O unholy night

Sean Nichols Lynch on vampires, festive horror and Red Snow

by Jennie Kermode

Nico Bellamy and Dennice Cisneros in Red Snow
Nico Bellamy and Dennice Cisneros in Red Snow Photo: 26th Ave Films

The story of a would-be vampire fantasy novelist who unexpectedly finds herself playing host to a real vampire, Red Snow is a romcom of sorts with a distinctly higher than usual quotient of blood and gore. It centres on an ebullient performance by Dennice Cisneros, as Olivia, with Nico Bellamy as the undead Luke who arrives in the form of a wounded bat and depends on her for help, yet struggles to see her as more than just food. It was part of the 2021 Frightfest line-up and is now enjoying a December release in the UK and Eire – fitting because it is, amongst other things, a Christmas film. When director Sean Nichols Lynch and I meet up to discuss it, I begin by asking if he’s excited about joining the canon of alternative seasonal fare.

Not the kind of boy to take home to your mother
Not the kind of boy to take home to your mother Photo: 26th Ave Films

“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “I mean, that was part of the inspiration for this as I'm not just a fan of the vampire sub genre. I also love Christmas horror like Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night, you know, or Better Watch Out, recently. I'll revisit those every Christmas.”

There’s a lot of Christmas imagery in there, and in the way it’s shot.

“Gavin V Murray is the cinematographer,” he says quickly, not wanting to take too much of the credit.. “We noticed that the production design of a lot of those films, they really ramp up the Christmas decoration far beyond what a normal person would have in their house, just because it plays so well. The light, the effect of the cheery lighting contrasted with the dark things happening on screen. I'd say stylistically, we looked at some of those things. But it was also a matter of just looking at the space and getting a sense of what would work. Tonally, I think it's hard not to get inspiration from some of those things. Just anything that's brought that dark sensibility to Christmas.”

I mention that when I was a teenager, everybody was excited about Ann Rice, and more recently it has been Stephenie Meyer who has got young writers excited about the vampire subgenre. Did he ever write vampire stories?

“I was definitely interested in vampires from a young age. I didn't really read any Ann Rice until I was in college, I was more interested in Hammer Horror and Bela Lugosi in the Universal films, and then later I would graduate to films like Lost Boys, and I remember seeking out Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Vampire hunting for beginners
Vampire hunting for beginners Photo: 26th Ave Films

"I don't know if I did much writing in the vampire genre but I was always a sucker for that stuff. And, you know, I know that a lot of people were annoyed by Stephenie Meyer's Twilight cycle, but I thought it was kind of cool. You know, vampires are constantly evolving. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but I just liked that vampires were in the zeitgeist in some form again, so I think that when we poke fun at those things in the movie, it's very loving, you know? I definitely am open to all of that.”

Olivia might well find that people poke fun at her – not least her mother, who doesn’t see her career choice as very promising – but Cisneros’ performance makes her a loveable character nonetheless, and Sean clearly feels quite a connection with her.

“As a struggling writer myself, I wouldn't say that Olivia is is like me entirely, but I definitely empathise with her plight. I know if I was in her shoes, my first instinct might be to be scared of the vampire but the second thought, right after, would be ‘Oh, how could this fit into my writing? How can this help me creatively?’ So yes, in casting Denise in that role, I think just brought that to the next level. I really don't think the movie is making fun of her or her ambitions. I thought that that was kind of a key thing tonally, so that it's not mean spirited.”

It's an interesting set-up, I suggest, because she is clearly smitten with her guest from the start but she’s also quite guarded and cautious, so there’s that standoffishness that one sees in classic romcoms. Did Sean always expect the film to develop in that way?

The modern professional vampire hunter
The modern professional vampire hunter Photo: 26th Ave Films

“I definitely thought it would have some romantic comedy traits to it. That was not something I was shy of exploring. And I kind of liked the idea of bringing this other edge to it, that because she knows so much about vampires, she knows how deadly they can be, and that's why she is skittish around him. But like you said, she’s also very, very much infatuated with him. It's kind of a two hander for the most of the runtime. I knew that playing up the the romantic elements and almost having a romcom formula could only make it more interesting and make it more unusual for this kind of story.”

There’s a shifting balance of power between the two which seems like a subversion of the traditional approach in which male vampires easily order other people around.

“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “Denise, and Nico, who played Luke, the vampire, we had a lot of conversations about the shifting power dynamics in the movie and how we can subvert some of those expectations that you're talking about, especially given the fact that he's weakened for much of the film and he's kind of a guest in her house. And of course, he's used to giving the orders but we knew that it would be really satisfying if she just wasn't having any of that and instantly took the power from the beginning. It isn't static through the whole movie, I think that it does shift a little bit back and forth. But yeah, that was that was something we were very conscious of.”

Having a female antagonist, in the form of one of Luke’s former friends, contributes to this altered dynamic.

Getting ready for Christmas dinner?
Getting ready for Christmas dinner? Photo: 26th Ave Films

“I thought a lot about when, inevitably, these other vampires come into the story. How do we differentiate them from Luke? And I think in making the main antagonist, Jackie, a woman, it only makes those power dynamics more interesting – especially when we cast Laura Kennon in that role and started to mould it around her a little bit. That it just it just seemed like, of course this is the way that should go.”

Was he confident that people who bought into the romance would stay with the film through the violence and gore that we see in the latter part?

“I was actually worried about the opposite,” he says. “That people would come to the film expecting a gore fest from the beginning and then be a little put off by the fact that so much of it is a human interest story – ‘human’ in quotes,” he laughs – “and that so much of it is a relationship story, but I I was hoping that they would they would then get invested in that story. And then inevitably, when the blood does flow, it's almost a surprise. It's as if with the shifting of gears you almost forget that you're watching a horror film. That was my idea going in.”

How did he approach the effects side of it?

“Melanie Leandro was our make-up effects artist. She did all the makeup, the hair, the prosthetics, all of the vampire make-up. It was a very small crew on this film. We talked it through a lot because we were on a very tight budget and a tight schedule. And we knew that if we just had a few moments of big gore and put all our eggs in those baskets, those moments would would really sing. Sometimes when films are graphically violent for the whole runtime, there's this kind of numbing effect. For us, it's more like there's these hits of sudden, crazy bloodletting, and they feel so much more visceral because there's only a handful of them throughout.

The other woman
The other woman Photo: 26th Ave Films

“We had a lot of conversations about what that would look like. You know, going very minimal with the vampire effects, just the contact lenses and the teeth and some shading, and then going very big and kind of over the top with the head ripping and the blood spraying. So yeah, it was a fun time. It was very challenging, but it was good.”

There’s some foreshadowing of that as well, with a vampire hunter character we meet at the start.

“Oh yeah. Vernon Wells, his character is very much a Van Helsing type. It was fun to give a little nod to those sorts of things, but also try not to sink too deeply into it, so that it's not just a pastiche.”

I ask about the shoot and how pressured it was, working on a small budget in a short span of time.

“I was under a lot of pressure but, you know, luckily, we shot-listed the entire movie in advance. Because I was editing the film, too, I was able to think ‘These are the pieces I definitely need and, you know, if there's time, it would be great to get these other shots.’ And I knew going in that we would be moving fast. It was also just a matter of the actors rehearsing with each other so that we weren't burning a lot of time in that department. I think that preparation is always key on this sort of thing.

“There were definitely some things that we had to scale back for time. There was one set piece where there was supposed to be a broken down car on the side of the road, and that's how the vampires ambush this particular character. But it would have taken several nights to close down the roads and shoot it that way, so we just kept it in the woods and it ended up being creepy that way. I think that being forced to be creative and roll with the punches sometimes makes these things better. It ended up being more of a classic core scene and less of an action set piece. When you're moving that quickly, you definitely have to adapt.”

Red Snow poster
Red Snow poster

Was he surprised when it got picked up by Frightfest?

“ I only submitted to genre festivals,” he says, “and of course, Frightfest is the top, top tier of genre festivals in the world. I was very pleasantly surprised because you know, submitting your film to Frightfest is sort of like submitting to Sundance or Cannes and so yeah, it was it was very surprising. And they were the first people to reach out. We shot the film before Covid in February of 2020 – I mean, before the lockdown and everything – and then I was in post all through lockdown in the early phase of the pandemic. And so I think what I sent into Frightfest was actually quite rough. And so the fact that they accepted it in that form was also really cool. And of course, once Frightfest accepted it suddenly everyone was like, ‘Oh, we need to play that one too.’ Because, you know, Frightfest isn't just a great venue for all kinds of work from all over the world, they're also trendsetters and tastemakers and so suddenly we were very popular, which I never would have imagined. I imagined that we would play a lot of regional festivals in the US, a lot of genre festivals, but it was it was a very happy surprise when Frightfest picked us up.”

So how does he feel about getting a release in the UK and Ireland?

“It's really exciting,” he beams. “You know, we went on to play Dead Northern in York and we played the IFI Horrorthon in Dublin and along the way I've heard from fans in the UK and fans in Ireland and it's very exciting. You know, as an American filmmaker, you're kind of only thinking about your own backyard. So it's really exciting for audiences overseas, particularly horror fans and lovers of vampire films to be digging it. The fact that it's coming out in time for Christmas so everyone can have their mulled wine and watch Red Snow at home next to the tree, you know, that warms my heart.”

His next film, he says, is likely to be a little darker. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to the festivities and to seeing how Red Snow goes down on DVD, VOD and Digital.

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