Cinema Casualties is a periodic Burlington film series celebrating B movies that are scary, campy or (frequently) both. On Tuesday, August 29, however, the series will explore the domain of subtler horrors when it premieres South Burlington filmmaker Rob Cunning's "Haze." The 45-minute film about a very bad trip on a fictional drug will precede a screening of director Chuck Russell's cult 1988 remake of The Blob, with a Q&A sandwiched between the two, says Cinema Casualties founder David Zeidler.
While "Haze" concerns a ruinous addiction — protagonist Trent, played by Cunning, is trying desperately to piece together what he did on a bender the night before — it's no PSA. Rather than preaching or pronouncing, the film takes the audience on a journey into a blue-tinged hallucinatory realm.
"I wanted to create this drug that would make someone hallucinate," Cunning says in a phone interview. "It opened up this world of creativity. I could bring interesting visuals into real-life circumstances."
Those "interesting visuals" include scenes in which Trent is tormented by his childhood action figures — their antics filmed in stop-motion — and visited by a silent, ominous man in a top hat. Tricks of light and sound — almost all of them practical, not digital — unsettle the viewer's sense of reality.
If that sounds a little like recent episodes of "Twin Peaks: The Return," there's a reason for that. "David Lynch is what inspired me to go from screenwriting to actually making a film," says Cunning. "He has proved to me that you can color outside the lines."
Cunning, 29, who owns a printing-and-shipping store and studied business at the University of Vermont, says he "basically taught myself how to make a film," drawing on books, blogs and YouTube tutorials. While he originally wrote "Haze" as a feature screenplay, he eventually "decided to adapt it into something I could do with no budget."
He's not kidding. Made with a crew of three — Cunning, Eric Wright and Joseph Palumbo — over three years, the film cost less than $500, Cunning estimates. The "haze" drug is actually "blue art sand," he says. The blue tint came from "a really cheap editing program." Shooting had to accommodate the crew's full-time work schedules, including Palumbo's six-month deployment overseas. Cunning's friend Chris Wilcox composed a moody, atmospheric score called "Into the Void," available on Bandcamp.
Queen City residents will recognize many of the film's locations, including the bridge on the South Burlington bike path, Pearl Street Beverage, the parking garage next to Macy's and the Church Street Marketplace (in fleeting shots from a moving vehicle).
"I think Burlington has a really charming personality, and, when you put it in a film, it almost creates a character," says Cunning. He adds that his "ultimate goal" is to film an indie feature in the city.
For now, he's submitted "Haze" to festivals. Post-premiere, the film will air Wednesday, August 30, at 10 p.m. on Regional Educational Television Network's BTV HD and will then be available for viewing on YouTube, Cunning says.
While he's waiting until after release to "dive into" his next project, Cunning has advice for other creatives working to get a dream project off the ground: "During the creative process, self-doubt is probably going to be your biggest hurdle. Creating a good support system is really important."