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Exclusive Interview: Director Sonny Mallhi on “HURT,” the nature of horror and the new cut

Wednesday, December 8, 2021 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

The version of HURT releasing this Friday, December 10 to select theaters and VOD/digital platforms is slightly altered from its originally screened form. The cut that premiered at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival in 2018 (which we rave about here) has undergone some fine-tuning since by director Sonny Mallhi, who discusses the entire process of HURT in this RUE MORGUE chat.

Mallhi, a producer and executive producer on numerous genre films, including Bryan Bertino’s THE STRANGERS, THE MONSTER and THE DARK AND THE WICKED, made his directorial debut on the 2015 supernatural chiller ANGUISH. HURT, which he scripted with Solomon Gray, eschews the occult to focus on a group of friends, including Rose (Emily van Raay) and her boyfriend Tommy (Andrew Creer), who attend a Halloween haunted hayride attraction and then encounter true evil. Tommy, a soldier recently returned from the battlefield, has been wrestling with PTSD…but is he the twisted villain terrorizing the other characters? That question is just part of HURT’s intriguing and ultimately terrifying examination of the relationship between violent entertainment and real-life horrors. Originally acquired and slated for release by Blumhouse, HURT is now coming out from Gravitas Ventures–a welcome release for a genuinely scary movie that has spent too much time in the dark.

HURT has very unusual rhythms for a horror film; part of it almost plays more like an indie drama…

Don’t tell people it’s a drama [laughs]!

Can you talk about your approach to the storytelling?

Well, horror is a really interesting genre, right? A good horror movie is a drama as well. I think everyone who makes horror films is trying to find that balance: How do we tell a real story about real characters? The formula, I’ve found, is that I just want to get to know these people before the bad things happen. You care more, and then it hurts more. If you have a slasher movie, and you don’t care about the people who are dying, you’re just watching them die. The balance is, how do you not bore people [laughs]? It’s tricky and without giving too much away, there are some twists and interesting structural things going on in HURT. I’m very curious to see how people react to them.

One of my favorite twists is in the first third, and is tied to HURT’s overall theme regarding horrific and violent entertainment, how we consume it and how it relates to our real lives.

There are a few different storylines; in a weird way, it’s like an ensemble. There’s the main story of Rose and Tommy, and then there’s a group of individuals enjoying a haunted hayride. One of the producers is a woman who actually owns a hayride like that in LA, and that’s where the idea came from. A lot of what’s in the movie comes from when I went on that ride, and I was watching a bunch of people having a good time watching someone get hanged. It was like, this is weird! But the movie is not trying to say it’s a good or bad thing to be into horror. It’s almost a case study of human nature, you know? A lot of our entertainment involves watching people suffer, and I think that’s just who we are. It’s like, when we watch the news, we’re more interested in the serial killer instead of the victim. I find that interesting, and the movie lays it out there: Now your life is turning into a real-life horror film, and what is that like? It’s not fun.

The horror becomes pretty extreme in the final act; how did you decide how far you should go with it?

Does it get extreme? I can’t tell. There are some people who I’ve asked, “Is it dark? Is it dark?” and they were like, “Yeah, it’s really dark!” And I said, “OK, good, that’s what I was going for.” My co-writer is really into that stuff, but I’m personally not so much, and it was interesting to deal with, because there’s a point to it here. I wanted real life; we’re still watching a movie, obviously, but I wanted to evoke the feeling that in real life, it’s not fun watching this stuff. It’s like, there’s fake barbed wire and there’s real barbed wire, you know?

Your lead actress was a model who had never acted before…

Emily van Raay–and one of her middle names is actually Rose! I almost wanted to make HURT like a student film. I thought, let’s just do it like they did in the old days. Let’s just go make a cool little movie with friends, with nobody to tell us what do. We shot it in Ottawa; I’d made a couple of movies there, and I called everybody up and they were crazy enough to say, sure! Part of it was, I wanted actors who had never been in anything, or maybe a few things–just unknowns. We saw lots of audition tapes, and Emily’s was really, really good, and I looked at her résumé and there was nothing there. So I looked her up, and she’s a model? But she was awesome, and we talked and talked, and she didn’t even say yes to the movie at first. She had never done one, and she was like, “Let’s talk about it,” and she was so smart. Then there was one day when she said, “I can do this,” and I was like, “I thought you were doing it anyway!” But you saw it click in her mind: “I got this, I can make this work.”

The whole cast was great. Andrew Creer did a lot of research into PTSD. We didn’t want to make that over-the-top; we almost wanted to make it a visual experience. You learn that he’s been in the Army, and he’s coming home, and he’s being quiet, and I think that’s how it is in reality; it’s not people just going nuts. We’re playing a little off of people’s expectations of PTSD. It’s a balance of, he’s not a bad guy, but he’s got problems.

Regarding the girl who gets tied up with the barbed wire, how was that day? How did the actress get through it?

She was a trouper. We were in this barn, and there were these two pillars, and I was talking with our makeup artist, Tara Brawley, telling her, “All right, she should be tied up around this thing. I’ve got to go do something; you guys just tie her up, however you think is weird.” I came back, and I was like, “Oh my God! [Laughs] What did you do to her?” That poor actress, she was tied up for a while, covered with blood, losing feeling, and it was a pretty miserable experience for her. I told her later, “That’s acting; it’s not that glamorous!” Tara did all the makeup and special effects, and she was awesome. I mean, the crew was 10 people; when I say we made it like a student film, we made it like a student film–intentionally, even in the way we shot it. But it’s a student film that’s shot in anamorphic.

And Jorel O’Dell’s cinematography is beautiful.

Basically, we had people saying, “We can get you these lights,” and I said, “Just give us one light and we’ll figure it out.” That’s how we wanted to make the movie–to go under the radar. I didn’t want there to be any expectations. I’d never really had that experience. It’s like, you take the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: Here’s something a little different, it’s perfectly imperfect, and if there are mistakes, that’s all right. A lot of times, when people say something’s under the radar, it’s made for, like, $2 million. And this was genuinely a case of, let’s make it like they used to make ’em.

So I assume you used an actual hayride, rather than staging your own?

Those hayrides were all in Ottawa; they were just there. There were a couple of different ones, and they were both fantastic. We were just like, “Hey, can you put on Halloween in August, and have people come,” and they were like, “Sure, what do you need?”

Another moment that struck me is when Rose is screaming from the barn, and in the near distance we see people driving by, ignoring her.

I love that! We were in that barn, and I saw those cars going by outside, and it was like, we’re making a movie, and they have no idea we’re making a movie, and if you think about it, we’re doing bad things to people, and none of those drivers know. They’re driving down the highway and have no idea if we’re actually murdering somebody, or someone’s getting murdered. And there’s something about the idea of horrible things happening on the other side of the woods, just a little bit away from the highway, you know? I’ve driven through America, and you just think, what’s going on in that house over there? And in that scene in HURT, the cars are so close, but it’s going to be hard for anyone to help while she’s screaming for her life. That wasn’t in the script; we were just standing there like, she’s screaming and those people have no idea what’s going on, and no one’s stopping. This is crazy!

What can you tell us about the new edit?

I realized that I had created a few distractions in the story that were taking away from the movie’s thesis, so I ironed those creases out. I also continued to work on the sound design and score, which we all know are vital for a horror film. One of the composers, Tom Schraeder, is the same one who did THE DARK AND THE WICKED. HURT was actually made before that, and we came back and revisited this one. 

Also, after taking some time away, you always see things a little differently. So this extended journey in getting the movie out there afforded me the opportunity to take a fresh look at a few things. The vibe of the movie is the same; I just hope I found a slightly improved way of conveying it.

What happened regarding Blumhouse’s involvement?

With Blumhouse, it was an amicable parting of the ways, and I hope to work with them again. They are a huge company now–a massive company. HURT, I hope, is a cool little indie horror flick, and the current release feels like the best way to present it.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.