A scene from “Dirigo,” the short film representing Maine in The United States of Horror anthology. Photo courtesy of Noah Bessey

Horror is universal – and fun. No, not existential horror; who needs that? I’m talking about good, old-fashioned, movie horror, a genre of film that – try as some might to ignore it (presumably with fingers in ears and repeating, “I can’t hear you”) – is simply part of the cinematic landscape. A really scary part.

Of course, Maine’s practically horror central, what with the estimable Mr. King doing his thing up in Bangor, and local horror stalwarts plumbing Maine’s darkest and least reputable corners for some creepy local atmosphere. That’s where Portland-based director Noah Bessey comes in during the preparatory run-up to this year’s ever-spooky Halloween horror movie season, as his all-Maine horror short, appropriately titled “Dirigo,” has been chosen to represent our fair-but-foul state in the massive upcoming horror anthology The United States Of Horror.

Bessey’s film, shot in the tiny Somerset County town of Caratunk under pandemic conditions last year, is a recognizably Maine story about a remote lakeside cabin, a group of vacationers, a mysterious woman who’s not what she seems, and all the Maine-specific terror that situation promises. Chosen to represent Maine in Canada-based Dystopian Films’ ambitious, 50-state, three-part horror omnibus, “Dirigo” had to follow some pretty specific guidelines. 

Each state-centric short had to not just be set in its respective state, but had to recognizably feature the state in a meaningful way. For Bessey, that meant taking the state’s motto, “Dirigo” (“I lead”), and fashioning the film’s main character around it.

“The character uses that motto in everyday situations,” said Bessey. “He likes to be a leader, but there’s a more sinister undertone, in that he’s leading these people to some impending danger.”

Additionally, each film had to really dig into some aspect of its state’s essence, with Bessey’s eventful trip to Caratunk providing uniquely Maine-esque ambience to spare. (The one-day shoot saw the director losing a tire on Maine’s backroads and rushing to capture some of the dying golden hour, lakeside light for a pivotal shot.) And, with 50 short films to capture America’s multifarious menace, every short film had to emphasize the “short,” with “Dirigo” coming in one second under the 7-minute limit. (Oh, and no pandemic horror, as Bessey, echoing the producer’s admonition stated, real life is scary enough at the moment. We’re looking for escape here, people.)

Skowhegan native and Portland resident Bessey’s relatively recent entry into the Maine filmmaking community is a result of him finally recognizing the right medium for his creative impulses.

“I became a filmmaker right when the world stopped,” laughed Bessey about his 2020 short film debut, the stripped-down, single-setting “Interview.” “I knew I always loved crafting stories, but I didn’t know the medium. I started a novel, but that didn’t feel right. I’m a very visual person.”

For Bessey, the past, locked-down year has meant hitting the ground sprinting, as the filmmaker has already formed a mentor-mentee relationship with “someone in L.A. who’s worked on dozens and dozens of projects,” he said, and with whom he’s planning to collaborate on the other coast once pandemic allows. In the meantime, Bessey is already prepping his next short horror film, “Entity,” about a man coping with his most definitely haunted house. (There’s a fundraising page on crowdsourcing site Indigogo, and Bessey hopes to be filming in Maine by summer.)

But The United States Of Horror represents the sort of big, splashy showcase young regional filmmakers truly need. It’s got a great hook, a genre legend on board as narrator to link the many, state-centric shorts into the whole (that’s Pinhead himself, “Hellraiser’s” Doug Bradley), and a guaranteed distribution deal on DVD as well as a streaming service that Bessey says the film’s producer, Simon Phillips, is keeping under wraps at the moment. (Phillips’ vampire series “Age of the Living Dead” can currently be seen on Amazon Prime, but that’s just speculation.) 

Bessey, for all his Hollywood dreams, says that his Maine-made first films aren’t just a stepping stone. “I want to make them in Maine, with a Maine crew and actors for as long as I can,” he said, citing the recent movement on film-friendly tax incentives gaining traction in the state legislature as a hopeful sign.

“So many Maine filmmakers think that, if they want to have any type of career, they have to leave,” Bessey said. “I want to help show there’s so much opportunity untapped, so much inspiration around the state, and so many amazing locations to film here.” 

Bessey notes that “Dirigo” will be making its debut in the first (of the eventual three) installment of The United States of Horror, which will be available for brave viewers right around Halloween time. (Just in time to pair nicely with Maine’s own all-terrifying anthology institution, Damnationland, serendipitously.)

You can catch glimpses of Bessey’s work in the anthology’s snazzy, bloody, NSFW trailer, and learn more about Bessey, “Dirigo” and the upcoming “Entity” at Bessey’s filmmaker Facebook page, or “Entity’s” Indiegogo page, where you can drop a few bucks to help this up-and-coming filmmaker continue to rise. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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