Stars: Kane Hodder, Tiffany Shepis, Rena Riffel, Dustin James, Owen Conway, Taryn Maxximillian Dafoe, Jason Spisak and Dan Higgins
I first saw Exit to Hell under the title of Sickle and I'm in two minds as to the change. Sure, Sickle makes it sound like a routine slasher movie, when there is a little bit more going on here, but Exit to Hell is more of a spoiler than a clarification. If the title is going to bring it that far out into the open, then I presume I can safely highlight that when folk turn off old 69 in Arizona and find themselves in the professionally isolated backwoods town of Red Stone, they're not quite entering the realm of the usual cannibal hick murderers; this place is a little more on the supernatural side. In Sickle, we're supposed to gradually realise that only bad people manage to lose the main road and take the same mysterious turn that none seem to notice, then wonder about what that really means. If it isn't literally Red Stone, a suggestive name to begin with, are they in Hell, Purgatory or just some cursed zone that feeds on dark souls? In a film called Exit to Hell, of course, it's frickin' obvious, even if none of them die until they get there. I liked the ambiguity more.
There's not a heck of a lot of ambiguity anywhere else in the film, because writer/director Robert Conway knows exactly what he wants to throw on the screen and he can't be accused of false advertising. This is neo-grindhouse pulp, painted in that modern style that grindhouse never really was but we imagine that we remember. Of course, the music is newer and heavier and the editing, especially during the opening credits sequence, is MTV ADD. After that, the artificial aging is predominantly restricted to wild transition effects; there are a lot of them throughout but they're not omnipresent. Instead we're given reminders of that seventies vibe in changes to the colour saturation levels and noticeable rear projection, not bad per se but deliberately noticeable. Most of all, the subject matter continually plays out in the neo-grindhouse style, full of drugs, gore and freakiness. It's not as stylised as Rodriguez, as cool as Tarantino or as nasty as Zombie, but it plays well to its budget. This is the sort of VHS you'd have gladly rented in 1985.
Perhaps my memory is playing up, but watching Exit to Hell on Netflix, I found it slightly different to what I remembered of Sickle, which screened with a Q&A at Phoenix Comicon last year. I remembered the odd footage from Conway's gore short, Necro Wars, that kicks in before the movie proper as a wild extension to the various production company idents, but I didn't remember there being quite so much of it. All told, we surely see most of that ten minute short dotted throughout the movie, which isn't good given that the running time is a brief 81 minutes. Knock out Necro Wars and the credits and the picture proper clocks in around the 70 minute mark, hardly a substantial piece. The thing is that I remember more of it from when it was called Sickle, with certain key scenes feeling a little less substantial here and the pace a little more pepped up. Didn't Sheriff Sickle get to use the enhancements on his police car bonnet or was I dreaming at the end of a long Comicon day? Certainly this could easily benefit from more flesh on its bones.
The good news is that the lack of real substance is the biggest flaw of the movie. Conway nails the style he wanted far better and more consistently than various other local filmmakers working with similarly low budgets. The most obvious comparisons are to Brian Skiba's more prominent recent neo-grindhouse films which share many of the same cast, such as Blood Moon Rising and .357: Six Bullets for Revenge. There's more going on in the former and more big names in the latter, but Exit to Hell plays out better than either of them, because it's consistent to itself and Conway hides the budget better. He achieves that by finding a strong location, killing off his characters liberally and stripping away the fat. Yes, he needed more meat on his bones, but at least he got rid of the fat. Those two Skiba films may well be more substantial meals than Conway's, but their fat content is enough to choke a whole bundle of arteries. This one doesn't have any room for distractions.
The story is pretty simple. A gang of thieves are robbing strip clubs and their latest target is Baby Dolls in Phoenix. Well, that's what the sign says, even if the DJ calls it the Pink Pussy. Their approach is to infiltrate a place and then wait for their moment to strike. Here, they've become Travis the DJ, Tasha the bartender, Jenna the stripper and Randy the customer, and their moment arrives in notably bloody fashion as Randy has a temper and the place promptly turns into a bloodbath, what the news dubs the Silicone Slaughter. Off they drive through the night to the border, but Randy lands them in Red Stone instead. We know what happens in Red Stone, because we've already followed a couple of opportunistic killers there in the form of a bug eyed Jose Rosete and a coked up Shane Dean. Cheno and Pablo really aren't bright but holding up Mordin's gas station just as Sheriff Sickle walks in turns out to be a particularly dumb move. The cop demonstrates why his name is appropriate and we're down a couple of talented local names.
Fortunately there are more to come. The leader of the thieves is Dustin Leighton, who I last saw in a short film, Kerry and Angie, but was also the lead in Conway's debut feature, Redemption: A Mile from Hell. The most prominent of the thieves turns out to be Jenna, played by scream queen Tiffany Shepis, who doesn't scream much here because she's clearly too strong to be a stereotypical victim, even while being chased down by Sheriff Sickle. Boris, who ran the strip club, is Michael Harrelson delivering a pretty good Russian accent. Even better is Jason Spisak as his boss, Yakov, a ruthless Russian crime lord who chases down the thieves and naturally ends up in Red Stone too. Spisak has appeared in a number of Arizona horror flicks, from Piranha to Locker 13, but he's far better known as a voice actor, probably why I first experienced his work as a narrator in Avé Maria. Shane Stevens gives a good showing in the coda and the late Noah Todd philosophises well while feeding his snake. As he died in 2010, this film obviously took a while in post.
With so many actors in such a short running time, it shouldn't be surprising that many of them get little to do. I haven't even mentioned Kevin Tye, who gets killed off so quickly that he hasn't even made it onto the film's IMDb page. Stevens is there for a very specific reason so his part is just right, but Tye, Rosete, Dean, Harrelson, Todd, even Leighton, all deserve a little more screen time. At least they are very much supporting actors here, but even the more prominent names get surprisingly little to do. It's Shepis who gets the most screen time but she gets little to do with it, at least kicking off with a topless dance routine and finding her way quickly into peril and out of it. She isn't top billed though, that honour given to Kane Hodder as Sheriff Sickle, presiding over all the overtly gratuitous gore on show. The title change doesn't do him any justice, as much of the brooding presence he had in the title role is lost as he becomes just another character. Like most of the cast, he does what he's asked but should have had more to do.
There are two other prominent actors in the same boat. Rena Riffel is another actor brought in from out of state, but she's particularly sidelined, even if she gets an exotic dance of her own. As Penny, she's tasked with little more than playing a stereotypically dumb blonde stripper who inadvertently puts Yakov on the trail of the thieves. The other is Dan Higgins, who thankfully succeeds where most of these actors failed, by stamping his presence on the film so emphatically that he's who I remember most when I think about it. That's a notable accomplishment when the lead is a force of nature and both Shepis and Riffel deliver pole dances, but his role is as a backwoods gas station owner. He's consistently note perfect, but his real scene to shine is the one when Yakov walks in and asks how he can find the thieves who are clearly here in town. It's a wonderful scene, a great adaptation of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, because Mordin defies Yakov in ways he never imagined. Both actors ought to win, but Higgins takes it.
That's the best scene in the film, even if, like most of the rest, it deserved to run longer. Others are much more exploitative, outrageous and/or gruesome, but Conway lets loose with the gore far more than any of the other elements he plays with. The nudity is restricted to early scenes and sex is rarely suggested. The cool angle to neo-grindhouse isn't prominent in the dialogue, which is relatively routine and mostly shorn of bad eighties puns, or the enhancements to the bonnet of Sheriff Sickle's car, which are wasted in this cut, even if they were given a use in my memory of the one I saw at Phoenix Comicon. Esther Goodstein deserves a mention as Sickle's wife, even if her cool role is restricted so far as to be a prop, yet another reminder that everything in this film is strong and consistent but used too sparsely. It would be better if the Necro Wars footage was stripped and every character and every scene bulked up so that this would run ninety or even a hundred minutes. As it is, it's a promise rather than a delivery.