CANONSBURG – If a film starring a grotesque, frogesque creature that captures human souls doesn’t sound like a run-of-the-mill monster movie, that’s because filmmaker Fred Terling wants his first feature film, “Croaker: A Ribbiting Tale,” to put a unique spin on the horror genre.
Terling, 49, is filming, directing and producing the independent thriller in his hometown, Canonsburg, with scenes shot at Chartiers Creek and other beloved childhood hangout spots.
“I went down to the fishing holes and railroad tracks that I played on as a kid, and things just started to happen creatively,” Terling said. “Once I found the monster and started putting it all together, I wrote it in a weekend.”
With three-quarters of the filming completed, Terling and his crew of 51 members are hoping to release the $25,000-budget film this October.
“Croaker,” a film inspired by 1970s horror flicks, involves two brothers and four friends who are haunted by a 16th-century curse. According to Slavic folklore, a swamp creature called the Vodnik must collect 10 souls before the curse can be passed onto a new victim.
The role of the Vodnik will be played by two contortionist dancers in costume, and Terling described the performance as freakier than the character of Regan MacNeil in “The Exorcist.”
“I wanted the fear and creepiness to come from the monster in the way that it moves, as opposed to anything else,” Terling said.
Yet, the monster is merely peripheral to a story that is primarily about human relationships, interspersed with elements of comedy and drama with a love story, to boot.
“It’s a complex story. It’s not like six dumb teenagers go into the woods for the weekend to get drunk on prom night, and there’s a slasher out there,” said Terling, who added that the film has little blood, few special effects and only one “semi-decapitation.”
Scenes have been shot in Terling’s own home and various locations throughout Canonsburg, including KoSports, Alice’s Restaurant and the borough municipal building. An upcoming scene will be shot in a parking lot filled with frogs, although Terling stressed that he is not a “frog wrangler,” so the scene could be fun or quite complicated.
Mayor David Rhome, who plays a small role in the film, said “Croaker” has helped put Canonsburg on the map.
“It not only creates a movie, but it creates a stir,” he said. “The buzz was everywhere. Now people are saying, ‘When’s that movie coming out?’”
The film also draws upon true events from Canonsburg’s darker past, when radiological contamination from Standard Chemical Co. plagued the town for years.
Funds were raised through crowd-sourcing site Indiegogo, as well as direct buy-ins. “Croaker” already has distribution deals lined up with iTunes, Netflix and Amazon, and at least two more deals are being negotiated.
Terling met with producers from the Syfy channel, but he removed his film from consideration when they took issue with a strong, independent female as lead character Macy Patterson, played by Valerie Gatto, 23, of Pittsburgh.
The other lead character, Florian Sirko, will be played by Marty Patterson, 51, of Ambridge, whose first acting role was at a 48-hour film festival in Pittsburgh last year.
Jennifer Obed, assistant director and actress who plays the part of a “kinky coroner,” said filming independently gives them more flexibility and fewer restraints. Plus, it is more enjoyable.
“I’ve worked on a million movies, including professional ones where everone just shows up, does their job and goes home, but smaller films are so much fun because there’s this community atmosphere. It’s like a team sport,” said Obed, 33, of Coraopolis.
Charles Denler, an Emmy award-winning composer who will be writing the music for “Croaker,” echoed these sentiments.
“I love independent films,” Denler said in a press release for the film. “‘Croaker’ is a rare mix of great storytelling and great filmmaking. I am sure it will keep the audience ‘hopping’ in their seats.”
If “Croaker” is successful, and Terling anticipates it will be, his next project will be “Meals on Wills,” a dark comedy about three elderly women who form a profitable business by turning their dead neighbors into hamburger patties. Terling described it as a mix between “The Golden Girls” and “Sweeney Todd.”
The leading ladies will be played by famous “illusionist” actors from the 1950s – or, in more modern terms, drag queens.
“We want to do something that’s so genre-mixed and outlandish, but in a good way, not like ‘Sharktopus vs. Gatoroid.’”
Although Terling has always dreamed of writing and producing films, he has mostly worked in sales, marketing and politics. He recently completed a job with state Rep. Dan Deasy of the 27th Legislative District.
Now that Terling has had a taste of filmmaking, he said there is no going back.
“I went from a world where you have to watch every single word you say, and you can’t do anything, and blah, blah, to just bursting out,” he said. “I’m a filmmaker. This is it for me.”