October 5, 2023
A little more than an hour west of Washington, DC lies the historic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, well-known for its scenic mountain views and natural beauty. An award-winning short film suggests that something darker stalks those trails…
THE KILLER OF GRASSY RIDGE recently finished its two-year run at more than 50 festivals on six continents, won a slew of awards including Best U.S. Short Film, Best Horror, and Best Cinematography, and streamed on Amazon Prime.
“It’s been a wild ride,” said filmmaker Johnny K. “It started as a personal challenge, just to see if I could do it. When it went on to win awards and was enjoyed by so many people in other corners of the planet, that was the part that was completely unexpected.”
The nine-minute horror short was filmed almost entirely in Virginia by a skeleton crew; at private woodlands near Front Royal and at a lake near Luray, with interior scenes filmed in a log cabin near Rileyville. The opening shot was filmed in the mountains of Carter County, Tennessee.
“We shot it as cheaply as possible using the resources and equipment we had on hand. We ordered lunch from 619 Market in Front Royal, and we would’ve blown our budget if our actors had asked for extra mayonnaise. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could tell a story on a micro-budget. I think art usually benefits from being restricted by limitations.”
The film was made for only $500.
“A lot of new filmmakers get scared by the cost of making a film, but it’s never been cheaper or easier to launch a project. The quality of “pro-sumer” (combining professional and consumer) cameras and gear has increased and equipment prices have become more affordable. For $2,500, you can now buy a 6K cinema camera that meets the quality standards for Netflix shows, or you can rent it for a fraction of that price. That was unheard of just a few years ago. And if you don’t want to buy new gear, that camera you have in your pocket is a great way to get started.”
“With crowdfunding, pro-sumer equipment, free editing and color-grading software like DaVinci Resolve, and sites like YouTube for self-distribution to millions of potential viewers, it’s never been easier or cheaper to get into independent film. All the tools are right there and the paradigm has completely shifted. The voices of many more independent filmmakers are now being heard.”
THE KILLER OF GRASSY RIDGE was shot on an entry-level Nikon D3300 DSLR which originally retailed for $450, along with a small selection of lenses.
“Two things inspired me to make this movie. The first was learning about the 48 Hour Film Project, which taught me to spend my time making movies instead of making excuses. If people are out there creating quality shorts in only 48 hours, what excuse do I have?
“The second thing was learning that The Revenant (2015) was shot only in natural light (i.e., sunlight). That really inspired me because it shows what can be achieved without trucks full of lights, stands, generators, grip gear, and all the extra crew and logistics needed to move and use that stuff. I learned that I could use only sunlight and still achieve a cinematic look, and as a new indie-filmmaker on a shoestring budget, that was a gamechanger.”
No powered lights were used for THE KILLER OF GRASSY RIDGE, and like The Revenant, the film was entirely lit by sunlight and fire-light.
The movie stars Michael Stumbo and Heather Stone, and the two actors had never met before filming began. Stumbo was more than happy to lend his acting talents and unique look to the film, but Heather required a little more convincing. “I think she finally said yes on the third or fourth time I asked her, and there might have been a bottle of wine involved. She has no intentions of becoming an actress, but she nailed everything I asked her to do. They both did great.”
The movie was filmed over four days between November and December 2019, and in two states.
“I had my shot list and storyboards, but there was no script. With such little dialogue, there wasn’t much point. Other than the newscaster voiceover, every line in the movie was ad-libbed because I wanted it to feel natural.”
“I once heard that the best movies are the ones you can watch with the sound turned off, so I took that to the extreme with as little dialogue as possible, to let the atmosphere breathe and to also let the creepy music lead the way.”
Featuring music by Italian composer Mattia Cupelli and others, the film picked up the win for Best Score at the Sandgrounder International Film Fest in the U.K.
So what’s next for Kaotica Studios?
“We’re busy. We’ve released our Batman fan film, THE OATH, which was a total passion project that we crowdfunded and shot for around $10,000. It’s been fun watching that go viral and seeing Batman fans across the world enjoy it. We’re also working with Farragut Films and nearing the end of production on FARRAGUT FORWARD, and with a fundraising limit of $50,000, which has gone mostly to set construction, it’s become one of the largest and most ambitious Star Trek fan productions in recent years.
“But it all started with this little film that a few friends shot out in the woods for a few hundred bucks. It’s amazing how many great things and friendships came from the decision to make this movie.”
THE KILLER OF GRASSY RIDGE has been re-released on YouTube.
Best U.S. Short Film – 52 Weeks Film Festival (USA); Best Horror Film – Sandgrounder Int’l Short Film Festival (U.K.); Best Cinematography – The Magic of Horror (USA); Best Thriller – Best Global Shorts (India); Best Thriller – Wallachia International Film Festival (Romania); Best Director – Salt House Creative Int’l Film Festival (Australia); Best First-Time Director – New York Movie Awards (USA); Best First-Time Director – Florence Film Awards (Italy); Best Horror/Thriller – The NOVA Fest (USA); Best Debut Short – Moody Crab Film Fest (India); Best Score – Sandgrounder Int’l Short Film Festival (U.K.); Best Shock – Haunted House FearFest (U.K.); Best Low Budget Film – Reale Film Festival (Italy)