If you gave a hack a billion dollars and told him to make a horror movie, you would still get schlock. But if you give Josh Stifter enough money to buy a decent 2004 Jetta, he’d produce a film to knock your socks off.
Josh began making movies as a teenager, sneaking off with his parents’ camera to go film in the woods. After graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, he gravitated toward 2D animation, his favorite medium. Josh took a job animating sequences for Kevin Smith’s podcast as well as his Hollywood feature Tusk. (The perfect film if you have ever wanted to see Justin Long transform into a sea creature. Think The Shape of Water meets The Human Centipede.)
Josh wrote and directed The Good Exorcist, a film about an eccentric priest battling fiends in the heart of Texas. That movie, which Josh had to produce for only seven grand, was featured on the documentary show Rebel Without a Crew: The Series. Josh’s more recent film Greywood’s Plot, in which he also stars, is a gritty knuckle whitener about a group of pals hunting down an aggressive chupacabra.
“Horror is an interesting genre,” said Josh. “In its purest form, it doesn’t engage an audience anymore — it’s just a series of dreadful events that make people walk out of a theater. I think the main reason this year’s remake of The Grudge got panned so hard is because it tried to be a horror movie and nothing else. But when you successfully fold symbolism and other genres like drama, comedy, or camp into horror, you create a story that resonates.
“Recent horror flicks like It Follows and Hereditary did a great job representing things that you can never escape from — your romantic history, and your ancestry. Their art house styles also let them really stick out. Drag Me to Hell in particular mixed genres well, and it helped set the trend of self-awareness that we often see in today’s horror. Unfortunately it was ahead of its time, and its marketing promised something other than what it actually delivered. The people at the theater I saw it in clearly didn’t get it, and I was just thinking ‘Come on guys, this has the same director as The Evil Dead. Give it a little more credit!’
“Camp is a powerful tool for the filmmaker working on a shoestring budget. I filmed The Good Exorcist in 1080p during the era of 8K, and I had bad lighting and only 14 days to work in. I knew from the start that whatever I came up with was going to look outdated, so I purposefully didn’t give it a modern vibe. The Good Exorcist became more of a comedy with horror elements because of that choice, but comedy and horror share a lot in common. There’s a certain tension you have to build in both, because whether it’s a joke or a monster, it’s not going to work if the audience sees it coming.
“My favorite horror movies are the ones that make me feel like I have to take a shower afterward. As creepy as Freddy Krueger is, he’s ultimately only fiction and can’t really hurt you. But take family issues and writer’s block as they’re explored in The Shining, or the uncertainty that comes before childbirth in Rosemary’s Baby, or just general mental decay like in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. When horror movies present real problems, they have a better chance at hitting home.
“Which three movies should you watch this Halloween? If you haven’t seen The Shining yet, you simply have to. Evil Dead II is the perfect hybrid of horror, fantasy, and comedy. But to me, the only flawless horror movie ever made is The Thing — the 1982 version with Kurt Russel, not whatever they did to it in 2011. Its special effects, its sound design, its lighting, the way it pulls you in — you couldn’t make a single change to The Thing that would improve it. I’ve watched the blood testing scene 100 times, and it still makes me jump.”
Josh may have neglected to endorse the 1991 masterpiece Ernest Scared Stupid as requisite Halloween viewing, but his expertise is still sound in spite of so glaring an omission. You can learn more about the local filmmaker on joshstifter.com, and watch trailers for The Good Exorcist and Greywood’s Plot at flushstudios.com.
By David Scheller