When planning Homegrown, I wanted to make a monster horror film, but I also knew this would be a challenge, especially with a limited time frame and college student budget. I originally planned a vampire-conversion film resembling early monster films like Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) embracing gothic noir aspects of deep shadows and stark lights. Due to time, budget, and personnel limitations, the monster was forced to evolve into something more feasible onscreen.
As I began searching for a new monster, I was inspired by my windowsill houseplants to create an ecological horror entity. I started planning a film built around practical effects, a creature made up of plant matter designed to be a spectre of vegetation only seen in the shadows. This monster would be represented primarily through vine appendages, disembodied and tentacled extensions of the larger entity.
Dread, Suspense, and Horror
When choosing how to represent this creature, I wanted to create a sense of horror focused around dread rather than explicit fear or violent imagery. In her essay on horror, Cynthia Freeland writes “dread, unlike anxiety, involves an anticipated encounter with something ‘profound’ — something particularly powerful, grave, and inexorable … a threat that is not only unidentified and powerful but also unnerving because it is deeply abhorrent to reason” (191-192). I wanted to spend the majority of the film building this sense of dread and impending doom through glimpses of the creature—vines twisting through the darkness, creeping and surrounding the protagonist.
The music and the sound effects build as the protagonist sleeps, completely unaware of the potential danger. I used the concept of a nightmare as a midway release point of this tension, a moment for the audience to breathe and to question the reality of the creature. This moment is brief, and the tension almost immediately returns as the monster is revealed to have been real after all. As we realize the protagonist is still in danger, the final bit of tension culminates in a reveal of the monster, a vegetative humanoid with piercing, glowing eyes.
The uncanny horror of unnatural plants has been portrayed many times in film, from the carnivorous plant of Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986), to the demonic tree of The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981). Portraying plant life as malevolent, intelligent, and aggressive builds a general feeling of the uncanny. Plant life is a familiar thing all around us, growing slowly, staying relatively still, and rarely causing harm. The high-speed crawling movement of the vines, a complete departure from the normal stillness of plants, stands out to the audience as unnatural and uncanny.
Freud defines the uncanny effect as frightening things that lead back to something with which we are familiar. My goal was to break the connection between the traditional understanding of a plant’s nature and how they exist in the world of the film, to add dimensions of dread and horror to the film experience. The strange behaviors of the vines in the film—speed, aggression, invasion under blankets and over the face and eyes—preys on our human fear of nature invading our shelter.
In his essay on The Innocents (Clayton, 1961), John C. Tibbetts quotes Henry James, “so long as the events are veiled the imagination will run riot and depict all sorts of horrors. . . but as soon as the veil is lifted, all mystery disappears and with it the sense of terror” (104). Similar to The Innocents (Clayton, 1961), I wanted to use the veil of ambiguity to question the reliability of the protagonist, while also having the opportunity to tear the veil away to reveal my monster. In the end, the moment is brief as our protagonist startles awake, as if from a nightmare, to a well lit and otherwise peaceful bedroom. The monstrous vines are (almost) completely gone, and he believes he imagined the entire sequence.. I immediately break the moment when he swings his legs off the bed and steps onto a straggling vine, which slowly pulls away to escape under the door. The ambiguity and doubt is quenched—the monster must be real.
I chose to withhold the monster until the very end, particularly to raise more questions outside the space of the film. Is the monster part of the plant the protagonist stole from the forest? Is it a spirit of the forest, here to enact revenge for greedily taking a part of nature? Is it all a nightmare? I wanted these questions to increase the fear of the monster, without fully removing the veil of ambiguity, as Henry James called it, which allows the audience to imagine something far scarier than what I could conjure up on screen.
Freeland, Cynthia. “Horror and Art-Dread.” The Horror Film, edited by Stephen Prince, Ithaca, NY: Rutgers University Press, 2004, pp. 189-205.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Tibbetts, John C. “The Old Dark House: The Architecture of Ambiguity in The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents.” British Horror Cinema. Edited by Steve Chibnall and Julian Petley, Routledge, 2009. pp. 99-116.
For additional examples of Evan’s multimedia storytelling, visit www.evanodavison.com.