Alex Arredondo was in search of an old house.
Finding the right one would be pivotal to setting the stage for the short horror movie “The Doll” that he wrote and hoped to direct there. The filmmaker plans to enter it in this spring’s Z-Fest Film Festival, a Twin Cities-based contest that features original, seven-minute short films made by local filmmakers.
Arredondo wanted a house with a lot of history. “Something that looks like it’s been in a family’s name for generations,” he explained.
Enter the historic Cummins-Phipps-Grill House on Pioneer Trail in Eden Prairie.
The resident of St. Paul’s East Side learned of it from his co-worker Bruce Bengry in the public safety office at Augsburg University. Bengry is the photographer for Santa’s North Pole Experience, which rents the house each holiday season.
“I told him we were still looking for a house, but running out of time,” Arredondo said. “He says, ‘Well … I know a house.’”
Constructed in 1879-1880 for John R. and Mattie Cummins, the brick farmhouse matched the director’s vision playing in Arredondo’s head. So, for two days last month, the house owned by the city and leased by the Eden Prairie Historical Society became Arredondo’s film set.
“The Cummins House gave us an authentic feel that can’t be replicated with set design,” he said. “There’s history in that house and it definitely shows from the decor to every plank of wood on the floor.”
On location in Eden Prairie
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Cummins-Phipps-Grill House (named after the three families who lived there) is drawing attention from local filmmakers.
Taking advantage of the refurbished farmhouse’s rustic charm, Arredondo’s “The Doll” has wrapped filming there, and a full-length independent film titled “Preserved” is coming soon.
Though both are horror movies with supernatural elements, the house is playing against type. There is no “bad juju” there, jokes Kathie Case, Eden Prairie Historical Society president.
“We’ve all been in it enough to know, and we have all been in it alone and we just feel like it’s a happy house,” Case said.
The film productions pay to rent the house, similar to Santa’s North Pole Experience during the holidays. It is available for private event rentals.
“I usually double-check with (City Manager) Rick Getschow about everything we decide to do there, whether it be Santa or these movies,” Case said.
Any money made from rentals goes back into the house, she said. Half pays for its continued restoration and maintenance; the other half is for Historical Society educational programs and fun events there. Planned in the spring is a speaker series, Case said.
“The goal is to share it with the community,” she said. “That’s the real goal. I really believe you can find other ways to use things to make people interested in them and want to go there. But this opportunity with the movie thing is really offering money that helps and it doesn’t take a long period of time, and we think it’s a really good deal for us.”
‘A dream come true’
Arredondo, who studied film at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, is making his directorial debut with “The Doll.” Besides being the director and writer, he also raised $10,000 through a GoFundMe page to produce it.
General screenings of “The Doll” and other Z-Fest entries will happen in late April at Emagine Willow Creek Theater in Plymouth.
“This was a dream come true,” Arredondo said. “Small scale as it is, you got to take in every single victory to treasure.”
Though “The Doll” is a horror story, the chills are psychological. He wants viewers to experience a sense of dread as they’re watching the story unfold.
“I feel like the horror in this isn’t coming from the supernatural,” he said. “It’s not coming from the doll. It’s coming from human nature.”
Arredondo doesn’t want to give too many spoilers away. He did offer this short synopsis: A young girl named Violet finds a doll in the woods and unknowingly makes a deal with a demon when she brings it home.
“She had suffered through the loss of her mother,” he explained. “She doesn’t know exactly what happened to her yet. She lives with an abusive dad but we don’t exactly see that portrayed on screen. We kind of subtly hint at it. She finds this doll that’s a conduit for this entity. We’re going to leave that ambiguous to leave everything a mystery. The less you see the more scary it is or the less you know the more scary it is.”
The first day interior shots were filmed; the second day focused on exterior shots.
“We even found a stretch of woods next to the house that we played off as a forest,” he said. “The house was just so gorgeous to shoot. The aesthetic was just perfect for what we’re trying to go for.”
Arredondo conjured the story from his imagination and love for the horror genre. He thinks horror films can offer a catharsis of sorts from the terror he sees happening on the news every day.
“With all the frustration going on in the world, sometimes it’s good just to sit down and watch something scary play out on the screen that can never happen in the real world, but it also kind of mirrors our world a little bit,” he said.
Though a contract hasn’t been signed yet, Case said “Preserved” is planning to film at the house in the next month or so.
“Of course, COVID held them up,” Case said. “Minnesota had a higher tax for making movies, and that got lowered. That made them want to come back to the Cummins House. They really love the house. It’s perfect for it.”
“Preserved” is directed by Molly Worre from a screenplay written by Wenonah Wilms. Both Worre and Wilms are Minnesota natives. It is being produced by Los Angeles-based Battlecry Productions, which bills itself as the first female-owned and operated horror production company.
The movie’s logline provides this synopsis: When a Depression-era farmer’s wife accidentally poisons her husband with spoiled preserves, she must face a harsh Minnesota winter alone. After he returns from the dead, they are both faced with the decision to protect or destroy each other.
Worre described the movie as a horror drama, weighty in theme and character.
“Technically, it’s just dark enough to be horror,” she said. “There’s more humanity, though.”
Worre hopes to begin filming in March, but a couple of items remain on her to-do list. Besides still needing to cast the female lead, she is looking for another house to serve as the main production site.
A “tidy two-story farmhouse to be surrounded by a bleak, empty and quiet landscape” is integral to the plot. Cummins-Phipps-Grill House doesn’t fit that with Flying Cloud Airport across the street.
“We are looking for it to be remote with a lot of land in the middle of nowhere, and we need to show that,” she said.
Worre said the production is eyeing northern Minnesota for that location. The state offers a 25 percent tax credit to lure TV and film productions to the state. In addition, St. Louis County and the Iron Range each have filmmaking incentive programs.
“We have found places that look great from the outside, but the inside doesn’t work,” she said. “Or it’s great all-around, but it’s not two stories. So, there are ones where we might be able to piecemeal a little bit of one house for the other. And then we have towns that don’t want to have anything to do with a horror movie.”
Production at the Cummins-Phipps-Grill House, decorated with period furnishings, will focus on a couple of interior rooms, possibly the kitchen and the root cellar, Worre said. A little movie magic in the form of editing would make the two houses hundreds of miles apart seem like one.
“We might even use a stairway,” she said. “You can follow somebody up the stairs and catch them on the other side in a totally different space, and it will feel like the same space.”
Also integral to the movie is snow. Before filming even begins, there needs to be several weeks of setup time.
“I’m trying to put my faith in this potential polar vortex that I heard might be coming for February,” she joked.
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