By Callie Hietala
A new locally made film, shot in Martinsville and featuring a cast of regional talent, is getting ready to make its big-screen debut. “39 Ghosts,” written and directed by local filmmaker Myron Smith, is a spoof of classic haunted house films. While it includes homages to such popular ghost-hunting teams as the Scooby Doo gang and the Ghostbusters, the movie is primarily based on the 1960 horror movie “13 Ghosts,” directed by William Castle and written by Robb White.
The original “13 Ghosts” tells the story of impoverished paleontologist Cyrus Zorba and his family who are willed a mansion by Cyrus’ uncle Dr. Plato Zorba. The mansion conceals Plato’s hidden fortune and twelve spirits, waiting for a thirteenth ghost. The cast includes Margaret Hamilton, most famous for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in 1939’s “Wizard of Oz,” as housekeeper and medium Elaine. “13 Ghosts” was remade in 2001 starring Tony Shaloub.
“39 Ghosts” is a new effort by a practiced filmmaker, artist, writer, and actor.
“I’ve always been interested in storytelling,” Smith said. He has a history of stage acting going back to high school. “All four years I did every dramatic production possible.”
During his senior year, he wrote a script for a dinner theater his class organized. It was outvoted by a slim two-vote margin. Though he initially had dreams of becoming a comic artist, he shifted his focus to film, in part because “filmmaking is a way to combine all of my passions, from performing to storytelling to the visual aspects of it.”
Smith also realized he could capture the attention of an audience longer.
“I noticed that when people look at your books or when they look at art, sometimes they only spend two or three seconds at the most looking at each image, regardless of how many hours you put into that image. And often with a book you never see a person’s reaction, and often you don’t even know if they’ve read it,” he said. Film, by its very nature, holds the viewers’ attention, giving them more time to engage with the work.
Smith made his big shift to film in 2012 when he wrote and directed the feature horror film “Young Blood: Evil Intentions” with his brother Mat. It was their first attempt at making a full-length movie with a narrative plot.
“That experience led me to concentrate more of my time on film,” he said. The movie sold out its first night of a three-night premier at the Rives Theatre in Martinsville.
His other credits include another horror comedy, “Invasion of the Killer Cicadas,” and a number of short “sweded” films including “Alice in Wonderland,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Wizard of Oz,” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Smith explained that the term “sweded” comes from the film “Be Kind Rewind” and refers to homemade, very (very) low-budget remakes of popular movies, usually filmed over a very short period of times and typically lasting 5 to 7 minutes. He created the Virginia Sweded Film Fest in 2016, which lasted until 2018.
This latest project is Smith’s first full-length movie since “Young Blood,” and was two and a half years in the making. Filming took place in Martinsville in early 2019 but, as with so many other things, screening the finished product had to be put on hold because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Smith said he took on the project because “I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as the guy who made sweded films.” He wrote the script in a few months, drawn to the idea, in part, because he knew it would be a challenge to have so many costumed characters.
“I’m always trying to find new ways to challenge myself,” Smith said. “I don’t want to always be known for doing the same genre or doing the same thing.”
The process was a series of firsts for Smith. It was the first time where the shoots were spaced out, both giving the actors a break and giving Smith time to prepare for the next weekend of filming. It was his first time having a consistent set to return to—it was filmed primarily in a house on Cleveland Avenue with no running water or electricity. It also is Smith’s first solo feature-length film.
In terms of casting, Smith relied entirely on local talents. He held auditions for two days at Studio 107 in Martinsville, where he rents space.
“I like being able to provide an outlet for some of these people to showcase their talents. There’s a lot of talent in this area that kind of goes unrecognized,” he said.
About half of the cast is from Henry County, while the rest come from the surrounding area. Mal and Melanie Rorrer play the lead roles. Robbie Hendrix was cast in the role of the lawyer. For the Ghostbustaz, Smith reached out to a group called the Ghostbusters of North Carolina. The film’s score was done by Winston-Salem musician Wes Frank Norman.
Smith said that the majority of the makeup in the film was done by Stephanie Davis, who recently committed suicide.
“She was on set for every day of filming,” Smith recalled. “One thing that helps me continue is I feel like things like (this movie) are important to give people something to look forward to and give people a sense of purpose.”
He likes to think of his film sets as places that are diverse and accepting of all people, no matter their backgrounds. “My hope is to do something positive, to create a positive environment … there’s a need for that. There’s a demand for more art, for more creativity.”
Now that the film is wrapped up and ready to hit the big screen, Smith is turning his focus to his senior thesis project. He is currently enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School for the Arts’ Photography and Film program, where he is concentrating in film. He’s dreamed of going to VCU since middle school.
“It seemed like the next step toward legitimacy,” Smith said. “I realized I’m going to have to step up my game in order to survive.” He hopes the program will open more opportunities for him as a filmmaker. “I want to take my film career as far as it can go.”
Asked if he’s got a next big project in mind, Smith replied, “At this point the future’s uncertain.” He said he’ll be spending most of next year promoting “39 Ghosts,” and trying to find a distributor for the film. However, “something’s on the horizon.” We’ll just have to wait and see what that something might be. One this is certain—whatever it may, it will be coming to a theater near you soon.
“39 Ghosts” will be screened at the Spencer-Penn Centre on Saturday, October 2. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the film begins at 7. Tickets are $13 in advance and $15 at the door and can be purchased at 39Ghosts.TicketLeap.com or by calling (276) 409-0865. Though the film is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Smith said it would likely earn either a PG-13 or R rating.