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Art-house horror

City cinematographer brings love of film history to genre

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Winnipeg has its share of local stars when it comes to the horror genre.

Makeup ace Doug Morrow is a seasoned monster-maker who turned the beautiful Jenna Dewan (a.k.a. Mrs. Channing Tatum) into a grotesque demon-witch in the 2005 supernatural thriller Tamara.

Actor-stuntman Rick Skene has orchestrated motorized mayhem in films such as Wishmaster 3 and Joy Ride 3 and has played the psycho himself as the slasher Santa in Silent Night. (His sons Sean and Dan Skene got into that particular act in the roles of Three Finger and One-Eye, respectively, in Wrong Turn 4.)

Making a name for himself in that talent pool is cinematographer Michael Marshall. The Calgary-born transplant was educated in filmmaking at Confederation College in Thunder Bay and, in the mid-'80s, toiled in Toronto at MuchMusic and on the sets of genre TV series such as Friday the 13th and War of the Worlds.

He gravitated to Winnipeg after being seduced with the classically stylish films of Guy Maddin and John Paizs.

"I could tell immediately that this is where I wanted to be, working together with a group of artists who were in the business for their own reasons, every crew member drawn to a common cause," he says.

In a way, he also gravitated to the horror genre, initially because that was where the work was.

But Marshall, 50, is not one to show up on a film set without doing his homework. He brings film history and art history to the table. On his first horror film, the Edmonton-made frontier werewolf movie Ginger Snaps Back (2004), he studied the "gothic sensibility" behind the story before he shot a frame of film.

"For reference, I drew upon archaic woodcuts and illustrations -- Francisco Goya and Alberto Durero in particular."

If that sounds like a highfalutin approach to genre films, Marshall says he takes that approach with all his work.

"For every picture I do, from outright slashers to crime dramas or family comedies, I refer back to various artists, certainly the greats such as Caravaggio or Rembrandt, but also illustrators such as Arthur Rackham or Edwin Georgi -- people who could tell a story within a single frame, using light and shadow to create immediate drama."

If the movie Curse of Chucky may seem like just another horror knock-off to the uninitiated, the movie represents a serious artistic collaboration, Marshall says.

"When something larger like Curse Of Chucky comes along, it is a real treat to let the creative juices flow," he says, speedy shooting schedule notwithstanding.

"Time is still of the essence, but there is room to expand upon visual themes. We drew on the classics of suspense such as Hitchcock and Mario Bava, using the camera as a tool to suggest hidden desires, and I got a chance to play with some Pre-Raphaelite lighting and composition as inspired by John Everett Millais or Arthur Hughes, as well as returning to the art of gothic illustrators such as Gustave Doré.

"The goal was to create the feel of an evocative fairy tale, stark images that burned into the eye, something that you would remember after the story ended and the lights were out," Marshall says. "It was quite fun and challenging since, on average, it took two to three hours to get a single shot of the Chucky animatronic doll, and there wasn't a lot of time to fuss about.

"The entire crew pulled together to create a real work of art, which was the goal from the outset, an art horror film," he says. "I'm very happy with the result, and the reviewers responded quite favourably to the look of the finished project." (Mancini himself said: "We're really proud of the fact that the reviews are stating the movie looks like a theatrical-quality release, and I think a lot of that has to do with the Winnipeg crew.")

"It makes me want to push things even further," Marshall says.

"I have come to love horror films. There is so much room yet to create images that both compel and terrify, and play with emotions on every level.

"And there is talent enough here to make that happen," he says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 D6

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