Fairy tales used to be scary. Hell, that was the whole point of them. Stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs, or The Scorpion and the Fox were meant to be cautionary stories to keep kids in line and out of danger. It's only been in the last hundred years or so with changes in society and the Disney brand gentrification of these classic stories that we've seen warnings about the dangers of trusting strangers or going into the woods alone turn into uplifting musicals. One of my favorite growing up was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a classic tale of revenge that has been difficult to adapt into a sunny, child friendly cartoon.
The story of the Pied Piper is one of the darker and more difficult to whitewash fairy tales in my opinion. The town of Hamelin was ravaged by the bubonic plague and the Piper was hired to save the city before. With his magical flute he played a tune and lead the disease carrying rats into a nearby river where they drowned. Like any good fairy tale, however, the mayor of Hamelin chose to double cross our hero and the townspeople ran the Pied Piper out of town. Obviously dissatisfied he returns and, using the same magic as had rid the town of diseased rodents he leads the town's children into the same river and drowns them. Later versions suggest he simply kidnapped and held them for ransom but, either way,it's pretty damn grim.
The Whistler, a new short film by Jennifer Strang, takes the mythology of this classic fairy tale and gives it a new life.
Taking some familiar horror tropes, modern fairy tale style is you will, Strang takes the Pied Piper story and creates a parallel in a small town with its own gruesome legend. When Lindsey (Karis Cameron) is forced to babysit her younger sister Becky (Baya Ipatowicz). During the night, an eerie whistling lures the child from her bed and calls her, and hundreds of other local children, into the woods towards the river.
“Our intention with The Whistler was to portray a classic horror story of a night of babysitting gone wrong with an original Pied Piper like monster who has been stealing children since the founding colonies of America in the 1600s. It’s a suggestive piece that evokes questions about the time-old theme of purity and sin, a theme; that despite ideological changes, remains strong. I hope that viewers enjoy putting the pieces together and are surprised by a few jump scares as well,” says Jennifer.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jennifer about The Whistler which ran most recently at the NYC Horror Film Festival.
Dan - What will audiences recognize you from?
JS - I’ve directed a number of music videos, including BRAKES by Royal Jacks, and wrote and directed a series of short films call The Dream Series that you can find on YouTube. My short film, The Lake is featured on GAIA TV as well.
Dan - While the story of the Pied Piper is clearly a major theme for The Whistler, were there other fairy tales or urban legends that helped shape the story?
JS - It really was just The Pied Piper folktale that influenced this story, as far as fairy tales go. I’m sure there were some subconscious influences coming through, as I read a lot of fairy tales and fantasy novels as a child. The story of El Coco in Latin American countries is actually very similar to that of The Pied Piper as well. There seem to be different stories in various countries that are similar to this legend, and that is exciting to be able to have this story relate across cultures.
Dan - The cinematography and choice of visuals were incredible. Did you have a vision in mind for these scenes to begin with or did they come together after finding locations?
JS - Yes! We absolutely had a vision in mind that our DP, Naim Sutherland, and I discussed from day one. I told him what I envisioned, and he understood the mood and atmosphere right away. It was fantastic to be on the same page so quickly. We certainly wanted to create a classic feel set in a modern time for this short, and we both envisioned the same colour palette, so it was an easy project to prepare in terms of the style of the film.
Dan - Do you find it more difficult or less difficult to work with children?
JS - I find it so easy to work with children! If children aren’t over-trained and aren’t taught to control their performances by teachers and agents, then they are always natural and in the moment. As adult actors, we often try to get back to that state of being. It’s so easy to over-think as adults and sometimes we may try to control the scenes, but children always go with the flow. Baya Ipatowicz was a gem to work with because not only did she understand what each scene required for her character, but she came up with spontaneous and creative ideas on set that made the whole process a lot of fun!
Dan - What was the idea behind the character design of The Whistler.
JS - The evil entity called The Whistler is actually the angry spirit of a man that used to live in 1600’s America, when the first British colonies were being established. The legend of this character, named Barnabas Crouch, had the intense desire to rid the world of sin and killed a great deal of sinners in order to do so. He also started “eternally baptizing” children in the river to save them from sin. Once the townspeople found out, he was hanged in the town hall. But before he died he put a curse on the town and warned them that he would come back to execute his revenge on the townspeople and to finish what he started. We wanted this character, therefore, to not only represent this time period, but to have his appearance to be a physical manifestation of the deep hatred he harbours in his soul.
Dan - What's next for The Whistler?
JS - The Whistler is a proof of concept for the feature-length script entitled Blackwood Falls! We are currently putting a package together so we can seek funding. In the short film we don’t have time to expand on The Whistler character, nor our other lead characters, so diving into this story in a more comprehensive way will be a blast, and we’ll be able to play around with the themes and puritanical elements much more!
Overall I found The Whistler engaging if not a bit too short for the amount of story being told. The ending definitely leaves audiences wanting much more and, from the sounds of it, Jennifer Strang and the production team behind the film are looking to give us just that. Seeing a classic folk tale brought to life in a way that is modern while remaining honest to the source material is wonderfully refreshing. The cautionary aspects of a young woman being alone with a malevolent figure, of honoring debts or paying the consequences, and a deep religious under current are just a few of the engaging story elements in the short film that will no doubt be explored more thoroughly once production begins on the feature.
The Whistler is still making the film festival circuit right now but there's a bright future still to come from this dark story . If you haven't already, be sure to follow Jennifer Strang and The Whistler online and on social media.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan's stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.