Horror was not a first choice for Victoria Ungureanu Moore. Beyond that, she certainly didn’t plan on crafting a tale of terror while the world turned into a horror movie cliché — a scenario where a virulent pandemic threatens the human race. But then, she didn’t foresee making Heir of the Witch.
After honing her filmmaking chops with several short subjects for Charlotte’s 48 Hour Film Project, the Moldovan-born director/screenwriter/actress was ready to pull the trigger on her debut feature film, Five. Adapting her unpublished novel of the same name for the screen, Moore devoted several months to pre-production for a $5 million project with names attached. Then in 2019, Five was put on hold and Moore’s dreams crumbled.
She didn’t mourn for long. Instead, Moore turned her talent and energy to a genre she’d normally never consider: supernatural horror drawing on a dark family secret and the haunting folklore of her native land. She got to work on Heir of the Witch, a feature film planned for a summer shoot in Charlotte.
A dark past
Growing up on her grandmother’s farm in the Communist-ruled Republic of Moldova, Moore recalls how the power was shut off at 7 p.m. every night. The country’s austerity extended to entertainment. There was only one channel available on the family’s black-and-white television. By the time she finished schoolwork and chores, with lights out at 7, Moore missed even that meager offering. Instead, she lit a candle in her bedroom and wrote long into the night, filling journals with romantic poetry.
Moore soon branched out into writing stories, drawing on tales her grandmother told at the family dinner table — legends linked to Moldova’s past as the medieval Principality of Moldavia and superstitions like a warning never to return to the house to retrieve something you forgot. (If you absolutely had to go back, the only way to ward off bad luck was to look in a mirror before leaving again.)
“I loved it,” Moore says of her grandmother’s stories. “I would escape to another world.”
Moldovan superstitions were woven into her childhood, Moore offers, and those stories would later serve as inspiration for Heir of the Witch. She remembers St. Andrews Day, a holiday for which people wreathed their doors and windows with garlic and did not venture out after sundown because malevolent witches ruled the night.
“We are [an Orthodox] Christian family believing that,” Moore marvels, “literally putting garlic around the windows and doors.”
Moore once crossed the Pruth River into bordering Romania and visited a castle associated with 15th-century Wallachian ruler Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler. He has passed into Western folklore as the historical model for Bram Stoker’s vampire king Dracula. “There’s a room there where they used to torture people,” Moore offers. “The energy in the air was very heavy.”
Moore’s love of writing fueled a facility for languages. In addition to her native Romanian, she learned Russian because the Communist government required it. She also learned French, but her true love was English, a language she mastered herself because it was never taught in school. “I’m fascinated with words and stories,” Moore maintains. “I write about everything.”
A college trip brought Moore to the United States in 2006. She didn’t know a soul, spoke only 20 words of English and didn’t have a job lined up, but she was smitten.
“I loved the beauty of the country and its people, the culture, the freedom and the diversity,” Moore maintains.
Returning home, she told her family that she was determined to live in America. She finished college, and the next year she moved, first to Maryland and then to Washington D.C. It was there that a modeling gig set her on the path to becoming a filmmaker. Dissatisfied with her day job as a mortgage banker, Moore questioned her life’s direction.
“I asked [myself], ‘What would make me happy? What would make my heart sing?’” Moore took acting classes and began performing in plays and short films. She started asking the filmmakers how they put their projects together. It was also during this time that she was inspired to commence writing her novel Five.
Moore moved to Michigan, where she continued acting, writing and learning about filmmaking. Every production was different, she remembers. Some were one-man shows while others involved more than 15 people on one focused project.
“[A film] can grow out of nothing; it comes together,” Moore offers. “You [begin to] see something beautiful and inspiring.”
An introduction to Charlotte film
Six years ago, Moore moved to Charlotte. Two days later, she had barely unpacked when she discovered the 48 Hour Film Project, a rambunctious weekend in which thrown-together teams write, shoot and edit a movie. She approached a team, told them she was an actress and said she wanted to work with them. She was hired and the next morning she strode on set to discover that the headlining actress had failed to show up.
Moore was promptly upgraded from supporting player to lead, and whisked onto a helicopter to film the day’s first scene, a vertiginous fly-by past the 48-floor Duke Energy Center. She was hooked.
Today Moore, now 34 years old, admits that she can’t remember the name of her first Charlotte film, and that it was merely “okay — for 48 hours.” She contributed to the 48 Hour Film Project for the next two years before gathering her own team to shoot The Getaway, a short film she co-wrote, co-directed and performed in. She also wrote, directed and acted in Your Lips Kiss Well but They Lie Better.
Multiple projects both in front of and behind the camera followed. By then, Moore was ready to tackle a feature, but Heir of the Witch was still well in the future. She adapted Five into a taut psychological thriller, partnered with a producer, and was prepping for the shoot when the project went south.
In the midst of her despair about the failure of Five, Moore rebounded. She still had her feature-length script but the high-concept premise would not work with a restricted budget. She started researching the best options for a first-time feature filmmaker and discovered that the horror genre offered the best return on investment. It was purely a business decision, Moore says, but when she turned to her Moldovan childhood for a story, she discovered that horror cut deeper than she imagined.
“[At first,] I didn’t want to go there,” Moore offers. “I didn’t want to open a wound.”
Just as Moore had a nurturing grandmother who regaled her with folklore and legend, she also had a shadow forebear, a grandmother who muttered curses under her breath and practiced black magic. “My grandmother on my dad’s side was an actual witch,” Moore maintains. “She was very much against my mother and my whole family.”
Moore remembers this grandmother taking credit for any misfortune that befell Moore’s immediate family.
“My sister said she found dead frogs tied up with red ribbon under the carpet,” Moore offers. She believes that action was intended to bring illness to the household. Though the two sides of the family are long estranged, the witch’s malign influence is not easily forgotten. “She lived to be very old, because she wasn’t able to die.”
Until the witch passed her curse — her dark powers — on to somebody else, she could not die, Moore maintains. Finally, the grandmother passed away.
“We’re still wondering to this day who might have gotten the curse,” Moore says. “Maybe that whole side of the family is carrying it.”
A dark witch in the family is a source of shame to Moore and her loved ones, so she had to think hard about using her family history for horror. In the end, Moore’s desire to tell a story with impact won out.
“I’m going to make a movie, and it’s going to be horror that is truthful,” she says.
A good story, even one based in folklore and magic, should convey real emotions, Moore believes.
A new story
Heir of the Witch tells the story of Anna, a young Moldovan girl with a troubled past and a tainted bloodline. As the young woman tries to fit in with her new friends in America, the past exerts a malevolent force, pulling Anna closer to an ancient curse. She discovers her grandmother was an evil witch whose spirit still haunts Anna.
The movie has been budgeted at under $100,000, and Moore has started prepping the film with the help of her husband Patrick. The couple will celebrate their first-year wedding anniversary in May by driving around Charlotte scouting locations.
The cast and the crew had already been picked, 90% comprised of local actors and technicians, when Moore’s film career encountered another setback. The production had just launched a crowd-funding effort to raise development money when Mecklenburg County issued a stay-at-home order to decrease the spread of COVID-19.
“I didn’t feel right asking people for money for the project,” Moore says. “So, we stopped our efforts for the spring.”
For now, the Moores will bankroll the low-budget feature themselves and revisit fundraising after principal production is completed. The film is still slated for a summer shoot in the Charlotte area, but the schedule is flexible. A potential investor has expressed interest, but financing is on hold now due to the pandemic.
That pause in the schedule has given Moore time to polish the Heir of the Witch script and dig in to pre-production, but it’s also given her time to reflect. How does she feel about nurturing a horror story when the news resembles dark folklore about the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, or a medical horror plot ripped from the pages of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain?
“I was talking to my husband about these strange times. It’s almost apocalyptic,” Moore says. “You look outside and you’re wondering what’s going to happen.” At the same time, she believes the community will come out of the pandemic stronger than ever before. “Everyone has a choice and that’s also the message in my movie. You have a choice no matter what.”
For now, Moore is choosing to focus on the task at hand, going over production details and making sure than when filming resumes it will be a safe set. She’s proud of her cast and crew, which contains many women. As a woman director she is a rarity in the industry, and a woman horror director is even more rare.
“I want to empower every woman I can,” Moore maintains. “Women have so many stories to tell.” Her convictions extend to the roles she writes. “I want all the [female] roles to be strong and powerful. I don’t want the woman in my movies to have just a supporting role, like somebody’s secretary. They are the ones who run the story.”
Moore also feels that as a filmmaker, she has a part to play in revitalizing Charlotte’s film industry. Though she once considered basing her operations in Los Angeles, and she has heard people touting the tax incentives to film in Georgia, Moore is committed to Charlotte. When film production returns, she doesn’t think the lack of incentives should be a hurdle.
Once Heir of the Witch is in the can, she looks forward to other films. Five may be on the back burner but the flame has not gone out on that project.
“We still have ourselves and our talent,” Moore offers. “If we join forces, we can make magic happen.”
Right now, that magic is taking a sinister yet entertaining turn, as Moore plans to search for a mystic patch of forest that suggests a blending of the North Carolina new world and the old country of Moldova. “I would like to have some big trees and hit them with a fog machine and make it fun and cool,” she enthuses.
Her love of both countries has prompted her to change her name. She recently incorporated her maiden name of Ungureanu, going from Victoria Bell Moore to Victoria Ungureanu Moore. The reason for the mix of American and Moldovan is simple, she says.
“Moldova is the home where I was born but this is my country now.”
To stay updated with Heir of the Witch, visit the movie’s Facebook page.