When he was a boy, director Guy Shelmerdine had a birthday party fail. "I was around 5 and the clown that was supposed to show up to my party didn't," he recalls. "So my uncle stood in with a makeshift, ad hoc costume using some of my mum's clothing, red lipstick on his nose and an old wig from the dressing-up chest." Combined with subpar clowning and a high-pitched voice, he "ended up scaring the shit out of all the kids at the party."
The terror didn't stop there. His uncle, and a whole host of other creepy clowns continued to haunt Shelmerdine in a recurring bad dream. The "cackle" of his uncle's laugh, he says, stayed with him over the years. Now, the British-born Shelmerdine, founder of virtual reality production studio Dark Corner, and an award-winning commercial director for clients including Mini Cooper, Ikea, Virgin Mobile and Coca-Cola, is looking to share that particular nightmare with others.
His new clown-themed virtual reality thriller, "Night Night"—which recently debuted at the New York Film Festival and was co-produced by MPC—is set in a child's bedroom, with you, the viewer, as a young boy whose mother tucks you into bed with an unsettling story about a sinister-looking, big-mouthed clown. It's merely a taste of things to come once mama turns off the lights and shuts the bedroom door.
The movie debuts for a mass audience on Dark Corner's new, eponymous VR horror app, which also features scares from other VR fright-makers. They include "Burlap" from Justin Denton, which goes into the lair of a disturbed killer, and "Sonar," an outer-space thriller from Philipp Maas and Dominik Stockhausen. And you can view "Mule," Shelmerdine's even darker tale in which you become a drug mule who OD's while hooking up with a prostitute, goes on an ambulance ride and on to the morgue—where you get to decide whether to be buried or cremated.
There's also Shelmerdine's original 2015 frightfest, "Catatonic," a VR-circuit favorite billed as the first ever live-action virtual reality horror film.
The immersive journey takes you through a decrepit insane asylum while you're strapped to a wheelchair and ushered around by nurses who have unconventional ideas about caregiving.
"I created it at the end of a long year of doing funny commercials," says Shelmerdine, who's been repped out of Smuggler for spots since 2002. "It was a breath of fresh air to cast the most messed-up and insane-looking people compared to all those attractive actors. It was fun to be able to pull the dregs of L.A. casting together."
Beyond that, working in VR has only brought into relief for him the importance of storytelling techniques he's honed through advertising. "The thing I've learned more than anything from commercials is the importance of timing," he says. "In terms of VR, it's the same thing, especially when it comes to scare moments." Sound, too, he says, is another crucial element. With "Night Night" for example, his team worked with Drazen and Jacqui Bosnjak of Mach1, the company behind custom spatial audio tech for VR that has supported projects such as The Martian VR Experience and The New York Times' NYT VR app.
"To be honest, I didn't really find ['Night Night'] that scary until we had developed the sound to about 80 percent of completion," says Shelmerdine.
The audio element in VR, he adds, "plays an equal level of importance as that of the visuals. We wanted the audio adventure that the protagonist journeys through to unravel simultaneously with the visuals. It wasn't until the sound was finished that I actually got fully excited about the project. It suddenly took you there and anchored you in that world."
While Shelmerdine has been carving out a niche in horror, he continues to work in advertising through Smuggler for spots and Here Be Dragons for VR projects. Ironically, his trademark in the ad world has been comedy, including numerous spots for brands such as Volkswagen, Hertz, E! and Weetabix.
"I've always had a dark side," Shelmerdine explains, recalling his early years as a director. Originally, he had been part of the directing collective Happy, known for its twisted and controversial work, including an anti-smoking spec spot about a guy who coughs up a lung, literally, and another for Wrigley that features a dude barfing up a whole dog.
As for VR-fueled advertising, he says, it has far to go in terms of truly being able to connect with audiences. "Forward-thinking brands and advertising agencies have already started exploring concepts in VR, but to date my opinion is nothing great has been created," he says. He's currently working both with agencies and Here Be Dragons on concepts that could help brands better connect with consumers, he adds.
Going forward, he says he'd like to bring more realism to the first-person perspective afforded by VR.
"My hope is that one day an audience will be able to be, for example, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson or Nicole Kidman and know what it's like to feel the emotion that the character is also feeling as they journey through the arc of their story," he says.
Oddly enough, Shelmerdine wouldn't call himself a horror fanatic. While he appreciates a good scare, the lure for him may be the opportunity to tell a different kind of tale and entertain at the same time.
"What I'm trying to do is give people a really strong, cinematic, narrative experience and show people a really good time—make them feel that putting on a headset was worth their while," he says. "I feel like one part of it is making a film and telling a story, and one part is creating the best roller coaster ever."