Michael Melski's Charlie Zone isn't a horror movie, but the Halifax director was aiming to show the dark side of his city with his film, which portrays such unpleasantness as violence, drug abuse and racism in unflinching detail. So the fact that he's got test-screening stories to rival scary classics like The Exorcist is a positive sign.
"We had a girl faint in one of the test screenings, during one of the scenes in the shooting gallery, the crackhouse," Melski says. "We actually had to stop the screening because she had to step outside for awhile."
Viewers who take in Charlie Zone at the Atlantic Film Festival should expect a bracing, gritty account of Halifax's underbelly.
The film, shot around the city this past spring, concerns a washed up boxer (Glen Gould) hired by a rich family to kidnap their drug-addled daughter (Amanda Crew) before her downward spiral is complete.
Two weeks before the festival screening, Melski is still working furiously to finish the final post-production work on the film.
Reflecting on the test screenings and the editing process, he says he's happy the movie has retained its graphic realism---although some scenes have been dialed down a notch or two since the fainting incident.
"It's nice to know that we didn't shy away from the potency of the content," he says. "But there are certain things where we realized maybe less is best, less is more."
"Sometimes an image is so powerful that you need to pull back from it."
Even a more restrained version of Charlie Zone is unlikely to end up in a tourism video promoting Halifax. Melski's intention is to demonstrate how the problems and people on the city's fringe exist alongside a privileged class that prefers to keep these elements out of sight and mind.
"It's a city where the murder rate is flying off the charts, you've got biker invasions, swarmings. And there's the rich white privilege in the city that is underlying everything," Melski says.
"The movie tells, I think, a very compelling and hard-driving story with some nice twists and turns, but it certainly does touch on these things that are very present in our lives and in the headlines," Melski says. "I think it's really going to make audiences look at Halifax in a different way."
Melski believes audiences are ready for this kind of vision. As for those who aren't, Melski's comfortable with the fact that this warts-and-all portrayal of his hometown might upset some of its inhabitants.
"I hope it does," he says.
Before it can piss anyone off, though, Charlie Zone has to be completed. Melski and his team accelerated their schedule by two weeks to make sure the movie would be ready for the AFF. It's worth the extra workload, he says, to be featured in a festival that has played a vital role in his filmmaking career.
"It's where I got my first experience screening a film for an audience," he says. "My first shorts were here. My first feature, Growing Op, was here in 2008."
And now Charlie Zone, a film that will make you think about Halifax, if it doesn't make you faint.