If you can terrify a film crew with a performance, chances are you will terrify an audience as well.
Actress Marina Stephenson Kerr remembers twice unnerving the behind-the-scenes folks while shooting scenes in Winnipeg.
"There are still crews that tell me that my deaths were some of their scariest moments on a set," says Stephenson Kerr, 59.
Stephenson Kerr is one of several local actors who are "killing it" on local production sets where blood, horror and chilling deaths are key to a film’s success. In other words, they’ve become, the queens of screams.
For Stephenson Kerr, the projects in question were the 2018 Bella Thorne movie I Still See You and a climactic moment from the fourth season of Channel Zero: The Dream Door.
In the post-apocalyptic ghost story I Still See You, "Dermot Mulroney drowned me twice. Because we wanted to film it two different ways," Stephenson Kerr recalls.
In the first try, Mulroney simply plunged the actress into the bathtub on her back, but director Scott Speer was dissatisfied.
"The director said, ‘Do you know what I really wanted to do?’"
Answering that question took Stephenson Kerr and Mulroney to the Manitoba Production Centre soundstage late one chilly night.
"They had a beautiful old tub and a great big scaffolding and they had cut the bottom out of the tub and put a Plexiglas window (in it) and put the camera right up against it," she recalls. " And then Dermot came up from behind me — you can see him just grab and shove my face down against that Plexiglas window and I screamed under the water.
"Some of the crew said that was the scariest thing they’d ever seen," she says, "…until Channel Zero, season 4."
In the role of a police detective, Stephenson Kerr is in a car when she is attacked by a malevolent giant figure.
"He was a seven-foot-tall actor they got from Toronto," she says. "He comes walking up over the trunk of the car, breaks the windshield and cuts into my forearm with a chainsaw."
Another problem. The chainsaw, equipped with a plastic cover over the chain, wasn’t bursting the blood bags on her arm, so the stunt co-ordinator asked her how she felt about them taking the cover off the saw.
He explained that Stephenson Kerr’s forearm would be covered with a stainless steel plate under her costume. "So I said, ‘Yeah, OK let’s do it.’ We were shooting on Churchill Drive and we were losing sunlight."
The first assistant director told her that if there were problems, he would yell "Cut."
"So we do this in one take. He breaks through the windshield, he holds the chainsaw at the cuff of my arm, and I screamed and I screamed. I screamed so much that they thought that I was actually being injured, and he was screaming ‘Cut,’ and I couldn’t hear him, so I just kept going.
"Apparently you could hear it all over the neighbourhood. (It ended up) looking really fantastic," she says. "It’s just terrifying. There’s blood just spraying everywhere.
"I’ve died so many wonderful deaths."
It was partly on the strength of her work in Channel Zero that Stephenson Kerr was cast in Seance, a film shot here in November and December of 2019, because the film’s director, Simon Barrett, is friends with Evan (E.L.) Katz, who directed that final season of the SyFy series.
It also didn’t hurt that the city has lots of acting talent with experience in the fine art of terror. Indeed, Seance was notable for the way it cast lots of local actors in significant roles alongside more established out-of-towners such as Suki Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Madisen Beaty (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood).
The film, which was recently released on VOD and digital platforms, is just the latest example of movies in the horror genre that shoot in Manitoba, which include four seasons of the SyFy series Channel Zero, and feature films such as Hunter Hunter, Tales from the Hood 3, Fractured and the reboot of The Grudge, not to mention the upcoming MGM-produced thriller Dark Harvest.
Meet some of the film’s local actresses who have dipped their toes in the genre (note: contains spoilers about the plot of Seance).
Marina Stephenson Kerr
Seance role: Mrs. Landry, headmistress of the exclusive girls school Edelvine Academy
Past horror experience: Population 436, Maneater, I Still See You, Cult of Chucky, Fractured, The Grudge, two seasons of Channel Zero.
For two decades, Stephenson Kerr has been working on the stage (starring in The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble at Prairie Theatre Exchange in 2016, for example) and in the film industry.
She has done her share of dramas and comedies, but she seems to have found a niche in horror, earning the admiration of directors such as Don Mancini, who directed her in the horror franchise Cult of Chucky. Part of her appeal for filmmakers may be that she appreciates the genre.
"My daughter Kitty is an absolute horror aficionado, so we will sit down and watch new movies together," she says. "I remember being a new mom and one of the first things I did when I got two hours to just be by myself was to go see The Blair Witch Project (1999)."
That enthusiasm is directed to her work in the genre.
"I like the psychological stuff and I like playing those sort of ambiguous characters, like this headmistress," she says. "Is she involved? Is she innocent? I like making sure that nobody quite knows what’s going on. I love all that.
"There’s a beautiful fine line where you know what you’re playing is constantly life-or-death and you’ve got to be giving this feeling of the highest stakes, and yet you’ve got to be completely subtle and even naturalistic," she says.
"Since I started with Channel Zero, it made me realize that if this is how I’m going to wind up my career, I could not be happier. It allows you to explore such wild dramatics, histrionics, while being extremely small and controlled. It allows me to be physical — I love the work."
Seance role: Yvonne, a mean girl at Edelvine Academy
Past horror experience: Tales from the Hood 3, The Grudge, Fractured, Channel Zero
Sy is another performer who works frequently on stage and in film in Winnipeg. And while she has done her share of horror movies, she’s not what you would call a fan.
"I fit into the category of people who are terrified to watch horror films," she says. "I don’t do good with blood, sharp objects and thoughts of getting killed in the shower."
However, it does help to have acted in many horror movies. "Films are slightly less horrific knowing about some of the magic that happens behind it," she says.
In Seance, Sy’s character meets her untimely demise during a dance rehearsal; she had to put trust in first-time feature director Simon Barrett to handle it well.
"Simon was incredibly specific and very well humoured — my kind of visionary," she says. "As an actor, I trusted him entirely to know he wouldn’t move on unless he got exactly what he wanted and needed out of each scene."
For her death scene, Sy got advice from co-star Madisen Beaty, who’s done her fair share. Her recommendation was to have comfortable clothing on hand for when the shoot was over.
"She said, ‘Death scenes are a lot of tiring work. You will be exhausted after and, trust me, it will be nice to slip into comfy clothes when you’re done — but it will be a lot of fun.’
"And she was right about it all," Sy says, adding she was happy Barrett took her on board for his directorial debut.
"I think he killed it. No pun intended."
Seance role: Rosalind, another Edelvine mean girl, but one with a conscience
Past horror experience: Tales from the Hood 3
Djouliet Amara was born in Russia but has lived in Winnipeg most of her life.
"My family immigrated to Winnipeg when I was about three years old. We came to Winnipeg as refugees," she says in a phone interview from Vancouver, where she has started work on a TV series. "My dad is from Sierra Leone, West Africa, so we got refugee status in Winnipeg."
Amara was pursuing a professional dance career, studying in New York City after she turned 18, only to pivot into film, where she got a boost playing four different roles in the Winnipeg-lensed 2020 horror portmanteau Tales from the Hood 3.
That experience prepared her for Seance, in which her character, Rosalind, is more multifaceted than the usual mean girl.
"Simon told me when I was preparing for the character that Rosalind really doesn’t want to be there," she says. "She’s just with those girls because she has one more year of school and she doesn’t know who else to hang out with. She was like a kind of quiet, stewing lesbian."
Amara also had to trust her director, especially since she participates in what is typically an exploitative staple in the horror genre: death in the shower.
"It was easy-peasy," she says. "It was really interesting going into it because they prepared me for modesty, so they were like, ‘If you want to wear a shirt or a bra or a bandeau, you can.’
"I was like: no, I want it to look good and real," she says. "I’m pretty comfortable with my body. I just did bare-minimum modesty stuff. I covered up a little bit on the bottom and then on the top, I was wearing pasties.
"But they closed the set for me and they had a heating tent for me. That was really nice and lovely. It was mostly just women there who are taking care of me. I felt really really comfortable."
Heading into the shoot that morning, Amara says she got a "really sweet" note from the set’s truck costumer Joanne Rodriguez, saying "Oh, it’s a wonderful day to die."
"I was like: Isn’t it though?"
Seance role: Kerrie, a young woman with a secret whose suspicious "suicide" kicks off the film’s spooky action
Past horror experience: Channel Zero
Horror films aside, Best is having a moment just now from a couple of minutes of screentime she had in the recently released Bob Odenkirk action movie Nobody. Her credit is "Woman on bus" but she got maximum visibility from the scene in which she bears horrified witness to Odenkirk laying a beatdown on the drunk Russian gangsters who have invaded a city transit vehicle. (It’s in the Nobody trailer; coincidentally, Seance’s truck costumer Rodriguez plays the bus driver.)
She’s been seen. The film has grossed nearly US$50 million during a pandemic, no small achievement.
"It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done," Best says of the scene, which was filmed over a couple of nights.
"It was all night shoot. We shot from about 10 o’clock at night until about four or five in the morning because they had to close the street downtown."
The performance is a little gem of wordless acting, as Best quietly panics as the rowdy thugs invade the bus. "It was really fun," she says. "I like more reactive acting because you just take everything and in and you’re kind of absorbed into it."
Likewise, Seance required Best to do a lot with a little screentime; she had about five or six days on set with a few days of rehearsal.
Best says Barrett took care to make her comfortable by welcoming her with a phone call. "He called each of us after we’ve been cast. I’ve never had a director call me before just to say welcome to the film and talk a little bit about the characters. He was really great."
Less comfortable was the death scene in which she lies, a pool of blood around her head, after falling from a window.
"I think we did that at around one o’clock in the morning and it was very cold, and the blood underneath my head was very cold, but it was great. It was interesting just lying there and staring," she says.
Best is currently at work as the second lead in a Lifetime movie shooting in town.
"But I think Seance is the first film where I was really a part of the cast," she says.
As for the genre, Best says she didn’t even watch horror films until about two years ago.
"I don’t know if that has something to do with the fact that that was when I was started acting," she says. "Now I see on set that it’s all fake. I just find it really fun."
Seance role: Lenora, an especially snobby student at Edelvine
Horror experience: Fatal Friend Request, Hunter Hunter and the upcoming Orphan: First Kill
While Winnipeg actress Jade Michael has enjoyed a blend of roles in her career, including Hallmark-style romances such as Follow Me to Daisy Hills, she established a horror groove working on Hunter Hunter, followed by Seance and then the studio prequel Orphan: First Kill in succession.
"I was very much in the zone and I was very thankful that I was, because when I met with Simon, I was able to take direction super well," she says. "My nerves were not as high as they would normally be when you take a little bit of time off and then you jump into something."
The role of Lenora is, she acknowledges, "entitled and bitchy and she wants things done her way.
"It’s interesting for me because that’s not who I am as a person but it is more fun to dive into characters that are not like yourself," she says. "It’s a little bit therapeutic in a way. She’s a bit mean but she enjoys it. She enjoys that part of yourself."
Like Best, Michael has learned to appreciate the horror genre just in the past two years, especially in terms of filming them.
"I never realized how much fun it would be to have the fake blood and all the little things that go into filming the scenes," she says. "As someone who is scared of horror movies, it’s interesting to see the behind-the-scenes and see how they do it. It kind of makes me less scared, in a way."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.