Even though Martha’s Vineyard is famously the setting for one of the scariest movies of all time, “Jaws,” in general, horror is not the genre that immediately comes to mind when thinking of the Island as a movie locale. However, the makers of a newly released thriller managed to turn the Vineyard into the sufficiently creepy stalking grounds of a rampant, mutant strain of bacteria in the independent horror film “Growth.”
Filmed over the course of four weeks in the fall of 2008, “Growth,” which was released to video and Internet last month, is the seventh feature length effort by the film-making team of Gabriel Cowan and John Suits. The movie, which boasts some fairly sophisticated special effects, established film and TV actors, and exceptional production values, was shot completely on-Island with a budget of a mere $300,000 — a miniscule amount when compared to the price tag on a Hollywood film.
Mr. Cowan wrote, directed, and produced the movie. He notes that he and Mr. Suits, whom he met while both were pursuing masters degrees in filmmaking at California Institute of the Arts, take turns writing and directing their films. This is their second horror movie.
The film is set on Cuttyhunk, where a well-intentioned experiment in evolution acceleration in the 1980s produced some predictably disastrous results (i.e. murderous humans with super powers). Although the bacteria responsible for the disaster was effectively wiped out 20 years ago, it’s apparent at the beginning of the film that a recurrence is imminent, as four young people arrive to clean up the property inherited by one of the women. Things go very badly from there with the bacteria, in the form of some alien slug-like creatures, wreaking havoc once again.
The film, which is not exactly a gore-fest but has some obligatory arm-ripping scenes and such, derives most of its creep factor from [warning: Special effects spoiler] the bacteria-worms slithering beneath their victim’s skin and popping in and out of holes in people’s faces.
The bulk of the movie is set on the grounds of Camp Jabberwocky and in the woods of the north shore. Mr. Cowan, who only conceived the plot and wrote the script after securing the location, notes that he was intrigued with the idea of filming a movie here. His parents inherited his grandparents’s home in Menemsha and he has been visiting the Vineyard since he was a baby. Mr. Cowan’s sister, Mandy Adams-Wolf, and brother-in-law Jonathan Wolf, are involved with Camp Jabberwocky and mentioned it as a possibility for a film compound. The entire cast and crew stayed at the camp during filming, and the camp’s cabins and performance space are the scenes of much of the film’s action.
Other locations include Dutcher’s Dock in Menemsha, the VFW hall, a dock in Harthaven, the East Chop Beach, and the old Oak Bluffs Library building, which was in the process of being converted at the time. Joe Alosso, the facilities manager for both the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Wastewater Plants, was contacted in 2008 by the filmmakers who were looking for a setting to film the laboratory scenes. He not only arranged for filming at his job sites, he ended up becoming the assistant location manager and the movie’s unofficial Vineyard liaison.
He notes that he worked with the filmmakers for two to three months, including a grueling stretch during filming where he was starting his day job around 5 am and then working throughout the night with the film crew. They chose to shoot a lot during at night when the disruption of traffic would be minimal. “Most people didn’t even know that we filmed the movie, which was what we wanted to accomplish,” Mr. Alosso says.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but they were the nicest people I’ve worked with,” Mr. Alosso says about the cast and crew. “I wasn’t sure how approachable they would be, but they were not stuck-up or snobbish at all. They were interested in the Island. It made me realize how normal these actors and actresses are.”
He adds that although their shooting schedule didn’t allow much for enjoying the local nightlife, the actors occasionally went out for drinks or dinner without attracting much attention. A couple of the older members of the cast are recognizable character actors and one of the stars, Brian Krause, was a regular on the TV series “Charmed.”
Mr. Alosso, along with his wife, son, and daughter all participated as extras. A number of other Islanders were recruited as extras, with some landing small speaking roles, although much of the footage featuring locals was cut. (Check out the deleted scenes section of the DVD for some recognizable faces.)
One little child, Gracie Athena Hall, has a good-sized part in flashback scenes as the film’s protagonist as a little girl. Mr. Alosso notes that the scene in the VFW was one of the most difficult to film because the crowd was made up of the locals in the bar. “Trying to get quiet on the set in a barroom setting where there are non-actors is not easy. Many of them had been there most of the day,” he says.
Mr. Cowan, who may eventually shoot another film here, was pleased with how smoothly everything went. “The Islanders were very cooperative. Everybody was fantastic.”
Although he admits being prepared to make a “Growth 2,” if the first proves profitable, Mr. Cowan notes that horror is not his favorite genre. He calls himself “a political junkie” and a big fan of Sydney Pollack and says he would eventually like to make political dramas. However, he notes, “A lot of terrific directors have gotten their start in horror, including the Coen brothers.”
The next release of Mr. Cowan’s is a documentary about survivors of the Rwandan genocide, called “Flowers in the Gun Barrel,” narrated by Martin Sheen.
The 36-year-old filmmaker is the founder of New Artist’s Alliance, an organization dedicated to providing aspiring filmmakers with the opportunity to make profitable low-budget feature films. Four of Mr. Cowan’s films, including “Growth,” are New Artists Alliance projects. He notes that his experience working on a shoestring budget has inspired him to help newcomers to his field. He says that both of his parents were philanthropists, and he jokingly refers to his mission as “Saving the world, one filmmaker at a time.”
“Growth” is available at Island Entertainment, on iTunes, and Netflix.
Gwyn McAllister of Oak Bluffs is a frequent contributor to The Times.