Tuesday, 27 April 2021

"Horsehair" [Duncan Nicoll, 1998]

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

In 1999, it was hard not to be excited by the oncoming arrival of instant, Indie classic, The Blair Witch Project; least of all given its groundbreaking marketing campaign. As a production, it was daring, it was creative, and it was bloody scary. For those reasons and more, it has long-remained a firm favourite of mine.

Ironically, I didn't get the chance to see the film in cinemas. Nevertheless, I was determined to finally check it out on VHS as soon as it landed at the now long-lost 321 Video rental store, up the road.

When I slotted the fresh cassette into my trusty old Sanyo VHR-779E VCR [still-going, btw], I was very surprised to find an entirely-unrelated short film preceding the main feature, itself. Directed by Duncan Nicoll, Horsehair tells the story of a young man literally consumed by his slovenly ways. Unsettled by its creepy take on modern-day life, it is a film that has never left me; ably doing to comfy armchairs what Jaws so effortlessly did for the beach.

Recently, I reached-out to Duncan to learn more about how the film came to be made, and also accompany rental copies of the first, unforgettable instalment of the Blair Witch legend...

 

Hi Duncan - so, your history as a filmmaker; how and why did you get into the world of film?

I’ve always loved watching films. Formative experiences would be sitting at my dad’s feet aged about five watching the original King Kong on TV. Later, seeing the BBC2 Saturday night Horror double bills, then the illicit thrill of video nasties during the home video boom of the early eighties. I grew up in Broughty Ferry - which is near Dundee - and at that time, any prospect of getting in to filmmaking seemed pretty much impossible.

None of my friends or family had any Super8 kit, and affordable home video was still a while away, so, inspired by Fangoria magazine, I started to do Horror make-ups on friends and photographed them; werewolves and zombies, that kind of thing. After leaving school, I did a year at college where a lecturer encouraged me to look up Creative Review and send photos of stuff I’d done to potential employers. That led to me getting work in an SFX and model-making company in London, which was a great experience, but only lasted about a year. A while after that I returned to Dundee to do a degree in Sculpture, then moved to Edinburgh after graduating.

In the ‘90s, in Edinburgh there were several places that ran short courses covering various aspects of filmmaking for very little cost, so over a couple of years, while doing bar work and that sort-of-thing, I did courses in screenwriting, video production, editing and animation, as well as helping out on various short films. After doing a couple of group projects at Edinburgh Film Workshop, I applied to a scheme called First Reels for funding to make, Block - a 16mm stop motion animation - which was made for the princely sum of £1000. Block had a few decent festival screenings, won a prize at Bradford Animation Festival and got sold to a Dutch TV channel, but by then I was totally skint and went back into full-time bar work while trying to develop my next project.

How did Horsehair come about, conceptually?

The idea just sprang into my mind one evening when I was cooking in the kitchen. I imagined accidentally cutting a finger when slicing carrots and all this hair spilling out - it never made the final script, but was the first seed of the idea - I have a doodle of it in a sketchbook somewhere. There had been an old horsehair-stuffed chair in a London flat I lived in, which had worn-out patches in it, so that was probably an influence too. 

The drudgery of life on the dole or working dead-end jobs, watching shit TV in the daytime and a lack of direction in life generally led to the idea of a couch potato paying the ultimate price for his laziness.

How long was the film in production, from script to release?

Horsehair was originally written (in pen, on paper!) as part of a screenwriting workshop in 1995. I met producer, Joe White a couple of years later while I was working on another animated short, and told him the story. He liked it, so we did a re-write and applied to Scottish Screen’s Prime Cuts funding scheme in late 1997. I think we were shortlisted in early ’98, then did a bit more development on the script and were one of five films chosen to go into production. We shot in May ’98 in Edinburgh on a set we built in an old church building called, The Palladium which was used as a festival venue, and out on location. The film premiered at Edinburgh International Film Festival, that August. 

Were there any inspirations for the piece? Would you describe yourself as a Horror fan? What did you hope the reaction to the film would be? 

I’ve always liked Horror films, and though it’s more of a black comedy, there is definitely a big Horror influence to Horsehair. I like that interjection of the surreal into normality, also I guess there’s that ironic morality tale aspect to it which you get in quite a lot of short Horror stories. I can’t think of specific inspirations, but I always liked lo-fi practical effects in films like, The Evil Dead, so was keen to get some of that into the climactic scene, and the Spanish short, ‘La Cabina’ (The Telephone Box) was a massive influence in storytelling terms, it totally blew me away when I saw it in the middle of a BBC2 Horror double-bill, aged about 12. It was probably the first thing I saw with such a downbeat ending, where the protagonist is damned to his fate.

As with any short, you hope the audience will engage with it, and we got a pretty good response whenever it played. I think people like that kind of joke style structure of set-up, delivery and punchline in a short film. Even if it’s quite dark, there is humour in it, and it has a definite beginning, middle, and end. 

Regarding the release of Horsehair, how did it come to feature on rental copies of The Blair Witch Project, and what did you think of its inclusion on the tape?

Horsehair had quite a good festival run following the Edinburgh premiere, one of the biggest festivals we got into was London, and it was spotted there by (I think) a PR company that were doing a campaign to help launch BT’s new talent website ‘Getoutthere.com’. They were looking for a short film for the launch, we were one of several shortlisted and were eventually selected as the winner, which was great exposure for the film. There was a cash prize too, and the subsequent VHS release on BWP was an added bonus.

What did you first think of, The Blair Witch Project?

I liked it a lot. I remember seeing it at the Cameo cinema in Edinburgh around Hallowe’en in 1999 - or it might’ve been at the film festival, a bit earlier that year. I seem to remember the staff had decorated the foyer with stick figures they’d made which was cool - it really helped set up the creepy atmosphere.

I’d seen Cannibal Holocaust on video years before, so there was some precedent with found footage films, but Blair Witch took it to a new level with the then-current video technology combined with the brilliant marketing campaign. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but last time I watched it I think it still stood up well, despite the proliferation of inferior Found Footage films since (though, there have been some good ones, too!)

What was the response to Horsehair, and where did the film lead for yourself, your cast, and crew?

Horsehair had a good festival run with screenings across the world from late ’98, through 1999 and into 2000. As well as winning the getoutthere.com prize, it was also picked up by an international sales agent. To be honest, I’m not sure if that sort of thing still happens, but back then, with The Internet still in its infancy, relatively speaking, we had quite a lot of sales to foreign TV territories, which made us a few quid - enough to buy myself my first computer.

Despite my best efforts, it took a few years to get another project funded and into production - even now, I’ve still never had a budget that size to work with. I worked with some of the crew again a few years later on another short called feetsteps, and several have progressed in the industry and work regularly on feature films. Al Mackenzie went on to do, Monarch of the Glen soon after, and I’ve seen him in various films and TV programmes since.

What are you working on, now?

A few years after Horsehair, I wrote and directed another couple of short films which did okay, but weren’t quite as successful. I had become a father by then, and took a fairly lengthy hiatus from trying to make dramatic films. I worked a lot in the education sector, facilitating animation and video workshops with children and adults of all ages, did a bit of lecturing, then got a job creating video content for a local authority. I continue to work as a freelance filmmaker, and more recently wrote and directed Crowman, a dark, dystopian short which I’m currently developing as a feature project and a micro short, TVOD which was a finalist in Frightfest’s 90-second Horror film challenge a couple of years ago.

Thanks, Duncan — one more question if that’s okay — I’ve heard back from some fans who have ex-rental copies of The Blair Witch Project which don’t feature, Horsehair. I definitely remember it being on my copy, as I didn’t catch it in theatres, so was wondering if you might know why?

I’m afraid I don’t know why some copies have it and some don’t, it could be that it was just on an initial release - maybe another company took over distribution? Having seen Blair Witch at the cinema, I never actually rented it out on VHS for home viewing, but I did eventually pick up a copy from the bargain bin in my local Ritz video on Ferry Road in Edinburgh, so finally got to see the rather cheesy trailer they put on it. 

Though I know of Ghostwatch by reputation, I never actually saw it at the time, so will have to remedy that too! Part of Horsehair's funding award included a broadcast on Scottish Television. Apparently, no-one checked the content, so it was shown on a Saturday afternoon, which led to the complaints being made. I always thought it was kind-of cool to sneak an F-bomb onto daytime TV!

 

 

With huge thanks again to Duncan for his time, words, photos, and for shedding even more light on this wonderful short film, which still packs a wonderful punch today. If you happen to have an ex-rental VHS copy of The Blair Witch Project that includes Horsehair, it would be great if you could please let us know!

Until next time, Ghostwatchers... try not to have sleepless nights.

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