There’s something other-wordly inhabiting Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philly, and the massive structure’s crop circle-shaped layout is one clue as to what the creature may be.
Or, at least, that’s the take in Against the Night, the latest feature from Delaware County native Brian Cavallaro, 38. Filmed entirely on location at the long-closed Holmesburg Prison last May, the movie follows a group of friends as they attempt to film a ghost-hunting show, but get something a little more out-of-this-world than they bargained for.
A Los Angeles resident, Cavallaro, who was born in Drexel Hill and raised in Coatesville, will be back in Philly on Friday for the film’s Philadelphia premiere at the Cinemark University City Penn 6 (there will also be a cast Q&A following the screening). With his background in sports and documentary content, Against the Night serves as an early attempt by Cavallaro to break into feature films.
And as a Philly boy, the writer and director says he was glad to return back to his old stomping grounds to film.
“Philly is home for me,” Cavallaro says. “I didn’t come back to shoot a movie just because I thought the prison was cool.”
Though, admittedly, it is pretty cool — or, rather, creepy. Constructed in 1896, the building was the site of a number of horrific incidents, including biochemical weapons and pharmaceutical testing on inmates by Dr. Albert Kligman in the 1950s and ’60s. A dermatologist and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kligman famously described the prison as having “acres of skin” for his use, and compared observing the system to “a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.” Experimentation on humans ended at the prison in 1974, according to reports.
Those aren’t the only creepy elements: There were the “bake-oven murders” of 1938, in which guards locked prisoners in a small building that could reach upwards of 200 degrees; the 1973 murder of the prison’s warden and deputy warden, after which the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Center is currently named; and the fact that the prison has been largely abandoned since it was closed in 1995.
All those aspects added up to a perfect filming location for Cavallaro, who included some of those facts in the film. However, the writer/director says he initially wrote the Against the Night script to be filmed at Eastern State Penitentiary — Philly’s more well-known defunct prison, and the structure with which Cavallaro was more familiar. But on the advice of a location scout, Cavallaro checked out Holmesburg, and decided to film there instead.
“Eastern State is awesome, but some of it is a little too much like a museum in places,” Cavallaro says. “It’s kind of like Holmesburg’s little brother, and Holmesburg is just straight-up abandoned, which I think comes across in the film.”
Boy, does it. As the friends become trapped in the prison and work to get themselves out, Holmesburg itself becomes a star, with its peeling paint, dilapidated structures, and overall spooky vibe dominating the screen. In that sense, more than two decades of neglect have served the prison well.
There is, however, a holding facility on the prison’s grounds that is used for prison population overflow. The Against the Night crew used this area to store their equipment, and Cavallaro says the crew didn’t have to contend with any inmates for space. Though, the director adds that he did catch glimpses of prisoners working in the facility’s yard, which he calls a “bizarre” part of shooting.
That, however, was nothing compared to actually filming at night at Holmesburg, which some of the Against the Night cast and crew now believes is haunted. With many of them hailing from the area — including actors Amy Zenone, Nicole Souza, Hannah Kleeman, and Leah Holleran — it appears that good old Philly grit does little against the potentially paranormal.
“Half the cast did not handle it very well,” Cavallaro says. “A lot of times, you find yourself alone with a flashlight, and in those moments, for sure, it’s spooky.”
MOVIES Against the Night 7 p.m. Friday, Cinemark University City 6, 4012 Walnut St., 215-386-0869, www.againstthenight.com