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Sunday, 4 November 2012

6 Degrees of Hell (2012)

Director: Joe Raffa
Stars: Corey Feldman, Brian Anthony Wilson, Nicole Cinaglia and David J Bonner

A scary dude with bad teeth sharpens his sickle threateningly, so that four youngsters run from him into the clutches of the chainsaw wielding maniac instead. No, it's not the same old cliché hauled out yet again, these are customers at Hotel of Horror, a real haunted house attraction in Saylorsburg, PA, which Joe Raffa, the director of 6 Degrees of Hell, selected to become the fake haunted house attraction in his film. It's one of his better decisions. Screams are in the air and people seem to be having a good time. One thing that I took away from this film is that however awful the fiction gets, the reality looks pretty good. It's too far to Saylorsburg for this film to work as a commercial for me, but anyone more local should check it out next Halloween and let me know how it is. The catch, of course, is that I'm not here to review a key location from this film, I'm supposed to be reviewing the film itself and that's a whole other story.

It's not all bad, I can tell you that, but there's not much that's good and it's notably dishonest. If you look at a poster or any publicity, you'll see the name of Corey Feldman. While I'm far from convinced that anyone would want to watch the Feldmeister play a paranormal investigator in a movie, he is at least a name to act as a draw. Unfortunately he has nothing to do with the story whatsoever. His scenes, which may total ten minutes if I'm generous, place him in a dark room in a police station talking to a cop, the only character with whom he has any interaction at all. He doesn't seem to have liked the idea of being a paranormal investigator so he plays Kyle Brenner like a hardboiled detective instead, one with an arrogant fringe that even emos would shrink at and an electronic cigarette. As you can imagine, it's pretty difficult not to giggle at the levels of toughness he believes he's reaching. We just shrug him off like he's a commercial break.
Writer Harrison Smith started out his career with The Fields, a subtle horror/thriller/drama which generated a lot of buzz, much of it centered around him and his potential after such a promising debut. Unfortunately this doesn't help extend that promise, being weaker in every regard. Early problems tie to the writing, as the three strands of the plot are clumsily woven together. Later, once we figure that out, it improves, but even at its best it doesn't compare well to The Fields. The first strand revolves around Hotel of Horror, a haunted house attraction preparing to open for this year's season. The second ties to a paranormal investigator who stars on television in a show called Dead TV. The last involves four young friends, one of whom has psychic power and who traumatically but correctly foresees the imminent death of one of the others. These three strands are tied together in a number of ways that do become clear but take a while to do so.

Part of the problem is the complexity, but perhaps that goes along with the title. Never mind six degrees, everyone here seems to be a mere two degrees away from everyone else. Part of it ties to the sheer number of characters. We can't easily fathom who's important or whether they're important in themselves or only as links to others. It's unfortunate too that the actors who shine brightest tend to play less important characters. Susan Moses is best in my eyes, playing a local psychic, Mary Wilkins. She's supplied Jack, the owner of Hotel of Horror, with a host of artefacts of real occult power, though we have no idea why; she mentored Erik Sanborn, the star of Dead TV; and she becomes important to June Galloway, the fortune teller of the four kids. It's a shame that her talents are squandered on a character that contradicts herself, makes little sense and promptly vanishes from the film once she's linked others together in our mind.

So we have to figure a lot of this out for ourselves by evaluating why they're there. Gradually we realise, for instance, that the most obvious character, Kellen Hudson, isn't the lead at all. That's an easy trap to fall into because he's played by Joe Raffa, the film's director, because he gets the sassiest lines and because he seems to be the focus so often, arguing with his parents, leaving home and getting into trouble with the cops. Yet he's really only there to be a link between June and Jack, who's his uncle. Once we learn that, he fades away into the background. Similarly, we expect Kyle Brenner to be a focal point given that he's a TV star who did a show on the haunted former asylum that the Hotel of Horror occupies, but really he's just a conduit for June to figure out what's going on before we get to the finalé. If this is the point of the title, that we're drawn closer by degrees to the Hell that will be unleashed, it's notably disappointing.
While the sweep of the writing is clumsy and difficult to fathom, the details are often well done. There's some quality dialogue, not all of it given to Kellen. A few actors, like Brian Gallagher as Uncle Jack, are able to turn relatively unimportant scenes into tours de force because they have such good dialogue to work with. There's also fascinating background detail to be found, though much of it is lost in the morass of not fascinating background detail. For every six scenes about Kellen, we get one about June, who's really the lead character, and we cherish them. She has a real history. She was born with a membrane across her face that was cut off and kept, for some reason, in formaldehyde. Her mum was killed by a neighbour when she was really young. She figures that something possessed her face. She has powers, but isn't aware of how many or how strong. She's a well written character not highlighted enough and Nicole Cinaglia plays her well.

At the end of the day, this is really three films. There's 45 minutes of mediocre complexity with a few good and bad bits thrown in for good measure.There's 10 Feldmeister minutes so he can be the primary draw for the film (the next most prominent draw is Jill Whelan, the little girl on The Love Boat, who only gets a single scene and a single word of dialogue). And, eventually, there's a half hour advert for Hotel of Horror because what the long finalé lacks in substance, it makes up for with sheer exuberance. The performers in the haunted house are the real performers, so they know exactly what they're doing and it's obvious that they relished the freedom to actually touch their customers for a change, albeit fictional ones. Most of the best scenes of the film are parts of the finalé. The rest tie to actors: Gallagher shines, Moses resonates and Faust Checho is a great pain in the ass police chief. It's a shame they weren't in a better film.

6 Degrees of Hell will be released by Breaking Glass pictures on 27th November, 2012.

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