Six years in the making, low-budget horror feature ready for release

He sold the farm to cover film costs and mortgaged his house to pay for postproduction, but John Swanson has made his movie ? a self-financed, under-$100,000 horror flick.

The filmmaker shot “Unearthly Harvest” six years ago, in 1997 and 1998, in his north-central Illinois hometown of Princeton and in nearby Tiskilwa. He finished it last fall, premiered at the Chicago Horror Film Festival, and is readying a DVD self-release as he courts distributors and prepares for the festival circuit.

After years of producing a series of documentaries about Amish people for PBS, Swanson said he needed a break, “something fun to do. I did test marketing and found that a horror movie was my best bet to find an audience.”

Swanson set out to make a picture that hearkened back to the classic Vincent Price films for American International Pictures. “I was taught that you have to quickly catch the viewers’ attention, so I have two people die within the first five minutes,” he said. “These days, they figure once you’ve bought a ticket, they’ve got your money, and you may have to wait 20 minutes for some action. I still think the way I was taught was the right way.”

“Unearthly Harvest” stars Ryan Reuter and Niko Webster as a young couple attempting to foil the plans of an evil professor (Steve May) trying to gain control of a mysterious amulet owned by a pair of sisters living in a haunted mansion.

Swanson combined classic horror makeup and effects and live snakes with CGI provided by British animator John Cleig, including a fireball and a shattering picture window. He shot the 16mm film himself and edited with Joe Rabig.

He has warily begun fielding distribution offers. “I’m not going to take the first offer I see, I don’t want it to end up on the shelf,” he insisted.

Unless he sells the film before then, Swanson will release the “Unearthly Harvest” DVD April 22 through his web site The site already offers several of his previous titles: “Amish America,” “Amish Buggies Across America,” and “Amish Quilts Across America,” which he is marketing to tourist centers, schools and libraries; and his biblical prophecy video “Signs of Our Times.”

Swanson is seeking a bigger budget for his next planned feature, based on a historic mine disaster in Cherry, Illinois, near Princeton. “A hundred and seventy-five people lost their lives and they closed the mine. But some people wouldn’t take no for an answer, and a couple weeks later they went back down in the mine and rescued a dozen survivors. Somebody’s got to tell this story before all the people who know anything about it are gone,” he said.

“Unearthly Harvest” screens Feb. 26 at the Brew & View in Rock Island.

Swanson’s J.E.S. Films is at 706 N. Euclid, Princeton, IL; call 815/872-0024. ? by Ed M. Koziarski,