Demian Rugna is living what in his country, Argentina, is called “el sueño del pibe” (“every kid’s dream”). After nearly 20 years of directing horror, his fifth movie When Evil Lurks has been receiving praise from prominent directors in the genre, fans, and awards, all without having to sacrifice a drop of blood or personal identity. On the eve of the film’s premiere on Shudder, FANGORIA talked to him about his beginnings, his style, the musicality of horror, and what he hopes to scare us with in the future.
You’ve just made history at the Sitges Festival (the first Latin American film to win), received praise from filmmakers such James Wan and Scott Derrickson, showcased your film at TIFF and Fantastic Fest, and even trended on TikTok. How has your journey been to get here? Coming from Argentina, what were your biggest challenges?
When I started, making horror films was quite striking because no one believed that there were people in Argentina making horror movies. Typically, we had to explain that there were more of us than people thought. We faced the challenges of independence and also had to contend with the skepticism that many viewers had towards our own cinema, especially when it came to horror films. It was seen as a ridiculous idea at that time, and we had to find our audience with producers who came from other genres.
Only now, there are producers who are 30 or 40 years old and have a different approach, who love fantastic cinema. It wasn’t like that when I started and was trying to push my scripts. It was very difficult. We did have the advantage of having a national film institute (INCAA, Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Visuales), which is a relief for any independent filmmaker. I've experienced times when they didn’t support this kind of cinema at all, and then it started to change and embrace fantastic cinema as well.
I started in 2005/2006. My first feature film was The Last Gateway, a movie that was impossible to make with the INCAA. I happened to secure private funding for it, and since there was no market for this kind of cinema in Argentina, they asked me to make it in English. I accepted that quickly, just to make it happen. However, it turned into a bit of a mess because it was impossible to find good actors from home who spoke perfect American English.
After that, I spent five years working with Fabián Forte on Malditos Sean, an independent film, a wild proposal to do something different, a different kind of cinema. We knew it wasn’t being done, or very rarely, but it was what we wanted. It harked back to the essence of When Evil Lurks. I did what I wanted, without anyone telling me what was right or wrong. But at that time, nobody knew me, and I was trying to show what I could do and what my concerns were.
Those were my beginnings, at a time when nobody paid attention to this type of cinema in Argentina, except for a group of nerds and freaks who all knew each other. We had no audience, no producers, but slowly that changed.
And then came Terrified, a film that was a surprise hit on streaming platforms, not only in your country but also across borders. It received excellent reviews worldwide and plans developed for an English-language remake produced by Guillermo del Toro, as well as a sequel. Word of mouth played a significant role in this phenomenon, the genuine recommendations from people, among friends and on social media, something that has also been happening a lot with When Evil Lurks. It must feel great after all these years of hard work to achieve such a positive and genuine response.
It’s great because now, in a way, it’s the fans who have the say. Of course, if you have the money to promote a project, you can reach a wider audience, but today, it's somewhat up to the fans to make something grow or not. If they genuinely like something, they rally behind it. It’s what we used to do when we were young, but through different means, maybe more grassroots. Well, I rallied behind Peter Jackson, at least, but I didn’t have a way to share it so massively, to tell everyone to watch Bad Taste. Go get the VHS! I grew up in el Oeste de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, and there weren't even many video stores that would have it.
It’s truly a new era of communication, and you have to make the most of it — even though it arrived somewhat late for me, but it's never really too late.
As an Argentinian, I have to say that When Evil Lurks has a very Argentine look and feel.
You see, in our fields in Argentina, especially in the last decade, when you travel, if you look down from the plane, you see a green carpet of soybean plantations. Maybe in other countries, you see more forests, but we have a carpet of soybeans planted. Our country is contaminated with glyphosate, and, well, we know that in many places and regions, this causes illnesses in the families who live and work nearby. People who contract or are born with different types of cancer, for example. All the time, you see a horizon of fields with little houses in the middle of nowhere, and I thought, ‘Damn, what kind of drama are these people living there? They might be contaminated, sick, and no one knows anything.’ And you drive by in a car or fly over, and those people are still there. That made me think, ‘What if those people who are there, seemingly unnoticed by anyone, instead of being sick, have a demon in the family?’
The idea of evil linked to local legends is very interesting, there’s something very primitive and raw about it but it also feels like a fresh take. How did you choose which elements of classic folk horror and local folklore to combine?
I relocated the story to the countryside, and that’s when the folk horror aspect of the story began to take shape. Naturally, I traveled throughout my country, met people from rural areas, learned about their legends, their beliefs, and kept in mind the rich folklore of Argentina and Latin America — the Luz Mala, etc. What I did was create a story that not only tells what's happening around the family but also what’s happening within. For me, the story of this Greek tragedy begins with our character fleeing from their own demons and, at the same time, from the demons that are pursuing them. Then, it’s about sharing the images of how madness can spread, how bad ideas can spread and infect, and how you can draw a parallel with fascism in a way because it’s like the media can fill your head, or make you think things that are not in your best interest. That idea of killing the little angel on one shoulder and leaving only the little devil to control us, that’s somewhat the premise, the concept that starts with the protagonist descending into hell, dragging us all and his own family into that hell that is also within him.
You went for several elements that are known to be tough to film, especially in a low-budget horror movie, like kids and animals. It’s like you wanted to make it more challenging on purpose! What was the biggest hurdle? That dog…
It was incredibly challenging, honestly. We chose complex animals. Goats are just crazy, even if you train them or think they’ll do something, they often end up doing their own thing. And the dog we chose is particularly hard to train. There were easier breeds to work with, but we’d seen them in too many movies, and they didn’t have the intimidating and horrifying look that a Dogue de Bordeaux has. Trainers advised against it, saying they’re lazy, unresponsive, and other things, especially when working with kids. So, we first held auditions for trainers. What mattered most to me was that the appearance was horrifying – I’m sorry if I upset any Dogue de Bordeaux fans, but to me, they are – and that it had the right presence. I also didn’t want it to be too common. Sure, one appears in that Tom Hanks movie, but it’s a different context…
Then, the shoot was very complicated in order to comply with Argentine child labor regulations. When you have child actors, there’s a bureaucratic entity that tells you what you can and cannot do with them. Basically, everything that appears in this movie is a no-go – you can’t scare them, use violence, show blood. Plus, you have to be very strict with the number of hours of shooting. Figuring out how to coordinate extremely complex scenes within the confines of three hours of shooting every few days required creative solutions.
One thing that almost everyone points out about the movie, which was also present in your previous work, is that you’re not afraid to get extreme. I wonder how and in what context you come up with those images, and then how you develop them while considering the limitations that may arise, like time and budget.
I think I have a lot of dark humor constantly running in my head, and that sometimes leads me to see disturbing images in everyday life, like ‘what would happen if this and that and the other thing occurred’ with something I might be observing. In a way, there’s something cursed in me to think about that, which doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, but I enjoy that game with that perversity, dark humor jokes. Some of these images stick in my mind, and I end up using them.
Part of it is a need to cause an uncomfortable moment in others, but also for my own amusement. That’s what one does when making that type of prank. Whether or not I execute it depends a lot on my stubbornness. When I want something, I don’t stop until I get it. I've had people try to convince me to tell something in a different way, but since I’m so stubborn, I think it’s that determination that ultimately gives me the creativity to find a way to do it the way I want.
Your movies have those hints of humor amidst all that lovely beautiful gore, that's not a simple symphony to compose. There’s a musicality there to balance it and know when to shock, when to scare, and when to make people laugh, right?
For me, movies have to have a rhythm and a cadence, and horror movies have to have the same rhythm as a comedy, and surprise you in the same way. If you anticipate the joke, it’s ruined just like the scare in a horror film. It’s about having that musicality, and in a horror movie, you need the sense and instinct to realize when a situation becomes ridiculous and how to respond to it.
After all this success, what do you feel like doing next? What's coming up?
I want whatever I do to have the fortune of being able to do it with the creative freedom I've had in all my films so far. I worked for a studio after When Evil Lurks, and I found that you become part of the machinery when you work on a commissioned film, a project managed by a studio. I realized it’s not me, and I think the best of me, what I believe I have personally, is wasted if you don’t allow me to contribute creatively. Whatever I do, I hope and want to have the freedom to do it, be it any spin-off of Terrified, of When Evil Lurks, but it has to be me, mine. If I take on a remake of Terrified and I can’t be me... I’m not interested.