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Review: ‘Gut’

Filmmaker Will Hold Q&A After Screenings Tonight And Tomorrow

Above: Tom's life is thrown into turmoil after watching a mysterious DVD in "Gut."

Aired 6/14/13 on KPBS News.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the indie horror film, "Gut."

Transcript

The indie film “Gut” won the Audience Choice Award at last year’s Horrible Imaginings Film Festival last year. Now it’s back for a pair of encore, late night screenings this Friday and Saturday at the Digital Gym Cinema.

Reporters have an obligation to be objective. Film critics have no such obligation. In fact it's our job to be opinionated and subjective. So let me be up front and clear about the fact that I am one of the main forces behind The Film Geeks at the Digital Gym. The purpose of the group (literally film geeks from a number of local film festivals) is to bring independent genre films from both the U.S. and abroad to San Diego at the new micro cinema at the Digital Gym. We are all volunteering our time and often putting out money to insure that these films show in San Diego. That's how passionate we are about these movies. My geeky cohorts in this mad adventure are Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, Phil Lorenzo and Brian Hu of Pac-Arts, Michael McQuiggan of FilmOut, and Victor Laruccia of the San Diego Italian Film Festival.

"American Mary" was my first pick for the film series and it played two weeks ago. "Gut" is the personal pick of Rodriguez, who showed the film last year at his Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, San Diego's only showcase for art and film focusing on horror and the macabre.

"Gut" is a low budget, truly independent horro film that shows what you can do with very little. Director Elias Ganster will be at a reception each night at 9:30pm before the film and at a post-film Q&A. I highly recommend any starting filmmakers to attend and pick his brain about working with little funds and then seeking distribution.

"Gut" focuses on Tom (Jason Vail) and Dan (Nicholas Wilder), two men who were best friends in school but now that Tom has a family the two have been drifting apart. Dan complains that they never hang out and never watch horror movies together. In fact, Tom now has Pixar nights at home with the family, which leads Dan to brand him as "pussy-whipped." Tom seems annoyed not only with his friend but with his life in general. Call it a vague sense of malaise.

Then Dan invites Tom over to watch a DVD that he promises has to be seen to be believed. The two men watch, riveted to their seats, as an unseen man slices opens a young woman with a scalpel.

DAN: So what do you think?

TOM: What do I think?

DAN: Yeah I mean, do you think it’s real, it feels real doesn’t it? Don’t you want to talk about it?

Tom may not but audiences do. Director Elias Ganster uses his low budget to his advantage to hone the film down to what’s essential – the characters and story. He creates a claustrophobic psychological thriller that asks if we are responsible for what we watch. Ganster says the film addresses the inherent voyeurism in human beings.

"I’d liken it to a rubber necker at the scene of an accident. I think a lot of folks, myself included have been there. It’s very hard to look away from something like that and I don’t think that this is that different. It’s just on video."

Ganster doesn’t answer what’s morally okay but he poses the question in a provocative way. This is a smart horror film that employs a carefully calibrated and low key style to turn the screws on both the characters and the audience.

Credit: Elias Ganster

Elias Ganster's "Gut."

Here's my interview with Ganster. Check out his comparison between horror and reality TV. You can buy tickets for the screening tonight or tomorrow night here.

How did "Gut" come about, what led you to make it?

EG: It’s more of a means to an end to a certain degree. Basically I've been wanting to get over the hurdle of making a full feature length film for a while. I've made a lot of shorts and music videos, and even made an anthology feature, which I directed some parts. But never a whole feature film. So this was basically an idea that my wife Anna and I came up with, which we thought could be made for a low budget if we had to. And basically it was born out of pragmatism. It's not as romantic as I guess some might expect.

What about the idea for the story? Where did that come from?

EG: We wanted to come up with something that would focus very much on the characters, that would be as simple as possible but really turn the screws on these characters in a specific situation. And basically I had been looking at other horror films that had been successful – other thrillers – and it struck me that the "Saw" franchise was just a really remarkable success. Whether you liked the films or not, it was just an impressive thing that they did – making that first film and basically turning it into such a giant franchise. So to be honest, the idea initially was that this would be a franchise. I thought, well, if they could so that we can do that. So that was a little bit of inspiration for coming up with a good idea. It wasn’t really inspiration for the story directly. My wife I think came up with the idea of the nasty videos, or what’s taking place in those videos in the story that the two characters watch. That would be like a catalyst for the story. And I think that basically I then made the characters and the circumstances real, and turned that into what it is. It takes a lot from my own personal life, experiences I've had over the years. Not of course any that really extend to the nature of the videos themselves, but more of having friends and being married, and things like that. And the difficulties that come with that territory. For me the script comes mostly out of a personal place. It’s about a friendship and how those friendships sort of dissipate over the years and often kind of split off into different directions and sometimes that’s an ugly affair.

The story also addresses questions about our role as a viewer and whether we have to take some responsibility for what we watch. It challenges the notion that we are merely passive watchers.

EG: Yes but I don’t know if I really ultimately answered the question of what’s morally ok or isn’t with the film. I definitely think we posed the question. And I think that we are hinting to a certain extent at what can result from delving too deep into that kind of territory or watching or becoming too obsessed or absorbed into a questionably moral or amoral kind of entertainment or viewing. But it’s definitely a metaphor. Some people have thought that this is kind of an attack on horror films, which is really funny because they couldn’t be more further from the truth. I certainly don’t hate them and I certainly am a big horror film fan. It’s just that it was a really apt metaphor and a really appropriate metaphor for the greater point or the greater story, which is what you just mentioned – a bit of a social commentary about people, the natural inherent voyeurism of human beings.

What about horror appeals to you as a filmmaker and artists?

EG: I think there are less limits in horror. I think basically that horror is often more of a hybrid of other genres – that you can end up wrapping a lot of things into horror: comedy, drama, suspense, blood, gore, violence. Many things can be in that package. And it’s really up to you and the nature of the story you want to tell. How you decide to tell that story, what style would you use. I like the freedom that that allows for, and I also find that it allows for a certain element of fantasy and placing people in particularly extreme circumstances that you might not normally find in, let’s say, a setting of a drama. Not that dramas don’t have extreme circumstances – I think to a certain degree all films are based around extreme circumstances and that therein lies the conflict between the characters. But in horror especially you really can push the envelope with that and explore some pretty dark territory and pretty interesting, less talked about subject matter, less talked about material. That’s why I find it appealing. I think that there's a perception of what horror is by mainstream audiences, by studios, by a lot of people. It’s often probably thought of as just sort of a very straightforward slasher-esque kind of concept. Whereas that had it’s place, those kinds of films, and I have enjoyed them myself. I've enjoyed a lot of different types of horror films. I'm not really interested in that any more personally. I mean maybe ten years ago that might have been something I’d more want to play around with. But if anything, it just gets old. Sadly I think that it has a certain latent appeal or a certain kind of unavoidable appeal that movies like the new "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" reveal. I think the first one – the original 1970s one – is a great, great film that is far more subtle than people ever really talk about or give it credit for and that any of the sequels would ever suggest. It’s actually effective. Some of it’s most effective scenes rely on sound and really the absence of anything particularly horrible other than by suggestion.

I was at a screening of "Thanatomorphose" at the Frequency Film Festival and when the director was asked a question, he apologized for giving a thoughtful, intellectual answer. It made me think about how so much of horror today isn't smart and it's too bad a filmmaker feels that maybe people don't want to hear a thoughtful answer.

EG: You should make no apologies for that kind of stuff. If people don’t want to watch a movie that isn’t a bread and butter approach to mainstream horror then they don’t have to watch it. But then they also should realize that if they are among the crowd of folks – and there's always a crowd of folks doing this - who are on a regular basis pointing out how little the genre has to offer and how unrewarding and unsatisfying and how bad studio horror films are. Then I think we could all say at that point we only have ourselves to blame because we’re not actually supporting the films that actually could maybe help change things. Or certainly bring about some more interesting material in the mix.

Sometimes it seems like a low budget can actually inspire a filmmaker and end up prompting a better film to be made. Did you feel that way with "Gut?"

EG: To come up with a script that wouldn’t suffer too heavily because it was by nature designed to function on a lower budget if needed, that was our goal. I've had people say this movie has, for example, a lot of static camera angles. I think the camera almost never moves in the film. It’s always set up and just sits there, often letting the characters and the action play out kind of in front of it without any kind of motion and just allowing the actors to sort of fill the moment, sometimes for pretty lengthy periods of time. And sometimes that’s been criticized, by critics, distributors or prospective distributors – not actually the ones that we have – and they always seem to think that we chose to do that because of budget. That it was a weakness, that we weren’t flashy enough. Well it’s not that we couldn’t have found a way to move the camera. But it was conveniently not hurt that we didn’t. But it was definitely a choice that was made in the beginning regardless of budget. So that’s an interesting situation, you know, where often one gets mistaken for the other. But I think that a low budget – to answer your question – in the best case scenario, can definitely help you to focus on what’s most important, and that’s the characters and the story.

So how would you pitch this film to an audience, to make them come?

I mean I think it is a film that doesn’t have a ton of effects or gore or violence and a lot of what happens in it is inferred or isn’t direct but it’s still seems to be fairly grueling at times for folks. It seems to be kind of psychologically heavy. Which was the intention. But in terms of, that’s a dilemma I’ve faced for a long time. Pitching your own work is always difficult and trying to convince people the value in it, why they should see something. I think what it comes down to is well if you don’t like films that tread the line of tragedy or a little on the dark end, more into horror suspense range then it probably isn’t something that you will enjoy or that you will find worthwhile. Or if you are into comedy or drama then this is probably not for you. But that said this has all those things in it. I think if you’ve ever had a friend in your life where you were kind of on the outs with them and you didn’t know how to break it to them and you didn’t know how to quite end things and move on with your own life because you didn’t want to hurt their feelings, well this deals with that to a large extent. And it deals with that uncomfortability and that dilemma that a lot of people face particularly a lot of guys that have been friends for years and years and the kind of things they did when they were kids, the kind of stuff they liked to do, it isn’t like that any more. They have families now, their pastimes are different. They’ve changed. And why should you see it? Well honestly, why not.

I have always loved horror because it takes you someplace dark but within the safety of a movie theater. But too many horror films these days just seem interested in gross out gore or things that jump out from the dark. But I want to be taken somewhere dark.

I think that’s what horror is, that’s the escape that horror offers inherently. You get this sort of walk a line, either basically, as the character or behind the character. It’s a line that you normally wouldn’t walk. Things that you wouldn’t normally do. Situations you wouldn’t normally find yourself in. Taboo places, dark places, and I think people naturally, and sometimes they don’t want to admit it, but I think that’s a natural draw for most people. The existence of reality television is the biggest and best example of why in modern day you know this is how it works. It may not seem like an obvious comparison to horror at first but the circumstances, the things that happen in reality television, these competition shows, it’s kind of terrible, and kind of horrible to watch, you basically watch people get humiliated on camera, cry, get angry, be at their worst and that’s real or is it? It’s supposed to be real, right? Personally I find that, that is almost the line or there’s not enough of a line. I actually don’t personally find that as interesting. What I like about horror is that there is a line. There is a safety and security, you are just sitting in a theater, you are withdrawn from that yet at simultaneously you are sucked into a world where you would not normally find yourself in. And I think that’s the natural appeal of horror. And I was hoping with “Gut,” to be honest to some extent, to blur that line. And to find a way to bring it into the audience’s mind afterward as well as during.

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