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‘Among Mountain Crags’ Depicts Beauty and Horror in Appalachia

Something wicked this way

The scene is quiet, save for the lilting instrumental music swaying in the background. An aerial shot pans the Appalachian Mountains, just above the clouds. A creek reflects the sky overhead and a tree canopy comes into view. Shots of beauty, ambiance and peace set the tone in the artistic yet horrifying film Among Mountain Crags.

Erin and Kyle Frederick, sisters who bounce between Charlotte, Los Angeles and New York City, have together created a film that is as surprising and dark as it is lovely. Set in a nondescript town in Appalachia in an indecipherable era, this film is the result of a years-long conceptualization, a crew of just a handful and a minimal budget raised through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Now the film has found its way to multiple film festivals where its been highly praised, and can currently be streamed on Amazon and other platforms.

As a senior at NYU studying French, with classes in acting and screenwriting, Erin began working on what would become Among Mountain Crags. Her sister, Kyle, had an undergraduate degree in art history and an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. After some work on what was then just a school project, Erin sent the original draft to Kyle, who began to chisel away at it with a producer’s eye.

Kyle (left) and Erin Frederick (photo by Steve Naylor)

Kyle aimed to make the film more cinematic, while keeping in mind there would be no budget for visual effects to “trick the audience,” into feeling one way or another, as she put it. There were lots of drafts, lots of back and forth, lots of workshopping, with the end goal of making a film good enough to enter the festival circuit.

To feel a bit more connected to the film and thus have a better overall understanding for filming, Kyle began to write more and add her own perspective. Her additions to the script were colored by her own relationships and how women often deal with strangers.

‘Among Mountain Crags’ tells a story of manipulation

Among Mountain Crags is a cautionary tale, one that’s relatable for women who have had experiences with subtle manipulation — letting themselves believe in love before finding that a hidden side exists beneath a charming facade.

Protagonist Coralie Whitt, played by Erin, is a teacher in her small mountain town. The handful of school children she teaches seem to have little respect for her, revealing with snide remarks heavy-weighing family secrets. When a mysterious stranger played by Hunter Hutcheson comes through town, Coralie is drawn to him, eventually deciding to leave with him on foot to begin their lives together.

That the two meet and almost instantly decide to leave town via mountain trails, carrying next to nothing, is cause enough for concern. But as the two meander through the mountains, the stranger’s true nature slowly begins to show, resulting in a sinister shift from what the film initially leads you to believe is a tale of growth, redemption and love.

Among Mountain Crags
Erin Frederick (left) and Hunter Hutcheson in ‘Among Mountain Crags.’ (Cinematography by Michael Patrick O’Leary)

What’s scary about this movie (aside from, you know, murder) is that it could (and does) happen to women all the time. Film and television promote the tired view that women long only for love and, as women, when faced with this ever-repeating plot line in books, on screen and in societal pressures expressed in the, “So are you seeing anyone?” probes that are repeated throughout a lifelong cycle, it’s no wonder some can become too quick to trust.

The scant dialogue in Among Mountain Crags is in the same vein as Blow the Man Down, another female-forward story about seemingly safe men taking advantage of young women — though the twists are quite different. This stylistic choice to let the story tell itself, guided by a haunting soundtrack, was intended to give the viewer a chance to become entranced alongside Coralie, lending itself to the sinking reality that women are taught to follow men before their own instincts.

“Women have completely different experiences than men,” Erin said. “We need more horror from a female perspective. The beauty of the whole project is that no one knows it’s a thriller. It’s supposed to be dreamy and painterly, which are not typical stylistic choices for horror.”

If I’m going to sit down and watch a movie—which, let’s face it, is far more commonplace now than it may have been in, say, February— I’m going to skip right over horror every time. I have no space in my life for nightmares. And yet, for the sake of research, I logged into Amazon and sat in the brightness of day to watch their final product.

I’ve known Kyle and Erin for awhile, which is likely the only reason I broke my self-imposed mandate against horror films to watch their flick. They are both incredibly hilarious and well-versed in third-wave coffee, having each had stints managing the Charlotte chain Not Just Coffee. Between the two of them, they’ve managed to follow their goals to fruition: create a film, promote their work and make a few jumps in the indie film festival circuit.

The Frederick sisters move into a genre dominated by men

It’s shocking to see two quiet, intensely stylish women producing intentional, low-budget horror. As a society, we’ve still got this idea that horror is a man’s genre, which certainly played a role in Erin’s original choice to veer in this direction and Kyle’s choice to produce.

“I’d seen men do it,” Kyle said of leaving her job in Charlotte to pursue directing on the West Coast, “and not just in horror. They’d work on short films and move on to features, but in L.A., this seems to only work for men. So why is it not happening for women?”

Kyle (left) and Erin Frederick (Photo by Steve Naylor)

Kyle posed this question almost rhetorically, but subtly challenges it through her own work, making it happen for herself even when surrounded primarily by male colleagues in a male-dominated field. Kyle started her journey in a small class of about 50 aspiring filmmakers, only six of whom were women. It was easy to see how blatantly disproportionate the representation was from the get-go.

Despite their deep awareness that they were few among many, Kyle and Erin were not hell-bent on making Among Mountain Crags a female-driven story with female-driven crew (their third sister became an intense boom operator). They did not want to make a female film for the sake of making a female film.

“I didn’t want to be a good female film maker,” Erin said. “I just wanted to be a good filmmaker.”

Kyle and Erin wanted to produce a movie people wanted to see, something that would resonate with a specific crowd. They wanted to tell a story so many are unfortunately familiar with.

The duo carries out the filmmaking process

After the two finalized their screenplay, held auditions and secured “found locations,” they began filming in the North Carolina mountains and parts of West Virginia. The scenes take place in locations that were set up as-is — how they look in the film is how they look in real life, including a portion shot in a coal-mining museum. Over the course of 18 days, the crew became like a tight-knit family, weaving a film together on little funds.

The editing process was stretched across the country, with Kyle’s colleague working on editing from L.A., and color design coming from Company 3 (which is, as Kyle said, “a big deal in the color correction world”).

Among Mountain Crags
A knife!

Back in North Carolina, Charlotte’s own Tanner Morita (of Hex Coffee) created the instrumental soundtrack. The Fredericks provided Morita with picture-locked still shots and other soundtracks to provide the vibe and tone they were going for. He began sending melodies he’d created separate for each character. They then worked with a North Carolina-based sound designer to tie it all together.

And then the two were ready to submit for festivals.

In 2018, the film was selected among a handful of others for the Montana Film Festival (MFF). The mountain setting was a perfect fit for MFF, which ran other similar films similar, among those were Little Woods as well as Wildfire, a film starring Carrie Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, each dark and heavy in their own rite.

The reviews roll in

The feedback for Among Mountain Crags was consistent: beautiful, haunting. A reviewer from the Montana Film Festival had this to say: “Although Among Mountain Crags was more than likely conceived before the #MeToo Movement had its moment, it seems like a thriller for our times and with a lot to say about feminism, the patriarchy, and sexual abuse/assault. At the same time, it’s a classic suspense tale that leans on the spooky mood and ambiance of Appalachia while clocking in at just over an hour.”

Two other festivals screened the film, including our city’s own Charlotte Film Festival. The Fredericks wanted to see the movie come full circle — to be shown on the big screen in a town they’d at various times called home.

The siblings soon met Shawn Flannigan, a film distribution rep that works specifically with independent filmmakers, and began working with him. With his help, they landed with Indie Rights film distribution, which set them up on platforms such as Amazon Prime. The film is also available on YouTube for a humble $1.99.

“We’ve had great responses so far. For us, streaming was the best fit,” Kyle said. “We felt it most important to reach people who would resonate with the film. We want to get it in front of as many people as possible and people are watching it multiple times.

“Although,” Kyle added, “we have no idea what the analytics actually are at this point.”

The obvious question here is, what’s next? To see a film from inception over the course of many years has been incredibly satisfying, the duo says. As of now, they simply hope to push their film farther internationally, banking on the universal theme the film conveys.

The two do have a few things up their sleeves. They’re currently planning some projects apart from one another, so don’t expect them to become the next Coen brothers. Kyle is writing a dystopian fiction while Erin is delving into sci-fi.

Erin is looking to dive more into the acting field, while admitting that it’s “hard to wrap my head around what’s possible this next year,” given the unsure state of things surrounding COVID-19. Though if there’s one thing the virus has ensured for our future, it’s that dystopian sci-fi won’t be far from everyone’s mind moving forward.

Streaming not your thing? Check our list of 20 books from North Carolina authors to check out

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