatest canvases for horror is façade of the suburban neighborhood. The mask of identical, cookie-cutter homes. Organized in rows, perfect lawns, smiling faces, and sets of roads built like a labyrinth to hold those who cross over into the illusion of normalcy and personal hell. Whether it is the writings of the departed Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door) or the true crime caseload of the ID network or films that range from My Friend Dahmer to The Witness to Monster and so many more, true crime is a pillar of horror storytelling because it steeped in reality and the darkness of the human monster.
Written by Christopher Ford and directed by Duncan Skiles, The Clovehitch Killer tells the story of an all-American family within the heart of suburbia. Discovering bondage photos in his father’s pickup, a young man named Tyler’s (Charlie Plummer) world is shattered. Dealing with the stigma and mistrust connected with the photos by his peers and the neighborhood, Tyler’s revelation maybe opens a pandora’s box of suspicion towards his father and a serial killer terrorizing the area called the Clovehitch Killer. As fear and paranoia infect the perfect neighborhood, Tyler befriends another neighborhood outcast Kassi (Madisen Beaty) to investigate the connection to his father’s strange behavior and the frightening killer. As they get closer to the terrifying truth, a fractured trust may cost Tyler more than just his family, his childhood but his life and the life of those he cares for the most.
During The Clovehitch Killer’s film’s festival run including wins at the Knoxville Horror Film Festival, we talked with Skiles about joining the IFC Midnight roster of titles plus the impact of true crime on pop culture as well as McDermott’s performance, and why the house next door is frightening for Diabolique Magazine.
Diabolique: Duncan, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to Diabolique Magazine about The Clovehitch Killer. The film is out on IFC Midnight and recently won Best Film and Best Actor at the Knoxville Horror Film Festival. So, can you speak about how the film has been received overall and how it has been for the film to find a home for distro and an actual theatrical release with IFC Midnight?
Duncan Skiles: Well, of the reviews I have seen, most have positive and that is great! I have been surprised with how people’s reactions have varied like some people like the first half of the film better while others prefer the second half of the film. It’s really interesting to me because of the experience I had putting this film together and screening it for people. The idea of being worried about what is working and what is not. I have screened it several times and I have been in the theater a couple times as well. It is awesome to get a visceral reaction from the audience at certain moments is the best thing you can ask for as a director.
As for joining IFC Midnight, it has been great! They have a good pedigree and they are really good to work with. They seem to know what they are doing from the marketing side of things. I really appreciate them picking up the film because I felt it was kind of misunderstood and underappreciated among the festivals which made me a little worried since we shot it 2016 and did not sell until spring of 2018. I was kind of concerned about the whole process on many levels.
Diabolique: Projects and stories like The Clovehitch Killer are staples of so many different areas of programming. Stations like ID are built on true crime, serial killers, and the monster next door. With that said, what was the timeline for this project and did you find the timing of the film’s release perfect for the range of true crime programming out their now?
DS: I think this is fortuitous timing because this film goes all the way back to 2010. That is when I began getting interested in serial killers and reading about them, going deep down the rabbit hole. I decided that I wanted to do a movie based on what I was reading and feeling. I pitched the story to Christopher Ford early, he signed on around 2013 or 2014. It was a long development process of writing, pitching, casting, and more. It took a long time to make this movie and I think that worked out in its favor because we were able to improve it through the sessions, pitch meetings, casting ideas, the process.
Diabolique: Duncan, this is your first feature within the fluid idea of the genre. You have directed mostly horror/comedy mixes and shorts. No doubt it helps with this film but what was it like taking on a straight up dark drama/true crime/horror project with The Clovehitch Killer?
DS: I’ve done a lot of horror comedies and I think I got hit with a comedy label because it was just getting me work. I was with a collective of filmmakers called Weaverly Films. When we came out of film school, we made a comedy short every week during the early days of YouTube and our sensibilities reinforced each other. We had the sensibilities of a 14-year-old boy which reflected the comedy we presented to our audience. However, I had always been more interested and more suited to put the dark and tense moments into my stuff.
With this movie, I took a hard look at what really interested, I was watching, and what turns me on. Let’s try and do something like that, instead of doing something that I thought was cool when I was a teenager. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on Sam Raimi, Evil Dead 2, and Predator. I love those movies. All my movies at that time were really over the top but then I just started to pay attention to what I responded to. It ended up being the quiet and reserved type of stuff. I wanted to do something like that. It became my creative evolution and I had to prove that to people because I did not have that on my reel.
Diabolique: It is so fascinating to see a filmmaker build that diversity throughout his career and the experience that comes with that. The same can be said for your cast including Samantha Mathis, Charlie Plummer and especially Dylan McDermott who has played shady characters before but nothing like the ‘Don’ as he goes through a body transformation to embody the role. Can you talk about what Dylan and Charlie especially brought to the film?
DS: Charlie came on early and I think he was the first main character to be cast. He was recommended by CAA. I liked him from the beginning, I thought he was really smart, and he made a lot of subtle choices which I really appreciated that is always what I was going for, something real.
Dylan came on over a year later. I went around to a lot of people for ‘Don’ and got a lot of rejections, but Dylan was only people of any profile who wanted to do it. I was hesitant because he didn’t fit the image of a middle American dad to me. I know he is a good actor and of course his work on American Horror Story! He put himself on tape for the audition, doing the accent. He changed his hair and he proved to me he could do the transformation. I got really excited when actors do that thing where they get completely consumed by the world physically and emotionally. You can’t recognize them.
Overall, what they brought to the movie was their talent as really great actors. The most important decision as a director is that I picked the right people for the roles in the movie and I think they did a great job!
Diabolique: Can you talk about the significance and focus of locations like the house int he neighborhood and of course the shed?
DS: Well, its integral to the plot and it’s a good visual symbol of a secret that’s locked away. It was important with all these elements within the film to feel kind of iconic but not too stylized. I did not want it to be a modern shed off of the lot at Lowe’s, but I also did not want it to be super creepy. For the house, it was difficult to find a property that had a relationship to its yard, so you could see the house through the window. Then, the shed was built from the ground up by amazing Production Designer Latisha Durante and her team. Every detail of that shed was designed and placed by Latisha and her team, amazing.
Diabolique: What makes suburbia and that neighbor next door frightening?
DS: Probably the idea that anything could be happening inside those homes. It’s a much easier environment to conceal horrible crimes than say, high-density urban housing. I find the suburbs to be very isolating and strange, but cinematically they are my favorite kind of location.
I don’t think all suburbs are bad. Part of my childhood was growing up in the historic district of a college town, and it was wonderful.
Diabolique: Can you talk about Tyler and Kassi dealing with the stigma from the neighborhood and peers?
DS: I remember when I was in junior high, there was a kid who supposedly got caught masturbating. I don’t remember the details of the story, just that everyone was talking about it at school. He even earned a nickname, “Slick”. Even though all the boys at that age were probably masturbating, we joined in the shaming. I wanted to capture a little bit of that strange and intense time. Being shamed is what unites Tyler and Kassi.
The connection between male adolescent sexuality and wondering if you were “sick” was more overt in earlier drafts.
Diabolique: Can you talk about why you chose to have Tyler find the first bondage photos in his father’s truck and why it was the first crack in that bond between him and his father?
DS: I thought it would make for interesting dramatic tension if Tyler made the discovery while doing something he wasn’t supposed to do. So, the only way he could reveal that he knew about it, would be to admit that he had snuck out with the truck. I also wanted it to happen within the context of a sexual situation. The shock and embarrassment of the picture compound the shame Tyler is already feeling.
Diabolique: What direction did you give Charlie and Dylan about space and body language during their performances as the bond slowly breaks?
DS: I just talked to Charlie about what Tyler knew at that point in the story, and he took it from there. Dylan did a great job projecting Don’s constant need for control and dominance, even in lighthearted moments, which gave Charlie good stuff to react to.
Diabolique: You have worked as an editor on a variety of projects. What did the pair of editors Megan Brooks and Andrew Hasse bring to this film?
DS: Megan and Andrew were on set with me and they offered invaluable suggestions for pickups to shoot, as well as moral support. I usually edit my own stuff, but on this project, I decided to step away for six weeks and let the editors have their way with it. Megan and Andrew are both very thoughtful about the underlying meaning of stories, and strongly opinionated about how they should be put together. The first thing they did was to make a two and half hour script assembly, and then an 80-minute bare-bones cut that was stripped of everything but the most essential story elements. So right away I was able to see the movie in its most bloated and its most lean form. I appreciate that willingness to blow things up and put them back together again.
Diabolique: Can you talk about the score for the film?
DS: I did not want typical horror movie music. I wanted it to feel beautiful and sad, part impending doom, part tragedy. My composer Matt Veligdan tried out a bunch of ideas, and we landed on a sound dominated by strings. The greatest influence on the score was probably Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Temptation’ from the Psycho soundtrack; I listened to that every morning of the shoot. Matt did a great job capturing that classic feeling while creating something new.
Diabolique: We thank Duncan Skiles for the time! Check out The Clovehitch Killer on IFC Midnight and find out more including the film’s trailer at http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-clovehitch-killer