It takes place primarily at a haunted house, but Riley Cusick didn’t want his feature directorial debut to be just another low-budget slasher flick.
Sure, Autumn Road is set around Halloween and populated by a cast of creeps and eccentrics. But it’s also got a layer of psychological suspense in the vein of Ray Bradbury, whose writings inspired the Denton filmmaker to explore weightier themes such as fractured families and residual grief.
For example, Cusick recalled working at a Thai restaurant as a teenager alongside a cheerful co-worker with big dreams for her future. She died in a car accident just a couple of years later.
“We weren’t best friends or anything, but it was impactful,” Cusick said. “Just reading a bunch of Bradbury, thinking about little moments like that, and these other significant experiences I’ve had during Halloween over the years. I wanted to do something that encompassed the suddenness of death as well as the fun of the genre.”
The story follows Laura (Lorelei Linklater), who returns to her hometown 10 years after her sister disappeared while trick-or-treating. While trying to find closure, she stumbles upon a roadside haunted house run by identical twins (both played by Cusick) from her childhood. Amid growing chaos around them, their search for the truth is complicated by seasonal spookiness.
Cusick has directed several short films and played roles in locally shot horror features including VFW and Satanic Panic. So juggling two on-screen performances with responsibilities behind the camera came naturally.
“I really wanted to play the two parts,” Cusick said. “It was fun to explore that duality. One was externalizing, and one was internalizing everything from our past. They just don’t know how to quite move on, so they have their own quirks and oddities.”
Cusick said he looked at just about every haunted house in Texas before settling on Graystone Haunted Manor in Texas as the primary location.
“I certainly came out of this with a great appreciation for haunted houses, and all the artistry that they put into those things. It really is a medium of its own,” he said. “They have all these stories and characters that they’re committed to. It’s much more thought-out than some people might appreciate.”
The rest of the film was shot in the Dallas area in October 2020 with a mostly local cast and crew, many of which went to the University of North Texas with the director.
“We didn’t want it to be a pandemic movie. We didn’t want to make something that felt small,” Cusick said. “We wanted to take a big swing, so we did something that had the big location, the dual-twin effect, and we had special effects. We had a big cast, but we still stuck to protocol.”
Autumn Road marks the first feature for The Last Motel, the Dallas-based production company founded by former Fangoria executive Xander McCabe. It will be available starting this week on video-on-demand and digital platforms.
Cusick and McCabe already have finished production on The Wild Man, a Texas-made thriller directed by and starring Cusick, which should hit the festival circuit next year.