This short film takes us back to the hellscape of the ‘80s aerobics craze.
An accidental bad trip takes us down a rabbit hole of self-indulgence and neon spandex in this short film from Sam Fox and Candice Molayem. The Heathers-esque accidental ingestions and cult-like antics of ‘80s aerobics leader turn the neon assault of a teen girl’s bedroom into an inescapable hellscape.
BAD ACID is Fox’s latest project to receive the filmmaker’s eccentric style of psychedelic visual horror. Influenced by frequent collaborator Molayme’s clothing company, Animal Crackers Clothing, the NXIVM documentary series on HBO Max, and the copious amounts of at-home pilates videos Fox worked out with during the COVID-19 pandemic, the short film focuses on the cult-like nature of brands the promotes the capitalistic nature of wellness.
The short is heavily focused on the design, with an emphasis on style over substance, but the short is a trip unlike any other satirical horror short in recent years. After debuting at Fantasia in Montreal in July 2022, BAD ACID has been nominated for eight awards from festivals across the world, winning Best Director at the Nightmares Film Festival and Best Production Design at FilmQuest in Utah and Be Afraid Horror Fest in Italy.
Sam Fox sat down with No Film School to talk about the process behind her short film and why she embraces visual excess that is unique to filmmaking.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Can you tell me what inspired you to create this short film?
Sam Fox: It all started back in 2020, the old days of early COVID-19 when everything shut down. I have my very, very best friend, Candace Molayem, who I teamed up with. She also handles all of my production design and styling in my films. We'd always been talking about doing something more as a collaboration instead of her designing for my projects and me doing filmmaking things for her. Then, COVID-19 happened. She had just launched her fashion label, Animal Crackers, and it was going-out party wear, which in 2020 wasn't happening. So she started transitioning to these eighties-inspired spandex workout gear.
At the same time, I was doing my at-home on-video pilates, and I was just having this existential crisis watching these really boring workout videos. I was in a shitty apartment at the time, and I was not happy. When I started watching old eighties aerobics videos and doing that, it brought quite a lot of joy to my life.
I approached Candace, and said, "You're doing this kind of eighties aerobics clothing. I want to make a workout video featuring these designs." We started brainstorming, and of course, as all my stuff does, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I'm like, "Look, if we're going to be spending this money, let's make it a narrative short so we can bring it with us on the festival circuit."
It just grew from an aerobics video into a kind of psychedelic film.
NFS: It's true collaboration at its finest.
Fox: For me, because I'm not a traditional writer in the sense, all of my things start as silly ideas. Then, I think, "Okay, how can I make this into a film?" I'm going to keep doing that as long as it works.
NFS: This story is very tongue in cheek about its view on the eighties aerobic craze. How do you go about creating that satirical period piece that speaks to the nostalgic I guess perspective of the eighties craze while also talking to a modern audience?
Fox: Although I grew up in the nineties, there was still this love for Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons. I think Simmons was doing workout classes up until very recently. I don't even know if he still is. But these people were kind of seen as these cult icons. You had them every day in your living room, and you trusted them with your fitness.
I wanted to add in that aspect of having this kind of psychotic, crazed, cult kind of fitness icon, who is John Flexi (Branden Wilbarger), who wants to make you strong and sexy, and kind of spinning in on its head where although our main character, Sheila (Kate Hollowell), goes on this trip because she ingests toxic hair gel. We are also experiencing this character John Flexi who manipulates young women with mind control to join his cults of health and wellness.
That was also inspired by the NXIVM docuseries that came out on HBO Max at the beginning of 2020. I was watching Keith Raniere being a creepy cult leader and taking advantage of these poor, vulnerable women. It inspired the story. By taking aspects of the aesthetic of the eighties and mixing them with a very now-trend.
At the end of the day, you can see a lot of heavy stories. You can see a lot of social justice stories, and all of that is so important. But I feel like I was put on this earth to give you something entertaining. That's what I can do. That's what I'm going to do.
NFS: I think what's beautiful about the satirical nature of your short is that it's still talking about the manipulative relationship of the beauty and fitness industry to young women, whether they realize it or not, and it doesn't make it feel heavy.
Fox: I come from a very British upbringing where my mom, my sister, and my grandma, who raised me were very eccentric in their Britishness. The whole way that society has dealt with the World War I, World War II, tragedy, and the cold bleary days that look like this every day is through satire and comedy and making fun of how crap situations can be.
Being raised in an environment like that, I take all the things that happen in the world very, very seriously. But my way of approaching it is to have a laugh and poke fun at it. Certain people can tell wonderfully character-driven social stories. That's just not me. And I've always been an artist, and I've painted and gone through all different formed acting, and it's always been the same style of just laughing about how terrible life can be.
NFS: In the short, Sheila doesn't realize that she's drinking the hair glue, and that sends her on this bad acid trip. Do you think that she would've ever realized this cult's influence on her or this self-actualization moment of her vanity?
Fox: No. I wanted to write a character who's a modern-day narcissist staring in the mirror, and that leads to his demise. There were all these shots that I had of mirrors placed everywhere, and every time she walked by them, she got lost in a reflection and something really bad happened. We did like 33 setups in our 10-hour day, so we do that in one day.
The whole point of her knocking over the hair gel and drinking it is that because she's so obsessed with herself. She's just completely oblivious about these terrible things happening to her. She worked really, really hard to be the coolest girl in school and became obsessed with herself, but deep down, there's this insecurity of being made fun of. And so when she goes on this trip, she ultimately is mocked and ridiculed. Of course, it doesn't lead to self-actualization at the end of the film because she hasn't changed, unfortunately.
NFS: What I did really like about your short is that you took full advantage of this visual medium through the excess, the cinematography, and the slightly off-kilter camera movements. When do you, as a filmmaker, decide to keep pushing the visuals to the extreme or when to dial it back?
Fox: I love that you ask that because Candace and I always have this conversation of, "Oh, we want to do this, and we want to do that." Other people say, "I think that's too much," and we say, "No, we want more."
There's the scene in Scarface, which I always tell people about, where Tony Montana is having his downfall and he's sitting in front of the table. He's got a pile of cocaine. You could imagine that he and Oliver Stone and props were having this back and forth about, "Is it too much? That's kind of unrealistic." If you're going to push it and make these characters that are so big, you have to do that.
I'm excited because my next short, which I'm doing in March in New Orleans with another filmmaker, Joe Bidon, is going to be doing a project that’s John Waters meets Beetlejuice with all of these little miniature sets, working with puppetry, going really, really far on. Luckily with my stuff, I fall into the midnight category at film festivals, so I can push boundaries. A lot of the festivals like that more. I enjoy making what I make. I think that they'll never be too much.
NFS: I mean, genre filmmaking, especially genre-bending, is having its moment. How do you find this perfect tone of satirical horror and comedy during the writing process or when you are behind the camera?
Fox: In my previous film, UNAGI, a girl eats Fukushima irradiated sushi and turns into a giant electric eel and electrocutes her boyfriend. So, you're taking something that is a little bit sci-fi to do in a way that makes it digestible while finding a way to make it shocking and eccentric.
My way of putting the two together is by mixing it with the colors and the music and all of that so that I'm not trying to hand you a message on a platter. I'm trying to give you an enjoyable visual experience because I am a visual storyteller, but also have it have meaning. I'm drawn to the darkness I love. Everything I watch is very, very dark, but I make a joke out of everything. I couldn't do straight comedy, and I couldn't do straight horror, but I like tying the two together because that just feels like it's very authentic to my voice.
NFS: What makes your story stand out is that Sheila doesn't have this self-actualization at the end. She's like, "Whoops, that was weird," and kind of continues with her life. The message in it is so bizarre, but it is wonderful.
Fox: Thank you. I feel like I've grown up with a lot of narcissists in my life. The unfortunate thing about narcissists is that they never realize they're narcissists. That's why Sheila never changes because a lot of times they'll lose relationships. Everyone will hate them, yet there's never this self-actualization. I just want it to be true to that character.
NFS: Do you have any advice that you would give to aspiring filmmakers who want to dive into the satirical horror genre?
Fox: Always try. The most inspiring thing for me has been going to film festivals. I would say find your nearest film festival. Go, watch as many short films as you can. Watch features, too. Watch everything. It can be the most inspiring material to watch because you can see everyone’s different ideas and different ways of telling the same story. You realize how many creative people there are out there that are doing cool shit.
I spent a lot of time on my phone in the very early days of making films, just making them by myself because I was too afraid to talk to people, and I was too afraid to fail. Everything started happening for me as soon as I started meeting other filmmakers and saying, "I want to work with you. I'll help you out. You help me out." It just kind of is a domino effect.
NFS: You have a very collaborative nature to you, and I think that's amazing.
Fox: It's the best part of what we do. Everyone brings their own unique, amazing voice to a project. Whether it's the costumes or cinematography, films have so many departments. If you're bringing those people on and not listening to their take on your story or their vision, you're doing yourself a disservice.