Stop off for a pizza in Poteau, and you just might be cheerfully served by the recent victim of a homicidal maniac. As you drive through town, the policeman you pass may have helped stave off a recent invasion of flesh-eating zombies. And, if you spend any time in the city at all, don’t be too surprised to see scenes of monsters and mayhem played out on the streets.
Rather improbably, Poteau has become the scary-movie capital of Oklahoma.
To know why this southeastern city of some 9,000 souls has become a hotbed of horror, all you need to do is attend the annual Cinemortis film festival, held each year around Halloween. Designed to showcase the movies made by instructor Marcus Blair’s filmmaking classes, the eight-year-old event is free and open to the public. Audience members don’t only get to watch several homegrown horror pictures; they also choose the winning entry by secret ballot. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my filmmaker son Jonathan and I have been guests at Cinemortis several times, greatly enjoying it each time.)
Why is horror, in some form or another, always the topic? You can lay that at the feet of Blair, who grew up in nearby Heavener and got his associate degree at Carl Albert State College. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas and is currently finishing up his master’s thesis – a documentary on railroad-train graffiti – for the San Francisco-based Academy of Art University’s film program. As Blair remembers things, it was his dad’s VHS Camcorder and some woods behind his house in Heavener that really got the whole thing started.
“We made a sequel to Predator that is the lowest-rent, sorriest thing you ever saw in your life,” he laughs. “But we had so much fun doing it.”
Several years later, he was still interested enough in the moviemaking process to enroll in some college film classes. “That’s when I realized, ‘Man, this could be more than a hobby. There’s an art form to be considered here,’” he recalls. “There were so many things within it that not only satisfied me on a personal level, but could also be of benefit to students. So I got involved in a master’s degree program in film, and that’s basically put all of the correct knowledge with the eighth-grader’s know how.
“I’ve always considered myself a person who toes the line between the theoretical and the practical,” he adds. “I want to know about movies. I want to be able to talk about movies. But I want to be able to make them, too.”
Although he’s certainly an aficionado of horror, that’s not the only reason his filmmaking students work in that genre. College-age audiences are one of the targeted demographics for scary movies, and, Blair says, that group loves to make them, too.
“People see the enthusiasm that the students have,” he explains. “It’s so rare to see enthusiastic students who love their subject and relish going to class and who stay and work on their assignments all night. I think it’s all about the student interest, the student involvement. What they do is all theirs, and that’s what brings me joy, seeing them go out and do it. When they win (at Cinemortis), a lot of times, they’ll have genuine tears. You’d think they’d won an Academy Award.
“Another reason we do horror,” he continues, “is that it’s a very forgiving genre. Nobody expects the acting in a horror movie to be Oscar quality. But they expect really cool effects, which we can do very easily. We can’t hire professional actors to do some kind of drama, but we can make a knife go through a head. And that’s enough. That’s enough of a film education for our students that they can say, ‘Wow, the editing, the sound design, everything that went into this – it really does look like someone was hit with a weed eater.’” He laughs again. “It’s been inspiring.”
Because of the limited amount of filmmaking equipment owned by the school, Blair’s filmmaking classes have a maximum enrollment of 15. That number allows him to put together three student “mini-film crews” and send them out to do their short horror movies. The students have to pull together the casts themselves, which is why so many Poteau residents have voluntarily spent time getting stabbed, shot, strangled, chewed on, clawed up, or even weed-eater-attacked.
“People who don’t fully know what goes into the making of a movie come out and get involved and quickly realize we’re doing this very seriously,” Blair notes. “It isn’t kids playing with Dad’s video camera. We’re calling `action,’ we’re calling ‘cut,’ we’re making sure everything is lit properly. It ends up being a pretty big commitment. When you get some girl who wants to be in the movie, she doesn’t realize she’s going to be working on it every night for two weeks. And when she does the part, it makes the community understand the filmmaking process so much more.”
That community understanding is important, too – even to those residents who may not be in on things.
“We’ve always been very conscientious about alerting people to what we’re doing, because we realize that in this day and age, people are very alarmed by anything that seems to be strange,” Blair says. “A lot of times, when we’re doing something public, we call the Poteau police department and the campus police and at least inform them: ‘Hey, there are about to be 40 zombies bleeding and stumbling around the college, and we’re going to be shooting them with assault rifles – but don’t panic!’”
He laughs. “We always think that way. I tell the class, ‘Don’t be running down the street with a knife sticking out of your head and get 911 called on you.’
“The cool thing is that over the years the Poteau police and the campus police have been in a lot of our movies, along with their cars and stuff,” he adds. “So they pull double duty. While they’re there making sure no one’s alarmed or freaking out, they’re also acting.”
This year’s Cinemortis crowd will probably include a law-enforcement officer or two, in addition to the filmmakers and their friends and relatives. “But then, we have a pretty big contingent of people from the community who come out just for the enjoyment,” says Blair. “A lot of times, those people end up being actors for us later on. The more they hang around, the more the students say, ‘Hey, you’re interested in horror films. Want to die in one?’
“So the audience grows as the fun grows. As the films and the plots get bigger and more and more people are pulled in, they come to see themselves and bring 15 of their friends. It’s kind of amazing to see how it’s grown.”
As in past years, the 2012 version of Cinemortis will be shown in the auditorium on the Carl Albert State College campus. The date is Tuesday, Oct. 30, the day before Halloween. Each year’s festival has a theme; this time around, it’s phobias.
“Each movie will encapsulate some kind of horrible primal fear,” explains Blair. “There could easily be a film about being scared of heights, or being buried alive, being afraid of snakes, or spiders, or clowns. People have all these deep-seated fears, and we want to bring those out and just scare the heck out of people. That’s what we want to do.”