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Horror movie draws from fears of Nightmare on Elm Street to build thrilling story

MFA student Raquel Hagman worked as a cinematographer on MFA student Justin Garza’s short film, “My Nightmare.” She said she utilized a number of different techniques, ranging from a tripod to handheld camera movements, in order to reveal the main character’s varying emotional states. The film was shot throughout West Hollywood and UCLA, with the team traveling from a house in Hollywood Hills to an office building on Rodeo Drive. (Naveed Pour/Daily Bruin)

By Allyson Weissman

Feb. 24, 2020 10:08 p.m.

A chance encounter with Freddy Krueger inspired Justin Garza’s student short film.

While at a bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the graduate student ran into Robert Englund, the actor who played Freddy Krueger in the 1984 “A Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise. Garza said he was starstruck by Englund’s presence the source of many nightmares and he thought others in the bar had the same reaction.

When it came time to develop his story, Garza decided to explore his imaginings that came from his meeting with Englund. The film “My Nightmare” was shot over the weekend between locations in West Hollywood and UCLA. The film follows a lonely troubled man, Wes, who is tormented by a famous horror character in his dreams and believes he must kill the actor to end his torture. Although the synopsis of the film may fit into the horror genre, Garza said he considers his film more of a psychological thriller.

“I actually don’t like horror movies – and I don’t want to make horror movies because they try to get you hiding in the back of your seat – but I want people leaning forward on the edge of their seat, wondering what happens next and walking away from the movie challenged in their thoughts,” Garza said.

[Related: It’s creepy and it’s kooky, but the story of ‘The Addams Family’ has lived on]

Because Garza’s inspiration stemmed from his encounter with Englund, Garza almost cast Englund to play himself in the film, but was unable to becuase of scheduling conflicts. Instead, Garza cast an actor with similar features to Englund and alluded to the celebrity by naming the character Robert Engle. Because Krueger will not be making an appearance, Garza is creating his own horror character named Cane through the work of makeup artists and costume designers.
Graduate student Justin Garza’s film, “My Nightmare,” which was inspired by the 1984 horror film “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” follows Wes, who cannot escape his nightmares of a famous horror character, ultimately deciding to kill the actor who portrays him. (Naveed Pour/Daily Bruin)

In order to effectively depict his story, Garza filmed at multiple locations. Utilizing his connections, Garza chose a house in Hollywood Hills to transform into a psychology office, while an actual office building at the end of Rodeo Drive was designed into the art museum where Wes and Engle will meet.

However, location does not solely affect what audiences view on their screens as cinematography techniques help characterize the film’s tone. Graduate student Raquel Hagman, who worked as a cinematographer on the film, said using a tripod during the therapy session and handheld camera movements in the art museum scenes have resulted in differing effects that show Wes’ emotional state.

“When it comes to being on a tripod, it is very stable and grounded, but when it is being handheld, it’s kind of unexpected,” Hagman said. “There’s just more energy for it and we want to present that visually. The audience will see that and feel that, but they won’t realize it because (the camera is) handheld.”

Along with camera movements, Garza said acting plays a large role in showcasing Wes’ mental state. Garza said he was immediately drawn to the way Ben Alencar, who portrays Wes, was able to showcase simplistic horror through the emotion in his eyes.

Alencar said he was able to fit Garza’s vision for Wes by delving into his own experiences with horror movies. Between tapping into his childhood fear of horror films and Garza’s guidance, Alencar said he was finally able to place himself into Wes’ mind.

“I first approached the character as more sinister, loud and gruesome with a darker tonality in my voice,” Alencar said. “But (Garza) told me that this is a moment that is really intimate, so instead of getting louder, go quieter.”

[Related: Documentary brings in new narratives to spotlight black horror’s rich history]

Alencar’s soft style of acting isn’t the only element contributing to the quiet horror atmosphere. Garza said the script and production design also illustrate the horror inherent to nothingness, and audiences will see this through the bright lighting juxtaposed with Wes’ constant torment. But while Garza said he believes he and his team have been able to characterize the scariness of nothingness, the true test will come from the audience’s response when he showcases his film in spring quarter.

“I want people walking away entertained,” Garza said. “In this day and age where our attention spans are so short, I want the audience to feel that was worth their time.”

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Allyson Weissman
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