Horror. To some, the genre is that of cheap thrills, startles and nightmare fodder to allow entertainment to be entertaining without the need to turn on one’s brain. To others, Horror is a conduit that our deepest fears, anxieties and paranoia are visualized, hence why the community of horror fans has become as large, vocal and intertwined as any group in modern popular culture. Horror molds around our individual perceptions of shock and terror, and often times can be discussed with the enthusiasm and passion that may not apply to other genres. Therefore, Diabolique Magazine presents Talking Terror, a weekly column where we speak to actors, comedians and other public figures about their relationship to the world of horror.
If there’s any profession where the phrase “roll with the punches” applies outside of a boxing ring, one could say it’s acting. At times, acting can be a competitive, anxious and tolling craft, as projects shift, work can be difficult to come by and there can be thousands of people judging your performance at a given time. This is especially true for the horror genre, which has been mentioned previously to be an oft-thankless craft when often times, a devoted, dramatic performance can be lost amongst the blood, sweat and tears involved in running around from a faceless killer. Combine the two aspects, especially as the genre finds itself with money that comes and goes and is increasingly relying on niche markets to make a profit, some would wonder why one would pursue acting in horror films.
But if there’s anyone who could tell you, it would be Stacy Chbosky, whose diverse past in literature, music and theater led her to horror acting and her husband, frequent genre director John Erick Dowdle. Chbosky and husband Dowdle have collaborated on several intense, high-profile projects, including the Hitchcockian Devil, the impressive remake of [REC], Quarantine, and the legendary unreleased horror film The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Chbosky roots her performances in a place of unwavering dedication and selflessness, and according to those who have seen the film through various means, has an iconic performance laying in wait as the lead in the found-footage Tapes. In between these horror projects, Stacy has found time to build a family with her husband and their children, and took some time out of her busy schedule to speak to Diabolique about her career, her future and whether the world will ever see The Poughkeepsie Tapes…
DIABOLIQUE: You’ve appeared in several horror projects throughout your career as an actress, many of which were directed by your husband, John Erick Dowdle. Have you always been a fan of the horror genre?
STACY CHBOSKY: Yeah! You know what, I actually have been. I remember my brother [writer/director Stephen Chbosky], who is also in the business, and I used to have a camcorder, like one of the ones from the ‘70s, and we used to take all of our stuffed animals and we’d remake Friday the 13th with our camcorder and our stuffed animals. I remember sitting around on vacation watching Sleepaway Camp with my parents. I got started with the horror genre by watching Chiller Theater in Pittsburgh, which was really bad B-movies on late Friday nights. There was one about this guy who, in the 1800’s, got his hand cut off with an ax as punishment, and afterwards, the hand crawled around after him. That scared the bejeezus out of me. So I’ve always loved scary movies.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you remember the first horror film you watched that started your fandom for the genre?
CHBOSKY: Honestly, the film about the hand chasing the guy scared me so much for years. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was definitely like six or something. We actually watched everything really early [in our lives]. I’m now remembering watching The Shining when I was way too young. I remember Anthony Hopkins film, Magic, with the ventriloquist dummy, though I never actually saw it. Our family had HBO early on back when they were sending out the paper guides for the channel, and they marketed that all the time on HBO. So I never actually saw it but I saw the ads for it over and over, and just the idea of a diabolical ventriloquist dummy… I don’t know if you think you can be influenced by a trailer, but I was.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any recent horror favorites, as in the past decade or so?
CHBOSKY: No, since I kind of stopped watching after I saw my favorite movie of all time, which is The Silence of the Lambs. I loved The Silence of the Lambs. It’s straight-up, absolute horror that I stopped watching, but some of my favorite movies are like The Shining, Silence of the Lambs and Rosemary’s Baby. Those films are very well-made, and they’re very scary but they’re also kind of a drama. That’s my sweet spot.
But I have kids now, so we only go to the theater about once a year and it’s usually to watch something from Pixar. I have no idea what’s going on in horror! Actually, it’s funny because I went to college with Patrick Wilson, and I think he’s just been killing it with horror movies. I just haven’t gotten to see any of them.
DIABOLIQUE: As an actress who has appeared in many of these movies as of late, what do you think is the biggest difference between the horror that you grew up with and the horror that flourishes now?
CHBOSKY: Well, the movies that I’ve done with John have mostly been those documentary-style, found footage movies. I remember back when nobody knew what the word for those were yet, but I think because of that, the more realistic the acting is, the scarier the whole movie is going to be. That’s definitely not the case for the over-the-top B-movies I grew up with where the acting was super larger than life. I think that’s the biggest difference.
Also, I think the more straightforward the actors take it, the more they commit and play it for real as opposed to winking at us. I think that makes it scarier. I think sometimes actors do horror movies and they maybe think they’re slumming or that it’s beneath them, so they phone it in a little bit, but if people actually treat it like a drama and treat it like it’s real, then they invest themselves in that way and it pays off with a much eerier movie.
DIABOLIQUE: So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you were the lead actress in the still-unreleased Poughkeepsie Tapes…
CHBOSKY: Oh my God…
DIABOLIQUE: That film was set up with a major advertising campaign and prepped to be one of the major horror releases of the year before it seemingly disappeared. Do you think The Poughkeepsie Tapes will see the light of day anytime soon?
CHBOSKY: I hope so! I try not to let my emotions go up-and-down with the news anymore. When it got pulled, I had just gotten pregnant and that was about six years ago, and we were actually in Paris on vacation because John had just shot Quarantine. So it was like, “Yeah, we’re feeling good. We finally have a little money so we’re going to go to Paris for a week. We just wrapped Quarantine and Poughkeepsie Tapes is just about to come out. This is so exciting!” And while we were on vacation, we got a call from a reporter while we were there, saying, “Hey, do you want to comment on the fact that MGM is not going to release [The Poughkeepsie Tapes]?” And we were like, “Uh, what? What’s that? What’s not being released? Who?”
Unfortunately, from there, the whole thing unraveled when we were on our first vacation ever so that was depressing. But about once a year, maybe twice a year, we’ll hear from Andrew Herwitz, who is selling it, and he’ll say, “Oh, there’s movement now! Somebody has made an offer to MGM and MGM is going to sell it to them!” Then we’ll hear, “No, actually, MGM has decided to keep it.” And then we’ll hear, “Oh, MGM is going to release it to DVD!” But then we’ll hear, “Oh, MGM is going to give it a limited release, and then a wide release!” or “No, MGM is going to sell it again.” So imagine this happening once or twice a year every year since six years ago. I have no idea.
But it’s kind of fun now. It was so depressing, and it’s still heartbreaking, when they decided not to release it. But it’s kind of fun in a weird way that it’s created this mystery and a cult-like attraction to the project that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. So that’s kind of fun.
DIABOLIQUE: I know that a lot of people within the horror community consider The Poughkeepsie Tapes to be the “white whale” of horror projects just because it hasn’t been officially released and most horror fans have never seen it. That’s not to say there aren’t some illegal ways of seeing some version of the film, but it’s just fascinating, especially considering how the climate of mainstream horror has veered so strongly towards found footage projects. What do you think it is about The Poughkeepsie Tapes that separates the film from the vast majority of found footage projects?
CHBOSKY: Well, I know a lot of people have seen it online, whether it got pirated or whatever. I think, and I might be wrong because I’ve never seen the pirated version online, but I think people might be seeing the wrong thing. I think people are seeing a version of the film we had six months before the final cut. I’m pretty sure that if it doesn’t begin with a funeral, then it’s not the correct version, and the newer version is a lot better. But I don’t know what people are watching.
As to why the film is different, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and when John was working on The Poughkeepsie Tapes, the whole found footage thing was a big talking point. Some people were for it, others were against it, but whenever they started to talk about it, everyone was like, “Blair Witch! Blair Witch!” And there have been so many found footage films, so why did they have to trot out Blair Witch to describe [the subgenre]? But now that six years have gone by, found footage can be used as a storytelling tool and it’s no longer the aspect of the film that people want to focus on. People are no longer like, “Paranormal [Activity] is found footage?! UGH.”
I think what’s different about The Poughkeepsie Tapes is that a lot of found footage films that have done really well and are easier to market are about supernatural things. They’re about aliens or ghosts, or they have a fantasy element that plays with the found footage aspect, whereas The Poughkeepsie Tapes is about a serial killer. So if you’re going to do that realistically, which John did, then you’re going to try to realistically portray a serial killer and the footage is going to be really dark, bordering on nihilistic. I wouldn’t say it’s the kind of feel-good movie where you’re going to be walking out of the theater, chomping popcorn in your mouth and giggling with your friends.
That might be part of the reason why some people love it, since it’s really bleak, but I’d understand why audiences might not go for it. It’s not a yarn or a ghost-story you would tell by the campfire. It’s a realistic portrait of a deeply disturbed person. To do the subject matter justice, you have to go icky with it.
DIABOLIQUE: I can absolutely see that. I remember seeing the trailers and thinking, “That’s a very creepy concept but in order to do that right, they’re going to have to go to some DARK places, and after a certain point, there’s no happy endings that can come of that.” It’s likely one of those experiences where you’re going to get bummed out, but if you know what you’re in for, and you’re okay with that journey, then you’ll enjoy it.
CHBOSKY: [laughs] Totally, yeah! I think the best response the film has gotten are, and I have stopped paying attention so I might be wrong now, but when people don’t know what to expect and they watch it at home alone, or with a friend or small group, they have the best experience. They get deeply freaked out and scared. The Poughkeepsie Tapes is really satisfying in a terrifying way.
DIABOLIQUE: You also appeared in your husband’s remake of the now-classic film, [REC], entitled Quarantine, and you were also in Devil as well.
CHBOSKY: Well, Devil, technically I’m in it, but really all I did was get hit by a car. [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: [laughs] Hey, it’s still a credit to your name! Anyhow, what was your experience like working on those studio films as opposed to an independent endeavor like The Poughkeepsie Tapes?
CHBOSKY: Well, for me, the biggest difference was that in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, my part was huge and while in the other films, my part was small. I don’t mean for that to sound whiny, because that was the defining difference for me. Quarantine, especially, was really cool. I think I had about 9 days on that shoot, so I think I really got to be there for a while and it was so exciting for us because it was John’s first studio movie and for this movie, they actually built the set FOR the movie. So we’d go and visit the set, and I’d walk around, look and go, “Oh, that’s interesting. There’s the construction of an apartment building being built for your movie.” That’s so awesome and unique. So that was a big difference, besides having some money. [laughs] It wasn’t like we had a huge budget, but all the things we’d worked on before that was definitely ultra-low-budget.
The other thing about Quarantine that was interesting, at least for John as a filmmaker, is that the blocking was so intense. Elliott Greenburg has worked with John and Drew [Dowdle] a bunch of times because he’s an awesome, awesome editor, but people were so worried about found footage and how to edit it for years. So John kept doing these long takes, like he had to get it in one. Occasionally, he’d edit into it with a whip pan or something, but for the most part, if you flubbed a line or screwed up, you’d have to go back and do it all again. It’s one thing if it’s just a take, because it’s not that hard but with Quarantine, the cast was REALLY big, so everybody had to hit it. So blocking was very difficult and everybody had to nail their performance, which is a hard thing to do in one take.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering how horror fans are about found footage films, remakes and late-career M. Night Shymalan, were you at all surprised about how warmly both of those films were received?
CHBOSKY: Oh people like them? Okay! It’s hard to know, because it’s like, “Do they like it? Do they not like it? I don’t know!” We’d check the numbers and everything, but there’s no guy who comes down from heaven and says, “Your movie did very well!” So I genuinely had no idea.
I don’t think I’m going to answer that because, in a sense, I’m consciously speaking for John, and I don’t think I want to say anything that sounds rude like, “Oh, of course we did awesome!” I don’t want to sound like a dick!
DIABOLIQUE: Oh, well, I don’t mean to put the films on a pedestal in that sense. It was just at the time those films were released, most of the remakes that were coming out were either cheap remakes of cult classics or the polarizing Platinum Dunes remakes. When Quarantine hit, I know a lot of horror fans were happy with the film because it was faithful to the attitude and vision of [REC]. I still think the horror community considers Quarantine to be one of the better remakes to come out since the so-called “remake boom”.
CHBOSKY: That’s nice! I mean, [REC] was really great and scary, and [John and Drew] were faithful to that, in part because they wanted to be and in part because Screen Gems and Vertigo Entertainment wanted them to be. So that was a part of the mandate: keep it faithful. I don’t think they added the body drop; I think the body drop was in there. Oh, and the scene with me, where I attack the camera and then get beaten to death with the camera in the face, and that was a sweet shot. I thought that was really cool scene. For a while, the press was calling Quarantine a “shot-for-shot” remake of [REC], and that’s bordering on lazy to call it that. It wasn’t a “shot-for-shot” remake because this had many more set pieces as opposed to the original. That being said, [REC] is awesome.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the more interesting elements of the horror genre is that the theatrical experience is unlike any other genre. It’s much more interactive and reliant on audience participation than, say, a dramatic film or even a comedy for that matter. Do you have any memorable in-theater experiences that you’d like to share?
CHBOSKY: Yeah. My brother Stephen and I were living in New York, in Manhattan, during September 11th, and we decided the weekend after that we were going to go to a horror movie together. So I think it was September 13th and we decided to go see Jeepers Creepers, and we get to the theater, which is basically empty because it was 1:00 p.m. But there was a mother there with her two kids, and they were like two rows in front of us, and the kids must have been like four and six! [laughs] Minutes into it, maybe five minutes, and the older one is whimpering and the mother is like, “You’re the one who wanted to see it!” So we just sat there, watching these kids watch Jeepers Creepers and being mentally scarred two days after September 11th. I remember walking out, thinking, “I really should have said something. I really should have intervened but I didn’t. I just sat there, rolling my eyes.” Now that I’m a mom, I would have.
DIABOLIQUE: As a fan of horror movies, is there anything atypical of the genre that is either a dealbreaker or pulls you out of a horror film?
CHBOSKY: As I get older, I can stand less and less violence and gore. That’s just me, personally, although I think a lot of people are like that too. It’s like I can’t take spicy food, I can’t take rollercoasters and I can’t take gore. I used to just find it so much fun, but the older I get, the more sensitive to that I get. So if I hear if a movie is like an absolute bloodbath, I won’t go. It’s not that I’m personally opposed to it, I just can’t take it. But if you’re talking about a subject that’s taboo or something, I can’t really think of anything.
DIABOLIQUE: As an actress, are you interested in pursuing more horror projects, either alongside your husband or otherwise?
CHBOSKY: Yeah, of course. Absolutely. I just like working. Honestly, half of my resume is these bloody horror movies and half is these Disney or Nickelodeon kid shows, and I’m trained in musical theater and sketch comedy, so I’ll guess that I’ll do anything. I like doing everything; it’s fun. Acting is fun. And being scared and getting to scream, run and freak out is really good fun.
DIABOLIQUE: Well, your background is pretty fascinating, especially since you’ve become this horror-centric actress since then. You wrote a children’s book earlier in your career and were also a vocalist for a punk band. What were those activities in relation to your acting?
CHBOSKY: Well, I wish that I only liked doing one or two things. I think I’d be a lot more successful if I had just picked one of those things and just stuck with it. But I need to switch it up, and I’m not sure if that’s intentional. For instance, I went to college for musical theater at a drama school, so the fact that they had musical theater still made it a good acting program. But the people I know who did that and stuck with it? They’re doing great! They’re always in Broadway shows and are doing really well.
But it’s just my personality to hop around from fun thing to fun thing. So, typically, it’s satisfying and fun but it’s definitely not something I’d recommend to anyone as a game plan. [laughs] It’s a terrible game plan and a terrible career plan, but it’s just fun and that’s my personality.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any projects currently in development or awaiting release?
CHBOSKY: Well John and his brother, Drew, who work together as The Brothers Dowdle, wrote a script five years ago which was an exorcism script, which used to be called The Exorcism on Crooked Lake. I have no idea what it’s called now but I hear from our manager that it’s probably going into production soon. So hopefully, that will happen, but I can’t tell you more because I don’t know if it’s actually happening yet, what they’re going to call it or who is going to do it.
For more from Stacy Chbosky, you can find her acting appearances in Quarantine, Devil, Chromeskull: Laid to Rest II and The Perks of Being A Wallflower (written by her brother, Stephen) on Amazon, iTunes, Walmart and any other major media retail outlet. You can also find her book, Who Owns The Sun? on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other major literature retail outlets. For more from Stacy Chbosky, her husband John Erick Dowdle and, hopefully, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, check back here at Diabolique Magazine.com Next week on Talking Terror, we’re talking to Comedy Film Nerds podcaster, comedian and writer Matt Weinhold!
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