Last month, genre fans, present company enthusiastically included, flipped their lids over The Cabin in the Woods, the meta and witty horror-comedy from the formidable duo of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. As much as we love Cabin, there’s one unavoidable fact about the film that needs to be addressed: It’s not at all scary, since it’s ostensibly programmed to be a funny movie. Far scarier was last year’s big horror standout Insidious, though even that supernatural freakshow has its share of comedic moments. Same goes for this year's brilliant indie shocker Kill List, a.k.a. one of the best horror flicks in years, and one regarded highly for its sadistic qualities. Isn’t it about time someone made straightforward, no-laughs-included chiller?
It most certainly is, and, this weekend, we’ve been given just that. Directed and co-written by Eduardo Sánchez, Lovely Molly (out in limited theatrical release today) is one of the more disturbing movies to come long in quite some time. Part psychologically dark character study and part occult-themed horror exercise, the film captures the rapidly fracturing mind of Molly (impressive newcomer Gretchen Lodge), a newlywed who moves into her old childhood cottage home with her spouse (Sons of Anarchy alum Johnny Lewis), along with her own past demons, including a history of drug abuse and physical abuse from her late father. And the house just so happens to have a possible legacy of demonic possession.
Experimental in nature, Lovely Molly mixes a traditional cinematic aesthetic with the first-person POV popularized in found-footage flicks; before you groan over yet another one of those movies, however, do note that Sánchez is one of the technique’s forefathers. Back in 1999, he and pal Daniel Myrick independently made a little picture called The Blair Witch Project, promptly revolutionizing the horror genre and cementing their names into the record books. Yet, since the juggernaut success of Blair Witch, neither filmmaker has been able to grab the public’s attention with another effort. Will Lovely Molly finally give Sanchez his second triumph? Only time will tell, though one thing’s for sure: It’s the best and scariest movie he’s made yet.
Complex recently chatted in-depth with Sánchez for about Lovely Molly’s connections to The Exorcist, why it’s so hard for horror directors to get some respect, how his Christian upbringing led to occult interests, and striking gold with his leading lady Gretchen Lodge.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
As a horror movie fan who prefers his movies as dark as possible, and preferably laugh-free, the overall bleakness of Lovely Molly is definitely appreciated. What made you want to go for such an overwhelmingly disturbing tone for this project?
I’ve been wanting to make a film like The Exorcist ever since first saw The Exorcist when I was little. I always thought it was going to be more of a typical exorcism movie, with the priest and the holy water and all that stuff. But it really surprised me when I started writing the script. My writing partner Jamie [Nash] came up with the idea of, What if somebody was possessed, or felt they were possessed, and they started video-taping themselves? I thought that was a really great premise.
Honestly, I thought I was going to go down that more typical direction, where they go to a priest and he tries to help them, and this and that. But it just ended up going into a different direction, to becoming more of a drama, and more of a psychological thriller. It’s a totally serious film; I didn’t pull any punches. That’s why when I went to cast the film, it was definitely challenging, but I knew that whatever actress I ultimately found would have to really have a huge set of balls and be an incredibly courageous woman, and fortunately I lucked out and found Gretchen when I did.
At both screenings I’ve attended, once the movie ends, I looked around the room and noticed that nobody stood up right away—it was more of a shell-shocked reaction. Almost as if they’d just been beaten up for 90 minutes.
Yeah, that’s great. [Laughs.] I really like all kinds of horror movies, and I appreciate the idea that there are so many different kinds of horror movies. There are horror movies that make you laugh and thrill you, and other ones that get under your skin. The movies that I really remember, as far as scaring me and having a real effect on me, have always been the ones that, like you just said, after you watch it, you don’t even know if you liked the movie—you’re just like, “What the fuck just happened?” And later on you start thinking about it and you’re like, “Wow, that was really effective.”
I’m not comparing Lovely Molly to this movie, but when I first watched Do the Right Thing, in a completely different way, you come out of that theater and it’s just like, “What the hell just happened? Am I supposed to like that? Am I supposed to hate that? How am I supposed to feel?” That was really powerful filmmaking, and even though Lovely Molly is a horror movie, and horror movies aren’t supposed to be taken as seriously, I kind of wanted that same effect. I wanted people to come out of the movie without all of the answers, and for it to be something that really haunted them. I wanted it to feel like you’d almost just gone through something with one of your relatives, like it was a real event.
What you just said, that horror movies aren’t supposed to be taken that seriously, makes sense, but it’s also really frustrating to hear, as a horror fan.
Yeah, man. It’s always curious, because Lovely Molly… And, like I said, I’m not comparing Lovely Molly to any of these movies. I think it’s a good film, and I don’t know where it’s going to end up in the history of cinema, or if it’s even going to be remembered. But horror movies, for some reason, never really get the respect that they deserve.
Even a movie like Black Swan, which I think took a lot of the tricks that horror movies use and used them very effectively, I think that’s a very good film, but my thing is, that movie becomes an Oscar contender, and Natalie Portman wins an Oscar for it, but I think Gretchen’s performance is just as great as Natalie Portman’s was, so I’m curious to see what happens with it. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to get the kind of attention that Black Swan did.
It’s always curious, because I can’t even remember the last horror movie that was nominated for Best Picture. Was it The Sixth Sense?
That sounds about right, unfortunately.
There’s always really great horror movies out there, but, I don’t know if it’s a case where most of them are commercially profitable and have a younger audience, or what the hell it is, most horror movies don’t get the props they deserve. Like a couple years ago, Let the Right One Incomes out, right, and it’s pretty fucking brilliant movie, and there’s nothing. It was, like, completely ignored, and I don’t know why that is. It just seems like horror is a genre that’s not respected, but, to me, some of the best filmmakers around right now are making horror movies.
And it’s always reassuring when a film like Lovely Molly comes along, where the filmmaker clearly didn’t let that sway his vision in any way to make the film less horrific and more accessible.
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s not really selling out; to me, I get an idea in my head, and it’s mostly horror movies because that’s what I do, but there’s always a different approach to it. There are always different levels of seriousness, of how the process changes as the idea matures in your head.
This movie, to me, was always supposed to be really, really serious, and almost like a bullet to your brain. One of those movies that affects you in the same ways that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer did, or, even though it was very commercially successful, The Silence of the Lambs. There’s stuff in that movie that can really freak you out. To me, it’s just courageous when you can do that with a straight face.
Lovely Molly is graphic, but it’s graphic in a very kind of serious way. It doesn’t let you laugh at the violence or what’s happening, and some people don’t like that—they feel uncomfortable, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do, man. I didn’t want this to be a fun film. [Laughs.]
Yeah. Like I said earlier, I’ve always wanted to make film like The Exorcist, then my writing partner came up with the idea about a movie where a person video-tapes themselves going through what is, or what they think is, a demonic possession. It’s kind of weird, because he usually does most of the writing; he’s the kind of writer who can sit down and finish a script in a week. He’s that good, but I can’t do that. I don’t really consider myself to be a real writer. I think I can write, but, like Martin Short said, “I’m not that strong a swimmer.”
The idea just kind of took me over, man. When I was about halfway through writing Lovely Molly, Paranormal Activity hadn’t come out yet, but somebody sent it to me a few months before it came out in theaters. I thought it was a good film, and all the sudden I was like, “Should I be doing something like this?” And that’s kind of where the idea came to not make it a first-person movie, because I was never really interested in making it a found-footage movie. But I did realize how powerful the found-footage genre can be, from Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, and all the other really good examples.
My thing was, can I mix it up? Can I do a movie that doesn’t have the limitations of first-person cinema, where the camera doesn’t have to be on all the time and there always has to be a character operating it? And there has to be a reason to always have the camera on, which I think can be very limiting. Can I mix that in with conventional photography? So it was kind of an experiment that just came to me, and luckily I think it works pretty well. It opens things up a little bit; like I said, you don’t have to come up with a reason to keep the camera on at all times.
Was it difficult to find that healthy balance between first-person perspective and more conventional filmmaking?
Well, to me, once I made the decision, it was actually very liberating because there was a very specific rhythm that I wanted to follow in the script and then in the film. The film is pretty unconventionally structured; it doesn’t really take the turns that you think it’s going to take. I did that on purpose. There’s something about the rhythm of this movie that’s a mix between a first-person movie and a regular movie, because there is a different rhythm in those first-person films.
Once I decided that I wasn’t going to do it completely in first-person, it liberated me a bit, because I could do whatever I wanted and whenever I needed a first-person beat, I could just stick that in. It was kind of funny, I realized that I was examining this character who almost has multiple personalities, and the video camera was showing the audience one of the personalities. That was a lucky thing that I just stumbled onto; it started working and giving me a completely different point-of-view, not only cinematically but also character-wise.
You’re seeing things that a normal person wouldn’t be video-taping, like when she looks for the little girl and looks through the window, these really creepy, voyeuristic shots. To me, that’s not the Molly we’ve seen, and it was pretty exciting to stumble onto that.
One scene, in particular, where that’s used to a really interest effect is when her husband, Tim, slowly walks downstairs and watches her speak directly into her camera. It’s something that you don’t typically see in first-person movies, where you have that secondhand view of the person with the camera, sort of an outsider-looking-in angle.
Yeah, I didn’t know if it was going to work. That’s what made the movie really exciting to me, that I was trying something new, at least for me. You don’t have all the answers, and that’s what makes filmmaking exciting to me lately: You prepare just enough, but you also kind of leave things a little bit up to chance. There’s a lot of magic that comes from taking those kinds of risks.
When I saw the film at SXSW, during the post-screening Q&A you mentioned that one of the ideas behind Lovely Molly is to ask the question, “How do you deal with demonic possession when you don’t have health insurance?” Was that one of the narrative lynchpins from day one?
It wasn’t a really conscious thing. What I always thought was curious about The Exorcist is that it’s this really uncommon thing that’s happening to a movie star. It was a very strange kind of choice of character, and it totally worked for that movie, but I wanted to take the total opposite approach. I wanted to see what would happen when your husband doesn’t have health insurance and he’s not educated at all for this type of situation, whether it’s mental illness or demonic possession.
What do you do when you don’t have experts around? Or, when the experts themselves don’t know what to do? That’s why the Pastor Bobby character in Lovely Molly was interesting to me. He’s the guy that typically comes into a movie, rolls up his sleeves, and says, “Alright, I’m gonna take care of this.” Even if he doesn’t succeed, at least he tries. To me, Pastor Bobby immediately became part of the problem. [Laughs.] And he ended up paying the ultimate price for it.
It was really interesting to delve into a story where the typical hero is not a hero, and even the typical main character does the most heinous things ever, things that are completely unforgivable yet she’s still the main character.
The creepiest parts of Lovely Molly, for me, revolved around the occult mythology that’s hinted at throughout, specifically with Baphomet and all of that imagery. Going into this project, did you have to research that occult lore, or have you always been fascinated by it? Come to think of it, there are traces of it in The Blair Witch Project, too.
I’ve always had an interest in it, man, but it’s always been a scary interest, an interest where I’m fascinated by it but also really afraid of it. Even though my faith has really been diminished in the last 20 years, I was raised Catholic—not strict Catholic, but I was raised pretty Christian. My mom is still a very devout Christian; she’s gone from everything to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Catholicism to Baptists, but one thing that she always ingrained in me, and I think it’s one of the reasons why she let me watch The Exorcist—probably too young, really—was the fact that the Devil was real. If you believe in what Jesus and God did, then you had to believe in the Devil.
Definitely, I was always fascinated by the whole idea of exorcisms and possession. I’ve always been afraid of pushing that envelope too far, and with this movie I kind of just let go and went headfirst into it, while at least trying to control my fear. I’ve always been fascinated by the occult, and voodoo, and Satanism, anything that has to do with supernatural power, especially of the evil kind.
To me, it’s just such an old kind of fear. I always knew that the Baphomet was going to be the bad guy in this movie. I always thought that a horse or goat-hoofed demon was going to be what Molly was seeing. I always knew that she was at least going to hear horse hooves. It wasn’t until later that I realized it would be really cool to show somekind of apparition, barely in the light, of the visual representation of what Molly has been seeing this whole time.
So I didn’t have to do too much research. I knew firsthand what all this was about, and I already had Baphomet singled out as the movie’s main bad guy. It was more about how could present him in a cool way that hasn’t been seen before. Well, at first, he, or it, wasn’t going to be seen at all.
The original version of the film didn’t have the demon being physically manifesting in any way, but then later on when we had a test screening for filmmakers in L.A., somebody was talking about how they really wanted to see something. We showed the symbol and had all these sounds that pointed towards some kind of demonic thing, but we never showed it. People were disappointed by that, so I was like, “You know, while it’s not what I originally planned, I wouldn’t be opposed to developing something, and if it’s done right, it could be a really cool addition.”
So we went and hired a company to digitally add the demon that she sees at the end of the movie when she walks outside. I’m glad that somebody came up with that idea. It adds a nice little creepy beat to the end of the movie, and it’s not something that jumps out at you. It’s subtle enough to leave you saying, “What the fuck was that? I know it was something fucked up, but I can’t really clearly see it.” And that was always the intention, to have this ghostly apparition that you knew wasn’t a human but you also couldn’t identify. You just know that it’s malevolent.
It’s a hell of an image, no question, and it’s one of those tricky shots that very easily could’ve not worked. If the demon looks corny in any way, it could ruin the entire movie.
Yeah, I’m glad you liked it. And you’re absolutely right, man. That was the fear going in, the question of, “What if it doesn’t work?” But at the same time, if it didn’t work we would’ve just kept it out of the movie. [Laughs.]
It’s also effective because that scene adds to the film’s ambiguity while still giving the audience something visually that feels like a satisfying payoff.
Yeah, and obviously the demon dissolves into the scene, so it’s definitely supernatural, but what’s interesting is that some people interpret it as, “We’re just seeing what Molly is seeing,” so there still is that. I like it that people take away different things from the film. I know that’s what frustrated a lot of people about Blair Witch, but, to me and Dan [Myrick, his Blair Witch co-director], that was one of our favorite things about that movie—at the end of the day, it didn’t give you all the answers.
There is something inherently creepier about not having all the answers. The reason why Bigfoot is still as popular as he ever was is because nobody has found the fucking Bigfoot skeleton—nobody has found definitive proof. The reason why there’s so much controversy about UFO’s is that there still isn’t any real proof about UFO’s. For certain kinds of movies, like Lovely Molly, I think it’s imperative that you don’t answer everything because then you’re not really dealing with reality. For the people that Blair Witch worked for, what made it so powerful was the idea that it felt like it was part of reality, and part of reality is that you don’t what the hell ghosts are—you don’t even know if they exist.
That’s what keeps me coming to these things, the idea that I need more proof. I need more evidence. I need to see this again, catch different things in a movie, and then make up my own mind. There’s a whole group of horror fans who really love those kinds of movies, and I think they’ll really dig Lovely Molly for those reasons.
The house in which the film takes place is another incredibly creepy aspect of Lovely Molly. How’d you find that house?
We completely lucked out. We didn’t realize how hard it is to find a house that looks like it could be abandoned but is also safe enough to film a movie in. A lot of these houses that we went to, man, you couldn’t do anything in them—they were totally falling apart. You’d have to spend $100,000 just to sure up the house. But just like a lot of the things that happened with this movie, and that happened with Blair Witch, there was a kind of a serendipity to everything.
We just got lucky, man. We were planning on shooting in Hagerstown, a town that’s a half-hour north of where I live in Maryland. We still hadn’t made up our minds, and we were kind of getting desperate. Somebody from Hagerstown found this realtor who took us to this house, and it was perfect. Not only was it perfect, but the person who lived there was cool with us completely moving into her house. We rented her a hotel room and she lived out of a hotel for that month we were there shooting.
More than half of the props and the furniture that you see in Lovely Molly were actually in that house already. It was kind of a production designer’s dream, where you could pick and choose from these almost set pieces that were already there. You didn’t have to buy much.
In the end, that house helped us make this film. People ask me, “Was it haunted?” And I don’t know if it was haunted or not, but it’s an old house. I didn’t really feel anything in the house, but a lot of other people did. It was built back in the 1800s, I think, so a lot of people died there, and there’s a lot of weird energy in that house.
Once you were in the house, did a lot of the occult mythology change to fit the setting?
Yeah, it definitely inspired us. A lot of the horse stuff, specifically, because there was always going to be this horse demon that plagued Molly. But we got to the house and Katie, the woman who lived there, told us that her mom was a world-class equestrian, so she had all of these photos of her and her mom jumping and doing all these things with horses, and the photos were kind of creepy, man.
We didn’t really have a place for them, but we knew we had to come up with something. It was really lucky for us that we found this house that had these really creepy horse photos, and the owner is willing to let us use them. It was kind of just one of those movies that grew out of the environment.
That’s an interesting question. Like every actress, obviously, she brought her own style, and she made a few changes here and there. But Gretchen, I think, from early on really identified with the character that I had written; it was part of the reason why I felt so trusting in her doing the role. I felt that she had a really great grasp on it, and other than changing a few lines here and there, she really stuck to it and built her own world around this character I created.
The thing about it is, as soon as I saw her she became Molly, so I did a rewrite based on Gretchen that really didn’t change that much but kind of tailored things a little bit to who she was. She definitely played within the parameters that I had set, but also wasn’t afraid to go off on her own and experiment. I always try to nurture the actors with a very collaborative surrounding, because you never know where the next great idea is going to come from. You have to assume that it’s not always going to be you who comes up with it.
This is her first starring role, and she’s pretty remarkable as Molly. How’d you find her? Was it just a blind audition?
It was, actually. It was an open call in New York, similar to what we did for Blair Witch. We were looking for non-SAG talent. We were looking for completely undiscovered, non-union talent, and even though we ended up going union, our intention was to find unsigned talent that nobody had seen before. We just got really lucky with the casting, and really lucky that Gretchen decided to come to the audition that day.
Just as important to Lovely Molly as Gretchen Lodge is the film’s sound design. From the unnerving score to the little sounds that are heard constantly throughout, you really used sound as a character, and it makes the film ten times creepier than it already is.
The sound designers were from this company called Studio Unknown, and they’re located about 45 minutes from my house in Maryland. I’d never worked with them before but they’re kind of the premier company in this area. They do a bunch of really low-budget films. I always knew that the movie was going to have a really unique sound palette—I didn’t want it to sound like anything else that’s out there. When it came down to the music, I’ve been a big Tortoise fan for a long time and I’ve always wanted to do something with them, and we had just enough money to pay for them for this.
I didn’t want new music for every scene; I wanted to stick to themes and certain sound palettes.
Sound design is more important in horror movies, to me, than in any other genre, yet too many filmmakers seem to overlook that and don’t use it enough as a real tool.
To me, especially in horror movies, sound is more important than the visuals. In horror movies that genuinely scare me, sound is the ultimate kind of tool for showing things without actually showing things, and sometimes it’s the only tool you have.
Blair Witch taught me how important sound is. If you look at Blair Witch and how effective it was, you realize how little you actually see in that movie. You don’t even really see the actors talking most of the time—they’re behind the camera a lot. That’s a movie completely built on sound, and then you have the classic examples like Robert Wise’s The Haunting, where the sound was terrifying and you really didn’t see anything.
I think it’s smart, especially in a movie like Lovely Molly, to really take your time with the sound and come up with something creative. It’s really the easiest and most effective way to create nightmares in a film.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)