We took a look at Don Tjernagel’s work. With RED, SIN and TOM, Don got inspired by the new French wave cinema that was born in the 50s and 60s. It is shocking how many films Don Tjernagel has put out and continues to do so, unabated, year after year. An unstoppable creative machine, Tjernagel’s each new film is arguably better and weirder than his last.

RED – 2020

Written and directed by Don Tjernagel, the 2020 horror film Red stars Robyn Cusmano, Kyla Faith. Destiny Gordon and others. The film is inspired by the new French wave cinema of the 50s and 60s and revolves around an unexplained entity that arrives to terrorize people of a small town.

To summarise the plot, a small town in America gets an unwelcome surprise as an unexplained masked killer lets loose on its inhabitants. Primarily targeting young men and women, the town sees frantic calls from relatives all over as more and more young people end up missing and then killed. Various conspiracy theories arise and as society finds itself divided, there is no single cohesive force to be found that can keep this evil at bay and then vanquish it.

A great thing about ‘Red’ is how self-contained it feels. Don Tjernagel experiments with the narrative, using a variety of visual gimmicks to make the story more aligned to his vision. But the narrative doesn’t ever go overboard, as many experimental films tend to do. There is a proper narrative, and every little detour is in service of that narrative. Tjernagel ensures that ‘Red’ feels like a proper film, as many experimental films don’t know where to stop and end up becoming nothing more than two hours of nonsensical audio visual dumps.

Another great thing about the film is the monster design. With glowing ember eyes, a hood and some sort of weaponised contraption on both arms, the creature in Red (2020) has obviously been inspired from several different movie killers but is unique enough to stand apart. He emerges out of the shadows where people least expect him to, and his glowing eyes put people in a type of paralysis from which there is no escape. Brutal, unrelenting and unstoppable, this killer is a force to be reckoned with and his constant threat propels the entire narrative from start to end.

There’s no two ways about it; Tjernagel’s film is weird but it’s weird in a good way. The film does not follow the conventional expectations of narrative pacing and plot development that one would anticipate from a genre film and this works wonders for the entire effort. Tjernagel accomplishes this by experimenting with a variety of narrative and visual gimmicks in the film and he mostly succeeds in this regard. Taking inspiration from the new French wave cinema of the mid 20th century, Tjernagel realises that the best way to forge a new path is not to be muddled with genre conventions and instead to go the route of the unexpected. What results is an audio-visual collision of a fever dream with a horror film. You don’t expect this mishmash to work but it totally does, and it does in a wondrous way.

Part of the gimmick of the film lies in the sound design and this is where the creative work is most effective. There is an unnerving atmospheric sense of doom whenever the creature shows up; time seems to stop, and the moments seem to be frozen in time. The sound mixing works wonders in this regard; helping to convey a sense of terror and doom unmatched by anything else. The acting from the cast is fine across the board and any shortcoming in this department is balanced by the fantastic sound mixing and music.

A combination of religious fervour, mass media hysteria, depravity and killings, Don Tjernagel’s Red seems to be a comment on the America of today. As various social forces rise in the story, they do so in the backdrop of a great evil. There are enough parallels of the story with modern American history that one wonders if it all really was intentional on Tjernagel’s part. Whatever the case, what is clear is that the film works on multiple levels and every type of audience can find someone or something to relate to in the film.

In this context, ‘Red’ is another feather in the cap of Tjernagel who has made countless films inspired by the new French wave cinema. Weaving the genres of horror and drama together, ‘Red’ is a unique beast of a film; one that is hard to deconstruct but still awe-inspiring during its unveiling. There is an unnerving atmosphere through and through, one that is hard to describe but persistent, nonetheless. The film is, therefore, an experimental feature that goes above and beyond its limitations. Tjernagel has managed to make another winner.

SIN – 2021

The 2021 horror thriller ‘Sin’ sees the town of Ludlow Falls being attacked by a demonic entity that takes no prisoners. The film stars Jamie Doroslovac, Corey Kerr and others with Don Tjernagel himself also appearing in a brief role.

Set in the American Midwest, ‘Sin’ chronicles the arrival of a demonic entity to the town of Ludlow Falls where it begins to prey on unsuspecting residents. As people disappear and young women find themselves murdered, the town begins to descend into madness and death. With its population hanging by a thread and inhabitants a stone’s throw away from insanity, hidden secrets will be revealed and the town’s sin, that has brought the monster out from the darkness, will be exposed.

‘Sin’, like its predecessor ‘Red’ (2020) and sequel ‘Tom’ (2022) takes place in the same cursed town of Ludlow Falls with inhabitants finding themselves at the short end of the stick. Part of Tjernagel’s spiritual trilogy of death and destruction that takes place in the same town, ‘Sin’ has a lot in common with its brethren and at the same time, it has significant differences to them as well. In addition to the same setting and sometimes similar visual snippets, ‘Sin’ moves in a lot more similar thematic direction as well. With preachers, scantily clad women and the seedy underbelly of the American midwest, Tjernagel showcases a place where decadence and desperation have given way to a nesting ground of unspeakable evil with the clueless inhabitants of a small town right in the middle. The decadence and post-capitalism on display is the perfect setting for a demon who will stop at nothing to take as many souls as possible out of this world.

Where ‘Sin’ differs from its peers is in its violence. While both ‘Red’ and ‘Tom’ were fairly tense, gory and violent, ‘Sin’ does not have the same level of violence. This is a good thing as it provides more character development, narrative complexity and acting prowess to manifest itself on screen. Tjernagel’s direction, like all his other films, is good. He not only mixes up the narrative experiment quite a bit but ensures that this experiment does not inhibit the primary story. The result, therefore, is a film that tells its story through a variety of visual tools that vary from found footage to television snippets. This makes the film an interesting thing; on one hand it is a creative experiment and on the other, a standard story of a town beset by violence and death. 

Part of the appeal of the film lies in its diverse characters as Tjernagel has written a story populated with a variety of different, quirky characters. Some of these characters are quite memorable, others not so much but the crux of the matter is that these characters are written and acted in a way that they fly off the screen right into our memories. From the policemen to the exotic dancers, every character makes his or her mark. With the cast being jam packed as it is, this enables the audience to remember these well written characters.

Tjernagel gives the film a distinct aura of uneasiness and simmering tension, much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Each frame of the film accompanied with its music feels like there is something simmering only an inch below, ready to burst onto the screen at any given moment. This enduring aura of desperation and terror is what gives the film its unique viewing experience, one that is hard to shake off and stays with the viewer long after the film has ended. Kudos to the sound designers and the cinematographer for using the audio-visual tools in this regard.

Another aspect to consider is the narrative pacing. Tjernagel and his editor ensure the story unfolds without hiccups. They mostly succeed in this regard but there are instances where the creative liberties taken in lieu of the new French wave cinema hinder the narrative train. This is only a slight hiccup as the script and direction ensures that the primary narrative never wavers from what Tjernagel intends it to do.

‘Sin’ is not just a good horror film, it is one of Don Tjernagel’s best films. While this may be a bold statement to make, the fact of the matter remains that there is enough creative liberty and experimentation done to a standard genre film that it stands out on its own. This is not all as there are a lot of positive aspects to the entire production. With a perfect blend of great actors, tense atmosphere and an enduring sense of dread, ‘Sin’ not only highlights the strongest suites of Don Tjernagel but is a perfect homage to the new French wave cinema of the 50s and 60s.

TOM – 2022

‘Tom’ stars Linda Dobbins, Rebecca Lee McCarty, Charles Potter, Matt Lee Ingebritson and others.

The plot is straightforward; a demonic entity suddenly surfaces in a small town called Ludlow Falls that hides several secrets within. As it starts to wreak havoc on the town, men and women alike begin to go missing and then end up dead. As confusion sets in, it falls to a group of individuals to decide how to save the townspeople. As madness and evil spreads unchecked, will the situation spiral out of control or will help come from where people least expect it to?

While there is a central story that connects all the plot points in the film, Tjernagel’s desire to go towards the route of French new wave cinema ultimately works in the film’s favour. The film is highly experimental, as viewers will note, and should therefore be viewed in that context. While some may call the narrative disjointed, it is this originality that ultimately makes the film unique. Films that have the same old tired tropes in regard to the plot have become boring and therefore, Tjernagel must be commended for trying to infuse a sense of originality into the genre. It is hard to pull off, but Tjernagel manages to get by effortlessly. Television snippets, interviews and personal vlogs are integrated seamlessly into the narrative and all these visual gimmicks ultimately work in the narrative’s favour.

What pops out the most from the film are the diverse group of characters that range from bat-shit crazy to clinically insane. It was as if Tjernagel wanted to see how many weirdos he could successfully insert into his story and judging by the talent we see onscreen, it seems Tjernagel hits it out of the park in this department. As crazy as the characters may seem, one thing is undeniable that almost all of them are memorable. Kudos to the actors portraying them and kudos to the script that gives this diverse group of actors a chance to showcase their abilities.

In addition, another aspect of the production that deserves special acclaim is its cinematography. The film is beautiful and the sheer diversity in its imagery is astounding. From deep colored scenes in a secluded forest to montages of images that bleed off of the screen, part of the film’s essence lies in its visual beauty. The visuals have not been put in just for the sake of it, they are a part of the story and a part of the reason why the film looks and feels so fresh and original from start to end.

Every good and unnerving horror film should have some creative jumpscares and ‘Tom’ excels in this department as well. There are several well-placed scares and all of them will scare the living soul out of anyone who is watching the film closely. This is not all as both the cinematography and sound editing are also top notch, elevating the unnerving atmosphere of the story and enhancing its disturbing elements as well. The creepy atmosphere sells the entire premise and makes the central premise that much more exciting.

Another aspect that works perfectly in the film is the costume design and makeup. These two issues can make or break a film and kudos to the creative team behind the project to ensure that both these aspects remain top notch. From the visual inspiration of the demon to the young ladies in white, it all comes together due to the inspired creative choices made.

Some might say that ‘Tom’ is sort of impeded by its low budget. While there is some evidence regarding this statement, the final product is in no way hampered by the budget in my opinion. While there is always room for improvement in technical aspects, what ultimately makes a film work is how the director’s passion is translated into the final product. Tjernagel’s all-out effort to make the film a genuinely original horror flick cannot be understated and therefore, the sheer work that has gone to make this film a reality shows during every second of its runtime.

‘Tom’ is spooky, it is terrifying, and it stays with you longer after the credits roll. The film is unconventional, to say the least, and should be viewed as inspired from the new French wave cinema that was born in the 50s and 60s. Tjernagel has made a beautiful horror film, one whose strength is as much in its visuals as there is in its characters. Haunting, scary and boasting terrific imagery, ‘Tom’ proves that Don Tjernagel is a creative force to be reckoned with, one that hits it out of the park more times than possible.

It is shocking how many films Don Tjernagel has put out and continues to do so, unabated, year after year. An unstoppable creative machine, Tjernagel’s each new film is arguably better and weirder than his last.

ABOUT THE director

Don Tjernagel, born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa, has been doing stand-up comedy since 1997. As a young man, Don played football until sustaining a serious injury during spring practice at the University of Northern Iowa. Don decided to try stand-up on a whim in 1997. Not too long after that Don’s popularity led him to do a show in several Las Vegas clubs such as the Casino Royale Volcano Lounge, Bourbon Street Hotel, The Monte Carlo and the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.

With the start of his first show at the Casino Royale, Don became the youngest comic to star in his own show on the Vegas Strip. In August of 2003, Don wrote a book about his travels through the country as a comedian. The book, called American Infidel, detailed his observations as a comedian and American citizen (mostly writing about his sex life and women in general, while simultaneously expressing his views on the First Amendment). Don started to record his stand-up in 2008 with his first DVD release, Smut. Don continues to record his stand-up on both DVD and CD. His last release was the DVD Filthy which was released on 12 July, 2011.

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