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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Roman's Bride (2010)

Director: Michael Paul
Star: Anne Paul
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
The Pauls were all over the Phoenix Fear Film Fest 2010, almost literally as it seems like Anne Paul is ten feet tall, that impression coming through enthusiasm as well as height. She's a lovely lady with striking good looks and a wealth of gorgeous long red hair, but you wouldn't guess any of that except the hair from this film. She plays the title role but it's hardly a sympathetic one, given that Lily (short for Lilith) Heller is a religious nutjob turned stalker with skeletons in her closet who stops taking her medication when things don't go her way. You'd wonder why she took the part but then she created it, given that she wrote the script and produced it too. Her husband, Michael Paul, shot and directed, while they edited together. So it's exactly what they wanted it to be, down to the very last bit of freaky behaviour. That's what I like most about it: that it's really independent. Nowadays, indie pictures are little Hollywood films. This is different.

Lily is a troubled character. She's been on her own a long time, the daughter of the local priest and a dead religious nutjob. She doesn't know the former but she was responsible for the latter: she fought back after her mother cut off one of her toes with garden shears as a punishment. She seems to have inherited both the religious mania and the craziness from her mother. She doesn't go to church any more because they've got too liberal, what with allowing women to expose their flesh and everything. 'Toes and ears lead to the devil's tingles,' she tells the priest who comes to visit, with an entirely straight face. We meet her mother in moments of weakness, as she appears as a vision to bring her daughter back to the straight and narrow, but the real craziness arrives with the main thrust of the plot, which is one of the saddest and most pathetic love triangles ever filmed. That doesn't stop its unravelling being well worth watching though.

You see, we're in rural Iowa, very rural Iowa which looks delightfully peaceful but which doesn't contain many people. We meet few characters and they've all known each other forever. Since they were kids, Lily has liked her neighbour Roman, but Roman doesn't like Lily, at least not that way. Amos likes Lily that way, enough that he buys as many 'blessed bouquets' as she can make just to keep her busy, even though he knows he can't sell them on and so burns them all at the side of the road. Both Roman and Amos know the score, though Lily continues to bide her time, waiting for the right moment. It seems to arrive when Roman's girlfriend Angela leaves him and takes her kids back to their real father. Suddenly there's potential, or so Lily thinks, especially as he doesn't take it well, but then Angela comes back and everything's peachy again, enough that they start planning a wedding. Unstable women don't mix well with loss of hope. It gets bloody.

Roman's Bride is obviously an independent film, very low on budget but very consistent in tone and unique in outlook. If anything you could place it as a modern southern gothic, though Iowa is hardly the depths of the deepsouth. Unrequited love, religious mania and sexual frustration always make great ingredients for a gothic horror and the apparent isolation of the characters from the rest of society, surely partly driven by the restrictions of the budget, certainly doesn't hurt. It ensures a lot of local flavour to the piece, including an agreeably suspenseful scene set in the Iowa cornfields. The budget, or the lack of it, is often noticeable, with some dialogue lost in the mix and lighting occasionally burying a scene in white, though one instance is deliberate and appropriate. Yet it's professionally done, with a solid pace and some agreeable tension, a story arc for each of the three leads and decent, often excellent, camerawork.
In fact I'm surprised at how good it was technically, given that so much was shot outdoors and given that I don't think anyone involved had done anything like this before. Well, at least that a wider audience has seen: the Pauls have apparently been making short films with their friends for a couple of decades. Anne Paul has ten credits at IMDb, for instance, but they're all for this film. Most of the cast members also earned credits as crew because, well the cast was the crew. If you were there, they presumably put you to use: as a writing assistant, a hairstylist, a children wrangler (got to love that one), whatever was available that day. I'd guess many of them didn't know what booms or grips were when they started out but they all did fine work. Only one has credits for anything else. Jim Siokos, who gets to canoodle with a lovely young lady in the creek for most of his part, has been starring in films for Scott Beck and Bryan Woods since 2004.

This cosy filmmaking unit brings other benefits. The natural charisma between Roman and his family is because it's really his family, the Rennats, who are almost as well represented in the credits as the Pauls. They all have fun playing up to the camera, especially young Zoe who is delightfully individual, scuba diving in the bath and collecting bugs. Elise Rennat earned an extra credit as a cricket wrangler, which should be on a business card. Her mother got to dust off her old cheerleading outfit and give her husband a fresh cheer. It isn't difficult to see how this also helps the budget, given that it wouldn't surprise me to find that Roman's house is also the Rennats' house. The film was shot at locations over three counties in Iowa, but I'm guessing that all those working farms belong to people involved in the film, or at least to their friends. No independent film can pass up that sort of opportunity and I'm sure that this one didn't.

While Roman's Bride exceeds expectations and sits very nicely with me as a freaky backwoods drama: a gothic take on seventies horror, a more insular version of Deliverance without tourists or, to use the New York Post's description, The Iowa Chainsaw Massacre, that doesn't mean it's perfect. I can easily forgive minor technical issues and amateur acting, but it's harder to forgive some of the script's missteps. Nobody ever seems to hear a shotgun blast in this film or at least pay heed to one. Roman's bride to be seems to inexplicably vanish at a rather crucial point and she certainly doesn't ever seem to worry enough, given the circumstances. Character decisions are occasionally unlikely, especially but not only Roman's actions after his escape. Amos is also notably overlooked. This is a love triangle, after all, and everywhere the story goes is because of that. He deserved to be on an equal footing as as a character with Lily and Roman.

Other reviewers have pointed out other flaws that didn't bother me. I enjoyed the quiet, sedate pace of the film, which to me reflected the quiet, sedate pace of rural Iowa. The story caught my interest from moment one and kept it throughout. Yes, some of the shots of Lily stalking Roman got a little repetitive, but then what else was there for her to do in her self-imposed isolation? If anything, the most repetitive shots for me were of Gary and Lindsey in the creek, but they're ended satisfactorily. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the score but it certainly didn't bother me. If anything, it settled into the film so well that I didn't really notice it. And don't get me started on microbudgets. The Pauls self-financed this film and did a great job in shooting it, promoting it and making it available. Horror is a very viable genre on an incredibly low budget, but it's rare to see originality at that level. This has a feel unlike anything I've seen recently and I like that.

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