A 250-year-old farmhouse, stuck at the end of a long, rutted driveway, with creaking doors, splintered stairs, snakeskins in the basement and a mysterious gaping hole hidden beneath one of the outbuildings. Sounds like the perfect setting for a horror film, right?
That's what the makers of "The Possession" thought, too, when they first saw the Hagerstown home that location scouts found for their 20-day film shoot, wrapping this weekend in Western Maryland. And they were right.
"This house had its own creepy kind of things that it brought along," says director Eduardo Sanchez, a Marylander who shot to fame as the first-time writer-director of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," which brought in more than $140 million at the U.S. box office. "Our production design was practically there to begin with, with the colors of the walls, the cracks, the peeling paint. It was just kind of like a gift from heaven."
Indeed, it would be hard to imagine that any set designer could do better than this house, said to have been built in the mid-1700s by a colonel who fought in the French and Indian War. It has two stories, along with a basement and attic; some of that might have been added later. But the house shows its age, with narrow stairways and low ceilings, peeling plaster and all sorts of hidden nooks and crannies.
"The Possession" folks loved it.
"It's got so many years of people living in this and touching it, having it be a part of them," says rookie film actress Gretchen Lodge, who plays the pivotal character, a newlywed who seems to bring out the worst in the house. "That's what makes it so exciting."
Plot details of "The Possession" are hard to ferret out; the filmmakers are understandably reticent about revealing too much, as the surest way to pull the rug out from under a horror-thriller is to reveal too much in advance. The story revolves around Molly and her husband, Tim ( Johnny Lewis), whose economic woes force them to move into her parents' house. Her parents are dead. Or are they?
"It's kind of a haunted-house-psychotic-exorcism kind of movie," says Sanchez, who smiles at the cryptic nature of his description — and releases no further details. "There are no real definitive answers given throughout the film," he says. "At the end of the movie, you make your own judgment call."
Lodge, surprisingly animated and fresh-faced despite an overnight shoot that lasted until 6 a.m., hints there may be a lot more to Molly than what audiences initially think.
"You're constantly in this flux of being one person, and then another and then another," she says of playing the character. "It's been really interesting to not transfer that out to everyday stuff. It's like, 'Hey, I'm done, I don't know who I am right now.' The part becomes so engrained in you."
Crews have been filming at three primary sites in the Hagerstown area: the house (which the crew refers to as "Molly's House"), a nearby apartment and Middletown's historic Dahlgren Chapel, completed in 1884.
Producer Robin Cowie exhibits a certain sadistic glee while taking visitors on a tour of the house's dimly lit confines. Warning everyone to avoid a trail of (fake) blood that's been applied to the floor, he leads them upstairs to the bedrooms, down rickety steps to the basement (which, he warns, is home to the occasional snake) and outside to an old storage shed. Pulling aside a square wooden cover, he shines a flashlight down into the mysterious pit that was uncovered during production.
"The deeper you go into this house, the more you discover strange things," he says. "I am increasingly convinced that there is something going on in this house. At one point, we decided we were going to get a ghost hunter crew in here and see what happens."
What follows could very well be a walk-up to the film's marketing campaign. Cowie and others freely offer that there will be a lot of ways for fans to learn about "The Possession" and its story, both before and after seeing the film, through television programs, online sites and other media. They call it "transmedia marketing," and promise it will be extensive.
But this stuff, Cowie and others swear, is true. Batteries have been mysteriously drained in the house. Specters have been seen (and photographed) in windows. People have felt unseen forces touching them. And when those ghost busters came in, they sensed all manner of paranormal activity. They even recorded some of it on audiotape.
Agrees editor Dave Fox, who is putting together much of the marketing campaign, "there's definitely something weird going on here."
Following the tour, it's into cars for the 20-minute ride back to the hotel where cast and crew are staying. As if on cue, a car radio, turned to a local station, begins playing Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper."
Maybe there is something spooky going on here.