Q&A: Writer/Director Sonny Mallhi on His Atypical Ghost Chiller “ANGUISH”Fearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Michael Gingold
ANGUISH, out this week, is about a teenage girl being haunted by a youthful ghost, but this is no tale of simple spookery. There are many layers to its horror and drama, which writer/director Sonny Mallhi discusses with FANGORIA in this exclusive interview.
Creeping into select theaters and onto VOD on Friday, December 18 from Gravitas Ventures, ANGUISH stars Ryan Simpkins (previously seen as the little girl in Jennifer Lynch’s SURVEILLANCE) as Tess, who seems to have severe psychological issues. It soon turns out that her “illness” is a susceptibility to visions of the deceased, in particular the spirit of a dead girl named Lucy (Amberley Gridley), who wants more than to just frighten or possess her (see review here). It’s a strong directorial debut for Mallhi, whose past credits as a producer include AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR, THE STRANGERS and POSSESSION; he was also, coincidentally, once involved with a remake of Bigas Luna’s Spanish ANGUISH. Fango spoke to Mallhi following his movie’s world premiere at this year’s Fantasia festival in Montreal.
FANGORIA: You’ve produced a number of horror films and thrillers, and written a couple that were directed by others. How did all that experience inspire you when you set out to write and direct ANGUISH?
SONNY MALLHI: I really wanted to be as in control as possible, because that’s sort of the ultimate wish-fulfillment. As a producer, even more so as a writer, when you’re on a film, good or bad, you’re thinking, “No, I would do it this way.” You don’t know if you’re right or not, but it’s different. ANGUISH was something I wrote that had a big-studio-movie idea in it, and I was on that verge of, do I sell it to a studio, like I’ve done with other projects I’ve written and produced, or do I make it on my own and shoot it my way? The entire budget was probably what a studio would have paid me to write it, so every day I was like, “Wow, was this a good idea?”
Directing is really hard, as I found out [laughs]. Having worked with first-time directors as a producer, I thought, “OK, I can handle this; I’ve seen all the missteps and the good and bad things that can happen,” and I still wasn’t prepared. It was fun, but a lot more to handle than I thought.
FANG: In terms of your approach to the horror genre, how did your past experiences influence the way you tackled this film?
MALLHI: I don’t actually seek out horror movies, and I sort of learned later in life to appreciate them. I worked at Vertigo Entertainment, the company that made THE RING and THE GRUDGE, with Roy Lee, and he loved horror movies, so I learned to appreciate the good ones. THE STRANGERS was a film I produced that’s the kind of thing that appeals to me. I prefer stories that feel grounded and real, and that was THE STRANGERS for me. It was like, “You know what? I’m sick of Asian ghost stories. I like real people, and I’m more scared of real people.”
Another idea that intrigues me is that horror is so personal; what scares you won’t necessarily scare the person next to you. On ANGUISH, I just explored what’s interesting to me, and thought it might be interesting to other people. Again, the idea was that the best horror movies are relatable.
FANG: There are very few things more relatable in a horror film than a parent’s fear for their child. Do you have children yourself?
MALLHI: No, I don’t, but it is like that. It’s a very tried-and-true idea, and THE RING is about that as well. You can become emotionally attached to that, and to the characters, and that’s what makes good horror movies, the ones that last more than five minutes after you walk out of the theater. That’s what makes you scared or want to talk about it or just think about it afterward, if you’re invested in the people. And for some reason, I can just write women; I don’t know if I can write guys, but I know how to write women.
FANG: ANGUISH is certainly a very female-centric story. They are no major male characters; the movie seems to be setting up a potential boyfriend for Tess, but he remains on the periphery.
MALLHI: Yeah, it doesn’t go into that traditional thing of whether or not she has a boyfriend. I wanted to give it a hint of, OK, maybe things are going to go well for her, but even that kid flirts with her in a weird, awkward sort of way. And having Tess’ dad be in the military is a way of making her even more isolated. The movie is underpopulated on purpose, to give you a feeling that’s almost like she’s trapped in a haunted house—who can she turn to?
FANG: Does ANGUISH tie into or play off of any of your own spiritual beliefs?
MALLHI: Yeah, and that was an interesting aspect. I am not a spiritual person, and what attracted me to the idea was, I’m the most skeptical guy there is. I have this weird sort of imbalance where I want to believe stuff, but I just can’t bring myself to. You know, a lot of people have had these weird experiences, where they saw a ghost or whatever; that has happened to me a couple of times in my life, and I just try to explain it away, but I’d love to embrace it and do something about it. So the journey in the movie is like me almost wanting to believe in these things. Part of the message is that it doesn’t really matter what you believe; if it works for you, it’s all good. There’s this thing it’s sort of based on called Spirit Releasement Therapy, which I might not believe in, but if it works for you, more power to you. That’s what it comes down to: At least be open to other possibilities.
FANG: Ryan Simpkins’ performance is excellent; how did you wind up casting her?
MALLHI: Part of what I wanted to do in making this movie was to get the best cast. I wasn’t going to worry about them being big names or whatever; I just wanted to find actors who I thought got it—and who would make me look good as a director, most importantly! She read for Tess, and there was just something about her; part of it was, it’s a very quiet movie and a very quiet role, and there’s a presence about her that really stands out. She’s such a pro; you can just say one sentence to her, and it could be something that’s not even exactly related to what you’re talking about, and she somehow intuitively gets it. She’s great, and I hope she’ll become a star.
FANG: ANGUISH avoids a lot of the clichés of teen horror; were you intentionally trying to go against that grain?
MALLHI: Yes—and I’ve made a couple of those movies too [laughs]. Part of making it as real as possible lay in trying to stay away from those conventions. The trick, though, is that some of those clichés are clichés because they work for an audience, and I had to figure out that balance. There was an aspect of not making everything so clear-cut or easy, and that was hard, because it makes you work as a viewer when a character like this girl doesn’t talk so much. It’s a challenge to not give the audience exactly what they want and still satisfy them. If you can pull that off, you can show them a person who may be more like them than they even realize. A lot of it is just about trusting the viewer.
FANG: The movie’s audioscape and score are very effective; how did that all come together?
MALLHI: It was the great sound designers at this company Sonic Magic whom I’ve worked with before; they did AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR as well. I learned a lot from THE STRANGERS; sound is huge in that movie, so I learned to appreciate how it can help get you into the story. It was hugely important for ANGUISH, because it’s not your traditional horror movie, and goes into this sort of unique area. So the biggest factor involving the sound was to help the audience not forget, even in the dramatic moments—and it was tricky, because we didn’t want to overpower them—that they’re watching a horror movie.
The music was by this really talented musician from Australia, James Curd, who had never scored a movie before. He did a couple of songs for AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR, and I saw the talent there. I worked with him over Skype, and he did a terrific job. THE STRANGERS, again, was a big influence on me; I learned a lot from the guys who scored that, tomandandy, and they were very much an inspiration for James and myself. There are a lot of places where it’s almost, like, under the breath—these weird, off-putting sounds, that help maintain that horror atmosphere even if it’s a dramatic moment. That was the hardest part about creating the sound and music, but they both came out great, and I’m very proud of James.