On set with the stars and makers of low-budget horror

Share This

Actress Tess Gustard has just one job today – to open a door, look towards a steel-framed bed and scream at the very top of her lungs.

Gustard, a former tax adviser, is one of hundreds of actors across the UK involved in the nation’s booming independent horror scene.

The BBC meets her at a studio in south Essex, an area fast becoming a Hollywood of horror, where she is reshooting a scene with TIS Films.

Tess Gustard

It was with TIS films, and its director Alex Churchyard, that Gustard, got her first big break with I Scream on the Beach.

“This is kind of like my midlife crisis,” she says. “I gave up my tax work about six years ago, retrained and I am now a full time actor.” 

In just four takes, her scream – piercingly loud yet peculiarly rich – is deemed just right. Her job is done.

“I didn’t realise I was a good screamer until I started working with the guys,” she says. “I’m now going to go home and gargle some honey.”

The filming takes place in a large professional studio with multiple sets on an industrial estate in Rochford – a far cry from Churchyard’s earliest films, which were shot in family bedrooms.

“My first feature film, I Scream on the Beach, was shot over weekends with what we could spare from our earnings,” the 35-year-old says.

The crew is shooting scenes for two films – Mosaic, which has a budget of about £7,000, and Video Shop Tales of Terror: Lust and Revenge, which Churchyard hopes to keep “well under £10,000”.

Market studies show the horror genre is becoming increasingly popular with younger audiences, particularly in the US, where it is biting at the heels of the action film market.

The independent horror scene depends on a mix of DVD, screenings at key festivals such as FrightFest and Horror on Sea and, increasingly, online streaming.

Alex Churchyard
Alex Churchyard

“There’s a big appetite for independent, low-budget horror,” says Churchyard, who works as a video editor during the week.

It is an industry, he says, in which fans with the necessary passion and ability can help make the films they love. Fans, he says, like 48-year-old Singh Lall.

Singh Lall

By day Mr Lall works as a business studies teacher at a local secondary school. By night (or in this case weekend) he is the producer of Video Shop Tales of Terror: Lust and Revenge.

“I’ve been a genre fan for as long as I can remember,” says Lall. “I used to stay up late with my mum watching Hammer films and that led to horror festivals.”

It was through networking at those festivals that he got the chance to make Video Shop Tales of Terror two years ago.

“If somebody had told me I’d be producing horror films five years ago, I would have said, ‘never in a million years’,” he says.

“But that’s the beauty of this – anybody can pick up a camera and create something and there are outlets, festivals and fans. I am one of them.”

Lauren Jane Barnett and Tony Mardon have travelled to the Essex set from London to help out.

When Mardon, usually a director, learns one of the female cast members has not been able to make it, he puts on a short sequin dress and a red wig to cover the part

“Everybody helps each other; it is just how it is. Doing stuff like this is great, though I don’t usually wear a dress.”

Tony Mardon
Lauren Bennett

“And it is a lot of fun,” says film historian Barnett, who moved to the UK from North Carolina 13 years ago.

“I grew up watching B movies and because I met Tony through my work, I ended up in his film The Witches of the Sands and, because everybody knows each other, I’m here to help out.

“Acting is an accidental part of the journey.”

Make up artist Alex Gent, a former newspaper journalist, has a lot on his hands.

“I’ve been told we want somebody turned into a robot, I’ve got somebody I’ve got to kill off quite graphically and I know I’ve got some wounds and injuries to inflict during the day,” he says.

Among the most grizzly of the injuries on his job sheet is what’s known as a “face pull-off”, in which the actor’s face appears to be ripped away from their head.

“Once you’ve got the tools and the confidence you can actually do things quite easily,” he says.

Andrea Rose

The robot outfit created by Gent was worn by Andrea Rose.

Thus far in her horror career, the softly-spoken actress is most often cast as a sinister feminine aggressor or a zombie.

“People say they just can’t imagine me as a scare actor, but I just love it,” she says.

Today, she after playing the robot, she then plays a victim.

“It is really nice to be a victim because I’m usually the sinister one.”

Chris Mills

Chris Mills and Annabella Rich are rising stars in the indie horror scene and have travelled from Portsmouth and Chichester to perform.

Mr Mills, 33, will be playing a space cop and a character called Joshua, a delinquent son, who will be joining the rest of his family for a festive meal.

“We love horror, we really do,” says Mr Mills. “We absolutely live and breathe it.”

Annabella Rich

“The independent horror scene in the UK is just so inclusive and fun,” says Ms Rich, 27. 

“Quite a lot of the big actresses started out in horror.

“A lot of people turn their noses up at it, but it is great and has one of the best fan bases around.

“The films are some of the only ones you can make on such a low budget and will see a great return.”

I wrote this piece originally for the BBC and it was published on 15 June

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.