Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Two Real Crime Film Reviews: House on the Hill; My Name is A, By Anonymous

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

The reason I have put these two reviews together is because they both deal with infamous crimes from unlikely killers, one the slovenly serial murder Leonard Lake, and the teenage child murderer, Alyssa Bustamante. They also take different perspectives of the crime, but mix either real or aped images of the criminals involved.

House on the Hill
Directed by Jeffrey Frentzen
itn distribution / North 40 Productions / Options Entertainment / MVD Visual
83 minutes, 2012 / 2014

The story this film is based on is well known and documented. In essence, during a year or so in the mid-1980s, shlubby, bearded and balding 40 year old Leonard Lake and his “soul mate,” also chubby and rumpled Chinese national Charles Ng lived in a rural and deserted area outside San Francisco.

The real Charles and Leonard
In their compound, they built a cell to hold women and a torture chamber attached to the house to, well… It’s estimated by the amount of bones found on the property that they had killed and buried approximately 15 to 25 people, both men and women, straight and gay. This included some entire families. Usually the men and at least two infants were done away with right off, and for the women, it took a lot longer.
Though quite obviously effective, poor Lenny and Chuck never had the pop sensation cool factor of, say, Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, or John Wayne Gacy. These guys were unattractive inside and out.

Now, nearly everything I’ve learned about Lake and Ng (L and N) is found online on Wikipedia and sites like that (yes, I read them before seeing the film). Apparently, every victim in this film is either given another name as they aren’t included in the list of known victims, are multiple stories concatenated into single people, or are the conjecture of the filmmakers. This includes the two women who are the main focus of the story: first, there is Sonia (Naidra Dawn Thomson), the only victim who lives to tell the tale (indicated early on in the film, as the main action is told in flashback), and Karianna (Shannon Leade), both of whom are drugged at a party and awaken in the bad place. They are kept around by L and N for cleaning, frequent rapes and other physical abuse, and for Sonia to videotape all the mistreatments and demises.

Yes, we get to see quite a bit of brutality, very little sex, and even less nudity, which confused me. Anyway, people are stabbed, drowned, beaten to death, etc. in sort of a parade fashion. We are introduced to a character with a photo of the actresses’ face and a name / date who they supposedly play went missing. Then comes the abuse, with lots of talking in between, threatening, demanding of money, and then death. Why Sonia and Karianna are left to live so long while others are dropped around – make that in front of – them, is not really explained.

Stephen AF Day as Leonard
Actually, there are a few issues I have with director Fretzen’s first time out in a feature. For one thing, he can’t seem to make up his mind if this is a roughie or an art project, as sometimes the camera will just stay on the subject, and other times, we get the odd angles, the filtered lighting, and the switch between color and black and white depending on the time period. For example, there is some artistic albeit sledgehammer symbolism, such as a dripping faucet being a metaphor for a life slipping away.
The actors who play Leonard (Saskatoon-born Stephen A.F. Day) and Charles (Sam Leung) play their roles excellently, but they are, quite frankly, too good looking for the roles. Rather than roly-poly dorks who look harmless, Day and Leung look intense, with Day appearing too young for the role and ruggedly handsome, and Leung seems kind of like a dashing “badboy” hoodlum from a TV show like Buffy. The real killers are much creepier because of the unassuming way they looked.

Sam Leung as Charles (with Erin M. Young)
There are also little anachronistic things like the camcorder that is used is more modern than the correct time period. In 1985, when L and C were captured, I bought my own camcorder that was then top of the line, which was $700 and weighed 7 pounds that rested heavily on the shoulder. The one in the film, if I’m not wrong, is a much smaller s-VHS that was introduced in 1987 (man, I love the Internet!). Also out of sync is that Sonia’s (Thompson’s) back is full of tattoos, and that certainly didn’t become mainstream before 1985.
What drove me most crazy was mixing the history up, such as how they got caught, which is mostly right, but a key point is off (i.e., they were not in the same place). That isn’t that bad by itself, I admit, but it seems to be an issue through a lot of the actual events, rather than the conjecture of the killings we see; as Ng was found guilty of seven deaths because the other bones were not identified, there is more we don’t know about victims than we do, giving the writers ample room to stretch that part to fit the film. Again, I don’t have an issue with that, but dicking around the known parts is what I find…off-putting.

One of the things I really liked about the project is that interspersed through the film is actual footage of Lake, videotaping himself admitting about building the cell room, what he expects from his women / slaves, and this gives us an insight to the real twisted thoughts of this unkempt killer.

While I know I’ve been hard on the film, I would also like to point out, again, this is the director’s first time at the helm. Sure, he and much of the crew and cast have been involved in serial killer films before, such as the Frentzen produced Killer Pickton (2006) and Black Dahlia (2006), but that’s not the same as being in control of the product. It’s good that he has found a niche in the serial killer subgenre, and I look forward to his growth in bringing us more mayhem.

My Name is A, By Anonymous
Written and directed by Shane Ryan
Mad Sin Cinema/ Rainy Day Parade Productions
Wild Eye Releasing
90 Minutes, 2012 / 2014

I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
        Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

This is certainly not the first film about real life teen thrill killers, nor is it the first to use an artistic frame for it. For example, there was Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a fictionalized version of the teen Leopold and Loeb murderers, and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). This is also not the first movie to use a pseudo-documentary (i.e., handheld cameras) to give a realistic feel to the film. However, that also does not mean this film is either repetitive or derivative.

Kate Marsh as Alyssa
The true story is about Alyssa Bustamante (Katie Marsh), a bored 15-year-old girl from a rough background who viciously murdered a 9-year-old girl, Elizabeth (Kaliya Skye). Her story made the headlines around the world in 2009 for two reasons: first, of course, is the shocking brutality of the assault of a young life, and second, that in a technological world, so much of her life over the previous year had been recorded on the ever present cell phones.
If you look up Alyssa on YouTube, you can see a lot of that footage, from which some of the film is based upon (i.e., copied), such as the touching of an electrified cow fence wire (a safeguard system much more intense, I might add, than one for constraining horses), or donning Alice Cooper inspired make-up and pointing a finger-gun to her own head while sticking out her tongue. In a 24-hour televised news world, the original selfies were played on major outlets repeatedly for weeks as her trial was followed as intensely as was Andrea Yates, who drowned her five kids in Texas and found not guilty by insanity, or Casey Anthony, found not guilty of murdering her toddler daughter.

We see the incessant relying on the need to film oneself to make oneself real, whose reality is a mixture of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983: “Television is reality, and reality is less than television”) and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995: “You aren’t really anybody in America if you’re not on TV”). This film also gives breath to a feeling of ennui of its characters: no matter what is happening or how hard life is treating them, there is a feeling of Other that permeates the day-to-day narcissistic filming. These are life issues and possibly cultural mental illnesses that Bustamante had in common with Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, though the body count differed substantially.

There is an interesting mix of self-shot filming (i.e., supposedly shot by the characters of each other) and other times recorded by an unidentified “third person,” mostly likely just meant to be cover shots of both of the main teen actresses, although the hand-held shakiness remains the same.

The real Alyssa
The film follows three concurrent storylines, as it were. The first is Bustamante and The Sidekick (Demi Baumann), and occasionally Alyssa’s brother, as they ramble through their lives, Bustamante bullying her friends and relations in small ways that would eventually explode into self-destruction through the annihilation of another. We don’t realize we can see the state of her mind, as in real life, she came from a family of poverty, violence and substance abuse.
A second story follows The Performer (Teona Donikova), a sad teen who imagines herself in the limelight as a highly stylized singer (we are shown an entire imaginary music video from her mind), rather than the suggested abusive relationship with her dad (no moms are seen in this film). The third follows The Angst (Alex Damiano), who is full of anger both towards the world and herself. We are shown that through her bulimia, her self-derisive selfie-videos (vidfies?), and a monolog aimed at God. We also see in bitter detail the sexually violent relationship she has with her dad.

Of course, all these stories come together at an important story intersection. Hints of the level of personal destruction are shown throughout, and realized in the third act (titled “The Final Chapter”). I have to say, I figured out where the director was going with the ending about 10 minutes before the answer, which is probably around the time the viewer is expected to have that aha moment.

Both these films and all four stories here deal with an either an ideal or a nadir of one, expressed through the ego machine of a cell phone camera and small cameras, as characters perform for themselves and for others. It’s personalities that are more performativity than “real,” often without the participant even realizing how shallow their vision of the world becomes, full of ego and the Self. Running through all is also a banality of evil, instilled by the overwhelming technological desire for both information input and output (feeling the almost addictive need for selfies is an example of both).

As with House on the Hill (see above), there is some speculation and changing of the story to fit the film; it should also be noted that this is “Inspired by the true crime.” During the end credits, Director Shane Ryan does acknowledge that people were blended and liberties were taken. For a piece of cinema that was filmed in four days on $300, and was largely shot by the cast, it does have both a chilling aspect to it (especially the abusive scenes, be it inter- or intrapersonal), mixed with an almost facile feel to the everydayness of some of the actions between the characters. It’s the contrast, in part, that makes this so compelling, and for me more so on a second viewing.

Extras abound on this DVD, running nearly twice as long as the film itself. Along with a deleted scene and some alternative scenes, there are trailers for it and a bunch of other films, such as Portrait of a Milk Carton Girl and Abducted Girl: An American Sex Slave. The highlights though are two different version of the piece, including a 20-minute early cut from 2011 that is mostly without dialog called “The Columbine Effect” (under the directorial pseudonym of Bone Shin) that is mostly confusing if you haven’t seen the full feature, and an hour form of it as well called “Me, Myself and Us.” It’s a completely different cut and order of events (except the ending chronology), and while it’s decent, it’s not up to the full feature, and is rightfully and thankfully in the extras section.

Then there are two earlier short films directed by Ryan. One is the nearly 5-minute effective tribute to Japanese gore from 2011 called “Oni-Gokko” (translated as “Tag”), which could be seen as a tribute to Japanese director Takashi Miike, or possibly the “Guinea Pig” series, with just enough gore and artistic merit to raise some eyebrows. The other short is the 16-minute “Isolation” from 2001. It’s a moody piece mostly in black and white about poor 16 year old Billy (played by Shane Ryan in his directorial debut; I’m guessing a student film). Missing his mom who was murdered when he was younger to the point of depression, we follow him and his thoughts as he walks through a desolate town, possibly bleaker because of his emotional state. You can see a lot of a theme going here if you compare the short with the feature.

Ryan seems to specialize in Kids (1995; I’m certainly not the only one who had this connection as I have since found many reviews comparing them) style films dealing with teens in trouble, including pedophilia, the sex trade and other forms of teensploitation – honestly, none of which I’ve seen, so I won’t comment on them directly – but here he has found a niche of teen murders that works well. This has a very ordinary-everyday Creep Creepersin feel to it (he is thanked in the credits), and is all the more scary for both the actions and lack thereof, and especially for the viewers’ reaction to the mixture of the two.













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