CRAM explained: interview with writer/director Abie Sidell

CRAM- Courtesy Terror Films
CRAM- Courtesy Terror Films /

CRAM is streaming for free on Tubi and is a must-watch for all horror fans.

The horror fantasy short film left me with a lot to mull over – including questions about the darker side of schooling and what it means to succeed in this world. Join me as I analyze the film with writer/director Abie Sidell!

1428 Elm: I want to start by asking what inspired you to create this story. Did it stem from your own personal experiences in college?

Abie Sidell: Yeah, one hundred percent. It’s funny because people ask me this question and I’m always like – yeah, of course, it stems from my personal experience, and thank you for asking. You know, school, and college especially, was a nightmare for me; and I think that CRAM really began as this desire to exorcise my academic demons.

As we brought more and more people onto the project, I learned that everyone – good students and bad students alike, we all have the same nightmares…CRAM really became this desire to interrogate – why is the universal experience of school, in this country at least, fear? Why are we all so afraid?

1428 Elm: The Son of Man painting by Rene Magritte is a large part of this film. It’s mentioned, shown, and apples like from the painting find their way into many scenes. What are the deeper meanings of The Son of Man in the context of this story?

Abie Sidell: That’s a symbol I’m happy to talk about, in part because it’s not mine. I do think that the apple has always been a symbol for knowledge, of course, but I think what makes that painting so powerful and effective to me is that I find it very scary… something is a lot scarier when it is obscured. If you hide something, something as mundane as a dude in a bowler hat’s face, suddenly it takes on this ominous quality and I think that really felt a lot like what academia has always felt like to me.

CRAM – Courtesy October Coast / Terror Films /

When you actually dig into it, you know, it’s a complex and troubling institution, but it’s only really scary and that fear of school we all have is only there because we can’t see the mechanisms. We can’t see the gears being turned under the surface. There is an apple, the apple of knowledge that we are being offered, that is, you know, taking our money. The sort of vampiric quality of school that this movie is meant to evoke. I think that painting just kind of really gets at what I feel school actually looks like – this sort of apple of knowledge hiding the face of someone perhaps quite ominous.

1428 Elm: I would love to learn more about the character Libra. She attempts to seduce Marc during her scene, she also is the cause of the handprints on his back and his unknowing consumption of the weed cookies – then of course, she is revealed to have vampire teeth, which is a commonly seductive creature. So what is it that she represents?

Abie Sidell: Libra is awesome because Jane Bradley is an incredible actor… It’s not only what she does which is incredible, it’s also what she brings out of John (DiMino), who plays Marc. I think together their scene is really electric… As far as the character is concerned, I was just talking about the apple and I think there’s something compelling about the idea of forbidden knowledge.

I’ve always been interested in the ways that school asks us to learn, but asks us to learn specific things and tells us that certain types of knowledge are forbidden. one of the big examples of that, of course, is sex. Sex is this thing, especially in college, that is everywhere. It is not so subtly an important part of the college experience, and it’s something that the institution sort of puts a mask over – hides away in the dark and says ‘this isn’t actually a part of our institution.’ I think as a result, you end up with very complex and troubling power dynamics and situations. I was exploring how to personify that feeling of forbidden knowledge.

CRAM already is exploring the idea of school as a vampire… We give all of our money to this school willingly for the promise of a good life, and that is definitely a deal with the devil we are all making, and usually, it’s a false one. And so, this movie is just taking these ideas that already exist. Taking metaphor and turning it literal. Libra is an expression of, like I said, forbidden knowledge and the sort of vampirism of academia as a seductive force.

1428 Elm: I love the scene with the old TV and the black and white film. After the dog fetches the oil for the man and the gears begin to turn, the man questions the purpose of the machine. In response, the dog barks and the captions read “It’s simple master, or haven’t you realized? The gear is turned, and I am fed.” Is this a metaphor for the purpose of life, meaning that our soul is fed when our brain is used?

Abie Sidell: That’s a very optimistic perspective… I think that’s very legitimate and I think that The Master of the Books would agree with you that that is what that movie is about. I think I probably take a more cynical approach, myself… I think that that feeling of cranking away at a gear and not even knowing what it does – I think there’s just the very simple metaphor of the grind, what we are all doing all the time. And what does it actually do? Well the answer is, it’s feeding someone – usually someone that isn’t us. And the idea of the dog, who we sort of think of as subservient to ourselves, but is actually in some ways our master because we are grinding away everyday to feed the dog.

1428 Elm: The oil-covered man writhing on the floor is absolutely horrific… Is this how Marc sees himself since he says “I hate looking at you?”

Abie Sidell: I do think there’s something to the fact that some of us tend to view our inner selves as disgusting, oil-covered freaks. I do think that Marc certainly sees a part of himself that way… You know, you have a dark corner of your mind that you put the things you don’t want to deal with – the parts of yourself that you don’t want to confront.

I think that in my experience, my life is only improved when I have the courage to look at the parts of myself that I’m afraid of. And that’s what I think Marc is experiencing in that scene. He has been so afraid of himself and finally it’s just too much and he has to pull it out and look at it. And of course what he sees is repulsive to him… Marc is finally looking at something that he really needs to see.

1428 Elm: The Master of The Books (Brandon Burton) is such an interesting character all around – I’m sure he’s an audience favorite. Tell me more about who he is and what he represents.

Abie Sidell: I think that character was the most complex collaboration on the movie and involved pretty much every department… We’ve been talking about, you know, school as a vampire and I think that when you’re making a movie about how monstrous school is, that movie needs a monster. School needs to be a monster.

As we kind of explored the nature of that monstrosity, I was drawn to the feeling of vampirism but also the sort of lordly quality that he has. The sort of quarter of knowledge, almost like a dragon sitting on his pile of gold. I was attracted to the idea that, in our systems, no one is really king, no one really rules, everyone serves some other master – some darker lord. I think that The Master of the Books as both this sort of tyrannical, monstrous presence, but also sort of as a victim himself was a vibe that I was really interested in portraying… There’s a degree to which the character feels trapped.

1428 Elm: The film ends with various shots of a gloomy city, then we see Marc dressed in a suit, taking an escalator upwards away from The Master of The Books. Tell me more about what this ending represents.

Abie Sidell: I think that, like I said earlier, the movie is a way to ask the question of what success means and what the cost of it is. You know, we’re told in this society that we go to college and we’re given the keys to success, and I think that a lot of people leave school not feeling like they have the keys to anything except for a pile of student debt. And in the case of a lot of people, that means a sort of indentured servitude to the corporate world. I think that whatever Marc is doing later in life, there’s no doubt that, like all of us, he is struggling to reconcile the fact that he’s made it out of this difficult situation, but perhaps at the cost of something really significant.

I think CRAM, as a horror movie, offers that the cost might have been something quite deep. And I think that that’s a cost that we all pay in some ways…  We are trying to conform everyone into the same mold of student, saying that this one version of success is what applies to everybody… Marc, at the end of day, is a burnout, a slacker – he’s also just someone that’s really lost and I really wanted to evoke in that final vision that you’re describing this feeling that even once you make it, that feeling of being lost isn’t going to go away. The gears being ground here are bigger than just school.

For more questions and answers, watch the full interview below!

Coming soon – my interview with CRAM’s production designer Sydney Amanuel. Stay tuned for an in-depth talk about the creation of the film!

CRAM is a must-see. dark. Next

Did this interview answer your questions about CRAM? Let us know in the comments!