Friday, December 15, 2017

Reviews: The Zodiac Killer; Another Son of Sam

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

The Zodiac Killer
Directed by Tom Hanson
AGFA / Something Weird Video / MVD Visual
87 minutes, 1971 / 2017

This until-recently-lost film is kind of infamous in the true story crimes micro-budget genre. Director Tom Hanson did not set out to either warn, to give information to the public about a real-life serial killer who besot California in the mostly late 1960s into the very early 1970s, or to make a profit. His purpose was to either catch the Killer at the premiere if he showed up. Man, that’s ballsy!

While it didn’t work since the Zodiac Killer (ZK) was never found, it did leave us this wonderfully bizarre and cheesy film that strangely is actually more entertaining than the bio-pic Zodiac (2007), which was completed with a budget in the millions, and starred A-listers such as Jake Gyllenhaal. When this film was released, though, the killing was still going on, which gives a chilling aspect to it.

Hal Reed
We meet two characters in San Francisco, a mailman named Jerry (Hal Reed, d. 2010) and a balding ladies’ man, Grover (Bob Jones), who is a delivery truck driver. These two guys, as are most of the (non-victim) men portrayed, are macho misogynist morons who have a deep-seated hatred of women, often casually using terms like “dumb broad” and, of course, “bitch.” Sadly, dudes like these who have a fanatical distaste for women and yet seek some kind of need for their attention are still a dime a dozen (hey, one is even the president of the United States). At one point, one older guy comments that he likes women who are “plump, and juicy…and dumb,” and another shouts at a waitress ex-girlfriend (Norma Michaels), “I’m not in the habit of having my broads walk out on me.”

But the men in the story aren’t the only ones here that get a harsh brushstroke, as many of the women come across as man-hungry; usually the more attractive and least dressed, the higher the level of desperation. For example, a woman in a bikini practically drags a character into a random and spontaneous –off-camera – sex act. Another is how many women throw themselves after the obviously bewigged Grover, even though they act surprised and mean-girlish when the toup is blown.

Bob Jones
While the story is occasionally silly – and yet still entertaining – there is actually an interesting mixture of case file reality stirred with unsubstantiated (i.e., made up) killings. But the Zodiac, who is linked to about a dozen known killings, claimed in a letter to have 37 victims at one point. This gives quite the leeway for the story to imagine possibilities.

The identity of the ZK does not come as a surprise in this story, as even though masked, the body type is quite easy to spot. Fortunately, it’s not long before the film makes it clear, so it can get on with the action at hand, and there is a lot of it. The body count is quite high here, even if the caliber of acting is not. There is a lot of hand-wringing type behavior and a lot of angry shouting with face twisting. But that is part of what is enjoyable, too.

We find out before long that ZK is completely looney (here’s one part I assume that is supposed to anger the real Zodiac), believing that those he kills are enslaved to him in a nearly ritualistic, messiah complex way. This is clear in a monologue where he refers to himself as “The Supreme Zodiac.”

A nice touch, on a second viewing, is seeing some things I hadn’t noticed before, such as the link to one of the first killings, and especially of the red herrings, including the motivation for the second couple-killing, which I missed on the first run through. It’s just a few smart touches in a largely ham-fisted script. As filmmaking goes though, despite the heavy-handed story and acting, it is shot quite nicely, and there is a decent level of blood. A stabbing scene is especially effective for its budget and timeframe. This is taken from the last remaining full 35mm print left, which had been blown up from 16mm to show in theaters. What drove me most crazy though is that throughout, ZK never wears gloves and yet touches everything that would certainly be tested for prints. Funny thing is, this bothered me more than the lack of acting chops.

Another amusing thing is that even back then, there is the “Indie Rule of Cameos,” with a brief (probably one day of shooting) appearance by Doodles Weaver (who is credited as Doddles Weaver; d. 1983), as an unlikeable older man.

Towards the end, there is an attempt to “humanize” the ZK just a bit with his having issues about… well, I’m not going to say, but this is most likely another attempt to goad the real Killer. The inner monologue we hear towards the end is most likely meant to do the same.

As with many Blu-rays, there is a sea of extras, which I will unbox, out of sequence. First, there is a series of period-piece trailers that revolve around “Tabloid-Horror Trailers” (such as 1970’s Carnival of Blood, starring Burt Young). There is a 4-minute featurette called “Let’s Get This Guy: The Origin of The Zodiac Killer” (2017), which features interviews with director (and owner of a chain of pizza stores) Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick, who briefly discuss how the motivation for the film came about and its aftermath. This should not be confused with the upcoming “Making Of” documentary called Zodiac Man: The True Story of the Man Who Made a Movie to Catch a Killer, which is due out in 2018 (and will undoubtedly be included on a future release of this film – or vice versa).

Hanson and Nedwick, along with members of “the AGFA Team” show up again in the commentary track. Sadly, Jim Vraney could not be on here since the Something Weird Video (SWV) founder passed away in 2014. Two members of AGFA spend the first 10 interesting (pun not intended) minutes describing their attraction to the SWV brand, and how they partnered with the estate to work on this release. Then they are joined by Hanson and Nedwick (one character in an early part of the film is named for him) who describe working on the film. Despite Hanson’s bad memory, thanks to some careful questioning by the curators, many interesting facts come out about the making of the film. It’s worth the view.

Other extras are that both a Blu-ray and DVD version of, well, everything, in included, and that there is a very nice booklet containing production credits and a print interview with Hanson. The last extra is an entire second film called, Another Son of Sam, reviewed below.

Another Son of Sam
Written, produced, edited and directed by Dave Adams
67 minutes, 1977
I don’t tell people this very often, but I went to high school with the Son of Sam’s final victim, Stacy Moskowitz. I didn’t really know her other than passing her in the hall, as she was in an entirely different social scene than mine (i.e., she was “popular,” and I didn’t have a “group”). It was still a shock, though.

This was filmed just after the Son of Sam reign of terror (but pre-trial) in New York City, though it was shot around Charlotte, NC. If you ask me, despite the title cards listing some then-recent serial killers and their body counts before the opening credits, this tale of a murderer on the loose is not really connected in any way to the infamous .44 Caliber Killer, but rather its title is intended to be a good way to grab an audience, in the same way unconnected movies are given “sequel” names (e.g., House II: The Second Story [sic] in 1987). For the record, its shooting title was Hostages.
To be fair and more accurate, the basic premise is actually closer to Halloween (1978) than anything else, as a silent and deranged man, Harvey, escapes from an insane asylum and then goes on a killing spree. When he holes up in a college, the body count rises. There are a lot of his POV shots, peeking from behind bushes, attacking whoever comes across his path. When one is his psychologist, Dr. Daisy Ellis (Cynthia Stewart), her husband, copper Lt. Claude Setzer (Russ Dubuc) leads the entire police force out on the manhunt.

This is total psychotronic in that it’s a really cheesy film with terrible acting and a not-that-brilliant screenplay, but it is definitely an attention-keeper in its own bizarre way, if you’re into that kind of thing – which I am. There are a lot of meaningless and misleading – yet effective – jump scares.

One of the more intriguing aspects may actually be unintentional: it’s obvious that this print has been through hell over the years, with discoloration and other issues. Through the film, especially in early shots, there are a bunch of freeze frames; it could be that it was stylistic, but I’m guessing more likely the film was damaged so the images were eaten away but the soundtrack was okay. I’m hoping I’m wrong because it’s one of my favorite things about the film.

Some other interesting little bits about the film: (1) There’s some blood, but most of it is seen after the assaults; with one big exception, there’s very little actual violence seen; (2) most of the time we see Harvey, it’s pretty much the same shot of his face from above the mouth up, with shadowy lighting and his caterpillar eyebrows; (3) great period clothing on the cast; and (4) there is a scene filmed at the Treehouse Lounge nightclub (now called the Treehouse Whiskey and Fork) with Tampa Bay-based singer Johnny Charro doing his Elvis-meets-Humperdinck regional hit, “Never Said Goodbye” (which is also heard on a radio station in the film, and again with the end credits).

This is Adams’ only IMDB film credit, and relatively speaking, for the technology and the time period, it’s quite good, in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Sure, it drags a bit here and there, but mostly it’s good fun. If you’re reading this, odds are you understand what you’re getting when the word psychotronic is employed as a descriptor. All y’all enjoy!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: The Glass Coffin (El ataúd de cristal)

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

The Glass Coffin (aka El ataúd de cristal) 
Directed by Haritz Zubillaga
Basque Films; Byp Media; Demeter Films; Life & Pictures;
Morituri; Peccata Minuta; MVD Visual
77 minutes / 2016; 2017

The premise is simple: actress Amanda (the lovely Paola Bontempi) steps into a stretch limousine on her way to get a Lifetime Achievement Award for her 20 years in the business. Through her cell phone, she quickly finds that her husband Saul, is stranded somewhere during a storm and will not make it to the awards dinner. But that is the least of her troubles.

Soon the windows of limo the go black, the doors are locked, the cell phone is jammed, and she is trapped by… well, all you hear is a disguised voice coming from somewhere beyond the hidden front seat. She is told she must do what the disguised voice says or suffer consequences.

While this is a nice story motivation, the requests come across as a bit sexist out of context (i.e., the why), and that it is what actually makes the scene uncomfortable for not only Amanda, but viewers like me. Sort of like how unsensual some sexual films are, such as Irreversible (2002), which are not just uncomfortable to watch, but they are icky because you it’s harder to really justify the action, even if it’s explained (think of 2010’s A Serbian Film, for example). Okay, so they want to degrade the character, I get that, but it’s what is requested more than why. And I’m only a third into the film!

Now, I’m willing to admit that’s partially on me, probably. I mean, going into watching the film, it’s pretty obvious that as Amanda is put into uncomfortable positions (both figuratively and literally), the idea is to make the viewer empathize and feel her discomfort with her. Mission accomplished. At first, she is cynical, and then is angry, but after a while and with good cause, she is cautiously compliant; but you know it’s a bit out of her control, at least for the bulk of the film, as these tend to run. About the end? I ain’t tellin’, because in today’s genre climate, there’s a 50-50 chance of survival or death of the main character.

Thing is, once the big reveal is accomplished, the story really picks up, and the icky factor gets replaced more by tension, which is much better. As Andrea is put through her paces and rules change in various directions, we get more involved rather than just wanting to flinch away, even with knowing the motivation behind the actions.

Naturally, as 90 percent of the film takes place in the confines of the “glass coffin,” i.e., the stretch limo, of course it feels a bit claustrophobic, but rightfully – and I’m sure intentionally – so. That Bontempi is on the screen nearly constantly, being the center of the whole she-bang, also helps. Luckily, she can cannily play a full range of emotions, so you’re not going to get tired of watching her performance, and that she’s attractive doesn’t hurt either, even when covered in bruises and blood.

As a frequent watcher of murder mysteries and even banal television shows, I often pre-guess what is going to happen (my wife and I make a game of it), and so naturally I had my own ideas on how it would turn out, and who was behind it all. There are a couple of red herrings in the first few minutes to lure you away from the truth, but odds are you aren’t going to see it coming… well, I didn’t, so there.

Horror films from Spain have come a long way from the Blind Dead series in the 1970s, but while I would consider this film in that genre, I should also say that it falls equally into the thriller category. That being said, there is a nice level of practical effects gore, but none more than necessary, and what I mean by that is there’s nothing over the top like projectile spurting, just a realistic amount for the actions taken. I admire that.

Considering the confined space, the camera doesn’t move around much as far as actual motion goes, other than a dolly shot occasionally down the length of the stretch limo, but thanks to multiple cameras, the tension of editing works really well. So does the lighting, which constantly shifts colors from blaring white to dusky, dark blue. Most limos these days are “party buses,” so there is a lot of lighting that has been added to the rides. The film successfully takes full advantage of that, so the viewer feels as dazed by it as does Andrea.

Being a film from Spain, you’d be right to assume that it’s in Spanish. Luckily, you don’t have to turn on any captions, as it is already there. While I cannot attest to the accuracy as I don’t speak any other languages than English and Brooklynese, my one complaint is that the lettering is white with just the minimal shade of outer shadow, so when placed over something on the screen that is white, it can be hard to read. Luckily, because so much of the film is in a semi-dark limo, it doesn’t interfere too much. I was able to follow everything with the occasional fill-in-the-blanks.

As for extras, there are none other than chapter breaks, but honestly that’s pretty common for foreign language films, and I’m okay with that.

Despite the initial icky factor, this is an especially strong film that is well supported by Bontempi, which reminded me a bit of a more brutal version of the play/film Deathtrap, especially once we get some footing of the why things are happening rather than just the what. I don’t know if I’ll give this a second viewing, but I am definitely glad I sat through the film. It’s a very razor-sharp piece of filmmaking.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: Fan of the Dead: The Zombie Fan's "Road Trip Movie"

Text and live photos © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Live photos © Robert Barry Francos / 2018
DVD cover from the Internet

Fan of the Dead: The Zombie Fan's "Road Trip Movie"
Directed, produced and written by Nicolas Garreau
Cheezy Flicks, 2008
60 minutes, USD $12.99

I have no memory of where I was when I heard about the killing of Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King, but I know exactly where I was when I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was at the Walker Theater in Brooklyn, during a revival showing in the early ‘70s. During whatever the opening film was, the three tough Bensonhurst guys behind me kept kicking my chair and harassing me; but I refused to move. Then NotLD came on, and by the time it was over, we were all sitting together.

[Karl Hardman, who played Harry Cooper in the first film; he appears in this documentary (d. 2007)]

The director / producer / writer of Fan of the Dead, Nicholas Garreau, is fascinated by all things George A. Romero. We watch as he plans a three-day journey from his home in France, and chronicles his journey to the Pittsburgh area, which is to Romero as Maine is to Stephen King or Baltimore to John Waters. In those short days, he plans to seek out locations that Romero used in his films.

While the main focus of this documentary is the original Romero trilogy of NotLD, Dawn of the Dead (1978) - which Garreau calls by its European name, Zombie - and Day of the Dead (1985), he also seeks out the Night of the Living Dead remake (1999; Romero screenplay) and even one segment of Creepshow (1982). Most likely it was time constraints that kept him from searching for the locations of Martin (1977) and The Crazies (1973), not to mention lack of said zombies.

[Kyra Schon, who was little Karen Cooper in the first film (her character in on the shirt in the background); she appears in this documentary with Karl Hardman, her real father]

Garreau, whose musings to his hand-held camera are translated from French by a narrator, is a true fan-boy, and I use that term affectionately. He is both bemused by what is happening and the people that he meets, and giddy with excitement: in the words of Ed Grimley, – "It's like waking up on Christmas morning and finding an entire fort, y’know."

The chapters are broken up into days, with titles of the films whose locations were visited on that day. Most of this is essentially a road trip as he travels from location to location, and his honest exhilaration is catching. His giddy look at lamp posts, elevator doors, and where houses used to stand, is catching, and you just want to say, bon pour vous. When he finds the now iconic basement from the first film (nowhere near the house indicated in the film), you, the viewer, almost want someone there to high-five.

[Marilyn Eastman was Helen Cooper, and a cameo as the zombie who eats the bug off the tree in the first film]

The centerpiece of the film is a trip to the Pittsburgh Comic Convention, where Garreau interviews some of the actors who played both major and minor roles in the trilogy, and then he goes on a tour of the mall in which the second film is set, let by one of the film’s stars, Ken Foree (who was also excellent in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond, I would like to add). This sightseeing expedition is accompanied by some of the same actors, who narrate for the fans who signed up for the tour (hell, I would have gone). The viewer can tell how much the actors (including Foree and David Emge, two of the four main leads) are enjoying not only the attention from the fans, but getting to share their experiences (e.g., “This spot is where…”). Garreau has obviously made a good impression on them, as they acknowledge him by name more than once.

Garreau’s extensive knowledge of the series is evident as he wanders through graveyards indicating the actions of a scene by the names on the stones which appear in the film. And yes, he does say the line, “They’re coming to get you Barbara” at the appropriate spot, as I’m sure many others have. As I would.

[Make-up artist / actor / director Tom Savini]

I’m just sorry he could not use some of the footage from the films to compare then and now (especially since the first NotLD is out of copyright and readily available), so unless you’re a fan on Garreau’s level, I would recommend viewing at least the three original zombie films (68-85) before watching this. Certainly, I recognized the cemetery and mall that was central to the first two, but I’m less familiar with the third one, so the locations seemed less of a bonus to me (though I intend to re-watch Day of the Dead, and then watch this documentary again. As for the remake of NotLD, well, Romero was the screenplay writer, and it was directed by Tom Savini, so it seems a bit out there, but what do I know?

This is a love letter to George Romero’s work, and both to and for his fans.

The bonus tracks include a photo collection of the trip, and some older psychotronic trailers (such as “Horrors of the Black Museum”), snack intermission shorts, and some regional restaurant ads that were shown in theaters. All fun stuff.

Originally published in

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: Talon Falls

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

Talon Falls
Written and directed by Joshua Shreve
Lost Empire Entertainment; JJ Films; Flashback Pictures; MVD Visual
75 minutes, 2017              

Hey, after all, what is more realistic than reality, am I right?

Within the first 10 minutes, if you’re truly a genre fan, you know where the story is going, how it’s going to get there, and where it’s going to end, thanks to a helpful prologue. Of course, the question is, what’s a-gonna happen between those bookends, once they get there. That is the meat off the matter.

The “they” is two couples (usually it’s three to add the body count, but the filmmakers managed to figure out how to work their way around that very nicely). Among the first couple is Lyndsey (Morgan Wiggins), the sensible one who does not want to venture out of the way, though she initially comes across as kinda standoffish. Her boyfriend is Sean (Ryan Rudolph), who is leaning towards unlikeable due to the way he ignores Lyndsey. The other couple is the hot Ryder (Ryan Rudolph, aka Roller Derby Queen Black and Blue Jay), who is out for some fun (understandable), and her love interest is Lance, the macho moron of the bunch (his backwards, sparkling white baseball cap is surely an indicator). He is a hyper, macho, privileged white male and has no problem expressing it; in other words he’s the one you are really hoping will die.

The fetching foursome – college students is my guess though the they are referred to as “teenagers” in the description – are on a trip from Nashville to a place in Kentucky called Goreville (wait…what?) and get sidetracked after seeing a sign at a gas station run by a very loud speaking good ol’ boy (Evan Miller). Now, in these situations, pay attention to the guy you meet at the gas station before the whatever happens, as you can usually tell by the age whether he’s a “good” or “bad” guy: the old crazy coots are those who warn the travelers (“You kids better not go there!”), the younger kooks are more the ones who direct the action (“I know a great place for y’all to check out!”).

Where our protagonists are led to a “haunted house” themed place called, of course, Talon Park.  Once they get there, it’s at an actual crowded theme park, but they have been singled out by… well, I won’t say who though it’s a given in the storyline. They are ushered through the line and separated from the herd by sliding doors and walls. As they roam around (and of course get separated), they all slowly come to find out that not everything is what it seems, and that they are in for the Hostel experience.

I’ll stop there story-wise, as this is merely the set up that is obvious. It’s at this point things break out into its own until the end, and I don’t want to give it away. Amid all the clichés that bookend the main thrust which starts, yes, at about 20 minutes in, to take on its own and twisted path. In other words, it begins to get really interesting. Unlike other films that tend to start at 20 minutes, there’s enough to keep you watching from the beginning, even though flush with clichés, but don’t be lulled into the belief there’s nothing original here.

Evan Miller
This story is, if I may pontificate for a moment, a good glimpse into American culture, where the women are instinctively aware that there is something wrong in a bigly way, and the dudes just will – not – listen because they are so sure they are right. I find this to be true a lot. If your girlfriend is saying don’t go there, my friend, you should not go there. Not just in the pictures, but in life. Get off your frickin’ macho horse and listen, even if you don’t agree with it right off. I find, in my life, when my partner says something, I think through it rather than just being dismissive. Trust her spidey-sense; it could save your life, especially in a genre flick! But I digress…

If you’ve ever been to a “haunted house” (no, I have not and have no interest; my love of horror exists in the screen, not in a live dimension), from what I understand, the best ones are those that are pretty realistic. That is what this film is playing on. Of course, it helps that it was filmed at the real Talon Falls Screampark in Melber, KY. It was a smart idea to play with the how realistic do you really want it? notion, so that those observing what is actually happening assume it is part of the oeuvre of the place.

As the story unfolds, it gets more intense, more realistic, more snuff-like, and pretty damn close to touching the hem of torture porn. But what takes it beyond into the Meta is having ticketholders watching what is happening to our poor travelers through glass windows, now subjects of the grand experiment. My guess is that this was filmed in the rooms actually used for the screampark, but what I ponder is whether the people who are observing through the windows really watching them make the movie are extras who are placed there by the filmmakers, or paying screampark customers. What I mean is, are the audiences watching aware of what is really happening to the trapped, thinking it’s part of the park’s action? Other than the protagonists early on, you see the patron window viewers only through said window, from where those in peril can see them. Quite the Catch-22, and I applaud the filmmakers for that. Honestly, I don’t need to know definitively, but that question got my attention.

I’m not quite positive when this is actually supposed to take place on the calendar, as. cell phones are minimal, VHS tapes are prevalent, and all the cathode monitors are black-and-white rather than High-Def. We see that the VHSs are dated along the first decade of the 21 Century, the latest being 2010, but wasn’t DVDs big by then (they were introduced in the US in 1997), or is it that the technology just hadn’t caught up to that part of the Blue Grass State yet? Y’know, in the scheme of things, that’s not an important detail.

Torture scenes are wisely broken up with other parts of the concurrent story, which is also at high tension, so we don’t overdose or numb out on the pain a character is feeling as a constant stream (or scream). Going against logic, by cutting away from one action and flipping back and forth to another, the story manages to keep both streams taut rather than dissipating it; it’s good writing.

The gore is extremely well done and there’s plenty of it, and is not for the squeamish (though odds are if you’re reading this, you’re probably beyond that). Also, considering that many in the film have only this for their IMDB credits, there is a load of decent acting here, and I’m looking forward to seeing the cast in more.

Tim McCain
For me, the biggest flaws (and nearly every film has at least one) are as follows: first, the film is too damn dark. It looks like there is some kind of filter on the lens, sometimes with a dark blue hue (day-for-night, perhaps?), that occasionally interferes with the action (but none of the more gory bits) – not enough to totally obscure, but you may want to watch this in a darker room to make a better contrast for the screen. The only other thing is that while the masked villain (Tim McCain) is great at being threatening, considering some of the injuries he acquires it does not seem reasonable for him to be at 100%, no matter what his size.

Other than the trailer, the only extra is a fun 10-minute Behind the Scenes featurette. It has no narrative theme, just a jumble of bloopers, some brief in-process interviews (such as while make-up being applied), and showing that the cast and crew got along real well. It’s an enjoyable piece of fluff that doesn’t really push the film any, but I still recommend the viewing because it gives some personality to actors behind the characters.

To sum it all up: as I said, you know how the ride starts on a nice and even track, and it’s pretty darn easy to predict how it’s going to end, but the hour in the middle is definitely a super-express terror ride that’s worth the time and the price of admission.

As for the real Talon Falls Screampark? Nah, won’t see ya there, but if you like haunted house amusements, it does look like it’s a non-stop adventure.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review: Devil’s Domain

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

Devil’s Domain
Written and directed by Jared Cohn
Cleopatra Productions / MVD Visual
93 minutes, 2016 / 2017

Beyond the bulimia, it feels eerily like the opening shots of the film were geared towards me. On a walls and doors are a number of LPs covers, including the UK Subs, the Vibrators, Iggy Pop, Nico, and pictures of the New York Dolls, Sid Viscous and Johnny Ramone. Also present are some colored vinyl LPs tacked here and there. Despite the vinyl and related material, I would say this takes place in the “present,” which enlivens Marshall McLuhan’s statement that when a technology becomes obsolete, it comes back as art.

Madi Vodane
Our main protagonist, Lisa (Madi Vodane), is a burgeoning but closeted and in denial sister of Lesbos, who mistakenly misread some signals from her bestie, Rhonda (Brenna Tucker) which has led to her becoming a pariah among her ex-peers in high school. And for that rare moment, most of the actors could pass for the older edge of that age group.

She takes her anger and frustration out through binge eating and forced puking, and, well, taking matters into her own hands. Unfortunately, thanks to an ex-friend and scuzbucket Andrew (Zack Koslow), she’s now being harassed online and cyberbullied. Now what’s the best way to deal with this kind of emotional pain? Well if you’re a genre fan, make a deal with the lovely woman (Linda Bella) who is, (super)naturally, the devil. As a side note, why does Satan often introduce itself in films lately as “I am known by many names”? Perhaps this could be called Lisa and the Devil II, and if so, where’s Elke Sommers? Okay, I both digress and kid…

While her well-meaning step-dad (Michael Masden) tries to be there for her (good luck when you’re a big, tattooed dude dealing with a teen step-girl), Lisa’s mom (the excellent Kelly Erin Decker) is less forgiving and wants to dump her in a rehab somewhere, though it’s hard to tell if it’s for the bulimia or for lesbianism – or both.

Linda Bella
The very tall and very lanky Destiny, aka the Debbil, is much more accommodating, since it’s what Beelzebub (not to be confused with the director Bill Zebub) does until either the contract is in effect, or does not get what it wants. Or in this case, of course, it is both.

This film is interesting from a media theorist’s perspective, especially if you’ve ever read any of social critic (don’t call him a social scientist!), Neil Postman. Almost omnipresent in the film is both media technology and what is now being called new media. The world here revolves around cell phones, websites, mini-cameras, digital flatscreen televisions, and there’s a shout-out to Snapchat. Postman infamously said that technology is a bargain with the devil, because while you get good things out of it, there is inevitably a dark side of things that you lose, most of them unpredictable until later. Cyberbullying is a good example of that.

On many levels, the story is quite bread-and-butter, nuts-and-bolts, and any other cliché expression you may want to add. What I mean is that it’s simple and to the point, which is part of what makes it so enjoyable. This is the third Cohn film I’ve seen, and while they varied in my feelings about them, this is by far my fave. Now he makes a lot of films, and three is half of how many he usually makes a year, but I’ll go with what I know, and enjoying it is, well, what I know.

Michael Masden
The cast hits the notes necessary for the story, with New Zealand newcomer Vodane definitely hitting all her marks, as does just about the rest of the cast. Sure Masden looks a bit like he’s stunned here and there, but something that’s been generally true for a while; I really like the guy, but I wonder what happened to him that made his career end up in micro-budget indies. Desanka Julia Ilic also is in fine form as Kate, leader of the mean girls.

There isn’t much in the way of nudity or sex, though much is implied and shown off-camera with one exception, but I’m totally fine with that. Though it does make me wonder about how I didn’t get to go to a school where everyone, female and male, are attractive. I mean, they call Lisa “fat ass,” but in my Brooklyn school, she would definitely have been one of the elite.

The Devil costume looks interesting, and the gore throughout is well handled and has a nice texture to it. What I mean by that is it is not necessarily too realistic: bones and sinew are fine for more intense films like torture stuff or heavy dramas, but when it comes to a fun flick like this one, despite quite effective moments of tension, having a red gooey mess is perfectly good (and more marketable… I’m just sayin’).

The first extra is the commentary track handled singularly by the director, Cohn. To be totally honest, it’s a mess, don’t bother. He sounds like he’s totally drunk, slurring his words and more often than not, just saying what’s on the screen (to paraphrase: “She’s opening the door now [pause] going inside.”). He mentions “white sky,” whatever that is, more than once; I assume he means it’s sunny and cloudless. There are a couple of interesting bits of stories here and there, but I got annoyed enough to turn it off at the 29 minute mark.

“The Devil Made Me Do It” is a 6:15-minute Behind the Scenes featurette. It’s decent, and kept the interest level up. It’s mostly interviews and overviews of the filming. There’s nothing explosive, but it’s certainly not dull. Next up is an 8-minute Red Carpet Premiere bit with interviews containing most of the cast and the director (in his normal voice) that that is more interesting, as well as a 42-picture slide show that includes a mix of film stills and behind the scenes shots. Last is the trailer, which I find interesting that it focuses in on cyberbullying more than the demon at hand, and I think that works for the piece.

What I learned from the extras is that the seed of the story came from Cleopatra Records, who owns all the music in the picture (including Iggy and the Stooges) and asked Cohn to write a film about cyberbullying. While that was achieved, he took it to another level by adding in the reliance on technology and the fascination with fame that so many teens have nowadays thanks to the rise of instant-viral videos. There is also a nod to peer pressure, as Lisa’s ex-friends Andrew and Rhonda prove they will do just about anything to fit in with the cool crowd. I remember thinking at the time that Andrew would be called nerdish in my school, but he is obviously being manipulated without realizing it, and his moment of rue shows that he is becoming conscious of it.

So, to sum up, with lots to chew on in a peripheral and sociological way, the basic story is one you can watch that is pretty straightforward, but the subtle cultural messages are actually enjoyable rather than getting in the way. Nice job.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Night Zero

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

Night Zero
Written and directed by Mark Cantu
Lost Empire; Cineworx; Tredd Productions;//; Dreaming Droids Productions
81 minutes, 2017

First of all, right off the cudgel let me posit that Night Zero is a great title. For those who don’t know, when the word “zero” follows a noun, it usually means “where the destruction began,” such as the first known to die of AIDS being called “Patient Zero.”

As the prologue shows, there is some kind of explosion that releases a chemical gas – it’s ambiguous by whom – with a toxin that increases the person’s rage, and also takes away all inhibitions. Thereby, the infected becomes extremely angry and violent without the compulsion of socially constructed guilt. One might think from the trailer that this is yet another zombie movie, but rather it’s more insanity with the blood lust, without the need to consume said blood or body parts. Just Me Smash!

Dawnelle Jewell, Monisha B. Schwartz, Katie Maloney
For the meat of the film, we are introduced to three couples who come together to celebrate the moving away of Sophie (Dawnelle Jewell) and Eric (Vincent Bombara) from a small-ish town in Pennsylvania (more on that in a sec) to Boston. Joining them are interracial couple Monica (the fabulously monikered Monisha B. Schwartz) and Danny (Umar Faraz), and the two main protagonists who are on the verge of separation, Nina (Katie Maloney) and CJ (Eric Swader).

For the first 20 minutes or so, we get to hang out with these three pairs, as they talk, argue, talk, argue, celebrate, and then talk some more. For an action film, there is a lot of conversation at the onset, but I have come to believe that when cinema historians look back on the horror genre of this period, they will come to the conclusion that the first 20 minutes of most films is basically lead-up time and exposition.

This all takes place in a burg about 20 miles away from Pittsburgh (actually filmed an hour south of Steel City). Of course, Pittsburgh is a touchstone town for this kind of story as most of the …of the (Living) Deads took place in that area, thanks to the godfather of the modern zombie and violently looney genres, George A. Romero.

There are many film references and hallmarks that are reminiscent of others that came before. Let’s start with the local, mainly being the trapped in the house as the infected try to get in of Night of the Living Dead (1968), and the diseased violence of the Crazies (1973). But here, those effected by the gas can run (though we don’t see much of that), such as in 28 Days Later… (2002). Like 28 Days, neither that nor this is a zombie film per se, but rather both pertain to a disease or infection, and this is certainly closer to 28 Days than to NotLD. There is also the cabin-in-the-woods claustrophobic feel and fear of Cabin Fever (2002), and the last is the slow, inevitability of On the Beach (1959).

Eric Swader and Umar Faraz
Especially once the film gets on its hind legs, there is a lot to like about it. For example, whether you like them or not, the main characters feel like real people; they make good or bad choices, but mostly it feels realistic, such as Monica wanting to go home even though there is extreme danger in the streets and a greater possibility of absorption of the gas. They also turn on each other out of fear, even after years of friendship, which also feels accurate to me. But on a more subtle note, the audience begins to wonder about how much of the anger this group exhibits among itself is the onset of the toxin, or just righteous indignation and anxiety.

What especially impressed me was that while the cast is certainly attractive, they also have more of an everyday look, rather than as if their second jobs are models. For example, while low on role credits in IMDB, Maloney would be more believable to me as Tonya Harding in the new film, I Tonya, than poster queen Margot Robbie (plus, I believe Maloney would do a great job of it).

Writer (and director) Mark Cantu wisely adds two characters later on: a cop (Mike Dargatis) and a scienist (in this case, the ironically named Tom Mirth), who both help with exposition and to be the connection to what is happening beyond the door – which is locked, but never barred, even with all the glass.

Going against the grain, I’m guessing in part due to direction and budget constraints, this is more of a thriller than a gorefest, into which it could easily have waded. There is some violence, and there are spurts of the salty red stuff, but it’s kept at a minimum and is not a key part of the zestiest. It’s more about how the characters interact with each other and their situation that is the locus focus.

For me, the one flaw is that the protagonists are trying to avoid being seen by whomever is out there, yet walk around with flashlights on making themselves targets. Me? I would turn off all the lights to avoid attraction, but they’re swinging the huge torches around, even when not needed, such as waking through the center of town.

Despite the budget and a few of the actors with limited credits, the cast is quite strong and work together well. With a mixture of good writing, editing that isn’t in hyper speed, and a wise use of the unseen (such as being able to hear the screams and sirens from outside with needing to drive the audience into it), Cantu comes up with a film that is subtle and one that becomes more interesting as time passes over its single night.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Effects

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

Directed by Dusty Nelson
AGFA / Something Weird Video / Bududa Inc. / MVD Visual
84 minutes, 1980 / 2005 / 2017

So-called snuff films became a focus in American culture during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, in large part, for two reasons. The first was due to some pretty bad films such as Snuff (1975), which supposedly had a real snuff scene at the end (any seasoned SFX fan could see that it was fake), and the Faces of Death series (which was also bogus when concerning humans). The other was the rising video boom that was desperately in need for film fodder for fans, and would take anything they could find and put it out there in the exploding video store market. Snuff, a film that probably would have easily passed into the mire of bad cinema along with the Face of Death, found new life and became shocking sensations that made national news.

This led to a series of “realistic” releases trying to ride the wave. Hell, no one would have probably even heard the word “snuff” if it weren’t for those reasons. But it did lead us to Dusty Nelson’s film, Effects. Thanks to a revival of the VHS craze from that period, which has now passed into the nostalgia phase, companies like American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) are putting out hi-def, Blu-ray versions of these very same films. In this case, thanks to distribution and legal issues, this film was not actually released until 2005 on DVD, and now this Blu-ray from a rare print (more on the quality later). Thing is, as bad as some of these releases are, I’m glad they are given new – err – life.

Joseph Pilato, Tom Savini
Essentially, in a convoluted way, the film plays with the notions of what is real, what is pretend, and what happens when they mix in the world of film (although there are some moments that seem like it’s television). This is what is facing the dating couple of special effects expert/cameraman Dom (Joseph Pilato) and actress Celeste (Susan Chapek); they – and others – are caught in a web of confusion, like the audience. How will this effect the director, Lacey (John Harrison), fellow actors Barney (Bernard McKenna), Rita (Debra Gordon) and Nicky (SFX wizard Tom Savini in one of his early acting roles)? The big question, however, appears to be how far would/should/could one go to make a film?

Though I’m certain they were just trying to keep current, it’s interesting to me how many then-current cultural signifiers they use throughout the film, such as someone playing the electronic game Simon, or all the drug references (e.g., lines of coke and Maryjane). Then there’s the clothing, such as the common place jeans-and-tees (with images like The Rocky Horror Picture Show logo from 1977). There are other small touchstones, similar to a take-off of the Bill Saluga classic, “You doesn’thave to call me Johnson” bit.  There are more references in here than in a Family Guy episode. Heck, there’s even a bit of a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Susan Chapek
Speaking of the “looks of then,” it’s amazing how the look and pacing of the film is like porn films of the period. Yeah, there’s a couple of (female) nudie scenes, such as the then-obligatory and totally unnecessary-to-the-story shower scene that opens up the pic, but nothing that would really qualify as even softcore. And yet, the feel of the film, the pacing, acting and ambiance screams late ‘70s adult cinema.

That being said, much of the cast and crew are part of the Pittsburgh area film group, which included George A. Romero (RIP). Many of the cast and crew were in front or behind (or both) the camera on numerous Romero releases. In fact, one of the lead actors, Pilato, would play a pivotal role (and have an iconic scene) in Day of the Dead (1985).

Filmed in a pre-MTV period, by the standards of even a couple of years later, the camera is quite static, with long shots and dialogue that keeps the story at a steady pace, as we get to know, although not necessarily like (which is the point), most of the main characters. The camera pretty much sits there, or just lazily cuts from character to character.

Debra Gordon (Bernard McKenna in mirror)
Along with the languid pace until the last 15 minutes, even though there are some decent moments of tension throughout, the film bleeds out rather than spurts. I wish the story was a bit clearer as it was happening, but even with all the character build-up, there isn’t much to connect to with hardly anyone. This is not helped by the very grainy visuals (shot in 16mm) and spotty sound, but I’m glad to have had a chance to see this almost-lost piece of cinema history from a very specific period of time.

The first extra is the 59-minutes documentary After Effects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking (2005; Red Shirt Pictures), directed by Michael Felsher, in which Felsher interviews the cast and crew 27 years later in Los Angeles. The arc is how the director and his team first got into making indie films (then called guerilla filmmaking) including and documentaries and commercials, and grew into raising the funds and gathering all the threads with enough cojones to make Effects. Also featured and interviewed is the late, great Romero (d. 2017). There are also some cleaned-up clips both visually and audibly from the film that I wish had been the whole film proper. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of watching this long featurette because I thought I was going to be bored by it for the hour, but it’s actually quite well done and kept my interest throughout. There is an additional After Effects full-length commentary with the director. Much of the talking is about the distribution deal that squashed the original film, and how it eventually came out. It’s also the link between Effects and After Effects. Not overly exciting stuff, honestly, but somewhat interesting in its historical perspective. To be truthful, I made it through about the first 20 minutes.

Next up are two rare shorts. The first is the 12-minute Ubu (1973), an experimental picture directed by John Harrison, who plays the director in Effects. He actually has a few really nice credits under his belt, including the 2000 mini-series version of Dune. Here, we meet the titular Ubu, who is the tyrant of a Dark Ages version of Poland (or, as the marionette narrator states, “that is to say, nowhere”). It’s definitely a piece for its time, in a period of paranoia about the Nixon Administration. This is followed by Dusty Nelson’s 15-minute Beastie. Chris (Paula Swart) is hitchhiking and gets picked up by George (Steve Pearson). They instantly start a relationship, and we follow it until… well, I’ll not give it away. It’s also a story of its generation, which seems to be just-post-hippie.

Last up is the 2005 full-length commentary with Nelson, Harrison and Pasquale Buba, who all make up the production company, Bududa Inc. It’s a quite decent combination of technical matters, anecdotes and intentions. They work really well together, and it shows in the way they respectfully let each other finish their own bits, such as positing what the film is actually about: “…What’s real and what’s not, and if you don’t know the difference, does it matter?” Even though it’s hard to tell who is telling what story, it really isn’t important because it’s the content of the tale that matters. It was interesting throughout.

In some ways Effects reminds me of Maniac (also 1980, and name checked in one form or another in the documentary sides, which is not surprising considering Savini also worked on that one), which also had an appearance and – err – effects by Savini. I would recommend any fan of the VHS or Pittsburgh film school to see Effects, because it is an important piece of work, even with its occasional wonkiness.