Back in October, I had the pleasure of meeting writer/director/actress Elisabeth Fies and her sister/executive producer Brenda Fies as they came to visit Atlanta to show their independent horror film The Commune at the Atlanta Horror Fest. While I had a great time spending an afternoon with these two lovely ladies, I wanted to tell you about The Commune as the film will soon be available on DVD, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon.com, and Amazon Video on Demand. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get your hands on it and you should because it’s important to support truly independent movies (if it has a name actor in it, it’s probably not a true independent). Hit the jump to learn about the project’s origins, how it’s like The Wicker Man (1973) without the misogyny, and why you should never trust hippies.
Fies* and producer Heidi Hornbacher were originally intending to head into production on a spaghetti western called Pistoleras but as they approached production they discovered that the budget had grown beyond their initial estimate and they had to shelve the project. However, they had already lined up their cast and crew and in a matter of use-it-or-lose-it, they pulled another script they had off the shelf called The Commune.
Speaking with Fies over lunch, she bowled me over with her film knowledge and to say I was intimidated was an understatement. Shamefully admitting that was only aware of the 1973 version of The Wicker Man but had never seen it (although I haven’t seen the Nicolas Cage comedy remake either), Lis’ knowledge extended far beyond into films I’d never even heard of let alone seen. It’s the kind of direction you appreciate because when they make their movie, they’re also instructing their audience to go out and find the influences and thus expand the viewer’s film vocabulary.
The Commune centers on Jenny (Chantal Lewis), a young woman who’s forced to live with her estranged and beyond-creepy father at his commune in order to gain some kind of leverage so that her mother Cassandra (played by Fies) won’t lose custody. At the Commune, she discovers every kind of New Age practice you can imagine and while it’s funny at first, Fies quickly finds the current of why this place is so terrifying.
It’s here where the film gets refreshing in terms of horror and why independent film matters. It’s not about jump scares or torture porn or straight psychological horror. It’s about turning the safe into the dangerous; kind of like a toy that’s trying to kill you except you can’t drop kick it. The horror of the commune is that Jenny finds herself surrounded by people who believe in everything so they feel they’re free to do anything. It’s a horror which gets under your skin and we don’t see enough of that in mainstream filmmaking.
You may have noticed that my comments on the film have been highly positive and might wonder where I’ve put my Critic Hat. Well, it’s sitting on my Critic Mannequin inside my Critic Closet and that’s because true indie film can’t be judged by the same standards applied to mainstream, Hollywood films. It’s important to celebrate independent films that take their independence and do something outside the bounds of the mainstream. Otherwise, what’s the point in being independent if you’re not going to take any of the chances independence provides?
While it’s been called a mixture of The Wicker Man and greek tragedy, I came away from The Commune with a strong Rosemary’s Baby vibe, especially from actress Adrian Lee who reminded me of Ruth Gordon with her poison smile, false comfort, and clandestine motives.
Speaking with Brenda and Elisabeth was a highly illuminating experience not just because of what they had to say about their movie, but about the horror festival circuit and the challenges of making independent films in Hollywood especially when it comes to casting. Living in Atlanta, I don’t realize that for all my attempts to stay educated about the nature of American film maker, there’s a consequence to living on the side out of the country opposite from L.A.
The Commune is worth your time and if you don’t experience independent movies beyond the ironic so-bad-they’re-good cinema of the direct-to-DVD market, then Fies’ films will deepen your appreciation of independent cinema and, like any good film, inspire you to see more.
*For the rest of the article, when I mention Fies I’m referring to Elisabeth although Brenda contributed greatly when discussing the film and understanding its development.