Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: Slaughter Drive

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Slaughter Drive
Written and directed by Ben Dietels
BPO Films / Armand Productions / Sub Rosa Cinema
101 minutes / 2017

Before I start, I seriously want to make one thing clear: this is a fun film that has issues, but I’m sure if you watched it, and especially if you are experienced in micro-budget horror, there’s a good chance you’ll come away with a smile. Please keep that in mind.

Within the film framework, Doug, Robbie and Gene (director Ben Dietels, Blake O’Donnell and Ryan Litner, respectively) are best friends. And as many best friends do, they tend to take each other for granted in insulting ways. I know I’ve done that with my besties. In the real world, these three actual friends got together and created a movie.

Ben, Ryan and Blake
There is no doubt where their hearts lie, right from the opening credits, which are in 1980s’ day-glo style and cheesy synth-based soundtrack; you know, where the music is couple of minor keys played over and over in fast sequence to express tension.

If you’ve ever seen films by Steve Rudzinski (and you should), the faces will seem very familiar, especially Rudzinski’s, who plays a television reporter cameo. Of course that means that this was shot around the Pittsburgh area (e.g., Moon Park)… but wait… this is a slasher film… in Pittsburgh? A film shot near Pittsburgh that isn’t zombie-related? Is that a thing?! Okay, yes, I kid. But it’s important to also remember that this slasher is also a fairly broad comedy.

After the inevitable and well played prologue, we are introduced to Doug, our hapless hero who is an independent... wait for it… filmmaker. Life is tough for him at this juncture as his life falls apart, which we are informed through a montage involving his unfaithful ex, Gina (Nikki Nader). With her, like most of the cast, it’s hard to avoid all the tattoos (not a complaint, just an observation). Luckily for most viewers, I am assuming, she also supplies some ample and well-appreciated skin.

Like Doug, his two friends are also nerdy goofballs, who are married with kids (we don’t see either of their families, though). Despite that, they all hang out regularly to play video games in basements, mock each other, and generally make asses of themselves to just about, well, everyone. Of course, that makes them quite endearing to us nerdy types. What I especially appreciate is that these guys don’t look like models, but are everymen who plays videogames in basements and watches micro-budget horror films. I also appreciate that the story doesn’t try to imply these guys are in their early ‘20s.

We also meet Doug’s creepy neighbors, MC Pink… I’m sorry, I mean Doug Flowers (Seth Gontkovic) and his cute wife, Diane (Nikki Howell, who I’m assuming is no relation to Thurston and Lovey). It’s no secret there’s something up with them, and for once, no red herrings.

People are being gruesomely butchered in the neighborhood and especially the local park (SFX beautifully handled by Cody Ruch). Filming some incidental material in said park, Doug accidently videos some nefarious action by a dark-clad figure wearing a bandana over his lower face, who is no surprise due to body shape and close-up of the eyes. But all things considered, such as the direction of the film, it’s all good.

Ben Dietels and Nikki Nader
Needless to say, the killer knows who our luckless trio of friends are, and is prepared to take action. And this is where the fun especially kicks in at full throttle (though at go-kart level, not NASCAR… which I joyously prefer, I might add). Our dweeby pals plot and scheme a way to get the bad guy before he gets them; whether they are successful or not – and things don’t always turn out as planned – well, I’m not going to tell.

Because Dietels, Litner and O’Donnell also co-produced the film, even though Dietels is credited with writing the film, most of the dialogue feels like it was ad-libbed at the moment. This usually works for them, as they really know each other well enough to play off the others, but sometimes it comes off as just plain goofy.

There are lots of indications they’re using their own houses, such as posters on the walls for previous Dietels films (e.g., 2012’s Captain Slickpants, which shows up in two different locations). Then again, the cast is part of an artist collective of filmmakers from the area, which also tells a lot about how they are all connected.

Yeah, there are lots of plot holes that you can fly a plane through, but it’s easily forgivable if one keeps in mind that this is essentially backyard amateurish filmmaking, but the reason it works is because of the heart behind it. You know these guys were having fun doing this, and it shows. It’s kinda like when you hear a demo tape of someone that was recorded on a cassette in a living room. Sure, a studio taping could give more texture, but the heart behind it makes the demo that much more interesting.

The acting is nothing that one can take very seriously. I mean, no one here is going to win any prestigious awards for their performances (e.g., Dietels acts a lot by rolling his eyes, O’Donnell tends to giggle, and Litner often looks like he’s exasperated). But again, there is a charm that lifts this to a different plane than some “serious” piece of art/filmmaking. It’s like watching a minor league baseball game: sure, it’s not the level of the majors, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not going to be a good game.

For me, though, I believe this could have been edited down by at least 20 minutes. There are too many redundant scenes, such as one near the beginning with Dietels on his skateboard, or another towards the end where Robbie is driving his vehicle, and the camera comes back to him peering around numerous times; to be fair, there is a funny joke at the end of it, but it could have been handled quicker. Watching the guys josh with each other may build some background to the style of the friendship, but we get that pretty quickly, and some of that could have been in the “Deleted Scenes” when/if it hits the DVD market. And on another note, do we really need to see Doug woof his cookies three times? But don’t let that change your mind about seeing the film, because it’s not a key focus, it’s just yucky, and not in a good way (i.e., the SFX is good yucky).

Which leads me to something I really enjoyed about the film: even though the ending is a blast and totally unrealistic, it shows that despite the insults and behaviour between them, their friendship is quite deep and they will help a bro no matter what. As not all of them come out unscathed by the final act, the film actually does a nice job with showing the PTSD that most films ignore, after having been through such traumatic encounters. And still manage to do it with humor.

Yeah, this is silly, unrealistic, has holes, a bit too long, and the acting isn’t near superb, and yet I’m going to recommended it, again, to the kind of audience who can appreciate micro-budget horror with a big heart.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
Directed by John De Bello
Four Square Productions; MVD Visual
65 minutes, 1978 / 2018

Back in 1978, I attended the Worst Film Festival, held in New York City, which was sponsored and hosted by the Medved brothers, Harry and Michael; they wrote the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (with Randy Dreyfuss). There, I was present for the world premiere of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Also in attendance was the director, John De Bello, who I remember talking about how the helicopter crash in the film was real, and they kept it in because it was great footage (and rightfully so).

Yeah, AotKT gets flack for being bad, but in retrospect the film can be seen as either a turning point or effected one, because just two years later, Airplane! (1980) would hit the theaters and change the way cinema looked at comedy (as Mel Brooks had done in 1974 with Blazing Saddles). That absurdist humor that we had loved so much in the previous The Groove Tube (1974) and Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) came to adulthood (such as it was; perhaps it regressed...) with Airplane!. However, AotKT was the missing link between the two sketch comedy films and the fully grown Airplane!, taking short bits and stretching them into a full movie, albeit with sketch-like set pieces. I mean, this film even has multiple amusing Public Address Announcements, which was also employed often by Airplane! Coincidence?!

I haven’t seen the film since that time (and have never seen the multiple sequels), yet I was pleasantly surprised to find that it really was a bit ahead of its time. Audiences, however, were just not ready to appreciate it. And that includes me. I remember it being bad, but I also recall being amused by it. It makes more sense in the perspective of the comedy timeline I mentioned above.

For those who don’t know, the basic premise is that tomatoes had genetically mutated and became flesh-eating monsters, including some that had grown to enormous (human) size. The film doesn’t waste any time, immediately jumping into the fray with the first scene. Of course, most of the violence occurs off-screen since this is a low budget film (despite the destruction of the whirlybird), and well, most of the time they used real to-may-toes (as opposed to to-mah-toes; yeah, I don’t know what that means either; I’m just gettin’ with the program, Jack).

The humor is both broad and subtle, but all of it bada-boom, bada-bing, bada sis-boom-bah. In other words, it’s non-stop. For example, in just one scene – and this isn’t everything by a long shot – generals and scientists gather in a meeting room that is way too small, a Japanese scientist is obviously and badly dubbed; at one point he knocks a photo to the bottom of a fish tank, and of course it’s of the battleship USS Arizona. Then the head of the Federal Intelligence Agency makes a point that he doesn’t need to check into the background of anyone involved with this project; a future Trump selection?.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of fun made of the (fictional) president in the film. Now, this was released during the time of Jimmy Carter, but it seems pretty obvious to me it was written during the tenure of Gerald Ford by the manner of which he is duplicitous (e.g., getting rid of a submarine base because “those funny little black ships just keep sinking anyway”).

Some of the humor is quite topical, and has now reached the stage where it might get lost on a younger audience. For example, two soldiers are looking and a map and someone asks what the blue dots on a map mean, and is told “Those are Mobil stations,” from the days when gas stations gave out free maps. Or someone calling the operator on a pay phone and claiming he got a wrong number and wanting the money back (yes, this really happened).

Also, a lot of the humor that was hysterical then is kinda rubbing against the PC model, with some gay and racial humor (e.g., a Black man in disguise dressed as Hitler), and a rape joke and assumption that it is women’s duty to sleep with someone to get what she needs for her job (in this case, a reporter). One could also see a bit of sexism if they wanted in a love song that professes, “Our love will be classy / Just like Timmy and Lassie,” but I’ll leave that one up to you to decide.

There are a number of song set pieces in here making it a musical-Lite , such as a salesman explaining to a government official about how he knows how to sway an audience (a pre-Wag the Dog influence, decades before that 1997 release?), or an Army officer doing an Elvis-ish song and dance with a chorus of soldiers that’s a cross between a Monty Python bit (“Oooh, get her / You military fairy!”) and a foretelling of Mel Brooks’ dancing and singing Merry Men in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Another spoof song that shows up occasionally is “Puberty Love,” done in a high-pitched whine by Matt Cameron, who went on to become the drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. With all that, the song that most people remember is the title one written by the director, sung in a bravado voice and whose chorus is incredibly catchy.

Sharon Taylor
As for the story proper, well, it’s a bit all over the map, but the closest thing to a protagonist is a government agent named Mason Dixon (David Miller). His not-so-bright sidekick is pilot Wilber Finletter (Rock Peace, aka J. Stephen Peace, aka the co-writer of the film) who always has his parachute trailing behind him. The government is trying to either keep the killer tomatoes a secret, or to convince the public that there is no danger, whose drive is led by Press Secretary George Wilson (Jim Richardson). However, news reporter Lois Fairchild (the willowy and unconventional cutie Sharon Taylor who has a Julie Hagerty vibe), is hot... on the trail of the story. Meanwhile, someone is trying to assassinate Dixon, while the huge tomatoes are gobbling people up.

Many of the people in the film went on to other roles, though few had spectacular film careers beyond the sequels, arguably other than “Twin Peaks” actor Dana Ashbrook, who had a non-credit role here. That is not to say there aren’t a couple of cameos here and there, such as English actor Eric Christmas (you’d probably recognize him if you saw him; d. 2000), and especially Jack Riley (d. 2016), a comic performer who had many roles in the 1970s and ‘80s, but is probably best known in the recurring psychiatric patient role of Mr. Carlin on “The Bob Newhart Show.”

There are two discs on this set, one in Blu-ray and one DVD, so you can watch it in any contraption. I don’t have an HD teevee, so I couldn’t tell the difference, but both have the same extras, which include the following:

Jack Riley
Of course, there is a commentary track, with the three original creators of the film, De Bello, Peace and Costa Dillon. They still work well together to tell the story of the making of the film through inception to anecdotes, all with a sense of humor without stepping all over each other, which is great. Even though it was recorded a quarter of a century after the film was made but a decade before this version of the release for the DVD in 2003 for the DVD release, as was the rest of bonus material, it still sounds relevant.

You may not know that the film actually started as a 17:35-minute short in 1976, which is presented here both without and with commentary track. It’s worth the view (for both) to see just how many of the gags they kept intact – if not nearly identical – and the storylines that were added to pad it out to a feature. It’s still pretty funny, shot as a college course student film on 8mm. The acting is horrendous, but it’s important to remember the context of when and why it was made. Also showing is an even earlier 32:27 short, “Gone with the Babusaland” from 1971. Being a silent film, it just comes with the commentary. It doesn’t really make too much sense, and it is funny in parts, but what makes this most interesting is it presents the early version of the Mason Dixon and Finletter characters that were incorporated into the main feature later. Unfortunately, the volume of the commentary is much lower than the others, so it’s a bit hard to hear.

The 14:14 short “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: The Legacy” follows. This is a really fun documentary/interview with the three main behind-the-scenes guys, and pieces with people like Bruce Vilanch and other fans. For 3:40 there’s “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes Redux: Chopper Crash” which is about, well, duh. It’s an enjoyable mixture of news and archival material mixed with 2003 follow-up interviews with the crew and Jack Riley. The subsequent short is three “Deleted Scenes” that are enjoyable to watch, but yeah, they were right to be pulled as there was plenty of other gags that worked better that remained. The very short – err – short, “Famous Fowl,” comes after that at a mere 2:21 about the San Diego Chicken mascot discussing his being in the penultimate scene, shot in the San Diego stadium.

Next up is a 4:33 short titled “A Killer Tomato Invades Hollywood” (also called “Killer Tommatomania”). We meet “as seen on television” interviewer Wendy Wilder (I have no idea who is she is, FYI) talking to some effervescent dude dressed as a “killer tomato guy” (described as “desperate actor”). He walks around Hollywood asking people (in an obnoxious way) to complete the sentence, “Attack of the Killer ____.” It’s more goofy than interesting. What I found more appealing (and humorous) is the 2:52 “Where Are They Now?” which catches us up with the main actors (as of 10 years ago, of course), narrated with funny dialogue. “We Told You So!” is a 3:07 look at how ahead of the game the film was in warning the world about GMO “Frankenfoods,” told in a humorously told-you-so snarky manner.

Rock Peace and David Miller
As for trailers, we get the theatrical one (see below), two radio spots, and oddly enough, the coming attraction for the Lech Kowalski punk film, D.O.A.: Rite of Passage.

The last presented is a series of clips of the songs, with the lyrics underneath (and a follow-along bouncing tomato ball, natch), and then “Slated for Success: The Killer Tomato Slate Girl,” with a 1:57 tongue-in-cheek honor for Beth Reno (who was also the production accountant), the film’s “Slate Girl.” It shows just how wonderfully silly this whole film is, in the long run.

There is a reason why AotKT has reached such a strong cult status, in my opinion. While not as noteworthy a bad film as The Room (2003), it’s come to be a funny mess that is worth the watch for the nostalgia, the mostly decent corny jokes, the political humor, and a snapshot of comedy of its period. It’s also interesting, as I’ve implied, to see it in a rear view mirror (as Marshall McLuhan would have put it), to note how the use of humor is reflected and arguably copied in more infamous films to come.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Review: Red Krokodil: Director’s Cut

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Red Krokodil: Director’s Cut
Directed and cinematography by Domiziano Cristopharo
The Enchanted Architect / Unearthed Films / MVD Visual
80 minutes, 2012 / 2018

I saw the first two films that Domiziano Cristopharo directed, House of Flesh Mannequins (2009) and The Museum of Wonders (2010). He’s released at least 20 since then, so I was curious. His style is very artistic and precise, so after nearly a decade, I’m glad to have the opportunity to see what this Italy-based artiste was working on – even if this film is five years old, though now it’s getting a new Blu-ray release.

As the opening title card tells us (and I am abbreviating a lot), Desomorphine, a real opioid drug that originated in the US in the early 1930s and is now made and used recreationally in Russia, Produced in this way, it’s made of corrosive materials mixed with Codeine from over the counter products, and is nicknamed “krokodil” due to the blistering skin around injection sites.

At a snail’s pace, we meet Him (Brock Madson). He’s a mess on so many levels, spiritually and physically. His clothes (when he’s wearing them) are filthy, including dark stains on the bottom of his untidy whiteys, there is what looks like mold everywhere, he is unwashed and unkempt, and is missing his two front teef.

We watch much of what happens to him, as he repeatedly gives himself shots from the same needle, goes through withdrawals until the next injection, and segments of overseeing him fitfully sleeping. The viewer gets the feeling of claustrophobia as he moves around his small room; he is practically the personification of the description of the Divinyls song, “Elsie.” 

While filmed in Italy, this takes place in Russia; however, the inner monologs we hear are in English. Because of his drug addled mental state, we get to share what he sees, be it a giant Bunny Man (Viktor Karam) or a bandage swathed Monster (Valerio Cassa), who are the only other characters in the film, albeit in brief snatches.

The only dialog we hear other than grunts and groans is Him’s inner thoughts, which are usually a mixture of stories of his life (e.g., why a stuffed crocodile is important to him), a description of his dream visions, or philosophizing about his hallucinations. One example is when he sees a mannequin face inside a hole in the wall, part of his existentialist treatise as he smiles is, “God is watching me inside the eye; the whole universe is inside the eye. Even I am inside the eye.”

Either because of the corrosive effect of the krokodil drug, or perhaps what is going on inside his mind (or both), his body is full of gross scabs and abscesses that we see in detail. Him is convinced he lives in a post-apocalyptic world, and perhaps he is, which would explain the lack of people in part, but he never ventures from his hovel. How much of it is in his mind and what reality is mostly up to the viewer.

Despite all the grossness of picking at the wearing down of the flesh, this is definitely in the category of art film. Sure, you may not see it on IFC due to its visual content, but philosophically and stylistically, it would actually be quite comfortable there.

Most of the time the color is drained out of the image we see, as it is missing from Him’s life; it’s only when we see him roaming around in nature (again, nude), do we see a natural hue of any time. The sharp contrast is alarming, and shows the levels to which Him has sunken – again, both spiritually and physically.

This is not exactly what one might call the feel good movie of the year, but it is a poetic and disarming – and sometimes visually stunning – vision of what I would imagine being desperately addicted to something that harsh to the body (I’m pretty straight-edge).

Madson co-produced the film, and he certainly gives a full emotional range, much of it without dialogue. It’s a strong character study, and he certainly is up for the task. This is good showcase for him, even considering all the visuals.

There are some nice extras, as there tends to be especially on a Blu-ray. First up is the 2:30 Alternate Music Ending, which shows the end of the film with, well, different music. It’s more piano based, with almost religious solemnity. It’s quite beautiful, and in my opinion, works as well as the film proper. The Deleted Scenes lasts 8:50. A combination of unused footage, some with inner comments, it’s nice and interesting, but having it out of the film makes sense, too. It does, however, help you get a little more depth on Him’s character.

The 2:42 Photo Gallery is set to the soaring “incidental,” neo-classical music. It’s all shots taken from production, such as make-up, fooling around the set, and scenery beyond the shoot premise; much better than just still from the film. Last is the Nuclear CGI Test, where we see different versions of a digital nuclear explosion that lasts for 1:14. There are also a bunch of trailers from Unearthed Films, nearly all of them reviewed on this blog at one point or another, such as the American Guinea Pig series and Atroz.

I’m still trying to figure out, visually speaking, if the film went too far, or if it didn’t go far enough. That’s part of what makes this such as interesting piece, though patience is definitely needed as you follow Him on his path, painful minute by painful hour.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Review: Lights Camera Dead

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Lights Camera Dead
Directed by Tim Reaper
Sub Rosa Studios / Asthesia Productions / Duke Studios /
White Lightening Productions / MVD Visual
80 minutes, 2007

Independent cinema can be quite inconsistent. Sometimes you find utter trash, and other times you end up with classics like Re-Animator or Evil Dead. Well, Tim Reaper (aka Tim Moehring) hasn’t quite given us an equal to those two, but I will say that this sets a pretty damn high bar.

What better way to formulate a horror flick than to make one about the making of one? Lights Camera Dead [LCD] starts off with auditions for actors and crew for a below low budget film (to be shot on VHS!), called “The Music Box.” The audition scenes are hilarious as even the real director gets to have his cameo as a southern mumbler. Some of this footage is in the trailer, attached below.

The premise, written by Tim and his wife, who is also one of the key characters in the film, Monica Moehring, is quite simple and explained on the box: Halfway through filming, a fed up cast and crew quit, thus shutting down production. But not for long…the fast, efficient filmmakers devise a plan to “finish” off their flick…and there will be blood.

While this is actually a decent sized cast, the main core stands at five:

Amy Lollo is the female lead, and the core of the troupe, keeping the meta-production together, though thoroughly underappreciated by the director and writer characters. Lollo is strong in her role, and plays various emotions well. She has a strong Sarah Michelle Gellar vibe and look going on. When she confronts her boyfriend, I actually backed up on the couch and cringed. That’s effective.

The other female lead is Monica Moehring, another alpha woman whose chest is referred to often (remember, she is one of the writers), but never seen bare because as she explains in one of the commentary tracks, and I found this quite amusing, when she is not filmmaking, she is a school teacher. Her facial expressions as she tries to explain what is going on to a drunken redneck (their word), played by director Tim’s actual dad, who apparently really was drunk, is easily one of the most amusing scenes in the flick. Kudos, dad! Monica has a couple of other acting credits, in films associated with this same production group.

Coldon Martin seems to act by widening his eyes until there is all white around the pupil, but he is also a decent comic relief, especially thanks to a good sense of timing. I have to say he looks quite a bit like a rockabilly version of Casey Affleck. He plays a crew member (and also does the same in the real production, apparently) who is good bad, but he’s not evil. Well, maybe… This is his only official acting credit.

J.C. Lira plays Steven Dydimus, the writer of the doomed production, as well as the “monster” in the rubber mask that is supposed to be a demon from hell. A frustrated horn dog, his level of violence – not expected for his milquetoast character – escalates throughout the making of the meta film. Again, this is his only official acting credit.

Last is Wes Reid, who plays the desperate and borderline – and then over-the-line – psychotic director of the picture, Ryan Black, who will do anything to get it completed. As the horror film is being created, he turns more and more dictatorial, and blames everyone else for his own short sidedness and lack of ability. Wes is becoming sort of a touchstone for Jonathan Straiton’s productions, with a half-dozen of them under his belt; the trailers for most can be seen in the special features section of this DVD. Wes’s weight changes dramatically throughout the film, up and down, as he was also acting in other roles while LCD was being filmed down in Virginia.

While some of the film has that shoestring feel, the cast and crew make the most of it, and seem to actually be enjoying their working together. There is also some interesting writing and filming involved, such as when Lollo’s character is trying to decide whether to open an envelope from her ex-, while he comes to her in her mind in both loving and abusive modes (you can tell which by what he is wearing); this moment also produced the best fright, but I won’t give too much of it away.

I guess I should mention that Richard Christy, of the Howard Stern Show, makes a manic cameo as a music soundtrack writer (this is the only scene shot in Brooklyn, NY), which is amusing, but gotta say I don’t listen to Howard Stern, so I have no idea who Christy is, but his brief commentary on the special features shows that his character in the film is pretty damn close to the real guy. Five minutes long, and he was having trouble figuring what to say.

Anyway, I liked LCD, and from the one indie film I worked on, there is some level of truth to the goings on in this type of production, sans the gore and killing, of course (even though our shoot stayed friendly).

It should be emphasized that this is also a pretty humorous film coming from a very dark, dark place. Fairly put, this film is more purposefully funny than unintentional, much in the way as are the other two films I mentioned in the first paragraph. So go grab a beer, sit back, and enjoy.

Speaking of beer, the full-length commentary on the film is quite fun in most parts, but somewhat annoying in spots. There are four or five people there, including the core of the production staff and some actors, which makes it a bit confusing, though the conversation is usually lively even as they tend to talk over each other (ironically, the video editor of “The Music Box” within the film makes that very complaint stating that it’s hard to edit because of it). People walk in and out of the range of the microphones, there is occasional talking in the background so it’s hard to make out what people are saying near or away from the mics, and at one point, Tim says to Monica, who has left the mic, “Hey, bring me a beer.” You can often hear the tabs being pulled on the beers throughout the commentary. While it’s a bit of a mess, there is still a lot of good information about the writing and making of the picture, so I still recommend it.

So other than the full length commentary, the short Christy comments, and the trailers, there is also an earlier shot short film (2005) by Tim Reaper Moehring called… The Music Box, which is actually not related to the main feature, except the same box appears in both. It is pretty bad and amateurish, shot on video, and shows just how much Tim learned between the two, because the main feature is so much better. It’s more interesting as a historical document in comparison than as a stand-alone short.

I’m grateful films like this get made, because as fun as mainstream horror films can be, it is the indie films like this one that tend to be made by fans, and so there is usually quite a bit of heart. And in this particular one, a bit of intestine, as well.

Originally published in FFanzeen.blogspot.com

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review: Brackenmore

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Directed by Chris Kemble and JP Davidson
Caragh Lake Films; Upstream Films; MVD Visual
72 minutes, 2016 / 2018

When I was in grade school, I had a teacher who posited that if our room was sealed off from the one next door, after 100 years or so it would probably be hard for the two classes to understand each other. I didn’t know what she was talking about then, but it stuck with me, and has resonated to me throughout my life.

That is sort of the premise of films like this and, say, The Wicker Man (1973) and Jug Face (2013), where remote villages come to have different gods that call on sacrifice and odd worship. For this film, it’s the isolated Irish titular town, where people mysteriously and regularly show up sneaking around in white death masks and stereotypically cultish long robes with cowls. No one ever does mention the Old Ones, though.

nto this peculiarity comes lovely Kate (Sophie Hopkins), who is summoned from London because her uncle has passed away, leaving her his modest estate (okay, small house) in town. She was born there, and is told to be his only living relative after she survived a car crash in her youth that killed her parents (i.e., the films prologue).

Everyone is acting oddly around her giving off a “what’ca doin’ in these here parts, stranger?” vibe. It’s pretty easy to figure out that the game is afoot, especially thanks to those masked folks showing up on the story’s periphery, circling ever closer. The lodging house in which she is staying and the lawyer handing the real estate in the late uncle’s will are, in the words of a friend of mine about this kind of thing, just not.

She gets cozy with a local named Tom (DJ McGrath), who shows her around town, unbeknownst to her hubby Allyn (Joe Kennard) back in London Town. While there are other people in the town, essentially Tom, the boarding house couple and the lawyer are just about all we meet in talking roles for the locals. We also don’t get to see too much of the town proper, as it seem to focus mostly on the indoors, other than the front of the houses on which the story focuses and a bit of the wooded area around the lake.

Events start to ramp up on this idyllic spot as someone in a mask and, yes, a cape with a cowl, attacks Kate, but she proves resourceful in what feels like a better way than most films that have women just be blade-fodder. Of course, the local constabulary accuses her of a night gone wrong, what with the attacker being a local and she being a…

It’s hard to tell in the story, and I liked this, whether certain actions are meant to scare her off into leaving, acts of retaliation of local vs. foreigner, or forcing her to stay. I guessed right, by the way.

There are little and subtle things that caught my eye though. For example, in the lawyer’s office there is a binder on a self behind Kate that has, in handwritten letters, 1916. This is an important date in relatively modern Irish history being the same year as Éirí Amach na Cásca, also known as the Easter Rising. No wonder the cop was critical about someone from London.

Along the way, there are hints about what is happening, such as a radio station going wild in the prologue, but mostly the story follows a line that feels familiar, with some elements that have been seen before in these kinds of genre films, even as far back as some Hammer Films,

The film is beautifully shot, and Hopkins is certainly easy on the eyes; she reminds me a bit of Kiera Knightly (if the latter were attractive), being lean of form and a strong chin. Smartly, the film goes for the tight, near claustrophobic closeness of the village, making it seem even smaller than it probably is (filmed in County Cork), especially since we are focused on a particular group of people. Of course, it also is a good way to keep the budget down (which I respect).

There are definitely some clichés here and there, and the big reveal of a specific person is a duh moment, but there are others you may not see coming, so I guess it’s still a “win.” While the ending is enjoyable, it also is a bit unclear. Call me crazy, but it feels like at one time this was a slightly different story, and they edited certain parts out (might explain there being two directors?). For example, during its filming, the working title was Banshee: Beyond the Lake, and there is even a Banshee listed in the IMDB credits, but I don’t remember seeing one. I enjoy Banshee stories, and I was puzzled. Perhaps in the sequel (which I would happily watch if there is one), or in a Director’s Cut version? I’m not sure. But what I am positive of is that I would have liked to have heard a commentary track that might answer some of my questions. Again, perhaps the Director’s Cut version at some point will do this. Meanwhile, the only extra available on this DVD is the chapter breaks.

The cast is all great, with Hopkins being outstanding by expressing a large range of emotions, and the accents don’t be doin’ no harm, either. There aren’t too many bloody scenes, but when it’s there, it’s a cornucopia of the red goo. A couple of other really good SFX appear here and there from Pitch Black Films, as well. Despite it all and because of the acting and cinematography¸ I’m happy I had the chance to see this, though I’m still scratching my head just a bit.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Review: True Love Ways

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

True Love Ways
Directed by Mathieu Seiler
Grand Hotel Pictures; Klusfilm Berlin;
ARRI Film and TV Services; Synergetic Distribution; MVD Visual
95 minutes, 2015

Germany is familiar with cinema of the strange in the past few decades. Just look at the likes of the extremely other-there Nekromantic (1987), or even Run Lola Run (1998) as examples.

Anna Hausburg and Kai Michael Muller
For this film, named after a Buddy Holly posthumous rock’n’roll romantic classic from 1960 (which we hear more than once in the film), it opens on the strained relationship between our heroine, Séverine (the lovely Anna Hausburg) and her boyfriend Tom (Kai Michael Müller), with the former telling the latter that she doesn’t love him, but rather has given her heart to someone of whom that she dreamed; to me, his reactions says a lot about why she needs to dump his ass.

Speaking of reactions, the first couple of acts of the film are set at a very languid pace, like being on a rowboat meandering down a river, with little dialog, as Séverine sits in a park watching people, spending the night by herself, or driving down the road chewing both her hair and gum with the camera mainly focused on her face. Within those times, however, there are some disturbing moments of her wondering, “okay, who should I trust?” This paranoia also is placed on the audience by some creepy goings-on that I will very lightly touch on to not give too much away.

Muller and David C. Bunners
At a bar, after Séverine chucks Tom outta da co-joint for a few days, he goes to a bar where he meets Chef (David C. Bunners), who suggests that he will kidnap Séverine and then Tom would come to the rescue and be her “Tarzan.” With other events that happen in the meanwhile, during the ebb and flow of the day mentioned above, the audience can’t help wonder if this is part of a larger event.

About half way through the film, the pieces of some of the events that happened before and why the Chef is so interested in Séverine start to become clearer. And yes, it’s even creepier than you’d expect. We get to figure it out the same time as her, and that’s when the film shifts gears into overdrive. Yet, and this is where I find the film is playing with us, there are still moments of long silence and little movement, that in the heightened state of tension and adrenaline, are nail-biting thriller moments. Again, you know Séverine is feeling the same. It’s really well written that the audience gets to not just sympathize, but empathize, because you’re feeling a bit of what she is experiencing (without us being in real danger).

While definitely a sharp (and occasionally darkly humorous) thriller, some have referred to this as a kunstfilm (art film), and not just because it’s in black-and-white. It’s the pacing, the way the music works with the film beyond jump scares, but it’s not obnoxiously so. In other words, most art films try so hard to be ar-tay, that they become obtuse and confusing. There is none of that here. There are also few weird angles, other than multiple long close-ups of Séverine’s face.

The good news is that Hausburg is talented enough that with the extreme close-ups and lack of dialogue, it still is easy to read the broad emotional range she expresses (i.e., no “Blue Steel” vs. “Magnum”).

As always, the bad guys underestimate Séverine; while she’s no hired assassin like in the predictable and ordinary Final Girl (2015), she is extremely resourceful and works her way through situations (which we get to watch, step by step by facial expression).

The one cliché that is easy to predict in the film regards a tavern owner. I actually said, out loud as soon as she walked into the bar, “Oh, really?! C’mon!” But in a film that’s over 90 minutes, I can forgive it considering how much else is going on.

What really drove me crazy is the Tom character. Hero? Villian? No matter, he’s an asshole, that’s for sure. I’m not going to go into details, but like the male protagonist in Run Lola Run, I have no respect for him.

Sometimes arty films can be especially bloody, such as with Nekromantik, or Miike’s Audition (1999), and while it’s not overly done or in super-graphic detail like many Euro-body horror releases, there is definitely a spurting of the stuff. That being said, there will be a contingent with whom I agree to some level, who will argue that the males are killed pretty quickly, but it’s the women who receive the brunt of the brutality.

Okay, I know I’ve made a couple of complaints, and they seem valid to me, but overall this is quite the stunning picture. Sure, not necessarily a date flick (depending on your companion, of course), but it really is a beautiful piece of cinema, and much of that is directly is in the lap of Hausburg and her mighty-fine acting. My fear is that it will be remade in the Western Hemisphere, and the Séverine character will be played by someone like Chloë Grace Moretz or Abigail Breslin (who’s IMDB’s bio laughingly states is one of the “most sought after actors of her generation”), who cannot really do the heavy lifting acting that would be necessary to match Hausburg.

The only extra on this DVD is the chapters; the captions are imprinted onto the film.

Séverine certainly lives up to her name. Loving her would be severe, and threatening her would be even more so, judging by the actions here. She’s a bit nuts, but borderline enough that you’d have to be intimate with her to see just how around the bend she is. Part of the explanation and what is interesting on a few levels is that the ending is both a WTF and an Ohhhh-I-see moment. You certainly don’t see that occur much anymore.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: Hollow Creek

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Hollow Creek (aka Haunting in Hollow Creek)
Written, produced, directed by Guisela Moro
Newfoundland Films; First Edge Films;
Cinematic Motion Pictures; FilmRise; MVD Visual
116 minutes, 2016

I love it when I get to see a horror film written and directed by a woman; in this case it’s Latina actor Guisela Moro. She takes a number of different subgenres and mashes them into an expansive story that lasts nearly two hours (usually a long time for an indie flick), which I will now discuss without giving away too many details, of course.

Steve Daron and Guisela Moro
We are introduced to married horror writer Blake Blackmore (dashing Steve Daron, who continually has a Sonny Crockett-type 5 o’clock shadow) and his mistress, Angelica (the lovely Moro), as they head out to a cabin retreat in a not largely populated small town in rural West Virginia (hillbilly genre). It seems some young boys have gone missing recently in the area, but our protagonists are more focused on their work and – err – play.

But it’s very shortly into the story (which is why, in part, I bring it up) that other supernatural happenings start to crop up in the house (haunted house genre) that are somewhat subtle to them, but are used well for jump scare type shock value to the audience. There is also the bit about the trio of missing boys and the investigation into finding them (“Criminal Minds-type genre). They all interplay together well into a comprehensive story with a touch of the supernatural without being overwhelmed by it.

In the first act, the ghostly stuff is well timed because in the beginning there are some dialogue-heavy moments of exposition that drag a bit due to some forced language, such as the over use of the endearing-babble word “babe.” But they are interrupted by those nice scares that livens thing up quite a bit.

Sharon Bleau and Alyn Damay
The questions that arose for me were concerning the film’s intentions. Is it a good ghost or a bad ghost? Are the cops the good guys or the bad guys? The only two things that are a given pretty much right from the onset is that Blake and Angie are the side of light, and Leonard (Alyn Darnay) and Nancy Cunnings (Sharon Bleau) are the in the dark region. As it’s given away quite early on (and even in the trailer) that it’s the latter, rednecky farm couple who are behind the kidnappings, But again, what are the reasons and intentions for the sinister duo to be carrying out what they are doing? That is part of what kept my interest.

Here is the thing about small towns: they can amazingly rally up behind you, or give a strong cold shoulder if you are (gabba gabba) not one of “them,” meaning if they turn their back on you, it can be isolating. I’ve been through small towns in West Virginia, and other than the Dixie flags a-flyin’, I got along with everyone I met, even as a stranger, but if I had taken an action that was disapproved of by the group by breaking a code of honor, that situation might have turned into something else. When Angie suddenly disappears, Blake gets a taste of this from the locals as he gets blamed for her going poof! in the rainy night in the court of public opinion, thanks to a sensationalist-driven local media (as we were taught, “If it bleeds, it leads”).

When the second act starts, after Angie vanishes from the town (but not from the story), is when the tale really starts to build momentum. While the film centers on the kidnapping story as its core, it manages to not overuse the ghost or hillbilly aspects of it; rather, Moro wisely plies the other two as aspects of the whole story, which actually helps make it stronger. Yeah, there are some gothic cliché’s, such as a child’s baseball mysteriously and nosily dropping down the stairs, which has been a standard ever since The Changeling in 1980; however, the orb is key to the story, so in this case it’s not just a ghostly announcement of presence.

Do I really need to say who this is?
The big cameo, of course, is Burt Reynolds, who shows up for one decent scene with Daron, and a brief one later on. Now, Daron has announced that Reynolds is one of his acting idols, and the writing credits state that Daron is “collaborating writer.” My guess is he wrote the scene with Reynolds, which just consists of the two of them. I will further posit that while the film was shot in West Virginia, the scene with the frail, then 80-year-old Bandit, was filmed in Florida where Reynolds lives. The second scene just shows the back of the heads of the cops, so I’m guessing all his scenes were added in after the principal shooting. I would say that it is a cool thing.

The one big hole to me is that there is a rifle hidden in the closet where Blake is staying. This makes no sense, as the cops think he is responsible for Angie’s disappearance, wouldn’t they have found the rifle in searching the house? It’s not like it was hidden somewhere, it’s right on the shelf at the top of the closet. I’m just going to put it up to a rookie writing mistake, and mosey on.

The cast is really strong here. Both Moro and Daron carry their roles well, Bleau plays woundedly cracked just a tad overboard (though her character, well, actually is), and Darnay definitely steals his scenes as the always seething patriarch of the kept clan. He has this way of moving his mouth as a sign of annoyance (you can see it in the trailer) that says so much about Leonard.

Once past the initial “Hey, babe” scenes, the film turns into a really taut, well-written thriller. Even if one edited out all of the supernatural aspects, the tension would still be on high, and that’s great. Having it in, though, is a boost as a way to take it to another level to apprehension. Plus, the way the film was shot, with the effective lighting (including being able to see the action at night) and slower editing, brings a strong and satisfying end result. I look forward to seeing more of Moro’s work as actor, writer and director. Brava.