• Cristee Cook

Born from fandom, independent horror film 'Final Dress' elevates the genre

Updated: Jan 16

In late October I sat down with Dallas theatre artists Christie Vela, Michael Federico, and Max Hartman. We were surrounded by the set for Theatre Three’s production of Dracula. The dark red and black fabrics that decorated the stage gave the space a spooky vibe, and it couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for our conversation. Final Dress, the Dallas-based independent horror film is the art child of Federico and Vela. Written by Federico and directed by Vela, the film tells the story of a happy musical theatre camp that gets terrorized by a psychotic acting teacher. It takes on current social issues in the performing arts, while drawing inspiration from Vela and Federico's favorite slasher flicks.


After the screenplay was written, Federico and Vela started crowdfunding the film through Seed & Spark. That’s about the time actor and musician Max Hartman joined the project as Executive Producer. Hartman told me, “I saw them launch the crowdfunding, and so I reached out to them about helping the project as a producer. I believe in them; I already knew I wanted to do it. And then I read the script and…it’s great. I love it….but I was also aware, generally speaking, of what they were up against in making a film.”


Federico continued: “We started to look at what you call micro budget horror movies. Where you're talking about under $200,000 for your budget. Which, to me, is an insane amount of money. But, some of these [low budget films] are really cool and they've clearly figured out clever ways to make things scary.”


With Hartman’s help, they were able to raise enough funds to begin filming. In addition to stage work, Hartman has film and television experience and was integral in connecting the project with filmmakers. Hartman shared with me that he really wanted to see some powerful women behind the camera as well as in the movie when he said, “I wanted to have some good people on board. Some smart ladies preferably, you know, because did they get shit done…and so I reached out to Desiree Fultz. She’s a local actress and also works in a lot of film. And she just ended up being a godsend.” The trio agreed that once Fultz was on board, the process really took off because they had a cast of talented actors and a crew of experienced filmmakers.


Actress Liza Gonzalez and Producer Desiree Fultz share a laugh behind the camera. | Photo: Zack Huggins

While the original idea for Final Dress was born out of enthusiastic horror fandom, Federico and Vela shared that they also wanted to make a film that addresses some of the problems often inherent in horror film plot lines, and current events happening in the performing arts community. Federico shared, “Christie and I had started to talk about some of the abuses of power…that seem to take place in our industry. So that became an important aspect of the movie. It's a very important aspect to the film. And, we had this idea about a throwback to 80's and 90's summer camp movies. We wanted to make a theater camp movie….so, the story makes fun of [theatre] and addresses the abuses of power.”


For Vela, the role of women in the horror industry played an important part. She shared, “Michael wrote some amazing female characters. The women really are the heroes of the film. We were both adamant about not fetishizing or romanticizing the violence that is penetrated on women because in a lot of slasher movies, that’s what happens.”


Behind the scenes: Director Christie Vela and Actor/Producer Bandon Potter. | Photo: Zack Higgins

Vela has been watching scary movies since she was 8 years old, and she pulled her inspiration from an early horror film called Black Christmas. She told me, “…the girl in the film is the protagonist and she actually has very progressive, forward thinking. She’s a sexual being and she’s also smart and she has agency. You know, the trope [in horror films] is that if you’re having sex, you’re bad and you should die, right? But in Black Christmas, she parties and has sex and she also has agency. She’s smart and she knows what she wants and she’s the hero. And then somewhere along the way in horror movies, that changed.”


With Vela and Federico's broad knowledge of the horror genre, I was curious about other films that influenced Final Dress. Federico quickly answered, “Oh, we’re both gonna say Scream. I think that’s one of the few horror movies that is legitimately scary when it’s scary and legitimately funny when it’s funny. Our movie is a slasher movie, but there’s also a lot of comedy in Final Dress.”


Lead actress Gabrielle V. Reyes as Sagan Riley in 'Final Dress' | Photo: Zack Huggins

Vela added that in addition to the early influence of Black Christmas, they’re also inspired by the works of David Lynch, Dario Argento’s Suspiria and the original Halloween. But she admitted that while being a cinephile gave her some expertise on how to tell a story through the horror genre, directing for film is a lot different than directing theatre: “I realized that the stage is an actors' medium, and film is the directors' and editors' medium. So, for example, there’s a big nod to Lynch in this film. There’s a dream sequence…and because it was filmed, we were able to make it look beautiful. There’s also a nod to Lynch in [Theatre Three’s recent production of] Dracula. And in rehearsing it, we got to tech and we just realized we can’t achieve it. So that was the thing where on film I can get this moment absolutely perfect, but on stage I have to let it be."


However different the approach to the mediums might be, they all expressed that essentially, this project (and all of the creative work they do) is animated by a desire to tell great stories. Vela said it simply: “We have a need to tell stories to each other, about each other, and for each other. That’s a basic human need. And I'm proud to tell this story."


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Final Dress is currently filming. The team is excited to share the completed film at local screenings and film festivals in the near future. Michael Federico and Christie Vela host a podcast about horror films (and tacos) called Terror and Tacos, available on your favorite podcast streaming service. Stay in the loop and follow the film’s process on Instagram. Early project updates, details, and a fantastic trailer are available on Seed & Spark.

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