Back in 2020, before the pandemic shut us all inside, I was invited to attend the BFI’s Future Film Festival. It was a menagerie of teenaged-to-early-adult creatives all tinkering and playing with different formats – cinema-verité documentaries, blocky saturated animations, hard-hitting social realist dramas. It was an excellent spread, to say the least, but there was one short that particularly gripped me – a horror micro-short called Wither. Describing the horror of Wither would be a disservice to the short itself because it leaves you with an unsettlingly familiar feeling of unease, yet unable to form words to vocalize it. I’ll leave a link to it here, as I highly recommend you experience it yourself. There was an innate intelligence to its design that crept under your skin with its sounds and its imagery, a cinematic shift disturbing the silent air of the Southbank. I’d come to learn this was the creation of Jess Bartlett and Ethan Evans, and immediately after the screenings, I sought out to contact them, to understand these creatives, and how they were able to captivate me in this way.

I’ve followed Jess and Ethan ever since, who have now formed their own production company, Terror Arcade. Watching Wither at the Future Film Festival, I believed I was watching the birth of two careers happening in front of me – a gut feeling that Jess and Ethan would go on to do extraordinary things. Within a year, they would win Arrow Video’s Lockdown Horror Competition with Stagnant, with that same short available on the launch of Arrow’s streaming service. In that same year, they would also create the incredible viral short ‘Time Out’ which achieved over 6,000,000 views on Tiktok alone, creating fans out of the likes of Jed Shepherd and the Soska Sisters. However, their biggest achievement would come around a year after Future Film Festival: having their shorts personally watched and approved by exec-producer Eli Roth, who would then hire both Ethan and Jess to write and direct two episodes of Zak Bagans’ Discovery+ anthology series, ‘The Haunted Museum.’

To me, it’s clear that Terror Arcade are the Horror Stars of Tomorrow, making their name today. Their shorts speak with sophistication and understanding of what terrifies and horrifies brilliantly and are able to take the simplest of images or even ideas and run wild with them. So, perhaps slightly selfishly, I wanted to be the one to say, “I was the first to profile Terror Arcade”, but I also think they absolutely deserve it. The story of Jess and Ethan is just as important and inspiring as the trajectory of their rocketing careers – over the course of an afternoon, I asked them about everything from their first introduction to their director-producer dynamic, how they’ve perceived their growth, and ultimately, what all of this means to them.

Both Jess and Ethan have very relatable beginnings – both wanting to work in the creative industry, but not entirely sure of themselves, or what in the industry they would do. Ethan mentions a lack of confidence at the beginning of university, pushing him to develop his hobby of music-making into sound design specialisation – “I realised that doing sound design in short films was almost identical to making music or at least how I was doing it. So it was a very natural progression.” Jess on the other hand knew she wanted to be in the industry, but wasn’t sure where: “I thought when I got there, it’d be something I could just find a role that would appeal to me. I’ve always liked creative writing growing up, I went through a phase where I’d write novels, so I knew that writing would be a part of it.”

University was a cinematic laboratory for both, allowing them to wear different hats and discover what spoke to them – for Jess, she tinkered with cinematography but found herself being called to producing: “[producing] really stood out to me and I’ve been producing shorts from first year all the way through to our graduate films.” With Ethan, he explained that working on the side-lines first as a sound designer, then as an editor taught him more about directing than perhaps jumping straight in ever could have: “I think that passed over to everything, even The Haunted Museum, so much of it was edit and sound conscious. It was probably the best route I could’ve taken.”

Jess and Ethan were friends but not all that close, and Ethan tells that “the magic of horror is what really brought us together.” A rather sweet tale out of Ethan’s grad film, Sweetie. As Jess explains, “they needed a producer, and I didn’t have a project that I was attached to. I really liked the sound of it.” This is quite surprising because Jess would then immediately say she was terrified of watching any horror, but “I loved the sound of theirs.” Despite being terrified of horror, Jess would also produce a haunted-house musical short, Dearly Departed with her friend Elise, which would go on to win multiple awards on the festival circuit.

It’s clear that the two are tremendously well-matched – just as Ethan has introduced Jess to the world of horror, so has Jess introduced Ethan to the world of musicals: “I think the one that stands out to me is definitely Singin’ in the Rain [Jess’ favourite film of all time], which is literally just a masterpiece isn’t it?” We then all mutually agree that no matter who you are, you always need a bit of High School Musical in your life, too.

When I ask Jess and Ethan about how the name Terror Arcade came about, they both emphasize that it was a stressful naming process, to say the least. “It took us a long time because it’s something you’ve got to stick with from that point onwards,” Jess points out, “I think the top runner before ‘Terror Arcade’ was ‘Spooky Island’, like from Scooby-Doo but I thought we might get in a little trouble down the line. [Laughs.]” Terror Arcade is very much a legacy team, with the pair pulling from their Wither crew, assembled from various alumni of their year. One standout for Jess is Nicholas Bendle, their editor: “It’s brilliant because he hates horror films, but for some reason, he’s got such a good rhythm. He’s so tuned in lucidly because editing horror is a whole other ballgame in itself.”

Terror Arcade seem to be able to think visually, and yet process emotion sonically – that was how I felt during Wither, as though the feelings of the images conjured are transmitted into my brain. It’s this cognitive dissonance that is integral to some of the best horror like Halloween or American Psycho, only performed on a more original level.

Wither sprung from Jess spotting a disturbingly creepy apple orchard on her train home, and so I asked the two if their projects often evolved from a singular image or idea. Jess explained it’s dependent on situations, like Time Out’s original viral image of the dolls themselves, or Stagnant evolving from quick-thinking around a pitch deadline. What was fascinating is Terror Arcade’s bulk of inspiration, creating as Jess calls them, these strings of ideas: “We both save hundreds of pictures, concept art, inspiration, things we’ve come across online.” Ethan estimates around 8000 pictures on his phone alone. “Honestly, having such a big inspiration bank like that can trigger a story, or spark an idea. It’s an invaluable resource for us because we both think very visually.”

When the lockdown hit, many relaxed and binge-watched their favourite shows, or played video games. Jess and Ethan created the award-winning Arrow Video-approved short Stagnant, and the viral ‘hidden’ short Time Out. Formatted through the clever deception of an Instagram story, it created the illusion of genuine internet-based found footage: “We talked about the possibility it would go viral because of the specific format we’d created it in, because you can stick it on socials without having to say, ‘This is a short film!’” Ethan elected to put it on Tiktok, which was where it truly blew up partly due to the community-based algorithm it operates on: “I said, ‘we’ll split it into three videos.’ It seemed to blow up overnight. We still can’t quite believe it.” They stopped counting the views across the socials once it crossed 15,000,000 views. I elaborated that Ethan seems to have unknowingly tapped into the viral essence of Tiktok – through this transmedia storytelling of creating a real Tiktok account for Time Out’s protagonist and splitting your story into parts, you create this illusion of reality, people can instantly spread your short through duetting it, and the serialization of a story creates a feverish demand for its ending. In short, Terror Arcade got millions addicted to their storytelling without even trying.

When I ask about their involvement with their latest project, The Haunted Museum, I can see the eager excitement in both of their eyes, no longer forced to secrecy. “Eli Roth is the exec-producer, and reached out to a number of companies asking ‘hey, do you have any directors you can recommend?’ I think it was Kate Krantz at Crypt TV who put us forward and said, ‘check these guys out.’” Through that recommendation, Ethan directed Monster in the Machine, co-writing with Jess, and solo-directed & wrote Tribal Statue Terror. Terror Arcade and The Haunted Museum seemed to be two rotten peas in a decaying pod, as Jess tells me “they were looking for people used to that format, skilled in quick turnarounds, which is our thing! [Laughs.] Give us two weeks and we can make something or break a treatment easy. We seemed to suit them very well.”

It’s an example of no matter the scope of your portfolio, or the size of your budgets, simply having that portfolio can open doors, as Ethan elaborates: “It was our shorts that were the proving ground of what we liked, and what we could do.” The surreal nature of Eli Roth not only watching your work but being affected by it to recommend them is clearly not lost on the two, as the two weren’t able to believe it until Ethan had to fly to Canada that the two realized ‘okay, this might actually be happening.’ When Ethan arrived on set, he describes the feeling as “like I was on one of our shorts – it’s always people first, which is how we always run our sets. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, which was lovely because you’re always scared of what it’s going to be like.” He also mentioned how amazing it was to just be directing for once, rather than running around doing 50 different things on set at once. What’s noteworthy is Steven Scott, who Ethan describes as the series producer/showrunner – “a director in his own right, so he’s very filmmaker friendly.” Because of Steven, Terror Arcade’s voice was heard through every stage, typically a rare level of involvement, with Ethan contributing to the edit also.

Terror Arcade have had an absolute dream of a year, and it’s evident they’re getting the appreciation they deserve – dedicating yourself to a creative art like film can mean years of hardship and struggles, so I ask Jess and Ethan what they believe their biggest hurdle has been, and they immediately have an answer for me.

“Funding.” “Yeah, 100%.”

Terror Arcade has a 4-tier system: “Tier A would be the best-case scenario, making a short for £20,000 or something. If that doesn’t work, there’s Tier B, which is up to £10,000. Then there’s Tier C, maybe roughly £3,000. Finally, there’s Tier D, which is literally ‘okay, let’s just make a short for whatever we can get, and whatever we can save.’” I ask them what Tier they’ve often found themselves in most, to which they respond: “Every single film we’ve made has been in Tier D.”

As Ethan and I both agree, getting a horror film funded in the UK is near-impossible, because despite the immense global popularity of the genre, as Alan Jones eloquently put it, “horror makes the most money, and yet it’s the poor relation.” This hasn’t stopped Jess and Ethan whatsoever – “We’ve self-funded everything that we’ve done so far, and it’s worked in our favour in a weird way because it shows that no matter what, we want what we’re creating out there.” Jess rationalises Terror Arcade’s belief that the charm of low-budget to no-budget is this strange seediness that permeates these low-budget creations that give them authenticity. “You feel like you’ve been taken right into this world and it could just be a video online.”

Jess perfectly encapsulates the sentimentality of low-budget horror – it’s why now-classics of the genre like Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity and Host achieved such acclaim. Jess performed double-duty as both Terror Arcade’s producer, and worked in a pub to secure funds for their shorts: “we would decide on a rough little budget and then we’d just go off to get the money wherever we could. It can be a bit gruelling because of how long it could take, but at the same time it’s never stopped us.” They’re heart-warmingly humble with their journey, but Terror Arcade deserves funding. Just like John Carpenter and Debra Hill, Jess and Ethan are creating something out of nothing, extracting the latent horror out of images and sounds, elongating them to reach maximum horror. If they’ve been doing that with little-to-no budget, imagine what a fully-funded idea from their haunted minds could do to you.

Terror Arcade is currently gearing up to make their first feature, so this would be a good time to invest, potential funders reading this! I inquire about any possible details, but Ethan is tight-lipped: “We don’t want to say anything just yet, but it’s a sort-of contained supernatural film. It’s a new spin on something, I think it’s going to be very scary.” What Ethan did reveal is that it’s a merging of both his and Jess’ worlds – “it’s not a horror musical, though. [Laughs.]” – and as Jess mentions, “we’ve been working on it like maniacs over the last couple months, trying to get it to that place where we feel confident to push it forward.” There are also some other treatments they teased, including a feature-length adaptation of Time Out.

In our final moments, I asked Jess and Ethan to reflect on everything they’ve done so far, what they considered to be the biggest moment for the pair. I wondered if it was The Haunted Museum, but both Jess and Ethan consider it to be something immensely personal – being able to do this together, not just as creative partners, but as a couple, making your dreams happen with your best friend.

Note: these are not children Jess and Ethan are holding.

Jess: Ethan’s dream has been to make horror ever since he was a kid, and I love horror now, we both watch it every day, so to be able to share that with not only your working partner but your actual partner and share the same vein of dreams together, to be able to watch the hard work pay off has been the greatest kind of achievement.  To see our hard work finally be recognised by people you’ve watched and admired growing up, that was the final moment where it was like, wow, people do like our stuff and it is getting seen. That’s the end goal. We’ve always dreamed of making feature films, so to feel that we’re moving in the right direction has been amazing. And to share it together, always being involved in this together makes the achievements feel so much bigger.

Ethan: Yeah, it’s nice being in it together. It’s cheesy, but when I think back, it’s been amazing, even thinking about the weather and all of the films. Making them around Halloween, which is the best time of year and just that feeling in the air. It’s just so exciting, isn’t it? I think when you’re in it at the time, it can feel quite stressful making these things and when you look back, doing what you love feels like the best thing ever.

Jess: I think now definitely feels like the start for us. Although we’ve been working away at it for years, this finally feels like a starting point. We’re so ready to go jump into whatever the future holds.

The Haunted Museum’s ‘Monster in the Machine’ and ‘Tribal Statue Terror’ are available to watch now on Discovery+.

Ethan is @ethanevansfilm on Twitter, Jess is @JessBFilm, and you can find Terror Arcade @TerrorArcade or terrorarcade.co.uk.

 

By Sab Astley

Lover of all things horrifying, dark and satirical - The Rocky Horror Picture Show being one of my favorites makes sense there.

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