Like so many other horror fans, there was an image burned into Carlen May-Mann’s brain that inspired her short, “The Rat,” watching a pair of lovers bursting into a rickety old house with their passion blinding them to any potential danger, but after becoming so commonplace in slasher films and supernatural chillers alike to go unquestioned, May-Mann wondered why she had never seen one of the most obviously terrifying variations on it, having the fear reside not as a function of the location but within the power dynamics of the couple.
“Writing horror, something I love to do is take a classic piece of iconography and make it frightening in a new and surprising way,” May-Mann said recently. “In the haunted house, the source of [the] terror isn’t sounds in the night or shadows across the peeling wallpaper. Instead, the most frightening thing of all is [the woman’s] own boyfriend, and the power he holds over her.”
With “The Rat,” May-Mann hopes to loosen the grip that male filmmakers have had over the horror genre for decades, telling the story of Jim and Renee, a couple in the early stages of their relationship, full of equal parts affection and uncertainty where the foundation can feel as shaky as the house they’re entering into just before hitting up a frat party together. Set on Halloween night in 1984, the project actually grew out of a larger film the writer/director intends to make called “Strawberry Summer,” which will focus years later on Jim and Renee’s child, but rather than wait around for others to take a chance on their vision, May-Mann and her writing and producing partner Beck Kitsis have taken matters into their own hands by creating a short to demonstrate their skill, currently raising funds on Kickstarter before an August 16th deadline. However, instead of approaching the project as some perfunctory proof-of-concept in order to realize their grander goals, May-Mann and Kitsis envision “The Rat” as an opportunity to be even more ambitious by not only showing what the filmmakers would be capable of when working on a bigger canvas, but building a past that reflects how deep their story goes.
“I love these characters [of Jim and Renee] — they’ve been both the most challenging and most rewarding to develop — and I felt that they deserved a story of their own, a story of their youth, a story that evokes the same sort of fear as ‘Strawberry Summer,’ a story that shows the ways that men’s violence against women echoes through decades, through generations, through bloodlines,” says May-Mann.
To bring out the full force of these reverberations, May-Mann and Kitsis have assembled an impressive creative team to breathe life into “The Rat.” After first starting their own creative collaboration as college students at Wesleyan, they’ve recruited fellow alums Chachi Hauser (“Roll Red Roll”) and Albert Tholen to serve as producers and have drawn a wide array of rising talent behind the scenes from costume designer Jenna Weinstein (“Madeline’s Madeline”), “Whose Streets?” editor Christopher McNabb and cinematographer Maria Rusche to bring “The Rat” to fruition. Additionally, the team will be counting on Kate Geller of Chrystie Street Casting, known for making discoveries on such films as “Sollers Point” and “Chained for Life,” to find compelling actors to inhabit the complex roles of Jim and Renee, and for the Brooklyn-based indie pop outfit Told Slant to compose their first film score, after May-Mann had their album “Going By” on repeat during the writing process, noting how “it is so achingly evocative, and conveys a deep, dark longing that’s both painful and beautiful, the sort of emotional rawness that I can only hope to convey in my own work.”
Through making these connections between a diverse array of artists, and the many more she hopes to make in crowdsourcing, May-Mann hopes to elevate perspectives that haven’t been seen on screen before and with “The Rat,” she may be making a horror film, but she hopes to take the fear out of an industry often averse to change and fresh perspectives.
“I believe deeply that audiences are ready to be done with abusers – that it’s time for the marginalized to make the films about abuse, about danger, about fear,” says May-Mann. “Women, queer folks, people of color, people with disabilities — everyone has so much to say. There are so many unheard voices that ring with the authenticity of lived experiences both horrible and beautiful, and for the duration of the history of film, they’ve been shoved aside to make way for the thundering voices of ‘brilliant’ abusive men who feel entitled to speak to the abuse and degradation of those less powerful than them. As I embark on my filmmaking career, I want to do my part, however small, to drown out these voices, and to rebuild the industry from the ground up.”
To watch the filmmakers’ pitch video and back this project, click here.