Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review: Pig Pen

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

Pig Pen
Directed by Jason Koch        
Dire Wit Films / Lost Empire Films / MVD Visual
85 minutes, 2016 / 2017

One of the better things some torture films have brought into the sphere of genre films is a new neo-realism that harkens back to the time of Rossolini, Passolini, and all the other –olinis (i.e., other filmmakers in the style). The Italian neo-realism of the 1960s and ‘70s brought life situations to the audience, with all its blemishes and horrors in a matter-of-fact way.

Recently, there have been a series of gritty, realistic (relatively, hence the “neo-“) stories that are there to disturb more than distress, such as the ones by Dakota Bailey (e.g., 2017’s American Scumbags). I mean, this isn’t really new, as we’ve seen it before in films like Suburbia (1984), Scorsese‘s Mean Streets (1973), or even The Day of the Locust (1975; where Donald Sutherland played Homer Simpson, but I digress…). The difference is that of late, realism has faded away into the static camera of torture porn which is less about story than effects; realism is just the opposite, even with its level of gruesomeness.

Lucas Koch
I didn’t really have any expectation about this film, so its level of initial low-key grittiness took me by surprise, which doesn’t happen very often these days. Here, Zack’s (Lucas Koch) world is one of dysfunction. The tall and lanky13-year-old stoic skater, whose school nickname is Pig Pen, lives in a home where nothing gets cleaned and supper consists of cold cereal mixed with water. His mother, Sandy (Nicolette Le Faye), is zoned out on booze and pills, and her new, abusive “entrepreneur” boyfriend Wayne (Vito Trigo, who sports a strange facial hair style) pimps her out and sells drugs. Wayne is so narcissist that he has his own name tattooed on his neck. Things aren’t going too well for Zack and the future looks as bleak as his present life. Between the occasional huffing and probably PTSD, who wouldn’t be stoic just to survive?

Insisting that Zack bring in some money, such as by doing what the guys on the corner do for cash, the boy is thrown to the streets, where we watch as he learns to survive amid desperation, stealing and violence.

As a nice move, Koch edits in flashback scenes throughout that lead up to the present, as we see how life has spiraled out of control step by step. Of course, the past catches up in an explosion, after he gets some dough through an act of violence, and is met by an even larger one at home.

This film doesn’t pull any punches. It gives a realistic feel of the dangers of living on the street, including gangs and perverts; a much-muted version of this kind of life was presented in the Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks (1991). But Zack isn’t like other boys his age. His moral compass has already been turned up this side of Sunday, and he isn’t beyond thievery even before the Wayne hits the fan.

Nicolette Le Faye
In some ways, which I won’t go into in too much detail, Zack and Wayne have some traits in common, just the extreme is different, at least at the start. Perhaps it’s brain damage from the glue sniffing or seeing his mother abused, or perhaps he’s just high-functioning nuts, but he is both walking around like he’s in a state of constant shock while he’s also waging and absorbing information, and how to work it to his own advantage. He seems to have no qualms eating out of a dumpster, or sleeping in odd places. His adjustment skills are stunning for someone his age.

Like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Straw Dogs (1971), Zack is kind of a stranger in a strange land, and when finally pushed to shove, he is a survivor and will fight for his life no matter what it takes. When dealing with Wayne and his troupe, to paraphrase Generation X’s “Your Generation,” it’s “gonna take a lot of violence…but he’s gotta take that chance.”

This is an intense film right from the start, and it just keeps building right until the very end. Its sheer level of violence – everyday kind of violence to the extreme level, meaning the story begets the violence rather than the other way around, as in most films of this type. That is where the neo-realism comes in: it’s realistic, but takes a step beyond that into a fictional realism, if that oxymoron makes any sense.

It really is a horribly beautiful film. The editing, the lighting, the camerawork is all spot on. It doesn’t hug the action (that’s not to say there aren’t some close-ups), but rather presents it as Zack sees it. We see everything the same time he does, i.e., he’s in just about every shot. I’m not sure how old Lucas is in real life – I’m guessing somewhat older than his character – but as a performer he plays stoicism pretty well, rarely letting the viewer get lost in the acting. Similarly, Le Faye strikes a delicate balance in being sympathetic as both a dreamer and a lost cause. The viewer is both horrified at her actions, and also her inactions. To me, she is the most realistic in being caught between wanting to do good, pining hope on the hopeless, and feeling trapped. I see women who have gone through this nearly day, and have decided to take the step of separation from an abuser that Sandy does not.

Vito Trigo
As for Trigo, if he can make us uncomfortable while his face is being hugged by that shaved raccoon on his face that seems right out of the Dirk character from She Kills (2016), that says talent. Seriously, he comes across as fierce in an early Harvey Keitel kind of way. He takes a ridiculously looking role and still made us fearful and him fearless, and that’s good acting. At least, I hope it is…

If you’ve ever seen Koch’s first film, 7th Day (2013) – or, if you’re like me and have seen the trailer – you know how effective his SFX company’s work is, and it’s no surprise that the application work is top notch. With the exception of the fact that there would have been a lot more blood in the situation presented (no, not gonna give it away), it looks spectacular. It also isn’t overdone, which is a nice choice for Koch, considering this is only his second feature.

If you’re in for a good story with some excellent writing and acting to back it up, tension that is palpable in a building crescendo, and some way-above standard physical effects, this will be a good direction to go.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Review: Elite

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

Directed by Mark Cantu      
Live Wire Films / Lost Empire Films / MVD Visual
90 minutes, 2017

It’s not often I get to review a straight-out action film with no horror involved, so I was glad to get the opportunity with this military crime drama focusing on drug dealing gangs, and specifically the take-down of a drug lord from down South of the Border. Yes, this is a potential Trump wet dream where the bad guy is from Meh-hee-ko (a bad hombre), and it’s the special forces of the United States that is out to take him down.

Allison Gregory
Most action films of this type follow an almost regimented formula (at least until the reveal), and this one is no exception. After a prolog about a mission gone bad where the good guys lose, we pick up the story two years later with a new Naval Covert Ops Command Special Agent and “registered Republican,” Abbey Vaughn (the square-jawed Allison Gregory, rocking a Frances McDormand-meets-Erin R. Ryan look), who is brings retired Bourne-level super-agent Sam Harrigan (Jason Scarborough) out of retirement. He’s grumpy, he’s drunk, he’s sequestered himself in some far off locale in rural Texas, and he has a beard. Of course, he doesn’t want to come back, but events get him to shave his head and he’s back on point to take down the drug lord and his minions. This is a trope that has been overused a bit much, but it gets you to the point of action. And, being an action film, that’s the point, right?

Right off the bat, Vaughn shows herself to be a bit of an amateur (she’s no Clarice Starling), such as entering a bad-guy bar solo, without back-up. Whenever I see this done on a TV show, where the lone cop/good guy runs into a situation where they should just wait until back-up arrives, I think, “This character is an ass, and deserves to die.” But they don’t. Vaughn seems to get roughed up or threatened somewhat regularly early on (and it’s not hard to predict her family will be probably be put in danger at some point...I write this 17 minutes into the film, so I don’t know for certain yet). She’s gonna need big strong man Harrigan to rescue her, or at least be a mentor. You can tell this was written by dudes (Cantu and Scarborough) right off. I’m waiting for the mansplaining (it comes in at 50 minutes, FYI, but it’s acknowledged and tempered in a somewhat positive light, or possibly even mocked).

Also, just because Harrigan is the star (and co-writer), even though Vaughn’s name come first in the credits, it seems pretty ridiculous that for most of the film he’s the only one who can take care of himself. I mean, there is Vaughn and another (African-American male…from Brooklyn yet) agent (Shawn Brooks) who cower under a table while Harrigan takes care of a bunch of knife and gun-tottin’ thugs himself. This is a bit too Seagal / Van Damme / Rambo egocentric without the star power to back it up, in my opinion. More on this later.

What I also fine disconcerting is the weaponry and its use. Everyone has a gun, that’s no surprise, being law enforcement vs. drug gang (never mind that it’s Texas), but nearly all the firepower is hand guns, especially in the first two-thirds of the film. Drug cartels and enforcers would most likely have high powered assault rifles that fire multiple rounds per second, not bam…bam…bam. On top of that, nobody seems to hit very much (people or, say speeding away cars), so there is very little collateral damage, even from a couple of feet away. This is a bit of a throwback to the Schwarzenegger days where he would stand in the middle of a room with dozens of people firing at him, and he would kill with every shot while none hit him. Here, even Harrigan’s (and Vaughn’s) guns tend to miss, despite multiple rounds. And yet he tries to tell Vaughn how to shoot though she’s supposedly a marksperson. The feminist side of me is getting grumpy.

Jason Scarborough
I was trying to figure out the political stance of the film. While it’s quite heteronormative, at the same time there are some swipes at conservative politicians, but also seems to fall in line with the present administration’s attitudes about “bad” people coming from Mexico and the belief that they bring crime with them (or the desire to do so). Perhaps it’s my own prejudice that sees that, being suspicious as this is from (and filmed in) San Antonio, Texas. I’m not sure, but I can easily see both sides of the liberal/conservative spectrum either questioning some parts of this, or agreeing with others.

One of the enforcers for the cartel is played by WWE-wrestler Mike Dell, who is also known as Dr. Corbett. He handily kills people with his bare hands. You know at some point, as this is the paradigm they are following, he is going to cross fists with Harrigan. Even before it happens, I’m going to guess that Harrigan starts by losing, and then wins. Won’t say if it’s true or not, you’ll have to watch for yourself.

Towards the end of the film, Vaughn becomes stronger after a personal loss, and ends up mostly being able to handle herself. However, there is one other core character I would like to talk about at this point, a cyber babe named Jazz (Ione Europa Rousseau) who is sort of a more punk version of the Abby Sciuto character from NCIS. At first they have her playing the doofy Joe Pesci role from Lethal Weapon 2 (etc.), even giving her the “Do I get a badge/gun?” lines, but she is my favorite here, and proves that she can kick frickin’ ass. I want to see a film of just the background story of her character. Jazz is arguably by far the most interesting and nuanced one here. Other standouts are Jason Lee Boyson as capo Guapo; his being a stand-up comic certainly helps with his line delivery, and James C. Leary as Benedict (who was a semi-regular on the later-seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer under tons of make-up).

Generally, the acting is decent, and when actually connecting, the kills look pretty good. Most of the hand fights are pretty good (the villains are usually MMA fighters in their non-film lives), especially Mills, who comes across as quiet and intense, stealing the camera’s view whenever he’s onscreen.

One of the things I appreciate is that while a lot of the film’s story is formulaic, the expected double crosses actually worked really well (that they happen, not who they are), and even though I wondered about it at some point, it still managed to take me a bit by surprise because I was expecting it to be one of two people, and it was neither.

Other than three enjoyable trailers from LWF, the only extra is a full-length commentary with Cantu, Scarborough, and Gregory that while not brilliant, is chock full of information about the creation of the story, certain scenes, and fun anecdotes. It’s the bad jokes and the occasional talking-over that puts a slight damper on it. Still, I would recommend the listen if you enjoy the film.

Despite it all, this is actually a decent watch for this genre, either in spite of or because of it being formulaic. The story may have holes, but the basic premise works due to it following so close to the rules. Hell, it actually makes more sense than most of anything with Seagal or Van Damme, which are just ego pieces. This can’t rely on that, so it needs to be a bit stronger, and it is that. For a straight-out action film, the skin is more important than the bones, meaning that the action/what you see, trumps out the basic story/structure. This fits the menu quite well for a nice fast paced, fast food film.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: Easter Sunday

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

Easter Sunday                                                                                              
Written and directed by Jeremy Todd Morehead
Northgate Pictures / Camp Motion Pictures / MVD Visual
93 minutes, 2014 / 2017

Holidays have been the focus of horror films – especially slasher ones – at least since the original Halloween in 1978, though one could easily also go back to the likes of the 1972 anthological film Tales From the Crypt, where one segment had a manic in a Santa suit terrorizing Joan Collins (based on a comic book short from the early 1950s).

The Bunny Man
For a long time, one of the holidays that seemingly passed over was Easter, the joyous celebration of the death and rebirth of you-know-who. But that has changed, and the story has had a number of recent releases, including ZombieChrist (2010), but it often seems the evil villain is a variation of the Easter Bunny (shades of 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail), such as in Easter Casket (2013), Easter Bunny Bloodbath (2010), Bunnyman (2011; first of a trilogy), The Night Before Easter (2014), and now Easter Sunday. Usually it’s a person dressed in a fully bunny outfit, but in this case, The Bunny Man wears just a magic Papier-Mache mask whose eyes glow when the killin’ begins.

This film plays a lot with genre tropes, such as the prologue killing spree which takes place 24 years before the main part of the story, but this is such an insaniac vision of a slasher film, it’s not surprising that (a) while touching on paradigms, it’s more like a rock skipping on the water than wading, and (b) there is just bat-shit crazy WTF stuff going on all the time that has nothing to do with anything you would expect. For example, there is a part in the beginning where this looks like it may become “found footage,” but it’s more an acknowledgement than a full-length trend (thankfully).

Robert Z'Dar
In the opening, we meet the Bunny Killer as he creates and then dons his mask, develops a very high pitched voice who’s puns smack of the Kruger. He goes on a killing spree, finally being stopped by a local cop, played by C-film legend Robert Z’Dar (d. 2015). Just about a decade later, we meet our hapless heroes, a(n approximately) mid-20’s group of..well, I’m gonna say high-functioning mentally challenged friends. The guys are in a pretty awful rock band, and the more sane of the collective, somewhat, are their girlfriends. The leader/singer is Jeremiah (director Morehead), and his girlfriend is the very cute Amber (Anne Morehead, the director’s spouse in real-life).

One of the band members, Ryan (Jason Delgado, the co-producer on the film) has a deep secret that comes out pretty early when they use a sorta Ouija board to raise the evil spirit of the Bunny Man. Of course, things go from bad to worse. While I’m at this point, I’d like to note that this is this collective’s first film, and so not only does the cast act, write and produce, but also does the hands-on work, making this a talent showcase in the classic idea of “Let’s put on a show!!” I actually applaud this attitude, when it works. Does this? Well, that may depend on to whom you talk.

The reason I say that is that the comedy here is quiiiiiite broad, with some jokes working better than others, and this kinda tickles some funnybones, while other people may be turned off by the style. For me, it was a mixed bag, and there were some bits I thought were hysterical (such as the burrito in the refrigerator gag); others kind of fell flat (e.g., the comment, “What the fuck! And your breath is really bad!”).

Jeremy Morehead
There are also some interesting inside jokes, such as Jeremiah waking up and stating, “Why was I dreaming of Shawn C. Phillips!?” (this made me smile, FYI). Another is the reincarnated Bunny Man saying to Z’Dar, “You must be some kind of Manic Cop to try to unmask me!”

There are some additional cool nods to other films, such as the Black Knight scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and having the killer say “Happy Easter, motherfucker,” surely a gesture towards the “Gobble-gobble, motherfucker” catch phrase of Turkie, the killer fowl in the also holiday themed ThanksKilling (2009). Even The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced.

The acting is waaaay over the top, I’m assuming purposefully, such as Jeremiah’s near constant high-pitched screaming as a running bit. I mean, often the killer in these kinds of films is extreme in the acting (such as Englund’s Freddie K.), but this is especially true in comedy slashers. The name of the film company really does say it all, because this really is high camp. I was almost expecting someone to yell out “No! Wire! Hangers! Ever!!”

Anne Morehead
Now there are two approaches to this kind of level of goofiness. One is the intentional errors and flubs, such as employed by The Seven Dorms of Death (2015), and here, well, sometimes it feels purposeful, but sometimes I wondered if it was just overlooked (or given a budgetary whatever stamp). For example, the Bunny Man is shot a dozen times, and the shooter says, “I put six bullets into him.” In another, a dead person blinks. Also while some of the effects are pretty decent (more on that next paragraph), either knife wounds disappear on a white shirt (with green blood), or bullet holes don’t show up at all. It’s also obvious that another actor is playing one of the key characters at the end (in a hidden face way, a la Lugosi in 1959’s Plan 9 From Outer Space). There is, however, a larger suspension of disbelief dependant on how broad the comedy, and this one is the Mississippi River.

There is a small bit of nudity and lots of bloody effects, most of which are digital. Some look, honestly, spectacular (a beheading near the end is particularly well done), and others look decent, but puzzling to me. The reason for that is it seems like no one has any bones in their bodies. Someone is split in half and it’s just goo inside, like it was melted by upchuck from The Fly (1986). I wasn’t really bothered by that, but it was noticeable. For me, the sound was more distracting, as it felt like a lot of it was overdubbed, which gave the voices a flat tone (in other words, everyone sounded like they were at the same distance from each other, no matter where they were on the screen); though at other points, the vocals were drowned out by added sounds.

I would also like to commend the cameos, including Edward X. Young (e.g., 2010’s Mr. Hush), Ari Lehman (the first Jason Voorhees; they nicely play around with this in his dialog), and Z’Dar, whose role is kind of brief, albeit pivotal.

The extras are a shit-load of other trailers (yeah, I watched them all, even the ones I’ve seen; many seem to star scream queen Erin R. Ryan and director Henrique Couto, which made me happy), and an hour-long “Making Of” featurette that includes shooting diaries, the first script reading, SFX set-ups, deleted scenes (such as those with Shawn C. Phillips, explaining a bit why he’s mentioned), bloopers, make-up tests, etc. About half of it is interesting, which is better than most.

The thing about broad comedy is that one never knows how it will be received down the line. It could be one that friends will quote for decades, or it may become tiresome and outdated rather quickly. With all the inconsistencies, holes in the story, over-acting (and under-acting as well), I enjoyed it this time around; about in the future, only time will tell. And besides, it’s almost Easter, what else are you gonna watch for a laugh, The Passion of the Christ (the feel-good movie of 2004)?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: The Horde

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

The Horde                             
Directed by Jared Cohn
313 Films / Razors Edge Productions / Traplight Pictures
Gravitas Ventures / MVD Visual
87 minutes, 2012 / 2016

When I first heard the name of the film, I thought, “I wonder if it’s a zombie horde or a vampire horde? Perhaps a demon horde?” From the cover it is pretty obvious that at the very least this is a horror action film. You may ask yourself, “Isn’t most horror usually filled with action (if it’s good)?” You may ask yourself, “This is not my beautiful…” oh, sorry, I guess my mind wandered back to the 1980s…

Josh Logan has many shirtless moments
For the action part, we meet handsome ex-Navy SEAL John Crenshaw (real-life bio-chemist and stuntman/martial artist Josh Logan, who also wrote the film) and his beautiful girlfriend, Selina (Tiffany Brouwer). She’s a teacher taking five of her (high school?) beautiful students on a camping trip to take photographs of nature for school credit, including two couples and an angry and spoiled rich gay brat, Riley (Thomas Ochoa, who has specialized in LGBTQ-etc. roles).

Unfortunately, the woods are full of, oh yes, the Horde. It is a large, inbred family, which they call mutants, as they are just genetics mixed with radiation poisoning, in a similar vein to that kind of group in films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and especially The Hills Have Eyes (1977… I don’t feel a need to acknowledge the remake). They refer to the females they capture as “breeders” and the males as “meat.” Well, that explains a lot towards motivation, doesn’t it? Love it when stimulus is clean and simple. Then add the ingredient of escaped criminals and mad scientists who are out to make some meth to bring in some cash to the congenital mix, and you have a nice formula for said mutations to run amok.

The enforcer of the horde in question is a huge more-brawn-than-brain escaped con with anger issues named Stone (ex-Football player Michael Willig). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize at some point Crenshaw and the much taller Stone are going to go mano-a-mano. But that doesn’t mean Crenshaw isn’t going to have a few licks in beforehand, actually even before his class group even get to the campground (but no details about that, so no worries).

Tiffany Brouwer's Streets of Fire moment
However, the leader of the horde is fellow escapee Cylus (Australian actor Costas Mandylor, known for playing Lt. Hoffman in the Saw series), and Earl, the literal butcher, who makes fresh tongue sandwiches (on white bread) is none other than fellow Aussie Vernon Wells (arguably best known as Wes, the mohawk’d villain in the only Mel Gibson film I can still watch without wanting to puke, 1981’s Road Warrior/Mad Max 2); he has a great nearly-whispered monolog just past the halfway point. You can see that there are some heavy duty heavies in this film. Plus, Bill Moseley (Otis in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) and Don “The Dragon” Wilson have a bit of cameos, as well.

There are no huge surprises along the way, as Logan stealthily makes his way through the horde camp, killing without a second thought from his training background; “I’ve done a lot of things for my country I’m proud of, and some I’m not proud of,” he tells Riley at some point early on, an exposition to show he’s a trained military assassin (though I wonder what he does for a living since retiring from service). Actually, it’s easy to cheer for each kill, and it’s nice to root for the good hunter rather than the bad ones (e.g., Freddy, Jason and Michael). While abound in clichés and genre tropes, such as rising out of the water similarly to Rambo, this is still a fun watch. Truthfully, I’m not that much into pure action films with a hero rescuing his lady (in a tied-up situation reminiscent of 1984’s excellent Streets of Fire) by killing and beating everyone up, but this falls big on the plus side because the body count is high, the film looks good, and the action is definitely enjoyable. Logan makes for a formidable and likeable hero (who, of course, is shirtless as much as possible – including the scene that introduces his character – to show off his pack).

One of the mutants
The gore here is impressive, extensive and beautifully handled by a top-notch SFX team. Limbs are often separated, heads are smashed or snapped, and yes, an arm is broken a la Steven Seagal style. Also, the cinematography by Laura Beth Love is worth noting; there is lots of fog lighting giving us Logan in crouching silhouette, ready for the next move.

There are some double crosses along the way that you’re bound to see coming from a mile away, but again, so what. All things considered, part of what makes this film, along with the action of punching, chopping and hacking, is the direction. Jared Cohn is known for some heavy duty B-films, such as Hold Your Breath (2012), 12/12/12 (2012) and a bunch of the Sharknado sequels, so he knows how to frame the film into a positive mode for a genre fan. The lighting may be cliché at times (e.g., the smoky back lighting), but it’s never too dark to see what’s happening (for which I’m always grateful), the sound is solid, and the acting in commendable if sometimes a tad overdone (Riley’s pissy moments, for example).

The extras are kind of short, but shweeet. First up is a 2:28 b-roll (over music) of some of the CK VFX work done in the digital world, most of which look pretty good. That being said, there are a couple of fire tricks that are a bit weak as they look more like fire overlays than whatever it is aflame. Some of the splatter is obviously digi, but that is true for most films these days. Overall, the rest is pretty good. I enjoyed seeing how the effects were built.

Along with the trailer and chapter breaks, next up is the 16:36 “Making Of” (listed as “The EPK” – E-Press Kit – on the Extras page). Including on-set interviews with much of the cast and crew, this was one of the fun behind-the-scenes featurettes I’ve seen in a while. There’s no areas where it lags, but rather it keeps the viewers’ (well, this one, anyway) interest straight through. Somewhere in there Willig says, “It’s a fun ride.” And he’s right.