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Horror hits home in Skip Shea’s “Ave Maria”


A still from Skip Shea's "Ave Maria"

A still from Skip Shea’s “Ave Maria”

At a time when many young filmmakers are bemoaning the film industry’s “standards and practices” (AKA working from thankless gig to thankless gig, working long hours at fruitless internships, etc.), the ubiquity of cheap high quality cameras flooding the marketplace can, at times, feel more like a curse than a blessing. Out of this ever-changing media landscape, one filmmaker offers a glimpse of hope to a generation of filmmakers who feel they are failing to reap the so-called benefits of the ‘democratization’ of content production.

Skip Shea is a filmmaker, performer, artist, actor, performer, poet and writer from Uxbridge, Massachusetts, as well as an occasional Diabolique contributor, who has written, directed and produced eight short films: Out of the Night, Choices, Microcinema, Mail, Video Diary: Last Entry, They Serve Breakfast Here All Day Long, Putting On Its Shoes and Nostalgia. Shea first garnered notice when Choices won the Best New England Film at the 2012 Massachusetts Independent Film Festival, and also was nominated for Best Screenplay, Short and Actress for Sarah Nicklin.

Microcinema, a horror short for the filmmaker, won the Rondo Hatton Honorable Mention Award for Best Short just last year. In a recent interview, Shea revealed how his love of “microcinema” within the horror genre has been incredibly liberating. “With my background originally in painting and poetry, it was simple: If I had the urge to create, I would pick up a brush or a pen. With film, that is nearly impossible. Nearly. With the microcinema model, you can just go out and shoot. The challenges in telling a good story minimally are a great way to get the creative juices flowing, especially if you have solid actors who are willing to take that risk with you.”

His newest short, Ave Maria, signals a more personal turn for Shea. A survivor of clergy sexual abuse himself, the film incredibly tackles the Catholic Church and themes of rigid dogmatic ideology and beliefs versus freedom. “Ave Maria definitely is one of the most personal [of my films]. It is the first time I used horror as a tool to point my finger directly at the church. Horror is an amazing genre because it provides the perfect platform for metaphors for the themes of abuse.”

A still from Skip Shea's "Ave Maria"

A still from Skip Shea’s “Ave Maria”

The film’s title comes from the song of the same name, and positions itself in opposition to the historical patriarchy within the Catholic Church. Be it with eunuchs or little children, to Shea, the Church has always used obstruction as a means of obtaining power and control.

“It is insane to me that Allesandro Moreschi was castrated at the age of seven so he could sing in the range of a soprano because the Church [was] so entrenched in its patriarchal system, that it would never consider allowing a female to naturally sing within the walls of the Vatican.” The comparison is fitting when one recounts the persecution of the pagans during the Inquisition, who were essentially worshiping the ideals of the feminine.

In the film, the song “Ave Maria” is essential. As a Christian song to Mary, the closest thing to a powerful female figure within the Catholic Church’s lore, the short film helps solidify Shea’s theme that power no longer resides with those who abused it. “Add to it that the song is sung by a castrato,” offers Shea, “and the truth elevates the need for some sort of karmic justice.”

When asked about what the horror genre has represented to him, Shea explained that as an artist working in several mediums (be it poetry or paints and charcoal) that there always existed a level of shame and guilt that caused him to keep his childhood sexual abuse a secret. His film work helped explore ancillary themes, asking questions surrounding faith, justice, and forgiveness. As a young man, Shea found solace in what horror could provide.

A still from Skip Shea's "Ave Maria"

A still from Skip Shea’s “Ave Maria”

“Horror was an incredibly safe place for me when I was growing up. It still is. I remember staying home from school one day and one of the UHF stations was showing Antonio Margheriti’s Horror Castle, and I had never seen anything like it,” states Shea, “I must have been ten years old or so and the torture scenes with the Iron Maiden and the rat in the cage blew my mind. I was terrified. But I knew I had control. I knew I could make it stop by simply turning the channel or turning the TV off. While other aspects of my life were horrific and seemingly out of control, here I could experience something quite similar and control it.”

In spite of it all, Skip Shea’s “microcinema” approach to filmmaking proves that one needs no inhibitions from the constraints of a lack of money or a huge crew. Shea encourages those of us naysayers to find “no-string” budgets liberating as opposed to oppressive and discouraging. As if by divine guidance, Ave Maria took one day to shoot and had a crew of two: Skip Shea as Director, and his Director of Photography, Nolan Yee. But Shea also cautions as not to minimize the importance of a good, solid, (and if you are lucky enough, fast!) crew, such as the one he used for Out of the Night to help achieve that dark noir stylized look he desired.

Shea’s intense passion for great storytelling is visible within each frame of the incredibly provocative Ave Maria, a film that we are sure to hear more about in the festival circuit. When one comes across a short as visceral as Ave Maria, one must always remember that a flood of cash from someone’s estranged rich uncles does not always equate to a freedom of creative choices. As many of us young filmmakers may remember at our time in film school, having 10 grand to slap down on a “calling card” film is not always the proper approach to telling great stories that really connect with people. It often helps to just write.

“The stories I want to tell are a little more intimate,” claims Shea, “And I truly believe that if you can tell a good story on the microcinema level, then you’ll have the creative tools needed to make a much larger movie.”

By Josef Luciano

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Josef Luciano

Josef Luciano is a screenwriter and filmmaker. He is former contributor to horror/sci-fi magazines FANGORIA, DIABOLIQUE, and STARLOG. As a location manager for the New York City Housing Authority, Josef has helped TV and film productions shoot throughout the five boroughs within New York City’s public housing developments, such as HBO, Paramount Pictures, and Marvel Studios.

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