“I have always been fascinated by 360 cinema,” says director and co-writer Guy Shelmerdine. “When this new wave of VR launched thanks to Oculus Rift, I wanted to experiment in the medium. My usual genre of comedy just didn’t seem to be the right fit for me in this fully immersive world, so I started exploring other ideas that would take an audience on journeys they wouldn’t normally get to go on in real life. This is where the idea of exploring dark horror based experiences came from.”
In Dark Corner scenarios, viewers strap on a VR headset and a pair of headphones and are plunged into a wholly immersive, 360 degree phantasmagoria that places them firmly within the realm of a horror movie. Whether the viewer looks up, down, left, right, or even behind, they’ll find themselves completely within the world of their chosen scenario, with enough detail to warrant repeat viewings in order to completely soak up the entirety of the experience. Each of the scenarios features real actors on real sets, shot multiple times from multiple angles and then “stitched” together. “You basically focus on the key moments in the narrative that you want the audience to digest,” says Shelmerdine. “Then you figure out where to place them in the blocking of the shots. Although these moments are the key to the story, you also need to be aware that your audience may look in the completely different direction, so you must make sure that the shot works in all directions. The main challenge is blocking the talent from being in the main stitch lines --where each camera joins — in the shots. If your actor falls into those stitch lines, it can be incredibly hard in post-production to get a clean stitch.”
I recently had the perverse pleasure of getting strapped into the Dark Corner myself at this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin for a sort of test-drive of terror, getting subjected to all three of DC’s current scenarios. In Catatonic, viewers find themselves strapped to a wheelchair (in both the scenario and real life!) and pushed down the corridors of a 1940s insane asylum, which slowly progresses from serene to shocking the longer the ride goes on. DC’s second scenario, Mule — which premiered at Fantastic Fest — finds the viewer laid out in a coffin and reliving the final hours of a drug mule, who remains conscious (yet immobile) through an overdose, hospitalization, botched autopsy, and, ultimately, based on the viewer’s own choice, either a premature burial or cremation. The final scenario, Burlap, is a tie-in to a short film that also premiered at Fantastic Fest, and allows the player to experience a few awkward moments in a serial killer’s shack.
While Burlap is essentially an interaction promotional piece, Catatonic and Mule are both mini-masterpieces of the macabre in their own right, with each offering a unique experience. Catatonic, with its' grainier aesthetic and ever intensifying air of unreality, recalls some of the best hospital-themed horror such as the original SILENT HILL and AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM’s the stuff of the best carnival rides, and was my own personal favorite of the three scenarios. The earliest parts of the scenario have an air of eerie serenity about them—dappled sunlight in the lobby, smiling nurses in crisp white uniforms, the sort of window dressing and interior decoration you might’ve seen in your grandparents’ house. Although you’re strapped into a wheelchair, there’s something strangely comforting in the uncanny familiarity of it all—like an echo of a long-forgotten childhood memory. That familiar begins to ebb, though, as sun-baked dayrooms give way to dank corridors and treacherous staircases, plunging the viewer into the depths of the asylum and bringing them face to face with the mordant and morbid world waiting down there.
Meanwhile, Mule has its’ feet planted firmly in reality, with glossier visuals and a personalized experience that immerses the viewer much more deeply into the scenario. Much of that is a result of DC’s conscious decision to up their game for their sophomore outing. “We built a new camera rig using Sony A7’s for Mule,” says Shelmerdine. “This camera had a much better sensor and better lenses than that of the Go-Pro rig that we used for Catatonic. Also, a lot more time and energy was spent in stitching the footage together in Mule giving it a flawless look.”
As of press time, some virtual reality headsets are selling on Amazon for ~$100, and even the Oculus Rift can be picked up used for around $400. In the years to come, a price dip is to be expected in the equipment, and as the cost goes down and the quality goes up, the opportunity for a brave new frontier in horror opens even wider.
“We think this content, the VR industry, is setting itself up to be available to everyone who has a headset and, sometimes, a smart phone,” says Greyhaven. “Just the same way you can watch Netflix in your home. We think this is a mass audience medium, and Catatonic has already proven incredibly popular, and we’re developing a continuous slate of more and more content to keep pushing forward.” Shelmderine concurs: “I think there is a tremendous opportunity for horror to be huge in VR. Our approach is to create powerful dark journey’s that will appeal to not only horror fans but also a broader market. We really want our fan base to be curious to know where we will take them next.”