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Fantastic Fest Shorts Preview: Ben Steiner and “THE STOMACH”

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You’ve not seen a medium like this. Ben Steiner’s THE STOMACH, likely described as a genre hybrid and seamless in being such, is a fantastic and fantastical piece of work. Whereas spiritualists and psychic mediums are often romanticized, or at the very least cast in a more classical horror light, this stark short presents a harsher, sadder existence. One where the gift manifests in a strange, abject manner and the person its bestowed on is at the mercy of those with nefarious needs.

In THE STOMACH, Frank is a bedridden man who can communicate with the dead in a most striking manner: his stomach balloons with the spirit. Tired of his depressed state, Frank’s decision to quit the business meets with a group of local criminals.

Speaking to FANGORIA in the first of a series highlighting the films and filmmakers of the Fantastic Fest 2014 Shorts Programs (of which Fango is a proud sponsor), Steiner took us inside THE STOMACH…

FANGORIA: First, what inspired how Frank’s ability manifests?

BEN STEINER: THE STOMACH has its origins in my first film, MAN WITH A FORK. That film is about a cannibal human-meat salesman called Victor who develops kuru. Kuru is the cannibal’s curse—a neurological disease caused by eating your own species. Cannibals in Papua New Guinea suffer from it a lot, so I’ve read.

I was thinking about MAN WITH A FORK—how it could be different, better—and I got to wondering if the disease could have been something more interesting than brain-rot. Then I got to thinking, ‘what if Victor absorbed the spirits of the people he ate while he digested their flesh? What if he was being tormented from the inside by these people that he’d murdered and eaten?’ From there I got to the idea for THE STOMACH pretty quickly.

FANG: As a filmmaker, or film watcher, how did horror and crime intersect for you? It’s quite seamless in the film.

STEINER: I didn’t set out to combine genres; the story just went where it wanted to go. There’s a lot of talk these days about combining genres. That’s all anybody wanted to say about Ben Wheatley’s KILL LIST, even though it was a brilliant film, for example. But really it’s just about stories, or it should be. Thank you for saying the genre intersection in THE STOMACH feels seamless. If it does, it’s because it’s driven by the characters that interact in a believable way, so the audience isn’t bothered that the characters are types that don’t usually inhabit the same story.

Looking back at my previous films, I’d say the only one I’ve made that’s solidly in the horror genre is THE FLEA. After THE FLEA, I formed FUME FILMS with producer Dan Dixon to make THE STOMACH and we’re now working on a bunch of feature projects, all of which take in a few genres; DEAD WINDOWS is both a haunted house and serial killer movie set against a portrait of a disintegrating family; MR. SUNDOWN is a sort of neo-Noir amnesia thriller meets occult horror/sci-fi; and we’ve got a third project which is a psychedelic black comedy horror set in the sixties about a real-life vampire hoax. We like to mix it up!

FANG: Mediums in film are often romanticized. What inspired the sort of squalid, sad existence of Frank and his brother?

STEINER: My cinematic universe is inherently sad and squalid! I don’t think I could have made it any other way. But there were a few inspirational touchstones for THE STOMACH I can share with you: film-wise, SÉANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON was a big influence, with the mutual resentment between the two main characters and the overlap of the supernatural and drearily domestic. As an aside: that is an incredible movie with outstanding lead performances and anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it should stop reading this now and go and watch it!

Other influences were the book BEYOND BLACK by Hilary Mantel. The main character there is an overweight spirit medium with a history of abuse, again with a resentful assistant character, inhabiting a very grubby world where nicotine stained spirit guides lurk in the folds of tea-towels. It’s a great book.

And finally, the “Factory” novels by Derek Raymond. They’re a series of crime novels set in England in the Eighties, everything’s very depressed and grotty, everyone seems to carrying a weight of sadness around with them. I WAS DORA SUAREZ is one the darkest books I’ve ever picked up.

Ben Steiner. Photo by Boris Conte

Ben Steiner. Photo by Boris Conte

FANG: It’s hard to gauge the exposure of short films outside of festivals. As a director who’s made previous shorts, what do you think can be done to increase awareness and viewing of short films?

STEINER: There’s certainly more of an outlet for shorts now than when I started making films ten years ago or so. Aside from the internet, the anthology film has been making a big resurgence in the last few years— ABCs OF DEATH, the V/H/S movies and so forth. I think people like to settle down and immerse themselves in a feature length experience, even if it’s made up of shorts.

So maybe there’s an opening for someone to start packaging shorts up into feature-length anthologies and releasing them on Netflix, or whatever. People need a brand name they trust, a gatekeeper to make sure the quality is high. FANGORIA could package up some shorts from Fantastic Fest and turn them into an anthology movie via FANGORIA presents…  Just a thought!

FANG:What are you most excited to see at Fantastic Fest this year?

STEINER: AUTUMN HARVEST. I saw ANGST, PISS AND DRID yesterday. Great piece of work. And Fredrik [Hana, director]and I have mutual friends including Can Evrenol [director, BASKIN] so I’m looking forward to meeting the man himself. I love classic haunted house/ghost films, so I’m excited about THE BABADOOK. I’m just excited about Fantastic Fest in general. I’ve never been to it or Austin before and heard great things about both. It’s going to be wild!

THE STOMACH makes its U.S. Premiere as part of the Short Fuse program at Fantastic Fest. Fantastic Fest runs September 18-25 in Austin, TX. For more on the festival, visit its official site and keep an eye on Fango for much, much more. Top photo, also by Boris Conte.

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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