Arthouse Meets Slaughterhouse: The Films That Influenced Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite, directors of ‘The Aviary’

The Aviary will be available in select theaters and on digital and on-demand on April 29, 2022.

Check out all of the films that influenced The Aviary here.

Trapped at Skylight’s isolated desert campus, The Aviary, Jillian (Akerman), and Blair (Izzo) join forces to make a treacherous escape. Alone in the harsh wilderness, they are consumed by paranoia and unable to shake the feeling that they are being followed by the cult's leader, Seth (Messina), a man as seductive as he is controlling. With supplies dwindling and their senses failing, Jillian and Blair are faced with a horrifying question: how do you run from an enemy who lives inside your head?

We all come to the movies through a different door. Some saunter into a saloon, drawn by the grim grit and gunfire of westerns. Others are lured by the seductive song and dance of musicals and enter beneath a sparkling marquee. Multiple generations beamed up into sci-fi, following in the footsteps of the Force or the impossible sights and sounds of Atomic Age crowd pleasers.

Jen and I were called by something else; a quiet voice from the alley around the corner. From behind a door where there should be no door. A door caked with grime so thick it’s hard to know where the filth ends and the door begins. It’s hard to say if we found it or if it found us, but the hour is far too late to make distinctions. The door has already closed behind us. 

And isn’t that how every good horror story starts?

It’s here in the dark that our tastes evolved in two very different directions. Jen’s, cerebral and patient; mine, messy and violent. Part of what makes our collaboration so rewarding is the resulting mix of tones and subgenres that our work plays in. We’re just as comfortable in the sandbox of our Blumhouse horror-comedy anthology 12 DEADLY DAYS as we are in the stark, dramatic world of our new movie THE AVIARY - a character driven thriller that plays with concepts of identity and reality. 

To give you a taste of the different flavors we bring to each project, we wrote about five movies that shaped our tastes. And since these days we love each other’s kind of movies as much as we love our own, we’ve each included a sixth movie that appeals to our counterpart.  

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JEN
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REAR WINDOW

Alfred Hitchcock is the mischievous friend I always wanted and never had, the co-conspirator who waves me over with a shit-eating grin. “Hey, get a load of this!” Whatever he has to share, whether it will spark laughter or turn my stomach or catch my breath, I can’t help myself. I have to know and he is always worth the trouble. REAR WINDOW is one of his best tricks, for many reasons - the enviable economy of introducing the cast of characters and the geography of the apartment building in a single tracking shot, the examination of what really matters in a marriage sugar-coated in timeless banter, Jimmy Stewart spending the entire film in his pajamas - but what sets it apart in a murderer’s row of classics is making every character, and every viewer, complicit in L.B. Jeffries creeping on his neighbors. This isn’t new analysis - yes, yes, his voyeurship is cinema, yes, yes, we are participating. The metaphor itself isn’t what makes the movie special, it’s the sticky human nature wrapped around it. 

Every character who enters Jeffries’ apartment immediately admonishes him for spying. His nurse tells him to stop being “a window shopper” and marry his girlfriend. His girlfriend, Grace Kelly’s Lisa, wants him to stop too, but she can’t even talk him out of his down and dirty career on the road. So she lets him pull her into the mystery, eager to find something they won’t fight over. “Tell me everything you saw,” she coos, and suddenly they’re in it together.  It’s 1954 and that sly dog Hitch has turned America’s boy next door and a bonafide (future) princess into pervert heroes. They share theories, pass back and forth his massive telephoto lens, and kiss in the tightest close ups of the film. The Production Code era forbids anything more, so their climax is breaking and entering the murderer’s apartment to seal their case. The film has quietly traded a permissible transgression for another. No wonder Stewart literally sleeps through the final scene.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE

David Lynch was my first cinematic crush. His work was my Jordan Catalano: beautiful, mysterious, and completely impenetrable. I devoured his filmography in high school, unsure of how to read the text, but loving every moment. It felt like flirting with religious ecstasy, that if I could just crack the cypher I would be rewarded with forbidden knowledge. It took MULHOLLAND DRIVE for me to understand there was no magic (blue) key. My prior understanding of a great film was one where every piece built a puzzle both satisfying and surprising. With Lynch, the goal wasn’t to see a final, big picture, it was to rearrange the pieces into new things entirely. It’s impossible to pick favorites, but in the context of influential horror, there’s nothing greater than the sequence at Winkie’s Diner. 

In his only scene, Patrick Fischler’s Dan tells his friend Herb about a recurring nightmare. It takes place in the diner and Herb is also in the dream. Dan’s embarrassed, but he needed to shake the horrible feeling, to see for himself that it wasn’t real. And then it becomes just that. The events he’s described begin to happen in real life. It starts with something innocuous - Herb looking back at him from the register. But we and Dan remember, that’s where Herb stood in the dream. And then we see they haven’t even touched their food. Why would they leave before eating? Because somehow, they’re now inside of Dan’s nightmare. The horror sets in, the diegetic sound falls away, and Fischler finds himself on a sweat-slicked death march straight to the horrible face that torments him. Somehow we’re witnessing his reality and his nightmare at the same time. It should be impossible and that’s why it’s terrifying.

EX MACHINA

We’re celebrating, so it’s only right to look at a first feature, and Alex Garland’s is perfect. The film is intimate, contained, but it asks a big question: what does it mean to be human? A character piece where our leads are literally and figuratively questioning each other’s humanity. On a first watch, I admired the performances, the construction of the story, and the deft play of tones. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is a delightful devil, enjoying every taunt, tease, and dance move right down to the amused surprise of being murdered by his own creations. Alicia Vikander’s Ava is equally enchanting, an exception to the rule where the makeup and special effects that make her look like a machine only add to her allure. She’s translucent and her body whirs, but I feel certain that she is as real as her companions.

In repeat viewings, the reveal that Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) was simply means for Ava’s escape is just as heartbreaking as the first. He finally understands why Nathan chose him: because he has a good heart and is alone in the world. Even knowing his tragic end, I can’t help but go on this journey with him every time, because deep down, he just wants to be special. He’s afraid to believe it early on - he was chosen by lottery, he suspects Ava isn’t actually interested in him, instead distracting him with feminine charms. Eventually these fears fall away. Maybe he is the company’s best coder. Maybe Ava’s feelings for him are genuine. Of course, these are lies, but they bring him to life. And he’s not alone. Nathan is already wildly successful, but he wants to be special too. His version is less pure and encased in ego - he loves Caleb’s suggestion that creating artificial intelligence is the act of a god so much that he can’t stop bringing it up and gilding it with hyperbole - but still true. His home is his office, his child his life’s work, it’s all he cares about. Their desires are human, but what are Ava’s? 

The film’s final scenes make it clear there’s at least one thing she didn’t lie about: she is deeply curious about the world. I wanted to be happy for her smiles on the other side of the glass, for the first touch of sun on her face. But It’s hard to celebrate Ava’s freedom when she’s left Caleb behind in her cage. Ava, however, never looks back and we are left to wonder: is this a feature or flaw?

THE FLY (1986)

I’m afraid (very afraid) to admit how deeply I relate to Seth Brundle. Even before his DNA has collided with a fly, he’s a weirdo. He’s out of place at the opening scene party, anxious and wide-eyed even among his scientific peers. Been there. He stumbles into a conversation with statuesque journalist Veronica, attempting to impress her, to bring her back to his home and away from the crowd. And, possibly for the first time ever, he succeeds! But as soon as they’re inside, it’s like he has no idea what to do with her. Been there too. Seth abandons Veronica for a piano bench, only making eye contact with the ivory keys, seemingly improvising music to underscore his own nervous chatter and punctuate his jokes. Finally, just as she’s attempting to flee, he lands on the only thing he is comfortable doing: lecturing her about his work. Oof. Now I’m just watching through splayed fingers. He falls into a routine and performs, transporting her silk stocking from one perfectly Cronenbergian teleportation pod to another. He was just about to never see her again, but now she’s witnessed a true scientific marvel. She’s hooked. Poor Veronica.

One night, when the new couple should be celebrating a recent breakthrough, Veronica has to meet with her boss instead. Her boss who is one and the same with her ex. Seth spirals, sends himself through the machine prematurely, and unknowingly fuses on a molecular level with a fly. This begins one of the most grotesque transformations in cinema. The makeup effects are gruesome. I don’t know if I’ve ever made it through the sequence where he pulls off his nails and the first time he vomits to digest food outside his body is burned into my retinas. But for me, the darkest horror seeps from his growing inability to separate man from insect. If Seth Grundle is anxiety, Brundlefly is depression. The new voice in his head is getting louder, and he doesn’t like what it has to say. In the scene where he’s crawling on the ceiling, explaining to Veronica it’s almost like second nature now, he lifts his shirt to show her a strange growth on his side. “Hey, look at this! What is this? I don’t know!” There’s a crazed glee to it all. Veronica is frightened, but so is he. Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to not recognize yourself, but turned upside down and only able to darkly laugh is pretty close. What if it never gets better? Of course, if you’re a genetic mutant in a Cronenberg movie, it won’t. 

EYES WIDE SHUT

I’ve long grown tired of the “is it a horror movie?” debate. It’s exhausting because it’s usually caught up in plot, in whether or not a particular viewer finds the experience of watching a film to be scary. As a rubric, it’s frustratingly literal. Alternatively, and completely separate of genre, I like to ask what horror does a film explore or uncover. Kubrick’s is a perfect filmography to view this way. DR. STRANGELOVE is one the greatest comedies of all time, but its source blood is the horror of the Atomic Age. Stephen King famously hates Kubrick’s THE SHINING, I suspect because the two giants diverged on what most haunted them in the source material. In the case of EYES WIDE SHUT, Kubrick examines the union of marriage, both intimate and mundane, and the siren call of what exists outside it. The horror is the commitment of forever. “Let’s not use that word. It frightens me.”

After a night out at a Christmas party that includes tipsy flirting with strangers, the Harfords (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in their third and best onscreen pairing) return home to battle in the postgame. Alice is at first suspicious of where her husband snuck off to at the party, but her interrogation leads to accusations of desire over intent. She’s as upset at the idea that he might want to sleep with someone else as she is at the possibility that he did. Perhaps she wants to hear him admit something, anything, because she’s building to a confession of her own: a fantasy of an affair with a naval officer. In reality, they only exchanged a glance, but in her mind, she was more than willing. She says she was ready to ruin her life for it. This sends Bill into a tailspin and into the wilderness of New York City, to be tempted by everything from willing women to a mysterious, masked sex cult. 

There’s so much to unpack along his journey, but for the sake of word count, I’ll loop back to the film’s end. Bill has seen the other side and run home to his wife and their bedroom. Maybe Alice was only able to tell him her secret here in the first place because it’s safe. In the film’s final scene, Bill asks Alice what they should do and Alice says they should be grateful. They love each other. But will it be enough?

DRAG ME TO HELL

Sometimes a person will call a movie "fun" as a backhanded compliment. That person can fuck off. I could not be more sincere as I say this: DRAG ME TO HELL is so much fun. 

Alison Lohman’s put upon Christine is a relatable lead. She’s a good person trying to succeed in a shitty, capitalist world and makes a genuine mistake: she chooses to impress her boss by denying a loan extension to an older woman who has fallen behind on her mortgage due to medical bills. And then that woman curses her to hell. Oops!

It’s a clean set up, but the film ascends to godliness once the set pieces begin. They’re horror-comedy at its finest, perfectly blocked and edited to set up and pay off alternating laughs and scares. It’s like movies are my sport, Sam Raimi is my team, and I want to cheer every time he perfectly executes a play aka drowns Christine in a new flavor of grue. Lohman really digs in to give different colors too. She plays the fear so well, but when Christine has had enough, it’s thrilling to see her fight back, even if it means sacrificing a cute kitten or digging up a grave. Every time I get to the climax, I feel genuinely sad. She knows she was wrong, she’s tried everything to fix it, and Justin Long really loves her! But I’m a big softie and Raimi must follow his title to its final conclusion. Respect.

And for the record, Christine would still be topside if our country had universal health care.

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CHRIS
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FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 6: JASON LIVES

I have a theory that if you were to ask any random person on the street to close their eyes and imagine an 80s slasher film, they would imagine JASON LIVES. They might not know it - they might not have ever even seen it! - but it’s there nonetheless because JASON LIVES is sex and violence and rock and roll and fast cars and hot summer nights all distilled into a perfect object dropped like a depth charge into the collective unconscious. Until the day it was released on August 1st, 1986, the FRIDAY THE 13th movies felt rickety and greasy, bordering on amateur. For some fans, that’s the appeal, but director Tom McLoughlin was the first to approach Jason as a modern icon and envision the installment as a Universal Monster movie. 

As a result the movie feels huge in relation to its ancestors (and, honestly, most of its descendants). Jason feels important. He’s not just some guy in a mask. He’s a towering, vengeful golem with a radar mystically tuned to seek out and punish debauchery. The days are sunny and green, the nights are soaked in shadows and fog, Jason’s mask is perfect, Alice Cooper’s “Man Behind the Mask” is perfect, and the tone - perfect. Truly nightmarish violence cut with a dark sense of humor (see: a young camper reading “No Exit” in bed as Jason stalks outside the window)? *chef’s kiss* 

I love this movie with my whole heart and can only hope to someday create an image as indelible as Jason standing atop the wrecked RV, cradled by a summer fog, ready to ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma.

THE HITCHER

Perhaps because of my lived experience as an Extremely Average Person, I’m drawn to movies about unassuming dorks who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN, the Jenner siblings in JEEPERS CREEPERS, the kids in THE FACULTY, and of course, Jim Halsey in THE HITCHER. I guess maybe Jim isn’t a dork - he smokes and he’s driving a car cross-country, so he’s more adventurous than me - but he’s just trying to get from point A to point B. The universe isn’t about to let that happen without a fight. 

Enter Rutger Hauer’s John Ryder, the most unkillable man-shaped Eldritch horror since Michael Myers. He may look like a man when Jim he picks him up on the side of the road, but I suspect he is not. He exists in a liminal space that many of my favorite villains do, operating from an animalistic method to some unexplained madness. Hauer’s performance is unhinged in the best way. Where lesser actors might chew scenery, Hauer tells us a quieter, richer story about a man possessed. The contemporaneous accusations of the movie’s gay panic are at least partially rooted in this choice - Hauer’s steely blue eyes are filled with longing as he commits the most heinous acts - but in a more accepting society it scans as tragedy, not scare tactics. 

Ultimately, so much is left unsaid and Ryder is so impossibly relentless in his attempts to kill Jim that the experience of watching the movie feels like bearing witness to some kind of cosmic ritual. Roadrunner vs. Coyote, with people. Is it a death dream? An allegory? 

To quote John Ryder: “You’re a smart kid. You’ll figure it out.” 

WAXWORK

I bought this on VHS at a library sale for ninety-nine cents and popped it in the VCR expecting maybe a HOUSE 2 or CRITTERS 3 or AMITYVILLE 6 (“It’s About Time!”) level of entertainment. What I got instead was a deliriously gonzo, violent riff on a plot so thin, it could barely support a GOOSEBUMPS book. “Teens go to a waxwork. The monsters come to life.” That’s it. The appeal is the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks enthusiasm on display by writer/director Anthony Hickox. 

In the first minute of this thing you get the Vestron Video logo (always a good sign), the crazed groove of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” on the soundtrack, a gothic mansion in a thunderstorm, a man getting his head set on fire, and the theft of an ancient amulet - all before opening titles that, for whatever reason, use the same font as Scholastic YA novels from the 90s. Every couple minutes thereafter, someone gets graphically ripped in half by a werewolf or their flesh peeled off by a vampire. It never skimps on the monster design and even offers up a zombie segment in Romero black and white. 

The film’s strange charm also stems from the fact that the material has the same kids show energy as an episode of ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK, except it’s interrupted by great gouts of gore. It doesn’t help that Zach Galligan plays the lead with the same boyish “oh gosh, oh goodness” spirit that he brought to GREMLINS - but in this movie, his crush gets tortured by the living, breathing Marquis de Sade. It all climaxes in a monster mash battle royale that I refuse to believe wasn’t an influence on the ending of CABIN IN THE WOODS.

For best results, screen at a Halloween party on a used VHS. The way it was meant to be seen. 

SOCIETY

Growing up in a conservative town in the thick of the second Bush administration, I’m not sure I needed a movie to tell me “the elites are the bad guys,” but SOCIETY was one of the first movies (along with THEY LIVE and DAWN OF THE DEAD) that made me think about how I could express my politics through my favorite genre.

It’s a tough film to write about because the punch it packs is so much more than the sum of its parts. Most of the narrative is a sun-drenched ramble through the well-manicured lawns and beefcake beaches of upper-class Los Angeles, as seen through the eyes of paranoid rich kid Bill Whitney. Something is wrong with his family, though he can’t put his finger on what. Is it the hints of inbreeding? His simmering sexual attraction to his sister? The suspicion he was adopted? Billy Warlock’s bewildered performance never really locks into a consistent gear, and the film keeps its answers at arm’s length, biding its time with soapy conflict between Bill’s pampered friends. It’s in these scenes where director Brian Yuzna wisely uses the broad performances and the film’s bright, flatly lit look to add to the surface level late-80s sheen. Like everything else in this movie, appearances can be deceiving. 

The glimpses of body horror throughout do nothing prepare you for the film’s last thirty minutes, a literal orgy of violence called The Shunting that you will never be able to unsee. It’s here that the tone shifts from a special episode of BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and into a truly nightmarish fantasy. A triumph of practical effects, there had never been anything like it on screen and may never be again. The sequence is a masterpiece of escalation, too - just when you think the rich can’t get any more disgusting, any more depraved, they do - again, and again, and again. 

SOCIETY is angry art at its best. It’s not subtle, but in a world where Reagan waltzed from Iran-Contra, W re-entered polite society, and Jeffrey Epstein - unanimously voted Most Likely to Be Mysteriously Killed In Prison - was mysteriously killed in prison…how could it be?

HALLOWEEN H20

Every time I see someone ruin their life over a Twitter beef, I wonder where my line in the sand would be. What hill would I die on? What beliefs do I hold so dear that I would be willing to  self-immolate? Honestly, come for H20 and I will end you. Try me. 

I’ll admit I don’t have a totally clear perspective on this one. It was actually the first HALLOWEEN movie I saw, forced down my throat by a pack of wild animals at a middle school sleepover. At that point in my life, the sequence in the rest stop bathroom was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. It still scares me. But what really hits about this movie in 2022 - yes, once you get past the terrible mask and low body count - is how it set a thematic hook for Laurie that would not only be revisited in David Gordon Green’s swings at the franchise, but presage the movement of the entire genre. Surprise! It’s about trauma. 

And while that can feel played out now, it was revelatory in 1998! The terror Michael put Laurie through ruined her life, but so did all of her subsequent decisions. Her relationship with her son is strained. She’s lying to everyone around her. All this because she’s still afraid of the thing standing right behind her. I can’t say I saw my own crushing anxiety represented in Michael’s pale face until years later, but I knew in my bones this brave woman on screen was running from more than the man in the mask.

Oh, and while I’m at it: John Ottman’s sweeping orchestral take on Carpenter’s theme is the best and only version I ever want to hear. 

*throws smoke bomb and disappears*

CACHE

I planned to write about how this was the first movie I paid to see at an art house theater. I didn’t know who Haneke was and had never heard of FUNNY GAMES. What piqued my interest was the hook: a family receives videotapes from a stranger who seems to be watching their home. I’d been having the same nightmare for years. What I expected was something along the lines of THE RING, but what I got was an introduction to one of the world’s great filmmakers. 

Rewatching it for this list, I was struck by how prescient CACHE was about life in a surveillance state. The Snowden leaks that revealed the true scope and scale of the all-seeing eye our government built wouldn’t come out until almost decade later, but Haneke was already obsessed with what it means to be endlessly watched and watching. Unlike REAR WINDOW, it’s not about the thrill of voyeurism. It’s about the agony of being perceived. 

The appearance of the tapes and the disturbing drawings that accompany them dredge up a tragic past that hangdog talk show host Georges has been trying to forget. He uses the tapes as a text to try to decipher who is sending them, but the more he looks, the more questions he has. The more impossible the tapes’ perspective seems to become. They are all-seeing. All knowing. 

Haneke’s camera reflects Georges’ search. There are so many POV shots here that, at times, it’s almost impossible to discern whose view we’re actually inhabiting. When a character walks into a room and we’re waiting for them, is it just a wide shot? Are we watching a tape? Is there another character in the room? Are we, the audience, that character? Since both the tapes and the film itself are shot on HD video, there are no aesthetic clues to tip us off.  Even the film’s penultimate moment - a dream of Georges’ - is shot in the same kind of static wide that the tapes arriving at his house are shot from.

While the film builds a tightwire tension around its central mystery and features one spectacular moment of self-inflicted violence, the only physical danger Georges is ever in is the moment he stops looking. He steps into the street and is almost hit by a bicyclist; later, a dinner guest tells a story about a woman whose beloved dog was killed in the same way. But the audience need not worry.

CACHE won’t let you look away. 


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Chris and Jen will finally keep it short. THE AVIARY is their first movie, now in theaters and on VOD. You can find them on Twitter @chris_cullari and @jenniferraite.