CRANFORD, NJ — For Tom Ryan, getting involved in movies seemed inevitable.
“Like most kids … between 9 to 12, I was really into movies. I loved comic books and horror movies. Special effects are really what piqued my interest in the beginning. There was a special on the making of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ and it was the first time I got to see the process,” said Ryan in an interview with Union County LocalSource on Friday, Jan. 13.
“They did stop-motion with the Tauntauns and they motion capture on blue screen. My interest at first was in becoming a special effects artist. I was drawing comic books at the time. At that age, we didn’t have any access to real cameras and we had to use VHS and we started making backyard movies. I started leaning into directing because I was always telling my friends what happens next, and I started writing a script.”
Born in the early 1970s and raised in Jersey City, Ryan studied media art for two years at New Jersey City University, then known as Jersey City State College. He had drawn a slasher comic series called “Midnight” and even tried shooting movies with his VHS camera. With a handful of childhood friends who shared in his love of terrifying stories, Ryan founded Theatre of Terror, an independent production company.
“Around 2010, a friend of mine sent me a link to a web series called ‘Dead Road.’ Friends of mine were involved in the web series, and I said I would love to help them with special effects. So I started to do that, and then I started acting on the series,” said Ryan. “My interest was piqued into making films. I met Pat Devaney on the set of ‘Dead Road’ and he gave me copies of two series he had worked on, including ‘Zombie Hunters: City of the Dead.’ When I saw what they were doing … I was blown away. I saw you could edit from your computer at home. I wrote my first story, which was ‘Day 9,’ an apocalypse story.”
Ryan then wrote, produced, directed and starred in his first feature film, “Faces.” Filming began in late 2013 and the production wrapped in August 2014. The film premiered on Oct. 10, 2014, at the Loews Jersey Theatre in Jersey City to an audience of more than 350 people. A successful festival run resulted in Audience Choice Best Feature, Best Soundtrack and Best Actor for Ryan awards at the eighth Macabre Faire Film Festival.
As for the name of his company, there’s a story behind that.
“The Theatre of Terror was our version of ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ (now called ‘Masterpiece’) and we would basically sit there and discuss, like Siskel and Ebert, these films we saw,” Ryan said. “We wouldn’t cover anything like ‘Jaws’ or ‘Friday the 13th.’ We would talk about things we would make ourselves. When I started making my own films, I called the production company Theatre of Terror. I wanted to hold on to that memory.”
Ryan decided that, if he was going to make movies, it would be a family affair.
“My first film, ‘Day 9,’ had my entire family in it,” he said. “My daughter and wife were in ‘Splinter’ briefly, and my son stars in ‘Robot’ and he is in the wraparound.”
This momentum inspired him to officially create Theatre of Terror LLC. He made a website and a social media page to focus his marketing strategy. The production company successfully completed the four-film anthology “The Theatre of Terror,” featuring the award-winning shorts “The Gift,” “The Bookworm,” “Abducted” and “Endangered.” The anthology received distribution through BayView Entertainment and led to the development and production of the sequel anthology, “Return to the Theatre of Terror.”
Ryan said he is hopeful for himself and for the future of filmmaking in the Garden State.
“I work in sales,” he said. “The goal is that this (making movies) will be paying the bills soon. We have wonderful actors in our films. These guys do network television. They give us 110 percent. We’re putting together a good product. I’m seeing an abundance of films coming to New Jersey. I’m originally from Jersey City, but I’ve been living in Bloomfield for more than 16 years.”
Ryan has worked as a director and actor on other productions, as well. He helmed the 2015 short film “Rapt” and the 2021 feature film “Ramsey: The Vandy Case.”
Not surprisingly, when he makes his own movies, Ryan tries to keep everything local.
“Our films were shot (almost) entirely in New Jersey,” he said. “We shot all over New Jersey. We shot in Belvidere; Suffern, N.Y.; Jersey City; Bloomfield; Bloomfield College; and Verona.”
Before embarking on the sequel to “The Theatre of Terror,” Ryan found some other projects that involved both him and his family.
In 2020, he launched T.O.T Videography, a subsidiary of Theatre of Terror LLC, to support local small businesses with engaging commercial advertisements. He also created the YouTube series “The Chilling Childhood Adventures of Jack & Cody,” to distract his children from the COVID-19 pandemic while still making movies. The series has proved to be a favorite among parents wanting to introduce their children to the horror genre.
“Both of these kids were just naturals,” said Ryan. “If people are horror fans and they want to figure out a way to get their kids into horror, they can watch that. My son was a natural. He took direction when we rehearsed the material at home, and he was great.”
When it was time to create the sequel to “Theatre of Terror,” Ryan went right back to the creative minds that helped him with the first anthology. The four short films were safely shot over the course of a two-year period during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Jason Cicalese, an executive producer and actor, produced ‘Return to the Theatre of Terror,’” said Ryan.
“Soothsayer,” starring Anthony Robert Grasso, Samantha Lacey Johnson and Denis Ooi, filmed by Louis Libitz, tells the tale of Dr. Robert Serling, a scientist who invents a time machine that travels into the future, only to show devastating results. Completed in March 2020, “Soothsayer” is the flagship story of the anthology sequel.
“‘Soothsayer’ came from an author, C.M. Eddy Jr.,” said Ryan. “He wrote these science fiction shorts. Some were good; some were great. I was so inspired by the dialogue. I’d always been a fan of Universal monsters, ‘The Twilight Zone.’ I’d just finished reading him and I wrote ‘Soothsayer.’ I kind of wanted to do a time travel movie. I wanted to keep it character driven, about people rather than about time travel. It’s about 22 minutes.”
The next film in the series is “Splinter,” starring Jim Thalman, Kristin Muri and Quincy Saadeh, and filmed by Louis Libitz. This short finds Scott Willis in a race against time, following an infection he received from stepping on a splinter during the renovation of his childhood home. Completed in November 2020, “Splinter” has enjoyed a rousing festival run, netting several award nominations and a Best Actor win for Thalman at the Northeast Film Festival Horror Fest.
“‘Splinter’ was a short story originally written by Todd Staruch, one of our producers,” Ryan said. “At first, it was just a short story with no intention of making it part of our anthology. But I read it and really liked it, so I asked him if I could flesh it out. It turns into 55 minutes long. There’s a lot of themes that we touch on with family and with political situations. We don’t preach, but I think our films reflect contemporary issues. ‘Splinter’ is probably a heavy dose of that. It revolves around our main character and the Leni-Lenape Indians.”
“Haunted,” starring Brett Eidman, Jenn Plotzke, Gareth Tidball and introducing Emma Waldron, filmed by Rigo Diaz, pits ghost hunter Carl McGavin against a very real evil. Completed in August 2022, “Haunted” was the last film to be finished in the series.
“‘Haunted’ was inspired by the old series ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker.’ I love Darren McGavin (who played Kolchak). I think he’s a great actor,” said Ryan. “In ‘The Night Stalker,’ (the protagonist is) a ghost hunter, a paranormal investigator. As kind of an homage, the character’s name in ‘Haunted’ is Carl McGavin. But unlike Kolchak, this guy just investigates ghosts. We follow his investigation and see how it affects his clients and comes back to haunt him. It’s about 20 to 25 minutes long.”
“Robot,” starring Jason John Cicalese, Jeanine Bartel and introducing Jack Ryan, filmed by Christian Santiago, tells the story of a boy who faces lingering troubles after the discovery of a meteor in the woods. Completed in July 2021, “Robot” will close out the series.
“‘Robot’ stars my son, Jack, and the film revolves around a little boy that lives in an abusive home and, one night, a meteor crashes and he finds a robot and the robot is sentient and recognizes the boy’s plight.”
“The anthology is two and a half hours in total and there’s a wraparound story.”
The only question then was where to premiere this horror anthology, though, for Ryan, there was never really any doubt.
“The Cranford Theater is very welcoming to independent filmmakers, and our film ‘Splinter’ premiered there as part of the Garden State Film Festival,” he said. “At the festival, ‘Splinter’ won the Kevin Smith Best Homegrown Feature Award.
“I contacted Doreen Sayegh, who owns and runs the Cranford Theater, and she facilitated the whole thing for us. We’ve been doing this for about 10 years. This is really just for the promotion of the work. If we can have a wider theater run, we would be willing to do that.”
Although the showing of “Return to the Theatre of Terror Anthology” at the Cranford Theater, 25 North Ave. W., in downtown Cranford, on Saturday, Jan. 28, is sold out, Ryan said that if enough people visit his website, [email protected], and ask for it, he will have a second showing.
Photos Courtesy of Tom Ryan