If you truly love something, you have to admit its flaws. That’s a maxim my wife told me early in our relationship that’s always stuck with me . The way she sees it, blind love is exactly that- a senseless infatuation, uncritical admiration of an imaginary ideal purely of the individual’s own making. True love is devotion to someone or something warts and all— dedication to a real, living, breathing, multifaceted individual with all of their flaws and complexities. Going by that definition, Paul Hunt and Julie Kauffman’s THE BRILLIANT TERROR is an act of true love: a by turns laudatory and—to my happy surprise—critical examination of the art and state of grassroots indy horror at the dawn of the 2020s.
Told in a series of vignettes, talking head segments, and occasional excerpts, THE BRILLIANT TERROR follows a variety of indy filmmakers as they set about trying to complete an array of tonally diverse projects, from Paula Haifley’s whimsical horror comedy MOVIE MONSTER INSURANCE to Mike Lombardo’s Lovecraft-inspired THE STALL, the troubled production of which forms a narrative throughline. By focusing on the trials and challenges of working outside even the indy studio system—there’s lack of money, of course, but, what happens when the tentacles don’t want to move just so, or your werewolf head doesn’t have an articulated jaw?—TERROR demonstrates the often rewarding, more often frustrating and heartbreaking experience of DIY filmmaking, taking a look at how the shot-on-video culture of the 1980s has evolved into the internet age, and just how much—and how little—has changed in those thirty years.
While the film’s core sequences, examining the practical difficulties of moviemaking, are fascinating—particularly the segments involving Lombardo, who emerges as an unexpectedly sensitive and optimistic soul who doesn’t let unending technical issues or his monotonous job in a pizza parlor hamper his enthusiasm for horror—where TERROR really shines are in those segments that turn a more analytical eye to both the horror genre in general and the culture around indy horror specifically. A few of these sequences—including one that serves more to educate the viewer on the various subgenres in horror, or ask the question why people like horror movies—feel familiar and tonally dissonant from the rest of the film; others, however, which take a more critical approach, are utterly fascinating, and contain some of the most honest dialogue about the state of horror fandom and culture in the new millennium to be committed to film.
As anyone who’s attended a fan convention in the last decade and a half knows, there’s horror fandom, and then there’s indy horror fandom and the particular culture that’s grown up around it, with the two spheres not always intersecting on the venn diagram; indy horror fandom, the realm in which the DIY genre picture exists, has its own codes of conduct, shibboleths, philosophical ethos and social mores, and, in a bold and brave move, Hunt and Kaufman argue that maybe not necessarily all of them are good. Early in the film, there’s a discussion among a number of filmmakers about the merits of torture porn and whether every filmmaker working in that genre really has sincere artistic intentions, or whether some entries in the genre—and the people who consume them—have darker inclinations they’re feeding (as a development executive who’s read scripts that are literally 80 page torture sequences, I’ll voice my own bias here in arguing for the latter). Later, in what’s sure to be the film’s most polarizing sequences, Dr. Joanne Cantor, professor emerita from the University Wisconsin and an expert on the social impact of media, gives a fascinating deep-dive into the psycho-physiological impact of horror on the brain and creates a sort of personality profile on the horror fan, with which some viewers are sure to take umbrage. Throughout, there’s also rich attention given to female filmmakers, who both share their struggles trying to break into the male-dominated DIY scene and explore how that dominance has begun to slip.
It’s a segment that occurs about twenty minutes into the film, though, that’s both certain to piss off a huge swath of the audience and which speaks some uncomfortable truths to power about the indy horror world and some of the folks who populate it. Filmmaker and Etheria Film Festival’s Heidi Honeycutt– in a scathing, minutes-long, expertly-delivered and unbroken monologue– lays the absolute fuck into the darker elements of DIY filmmaking, from the aforementioned dudebro culture that often permeates sets to the carless amateurism often on display (hold auditions and find a real cinematographer are two of the valuable pieces of advice she drops), and, most disturbingly, the habit of filmmakers to hire aging scream queens simply to convince them to film nude scenes, occasionally without paying them. Indeed, in support of one of Honeycutt’s theses, the projects featured in TERROR directed by female filmmakers tend to be more thought-out, thoughtful, and well put together, while more than a few of the male-fronted projects serve as the embodiment of the kind of thoughtless, toxic testosterone junk she’s railing against.
Most damningly, though, Honeycutt rips into the uncritical, unquestioning, blind-adoration nature rampant in the indy-horror community—the very approach Hunt and Kauffman have wisely chosen not to take. It’s an uncomfortable truth that any convention or festival goer is familiar with: the compulsion to applaud, laud, and celebrate even the most amateurish, cut-rate, poorly written, poorly acted, poorly executed films, either in the name of being supportive or, worse, because the standards are so low that just being a completed movie qualifies it for “success” status. Many viewers will probably take affront to Honeycutt’s segment, either out of misogyny, the same blind devotion she’s criticising, or simply disagreement with her thesis, but it’s a powerful few minutes and something absolutely every horror filmmaker and fan should see.
It’s because of these critical segments, though, that TERROR serves as a genuine love letter to grassroots cinema, embracing, accepting, and ultimately loving it in spite of those flaws. The tone in the end isn’t one of animosity but admiration. There’s genuine affection in Lombardo’s sequences, and filmmaker Julie O’Connor Ufema emerges throughout the film as a real up-and-coming voice in horror cinema in a number of segments documenting the making of her film CAVEAT (no relation to the British flick), elucidating a philosophy on horror writing that positions her as a potential breakout success. While Lombardo may still be working at that pizza parlor come film’s end, there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment on his part—and that of all the other filmmakers here—that’s admirable and which really drives home the ethos of DIY horror. It may make some viewers uncomfortable, others angry, but THE BRILLIANT TERROR is as heartwarming as it is thought provoking, and a documentary not to be missed.