Stars: Raychel Fejfar, Michael Crawford, Adam Flores, Josh Crawford, Sam Sajid, Gaia Foxx, Kenton Masloskie and Tyler L Schmid
Of all places, I met director Tyler Schmid in the line to get our Night of the Creeps remake DVDs signed by scream queen Tiffany Shepis. I was chatting to her husband Sean Tretta because his latest film, The Frankenstein Project, marked my debut on the big screen as an extra. Schmid was in front of me and when he gave Tiffany a copy of his first DVD and I pulled out a business card, he gave me a copy to review. In my eyes, that one event is all the justification I need for printing the things in the first place. Well, that and the Subway coupons I got for throwing one in a fishbowl. Both the beauty and the catch of having films handed to you by strangers in signing lines is that their quality is an utterly unknown factor. On one hand this budding filmmaker could grow up to be the next Nicolas Cage and this could be the work on which he cut his teeth. On the other he could actually have some real talent and this could be a real gem. Which would it be?
Well, it's hard to tell yet. 7 Down is obviously a film made by people who are learning their trade but it avoids most of the usual low budget pitfalls and shows some serious promise. I'm eager to see what growth works its way into later Schmid films like Surviving Dish, The Morning After and Abby Dux Zombie Slayer. 7 Down is obviously a beginning rather than an end but it's also an ambitious one. It's roughly half the length of a feature so has plenty of time to build itself into more than your average debut short and it starts out with a lot of character introduction. As the title suggests we have seven lead characters, plus Schmid himself as an intriguing eighth wheel. Just how much his character has to do with the story to come is open to discussion but I have a feeling he has quite a lot to do with it. These seven characters head out on the road to go to a hayrack ride but they don't make it and the title proves very prophetic indeed.
I wonder just how long Schmid, and his sister Shadlee who co-wrote the script with him, intended this film to be. The introductions are deep, as if they were aimed as the foundations of a ninety minute feature, and initially they have no connection except theme, the theme being addiction. Jools has lost her parents and injects heroin to numb the pain. Salvatore is both her boyfriend and her drug dealer, one who is more than happy to receive sexual favours from his clients in lieu of payment. Seamus suffers from nightmares and talks in his sleep. Craig is the new guy at a fear of the dark meeting. Damien is a drunk bartender, who is promptly fired for drinking with an underage girl. 'Crazy drunk clown' is the apt description we get later when he hangs out with Craig and Seamus. They drink beer but he's out of his skull on vodka. That leaves Mickey, Seamus's sister, and Ted, who share a photography class. They indulge but perhaps not scarily.
These introductions show the biggest flaws of the film and the biggest success. Mostly the flaws are technical, the early scenes being frequently dimly lit and with dialogue occasionally lost in the mix. The success is that this admirable attention to character provides a depth that keeps us interested as the film runs on, something that surprised me given that these are hardly the sort of people I'd want to go anywhere with, let alone with one of them behind the wheel. Craig and Seamus empty an ice chest of beer before they even begin, with only a little help from Ted. Jools and Damien are both drunk when they arrive. Ted gets left behind because they forget he went to the bathroom, so he has to follow on in his car. Only Mickey is sober and she still manages to consistently stay louder than all of them. They're not your usual dumb college students but they are just as annoying. Yet unlike many modern slasher victims, I never stopped watching them.
Part of this is the acting, which is varied but generally solid. Most obviously the actors bounce off each other very well indeed, to the degree that it wouldn't surprise me to find that many of them are friends rather than just actors (two of them even share a surname). Even when shouting at each other there's an obvious connection and that helps the realism, as does the dialogue which is very believable. Characters like Damion and Mickey are annoying but actors Kenton Masloskie and Raychel Fejfar bring them very much to life, any overacting done appropriate for the parts. Gaia Foxx has a free Janis Joplin vibe going for her and both she and Michael Crawford manage to subtly build scenes even when not the focus of them. There are the occasional sneak peeks at the camera and the odd line lost in the background, but that's forgiveable in a film with an obvious low budget. Some of the actors are obviously not actors but they don't spoil the show.
What I didn't have was sympathy and in an obviously carefully written screenplay I wonder just where the Schmids aimed that to come from. Deep characterisation made me interested but it doesn't necessarily make me sympathetic. By the time the clichés begin (and that's not really as negative as it sounds, because I'm not sure it's possible to make a slasher film without clichés any more), I was far more interested in the technical side of proceedings than in the characters being killed off. The camerawork is pretty solid, though it's not surprising to find that there are no less than six credited cameramen. At points it's a little shaky but I was frequently impressed with the composition and choice of shot. This could so easily have descended into handheld hell but it refused to do that. The continuity is also questionable but the more I thought about it, the more appropriate the goofs are to the characters. For once I believed in their idiotic choices.
At the end of the day, this may not be a groundbreaking short film but it's a surprisingly capable one on a number of fronts and it may have a pretty decent feature film inside it waiting to break out. There's story here that we don't see, all the thematic setup about addiction not really going anywhere but wanting to. If my theory about the killer is right, then there's a very subtle setup indeed that cries out for more background hints and back story. When the killings begin they're shot well but very quickly, so the addition of a good effects guy into the crew could easily turn those scenes into something much more memorable. I don't know if the Schmids have any plans to expand this film, but I'd recommend it. 45 minutes is an odd running length, too long to sit in a festival shorts programme but too short to run as a feature. The amount of worthy character building doesn't deserve to be cropped down so building 7 Down up is the best option.