By Callie Hietala
The Stoneleigh Estate, a historic 1920s mansion in Stanleytown, became a movie set early this week when a crew of about 20 gathered on the historic property to complete principal photography for the short horror film “Host.”
The film is the latest effort from Postmortem Films, a production studio based in Wake Forest, N.C., and the second film shot entirely in the Martinsville-Henry County area. The first was 2021’s “Night Shift,” which was shot at Sportlanes in Martinsville. Another production, “Ivy” (2020) was partially shot in Martinsville.
“Host,” the studio’s 7th film, was produced in association with HarLau Productions. The film’s executive producers are Isaac March, Patrick Baker, Paula Lauzon, and Chad Price.
Pat Baker, writer and director for “Host” and co-founder of Postmortem Films, said the film is about a young couple on vacation while looking to mend their marriage. “They’re struggling with young adulthood and trying to find themselves out,” he said. “This film is a deeper look into what a 2022 young adult couple would look like.”
Of course, working in the horror genre means that there will be some unexpected turns along the way.
“It’s very real and raw and shows some very serious exchanges of dialogue,” Baker said. “It also gives us a look into what a couple of a similar age would look like about 100 years earlier in 1923.”
Baker said the production found Stoneleigh through a connection with one of the “Night Shift” producers, who was friends with estate manager Cindy Edgerton. He said the team pitched Edgerton the idea and she was “very, very willing to work within our budget” to help make the film happen.
March who, in addition to serving as an executive producer also served as the film’s production manager and location coordinator, said typically a production of this size… should cost around $40-$50,000, “but we’re going to get it done for $3,000” over the course of just a few days of filming.
That is due in large part to the crew working for free and providing their own gear and equipment, as well as Edgerton’s generosity in making the estate available at a deeply discounted rate.
“I’m just so impressed with entrepreneurship,” Edgerton said. “I like to help people out with new projects and new businesses.”
Additionally, she said, the estate is a “really special place” that deserved to be highlighted.
Edgerton said the mansion was built by Thomas Stanley, the founder of Stanley Furniture, who later became governor. During that time, his wife had a famous landscape architect come do the gardens both at the governor’s mansion and at Stoneleigh. Eventually, she said, the estate passed into the care of Ferrum College and then into private ownership.
Baker called the location a game-changer.
“I’ve been saying this whole shoot that this house is a character,” he said. “It’s timeless, it’s ageless.”
D-Jay Postley, assistant director of “Host” and co-founder of the production studio, said the team found inspiration in the historic manor.
“There are parts of the house that we just discovered while we were filming,” he said. Sometimes, finding a new location within the sprawling home would inspire Baker to change a scene.
“Shooting here has been wonderful,” said Jillian Bricker, one of the film’s production assistants and the third co-founder of Postmortem.
She said she and Baker began making films in her father’s basement when they were just 15 and 16 years old. Postley joined the team five years ago.
That, Baker said, is when they began to realize “we’ve got something special here. If we can educate ourselves, surround ourselves with good people who think like us and are as ambitious as us,” then they would find success.
And so Postmortem Films was officially born.
Baker said that he wants to bring the horror genre back to films centered on iconic characters like Freddy Kreuger of “Nightmare on Elm Street” or Jason Voorhess from “Friday the 13th.”
Baker and Bricker agree that their team is what sets Postmortem apart from other studios.
“Our desire to always improve, our desire to always one-up what we just did, and our desire to get better individually” makes the studio stand out, Baker said.
“I think we’re supportive of each other too,” Bricker added. “I’ve never witnessed a set that’s so open and understanding and non-judgmental.”
That level of familial support was evident as the crew did multiple takes of one shot in which one of the film’s actresses walks into an open doorway, turns, and enters a room. Great care was taken over small details as the team prepared to shoot and re-shoot just a few moments of film and, through it all, everyone was joking and laughing between takes, but immediately professional and focused on their individual tasks once the call came for quiet on set.
Time and again the actress turned in the doorway and walked toward the camera, with praise and compliments from Baker each time after he called, “cut.”
“You look so disturbed, and I love it,” he told her happily between takes.
Building a sense of family extends beyond the people involved in Postmortem’s productions. Baker said the locations the team chooses are part of their community as well, and all agree that Martinsville and Henry County feel like a second home.
“It’s amazing that we have the opportunity to showcase such a cute little town in our movie,” Bricker said, adding that she has enjoyed simply walking into a convenience store and meeting employees who were not only interested in the project, but genuinely excited about it.
During the first day of filming, the crew was in the driveway for a scene and, as people drove by they waved and some even stopped, eager to chat and learn what was going on. Many left those conversations eager to see the film, Postley said.
“For me,” Baker said, “it represents everybody knowing everybody. It’s family. Everyone wants to be friendly.”
Baker envisions a long relationship between the studio and Martinsville-Henry County.
“Loyalty is really important to me,” he said. “Giving back to the community that gave to you. I don’t ever want to go to L.A., I don’t ever want to go to the west coast, because there’s so much untapped potential here. I want to build a film community here that rivals what the west coast has, and it starts with the people here. It starts with places like Martinsville.”
“Martinsville, for me, is a place that I want to invest my time and energy and my production company into because they’ve given so much to us,” he said. “Whatever we can bring, whether it be tourism, whether it be other films, it’s all good news for Martinsville. Community is priority.”
“Host” is expected to be available to view on YouTube in May. Baker said he also plans to enter the film into festivals. To view previous Postmortem productions, including those shot in Martinsville and Henry County, visit the Postmortem Films page on YouTube.