It's not safe babysitting on Halloween night. That's what John Carpenter's horror classic, Halloween, taught us, and it's the same lesson in the new Canadian thriller, Berkshire County.
Directed by Audrey Cummings, Berkshire County centers on a 17-year old girl (Alysa King) who's terrorized by a family of serial killers wearing creepy pig masks. The film is garnering critical acclaim and awards on the festival circuit, including Best Picture at Los Angeles' Shriekfest (the first time a female director has won the honour) and Best Actress for King at Atlanta's HorrorQuest and Toronto's Blood in the Snow.
Although, the babysitter-in-peril genre is certainly not new to horror fans, Berkshire County has enough surprises to thrill audiences, who will also be taken by Alysa King's strong performance. I recently had the pleasure of talking to the rising star about her latest film and more at the historic Casa Loma Castle.
TorontoVerve: Berkshire County has been winning many festival awards. Are you surprised by all the attention that it's getting?
Alysa King: I am definitely surprised by all the attention that I have been receiving personally, especially the awards. I never expected that, but I had faith in this project right from the beginning because of Audrey and her team. She is an incredibly talented director and has been recognized for that in the past, so I'm not surprised that the film is a hit with festival audiences.
TV: Audrey Cummings has the distinction of being the first female director to win the Shriekfest Jury Prize for Berkshire County. What unique perspective do you think a woman can bring to the male-dominated horror genre?
AK: Audrey brings an amazing female vision to her direction. For me, however, it's not about whether she is male or female, it's about her technique and style. What I love about Audrey is that she is not an overly gratuitous director, meaning she doesn't really go for cheap scares or gratuitous nudity. Her style has a feminine sophistication where it's more about tension and what you're not seeing. In the horror genre, women are often portrayed as the victim and I think that with this film, we both wanted to create a main character that would turn that stereotype on its head.
TV: Your IMDB profile doesn’t have a shortage of dark and scary films (The Misfortune of Madeline Moody, Berkshire County and the upcoming Dead Rivalry). What attracts you to horror?
AK: Horror has the possibility to go anywhere and do anything. Yes, there are those tropes where women are victims, but there is also an opportunity in horror for women to play badass characters and that's what I love about it. Our imagination is the only limitation within the realm of horror.
TV: What are some of your favourite horror films and how have they influenced you?
AK: I find A Nightmare On Elm Street to be, conceptually, one of the scariest movies of all time. The Ring is another big one for me. After I saw The Ring I had to take my TV out of my room for a while. Horror movies shaped my childhood. I think they expanded my imagination and sense of adventure. Being scared makes you feel alive.
TV: Which horror actress do you get inspiration from?
AK: Definitely Cécile de France from the French horror film Haute Tension. She plays a very strong female character in that movie.
TV: I believe the great horror movies are the ones that not only have a convincing menace but a truly terrified victim. Like Marilyn Burns in Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Shelly Duvall in The Shining, you creeped me out with the level of terror that you projected. Where do you have to go mentally to deliver that kind of performance?
AK: To a very dark place. Luckily I have a pretty vivid imagination so I was able to concoct various scenarios in my mind based on my own experiences and imagined circumstances to get me to the level where I needed to be. I think my performance has been so well received because not only are you watching Kylie experience fear, you're watching me experience genuine fear as well. I was able to spike my own adrenaline on set just by thinking myself into it. The brain is a powerful thing.
TV: Besides thrilling audiences, Berkshire County takes the time to make social commentary on the horrors of cyber bullying. What was the motivation in doing that?
AK: Chris Gamble, our writer, would be the one to comment on that, but I think that he wanted to make Berkshire County relevant to a modern audience. Even regular bullying is such a huge issue today in high school. I think because cyber bullying is so topical, Chris wanted to include it in Kylie's teenage experience, which I believe most people will relate to and empathize with.
AK: Absolutely. Although there is an age gap, I still remember how I felt at that age. I definitely have been in Kylie's position where I've been bullied for something that was embarrassing -- maybe not to that extent, but we've all been in positions where we did something that we didn't want to do because of social pressures. And I can definitely relate to her standing up for herself and finding that inner strength to become a stronger and better person.
TV: What was your worst experience in high school?
AK: I can't remember any specific traumatic event, but there were definitely times where people tried to put me down with their words. Luckily, I had a few good friends and theatre to get me through. I think most people respected the fact that I was passionate about the arts, regardless of whether or not that made me a drama geek.
TV: With all your success, what response are you getting in your hometown of Milton?
AK: The response in my hometown has been amazing! I think that most people know that acting is my dream so they are really happy for me. My hometown newspaper wrote a positive article on me and I have another interview coming out in January in a local magazine. So the support has been overwhelming. I can't wait for them to see this movie!
TV: What kind of kid were you?
AK: A nerdy drama geek. I was a ham and still am. I always had a vivid imagination and loved performing for my parents on video camera. I loved the attention.
TV: You’ve been modeling and acting since your were an infant so obviously your parents played a huge part in your career. How would you describe your Mom and Dad?
AK: My Mom is a very strong and ambitious woman and has always been an inspiration to me. I draw much strength from her. She was one of the first female paramedics in Ontario. She really blazed the trail for women in that field. She's also creative and has a good artistic sense. My Dad was an amazing storyteller with a great sense of comedic timing. They both have been very supportive of me. I don't think they missed one bad school play (laugh).
AK: I was always a big daddy's girl and it's definitely changed our relationship. What he has is Frontotemporal Dementia where you first lose your behaviour and personality and then the ability to communicate and perform simple tasks. Eventually, the disease is fatal. At this point, he can't communicate or take care of himself. He requires 24-hour supervision. He is not the man I remember him to be. He is a shell of what he once was. But I have my memories of him and that's why I want to do a tribute piece to him.
TV: How did you first come up with the idea to do a tribute show?
AK: Actually my boyfriend always urged me to write a book about my unique family life for years, but I was talking to my friend and Berkshire County producer, Bruno Marino, and he gave me the idea to create a one-woman show. It's still in the developmental stage. I want to include some home videos as an interactive component. Right now I'm in the middle of writing it.
TV: What was the best advice your Dad has given that you still follow today?
AK: To be true to myself and follow my dreams. That's what I always try to do.
TV: What are you happiest about in life?
AK: I've always wanted to be an actor and to be able to follow that dream with the support of my family and friends, and find success, is surreal. It's crazy that this is happening to me.