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These filmmakers want to put you inside a horror movie

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Despite what I'm told repeatedly, heart attacks are likely not going to be caused by this latest experiment with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

But that doesn't make a foray into immersive horror film creation any less tantalizing.

If backed through crowdfunding, Hell Mountain will be the world's first feature-length horror movie that can be watched from inside the film with the Oculus Rift.

Viewers won't just passively sit and view the scares unfold in front of them; they'll be able to look over their shoulder as they run from nightmares, stare down at their body as the horror envelops them.

The project, seeking $100,000 on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, has attracted a clutch of horror film aficionados. Hell Mountain will be produced by Warren Zide, the man behind the Final Destination, American Pie and Cats & Dogs franchises; written by Gary Gerani, who gave life to Pumpkinhead; and feature creatures designed by Brian Penikas, whose works include Cocoon, Aliens, Mask, Galaxy Quest and, perhaps most relevant, the Creeper from the Jeepers Creepers movies.

But it was Dar Warison, an upcoming producer, who came up with the idea.

"Warren [Zide] and I have been throwing ideas back and forth about creating a small horror film," he told me in a recent interview. "We talked about doing a very low-budget script by Gary Gerani. Then Gary brought to me his 'Hell Mountain' treatment, something that his Pumpkinhead creature was developed from. This really excited me, as I love Pumpkinhead."

The story of Hell Mountain was actually created in the 1970s, Gerani tells me.

"Pumpkinhead wasn't my first brush with the world of mountain witchcraft," he said. "Back in the '70s, I created Hell Mountain, which established a unique, Lovecraftian supernatural mythology in a primitive rural setting. It was really ground zero for my thinking along these lines.

hell mountain

"Story-wise, Hell Mountain provides a variation of the classic Faust theme. It concerns a wizened mountain warlock named Old Jonas, whose power to invoke demons and snatch the souls of unsuspecting victims has been neutralized by the primitive locals as our tale begins. How Jonas compensates for this constitutes the essence of Hell Mountain's storyline, with an even more fiendish supernatural terror ultimately unleashed on the population. As usual in tales of temptation and redemption, the human element takes center stage ... although what Old Jonas finally conjures up will be a special effects extravaganza, like nothing ever seen on the screen."

But what makes this movie so interesting is that while there will be a version released for television and traditional movie screens, it will be designed from the ground up for the first-person, viewer-controlled experience of the Oculus Rift.

And that creates quite a number of both opportunities and challenges.

Danfung Dennis knows all about those challenges. His startup company, Condition One, was established to develop immersive film experiences for virtual reality headsets. His first film, Zero Point — perhaps the first ever created for the Rift — released this week.

Dennis started his career as a photojournalist covering war for major publications like Newsweek and the New York Times. Frustrated by what he felt was an inability to capture and convey the emotion of his experiences, Dennis said he moved to movies. After directing Academy Award-nominated Hell and Back Again, which follows Sergeant Nathan Harris, who was injured while serving in Afghanistan, Dennis started exploring other options for putting people into an experience.

"The film was well-received, but it was this flat image," he said. "It was still this window into this world. I wanted to move people into the world itself."

So he started his company and began experimenting with different types of technology. Finally, he landed upon virtual reality headsets.

"We're finally getting to technology where you feel like you're in another place," he said. "There are moments of presence where you actually do believe at a subconscious level you are somewhere else.

"This seems like a natural, not next step, but huge leap in how we convey emotion in stories."

zero point

Dennis says Zero Point is a bit of an experiment, a film that both tells the story of the evolution of virtual reality and also explores its bounds in the creation of film.

To create the film, Dennis and his company had to play around with a variety of capture setups. The goal, he said, was to shoot in 360 degrees. The end result is a movie that shows what can be accomplished on the Oculus Rift by shooting with one camera, two, four, six, even 28.

The experience of watching such a film is like being trapped in someone else's body or going through an amusement ride strapped into a seat. While you can't guide where you head, you can look in different directions and see what's happening all around you.

"We're shooting a fixed position when we capture with an array of cameras shooting in 360 degrees," he said. "You're baked into that one position. The storytelling is different and reflects that restraint. It's not the fully interactive story games can tell, but a more passive experience. More of an on-rails experience.

"It's still limiting, but it is where we are now."

Hell Mountain's creative team is very aware of both the benefits of dropping a movie-goer into a horror film, and the challenges that can create.

"A viewer being fully immersed into the story as an interactive element is pretty mind-blowing," said creature creator Brian Penikas. "As I was reviewing what the Oculus Rift could do, I could only imagine different ways of viewing any given feature. Can you imagine seeing the film Gravity, for instance, floating in some kind of isolation tank with the Oculus Rift? How real would that weightlessness be?

"I'm guessing the Oculus Rift folks will be handing out barf bags and defibrillators to viewers for some of the more intense programs."

Penikas says the new way of viewing this movie won't have a massive impact on how he designs its creatures.

"We always design creatures to be viewed from every angle anyway," he said. "Working hand-in-hand with CGI, our practical creature effects can do so much more these days than we could make them do back in the old days of pushing and pulling cables on a puppet."

"But I still like the practical side of visual effects, believe me. CGI can sometimes be too sterile and controlled, as if the animation is telling you to 'look right here, right now,' whereas practical elements have a genuine 'flow' to them that is less contrived."

Early plans for Hell Mountain include plenty of practical effects for things like monstrous slugs and bugs, Penikas said.

pumpkin

That a viewer can control when and how they see things, such as those bugs, can make the experience much more terrifying, producer Warren Zide said.

"To see something crawling on you when you look down or to see a grotesque creature chasing you will be a hundred times more terrifying than anything currently out there," he said.

Zide is in the process now of figuring out how to put together the film in a way that works. Because this experience negates a filmmaker's ability to frame shots and to cut between scenes with distracting the audience, Zide says he needs to come up with new techniques.

"There will be more focus on the audience as a character," he said. "We also have to figure out ways of cutting from scene to scene without 'teleporting' our character around. Shooting this is a whole other conversation in itself.

"You're giving the audience a moving painting when you frame shots (in a traditional film). That's fine for a passive observer of art — but our goal is to put the audience inside the movie as an active character. It makes an entirely different experience."

Executive producer Dar Warison has been meeting with Oculus Rift officials to go through some of these issues. He's also very aware that all of this is "uncharted territory."

"We have to figure out a way to tell a story using an entire world, not just what will fit into a rectangular frame," he said. "The goal currently is a first-person point of view where the audience is viewing the world through the eyes of a character in the movie. Much like the movie The Lady in the Lake."

His hope is that this will do for horror films what The Blair Witch Project's "found footage" approach did in 1999.

"This is the difference between something like The Blair Witch Project and Gone with the Wind," he said. "Both are great movies, but the way the camera is used to tell the story is extremely different. We intend on going one step further by unchaining the viewer from the box. I think this will give the audience a greater sense of presence within the movie."

danfung

Zero Point's Danfung Dennis agrees. Virtual reality headset movies don't just make films more immersive; they have the ability to transcend them, making them, perhaps, something else entirely.

"It changes the role of the storyteller, filmmaker and the user," he said. "The role of the documentarian or the director for something like this is vastly different. You're trying to capture and convey raw experiences and you're going to have less control, there's no doubt about that, in certain regards. You can't guide attention using traditional technology, there is no frame and using cuts is tricky."

The result, Dennis believes, will be a whole new range of shooting techniques and styles created specifically for this type of film, and an increased reliance on audio, lighting and peripheral vision.

"These are things we've just begun to explore," he said. "Virtual reality is going to have its own visual language, something that we haven't really discovered yet.

"Technology challenges are first and foremost right now, but once those fade away it's going to be the storytelling aspects that define this.

"We're at the very beginning of this new era, this new medium of storytelling."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.