Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Bloodsucker’s Handbook

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

Bloodsucker’s Handbook [aka Enchiridion]
Written, shot, directed and edited by Mark Beal
Trenchfoot Productions / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
81 minutes, 2012 / 2017

Just to get it outta da way, an Enchiridion (the original name of the film) is the Latin term for a primer, or handbook. Personally, changing the title to its present name was a wise choice. “Bloodsucker” is bound to come up in a genre keyword search more than that. Hell, I have a Master’s and had to look it up.
Cory W. Ahre
The story, which takes place at the end of the 1960s, is essentially broken up into two segments. At the first, it’s almost like a joke: “A guy walks into a bar…” Here we are introduced to the main protagonist, a campus minister (priest) named Father Gregory (Cory W. Ahre, who looks a lot like Kyle Mooney from “Saturday Night Live”). He’s a bit slovenly, wearing an oversized gray suit jacket over his collar and black shirt, and his hair is shoulder length and a bit scraggly. He also smokes and drinks, so you know he’s going to be conflicted about whatever is coming his way; after all, this is a genre film. Did you see The Exorcist? But I digress…

A mysterious Federal government agent enlists him to talk to a prisoner, the titular bloodsucker named simply Condu (Jeremy Herrera) – perhaps meaning “conduction,” for the passing along of an evil current? He has apparently been writing the “handbook” of the history of vampires in Latin (why not Romanian?), starting of course with good ol’ Vlad the Impaler (aka Vlad Dracul). There is a question of whether or not Condu actual is Vlad. Gregory is also asked to translate the book.

As a sorta sidebar, Vampire teeth seem to fall into two categories: there are the classic large incisors a la Dracula, and then the Nosferatu-ish extended and sharp two front teeth. This film plays with both. While Condu’s lean towards the Nosferatu (though all uppers seem to be big and sharp), other children of the night have the more Dracula-like choppers. Mixing it up seems like a smart way to handle that.

As for the other vampire tropes, well the story wants to keep with the legend, but bends the rules just a bit. For example, crosses, sunlight, holy water, dirt from graves, and blood-drinking of course, all are employed. However, what they leave off is that vampires are shape-shifters, and can turn into animals such as wolves or bats, or even mist. Of course, that would not work with this story as Condu is chained up in some dark room, so that’s conveniently (and rightfully) left out.

Gregory and Condu seem to hit it off, as we see them in cat-and-mouse dialogues that actually are quite interesting and decently written. While the acting is questionable at times (more on that later), the story manages to hold the film together, along with the other… stuff.

Jeremy Hererra
This interaction leads to the second half of the film where Condu is out has escaped, and the hunter-hunted takes the storyline beyond the verbal into the physical, as Condu tries to get his book back and Gregory searches for the mysterious Edie (Jessica Bell). She is seemingly an ex-girlfriend, though the Father seems to have conflicting issues between religion and lust.

As polar opposite stories like to point out, well as conflict we also see that both Gregory and Condu have some similar issues, mainly with drinking, as one sucks at hard alcohol, the other the sticky red liquid of life. Both have a strong desire towards their fluids, but they also have a kind of detachment to it, as well – even though Condu is probably more self-honest about the need.

What I meant earlier by stuff is the framework of the film. Mark Beal makes some interesting artistic choices that take it to another level. For example, the second half is almost a noir mystery, with a wild jazz score and a private eye named Valentine. And here is only part of why I said stuff: Valentine is a stop-motion dog puppet (literally) in a jacket. He is a “loyal” – err – puppet (figuratively) of the Gregory side. On the Condu end, there is a stop-motion puppet baboon (both nicely created by Richard Svennson).

Animals play a big part in the film. For example, many of the bars that are visited either are named for them (especially birds), but also have them inside the establishments, such as a flamingo. Then there is the whole subplot about toad licking (which we get to witness), reminding me of a Mason Williams poem. This is all part of a surrealism that crops up regularly.

Now, most of the time surrealism is used, it is so symbolic that its meaning can get lost. For this film, well, sure you could ask why a dog or baboon, but generally speaking the surrealism doesn’t get so far out there that it become opaque, for which I’m grateful. Other examples include using stop-motion dolls to play out Vlad’s history, or the use of angles and jump cuts to make it just a bit jarring at times. The use of lighting is really interesting and stands out in a good way. Yes, it’s a bit distracting, but it also raises the film to a higher plane. It’s this feature, as well as the story, that rises above the acting issues I was discussing earlier. But even that over-the-top-ness seems to work for this because of the sporadic surreal nature. That being said, even with all the issues, Ahre comes across as likeable, and Herrera makes a compelling foil, nicely working with the large teeth rather than tripping over them (impressive for a first film, I might add).

Extras include about 8 minutes of some meh bloopers and a feature-length commentary track. Normally I would whine if there are many speakers on a single one, and here there are the director, four key players and a crew member. But everyone seems to be respectful of others so there is no taking over and showboating, and even better is that not only are there interesting anecdotes about the filming, we get to hear what the actors thought was happening. Better still, we get to hear the director/writer discuss his own ideas. In a film like this, that can be crucial in helping to fill in story blanks (I had a couple that were satisfied).

Filmed in Bryan-College Station, Texas (about 90 miles north of Houston), we see both the sunny and darker sides (alleys, etc.) of the area, representing both Gregory and Condu, relatively speaking. While this is an obviously micro-budget film, and it certainly has its issues, I do have to say it kept my interest throughout. A pleasant surprise, I really enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the interplay between its two lead characters. Worth checking out on a rainy weekend.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: American Mummy (3D)

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

American Mummy (3D) [aka Aztec Blood]
Directed by Charles Pinion
TX-2 Productions / Fusion / Inferential Pictures
Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2014 / 2017

I have absolutely no doubt that this film, originally titled Aztec Blood a few short years ago, is being rereleased under its new title because of the re-tick of The Mummy series with the diminutive Tom Cruise. If he find out, will he dance in his undies to “We take those old films off the shelf / Rename them to promote ourselves…”?

Tezcalipoca mask
Honestly, I have no problem with any indie, low-budget film doing that (though it may be irksome if a major did it). The possible problem I do see with this, though, is part of me is wondering if it smacks of appropriation. This is supposed to be about finding a remanence of an Aztec culture, a civilization pretty much wiped out through European intrusion in the 16th century (I suggest reading James Michener’s excellent and massive centuries-spanning 1992 tome, Mexico). In this case it’s regarding a god named Tezcalipoca and of… well, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be the mummy of Tezzy himself or one of his priests The latter would actually make more sense considering Tezzy was one of the four creators of the world; it’s nice they made a film about him rather than the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, another of the four who gets way more coverage.

Suzeiy Block
Anyway, this film should be noted as one of the few I’ve seen to have two prologues that set up the story, which is, essentially that an archeological class from Monroe College (thank goodness they didn’t use the overdone Miskatonic name) is out in the desert somewhere on a excavation, which I’m assuming a Southwestern state considering the film’s title), after a couple of students come across said mummy. The dig is led by the totally inept Professor Jensen (Suzeiy Block), so it’s a good thing she’s cute; had a boss like that once, but I digress…

Of course, there’s that one student – in films like this anyway – that has an ulterior motive: Carmen (Esther Cantana) is trying to raise the mummy using an ancient Aztec book of the dead. At this point it may be worth noting that there are a bunch of themes used from other films, such as the cabin in the woods/camping in deserted areas tropes, of course the mummy series, and mostly the Evil Dead (1981). Another to add on could be the viral zombie mini-apocalypse, or even Bava’s Demons (1985) and [*Rec] (2007). One could argue for The Thing (1982), but I would disagree due to lack of shape-shifting.

Erin Condry
I will applaud that they do try to build up some context through exposition of the characters, rather than them being merely fodder. Yet it’s still tough to feel deep sympathy, never mind empathy, for most of the characters, though I did for at least one named Connie (Erin Condry, who I’m pretty sure I’ve seen elsewhere in a genre pic that’s not listed on IMDB).

That’s not to say there isn’t a certainly level of accuracy about the characters. I mean, I’ve been to a few academic conferences, and there is a lot of hooking up and abuse of substances that goes on in that world, never mind in the middle of nowhere. In films like this, I’m happy to say that leads to a lot of nudity, though most of the sex is implied. They even manage to have a shower scene in the middle of a desert. For that alone, they get some extra points. Thankfully, it’s an attractive cast.

As Dylan said, “The line it is drawn / The curse it is cast,” and you know that one-by-one the demon fever (or whatever it is) will spread through the group via blood and green tongues. The effects are pretty nice, with lots of blood and even some unbelievable bits look pretty good. It seems most of the SFX are appliances rather than computer generated, and that’s another check mark in the plus column.

Esther Cantana and her green tongue
The acting isn’t necessarily stellar throughout, but there are some fine moments and decent characterizations, though some are a bit over the top; an example is the seemingly unnecessarily thickly-accented Dr. Lobachevsky (Greg Salman, who is also a producer on the film). I could never find a reason why he was Russian in the story, or what his true purpose was to the story as a Russian, as opposed to a scientist of any other nationality.

One aspect I find interesting is the actual lack of motion of the titular character, other than some limb wiggling. As a side note, I think calling it an “American” mummy when the mummy-proper dates back before the Europeans even came to the New World is presumptuous and a bit settler colonialization (or, as I up it at the beginning, appropriation; this is the same mentality that uses the term American Indian, rather than First Nations, as do the Canadians). Getting back to the point, it does sort of leave it open to the interpretation of the viewer whether it’s some kind of genre viral infection (such as was true(r) with the Tomb of King Tut’s “curse”), or the actual mummy having some mystical power raised by the fanatical student and her sycophant.

There are definitely a few holes in the story, the biggest perhaps is why Carmen was so determined to raise the mummy – or his curse, anyway. In other films, such as various Universal Monsters’ version of the Mummy, at least we were told that the person performing the rite was part of a cult following of the person/god/mummy. Well, even from early on, it’s obvious she’s eager to find the thingy, so that’s something.

There are a bunch of extras that come along with this Blu-ray, such as both a 2-D and 3-D version, some minor and quick outtakes and behind the scenes that don’t really add up to much, and a couple of different generations of the trailer. Being a Wild Eye Releasing – err – release, there are also a bunch of other trailers.

This film isn’t brilliant, but it’s certainly enjoyable, and the second half certainly is bloody and has a decent body count. Plus, there is a lot of decent research on Tezcalipoca and Aztec sacrificial procedurals that make it even more interesting. It did keep me pretty entertained all the way through.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Review: Child Eater

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

Child Eater
Directed by Erlingur Thoroddsen
Wheelhouse Creative / Blue Fox Entertainment /
Black Stork Productions / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2016

One of the strongest held of the original no-nos of cinema was that you do not harm a child, even with Hitchcock blowing up a kid and a bus in one of his British-era films. Well, certainly those years are gone, especially since the nasties of the 1980s. Even so, it’s still a subject that is uncomfortable with many, and of course that works out well for a genre film.

This is the grounds on which this story’s seeds are sown, and expressed through the seemingly mandatory prologue at the start of most horror films. This one, taking place 25 years before the main story, is a bit more unsettling than most, and better for it; but it does set you up to know that you are not about to see the average slasher or murderous spirit.

Based on a 14-minute short film in 2013 by the same director, with the same basic plot, similar artwork, and the same lead actress, this new version is more fleshed out – its a shame they didn’t add it to the extras on this DVD. You can see it HERE, but I recommend seeing it after the feature. 

The legend in the small town of Widow’s Peak (filmed in, Catskill, NY) is that there was a crazy man, Robert Bowery (Jason Martin) who had macular degeneration and ate people’s eyes because he believed it would keep him from going blind, but he was especially attracted to those of youngsters because “the fresher the better”. Now it is quarter of a century later since the last attack, and that same victim from the prologue has announced to the coppers “He’s awake,” giving this a kind of Jeepers Creepers creature premise.

Cait Bliss
The heroine of the story is Helen (Cait Bliss, who has a kind of Lisa Gerritsen appeal, and is originally from Catskill), who is in the mid-20s. She’s forced to babysit by her police chief dad for a widower who has recently bought the old man’s house for himself and pre-teen son. It’s pretty easy to put the pieces together about the shell of what’s going to happen, so the question is can Helen come to the rescue? Can she convince Ginger (that last Bowery victim), who has never truly recovered mentally, to help her? I am not going to say much more than that as far as storyline goes.

Even with pushing the envelope of the number of shots of roaming around in the dark with flashlights – both indoors and out – it rarely gets to the point of being too long to get tiresome. But the thing that is most important is simply that this really is a creepy-ass film. The pace is great, the plot not completely predictable, and yet the story does leave the viewer with a few questions (perhaps to be answered with a sequel that can actually be an origin prequel?).

Though shot in Upstate New York, about 100 miles north of New York City, the director is Icelandic, which means sensibilities are a titch different than what we would expect from someone from the West, which I’m guessing is where some the surprise twists and turns originate from, being more of a European-ish/Scandinavian-ish sensibility. This, I’m sure may have to do with the different aspects of dark that surround the film. For example, the actual image is pretty dark (just look at the cropped screenshots included), though the cinematography by John Wakayama Carey is spot on so you can see everything you’re supposed to, which is not an easy feat in that light (he also shot the short, but he did not shoot the deputy). But the film is also dark in a more esoteric way in that, hey, it’s a story about someone/something that eats children’s eyes and then kills them, and also eats their bodies (as well as adults).

Jason Martin
There is also a metaphysical aspect to Bowery in the same kind of Michael/Jason way in which he is more than merely human and hard to put to rest (just look at the image on the box). Which brings me to the SFX. Bowery’s make-up is really well done, by Fiona Tyson (who also works on the shows “Vinyl” and “Gotham,” and also did the original short, but did not do the dep...okay, I'll stop now), who should be commended, as well. The gore shows up intermittently but frequently, and always looks damn good.

One of the extras is a 16 minute “Deleted Scenes” series that are nicely explained via title cards. Most were rightfully taken out, and a couple I believe could have stayed, but there is not any fluff. I recommend watching it because in a couple of instances it will explain some questions that may arise (such as why Helen’s hand is covered with blood in a shot in the third act). Then there is a full-length audio commentary with the director, and two main leads, Bliss and Martin. About half of it is joking around, but the other half makes it worth sitting through. For me, the big problem was the sound: Bliss is clear and near the microphone, but Martin and Thoroddsen are harder to hear, especially towards the beginning, even with the sound at full volume.

This film could have been corny and clichéd, based on tropes that have been around for decades, but Thoroddsen manages to take a relatively fresh approach. That makes this enjoyable to watch, and its mood and motif may help make that chill go up and down your spine. You won’t be able to – err – take your eyes off it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review: Shelter for the Bloodstained Soul

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

Shelter for the Bloodstained Soul
Written, directed and edited by Nicholas Wagner
77 minutes, 2016
Free HERE or HERE 

A while back, I saw Nicholas Wagner’s 50-minute film called The Holy Sound (2013; reviewed HERE), which dealt with an object in a cave that had an effect on both libido and aggression, which its characters found to be a quasi-religious experience.

Malcolm Mills
Many of those same themes are present in this release. After a very brief prologue that makes more sense as the film unspools, somewhere in the Deep South we meet redheaded singer and junkie Harvey (Maggie Williams) picking up the stranded and creepy Addison (Malcolm Mills), whose car bit the dust. Add into the mix Harvey’s pal, dealer, and habitual spitter Tex (Reed DeLisle), and we are on our way.

Addison talks a lot of religion goo, but it soon becomes clear that it’s not Jeebus at the center of it (this will drive the Trump-lovin’ Southerners bonkers, I’m sure). Addison smokes this pipe and suddenly the area fills with smoke (or mist, I suppose) and a mysterious and lovely woman appears, who is apparently an angel without a body. And what does she need (this is all in the film’s description, so no spoiler alert)? The burned bodies of people who are involved with sex, but without love (i.e., pure lust, one of the seven deadlies) is what is used as either food or sacrifice, I'm not sure, but either works for me.

Needless to say, Addison is just the start of the cult as he gets both Harvey and Tex smokin’ (which apparently deadens the effects of other drugs), and they become bloodthirsty killers to help raise Cain… I mean the goddess/angel. Into the mix comes redheaded (this is a theme of both films) Cammy (Elena Delia), the self-professed town tramp, who completes the fourth.

From there, the cult is pretty much a unit, but unlike many killer kult films, they aren’t zombie-like in robes chanting and dancing naked around a fire, i.e., they still do drugs and smoke butts a lot. Without any job, I’m not quite sure how they can afford that, but I digress… They all have their personality foibles and remain “human” within their goal to free the dark angel. Things intensify and there are definitely some power struggles among the group, who mostly seemed pretty incompetent in their lives before all this started.

This is as much about human personalities, the past effecting the present, and philosophical meanderings, as much as a blood cult aimed at killing and the raising of this woman into flesh. Throughout the film, there is a lot of dialog (with some action), as nearly all the characters have deep thoughts that sometimes come out as philosophy, and other times sounding like greeting cards. Sitting around a fire, sitting around a beach, or sitting in a bar, the dialog seems to flow more than jab, even when doled out by the oft angry and spitting Tex.

Elena Delia
It makes sense that a lot of this film takes place near the shore, because the tone and pace of it is like sitting on the beach, watching the waves ebb and flow. It’s sort of languid and steady, but there is still the power of even the smallest motion of the water to destroy, wear down, or to change the shape of its environment. Each action in the film has a direct reaction some other time.

The editing, also done by Wagner, is… cautious. This film, even though it’s a murderous one with a decent body count, is not jarring (other than in certain, unexpected moments, such as a gratuitous kill), but nearly everything happens at a set pace throughout. This is also reflected in the languorous music that dapples like the water throughout, or the use of muted colors to show perhaps the dulling of the senses via chemical substances, or the drugged and washed out lives the characters are living.

It’s pretty obvious things are not going to end well for most, as they tend to do in these kinds of tales, but the whole “the more things change the more they stay the same” touch that runs during the course of the film is a nice touch, which I really enjoyed.

Despite the hint of promiscuity, there isn’t a whole lot of it on the screen, and again while the numbers of people who violently shed their mortal coil is relatively decent, the blood and gore is kept to a minimum. There are, however, decent application effects towards the end without being ridiculously hammy and gory.

If you’re expecting something like a Rob Zombie film where a murderous group hijinks it up while blowing people away, this is definitely not for you. However, if you also like stories to have a brain, and you have the patience to wait it out for the 77 minutes for a conclusion that is not ordinary, you may be pleasantly surprised by this sleeper.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Fairfield Follies

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

Fairfield Follies
Written, produced, directed and edited by Laura Pepper
Peppered Productions
100 minutes / 2017

The summer sun is almost at full apex, so what better time to review a new film about a Christmas pageant in the fictional town of Fairfield? The writer / director / producer / actor Laura Pepper has been on my radar for a couple of years now, though I have yet to see any of the short films she has released. Might as well start on a larger scale (set?) with her directorial feature debut, right? This certainly does not pertain to a horror film, per se, but it’s indie and off kilter enough to qualify for this blog.
Susanne Colle
There have been enough behind-the-scenes-of-a-play comedies to create its own genre, from the relatively recent Waiting for Guffman (1997) to the less recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595; as a side note, some of the cast here, as well the director, also appeared in a recent film version of the Shakespeare play, reviewed HERE), so there is always room for another, as it’s a motif that has obviously not yet wrung dry.

In this Fairfield, the local Christmas Pageant has been run by the elderly Mrs. Whitelove (Mary DeBerry), who “passes the baton” onto a newcomer, Ms. Evans (Susanne Colle). There are two ways you know the change is going to be a big one: first, the specification of the differences between Mrs. and Ms. (old vs. new), and second that the former lives up to her name by doing a Blazing Saddles in the first two minutes of this picture.

Cardryell Truss
Evans’ plan is to use the opportunity to update the tradition by being PC and including all belief systems and holidays (Chanukah, Kwanzaa, etc.). The problem is that everyone in the cast and crew has a bit of their own ingrained – err – uncomfortabilities, which come out the more they are suppressed. Yes, this is a non-PC show about trying to be diverse. A direct example of it is the inclusion of a Big House parolee by the wonderful name of Leon Leonne (played by the equally unusually named Cardryell Truss).

To add to all the tsuris, the cast are behaving like little kids, with petty spats, jealousies, overheated libidos, and bullying (e.g., one character complains to his mom over the phone, “They tell me I overact, and no one will sit with me during lunch!”). Trying to deal with them, Evans has to treat them like a naughty grade school class, even having a “shame stool” in a corner (what, no conical hats? I kid…). More trouble follows as Evans repeatedly gets sick or food poisoning, keeping her from rehearsals; a piece of dialog spouted by the hyper-Christian Assistant Director, Wally (John Campbell), is a hint of why this is happening. The end result isn’t hard to guess when it gets close.

Let’s turn to some of the technical aspects of the film. For me, it’s kind of strange knowing that the fabulous J. Poisson is the cinematographer as this is different from anything I’ve ever seen her do, specifically most of her other work that’s passed before me had harsh, primary colors that reflected the mood of the scenes. Here, it’s quite harshly…white. Well, considering the context of the story, perhaps that is reflecting the mood of many of the characters. It’s nice to note that despite the… well, to paraphrase Carmen Ghia in the original The Producers, “White, white, white is the color of the walls,” yet the image isn’t washed out, nor are the colors of the costumes either lost in it, nor is it blinding. That shows good work, in my opinion.

This is supposed to be a commentary on Community Theater in a well-off – err – community, so the onstage emoting is geared towards overacting, but as this is a spoof, it goes on quite a bit pretty much throughout. I’ve seen many of the actors in other roles, and I’ve seen that they can indeed act rather than ahhct, so that is why I am assuming it’s purposeful. Anna Rizzo, for example, has proven herself to be quite the serious performer when need be elsewhere, in the likes of Moments from a Sidewalk (2016) or Long Night in a Dead City (2017).

Johnny Sederquist
The characters are just, well, silly. But this is a silly film that is making an important statement, and it works because of its outrageousness rather than in spite of it. That being said, while many of these people are head scratchers to this viewer, most of whom are certainly not the usual clichés one tends to see in independent, and especially micro-budget release, so that’s a success in my book. I do have to say that my two favorite characters are in the third act, being two Asian women (Laura Mok, Jaclyn Kelly Go) in the audience who are a Greek Chorus to both the pageant and the situations around it.

Having been filmed in the later part of 2014, there are quite a few comments that could have been about the 2016 presidential election and the basket of deplorables (i.e., racists, religious fanatics) that follow the beliefs that are mocked in this film. It is incredibly timely, giving more strength to the subplots.

Director / Writer Laura Pepper
Now comes the $64,000 Question: is it funny? Actually, it’s extremely humorous. Even the cringe worthy moments (e.g., racist or religion-based statements spouted by some characters) are quite good. I was surprised by how many times I caught myself laughing, or snorting. There are so many moments that just work. For example, Evans’ is a lonely woman and so there is a strong “cat” subtext going on in her house, including her doorbell and phone sounding like a strange, mechanical meow. There are a lot of hysterical bits, like the effeminate costume director, Jeremy (the excellent as always Johnny Sederquist), whose eyes light up with ideas when he mentions that Mother Mary (whom he confuses with Mary Magdalene) is the “Dearest Mommy.” Or the film’s director showing up in a recurring, mostly silent delivery person role (speaking of which, make sure you watch past the credits). The look she gives Evans the first time they meet, as a director’s nod to a director, is subtle but enjoyable.

It’s pretty obvious that this is a first feature for a director, as there are definitely some issues with the film as a whole, many of them technical. For example, there is an inconsistency with the sound. In some scenes, there is a sharp echo of ambient room noise; yet, in other scenes, the voices sound flat, I’m assuming dubbed in later. But hey, nearly every filmmaker has a learning curve. I’m sure it will improve as she (hopefully) continues on. Overall, this was a very successful outing, and I look forward to a long career for Peppered Productions.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: Long Night in a Dead City

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

Long Night in a Dead City
Directed and edited by Richard Griffin
Scorpio Films Releasing
75 minutes / 2017

When I got my hot little hands on this film, written by Lenny Schwartz from a story by its director, Richard Griffin, I imagined myself in a smoking jacket in a comfy chair, with a cigar in one hand and a glass of sherry in the other, to celebrate what I am looking forward to being an enjoyable experience. The reality is me sitting in front of the computer which is firmly on my lap, with my cats occasionally walking across my belly. As I don’t drink or smoke, I have a cup of Bengal Spice tea by my side as I sit on a couch. Y’know what, doesn’t matter, the point is I’m thrilled. Yeah, there’s no bias here.

Thing is, this is not my first time to the Richard Griffin rodeo; that is, to watch one of his multi-genre multitude of productions, and they have never disappointed. Not even come close. Other genre reviewers I’ve talked to also hold him in high regard, so for now at least, I’m gonna shut up, close the curtains, and put this puppy on play.

Aidan Laliberte
This is a strange, ethereal and episodic story of Daniel (Aidan Laliberte), who awakens in an alley on New Year’s Eve, beaten and bruised. He begins a quest to find his brother Charlie (Anthony Gaudette), which brings him into contact with various characters in an ugly side of a city full of back streets, litter, snow and steam. Each set piece is skewed in its own quirky way.

The shadow side of Voltaire’s Candide, Daniel wanders into others’ lives, and vice versa, with something quite off about all of it. Mannequins, a possible serial killer, and a sultry bartender (Anna Rizzo) who knows his name in a tavern where everyone is photo-still, is just the start of some of those who will make this dead city night interesting, albeit bizarre.

In some scenarios, Daniel is the protagonist, in others he is an observer, as sort of a solo Greek Chorus in a modern day tragedy. In all, though, there is an either explicit or implicit invitation, spoken or not, for him to join, and to stay in that moment, in that place. A mysterious woman, Holly (fetching Griffin newcomer Sarah Reed), takes the place of both companion and Dante-esque guide.

So, essentially, this is a two-person story, with one recurring brother character. Many who appear in cameo in the set pieces are Griffin regulars, like Johnny Sederquist, Laura Pepper, and Casey Wright, who show up in brief moments, with others such Aaron Andrade and Bruce Church in more pivotal, yet short bursts. Laliberte and Reed make wonderful additions to the Griffin pantheon of his recurring troupe.

 It doesn’t feel like I am giving much away by saying there are other films with similar concepts, such as Jacob’s Ladder (1990) or the granddaddy of this sub-genre, Carnival of Souls (1962), but this takes a different path that’s worth the walk. The fact that Daniel repeatedly passes a Dead End street sign is no coincidence, and of course there is the title of the film.

A non-human character is the twangy guitar of Mark Cutler, whose score underlines the drama throughout most of the film. Its almost Western motif adds to the mood as the camera moves at a slow, languid and deliberate pace that matches the mood of the moment, and Daniel’s motions, like a walking sleep. There is an occasional use of either a selfie stick or a camera on Daniel’s belt that effectively gives it a personal feel, though I hope it’s not something that will crop up too much more in future films.

As with many Griffin releases, there is a heavy reliance on a primary color lighting scheme that further demarks emotions or state of being of the characters. Another aspect to the theme of the story is the editing, handled by Griffin. Despite the long and loving shots, there are also some parts of quick editing, and one truly enjoyable one of Daniel and Andrade’s car. Honestly, it does not seem like it was an easy film to piece together, but it looks great.

Sarah Reed
Many of Griffin’s films deal with heaven, hell, and other variations of what happens next, especially in the likes of Normal (2013), Accidental Incest (2014), The Sins of Dracula (2014) and Nun of That (2008). Griffin continues to take a different view of that aspect of life and death, which makes for a further interesting vision that one may not expect, keeping the viewer’s interest. Even if you have an idea of where the storyline is going, the ride there is still going to be from a perspective you probably would not have thought of, giving new blood to a not-so-new concept.

While a little less steeped in gender/body politic than usual for his later films, Griffin still manages to keep us guessing about direction of the story by giving some fresh ideas about choices of what is next for our protagonists. Part of the mystery is more of how and why they got to the moment they are in, and what becomes of them next.

There is definitely a feeling of surrealism, but not to the point where it’s so obliquely opaque in the events that it loses direction, even though it’s quite a bit over the map. It kind of makes sense that there is a scene where the characters take some acid, because this is a bit of a head trip anyway.

By the end, many explanations are divulged, and yet there is still room for interpretation. That is good filmmaking. Chalk yet another one on the plus side for Griffin. He shows he is far above average for low-budget filmmakers, making the most out of what he is given, and yet he continues to grow in scope. And, as always, I eagerly anticipate his next release.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Review: Beyond the Woods

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

Beyond the Woods
Written and directed by Sean Breathmach
EGO Productions / Superego
82 minutes, 2016

I could be wrong, but I’m thinking that the name of this Irish film is a play on the tile Into the Woods, just further so. If that is the case, I like the pun. After all, the Grimm Faerie Tales were actually mostly horror stories, were they not?

Anyway, if you don’t mind a gross generalization perhaps unfairly based on a limited group, this is the second Irish genre film I’ve seen in the past bit, and they both have one thing in common. Like Don’t You Recognise Me? [2015], the story is taken off a relatively generic formula, and then follows through into its own direction. The other was a tale of revenge, whereas this one is based on the cabin in the woods trope.

Irene Kelleher
Here, rather than a wood shack, it is a very lovely two-story stone house of an age that may predate the US that is the locus of a gathering of seven friends: three couples and an odd wheel who was recently dumped. They decide to get away from it all to this place that was once a vacation home to one of their parents. Their plan is to spend it relaxing, dishing dirt, and quite a bit of the raising of the wrist and imbibing with some other fine substances to alter the mind.

Shortly before they even get there, we learn that a large sinkhole has opened down the way, which releases the bitter smell of sulphur across the countryside. Now, in a genre film, burning sulphur is never a good sign. Before long, of course, they are not alone. There is a figure who looks like he’s covered in tree bark (or dung/mud, it’s hard to tell), and you know he’s up to no good because, again…genre film.

We are told early on, indirectly, just what is behind the hole, the smell and the evil that is in the air the first night when we see a digital clock turn from 5:56 to 666 (no colon) and back. And it is the biggest mix-up that you have ever seen, as the minions of Ole Slew Foot are lurking. Even though we only get to see one demon, that’s surely enough to turn things from a good mood release weekend to one of damnation and death. Again, it is a genre film.

The big bad dude in the cape and hoodie looks like he has bark attached to his body. Though I’m not really sure about that, as we see him mostly in shadow (a smart move, honestly), it would make sense to me, as Ireland is known for its greenery and nature.

Mark Griffin
Using the mirror-doesn’t-reflect-reality paradigm, we know that the intensity is growing. Tensions begin to rise between the friends and unexpected connections occur to further stress their bonds. What we are left to wonder – again, the right choice – is whether this deep-level angst is normal for this group dynamics, or is it the ever-more pervasive influence of whatever is in the woods.

The tension that builds does so pretty slowly, but not enough to lose the interest of wondering where this will take the viewer. Sure there’s a hint of The Evil Dead and even a bit from Stephen King’s short story, “You Know They’ve Got a Hell of a Band,” as well as other sources, but there is a definite different feel. For example, these are not teens, so the conversation isn’t just wondering about getting laid or telling ghost stories. There is also an avoidance of other stereotypes, like the old guy warning the group, or the jock, the nerd and the homely girl who becomes lovely as a soon as she takes off her glasses, I’m happy and grateful to say. These are adults with adult foibles, and I respect that and enjoy the maturity of what the director is accomplishing (i.e., teens aren’t the only ones that have to worry).

Stripped back in the story and effects, surely due to budget limitations, we don’t lose anything because of that. While most of the action does happen at the rising of the moon, there are mysterious things about even during the day. As time goes on during the weekend, actions continue to ramp up until the third act of desperation and death for… well, you’ll just hafta find out, woncha?

Ruth Hayes
The cast, for once, is populated by professional actors of a higher caliber, so we get some decent playing, and yet not so much experience where there is sleepwalking through the parts. As far as I can tell, as I’m not that up on Irish actors, there are also no cameos by slumming bigger named players past their prime, or cult genre name performers. Happily, his works for the zeitgeist of the whole she-bang.

That being said, the camera does lovingly tend to focus on the diminutive and dimple-deep Irene Kelleher, who indirectly comes out as the “star,” but each character gets their shot, much as a band that has everyone do a solo to show their chops.

While sex is involved at some point, there is no pressing of the flesh seen, and the blood and gore is kept to a minimum; when it is applied, however, it  however, is kept to a minimum,. t, there is no pressing of the flesh seen, and the blood and gore is kept to a minimum, when iis quite effective. Some of the scenes are a bit on the dark side, but not so much you can’t follow the action, so I’m okay with it.

While this certainly isn’t a perfect film – for example, if a creature can kill with a mere touch, why would he pick up an ax? – all things considered, it is a well done production that takes what we know and mixes it into a new-ish recipe. Worth checking out.