The infamous Beechworth Lunatic Asylum in Victoria will serve as the setting for Dean Francis’ latest feature film, the psychological horror thriller Mayday Hill. The Australian director, who previously made horror film Road Train and forthcoming surf lifesaving drama Drown, was drawn to the sordid history behind the notorious psychiatric institution, which is dubbed ‘Mayday Hills’ by its locals.
“What’s interesting is that it became kind of a dumping ground for difficult woman in the 1800s,” says Francis. “It’s all these subtle and not so subtle ways in which our patriarchal society tries to rein in female sexuality and it’s incredibly oppressive. To address that in the context of a horror film is really compelling because the best genre films deal with something real and make a statement about our society.”
Francis came aboard the project after receiving a screenplay pitch from debut writer Matthew Barker by way of British producer Janice Eymann (Creation). Australian actor Daniel Feuerriegel, (Spartacus: Blood and Sand) was then cast in the lead role of Jake, a budding architect with plans to redevelop the asylum. Soon Jake and his girlfriend, who consequently suffers a mental breakdown, come face to face with the dark history of the asylum. “It’s a present day setting, however, the past is very present,” says Francis. “It’s a haunted house scenario so we encounter a lot of the characters from the past through the lens of our protagonist.”
Francis will have to move quickly if he is to shoot at the asylum, as plans are underway to redevelop it. “They’re turning it into a spa resort so our challenge is to get in there before they do because a lot of it is quite dilapidated and beautiful, therefore the perfect setting for a horror film.” Consequently, the redevelopment plans have helped serve the story. “The idea of this spread of urban defecation coming up against the past with this dark history was a really interesting framework for me.”
Despite his fondness for horror cinema, Frances is well aware that it’s particularly hard sell in this country. “With Road Train I learned quite a lot about genre, the way horror is consumed and the fanboy community,” says Francis. “There’s also the challenge of wanting to go back and do something better.
“It’s always been the issue here that local distributors can be shy of a local theatrical release for a horror film. Ultimately, the theatrical is a glorified ad campaign for VOD and you find these genre pictures have extremely long tails because even years later fans find these movies. There’s a very strong business proposition around genre if you look at it in the global context.”
The director also views these films in a much broader context. “What I would hope with Mayday Hill is that it’s got that crossover potential like The Others did, which was a creepy supernatural thriller with a strong dramatic through-line and a wonderful character journey. You’ve got to combine those two aspects I think.”
Produced through his own company JJ Splice Films, Francis intends to start shooting Mayday Hill toward the end of the year, with a theatrical and VOD release anticipated in 2015.
A teaser trailer for Mayday Hill can be viewed here.