Indie horror is tricky to manage. You’ve got to conjure just the right mix of suspense and originality, seasoned with dashes of camp. Give up too much plot for gore, or character development for cheap thrills, and you’ll get horror of a different stripe: a bloody cinematic mess viewers will dismiss.
Yet like a protagonist deftly sidestepping corpses, director-writer Rob Sepulveda pulls off a neat trick with his new short, The Year of the Ox, now up in HD on YouTube.
The “neon noir” film, clocking in just shy of 11 minutes, was shot in Chicago’s Chinatown (and comes complete with Chinese subtitles). If there’s any criticism that applies to the work at first blush, it revolves around wanting more.
In a brief space, Sepulveda, who runs RES Digital Media Studio, and co-writer Grant Anderson (who met at a Chicago Filmmakers class) create a hypnotic nocturnal world populated by compelling characters, especially White Fan. Actor and horror illusionist Ron Fitzgerald plays the mystical criminal baldy with hyper-sensory perception powers.
“I was watching a good amount of Asian thriller and crime movies and taking note of directors like Johnnie To, Takashi Ishii and Kar Wai Wong,” says Sepulveda. “I was knocked out by the cinematography and atmosphere created in their films. So I sat down with Grant Anderson and we decided to have some fun and stylize our film, using their films as inspiration.”
But with its local crew and setting, Ox has a definite Windy City twist. “I thought it would be fun to shoot this in Chicago and pay homage to the Asian horror sci-fi community,” says Sepulveda. “I just wanted to do something I’d love and that would be interesting to my audience.”
Self-financed on a low budget, Ox riffs on American Mafia, Hong Kong Yazuka and Chinese Triad films. “I noticed common elements of suspicion, fear and the dreaded double cross,” Sepulveda says. “Every outfit was fearful of losing power and influence and falling to a rival outfit. But I thought it would be interesting to see an outfit face an element that was completely unexpected, alien and fierce. So we decided to add a horrifying alien entity to the mix and totally upend this world.”
Enter Kelsey Zukowski as the woman/creature to play opposite White Fan: “I knew Kelsey was not just another up-and-coming scream queen, but had the talent to give this creature a place to hide and come alive.”
Sepulveda hopes the film will lead to better things with his hometown filmmaking colleagues. “I love meeting new people,” he says. “We have an exciting film community here in Chicago with lots of potential and resources if you know where to look.”
And with just a touch of White Fan bravado, he adds: “Networking is important because you never know when you are going to meet your next partner in crime.”
Lou Carlozo, former Chicago Tribune movies co-editor and DVD columnist, has contributed music to several motion pictures, including a remix for Disney’s 2011 film Prom. Send news and notes to firstname.lastname@example.org; mention “ReelChicago” in the subject line.