It’s likely that many horror fans have not heard about Sonny Mallhi’s Hurt, but that’s going to change soon. This under-the-radar film from Blumhouse takes a decidedly different approach to your standard Halloween and slasher movie, subverting expectations in a way that will definitely leave audiences talking.
Following the movie’s screening at Fantasia earlier this month in Montreal, I spoke with director and co-writer Sonny Mallhi about coming at this material from an outsider’s perspective, grounding the story and characters in reality, working with Emily Van Raay in her first film, and more:
Many people haven’t had a chance to see Hurt, but I want to tell them a little bit more about you and this movie. This is a film that is really embedded into the Halloween season and I love how you play trick-or-treat with the audience’s expectations. What was your experience with horror movies and Halloween growing up?
Sonny Mallhi: The irony is, I was never a big horror movie fan growing up, mostly because I'm a wimp. I really didn’t enjoy getting scared, but Halloween was always fun. I would dress up for Halloween, but I never watched horror movies until I worked in Hollywood. Now I work at a company and we did a lot of horror movies, and I’ve really learned to appreciate them.
The idea for the movie came from when I visited the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride. One of the owners of it is actually a producer on this. This really came about from an outsider’s perspective. This movie talks about horror entertainment in a lot of forms. A lot of horror involves watching people suffer and there’s something intriguing about that to me.
As I mentioned, I love this trick-or-treat element throughout this movie, where you don't know what to expect. I was so glad that I had a chance to go see this without having seen a trailer, because I had no expectations of where the story was heading.
Sonny Mallhi: I look at the movie as this ensemble. There's a story that we follow mostly, but there are a few different [characters we follow]. Your point is exactly what I was hoping to go for—defying the expectations. Enough things happen, especially early on in the movie, but now you're watching the rest of the movie, and you're just not sure what to expect, and I think that's a fun ride for an audience.
Let's talk about working with some of the cast. This is Emily Van Raay’s first film and she does such an incredible job of keeping her character and performance grounded in reality. And with her being new to the scene, we have no idea what to expect from her character.
Sonny Mallhi: That's part of the fun and that's why we wanted to go with her, especially for that role so, again, you have no expectations. The whole movie we did in a very "student film" kind of way. The production values are pretty high the way we shot it, but the spirit of it was, "Let's just make this under-the-radar film." And that goes with everything, including the actors. We just wanted to find some cool actors that we could hopefully discover. We had a lot of auditions and a lot of reads, especially for Rose's part.
Even just from her read, you could tell there's something special there. We gave her a heads-up of, "This is a pretty intense horror movie. You're going to love it after the fact and the experience is going to be this cathartic experience, but it's going to be tough." And I think she embraced all of it.
This is a movie that deals with PTSD and the real-life horrors that can come with it. I thought it was an important topic to touch upon. When working on this script, was that something that you wanted to bring awareness to? Why did you want it to be a major through line in this movie?
Sonny Mallhi: Me and co-writer [Solomon Gray] were talking about doing a movie where we just really get to know our boogeyman a little bit. When you have a real personal experience, I wanted to be true to their story. There's something about telling this young couple's story, but I also wanted to find a way of realistically getting to know this guy and making him the boogeyman, but someone you still like and understand why he's acting the way he is. Obviously, sometimes people don't want to get to know the killer. It's sometimes scary to not know what's going on. And we play with that a little bit, but I wanted to get to know our killer.
A movie that I love and always reference, and anyone who works with me is annoyed by how many times I reference it, is Deer Hunter. If you look at Deer Hunter as a horror movie, you get to know these people and then they go to war. It hurts and it's so much more intense when you get to know them and see them in Vietnam. Here, I wanted to just do a story where you get to know and like these people and then bad stuff happens.
The PTSD was part of getting to know and care and be interested in these characters. He's gone off and is seeing real people die, and they used to go see horror movies and she's in a different place. It's a way of separating them emotionally.
How did you team up with Blumhouse on this? Was that from the very beginning before filming started? What was that experience like?
Sonny Mallhi: They got involved right before I shot the movie. I kind of snuck away to make this movie completely under the radar. I didn't want to tell anybody about it. I was making something else with Blumhouse and they found out, and I was like, "Here, check out the script," and they loved the script.
It's a very commercial script that [Solomon Gray] and I wrote, and I feel like there are two different versions of this movie that could have been made. A bigger version with bigger name actors and veering in a different way and making it "fun." We wanted to make it in this completely cool, under-the-radar way. And after a little bit of convincing, Blumhouse said, "You know what? That sounds awesome. Let's go. We'll buy it and we'll do it." So they bought it really early on in the process and just embraced how I wanted to make it in this "student film" kind of way. I think they were just as curious as anyone was: "How is this going to turn out?"
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