'V/H/S: Viral's' Marcel Sarmiento on Why Found-Footage Horror is "Getting Old"

The up-and-coming helmer talks indie filmmaking and the possibilities of anthology horror
Courtesy of Marcel Sarmiento
Sarmiento directing 'D is for Dogfight'

Editor's note: Every day until Halloween, The Hollywood Reporter will be speaking to a different horror director.

Marcel Sarmiento directed one of the best-regarded segments in The ABCs of Death, the 26-part horror anthology that will see a sequel in theaters on Halloween. His D Is for Dogfight centers on a man whose fight to the death with a dog takes an unexpected turn. "It sounds absurd," the director tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I'm attracted to absurdist ideas. I feel like the truest horror comes from that space — it allows you to do things that would be too weird or scarring if you didn’t have that label of horror."

Sarmiento is the first director in THR's Week of Horror series, and he's switched horror anthologies. He's one of six directors contributing to V/H/S: Viral, the third installment of a found-footage anthology series that's featured shorts by directors including horror head-turner Ti West, indie drama helmer Joe Swanberg and The Raid's Gareth EvansViral was released Friday on VOD and will hit theaters on Nov. 21.

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Sarmiento, whose credits include the polarizing Toronto-premiered Deadgirl in 2008 and It's Better to Be Wanted for Murder Than Not to Be Wanted at All — in which he directed a rising Zooey Deschanel — in 2003, tells THR why he wants to see more day-and-date releases and what could replace found-footage horror.

What's the concept of your V/H/S: Viral segment?

It was really inspired by an actual viral video I saw where some kid was watching a police chase and then it came by his house. I thought that would be a great start to a story about basically recording everything that’s sort of salacious. In the horror movies I remember from the '80s, there’s that moment where the two kids in the backseat of a car are going to have sex and you know they’re going to be the next to die. Here, the idea is, it's the people who whip out their phone and try to record something for your amusement — they’re the next to die. 

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When [I was approached to direct], I said, "I’ll do it if I can do something really different." I came up with a pretty ambitious idea that was way beyond the means that we had, but we went for it. When I had Deadgirl at Toronto, amid all the noise of all the movies that are out there, I learned that if you can be one of the three or four films that people are talking about — even if they hate it — you’ve done your job. I said, "Let’s go for it and shake up the idea of what a wraparound could be." I appreciated how in the first two, the wraparound is to be a breather between the segments, but I wondered, "What if we did the opposite, and it was a jolt of energy each time."

What do you think makes the best horror?

I try to look for what’s not inherently horrific and latch onto that. I’m more interested in the horrific circumstances that drive people to do evil, how far they’ll go. I like films without clear monsters or villains because nobody or nothing is totally evil. What’s more interesting is what evil we’re capable of if we’re pushed certain ways.

I was thinking today about the little kid playing the banjo in Deliverance. I don’t think there’s ever been a more effective bad- omen moment in a movie. It’s not a horror moment but it’s fantastically executed. That to me is truly scary.

Where do you think the genre is going?

The genre world is so cyclical. When something is working, they beat it to death until it stops working. I’m guilty of it too being part of V/H/S, but this cheaper-looking, dirtier, found-footage thing, I think it’s really getting tired. People want something much more sophisticated and elevated, which is what I tried to do with Dogfight. I probably wouldn't do another purposefully found-footage thing. I think it’s getting old.

I wish everything was available immediately as well as in theaters. I can’t tell you how many movies I would  pay for if I could just stream them to my TV. It’s not that I don’t like going to the theater, it’s just that there’s so much content out there.

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What's your advice to independent filmmakers?

People who are younger and hungry should just do it. If I was young today, I would teach myself [graphics software] After Effects and then go make a movie.

Even in 2008, when I did Deadgirl, there was a moment when there was a glitch in the frame, some time like two days before the premiere in front of a thousand people. So I just took the frame out, put it into Photoshop and painted over the glitch, and put it back in and it looked great. It wasn’t even noticeable. I realized you didn’t really need to go to a lab anymore. You can do it all. And now, with new distribution models, you can make a small movie and put it online. You can get away with a lot more on that small screen.

Email: Austin.Siegemund-Broka@THR.com
Twitter: @Asiegemundbroka

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