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A Short Film At Popcorn Frights Festival is Using Horror To Address Bullying

Jonathan Cuartas
Edith (right) and Carson (left) in a scene from short film 'The Horse and the Stag.'

This year’s Popcorn Frights Film Festival goes beyond gore and bloodshed by focusing on South Florida's storytelling. The one that can make your blood curdle. 

Out of nearly one thousand film submissions, 50 international and locally produced horror thrillers made the final line up and will be screened from Aug. 10 to Aug.16. Igor Shteyrenberg, co-founder and co-director of the festival, says South Florida has incredible and aspiring filmmakers and the festival wanted to highlight the talent or what he calls “homegrown, 100 percent, pure-squeezed horror.”

This is Popcorn Frights fourth year and it will be held in Fort Lauderdale.  The new venue, Savor Cinema was a Methodist Church in the 1940s and holds up to 240 audience members – twice the size of last year’s. Shteyrenberg says that there was a need for a bigger venue. He had underestimated the popularity of genre-specific festivals. 

One of the local films featured this year is “The Horse and the Stag,” by Miamian https://vimeo.com/jonathancuartas">Jonathan Cuartas. The uncomfortable, claustrophobic, dark-thriller address bullying. It follows the story of a young man named Carson as he is being held captive by a woman named Edith.

Cuartas joined WLRN's Sundial to discuss his new movie, the process of producing movies in South Florida and how festivals help homegrown talent. 

WLRN: How do you describe to folks “The Horse and the Stag?”

CUARTAS: I went with the subtext of bullying. I wanted to play with emotion and empathy, which I like doing with horror. I like having a drama and wrapping it and its tropes to a horror film.  I wanted to explore bullying and see it from the eyes of the perpetrator and then flip it with empathy.

Why is that issue important to you?

I was bullied as a kid. I know the suicide rates are high with bullying and I think it's important to talk about it and be completely unflinching in the portrayal of the stuff that comes out it. I wanted to show it as heavy as you can.

Credit Jonathan Cuartas / Courtesy
The entire film was set in a motorhome abandoned after Hurricane Irma.

I wanted to get a sense of where you're coming from when you were putting this together. This was filmed in Homestead. Why did you pick that place?

First of all, we found the location. It was at my friend’s property – an abandoned motorhome that was left after Hurricane Irma. The owners had to move out because they just couldn't live there anymore. And the way it looks [in the film], if you think that looks bad you should have seen it before we dressed it. The motorhome was leaking water and I could barely fit in there. It's just as claustrophobic filming it, as it feels in the film.

Tell me a bit about your process in writing. Are you thinking in terms of camera angles, camera shots or are you writing a story first?

I think it's story first. Miami, Homestead and all the neighborhoods around South Florida provide such a distinct canvas for these stories that I feel like the story almost writes itself. I start with something that relates to me personally, in this case it was bullying and then I wrap it in this claustrophobic motorhome and the situation just builds itself.

What does a festival like Popcorn Frights do for filmmakers like you?

I think that genre film is very important here in South Florida and I think it's under look. So having a festival like Popcorn Frights that celebrates genre is extremely important. It's nice to have genre films in Miami. You often see a lot of films that cater to the location and geography of Miami and Miami Beach. There are certain stories that are told here which are great, but I feel like having a festival that embraces genre is really fun and really important.

What is it specifically about South Florida lends itself the opportunity to be a great place to tell stories?

The people and the geographies. I think you can’t get more diverse. And I talked to one of my good friends about this and he's also a filmmaker and he said that the "fish-to-pond ratio" is very important. So you could go to Los Angeles, which is the film mecca essentially, but if you make a short film over there everyone else is making short films too. If you make a short film here there is more of a chance you stand out. Especially if you make a genre short film.

Do you think we have the infrastructure to build that homegrown talent?

A hundred percent. The crews that I've been able to work with I've been blessed to have them, to work with them. The people are very experienced.