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A Scary Hollywood Rip-Off

Dec 18, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Charlie Lyne

In 1989, the aspiring filmmaker Rolfe Kanefsky, who was then 19 years old, cobbled together $100,000 to make his dream movie. Thus, the first self-aware, meta-textual horror film was born. Although There's Nothing Out There was groundbreaking and garnered the attention of high-ranking studio executives, due to a series of unfortunate events, it tanked at the box office. It was dead on arrival.

Charlie Lyne, a documentary filmmaker, first saw There's Nothing Out There as a horror-obsessed teenager. “It really stuck with me,” he told The Atlantic. “Here was this oddball forerunner to [Wes Craven’s] Scream.” And yet There’s Nothing Out There preceded it by at least five years. Why wasn’t this film internationally renowned?

When Lyne looked into it, he encountered a book published by Kanefsky, in which he describes showing his screenplay to Craven’s son, who had promised to show it to his father. That’s when Lyne realized he’d stumbled upon the largely untold story of what could be a major Hollywood rip-off.

In Lyne’s short documentary Copycat, Kanefsky tells the story of his disillusionment. His voice is heard while images from his own film, Craven’s, and other Hollywood horror classics play on-screen.

“I went to interview Rolfe at his apartment in North Hollywood, and the place was like a horror-movie museum, absolutely stuffed with DVDs, books, and memorabilia,” Lyne said. “Once Rolfe started talking, I realized his conversational style was exactly the same: wall-to-wall references to obscure horror films and exploitation movies.” When it came time to edit the film, it felt natural for Lyne to adopt this patchwork, reference-heavy style. “After all, that's the way Rolfe thinks,” he said.

It’s clear from the film that despite his misfortune, Kanefsky isn’t bitter; he’s just happy that his film is now remembered as being ahead of its time. Lyne said that the filmmaker never attempted to contact the Cravens about Scream, either. “I think that’s partly because he knows how complicated and messy these things are,” said Lyne. “Was There's Nothing Out There an influence on Scream? It's possible, maybe even probable. But at the same time, they were both responding to the same set of well-worn horror tropes, so it's entirely possible they just arrived at the same idea independently.

Besides, Lyne said, everyone has a story about an idea they had first that later went on to become successful in a different form. “I remember, in the taxi over to Rolfe’s apartment, telling the driver what I was working on,” he said, “and he proceeded to tell me that he had originally come up with the idea for the film Tooth Fairy, years before they made it into a movie with The Rock.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.