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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Slumber Party Slaughter (2012)

Director: Rebekah Chaney
Stars: Tom Sizemore, Ryan O'Neal, Rebekah Chaney and Robert Carradine
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
I wanted to like Slumber Party Slaughter a lot more than I did. It's an independent horror movie for a start. It's a debut feature from a filmmaker progressing from an award winning short, Waste Land. That filmmaker, Rebekah Chaney, is both young and female, neither attribute as common in the industry as it should be. Not content with merely being that rare critter, a female director, she also wrote and produced, as well as playing one of the leading roles herself. She didn't hog the spotlight, sharing it instead with a few other lovely ladies, as well as some recognisable men: Tom Sizemore, Robert Carradine and the actor she played opposite in Waste Land, Ryan O'Neal, who liked that film enough to return for its successor. She also has a heritage to live up to, given that she's the great-grandniece of Lon Chaney, the first real American horror star and one of the most legendary men in the business. It ought to be my sort of movie.

And, to be fair, there's much that I liked. In the main, it's an affectionate homage to the eighties slasher genre, playing it a little gorier and with a little more substance than might be expected. The key locations are perfect for this sort of material: a strip club called the Lingerie Lounge, an Indian burial ground turned haunted cemetery and a millionaire's mansion empty, while he's at a business convention. Each of these would be a great setting for an eighties slasher movie and all of them probably were; we can hardly complain when this film gives us all three of them. It sets up capably, introducing us to a surprising number of characters. None get enough background to become great or iconic but there's more effort given to them than was the norm in the genre's heyday. The story follows suit, with inventive death scenes and fair plot twists. The eye candy is nothing to complain about either, the leading ladies (or gentlemen) well worth looking at.

Where it falls down is in the consistency and the tone, perhaps because Chaney is too young to have experienced the slasher genre as it should have been experienced. She was born alongside the genre, being a mere two months old when John Carpenter released Halloween, so she's less like the babysitter from so many slashers and more like the kids being sat. While Slumber Party Slaughter generally aims at the eighties, it opens with very seventies aerial footage that doesn't go anywhere and there are nods to more recent decades throughout, meaning that the camp ambience that should be everywhere simply isn't. That's the key ingredient that's missing here; anyone seeking this out for its retro feel will come up empty. It's too thought out to be a slasher, but too ambitious to be a postmodern homage. The subplots are too fleshed out and the main plot not defined enough for us to really be sure what we're watching.

We start at the Lingerie Lounge where the strippers are easily delineated: Casey is the nice girl stuck there to support her little brother, Bobby. She'll leave as soon as opportunity knocks with Nicole, the popular girl next door type. Vicky is the statuesque blonde bitch who's been there longest, has seen it all and is as cynical about it as she can be. Bobby has a huge crush on her and she knows it. That leaves Felicia, the dumb bimbo who counts her successes by how many plastic surgeries they pay for, and Nadia, the wannabe pop star who's so bad that she should never be. Watching them work is taxi driver Dave, a creepy regular, and a trio of college kids with more bravado than sense. They all get pissed off when Tom Sizemore shows up and steals all the girls. He has a blast parodying himself as Tom Kingsford, a drug addled movie star who collects bad habits. Coincidentally the part was based on his appearance in celebrity rehab.
As tends to happen in horror movies, the characters that play together stay together. When the movie star hires all the strippers for a private party that night and they breeze off into the dark in his limo, everyone else follows and Dave shows up just at the wrong moment, with Kingsford murdered, his chauffeur vanished and the girls figuring out what to do with the body. A year on, we pick the story back up as the limo is discovered at the bottom of the lake in the Indian burial ground turned haunted cemetery. At this point, Nicole has left the Lingerie Lounge for a cushier job working for millionaire art dealer William O'Toole. As the girls start to talk about their crime, they find out that Nicole is housesitting his mansion while he's away on business, so talk of murder and fear of discovery quickly turns into party time, with all those same characters finding their way back into the story from wherever they'd managed to escape to.

It's here that I started getting confused. Sure, we realise that O'Toole, played by near namesake Ryan O'Neal, is some sort of freaky voyeur, not away on business at all but camping out in the guesthouse watching proceedings on monitors, but did he just expect to see Nicole or the party that soon erupts? He and his sidekick sit back longer than seems natural, given that people start dying in the memorable ways that victims tend to find in slasher movies. He doesn't even call a halt when guests start to rob him blind or discover his kinky secrets. Did he set up the large but apparently retarded gardener to massacre the partygoers? Or is all this complete coincidence? I never could quite figure this character/subplot combo out. I couldn't figure out how Nadia had got a recording deal either, as she sounds awful, but Casey is working hard to become a cop and the other girls are still at the Lingerie Lounge, where the college kids are now as regular as Dave.

And all of them show up for the inevitable slaughter, with a host of romantic subplots in tow, and we settle back to watch the fun. While the tone is too serious and not campy enough, and the story is over-complicated, there is quite a bit of fun to be had. Felicia in particular gets a joyous death scene, combining plot conveniences galore with an inventive sense of humour and some very nice touches indeed. It's no surprise to find out she's not the only one who gets hers but I'm not going to spoil who, how or why. I'll merely point out that hers is the most memorable of the many death scenes on offer. They're handled well for the most part, though the imagination is in the denoument rather than the setup. It's pretty clear throughout who the next victim is going to be and how soon it's going to happen, while the actual method of dispatch and the style of the scene are much more up for grabs.

At the end of the day, there's a lot here to see but it's all on the micro scale, which means that this review probably makes the film sound more interesting than it is. The actors are consistently good but none of them are good enough to carry the picture. The characters they play are drawn better than is the norm but none of them are drawn well enough to be a real focus. The various subplots are worthy but distracting from the bigger picture. Rebekah Chaney can write and she seems to have a lot to say, but she doesn't seem to be able to stand back and see her script at a distance. She needed to slice off a lot of material, some good and some not, in order to focus the remainder into a leaner and tighter story. So much potential here simply isn't realised as it's lost in the mix. I enjoyed so many moments but was disappointed with the film. However I'm hopeful for Chaney's future. If she can learn from this, her next film may be something to see.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Scalene (2011)

Director: Zack Parker
Stars: Margo Martindale, Adam Scarimbolo and Hanna Hall

Rashomon, Memento and The Usual Suspects didn't call themselves perceptual thrillers but it feels like a fair description. The more recent Scalene, which coined the term to describe itself, takes a few different approaches from films like those and combines them into something that's almost like a whodunit, but only from the perspective of the viewer. It's a challenge: Zack Parker, who wrote, produced and directed, is going to play with our heads and our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to figure out where he's going to take us before we find ourselves there. Scalene is a single story, but told from three different perspectives; what's more, one unfolds backwards and one forwards, with the third being a deliberate jumble that links varied events together as surreal segues. It isn't possible to watch this film without continual reevaluation. If we stood up in court to explain the facts in this story, our testimony would depend on how far we got.

While this is ruthless and unashamed manipulation of the audience, we do at least know we're being manipulated, as the film opens with the aftermath then proceeds backwards to explain what it's the aftermath of. Janice Trimble wants her son back and it's Paige Alexander who took him away, so she shows up at her house with a gun. This scene is the most awkward in the film because neither participant has a clue either how to threaten or be threatened and it gets very farcical and overblown very quickly. Yet it's a fair microcosm of the film to come, which doesn't feel awkward at all. As we watch the weapons change, gun to towel rail to umbrella, we wonder what we're watching and we ask questions about what we see. This is far from your run of the mill thriller. Sure, Hanna Hall, who plays Paige, is pretty close to the stereotype of a victim of a home invasion, but Margo Martindale is as far from the usual invader as they come.

Martindale is one of those character actors who most people will recognise, probably from a host of different films and TV shows, but few will be able to name. She looks like an everyday person, one reason why she's so good at playing everyday people on screen, and it's wonderful to see her in a role of such substance. She and Hall are the leads, with Adam Scarambolo supporting them as Jakob Trimble. In lesser hands, Jakob would be the focal point: a handicapped adult, almost thirty but damaged mentally and unable to speak. A Hollywood writer would use the part to aim at an Oscar, but Parker makes him a living, breathing MacGuffin instead. He's what the other characters care about most but that's about it. The real story is in the other characters, in their actions and motivations, and, given the way in which those things are explored, in the depth of the performances that bring them to life. Both Martindale and Hall are superlative.

Because of the nature of this picture, it's impossible to give a fair synopsis. With most films, just outlining the first ten minutes is enough; sometimes it's less, sometimes much more, but there's almost always a point that must be reached to set up the plot but which can't be passed without providing spoilers. Here that's utterly not the case. Parker may never lie to us about who these characters are but he doesn't tell us the whole truth either, withholding important information to dish out a bit at a time to move the plot forward. This means that there are very few facts to provide as bedrock, everything else being perspective that changes continually. All I can really say is that Janice is a single mother, Jakob is her handicapped son and Paige his caregiver. After a few years, he's sentenced to three to five years of treatment in an institution for raping Paige. But those are just the facts, ma'am. There's a great deal more to proceedings than that.

I'd very much recommend that you pick up a copy of the film, which was released by Breaking Glass Pictures last month on DVD and BluRay, among other more modern formats, to find out just how much more. It's an understatement to suggest that there are depths here to explore. The revelations, and our subsequent reevaluations of them, keep on coming until we end up where we began, but with background enough to understand the context. Yet, by the time we get there, we're so in tune with Parker's conjecture that there is no truth, merely our perception of it, and so aware of just how often our perception has changed as the story unfolded, that I for one don't want to assume that it's a neatly tied up bundle and we're done. The ending is also a number of beginnings and there are many, many ramifications to consider. More than any other recent movie I can think of, this would be fascinating to sit down and discuss with people.
One key to the 'perceptual thriller' tag is that there are hints everywhere, most of which are not revealed as truths, which is frustrating but appropriate. This isn't your average Hollywood movie where everything we see is guaranteed to be put to use at a later point. Some of these hints may well hide truths, while others are less important in themselves than in how they're perceived by other characters, who then act upon those perceptions and drive the plot forward. Certainly the plot is shaped as much by perceptions as by facts, just as Memento was, or going further back, just as The Big Sleep was. Reality is what we make it, after all. The other key is that it isn't just about what the characters perceive but what we perceive. This is a film that makes us think, not just about the internal logic of the piece but about perception itself and how we make judgement calls in our own lives without context. Scalene is one of those films that could change its viewers.

This is very much Zack Parker's film, with a mention for long term collaborator Brandon Owens who co-wrote it with him. He directed it, he produced it and he edited it. He is utterly in control over what we see, especially important here as everything is about perception. Yet it had to be brought to life by the actors he hired, and as the scene that bookends the film testifies, that's not an easy task. I'm still not convinced by this scene, which I feel is still overplayed, even after factoring in the unfamiliarity the characters would have in such a situation. I'm sure, however, that I don't have that problem with anything in between and I'm thankful that Parker, who is still an independent filmmaker, landed his two leading ladies for this, only his third feature. They're very different, but they do have a couple of things in common: neither are particularly known for their leading roles in features and both of them deserve to be.

Martindale is a character actress, though her recent Emmy for playing the matriarch of a crime family in Justified may well deservedly propel her into more substantial roles. I probably first saw her in The Rocketeer, but she's played in everything from Days of Thunder to Hannah Montana: The Movie via Million Dollar Baby. On TV, her latest of many regular slots is in A Gifted Man. 'I think all actors should be character actors,' she says, and I couldn't agree more. She dominates for at least the first half of Scalene, Janice being our initial focus of attention and the grounding to the film. She stays our focus for quite a while, even as we shift over to scenes with Paige and Jakob, but gradually she lets Hanna Hall take the spotlight in the third act. Just as Hall appears to phone it in for a while but is really highlighting a lack of purpose, I wonder how much a second viewing will add to Martindale's brief contributions later on in the film.

Still under thirty, Hall had appeared in both Forrest Gump and The Virgin Suicides before turning sixteen. However these and many of her subsequent roles, including one as Michael Myers's sister and victim in Rob Zombie's Halloween, were short. Scalene shows what she can do with a lot more screen time, especially given that she has to follow Martindale's performance. While initially appearing to be a throwaway character, rarely visible, she grows magnificently during the second half of the film. The more involved she gets, the more thoughtful she becomes, the more depth she acquires and the more watchable she is. As the film runs on, she really takes over, dominating the film with powerful performances in her big scenes, which are handled very well indeed. Of course, by the end Martindale is back, but they're on much more even terms as characters, underlining just how much this film has relied on both of them.

Backing them up, Adam Scarimbolo does a good job in what is the only non-speaking role in the film. He's background in a lot of shots but he's always doing something, even if it's just some sort of twitch. When he gets more to do, he adds some character into proceedings even though we're not really sure how much character he really has. Jim Dougherty is worthy of mention too, though I'm still not sure how much actual substance his character provides. Everything here is solid, except for that framing scene and the picture quality of the screener I got from Breaking Glass. It was so bad that it looked like I was watching something with the resolution of a VCD, plagued with scary amounts of pixellation. After following up with other reviewers, I can happily report that this does not appear to be a problem with the film itself, just the screener. What you see when you go out and buy your copy should look fine. I'll know how fine when I buy mine.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Screaming in High Heels: The Rise & Fall of the Scream Queen Era (2011)

Director: Jason Paul Collum
Stars: Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer

It's almost surprising to find a documentary that lives up to its subtitle, but this one does exactly what it set out to do. Any horror fan remotely close to my age will realise that it's talking about the straight to video era of the late eighties, a relatively short but prolific period for the three ladies whose interviews constitute much of this film. No, we're not talking about people like Fay Wray or Janet Leigh. While they, and others, were justly famous for screaming in horror movies, they weren't scream queens. However great Fay Wray was, and I'm a great fan, she's nobody's primary reason for watching King Kong. Yet in the late eighties, people began renting this movie over that one purely because it starred Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens or Michelle Bauer. If you were lucky, it starred all of them. As Fred Olen Ray points out, the filmmakers realised that they 'didn't need Erik Estrada or Jan Michael Vincent any more.' The scream queen era was born.

It makes sense for writer/director Jason Paul Collum to make this film. He's documented scream queens before, in 2003's Something to Scream About and covered the topic in Sleepless Nights: Revisiting the Slumber Party Massacres, but this is a focused attempt to define the genre. He's also a fan, someone who grew up watching these movies and deciding that he wanted to make things like them himself. When he's not documenting the genre, he's adding to it, with films like 5 Dark Souls, Julia Wept and October Moon, films starring scream queens like Brinke Stevens and Debbie Rochon, along with Judith O'Dea from Night of the Living Dead, who came along a decade too early to be a scream queen but wouldn't have got naked even if the timing was right. Collum is definitely of the next generation, his first film as a director not coming until 1995, and he's by far the youngest of the various interview subjects we see here.

This film would have benefitted from Collum staying behind the camera. It's not that he doesn't have anything valid to say, it's that everyone else was an active participant in the era and their comments don't need anyone else to guide the history forward. Another flaw is that, while the people he interviews are certainly some of the right people, there aren't that many of them. Of course, the focus is on the ladies and the unholy trinity of scream queens are here, interviewed at length, but there are only six other subjects. Prolific directors Fred Olen Ray, David DeCoteau and Ted Newsom get most screen time, with some left over for actor, writer and director Richard Gabai, writer Kenneth Hall and omnipresent actor Jay Richardson. With so much from the same people, it quickly began to feel like Collum's presence on screen was merely because he couldn't reach anyone else to take his place. Many names are conspicuous only through their absence.

Those flaws aside, this is a notable success. The whole era is covered, from its beginnings as the home video boom began and mom and pop rental stores began to steal the focus for cheap films away from the drive in theatres. We find out about where these three scream queens came from and how they found this particular niche. We see clips from their debuts and their breakthrough roles, as well as all the key movies that I remember. Everyone's favourite will be here. We learn about how these films were made and how it differed from the B movies that went before them. Eventually we hear about the end, as the market reached saturation point and the scream queen epithet got co-opted by every actress who'd ever appeared in a horror movie or taken off her top on screen. At that point, the era was dead, though Collum gives fair credit to the few others who earned the title, including much love for Tiffany Shepis, who's keeping it alive today.
The biggest success is that the film works on multiple levels simultaneously, a trick that most documentaries never quite manage. It feels like an introduction, an accessible starting point for people to discover what scream queens were and why they were special for that brief, colourful slice of cinematic history. Yet there's enough depth here that I learned a great deal, even though I also grew up watching these movies, reading up on them afterwards in Fangoria and trawling market stalls to flesh out filmographies. I wouldn't call myself an expert on the subject, but I know a good deal, certainly enough to notice if Collum took a wrong turn. He didn't, but perhaps he glossed over a few things. What I discovered here was that I already had the era down pretty well, but knew less than I thought I did about the scream queens themselves. Most of what I learned here was from them, especially from early on before they defined the era.

One reason why these three were so successful as scream queens was because they were fans and they had a blast being in these sort of movies. That they were willing to get naked and killed a lot couldn't hurt, but anyone could do that. It was the enjoyment they brought that made the difference. They arrived around the same time, but from different directions. Quigley was a shy girl from a small town, still shy when she got naked and abused in 1975's Psycho from Texas. She arrived in film through modelling, as did Bauer, a self confessed 'free spirit', though Collum omits her time in porn as Pia Snow. Stevens is the eye opener: a Mensa member with a masters degree, she left oceanography when the science jobs dried up and was led into a casting office by the posters. Her breakthrough was earliest, in The Slumber Party Massacre in 1982. Quigley's came with The Return of the Living Dead in 1985, Bauer's a year later again in The Tomb.

The girls have a lot of fun remembering back, though Bauer seems to have mixed feelings about what she did. While she doesn't hide it and she still makes films today, she doesn't tell anyone outside the industry about her career. Stevens relishes it most, the grin on her face contagious as she talks about the lurid covers and titles. I found it funny that she mentioned Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama as an example, given that it was renamed The Imp for UK release. The guys add a lot of background. They churned these movies out without time in between to breathe. Films were shot in a week or less, for a tenth the budget of a drive in B movie. Hall wrote Nightmare Sisters in seven days, DeCoteau shot it in four. Ray describes the late eighties as the most exciting time in American film from a filmmaker's perspective, as everything was opportunity. If you could bring pictures in on time and on budget, you never stopped working.

I liked this film a lot, but I wanted a lot more. I couldn't help but compare it to Machete Maidens Unleashed!, another recent exploitation film documentary that I thoroughly enjoyed. It ran to feature length, while this struggles to make it past an hour. It was built from interviews with a vast array of actors, producers and directors, while this has six guys and three scream queens, plus the director linking bits together. It had so much interview footage that there was another hour and half of further material on the DVD, while this one just has a Q&A from the Flashback Weekend of Horrors. Screaming in High Heels does better with its movie clips and its assorted ephemera, including clips from workout videos, old interviews, even Quigley singing with her band, the Skirts. The bones are really solid, and the flesh is pretty good too but there needs to be more of it. As it stands, it's just a little anorexic.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Pattern: Response (2009)

Director: Stephen C Krystek
Stars: Noel Allison, Mallory Adams and Jason David Young
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
'You can't do this!' cries a man in chains. 'I'm an American, for Christ's sake!' He's panicked but he has a right to be, it would seem, locked up in the dark with only another man for company, a far more laid back man who examines how he got there, right down to the discovery that his entire life is online, in video footage that is timestamped and searchable. It's a classic Philip K Dick type paranoia story, updated to include terms like 'extraordinary rendition' that Dick would certainly have used in his work had he lived long enough to hear them. It's a great setup because it's simple in the extreme but opens the possibility of untold complexity. Who knows where Stephen Krystek, the director and co-writer, is going to take the story. There are so many possibilities that we can only either get bored and quickly drift away or get hooked into the story and try to outguess the direction. Krystek makes his film lean and mean and we can't help but get hooked.

Noel Allison is excellent as Joseph, the focus of the film, who spends the entirety in a surreal state, progressing from doubt and confusion to full blown paranoia. You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you, but he pays his bills, he pays his taxes and he loves his wife; why would anyone want a regular Joe like him? Towards the end of this ten minute short we find out, sort of. Like all the best Dick stories, it leaves us with more questions, however well it's wrapped up. The credits unfold as blackouts in confidential documents, reversed to reveal instead of conceal and they're great to see. This is excellent, superior to the last couple of Krysteks I've seen. Not Quite Dead, his debut as a writer/director, wasn't essential, though it may still be the most honest zombie movie I've ever seen. Her Special Day, which he edited and produced, didn't impress me first time but is growing on me with each viewing. This one is spot on and there are a few more Krysteks to find.

Freeborn (2010)

Director: Carlo Treviso
Stars: Chris Agos, Kristen Kruchowski and Megan Farris

'Every generation needs a new revolution,' said Thomas Jefferson, and that sets our tone for a rather short take on Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Trying to condense that sort of depth and parallel to history into a six minute short is ambitious almost to the point of insanity but writer/director Carlo Treviso gives it a pretty good shot. He transfers the story from the Moon to Mars, though we remain Earthbound. It's fifty years after the colonisation of Mars began and we watch a pivotal moment in time unfold through faux CNN footage, with decent photography of Washington, DC, and solid acting from Chris Agos and Kristen Kruchowski. Agos is Andrew Ashur, a freeborn Martian, who serves as some sort of resistance leader fighting against growing oppression from the Earth, but he's been captured and beaten. Kruchowski is Orlena, his friend and lawyer, who wants him to play ball to save his neck, but he won't swear his allegiance to Earth.

Treviso made a short in 2005 called The Vitruvian Man and he plays the same roles here: as writer, producer, editor and director. He also works the visual effects here, though they're inconsistent. The story is a neat encapsulation of a macro event into a micro scale, cleverly written not just by showing us certain things but by not showing us everything else. What's not shown here is just as important as what is shown. The direction is solid and the editing is slick. The computer graphics aren't bad at all, though I don't know how well they'd play on a big screen. The faux CNN footage is good and Megan Farris is an able narrator. The spaceship action shots are excellent, though the detail isn't there and is hidden mostly by fast editing. The fire on the ground is less capable but it's good to see that we don't need Jerry Bruckheimer to take out American landmarks. I'd happily watch this six minute short another couple of times rather than face Independence Day.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Apparition (2009)

Director: Travis Gerndt
Stars: Kelli Blissard and L Michael Burt

A young multiracial couple get lost in the woods, as young multiracial couples tend to do in short horror films. They're Kristin and Stouder and they end up at an apparently empty cabin, empty that is except for a number of strange dolls scattered on the bed and around the floor, dolls that make strange noises when you tread on them. This pair lie down for the night together but Kristin wakes up alone. Stouder is outside taking a leak and when he gets back, he finds his girlfriend gone and a pair of multiracial dolls on the bed in their place. She becomes the apparition of the title, moving quirkily towards him with a slit throat, because she moved at a quarter speed while the camera shooting her was slowed down to six frames per second. However, not all is what it seems and there's a cool twist to the story to come that turns it into more of an urban legend film. The ten minute running time is relatively unrushed and just seems right.

The man behind the film is Travis Gerndt, who appears late on as a sheriff but is hardly a focal point on screen. However offscreen he did almost everything, presumably building on experience earned as an assistant director, production coordinator or director of photography on a number of films by other people. This is the first he made for himself and he served not just as writer and director, but also as actor, producer, editor and sound technician. Surprisingly for someone who has worked as a DP in the past, he brought in a different DP and someone else to compose the score, but mostly it's his show. The actors on screen don't have much to do, but they're capable. While the film didn't knock my socks off, it's a capable piece, perhaps let down only by some dim lighting in the night scenes. The lack of background to define a framework for the story could be seen by some as a flaw but I think it works generically, as such a generic title would suggest.

Darker Suggestion (2003)

Director: Joseph J Greenberg
Stars: Melina Zarafonits, C R Oberlin, Karen Kweitniak, Kristin Hammond and Vincent DiConstanzo

The opening text explains what telekinesis is, just in case we'd never seen it used in a dozen films this week. The credits unfold over varied texts in a progression of different written languages, from hieroglyphics to modern French and English, which looks awesome but has nothing to do with the movie. Then we switch to St Francis Medical Center where Pam is explaining to Reg in the car park why it's OK not to worry about her mum because now the doctors know what's wrong and they're fixing it. Mum is in the hospital with really bad grey streaks in her hair, but we're not sure quite what the problem is. Reg is the lead character (a girl by the way, it's short for Regina), as she's the one who discovers that she's blessed and cursed with telekinesis. Initially it's a blessing, because she can do some really cool things even by the time her egotist boyfriend Frank turns up, but then she tells her mother, who explains that it's a hereditary thing and it comes with a curse.

Thus far this short film has been a capable thing: the camerawork decent rather than memorable, acting decent rather than great, the story opening up with potential. There are downsides though. There's what appears to be a tendency towards product placement, with a Clorox here and a VO5 there, even though I'm guessing it's coincidental. Every male character is an egotist, starting with Frank. 'I love you,' Reg tells him. 'You're only human,' comes the reply. If Frank is bad, Skip is even worse, even when he's just playing a video game. However from here the flaws start to take over. Now Reg has found her power, the dark men are going to come for her, her mother explains. There will probably be two of them, different for each generation, but she doesn't explain who they are or why they're coming. They're just 'of the night', which is a little vague given the circumstances. Sure enough, they arrive and attempt to take her down, cut rate zombies with no motivation.

There's still good work in the second half of the short, most obviously with the effects which are excellent, full of animated wires and flying implements. I shouldn't have noticed the fish though. When the world stops except for Reg and the dark men, three of them this time, the fish carry on regardless. The make up is terrible. One guy has a large burn mark literally stuck onto his face and the edges are all turned up. They move slowly and stupidly, like zombies with guns, and the entire point of their existence seems to be to attack Reg and lose. I'd like this film a lot more if there was a reason given for Flannel Dark Man, Denim Dark Man and T-Shirt Dark Man to do what they do, but that's entirely ignored in the grand scheme of things. Presumably the point of the picture is to illustrate a point in time where a young lady grows up and comes into her own, and that's fine, but if you're going to build a mythology, give it some reasons to exist. Without that this is minor.

Carter's Abyss (2000)

Director: Joseph J Greenberg
Stars: Jason Romas and Joseph J Greenberg

We're in North Woods, Maine, in 1920, shot in what appears to be a historical village by a bunch of young reenactors. Day one just sees Carter Rittenhouse beaten up and thrown in the abyss of the title, a well underneath the toolshed, leaving him with a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder. Day two sees his cousin Arthur suggesting to the rather young sheriff that he's disappeared, nobody having seen Carter since the funeral of the elder Rittenhouse, naturally rich and influential. By day nine, the rather substantial estate will be signed over to Arthur in his cousin's absence, unless Carter, the true heir, shows back up with an explanation of his disappearance. As the days add up, as they do very rapidly, Carter finds himself trying to conjure up clever ways of staying sane but also finds himself talking to a rat. The aim here is obviously to invoke Edgar Allan Poe and it's not a bad attempt, all told, the flaws being with the people trying to flesh out the characters.

Kudos is due to filmmaker Joseph J Greenberg for putting together everything needed to invoke the period. It isn't just the setting, which is authentic, but the costumes, the cars, the details here and there that I couldn't catch out, even though my contrary nature kept looking for a satellite dish on a roof somewhere. The amateur actors are almost entirely too young for their parts, including the leads, Jason Romas as Arthur and co-writer/director Joseph J Greenberg as Carter. Worst of them all is J Marc Boissonnault, through no fault of his own, who is just insanely young to be a sheriff. None of the younger actors are entirely at home in the twenties costumes, but their two elders carry it off. John Devenney plays a capable lawyer and J C Platt, who plays James, the Rittenhouse butler, looks like a civil war reenactor, though remains conveniently mute. I've seen later Greenberg films and some of the actors remained with him for a decade. This is a capable start but he got better.

Kuriosity Killz (2009)

Director: Trey McGriff
Stars: Trey McGriff and Caron Alisha McGriff

Filmmaker Trey McGriff makes a fine redneck narrator, somehow jolly without being over the top. As Ray Junior, he has that edge where he's not quite sane but could get by for the longest time without anyone calling him on it. Given that the character is from Georgia, I can easily buy into the act, because while I've met some wonderful people in southern Georgia, it has areas that felt like the closest I've ever been to Deliverance country. Ray Junior has the usual redneck hobbies: beer, guns and cowboy hats with skull and crossbones on them. Then again, when Candy comes over on an internet date and to appear in his movie, he plays Go Fish with her rather than some flavour of poker. She's a jolly young thing too, cute as a button and polite as punch, and I'm sure it wouldn't take much imagination to fathom what's going to happen to her soon enough. The handheld style gives it away before we even meet anyone. Fortunately there's a twist coming.
Unfortunately I enjoyed McGriff more as an actor than as a filmmaker. This is utterly his picture, as he didn't just write and direct but handled every other technical aspect of the film from composing the score through designing the sets and costumes to handling the camera, in addition to playing two of the three characters we see. I liked the story, not that it was deep but because it was jovial and engaging and has a neat twist, but that's about all. I don't like handheld camerawork at the best of times and McGriff didn't have the budget of a Cloverfield to play with here. He worked in black and white throughout which comes off as grey and featureless. The jolly tone meant that the pace was lethargic rather than suspenseful. The electronic music is jarring. In the end, I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but it really needs a lot of tightening up to turn it into what it really wants to be. I have a feeling the bits McGriff is most proud of are the bits I liked the least.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Andrew Bird: Fever Year (2011)

Director: Xan Aranda
Stars: Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Michael Lewis, Annie Clark and Andrew Bird
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
I'd never heard of Andrew Bird before seeing this documentary, so it became my introduction to him and his work. I don't like going in blind, preferring documentaries about subjects I know at least a little about. Partly it's because they're at once familiar and enlightening, but mostly it's because I appreciate having a frame of reference to work from. I'm likely to notice pretty quickly whether they're biased in a particular direction or whether they're even remotely accurate. The successful ones enhance my knowledge and understanding of the subject. The less successful ones range from fun but inconsequential to completely worthless, but I'll have an idea which. If the subject is entirely new to me, I'm entirely without reference points to determine whether the treatment is fair or accurate. So here, while the film introduced me to a couple of musicians I'd be happy to know more about, I can only really judge it on its cinematic merits.

My wishlist for music documentaries is twofold: a copious amount of performance to give me a feel for what the subject does by listening to them play, with an additional something to validate why they deserve a feature all of their own. What makes them special and why? Fever Year does well at the former, but not particularly well at the latter. I enjoyed Bird's music so I'm thankful for the introduction to his work, but I'm less sold on the insight into why he warrants a documentary. In many ways, Bird as a person is lost in this picture, surrounded by and consumed by his music. There's some poetry to be found in his playfulness with language and in his obvious affection for the visual, even though he closes his eyes while playing. Perhaps this comes from growing up on a gorgeous farm in the countryside, thinking about distance. His delightful speakers look like old Victrola horns. Even his choice of coffee maker highlights a visual aesthetic.

Yet, these are small moments. The big picture is Bird's music, not Bird himself. Talking about his life, his background, himself, he just doesn't seem to be that interesting. It's when he talks about his music that he comes alive and it's when he plays his music that he turns into someone truly magnetic to watch. There's so little of Bird himself here that we wonder if he even exists outside his music. What's more, he seems to know it. He makes some very telling comments during the film. 'Music just swallowed me whole,' he tells us. 'I am what I do.' At one point he goes deeper. 'When I'm solo,' he says, 'I get to really crawl inside the songs and lose myself.' We're left with the impression that he did this early in life, given that he was trained on violin from the age of four, and he hasn't found his way out again yet. I wonder if the titular fever made a difference there. He ends up on crutches by the end credits, surely life's way of telling him to refocus.
And so we see Bird only through his art. He's a highly regarded multi-instrumentalist with a particular focus on the violin, who moved from classical music through jazz and indie rock to a folk influenced sound. We open and close with him on stage in ostentatiously sparkly shoes that don't fit the rest of the experience. He seems unassuming, down to earth, someone who might have just walked in from busking on the street, down to the consistently unkempt hair. Yet the shoes are something Liberace might wear. Maybe they help him feel like a showman, but we're not given an explanation. The song that he plays is unusual, with a fun and surprisingly overt use of whistling. We're treated to many songs, mostly performed live. I found that I preferred the the quirky material to the conventional and the instrumental material to the vocal. Bird does quirky really well and his core collaborators are up to the challenge.

Many of the stories we hear are so routine for music documentaries that we can almost close our eyes and imagine the words coming out of the mouths of any artist we like. He spends much of his time on the road, working at a ferocious pace. He feels more alive on stage, often unsatisfied in the studio. He plays new instruments for hours to put them through the sonic tests he needs to know they're right, rather than just looking at himself in the mirror with them. None of this is remotely surprising. The only real twist to the usual stories is that, as the title suggests, Bird was suffering from a fever for most of the year he was being filmed. It didn't seem to slow him down. Visually, there's much of the same. We see him on stage, we see him backstage. It's fun to see a variety of the poster art from his long tours but again, it's hardly groundbreaking. While the film ran smoothly, it felt like it needed something more to emerge from the background.

It never got there. I enjoyed the film, but after the credits rolled I found that it had made so little impact that it was almost like it hadn't been. Left in its wake were a few vague memories that I should seek out some of Bird's albums and write his name on a virtual post-it note in the back of my mind in case he comes through town. More than that, I felt I should read up on what Martin Dosh has done. Dosh is Bird's percussionist and he's portrayed as something of a kindred spirit, not only because of his multi-instrumental talents and his strong use of loop pedals. There isn't much of a focus on him, of course, as this isn't his film, but the brief moments we have hint that a documentary about him has the potential to be what this one isn't. Of course, if he's as similar to Bird as a person as he is as a musician, maybe it would succeed and fail in precisely the same ways as this film. It takes more than music to enliven a documentary about a musician.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Below Zero (2011)

Director: Justin Thomas Ostensen
Stars: Edward Furlong, Michael Berryman and Kristin Booth
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
This is a Twilight Picture, apparently, but not a Twilight picture. Let me make that clear right off the bat. You'd really think they'd change their name. More promising is the setting, the middle of Canadian nowhere, and the cast, which isn't big but is impressive. Kristin Booth is Penny, a small town single mother who's desperately trying to be Frances McDormand in Fargo and doing a pretty decent job of it. She picks up Edward Furlong, who's a screenwriter from California known as Jack the Hack. He's suffering from writer's block and his agent is going to drop him if he can't produce a script in a week, so perhaps locking him inside an Alberta meat freezer might do the trick. Jack tries to pass it off as method writing, but he really doesn't have a choice: Penny isn't to let him out until he's done. I get the concept. So does the screenwriter of this film, Signe Olynyk, who apparently did for real what Jack gets to do, and in the same meat freezer to boot.

Given that we can't fail to merge the two of them in our imaginations as we watch the product of theirs, it seems surprising that Jack is pretty much a waste of space. Sure, he wrote a successful movie, but that was four years ago and Penny saw it. 'But I'm sure this one'll be good,' she tells him. The cleverest thing he says is the tagline to the movie: 'There's nothing scarier than a blank page.' It sounds like he's said it many times before; his nickname is presumably a lot truer than he'd like it to be. He's as lacking outside of work too. While Penny is taking good care of her son, the silent Cole who's 'a good kid, just different', Jack hasn't seen his son in three years, a shock when he realises it. I was shocked to realise that this marks a full two decades since Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but Furlong has worked through American History X, The Crow: Wicked Prayer and Detroit Rock City to end up looking somewhat like a young Sam Raimi.

And so off we go. Penny has set everything up as per his agent's instructions. He gets a bed, a set of books and a school desk to put his laptop on. There's food, of course, but no toilet, just a bucket. There's no internet and the phone is broken. A cork board, a goldfish in a bowl and Elvis the dead pig hanging from the roof ought to be less distracting. He does get a ball, which is all Steve McQueen needed in The Great Escape. There's also a screenplay Penny wrote, just in case he gets bored. He may well need it, because without it he starts out with, 'What if someone was accidentally locked in a meat freezer by a serial killer... who doesn't know he's in there?' That's all the setup we get. She locks him in and we're ready to be stuck with Jack and his writer's block for five full days. That isn't promising, as it sounds a lot cooler than it's likely to look, something that feels more like a novel than a feature length film. Clocks ticking in movies are annoying.

What we get instead is a neat blurring of reality and imagination, as we see what Jack starts to conjure up. I was reminded of a Tom Waits interview. 'Some songs come out of the ground just like a potato,' he explained about his inspirations. 'Others you have to make out of things you've found: like your mother's pool cue, your dad's army buddy, your sister's wristwatch.' Waits has the luxury of time, of course, while Jack the Hack is stuck in a meat freezer with Elvis the dead pig and the most important deadline of his life. There's not a lot to find, by design, so he builds his screenplay out of the things he, and we, saw in the first twenty minutes: hooks, cows, a tarp, a silent little kid and a locking door. Of course, he imagines a decor that's dirtier, grittier, darker, more horror movie. The walls are bloody, with partial skeletons on those hooks, a woman hung from the ceiling along with the pigs. Oh, and Michael Berryman, of course. Let's not forget him.
It's an interesting approach, especially when you factor in the real life layer. Just as Signe Olynyk apparently imagined herself into Jack the Hack, Jack in turn imagines himself into Frank, a tow truck driver who's a take on Cole's mysterious and absent father. It's relatively predictable, but it's capable enough. Of course the silent kid is a fictionalised version of Cole, called Golem. The woman hanging from the ceiling is Paige, a social worker investigating him. Just as Furlong plays both Jack and Frank, Kristin Booth plays both Penny and Paige and Sadie Madu plays both Cole and Golem. She's an Edmonton local, only nine years old, cast because she knew this location well, having visited the slaughterhouse for Hallowe'en parties. The film's website suggests that appearing in this film inspired her to join a youth theatre group. It's a pretty cool way to start a career. Now I need to be shocked to realise it's 2031 so I can look back at her achievements.

There are a couple of new characters. Michael Eisner (no, not the billionaire former Disney CEO) gets a little screen time as Morty, Frank's colleague in the towing business. Michael Berryman gets much more, of course. He channels a Karloff as the Mummy vibe as Gunnar, a completely cuckoo serial killer in a leather butcher's apron. He's worth watching whatever the material, but Berryman can do freaky in his sleep. To stand out against anything else in his filmography, this would need substance, much more than just Jack rewinding the footage he imagines to slip in new plot devices. Some substance arrives the moment we shift back to reality, only to discover that Jack is his own worst enemy because he's not there alone. He's been locked into this meat freezer with his inner demons, which blur the line between reality and his imagination as they torment him. They also seriously boost Jack the Hack as a character.

What follows is less a horror movie and more an exploration of the writing process and how hard it is to write. It's not just about writer's block, it's about doubt, motivation, integrity and a special brand of insanity which only writers will recognise. It's this last third of the film that will matter most when people determine what they think of it, as the first two acts are pretty accessible and straightforward. The first is all setup, played entirely straight, while the second reimagines the reality as fiction and begins to blur the two together. The third ratchets it all up a notch, as you might expect, but it also convolutes the story and makes us unsure whether what we see is real or not. When a fictional version of the film's writer imagines a fictional version of a character real to him and she tells him that a further fictional version of herself who has been interacting with a fictional version of himself could really be fictional to his fictional self, it may be a little too far.

I felt that the last act started out well but lost itself and I watched the film twice to be sure. It got to the point where I started to wonder whether any of this was real or whether the key to it all is Jack's T-shirt, which reads 'Insanity'. I see the cues that tell us what's real and what's not, but I'm not convinced that they're the only ones. That second viewing did help and I won't discount the possibility that a third might clear up the rest, but somehow I doubt it. I think I may now have got out what was put in. I wonder how much of an idea Signe Olynyk had about what she was going to write before getting locked in that real meat freezer, but maybe she took a journey inside her head, just like Jack does, and found herself a good story, only to lose it again before wrapping it up. At least it isn't BOSH, the term Penny uses to highlight how Jack's work is the same ol' same ol'. It stands for Bunch Of Shit Happens. Whatever else it is, at least this isn't BOSH.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Theatre Bizarre (2011)

Directors: Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, Jeremy Kasten, Tom Savini and Richard Stanley
Stars: Udo Kier, Guilford Adams, Suzan Anbeh, Lindsay Goranson, André Hennicke, Kaniehtiio Horn, Lena Kleine, Catriona MacColl, Victoria Maurette, Virginia Newcomb, Debbie Rochon, Tom Savini and Melodie Simard
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Horror anthology films are often hit and miss affairs but this one's even more hit and miss than usual. There are six segments from six different directors and eight different writers, along with a vague framing story from another one each of each, and none of them seem to have anything remotely in common with any of the others with regards to actors, tone or genre. Not even the language is consistent. At the time I wondered if it wasn't a real anthology at all, perhaps just a few unrelated short films which someone acquired the rights to and decided to pass off as an anthology, but I now see commonalities within the crew. Douglas Buck, for instance, wrote and directed The Accident, but edited Wet Dreams, Vision Stains and Sweets too. Karim Hussain, who wrote, shot and directed Vision Stains, was also the cinematographer on The Mother of Toads and The Accident. So it appears to be a real anthology, all other evidence to the contrary.

Unfortunately the first segment is by far the worst. It's Mother of Toads, an adaptation of a Clark Ashton Smith story by Richard Stanley of Hardware and Dust Devil fame. I'm a big fan of Smith, a contemporary of H P Lovecraft and contributor to Weird Tales. What set Smith apart from other writers was his vocabulary; reading a Smith story is a lush, immersive experience unmatched in weird fiction, but precisely none of that was translated to the screen here. What we get instead is thoroughly routine. An anthropologist and his wife tour France so he can research and she can buy things, but they stumble upon a copy of the Necronomicon in the hands of a local witch and that never ends well. It isn't all bad, as the imagery is decent, if not remotely new, and Catriona MacColl is fine, but it all feels flimsy and predictable. I'll never complain about a nubile, naked witch, but this needed freakiness and tension and only the toads in the forest come close.

I Love You is an improvement, but is so different it's impossible to compare. New York writer and director Buddy Giovinazzo, still best known for his debut film, Combat Shock, gets psychological in Berlin with a neatly arced story about Axel and Simone, an obsessive German and his former French girlfriend. They're played by German actors, André Hennicke and Suzan Anbeh, who are much better in their native language than they are in English and they know it. Axel wakes up in the bathroom covered in blood, recovering from a fight that he doesn't remember. Outside is Mo with her new boyfriend George, and our story begins when she comes in and comes clean. It's a brutal psychological piece, which plays with our sympathies and ends well, though I did want a twist on the twist. Hennicke is excellent, like a young Polanski mixed with Robert Carlyle and a little Viggo Mortensen. I'd like to see more of his work, which is increasingly not in German.

After a Lovecraftian tale and a psychological foreign drama, next up is a more traditional horror yarn all about sex, violence and dreams. Oh, and special effects. It's directed by the legendary Tom Savini, after all. I liked it, but more for the many layers of reality and dream that it travels through than the gore, which is still agreeably solid and rarely off screen. There's more here to remember in a short segment than in most features, beginning with a POV shot where we follow a girl in a thong and progressing through torture, genital mutilation, amputation, you name it, all done capably and gratuitously. The biggest problem that Wet Dreams has is that it has precious little time to work with, so can't really build anything in such a way that we can try to figure any of it out. Without intellectual engagement, it becomes merely a set of revelations, all fun ones to be sure, but revelations nonetheless. It deserves more length to be explored properly.
Slow and atmospheric from moment one, The Accident is a jarring shift in the pace of the film, which is a shame because it's the best segment thus far. It's beautifully shot, both the leisurely motion and the photographic stills; it's scored well; and it unfolds superbly, inevitable in plot but ambiguous in effect, which is a neat little combo to have. 'Why do people die, mummy?' the little girl asks, as the film flashes back to the title scene where a biker who waved to her hit a deer. It isn't clear on one viewing exactly what writer/director Douglas Buck, an unfortunate name given the circumstances, was aiming at here. Obviously there are many questions asked about death, not just by the little girl and not just about the biker. There's a gruesome scene that I won't spoil that takes that deeper. Yet I wonder if there's more: it seems notable that the mother/daughter are in a car but the unrelated father/son are on motorbikes. I'd love to see this again.

Almost to underline how the common thread of these segments is to not have a common thread, the fifth piece mixes science fiction and horror into a story that aims to find the secret of life in an unusual way. The protagonist in Vision Stains, credited simply as the Writer, extracts fluid from the eyes of dying women and injects it into her own. In doing so, she extracts the important things from their lives, which presumably flash before their eyes at the moment of their death, to document for posterity. Being their biographer is a calling and she has a lot of notebooks. This is a neat take on an old idea, which calls on actress Kaniehtiio Horn to get into freaky locations and do icky things. I last saw her in The Wild Hunt and I appreciated her work there too. I'm not sure I caught everything Karim Hussain aimed at, but it's telling that he's known as a cinematographer more than a writer/director, a worker in the visual. It's original and it has a great escalation.

Last up is a metaphor from David Gregory, the prolific biographer in film whose work tends to be found by clicking on the 'Extras' button on DVD menus rather than 'Play Movie'. However I was a big fan of his last feature, Plague Town, and I liked this short piece, Sweets, very much too. It has to do with a compulsive eater called Greg, a complete slob in a mess of a place, but who still has a lovely girlfriend in Estelle. Well, maybe not. As she wheels out all the leaving lines and he gets progressively grosser, they flashback to increasingly weird foot fetish scenes and we realise that she isn't real, or at least isn't any more. Then we switch from Greg's suitably gross environs to a chic party, a wonderful contrast in style and setting but still very much about food fetishes and eating disorders. This is far from your average chic party, folks, and it gets less so from there. It's a very European piece, weird but arty, and put together very well indeed.

Our host and guide is the ever-freaky Udo Kier, sharing the stage of the Theatre Guignol with a host of automatons during the linking segments. These segments are weak but the name of this theatre is important, as the film was apparently inspired by the legendary Grand Guignol theatre in Paris, which, at the height of its success from 1898-1930, specialised in short gory plays with shocking special effects. An average of two audience members fainted every evening. I knew of the Grand Guignol but hadn't realised that its shows varied in style as much as the segments of this film, even alternating horror plays with comedies to heighten the effect. Each director built their own tribute from a consistent budget, schedule and directive to follow the Grand Guignol themes, but with complete artistic freedom otherwise. With each segment featuring something icky or gross to focus on, this would seem to be fair tribute, but it's still annoyingly disjointed.

The Horror Show (1989)

Director: James Isaac
Stars: Lance Henriksen, Brion James, Rita Taggert, Dedee Pfeiffer, Aron Eisenberg, Thom Bray and Matt Clark

How good must a movie be if a director as good as David Blyth can't do it justice? No, that's both wishful and backward thinking. Let's try again. How bad must be a movie be if a director as good as David Blyth gets fired and one of the two writers, Allyn Warner, has his credit switched to Alan Smithee? It doesn't help that it was promoted outside the States as part of the House series, to which it's connected only by a few crew members. So, much of the film is set in a house? That's almost every non-western out there, right? That's all the distributors needed, apparently, so now it serves mostly to confuse people looking back, like Halloween III: Season of the Witch. I don't remember it being that bad, though it's been a couple of decades, and it stars Lance Henriksen and Brion James, two of my favourite actors. James has even said that the role he plays here, of mass murderer Max Jenke, was his favourite of all his roles. Let's watch again and find out.

Jenke is a real piece of work, not just your average, run of the mill serial killer but a candidate for Olympic gold if the Americans get their national pastime added to the event roster. He racked up a hundred and ten or so victims, seven of whom were cops. He leaves Det Lucas McCarthy, the cop who finally caught him, with nightmares so bad that he feels he has to see Jenke executed in order to find peace. That quickly turns out to be a terrible idea because pretty it isn't. Jenke is a stereotypical Hollywood badass: he spits his communion wafer back at the priest; his last words are profanity, directed at no less a warden than Lawrence Tierney; his final request is even to be buried with his treasured meat cleaver. In lesser hands, all this would be annoyingly cheesy, but this is Brion James. His electrocution scene is a peach; when he breaks out of the chair, burning alive, and swears to McCarthy that he's coming back for him, we'd better pay attention.
And of course, he does. His spirit takes up residence in the furnace in McCarthy's basement and has a ball playing around with his captor's mind, appearing at every opportunity, manipulating reality and threatening violence. Only McCarthy notices for a while, which makes him look as crazy as he starts to feel, stabbing the turkey when it grows Jenke's head on its own or shooting the TV when Jenke takes over the role of a stand up comedian. While the basic idea could easily be seen as a take on Obi Wan Kenobi's 'If you kill me, I'll become more powerful than you could ever imagine' line from Star Wars, the approach is totally A Nightmare on Elm Street with every opportunity taken to set up a shock moment. Not all are telegraphed and not all follow through, which helps the suspense to build nicely. The biggest difference is that this focuses far more on Det McCarthy than his kids, who would have been the main targets in most horror movies.

I really like this approach. It means that when McCarthy's daughter Bonnie brings her boyfriend Vinnie home against orders and Jenke takes his cleaver to him, it's McCarthy who's set up as the prime suspect. Given that he almost strangled his wife in a nightmare even before Jenke is put into the electric chair, maybe he really is and the whole reincarnated evil spirit thing is just him stuck in a nightmarish attack of post-traumatic stress disorder. That's the sort of thing that you might expect in a traditional thriller and it's refreshing to see an actor as good and as good at playing tough as Henriksen stuck in that sort of helpless scenario, where even the people he's trying to protect wonder if he's actually the one hurting them. He resists the horror aspects and plays McCarthy like he's in a psychological thriller, while the rest of the cast are happy to go for the stereotypical horror movie victim approach instead.

The often jarring disconnect between these different approaches ought to be a big problem, but bizarrely it's something of a success because it plays well into Jenke's surreal nightmare logic. I wonder if it was consciously aimed at. I'm guessing not, given that otherwise this really isn't that cleverly written. There are many holes in the internal consistency to deal with, even restricted to those we can confidently assume happen outside of nightmares. Some are little, like McCarthy's apparent non-concern about his son's habit of ripping off companies by pretending that he found icky things in their products. Others are larger, like what Prof Peter Campbell gets up to for most of the movie. He's a parapsychologist interested in pure evil as electromagnetic energy, so he's at once the key to the plot and a character who hardly gets to take part in it. I'm still confused about the final scene. Where does it takes place and how does everyone get there?
Story aside, the cast are capable, even though they gel about as well as the approaches taken by the actors. Henriksen does his usual solid job and the ladies will enjoy the fact that he spends quite a bit of it topless. He was in awesome shape and he was happy to show it, though he gets even more physical and even more frequently topless in Pumpkinhead and Survival Quest, both made only a year earlier. Rita Taggart is impressive as his wife Donna, but her character is badly built, spending half the film as a pillar of strength and then turning weak at a moment's notice. Bonnie is as stereotypical a horror movie daughter as I've seen, and her brother Scott isn't far off being as stereotypical a horror movie son. Dedee Pfeiffer and Aron Eisenberg aren't bad at all, however much the latter is trying to be Corey Haim, but there's not much for them to do. Thom Bray has a Norman Bates feel to him as Prof Campbell, but he gets no opportunities either.

And that leaves Brion James. After a string of important character roles in films like Blade Runner and the 48 Hrs movies in the early eighties, which highlighted his versatility, he gradually found himself typecast as a stereotypical villain or sidekick. He remained consistently solid, as material decreased in quality, but he rarely got the chance to really shine. This movie, at the other end of the eighties from his best, was the exception. He's a riot throughout, as cheesy as his lines get, and the film's commercial success ought to have meant a return to the role in a sequel or two. The horror genre has always loved series and it fell utterly in lust with franchises in the eighties. Perhaps getting lumped in with the House series around the world made it tougher to become its own franchise. Whatever the reason, it's easy to see why he was so fond of the character and he's why I'm more fond of The Horror Show than Wes Craven's Shocker, its overt rival in 1989.

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Photon Effect (2010)

Director: Dan Poole
Stars: Dan Poole and Derek Minter

It would be easy to wonder what sort of story we're watching here. Before the title screen we get a trio of young men in body armour and spine sheaths with neon blue lights pretending to be X-Men. They seem to be mounting some sort of mission to plant explosives on industrial equipment but it isn't particularly clear what they're doing. The one subtly named Damage sticks his hands in what looks like a photocopier and apparently gains the power to throw fireballs at people. It's all a little much but when he leaves the building, he explodes. It's comic book superhero stuff. After the title screen, we find ourselves grounded in blue collar reality with a couple of cousins who work for American Antenna. They're refreshingly real, down to earth workers, all the way down to Jay and Derek Powers being played by a couple of actors who are great fun to watch but are far from slick Hollywood star material. They're given good dialogue too, which is enjoyably free of cool inanity.

You know the two stories are going to meet at some point and they do so in explosive fashion. The cut rate X-Men work for a company called Randall Communications Inc, as human test subjects in an experimental weapons program. American Antenna contracts to RCI because, as Derek points out, they're the only company willing to put up unknown, untested electronic transmitters. It's on a trip to RCI that Jay notices Tina, his ex-fiancée, working there and he's dying to get an opportunity to win her back after eight years. So he pops round after hours to talk to her and ends up taking on the security guard outside instead. She eventually shows up, with the guys in body armour. One of them fires an oversized penis extension of a ray gun at his car which promptly gets tossed up in the air like a pancake. Another flips sparks out of his fingers, just as a suggestion that he might want to get the heck out of Dodge. He's bright enough to realise when he's outgunned.

It's fun to watch a couple of protagonists who are bright and dumb at the same time instead of just concentrating on the latter. Most of this is due to the efforts of Dan Poole, who was something of a one man crew on this movie. He wrote, produced and directed; he served as production designer and stunt coordinator; and he also played one of the two leads, Derek Powers. It's entirely his film and it's not a particularly surprising progression from his first film, a 46 minute demo reel called The Green Goblin's Last Stand, made for $500 and sent to James Cameron, at the time the director assigned to Spider-Man. Derek is a good guy. Even though he starts out in a shirt that reads 'Authentic Lifesaver', he's a realistic hero. As the tagline to the movie runs, 'not everyone wants the power to change things,' and the evolution of his superpowers, because yes, he gets them, is far more believable than anything Marvel or DC conjured up over the last century.

RCI are working on a secret weapons program tied to experimental microwave antennae, which Jay and Derek get to attach to towers. As Jay fools around while his cousin is fitting one of them, the accident happens and Derek turns into Photon, the Human Antenna. Jay turns into the Black Hole, a little more deliberately, essentially to impress Tina and win her back from Destroy. All this sounds impeccably cheesy but it isn't, it's character driven and thoroughly grounded. The cheese is kept in reserve for the various appearances of the Dial-a-Hurt Squad, those guys in body armour who get precisely no depth and no background. They're even called dumb names: Damage, Degrade, Deny and Destroy. I get the impression that Poole made them deliberately cheesy to epitomise the Hollywood superhero genre, while letting the Powers boys show what the indie scene can do. I may be reading too much into it, but that's what it felt like to me and it felt good.
Poole is excellent as Derek Powers, but fortunately he has Derek Minter to play off as his cousin Jay. They have different acting styles and play very different characters, but they work very well together, not least through the power of sarcasm which is used to joyous effect here in a literate script. Jay is far more volatile than his cousin, a textbook underachiever who's a little fond of the bottle and a little quick to anger. 'I knew you'd be a baby when I got my superpowers!' he tells Derek, as they face off against each other for the first time, and that's a line that could sum up Hollywood today all on its own. Poole has a talent for dialogue, which is intelligent but believable, even when he stoops to homage with lines like, 'You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry.' Dialogue doesn't cost anything but it often seems like the last thing low budget filmmakers try to build up when compensating for a lack of financing. Poole likes dialogue and character as well as effects.

The Powers boys are magnificently fleshed out for a low budget feature like this. Apparently it cost a mere $117,000 which is truly amazing given the technical quality of what Poole gets up onto his screen. Some of the overlay and rear projection work needs improvement but most of the rest is surprisingly good and I found that I enjoyed the result a lot more than the last dozen superhero films I saw with a thousand times the budget to play with. No, it's not going to stand up against what Weta Digital might conjure up but it doesn't have to. It only has to be good enough to prompt us to marvel a little at the spectacle while we care about the characters, and it's easily up to that. It didn't take any effort to look past some of the flimsy walls they break through or the instability of Photon running alongside a purse snatcher on his motorbike. I cared more about Derek's doctor and Kelly Hammond's assistant at Biolabs than I did about Iron Man. They had better lines too.

In fact there are a whole host of supporting characters who are great fun to watch. The acting is consistently capable, even though these folks don't all seem to be incredibly experienced. Most inherently obvious are the Dial-a-Hurt guys, because they're a macho dream with their huge guns and body armour. They are also the most wooden actors in the film but that's probably by design. The real supporting characters are led by Ariana Almajan and Brian Razzino. Almajan plays Jay's old flame, Tina Viccarini, and she does so with stunning matter of factness. Razzino is Bob Chase, the head of RCI, and he's a suitable wiener of a villain for someone who has no powers of his own. Alex Baker plays Kelly Hammond, who progresses from a purse snatch victim to a key player in helping Derek deal with his new found abilities. I didn't catch the names of some of the lesser characters but they were all good fun. I hope I see many of them again in the inevitable sequel.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Ruffians (2009)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Gordon Clark, Dani Danger and Dean Veglia

Through no deliberate design, my first review in July was of a Travis Mills short film. Now we're in August, it felt like a good idea to kick off the month by reviewing another one. There are plenty to catch up on, after all, and he remains as prolific as ever. The way he's going, I could make my first review of every month a Travis Mills short film and I'd still never catch up. This one predates Running Wild Pictures, being a GuerillaStar Production from 2009, his earliest directorial credit at IMDb, and it's a particularly interesting piece. It's long for a short, running nineteen minutes. It's accessible but experimental, with an overlay of interference that would make us wonder if there was a problem if only Jim wasn't obviously hearing it too. He's our lead character and he takes us on a primal journey that we can read as a literal one, a metaphorical one or a psychological one. I'm not sure which was intended, but it could well have been all of them.

Jim works in a law office and he's apparently good at his job, but his work has been slipping for a while. His boss tells him he's slowing down when he should be speeding up, but he doesn't hear too much of it because of the static that seems to sit between him and the world. The camera is a swooping thing too, keeping him perpetually off balance. The sound follows him wherever he goes, only disappearing inside the tunnel opposite his office, to which he naturally feels drawn. On the literal level, I've heard of remote places where people who hear wireless signals can go to escape them. On the metaphorical level, it's an quick and easy respite from a world full of suits, deadlines and paperwork. On the psychological level, maybe Jim is just going dramatically crazy. Whichever viewpoint we're taking, Gordon Clark is on target as Jim, both tormented by the world he can't live in any more and engaged by the strange new one he finds within the tunnel.

Given that Kikei, the first character he meets, is played by the legendary Dani Danger, Arizona locals will quickly realise how strange it might be. For those unfamiliar with the lovely Miss Dani, she's a singular vision and a wake up call to the eyes on a daily basis. Here, she's barefoot, everything including her forward hanging dreads caked in clay and the subdermal cross in her cleavage even more apparent than usual. I guess we can understand why Jim runs, a kneejerk reaction, but we can also understand why he comes back later. I mean, think about it. This guy clearly wants out of the real world, whichever level we believe he's doing it on. If the possibility of escape involved shacking up with Dani Danger and her Ruffians in a primitive, almost silent, underground world of food, fire and freedom, wouldn't you jump at it? Your decision should be made even before she strips naked in front of you. By that point, who would want reality?

Quite what Mills was aiming at here, I'm not entirely sure. His screenplay, based on a story he co-wrote with Drew Koshar, is long on tone and short on detail, with what little dialogue there is often hidden behind walls of sonic pollution. It's much more like an impressionistic painting than a draughtsman's drawing, but there is an underlying structure to what happens to Jim. Maybe it's more like a vision quest, each of us tasked with seeking out a hidden truth about ourselves from within the film. This is enhanced by Brandon Reader's ritualistic tribal score and Dave Surber's effectively loose camerawork, which mirrors how out of sync Jim is with the world. I'm leaning towards a psychological take, a minimalistic but outré riff on the end of Brazil, but I'm enticed by the metaphorical one too. The Ruffians are all about rejection of norms and Jim has many norms to reject, from credit cards to American football. Maybe it's both. Now, where's this tunnel?

The Ruffians can be viewed for free at Vimeo.