Stars: Milo Cawthorne, Olivia Tennet and Ari Boyland
Winner of the Audience award at last year's Dances with Films and the Best Horror Feature award at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, amongst a bundle of others, Blood Punch is a real peach of a movie, even if it didn't look like it should be on paper. There are a bunch of reasons why it shouldn't work, from the working title that stuck, even though it has nothing to do with anything; the clichéd setup (shenanigans at a hunting lodge on cursed tribal land); and the fact that almost everyone involved got to know each other on Power Rangers RPM: all three of the leads, many of the supporting cast, the director, writer and probably the kid who served breakfast every morning. Yet I haven't had this much fun with an indie movie in years. The title really doesn't matter, the clichés quickly fall away to expose a deceptively intricate story with a set of neat little twists and hey, who cares where they met? What matters is that it's as unlike Power Rangers as can comfortably be imagined, with drugs, death and bad language in droves.
|This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.|
In fact, it's not particularly like anything else. It's a horror feature, sure, but not primarily, however much blood gets spilled and however supernatural the concept. It's a black comedy long before that and it's a modern film noir first and foremost. In fact, it's a quintessential film noir, with almost the entire running time devoted to three characters stuck in a love triangle set up for criminal purposes and presided over by a sassy femme fatale. She's Skyler and she starts out the picture in rehab, not to get off drugs but to hire herself a capable cook to turn 110 pounds of pseudoephedrine into an insanely large batch of crystal meth in a single day, enough to make them rich before they can ever be raided. She leaps into bed with Milton, a bright student in rehab for running a meth lab out of college and he immediately falls hard for her. Only in the sack does she explain to him that the third and last in the gang is Russell, her 'pure 100% psychopath' boyfriend. Shenanigans immediately ensue and continue on for the rest of the movie.
Now, if that doesn't sound particularly supernatural, I should highlight that the very beginning of the film, before we even get to rehab, happens a day later, with Milton puking his guts up and finding a video tape containing a message for him from himself. He doesn't remember recording it, but it's definitely him and, to ensure that he listens to himself, he very deliberately chops off two of his fingers with a cleaver. Given that the present day Milton isn't missing any digits, it succeeds in grabbing both his attention and ours in the cheap seats. The script is by Eddie Guzelian and it's a real gem. He hooks us at the outset with Milton and his supernatural video on Tuesday morning, then jumps back to rehab on Monday to ground us in the basic crime and the dark but comedic tone of the piece and moves on carefully so that when we return to Milton in the bathroom we know a lot more than we did first time around. He's more than happy to set us up with odd little clues here and there, but waits 43 minutes to hit us with the big twist.
I'm in two minds whether to spoil that twist because it's hard to talk about the film without it, but I guess I should let you discover it for yourself. I can safely add that there are quite a few more twists to follow the main one too, because the entire script is a clever little set of puzzles, both for the three leads and for us, and we're all happy to try to solve them. Every time we solve one, and some of them are much easier to figure out than others, Guzelian emphasises another angle that means that we have to keep on puzzling for a little while longer. M Night Shyamalan made a career out of one big twist per movie; Guzelian gives us one great big twist here, then adds another three excellent little ones before the end credits roll. I'd be all over IMDb looking up what other movies he's written, but his long and respected career has, up to this point, been hilariously restricted to children's television, with his most adult work prior to this film being perhaps his three episodes of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. Not a lot of blood in there!
Let's just say that this riffs on the old 'Indian burial ground' theme, but never in the usual way, as the low budget was never going to extend to zombie hordes and didn't need to. The majority of the movie follows only three actors in three locations, but never once even hints at getting boring. There's Milton and Skyler at the rehab clinic, picking up Russell the psycho state trooper on the way out. There's the three of them at the hunting lodge, with a wild collection of dangerous weapons on the walls which surely all get put to use sooner or later. And eventually there's the lair of Archer, the man to whom Skyler plans to sell all the crystal Milton will cook up at the lodge. That's not a lot of opportunity for cinematographer Neil Cervin to keep everything looking fresh, but he does a solid job, aided by the neat surreality that Guzelian conjures up with his Coen Brothers-esque take on Luis Buñuel. He's the big star here, not only for his ideas but for his dialogue too, which is plentiful and agreeably sardonic.
Olivia Tennet gets the best of that dialogue as Skyler. The first time through I wondered if she was a little too young for a character with such assurance and experience, but there are layers to what she does and she delivers her lines with panache. It helps that she plays an interesting character too, independent but under Russell's thumb, tough but submissive. She's manipulative in the extreme, as every femme fatale worth her salt has to be, and that could well include her classic battered wife syndrome dialogue, as she often repeats Russell's questions to her verbatim to underline his power over her. Ari Boyland has a blast playing Russell, even if he's too nice a person to nail as many of his psychoses as he'd like. He certainly has some strong moments but he's just not enough of a lunatic to be the devil that Skyler makes out. He also has the most limited part of the three, without real growth as a character, for very good reasons that I'm completely unable to go into without providing spoilers.
That leaves Milo Cawthorne as Milton, who is the character with the real story arc. He starts the picture as nobody but promptly becomes somebody, even if it isn't who he'd like. With Russell far from the brightest bulb in any pack, it falls to Milton to figure out what's going on and how to beat it. The unspoken question is always whether he'll get to outwit Skyler in the process, because she's no dummy and clearly looks out for number one under every circumstance imaginable. It's also telling that Cawthorne manages to garner a great deal of sympathy from us, even though he's a drug dealer when we first meet him and escalates from there into a callous and thoughtless murderer. Then again, Tennet manages to find a little sympathy for the sociopathic Skyler too by manipulating us as much as she does Milton, Russell and everyone else she meets. We really shouldn't feel for any of these characters but, by the end of the film, we can't quite help feeling just a little even for poor psychopathic Russell.
There are problems here, but they're mostly minor and ignorable. Director Madellaine Paxson does more with her limited budget than many would manage, but most will notice it at some point or other. For me it was most obvious in the cheap and cheerful credits and the public domain songs (and songs by members of the cast) which accompany the solid score by Adam Berry, not to mention the limited cast and location lists. I don't see any of these as a problem, but others might when the film inevitably makes it out beyond the indie festival circuit to the wider public. One detail that did annoy me was how much storage Russell's police car has for its onboard surveillance camera. I might kill for a hard drive like that and land myself in the same trouble these crooks find themselves in here; that could have been handled differently without losing any of the effect, but it's hardly important in the grand scheme of things. I certainly can't fault the progression at the heart of the story, even if I didn't see every cue first time through.
At the end of the day, this is one of those little pictures that could and I'll happily pimp it out to everyone who will listen. It's a twist movie but it's worth watching more than once. It's a dialogue heavy film with a dearth of characters but a lot of action. It's a low budget picture that looks far better than it should, given the cost. It certainly isn't remotely like what you might expect from a debut director whose previous work was on Peter Rabbit, the co-writer of Disney's Cinderella III: A Twist in Time and a cast of Power Rangers RPM alumni. It has more drugs than an Irvine Welsh novel, more bad language than a Steven Seagal flick and more death than a Lucio Fulci picture. And yet it's a film noir, brought up to date with blood like Sam Raimi's and dialogue like the Coen Brothers. Imagine an Ealing comedy remade by Takashi Miike. That's how out there this manages to go, but that clever script by Eddie Guzelian never loses focus. Hopefully the success of this will mean that he'll never have go back to the Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.