Nearly three decades ago, the beginning of autumn was always one of Mario Cerrito’s favorite times of the year.
He would go all out for Halloween, turning his parents’ backyard in Audubon into some combination of a haunted house and graveyard, with a trail of attractions leading to the family basement. It was a pretty elaborate setup for a second grader.
It may have set Cerrito’s future career into motion, too.
In the last five years, the Mantua resident has broken into the film industry as a rising horror film writer, director and producer. His most recent script, “The House in the Pines,” has kept Cerrito’s momentum moving forward. The script was signed off this month by Hollywood horror veteran Mick Strawn, whose resume includes “Blade,” “Boogie Nights” and “Candyman,” sequels in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchises, and the 2019 independent film “Vengeance,” the latest in the Jason Voorhees-”Friday the 13th” saga. Strawn will co-direct “Pines” with Jeremy Brown, who also co-directed “Vengeance.”
“This is a big deal for me,” Cerrito said, noting that “Vengeance” has been seen by more than a million people. “When you have guys like that directing a film for you, they’ve got big followings … When you’re plugging away at something, I’ve been doing this for eight years now, you’re waiting for that break, to break in.
“You build that following for yourself,” he added, “but you have to cross that next threshold, so that’s where this is leading me.”
The 36-year-old Cerrito’s rise as a filmmaker coincides with the time he’s called Mantua home. Born and bred in South Jersey, Cerrito grew up in Audubon and went to high school in Woodstown before settling in Mantua five years ago with his wife, Charmaine, and their now 4-year-old son, Mario Cerrito IV, and his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Summer Schaefer.
But aside from the Halloween haunted houses when he was a grade schooler and a R.L. Stine-inspired book he wrote as a 12-year-old, Cerrito didn’t have any formal training as a writer or director. The beginning of his film career can be traced back in two events: one out of boredom and another out of curiosity.
Thirteen years ago, he decided to write a script, “The Cornfield Massacre,” just because he was bored. But Cerrito didn’t really know what to do with it.
“I put it away,” he said, “buried it in my closet.”
Four years later, in 2011, he met Charmaine and she came across the script.
“You should get this made,” she told him. “It’s really good.”
But how exactly does a guy in South Jersey with zero contacts in the film industry begin to get a script made? It stalled Cerrito for a while until he began blindly sending messages on social media to people who could help. And it worked. He got a response from a Philadelphia-area actor who passed on the name of a producer.
Cerrito made the most of that connection, kept going, and hasn’t stopped. In the last five years, he’s written and directed “Deadly Gamble,” “The Listing” and “Human Hibachi.”
“Gamble” played on the big screen at the Delsea Drive-In Theater in Vineland in October of 2016. In 2019, one of Cerrito’s dreams came true when “The Listing” DVD was available at Deptford’s Barnes & Noble, and he also caught a big break when “Hibachi” was selected for the New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival in Atlantic City last October.
It’s been a remarkable five-year run for someone who had no formal training or connections in the movie business 10 years ago.
“When I tell you someone that came from zero, nothing in the business — nothing — it’s how it was,” Cerrito said. “If you know somebody, it makes it a lot easier. But when you don’t (what can you do?). So that’s why I think this is super inspirational, because there are a lot of people that have that dream that I had, but they never go ahead and do it because it’s daunting.”
Cerrito decided to pursue his own dream and his latest passion project could be his best. Although “The House in the Pines” is still in pre-production, Strawn signed a letter of intent to direct and there’s a possibility the film could be shot in the Pinelands’ Batsto Village.
“This guy has read scripts from Wes Craven, the guy who is known as the godfather of horror,” Cerrito said of the break he got to work with Strawn.
Cerrito met the director at Horror Con and kept in touch through Facebook. He eventually sent Strawn the script for “Pines,” and the Hollywood veteran liked it so much he wanted to direct it.
“Holy smokes,” Cerrito said to himself at the time. “This guy has connections to everyone in Hollywood in that horror world.”
And now the former grade schooler entertaining Audubon neighbors with his own backyard haunted house is doing the same, but on a much larger scale, with plenty of room to get bigger in the coming years, too.
“I was doing stuff then that I’m doing now, building sets,” Cerrito said. “It’s crazy to think about. It’s all about that passion. It’s always in you.
“If you can make a couple bucks and love what you do, there’s nothing better in the world.”