Area filmmaker Hope Muehlbauer started making her first feature film when she was 16.
For its premiere on July 14 in the North Park Theatre, she gave her horror film an "R" rating. That means she wouldn't have been able to see her own movie without her parents - and she sees the humor in that.
“I did find it funny that I wouldn’t have been able to see it at 16 without an adult with me,” she said. Still, she added it was important for her to give “I Dare You to Open Your Eyes” an “R” for reasons that go beyond language and the film’s “blood and guts.”
“It’s also quite an intense story. I didn’t want people to come see it and expect a ‘childish’ story, I do think that it is very mature for a 16-year-old to have made,” said Muehlbauer, now 18 and a recent graduate of Niagara Falls High School.
“One thing I realized early on is that I want to make horror films with meaning and substance and show that horror can be a very intense and impactful genre,” she said.
“I Dare You to Open Your Eyes” follows a bullied high school student, Max Adams, who also is dealing with the death of his mother to cancer and coping with a depressed father - all mature and relevant topics. The horror comes in through a series of “twisted dreams about the bullies that put his mind in an even darker place,” she said.
Max is played by her best friend Nick Ribbeck Jr. and his father is played by Tom Muehlbauer, Hope’s dad. Her parents also had other roles with the film, including contributing to the soundtrack (along with their longtime bandmate Jay Zgoda). “The atmospheric score is definitely a key aspect to the film,” Hope said. Her father also helped in the writing process.
“The idea kind of fell into place after I came up with the title. My father and I both began writing it together and everything seemed to just fall into place naturally as we kept writing,” she said. “The actual shoot took about a year to complete. We even did some re-shoots earlier this year, so it has been a pretty long process.”
An even bigger role played by her parents, Tom and Shelly, has been a life-long one: sharing their love of horror films with Hope. That's led her to make her own movies including stop-motion videos with dolls when she was “young” and her first short film “Zombie Kids” (2012) which she describes as “something my friends and I did for fun.” During her junior year in high school, she made another short film, the horror comedy “You’ll Never Guess Who’s Killing You.”
“I have been watching horror films for as long as I can remember. My parents are both huge fans of the genre and have an enormous collection of movies and memorabilia. They have been showing me horror movies from a very young age,” she said, rattling off a list of films like “Dawn of the Dead” that got her into a big zombie phase, plus “Suspiria,” “Frankenstein,” “Black Christmas,” and more recently, “The Witch” and “The Shape of Water.”
Filmmaker Ken Cosentino (“Attack of the Killer Shrews”) met Hope when she was 9. He gave her a featured role in his movie, “Crimson” and recalled she was immediately bitten by the filmmaking bug.
“It is really cool to see this come full circle now,” Cosentino said about her transition from young actress to feature film director. He produced the movie with his company White Lion Studios and was the director of photography and even played a small part in the film.
“She asked me to be involved and I jumped at the chance. There are so few female directors and it's rare to find someone so young with such a passion. I knew she had talent and a drive to create,” he said.
For Hope, that passion is natural. Her age? It's never a factor.
“When I was 16, I wanted to make this film just because I thought it was a story that I was ready to tell. In my head I didn’t even think 'Hey, I’m only 16. What is making me do this now?' It didn’t feel weird for me at any moment just because of my age,” she said.“Whenever I am behind a camera it just feels natural to me and I couldn’t even imagine myself doing anything else.”
“I Dare You to Open Your Eyes”
11:30 a.m. July 14 at the North Park Theatre (1428 Hertel Ave.). Tickets are $5. A Q&A follows the film.