Calgary director Robert Cuffley’s latest Bright Hill Road a perfectly pandemic-friendly creeper

Robert Cuffley isn’t going to let something like a little global pandemic slow him down.

Not only did the veteran, Calgary-based filmmaker just release his latest movie across streaming platforms mid-January but he is already planning to begin filming his next feature as soon as March — COVID-19 be damned.

“It will be tough with masks, but my kids do it all day in school so there’s no reason we can’t,” says Cuffley recently during a phone interview. “Some people have pre-existing conditions and you want actors to feel safe so we’ll do whatever we can.”

To be fair, it shouldn’t be a huge adjustment for Cuffley who, after making such hits as his debut family drama Turning Paige and the 2016 pro wrestling comedy Chokeslam, now prefers to work with more intimate crews and actors. In fact, although his just-released Bright Hill Road was filmed before COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, the psychological horror flick would have been tailor-made for pandemic times.

Written by Edmonton-based novelist Susie Moloney, Bright Hill Road follows young alcoholic Marcy (played by Siobhan Williams) as she finds herself at a decrepit rural boarding house in the wake of a life-altering workplace shooting. There, she struggles with her addiction and begins to lose touch with reality while confronting the demons running through her life.

Because of such a simple set-up, the drama allowed Cuffley the ability to shoot the thriller with only three characters and a small crew at one mostly-abandoned location: the nearly century-old Stavely Hotel in southern Alberta.

“The allure to a single character in a house is not only because of COVID,” admits Cuffley. “It’s because what kills you on sets is large casts and moving locations. So if you can hunker down like we did in Stavely … and stay there — we slept there as well — then you can maximize your time.”

However, the production’s sparseness also bestowed upon the film an extra layer of creepiness.  The absence of other characters and the authenticity of the rundown setting lend Bright Hill Road an exceptionally haunting tone.

“It was tough on sound because everything creaks – every floorboard, every door – and although you want that in a horror movie, you want to put it in after, so there’s that challenge,” says Cuffley, who added the trade-off of the old hotel was the cogent set design and perhaps, more importantly, the economy of time. 

“People aren’t driving in from out of town and taking an hour to drive home. They’re just waking up, splashing water on their face and it’s, ‘Action!’ ”

It’s certainly the same approach Cuffley will take into Romi – the movie he’s planning to start shooting in March. 

Adapted from an award-winning short he directed in 2019, Romi is “about a woman dealing with a virtual assistant that may be possessed by a supernatural entity.”

The project will re-team Cuffley with Moloney (who also wrote the short) and allow him to work easily within the guidelines of COVID-19 restrictions with its single protagonist, one main location and a scaled-down crew.

“The movie we scrapped to go to Romi first was a monster movie,” says Cuffley of the more audacious project he originally planned to shoot. He adds that stunt work and intimate sex scenes would have caused too many headaches on the set under pandemic restrictions, so he decided to fast-track Romi, instead.

The film will also continue Cuffley’s foray into horror. Although previous work (such as 2013’s Ferocious) dabbled in the thriller world, Cuffley is now dedicated to exploring new territory in scary cinema.  

Part of that is the filmmaker’s childhood love of the genre. But the move is also an act of survival. As many projects — and the movie business, in general — falter amid coronavirus and its choking restrictions, horror movies are in fact thriving.  

Indeed, reports say 2020 was a boom year for the genre with many experts explaining that uncertain times bring larger audiences to horror-fiction. And Cuffley would most certainly agree.

“There’s so much real-life tragedy right now, I guess escapism still works,” says Cuffley, who adds the appeal of making horror movies is also its universality. “People don’t care if it’s shot on an iPhone or if it stars your kids, they just care if it captivates them.”

Bright Hill Road is now streaming and available on VOD.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.