By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Local filmmaker Phillip Etherton had hoped to finish his full-length feature movie in time for a Halloween premiere. Blood Ward was, after all, a bona fide shriek-worthy horror slasher complete with psycho killer, pools of blood and hapless victims being picked off one by one.
But life got in the way and the movie wasn’t in the can until close to Thanksgiving, so instead of competing for screams at Halloween, Etherton and crew will have a less crowded stage in January. Blood Ward premieres Sunday, Jan. 8, in the ballroom of the Chattanoogan Hotel.
“The movie will be about an hour and 15 minutes long,” said Etherton in a telephone interview last week. “Then we’ll do a little meet-and-greet with the cast. We have a cast of 19 people, and pretty much all of them are local.”
As the Sentinel reported last summer, when he was shooting a teenagers-separated-in-abandoned-building scene in the North Dade Community Center, Phillip Etherton is Dade’s very own resident horror mogul. A television actor who plays the lead zombie in Chattanooga’s revival of “Shock Theatre,” Etherton lives with his wife, Karen, and their blended family of six children on Sand Mountain.
In 2010, long after his marriage to Karen, Etherton finally happened to meet her cousin, Johnny Harrison, who happened to have not only an equal passion for horror but also show-biz skills complementary to his own. The two teamed up to form Sick Lens Productions, and with Etherton directing and writing, Harrison producing, their wives crewing, and the kids coming in seriously handy as baby zombies, they came out with their first film in early 2011, a horror short called Children of the Dead which took an Honorable Mention at the Knoxville Horror Film Fest.
Parenthetically, it may interest the uninitiated to know that top prize at the Knoxville competition is called the “Palme d’Gore.” Other prize categories (“cat-e-GORE-ies?”) are “Weirdest,” “Best Gore Effects” and “Most Likely to Inspire Protests.”
Also parenthetically, this article might well have inspired some protests of its own had the Sentinel used the first publicity shot Etherton supplied, a ruptured-cranium still that elicited from even the hard-bitten Sentinel a girlish “Ack!”
In any case, Etherton and Harrison had enough success with the short to inspire them to go for a full-length with Blood Ward, a rejected-son saga featuring the usual family problems of words getting spoken, feelings getting hurt and craniums getting ruptured.
For this film, Etherton brought in Hollywood actor Jim O’Rear for a cameo, but he says besides that the film was relatively affordable to make. The other cast consists partially of family – Etherton’s daughter Katie, 17, plays one of the teen leads – and partially of local actors working gratis for a shot at the Silver Screen. “Most of the people that we’ve used come from a theater background,” said Etherton. “Locally there’s no money in theater, so they just kind of wanted to step over and see if they could make the transition from theater to film.”
And most of the equipment, says Etherton, was already in place when he and Harrison started to shoot. “We’re not out very much on this one,” he said. The biggest expenses besides O’Rear, he said, were chocolate-syrup blood and the lunch tab for all those hungry teenagers during long days on the set.
Post-production, though, Etherton is running into another problem: Now what? “It’s not necessarily finding a place to show it, it’s just getting it promoted,” he said. “Chattanooga radio and television really won’t touch it because it is a horror film.”
Etherton, a horror fan since childhood, feels there is an unfair prejudice in the community against what he feels is good, clean, family-friendly slashing. “It’s hard to promote an independent film, especially a horror film, and especially in Chattanooga,” he said. “I guess they just think it’s all bad, throughout the movie.”
But they’re wrong, said Etherton. As the devoted father of a large family himself, he was careful not to put his teen actors into upsetting situations or even to use much strong language. “There’s just six or seven bad words in this whole movie and that’s it,” he said.
Etherton says he’s lined up cinemas in Huntsville and Knoxville where Blood Ward will be shown on “indie night,” one night weekly when independent rather than Hollywood films are featured, and that Georgia State University in Atlanta is interested in showing the movie on campus. “So I’ve got Knoxville, Huntsville and Atlanta interested,” he said. “I just can’t get Chattanooga on board.”
He did, however, have offers to stage his premiere at several Chattanooga venues including the Rave and the Community Theater space at Memorial Auditorium, said Etherton. He opted for the Chattanoogan – where, by the way, his “day job” is as one of the hotel’s managers – because of its greater seating capacity.
And as for the perceived local image problem, Etherton hope to tackle it with a blood-drive-slash(er)-movie-screening fundraiser he is pitching to Blood Assurance. “You would pay like five bucks to see the film and then donate blood, and then we’ll take whatever profits we make and turn around and donate it back to Blood Assurance,” he explained the idea.
Etherton calls the initiative the “Blood Assurance Blood Ward Blood Drive,” and he does admit seeing that’s funny.
What’s next? Etherton and his partner plan to spend 2012 making another couple of short films and then in early 2013 begin their most ambitious movie at all, another full-length horror feature called Outside My Window that Etherton says he’s had scripted for five years. They will again shoot locally but this time plan to cast big-name actors, gambling their investment that this will be the Big One that will put them on the map. “We honestly think this one can be it for us,” said Etherton.
Meanwhile, Blood Ward premieres at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 8, in the Chattanoogan ballroom. Tickets are $5 and will be sold at the door. Readers may see a preview at Blood Ward’s Facebook page, or obtain more information by emailing Etherton at email@example.com.