Below Zero

By Courtney MacDonald

Just outside the tiny trucker’s town of Edson, Alberta lays an abandoned slaughterhouse. The perfect place, according to director Signe Olynyk, to lock oneself in a freezer as a cure for writer’s block. A little unorthodox, perhaps, but the script she emerged with after some time in her icy self-imposed prison soon became the based-on-reality horror-thriller BELOW ZERO, now scheduled for its world premiere at the 2011 Calgary International Film Festival. The annual succession of independent film screenings, award presentations and gala-type events is in its 12th year. What better way to celebrate than with a bone-chilling saga that takes place in a slaughterhouse?

BELOW ZERO is the story of a screenwriter named Jack the Hack who, in a last-ditch attempt to meet a deadline, locks himself in a slaughterhouse freezer, hoping for creative inspiration. As time passes, however, the dipping temperatures redirect Hack’s fictional tale of gore to the realm of real-life horror.

The grisly quasi-action flick stars Eddie Furlong (“That kid from Terminator 2”), Michael Berryman (of the original 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes), Kristen Booth (of Young People Fucking), and new child actor Sadie Madu, who entered the makeup trailer on her first day as a beautiful young girl and emerged as the creepy little boy named Cole.

When asked if her friends were jealous of her getting a part in a movie, Madu replies, “Not really.” She admits, however, that they didn’t believe her at first. But surely her friends will watch the movie so she can prove them wrong? “Well, since it’s restricted, probably not.” Touche.

Only seven years old at the time of the shoot, the starlet handled the dismembered limbs, minced “human” meat and bloody skeletons all in good stride, but her biggest challenge came near the end of the shoot.

“I remember the one where I cried ’cause I had to do that scene where I . . . what was it called again? Oh yeah, the stabbing one.” In case you’re confused, one scene requires Madu to “stab” Berryman in the stomach and watch his entrails fall to the floor.

Apart from that delightful experience, she called working with the star “fun. We were in the corner on our break and we talked about horses.”

Production designer Michael David Carr also enjoyed working with the horror icon.

“I was actually vibrating when I met him. I had a chainsaw in hand, and I had to put the chainsaw down . . . I was pretty nervous to meet him.” He needn’t have feared. Soon after their meeting, Berryman christened Carr with the nickname “Mustard.”

When asked about his unusual moniker, Carr laughs. Here’s what happened.

“It was ten-thirty at night, all the stores in Edson had closed, we had run out of yellow paint, and we had to have the set [painted] by six a.m. the next day.

“We’d bought all the paint out of Edmonton, and we’d bought all the paint out of Calgary, so I came up with the idea. I was like, ‘Mustard. Mustard will work for yellow, it’s the same color.’ I told the crew, ‘Just go get some giant jars of mustard from some of the restaurants.’

“We tried it, and it worked. So we start painting the walls, mixing it with green paint, and as Berryman came in he was like, ‘Hmm, smells like mustard in here.’”

Needless to say, an on-set nickname was thus born.

As production designer, Carr was in charge of the “look” of the film, from designing and constructing severed feet and hands, to building a seven-foot long pig, to concocting torrents of disturbingly realistic blood. He also had to design a chicken bath for one of the movie’s killing scenes.

“I called up Lilydale [Farms],” Carr says, “And I said, ‘I’m doing a movie on, well, on a chicken bath. Can you guys give me some information [on] it?’ and they said, ‘Well, how about we do one better? Why don’t you just come down to Lilydale and we’ll show you how a chicken bath actually works.’

“So I’m looking at the chicken baths, and they’re like tiny little things with little hooks”– Carr sounds distinctly saddened by seeing the “littleness” of the killing devices in person– “and I asked the guy, ‘Well, do you have anything bigger, like that would actually electrify a person?’

“And I don’t know what happened. I guess his cell phone– I didn’t hear it go off, but he said it went off, and he said [that] was the end of the tour,” Carr laughs.

BELOW ZERO is not just a source of horror for vegans everywhere or eye-candy for the horror buffs. The challenging plot is full of twists, and the ending is nowhere near predictable. As for the screams, blood and chills, however– perhaps both cast and crew spent too much time at the slaughterhouse.

Correction: Signe Olynyk is BELOW ZERO’s writer and producer. Justin Ostensen is the director.

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