Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review: The Black Room

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

The Black Room
Written and directed by Rolfe Kanefsky
Cleopatra Entertainment / The Goods / Casual Productions / MVD Visual
91 minutes, 2017

There are actually a number of films called The Black Room, dating back to one with Boris Karloff in 1935, but each has its own flavor, and this one delves into more of an erotic and satanic Hammer-esque realm. A few decades ago, the male lead would probably have been played by Ralph Bates.

It’s been a long time since I saw one as spicy as this one. It’s sort of a cross between the semi-classics The Entity and The Incubus (both 1982) and the gateway-to-hell-is-in-the-basement subgenre, and then something you might have seen on Cinemax in its day. That being said, it’s not exactly in the softcore realm, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the inevitable prologue, we meet an older woman (Lin Shaye) and her nightie-clad granddaughter, who have retired to separate bedrooms; but there is evil afoot as one is sensually stimulated and the other one gets angry (I’ll let you guess which). A nice choice is that the scene actually goes beyond where you would think it might, giving a fuller ride than just a set-up; although yes, it is exposition in its way, or at least a whetting of the audience’s – err – appetite for what’s to – err – come.

Lukas Hassel and Natasha Henstridge
In most cases, the next scene where the new couple moves in usually takes place decades later, but here it is a mere two years, which is a lot more realistic (that is realistic in a genre sense). In a brief cameo, the ever-cool and grossly underrated ex-Tromette Tiffany Shepis plays the real estate agent who sells the demon house to married couple Paul (Lukas Hassel) and Jennifer (Natasha Henstridge).

It’s not long before they’re unintentionally playing footsie, as it were, with Incubi and Succubae. Lights flash, cameras do a tilt-and-twirl, and, well, you know. Gotta say Henstridge is still quite the looker, and so is Hassel. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of both women and men who are going to be paying attention to his often shirtless physique.

As there usually is in this kind of film, since the two main characters need to go on for a while in the story, numerous peripheral characters fall prey one by one to the increasing number of demon denizens, including trades people, friends and relations. By the end, there is quite the – err – satisfying body count number. The story isn’t deep, but please, did you expect or even want it to be. It’s quite enjoyable and most of the fine points are – err – touched upon, such as gore, SFX and sex.

Now, I’m been kidding the film with all the innuendos, but truthfully it’s a fun film to watch. It never really gets a chance to sag in the story thanks to some sharp editing, decent lighting, and a fetching cast. And the story does hold up throughout, without wearing out its welcome. It’s just sensual enough to keep the eyes on the screen, and yet not enough to bludgeon anyone to the point of numbness and being overdone. The pace builds, especially in the second half as it should, and nowhere in the continuum did I ever to the point wanting to say, “C’mon already, lets pick up the pace!” For example, as I’ve stated before, I get really annoyed when someone is searching through a house or factory with a light, and it goes on and on to the point where even when the jump scare happens, I’m too bored to care. This never treads the water long enough to do that. I’m grateful.

One question I do have, which is kind of a mundane one but for some reason it stuck out because this happens occasionally in the haunted house milieu: Henstridge and Hassel move into the already furnished house. They are not exactly, well, a young couple. While I’m not sure how long their characters have been together, but surely they must own something either together or from previously by this age (both leads are in their 40s). In the real world, of course, I realize that this way the film crew can use the leased house without disturbing anything of the real owners, but for some reason it stuck with me.

There is, naturally, a high and exaggerated (and enjoyable) level of both sexuality and sensuality, but oddly, cautious nudity. With one exception, an occasional breast makes an appearance here and there, though we often get to see Hassel with his shirt off or open. It’s almost like the director was obsessed with his six-pack. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Arthur Brown is the "God of Hellfire!"
I will say the acting is top notch. No one in the main cast gives a bad performance, and there are some interesting cameos, such as the aforementioned Shepis, genre stalwart Shaye (who has been in a ton of films like A Nightmare on Elm Street right through the Insidious franchise),and two pivotal musicians who play a part in the background story: Al Jourgensen of the band Ministry, and I’m happy to say Arthur Brown (as in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown… we even get to hear a bit of a re-recorded “Fire,” a song I’ve loved since the first time I heard it); I recognized the make-up he wore here as being the same as he used in the ‘60s during his height of fame. There are also the likes of model/actor Dominique Swain, and bubbling under actors such as Nick Principe, Elissa Dowling, and Michael Reed, most of whom you’ve probably seen a few times but never really knew it (yet).
Speaking of Ministry, there’s Jennifer’s diminutive sister, Karen (Augie Duke, who is a full foot shorter than her co-star, Hassel). When we meet her, she is supposedly punked out, with a buttons and a patch on her bag by British band GBH. However, her make-up is completely goth (or emo, depending on how you look at it). Of course, she’s snarky. Later on, she wears a tee of the Industrial Metal group Ministry as a nighty. She’s musically all over the map; again, I realize this has nuthin’ to do with nuthin’, but still…

The gore is decent looking and smartly not overdone. The sets, especially near the end, was decent, though looked a bit late ‘60s or ‘70s-ish, like a Star Trek planet. Still, it was fun and lots to look at, which is impressive on a small budget. I also enjoyed that many of the demons are seen merely through their red hands, another brilliant (seriously) budget saver.

As for the extras, as this is a Blu-ray, there are lots to choose from, such as numerous extended and deleted scenes. This is why I commented about good editing. While these were enjoyable to sit through independently, some were a bit wordy, and were right to go, but I easily sat through all of them without a problem. There is also a short Behind the Scenes piece that focuses on a particular scene near the end. The Blooper Reel is not very long, but enough to be entertaining. It certainly looked like they all got along. Add on both a Storyboards and Slide Show featurette, for some more behind the process moments. Of course, all this stuff should be watched after viewing the film. For example, part of what makes the storyboards so interesting is to see the differences between it and the story, such as the icon used to trap the demon. I’m also happy to say that the slide show is by a photographer between scenes and of SFX tests, rather than just freeze-frames of the film, as is often used.

The weakest point of the entire package, however, is the commentary track. Featuring the director, Henstridge, Duke and producer Esther Goodstein, there are some nuggets in there, but as with too many people with egos talking, they consistently make comments over each other so it’s hard to make out what’s being said. But even worse, someone will actually interrupt an anecdote to make their own unrelated remarks way too often. You won’t miss much by skipping this.

However, the film proper is worth the view. It’s fun, well written and acted, and keeps a good pace. Yes, it’s also sensual (for both genders, which is a nice touch), but not to the level of the old EI Entertainment stuff (with the likes of Tina Krause and Erin Brown, known then as Misty Mundae). Definitely worth checking out.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Compilation Review: Zombies! The Aftermath

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

Zombies! The Aftermath
Sector 5 Films / Chemical Burn Entertainment / World Wide Multi-Media
240 minutes, 2017

This zombie extravaganza is a collection within a compilation. What I mean is that of 2-discs that was put together, one of which was already a set of two films. The first was called Grindhouse Zombies: The Dead Shall Inherit the Earth (WWMM loves the word “grindhouse”; that’s an observation, nowhere near a complaint). The second is the solo film, Dead Walkers: The Rise of the Fourth Reich.


Zombie Factory (aka Zombie Field Trip, aka Zombie Isle)
Written and directed by Robert Elkins
American Eyesore Films / WWMM
110 minutes, 2014
While played straight, this film is definitely handled tongue-in-cheek. It is supposed to take place in 1978, and actually looks a bit like the style of Mother’s Day (1980). Though likely shot on a digi-cam, the film has the appearance of washed out or discolored film stock from the day. The tone of the film is quite purposefully amateurish, reminding me of those ‘50s films they used to show in schools like “My Body is Changing,” but without the rinky-dink music behind it.

Also, it’s obviously positing a miniscule budget; for example, when the local sheriff gives one of the female students a business card, it’s hand-written. Mini-budget in the 1970s or even 1980s was different than it is now. With a relatively inexpensive camera, a film can be made for just a few hundred dollars or less and still look damn fine. Back then, when it was shot on literal film, a micro-budget meant inexpensive (sometimes past its expiration date) film stock and cutting corners wherever possible.

The acting isn’t quite as wooden as, say, Night of the Living Dead (1968), but that is definitely the tone they seem to be going for, and it is actually quite effective. Once you get used to the discoloration (other than the red tones, which “pop”), the bad edits that are supposed to look like the film broke and was edited back together (seen that happen in person when I worked in a movie theater around the time this was supposed to take place), the whirlpool of the effects become more secondary to the action.

We join a group of students and a randy professor named Grant Foster (no relation to the sunglasses, I supposed…) with a stereotypical corduroy jacket, wool turtleneck, pipe and beard, and his students as they look over a supposedly deserted island for rare plants. The ship captain who takes them over is a decent additional comic relief.

Once on the island – excuse me, isle – they set off in pairs, including the two dumb blondes who are actually more fun to watch than annoying, the lustful girl and disinterested nerd, the militant feminist and the horny chubby guy in the afro wig, and the professor and the smarter-than-the-professor “cute one” (Kyle Billeter, who by far gives the best reading of the cast); he tries to “mansplain” everything to her while doing a Cosby by spiking her drink with booze. He continually proves he has possibly the least smarts of the group. But to paraphrase the song, “Only the dumb survive” (for a while perhaps…).

In pretty quick order the last pair find a sign indicating the United States Army has banned anyone from the isle (though that doesn’t stop them), and the zombies come out in force exposing the viewer to a strong mixture of cheesy and well done extreme gore. There are a lot of George Romero (d. 2017) references in these zombie kills, but the better for it, in my opinion.

Then we get introduced to the (of course) escaped Nazi scientist with the really (purposefully) bad German accent that is behind it all. As escapist fun goes, well, you are never taken out of the film, meaning that you are always aware that you are watching a film thanks to all the jittery digital additions – although all the appliances are real and well done – but that actually feels like part of the parade, and this actually ended up being more fun than I was even expecting. And don’t even get me started with the vengeful three-headed monster added in for… well, why not?!

Who will survive! Will the Nazi prevail? Will the zombies make it off the isle? Will the living? All this and more!! Other than being a bit too long, it was an enjoyable experiment in retro-zombie cinema. I’m gonna like this film, even if the director is (still) a Trump supporter…

Zombie Holocaust (aka Flesh of the Living)
Written, produced, cinematography and directed by Robert Elkins
American Eyesore
70 minutes, 2012
What a difference a couple of years make. Directed by the same person who did Zombie Isle, but a couple of years (and films) before that one; there is a wide range of knowledge he seems to have gained betwixt the two.

This earlier film is less of a narrative than a series of set pieces intermingled via editing. A solar flare has sent radiation to the earth, raising the dead to become flesh-eating zombies. They are the stumbling kind rather than the running, but they still manage to get up enough speed to cause some serious damage.

The earlier part of the film that introduces us to the gutmunchers takes place in a cemetery (this definitely a love-letter theme to Romero, with his influence present throughout), and then we move on to a night in downtown wherever this is supposed to take place (filmed in Petersburg, VA), especially around the fence of the IGA Supermarket, apparently.

The visual effects are still quite well done with lots of ripping, biting and gnashing. The exposed teeth appliances definitely look better in the than other film, but are still nicely done. While it is  certainly understandable due to budgetary constraints, the digital effects, which consist of a lot of gunfire and explosions, look just like what they are, relatively inexpensive digital effects… but I am totally forgiving with that and it didn’t bother me, just that it was noticeable, so when you see it, you will be aware.

While most of the characters come and go, or are dispatched, there are some reoccurring characters, such as the hard as nails Agent (Sarah Bella). Most of those who reappear, though, are comic relief, like an often-interrupting news broadcast with an increasingly sickened anchor named Harvey Leads (David Witt, who played the Nazi scientist in the other film), some re-election adverts by right-wing President Corman (Jerry E. Long, giving an anti-zombie agenda – “…for a zombie-free America” – that actually sounds similar to what we are hearing now with the anti-immigrant jibbing; I’m assuming the name of the president is a nod to Roger), and Willie-Bob (director Rob Elkins) who, through a comic character, is promoting not only his “indoor shooting restaurant and bar,” but is also subtle-as-a-mallet pushing a pro-hunting message to the audience.

There is lots of subtle humor scattered throughout, such as the newscasts, or a moment when the zombies react to punk rock on a radio. While the film may be all over the place, the effects are well done, which more than makes up where the plot is lacking.

Also included as an extra is Elkins’ 30-minute short, Chick’n-Head, from 2011. It’s a satisfying tale of revenge by a homeless voodoo woman who strikes back at a trio of other street trash. I won’t say much except Chick’n-Head looks just like the puppet that it is at first, and a guy in a suit resembling an evil ball game mascot, but it’s easy for forgive because the whole is greater than its parts here.

The only other extra on this disk is some WWMM trailers, which are also fun.


Rise of the 4th Reich (aka Dead Walkers: Rise of the 4th Reich)
Directed by Philip Gardiner
75 minutes, 2013
Chemical Burn Entertainment
British director Philip Gardner has quite a few films under his belt, some of which are fiction and many more “documentaries” dealing with the likes of conspiracy theories and the occult.

The basic plot elements here are that a secret agent of the British government, known simply as Alpha One (Philip Barzamanis), is back from a mission and under psychiatric care because of hallucinations and recurring dreams – make that nightmares.

His previous assignment, as we are shown, was to find a group of present-day Nazis and eradicate them. However, they are using some occult or scientific force to raise the dead to bring about, yeah, you got it, the Fourth Reich.

Most of the film takes place in a warehouse, and it’s pretty easy to guess (not saying I’m right, but it seems obvious) that the hospital scenes are shot in the same location. Alpha One’s sleeping quarters just seems too…dingy, and the room where he is questioned by Dr. Gavreel (Bob Lee, who reminds me a bit of a less slovenly Joe Fleishaker [d. 2016]) looks like a shower room.

Through flashbacks and dreams, we see either what Alpha One saw, imagined, or dreamed. That’s actually something I liked about the film, that the question of what actually happened/is happening is left up to the viewer (I definitely have my own opinions). In fact, that may be the strongest positive in the film.

There are a lot of references through the story, intentional or not (though I believe it’s more in the former’s corner), such as the Wolfenstein video game (no german shepherds, though), Ilsa She Wolf of the SS (1975), and even Groundhog Day (1993). The zombies, however, are based more on the Nazi undead subgenre, such as Dead Snow (2009) or even as far back as Shock Waves (1977, where the living dead are more “killing machine soldiers for the cause” than just roaming around for human flesh (unlike Zombie Factory above, which takes the rare step to mix the Nazi and meat-eating zombie genres).

One of the problems with the film, right from the start, is that it tries way too hard to be arty, but fails in that regard. For example, there is a lot of mixing of color, grayscale, and especially blue or green monochrome to look like night vision cameras, with electronic POV “noise” (such as when we saw through the Terminator’s eyes). It is too distracting, especially since it’s never explained who is doing the watching (i.e., “them” or “us”).

There are a lot of fight scenes, especially with fists, but honestly they are even worse and fakey looking than anything even Steven Seagal does. It reminds me more of when MadTV did the Dolemite spoofs. I kept thinking, why are all these Nazi pricks just attacking him barehanded. They have guns, so just shoot the fucker. This adds to the muddled mess of the story.

The male Nazis are dressed in the typical – albeit modernized – Reich uniforms, but the women are mostly seen in high boots and miniskirts, some with their cleavage hanging out, and some in skin-tight leather (or was it vinyl?) clothes. While the visuals were pleasing, it’s also seemed one-sided; that being said, at least one reviewer commented on the attractiveness of the often bare-chested and tattooed Barzamanis, so maybe I’m overreacting?

In all, it’s not that great a film, and with all the repeating of action and bad fight choreography (ironically, Barzamanis owns a company that supplies security to bars), it’s easy to lose concentration on what the hell is actually happening pretty often. Add in a fuzzy and low-toned vocal track often drowned out by the music, it doesn’t do itself any favors in that regard.

Another positive, though, is what few gore effects there are, they look decent, and it’s a mostly attractive cast (male and female). Unfortunately, the acting is also not that great, though considering what I could make of the storyline and dialogue, there isn’t much really substantial to react against.

The extras are a mostly electronic-based music video by Great Northern Hotel of “Cutz and Collides,” and some decent and short interviews from Awesome Magazine Online’s “On the Set of…” with lead actor Barzamanis, the DeNiro-looking (right down to the mole) Nathan Head who plays the Nazi scientist Professor Matsema, and Eirian Cohen who portrays the Nazi bitch Captain Orlax. All three of these are followed by the trailer (yep, we see it three times, though it's different than the one below). There are also some other trailers by the director included.

I’ve waxed on about this before, but I’ll say it again: the biggest problem I see in indie films is when a director also writes the script. There usually needs to be a second writer or strong editing force to hone the story. A director knows what the plot is about, but oft times has trouble getting that across. This release is a good example of that.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Anthology Reviews: Two by Patrick Rea – Charlotte; Monster X

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

I put these reviews together for two reasons. First, they are both anthologies of short films with a wraparound story, “directed” by Steven Rea. Just for the record, the quote marks are not meant as any kind of jibe, but rather because Rea put the collection together, which is a mixture of his own films and others.

Each of the stories is an independently released horror short that has been compiled into the collection. Actually, I approve of this method of getting (a) a showcase for one’s own films (i.e., Rea’s), and (b) a way to present other creators’ work as well. I’ve always enjoyed short films, so this is a nice little production to catch some I may have missed. Okay, definitely have missed, as so many shorts are thrown up on video channels like YouTube and Vimeo these days. Again, not a complaint, it’s just hard to see the forest for the trees.

All the directors are listed in the credits at top of each review, and I will indicate which next to the title with the initials. As these collections both came out in 2017, and honestly it doesn’t matter to me which was released first, I’m reviewing them in alphabetical order.

Another commonality across both is that the only extra is chapter breaks.

Directed by Patrick Rea, Colin Campbell, Corey Norman, Calvin Main, John Edward Lee, April Wright
Ruthless Studios / Synergetic Films / MVD Visual
84 minutes, 2017

I have no doubt in my mind that this collection, and possibly the wraparound, was inspired by the recent popularity of evil doll films, especially the Annabelle franchise. Of course it goes back further to the likes of the infamous Talking Tina “Living Doll” episode on The Twilight Zone, and a number of projects on the big and small screen about evil, self-contained ventriloquist dummies (whether real or imagined).

“Raggedy Damned” (PR) is the title of the bookends and wraparound thread/threat, which presents an obnoxious Millennial babysitter who is bound (off-screen) by a mad and cracked-faced silent dolly (looking nothing like the cool DVD cover art, FYI), who forces her to watch the shorts we also get to view. Between each one, we flash back to her to see… well, I’m not tellin’.

 “Counter Parts” (PR: 2014) is the first tale about identical sisters who are not exactly compatible, though similar in more ways than just looks. They are fierce, determined, and especially egocentric. Nasty pieces of work. Somyia Finley does a nice turn as the sibs with whom you definitely would not want to be associated, never mind romantically involved. After a tragic turn, they use wile and some black mojo to cure and curse. It’s an effective tale with an O. Henry-ish twist at the end. Also a tale with a sinister surprise is “Dollface” (CC: 2011), regarding the titular, strange woman. She and her companion have a woman locked up in their storage area. Then our heroine, whose boyfriend has been slashed, tries to rescue her before the aforementioned duo come back. With an obvious-yet-enjoyable throwback to a “The Twilight Zone” episode called “The Howling Man,” it is effective and fun, if a bit obvious and silly (in a good way).

If you’re into toe-choppin’ closet trolls (I’m just back from Norway, so trolls are currently an interest), then “Tickle” (CN: 2014) may be of interest. A babysitter tells a brat a tale about the toe-takin’ Tic Tac (“not the breath mint,” she explains), something she made up on the spot. But of course it’s a mind-over-manifestation thing. A bit long, but still enjoyable. The gore effects are really nicely done, and worth a mention.

In a creepy and minimalist story with effective SFX to back it up, “Good Evening” (CM: 2016) is about a man who invites demons to come join him for supper. With a twist reminiscent of Stephen King’s story, “Survivor Type,” it’s short and neat sweetmeat. It’s dark (as in lighting and tone), but that only add to the atmosphere in this two-character moody release. The bizarre yet humorously subtle battle royale of “Get Off My Porch” (PR: 2010) is about a guy and his interactions with some overly perky tween Adventure Girls, who are selling cookies. It’s a really fun story with pretty poison people forcing their way into the greater culture through some mysterious chocolate treats. The kids in this are great, as is the rest of the cast. Again, it’s a bit goofy, but honestly the better for it. If it had been done seriously, it probably would not have been as effective.

While the story above is full of whimsy, the follow-up is “The Judas Cradle” (JEL: 2011) is dead-on serious. A woman finds herself in a basement with a recently beaten man who is tied of a chair. A third catalyst character is played by the director, as a man who is there to facilitate and instigate vigilantism, in order for her to confront a shocking event in her past that ties her to the bruised guy. Lee is a bit over the top, but the other two plays their roles right on the line. It’s a good “what would you do in this situation?” conversation starter.
In an even more seemingly direct linkage to Talking Tina, “My BFF” (AW: 2015) replaces TT with Samantha, a dolly that shows up on the doorstep, as it were, of a young girl who of course immediately falls in love with it in a heteronormative way (I’m not being critical here, just observant). The mom, in Telly Savalas mode, is a bit of a meanie and doesn’t like the doll. Obviously, the feeling is mutual with obvious-yet-enjoyably-satisfying results.

“Howl of a Good Time” (PR: 2015) is ludicrous, audacious and just plain goofy. Again, despite all that, it’s quite satisfying and well made. A young girl sneaks into a horror film festival where all the audience are werewolves. Hints are given early on, and it’s really not that difficult to figure that part out, but the twist ending will make you say, “what?!” and guarantee to make you snortle a little bit with glee at its audacity.

There are a lot of elements and themes of this film that overlap, such as characters watching television (usually some non-copyright film like 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), some kind of doll (which makes sense), something or someone strange at the door, or babysitters.

As anthologies go in general, it’s a wise selection meandering between humor and straight horror, even with a wraparound that is pretty obvious from near the beginning. I like Rea’s choices, and also his filmmaking style on its own.

Charlotte trailer HERE

Monster X
Directed by Patrick Rea, Daniel Iske, Sean van Leijenhorst, Jaysen Buterin
Ruthless Studios / MVD Visual
75 minutes, 2017

As with the previous film, this one is also a compilation with a wraparound. Interestingly, the connecting piece is from a series called The Dead Hour, and it’s from the second season titled “Fright Fest” (DI: 2011). It’s an appropriate one, as a couple goes on a first date to a horror festival featuring a multiplex in which different genres play in each theater, such as werewolves, zombies and Asian ethereal women (think The Ring or The Grudge). In each, what is happening on the screen seeps into their reality, as they jump from theater to theater. This segmentation makes it perfect to slot around the other shorts.

First up is “Banshee” (SvL: 2014), which is based on Irish myth, though this is filmed near Prague, the locus of the director. This 20-minute opus tells of a woman whose alkie husband has died, involving the titular creature, who is either a warning of death or an instrument of it, depending on who you ask (both are referred in the story through exposition). It’s beautifully shot with just the right amount of tension and even a nice jump scare or two. Eva Larvoire particularly stands out as the heroine, showing great ranges of emotional distress. Nicely done.

Speaking of film festivals, “Howl of a Good Time” is duplicated here, so I won’t repeat myself. Still enjoyable the second time around, though, so you should know that. Both this and the next short, “Now That You’re Dead” (PR: 2009) were directed by Rea, which shows that he actually knows his way around a script and direction. I have no idea what he’s like for a feature length release, but he packs quite a punch into a short, such as this one. Mix a cocktail of a tale of marital infidelity, double-, triple- and so on crosses, and then use a vampire spoon to stir it all up. There is just enough humor in it to keep you smiling, but not enough to take the – err – bite out of the storyline. The three key characters are all likeable in an unlikeable, anti-hero way. No matter who wins, if anyone does (I’m not telling), and more importantly who loses (ditto), the story is successful. That’s decent filmmaking.

The last presentation, “Don’t Let the Light In” (JB: 2015), is short tale of a new babysitter who is summoned to watch a very strange kid that sort of reminds me of a Mini-Me version of the man-boy Stuart character from MadTV (played by Michael McDonald). The story itself is somewhat predictable, though thanks to its length not being too drawn out, it keeps the viewer’s interest (well, this one anyway). Personally, I would have liked more of an explanation of the title. Then again, I’m a bit confused about why it’s Monster X when it really should be Monster V. But I digress…

As with the film above, there are some common threads that run through this one, such as the Horror Film Fest being more than it seems, or an occurrence of classic and iconic (is that redundant?) creatures like werewolves, zombies and vampires, to name just a few.

Some of these shorts have won awards, and it’s easy to see why, but honestly I really appreciated Rea’s because they had just the right amount of humor mixed in with the horror. One of the cool things Rea does here is interrupt a short to throw in a bit of the wraparound. I can’t imagine what the other filmmaker felt about it, but I thought it was a cool thing to do, and something you don’t see very often when dealing with other artists; a director might do it to his own short, but to someone else’s? Yeah, that’s ballsy, for one last time, in a good way.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Review: Diamond Cartel

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Diamond Cartel
Directed by Salamat Mukkammed-Ali
Cleopatra Entertainment / Shoreline Entertainment / BES QARU Films / MVD Visual
77 minutes, 2016 / 2017

It’s always nice to occasionally get the chance to review a straight-out action flick, especially if there’s some chop-chop added in. But first some very quick background… Mukkammed-Ali is from Kazakhstan, part of the former Soviet Bloc. He started out as lead singer of a Kazakh rock band called Enoch, and then segued his way into television production, and then finally into film.

His first film, from 2015, was called The Whole World at Their Feet. This was then re-edited and is now being shown in the West as Diamond Cartel, a much more palatable name for a violence-focused part of the world (ours).

Armand Assante
One aspect that makes this stand out is the sheer star power behind it in front of the camera, with the likes of Armand Assante, Peter O’Toole (his last film as he passed in 2013; here he looks feeble and older than his 81 years), Michael Masden, Bolo Yeung (aka “Chinese Hercules,” who has aged phenomenally well for his 70 years), ex-basketballer Tommy Lister, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, among others. All but two are basically cameos, but still. Assante is one that lasts throughout the feature.
Nearly all of the dialog is dubbed into English, including the English speaking actors, but actually it is usually done quite well in the foreign-to-English actors, though sometimes dodgy in the English-to-English, such as Masden and Assante. Lister is given a bit of a stereotypical “Black slang” voice, which feels odd on so many levels (I almost expected him to say, “Yo mama!”).

The plot is both simple and complex. An international criminal named Mussa (Assante, often wearing a jacket with bare chest underneath, ironically appears and sounds a bit like Sylvester Stallone, as they played brothers in 1995’s Judge Dredd). He’s ready to pay $30 million for the Star of East diamond, in US$10,000 bills, no less.

Kadygash Mukkamedzhanova
After double- and triple-crosses, young lovers Aliya (Karlygash Mukkamedzhanova) and Ruslan (Aleksey Frandetti, dropping a young Keanu Reeves vibe complete with whoa-period hairstyle) are on the run from both ruthless sides of the diamond sale equation, having absconded with the diamond and the cash, as they drive through Kazakhstan with the others in pursuit. But it’s Nurlan Altaev as enforcer Arman, who is a childhood friend of the two runaways and is now one of the parties chasing them, that steals the film in his cool clothes and mostly stoic stance; he plays his emotions very subtly here.

The story is a bit convoluted, and the dialogue is quite overwrought, but all-in-all, it was pretty enjoyable. There is lots of primary references throughout the film, such as Scarface (1983), I, Claudius (1976), Sergio Leone westerns, and a subtle nod to Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (aka Return of the Dragon,1971), but especially True Romance (1993).

Nurlan Altaev
There is a lot of action going on including some martial arts, but mostly it’s gun play of various calibers, with people getting blown up good, real good, from a variety of weapons. Most of the blood and gore is digital, and it certainly looks digi, but there is a fair amount that is unexpected, pretty graphic, and made me smile.

The physical artistry of the film is nicely handled, such as the camerawork, the lighting, the editing, and the framing of shots. There are also some nice visual, digital effects used to warp the image at times, or change hues. But I do have a multi-fold complaint and that is mainly with the sound. There is a segment in which the sound is reverbed and hard to make out, and even though the dubbing is well handled relatively speaking, the tone of the dialog is flattened so everyone sounds like they’re at the same level, whether close to the camera or not. This took me a bit out of the story, especially the echoing segment.

Most the acting is pretty typical for Asian dramas: lots of wide eyes showing emotion, or cool-as-ice anger. Aleksey and especially Mukkamedzhanova fall into the former, and Altaev excels in the later. O’Toole looks like he’s just barely conscious about what is going on around him, but the over-acting award definitely goes to Assante who looks like he is trying to top Pacino at his most manic as Tony Montana. Often it comes across as clownish, but part of that may be the overdubbing of his voice, which at the very least contributes quite a bit.

Even when holding back, a lot of the high drama acting of most of the characters is kind of like horses straining at the rein, but again, that’s pretty common in many Asian action films. This story plays more like something out of China or Japan than from Soviet influences that I’ve seen elsewhere, which tends to be more towards the understated.

There is a nice and varied soundtrack that runs through, from metal and punk, to noise and more soothing, background type stuff. Some of the bands included are Christian Death and Anti-Nowhere League (Animal was actually quite nice when I met him in the ‘80s, but so what, I digress…).

The extras are a noisy kind of black metal/rap-ish thingy by DMX and Blackburner, a 2:43 slideshow of clips, and the trailer. Oh, and chapter breaks, of course.

So, you may be asking yourself if this worth the investment of your time? Well, if you like crime and/or action films, yeah, it is. There are at least two nice shoot-em-up set scenes and some cool car chases and crashes. But the real violence is held for the guns, which is done kind of imaginatively, even though shooting from a motorcycle sailing overhead has been done to – err – death.

Not as gritty as some of the Japanese crime dramas, but there is a level of glee that you can share with the action. In other words, if you don’t cringe at Assante’s emoting, then you most certainly will get a good contact buzz off whatever it is he seems to be on.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: Lust of the Vampire Girls

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Lust of the Vampire Girls
Produced and directed by Matt Johnson
Some Hero Productions / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
77 minutes, 2014 / 2017
As with everything else, there are multiple levels of cinema: the big budget and the lower end. This was also true of the Euro-trash films of the late ‘60s into the late ‘80s. For every Dario Argento there was a Jesse Franco. This release models itself more after the latter than the former.

There certainly is a trend over the past few years to mostly honor and sometimes lovingly mock these now classics, be it the ones that were so-good-it’s-good or the so-bad-it’s-good. Most of these, though filmed before its fame, came to prominence in the Western Hemisphere with the rise of (i.e., a quick need for new product) video stores during the 1980s.

Most of the more recent batch of “throwback” style to Euro-horror is over the top in dialogue, in reading by actors and in style, such as purposefully putting in extremely obvious errors like the sound boom in the shot, or a crew member being in the background. A superb example of this is Richard Griffin’s recent Seven Dorms of Death.

While Lust of the Vampire Girls [LothVG] also does a lot of that, it does it a bit more subtly, so it actually looks like errors, rather than a nod-nod-wink-wink shared with the knowing audience. As I will describe later, it actually took me a while to catch on that this is what they were doing, so kudos to the production team.

Victor Medina and Amy Savannah
The basic story is that Pretty Girl (Amy Savannah) and Man (Victor Medina), as they are billed in the credits, are having a fight. She wants to go to a party, and in a very douchey and controlling way, he refuses, insisting she should be happy spending her time just with him. She goes anyway, and apparently her “friends,” all of whom wear party masks, are a cult led by a Romanian Nazi named Gunter (Dave Nilson) who worked beside Mengele in the camps. While there, Gunter invented a serum that turns women into snarling (there is a lot of snarling) vampires who do not age. The drug only works on women, but Dr. Gunter is still working on it.

Pretty Girl is kidnapped by the group, and Man goes to rescue her, in a passive-aggressive manner (“I’m here risking my neck for her tedious ass”). Meanwhile, Man falls for one of the more sentimental vampire women, Lead Vamp Girl (Ashely Eliza Parker).

Ashley Eliza Parker
One of the many interesting choices made by the director is to have one of the camp’s growling, nightgown clad (very Hammer Films style) vampires be African-American; note that I use that specific term because even though they were supposed to become vamps while in a Polish concentration camp, this was filmed in Utah. Don’t remember hearing much about people of color in the camps. But I digress…

The film takes place somewhere in the late-1960s or very early ‘70s, considering the cell phones, typewriters, and magazine covers (e.g., Look magazine from 1986…yes, I do my research). There are some anachronisms, though, such as a nose piercing or modern artistic tattoos on the backs and wrists of more than one character.

Now, when I started watching this, I thought perhaps they were trying too hard to get the feel of the style, with bad acting and one lead character that is a creep and another that is too – err – girly, but about a third of the way through, I had a realization that changed my mindset and actually made this film make more logical and additionally fun. Now, I’m not sure this is intentional, but simply put, I was comparing it to the likes of Italian releases by Argento or even Franco, but in actuality it makes more sense to see the likeness in the even lesser B-versions, if you will, such as Spanish/Mexican films starring Paul Naschy. Not as low as the Luchador ones with, say, Santo or Mil Mascaras, but yet not quite classic giallo.

One thing that is consistent with Italian giallo, though, is the humming and stepping-on-nerve soundtrack, which is more like an electronic pulse. There are also some intentional errors (again, I’m assuming), such as occasional shots that are actually in reverse (is there a reference for that for which I don’t remember?). Then there is the time padding of other clips, such as long and drawn out bits of said snarling vampire women, or someone walking through the woods.

Dave Nilson
Relying on the macho/feminine ethos of films from the period this is supposed to take place (i.e., when it is supposed to be shot), the gendered roles are heightened and exaggerated in hyper-sexualized ways: think of Jane Fonda in 1968’s Barbarella or Steve McQueen in…well, just about anything).

For example, Man comes home to an empty apartment and complains that Pretty Girl has smoked a joint while at the same time he came drunk and carrying a bottle. Then he smokes the last of her joint! He’s very controlling, not wanting her to see her friends. It’s hard to like him: he’s clearly unfaithful and ambivalent about rescuing her. He also falls for Lead Vamp Girl way too quickly. She’s unlike the other vampires in that she’s sweet, needs a man to love her, and is a bit too clingy and needy, unlike that damn Pretty Girl who has a mind of very own and wants something beyond the company of Man. The nerve! Damn those feminists (yeah, this is sarcasm on my part, and arguably on the film’s, as well).

The bad guy, Gunther, has a haram of vampire women that he created with his formula, like a Nazi Superfly; that is devotion-wise, rather than prostitution, though the vampire women definitely show their cleavage and beauty with their flowing nightgowns, as mentioned earlier.

The extras are a bunch of Wildeye Releasing trailers (always fun), including for this film, and a 4+ minute short showing how LofVG’s storyboard translates into the film. Not very deep, but fun.

My uptightness as the film unspooled was because of my own blindness. LotVG is so close to what it’s trying to reflect, that it took me a while to realize what it was doing. That is not the fault of the director, but of my own subjectivity. That is the reason I started it over after about 15 minutes, to watch again with a new set of eyes, as it were. I smiled a lot more, and it was much more of an enjoyable experience. Fans of either Euro- or Mexi-horror are bound to find much to like, especially if you are familiar with the paradigm Johnson used to build his story.