Apocalypse Later Empire



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Also announcing the 2nd annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival!
Filmmakers, submissions for horror and sci-fi shorts are open through Film Freeway.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Bleeding (2009)

Director: Charlie Picerni
Stars: Vinnie Jones, Michael Matthias, DMX, Rachelle Leah, Michael Madsen, Kat von D and Armand Assante

There are times when, however bad it's likely to be, you know you have to watch a movie purely because of something mentioned on the DVD cover. Well, this has two such examples. Could you resist a movie that has Vinnie Jones as a vampire king? I know I sure can't. How about one with Michael Madsen as a rogue priest with a taste for machine guns? Read that twice and don't lie to me. Add Armand Assante into the mix, plus a varied set of niche icons like DMX, Kat von D and UFC's Rachel Leah and this is a must see that, yes, is surely going to be truly awful. 'Surrounded by carnage, slaughter, brutal crashes and total mayhem,' the IMDb synopsis reads, 'Shawn Black is in a race to save the world from pure evil.' Tell me there's not going to be testosterone galore. Even the production company is called Iron Bull Films. Don't be surprised to find that we start off with a chase scene featuring vampires, guns, motorbikes, a cute chick and a jackknifing truck.

Our hero is Black, Shawn Black and he's trying to be Diesel, Vin Diesel. No, he's not a good actor in the slightest but he has a bald head, a tattoo and a lot of muscles, so he's perfect for this film. Oh, and he's a SEAL. With a spacious garage full of sports cars. Actor and co-producer Michael Matthias attempts a partial explanation as we skip back three days to find him breaking out of a hospital, and he just about makes his way through it without tripping over his tongue. He's lost his entire family. His parents were brutally murdered in Transylvania, though they were Irish and Italian. His brother was killed on duty in Afghanistan but his body was never found. And he's just about to be thrust into some sort of war between the good angels and the bad angels. You know, 'good and evil shit'. Everyone keeps talking about a whole world that nobody knew exists. He understands about enough to pack lots of guns before he heads out in his Shelby Super Snake.

The explanations are taken up by Tagg, after Black rescues him from being tortured beneath a tattoo parlour by a vampire. DMX does a much better job at this than Michael Matthias, enough for us to realise that this is one of those destiny deals, where Black is the Slayer and his missing brother will be reborn as his arch nemesis. You know, because it's meant to be, or something. It's good to see attention given to the back story but we're hardly buying into it as being some sort of redefining legend for the modern age. It's a rehash of pretty much every cliché you can think of, combined with just enough fun to make it worth watching if you like so bad it's good movies. At least it doesn't fall prey to the cardinal sin of being boring. There's always either something bad or something worse going on with a host of great character actors having wild fun while slumming it. It's a real shame they don't each get a lot more time to strut their stuff.
In fact these cameos are the main reason that most people are going to make it to the end, for Michael Matthias is certainly not going to become next year's action hero du jour. He's capable at the one look he's expected to use but he hasn't figured out how to find another one. He uses it as consistently as Zoolander uses Blue Steel. He's a poor man's Vin Diesel and yes, I realise fully how that sounds, or maybe Kurt Angle's stunt double. I'm no DMX fan but he's much more watchable in his brief couple of nonsensical scenes than Matthias can manage throughout the entire picture as its lead. Vinnie Jones is stunningly awful as Cain, the king of the vampires. You won't believe his accent, which keeps changing from English to Mexican to Irish to New Orleans to I don't know what. He obviously had a blast though, hamming it up in a pimp jacket and hat that's there only to keep his hair attached. Their showdowns, plural, are truly, indescribably bad.

Armand Assante and Kat von D are both wasted, bookending the film with small cameos that do nothing but get their names on the DVD cover. Rachelle Leah gets more screen time than both put together but it still isn't enough. She's better than I would have expected from someone who made her name as a model and presenter of TV shows like Spike's Sexiest NYC Bartenders. She's best known for hosting UFC but could easily make the transition to acting. I hope so. It's Michael Madsen who saves the day though, as Father Roy. We discover him sleeping on a grave with an empty bottle of Jack sitting next to him, like Jack Palance playing Johnny Cash with dialogue by Quentin Tarantino. He gets kidnapped by a carnival parade, he drives a bulletproof hearse and he keeps a blessed arsenal, a 'vampire's worst nightmare'. He knows full well how bad this is and so he has fun with it, overdoing everything gloriously. That's what I'll take away from it.

Director Charlie Picerni actually does a capable job of keeping things interesting. He's a vastly experienced name in film but mostly as a stuntman, as which he's racked up literally hundreds of credits, including what looks like everything that might have influenced this: The Fast and the Furious, Demolition Man and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm sure most of the names in this film are there because of him. I wonder if he supplied his own cars. The trainwreck that it becomes is more due to Lance Lane's screenplay. Admittedly it does cram into an hour and a half everything that it could possibly wish for, but it feels like he pieced together an action movie jigsaw without realising that someone had swapped out half the pieces from a bunch of other boxes. That sort of patchwork filmmaking can work, just look at From Dusk Till Dawn, but it doesn't here. It should be watched only in company with pizza and a sizable supply of alcohol. Then it might work.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Party Girl (2009)

Director: Jayson Densman
Stars: Candace Porter and Tom Young
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.
Another short film full of blood and gore and lit suitably red to underline that fact, it opens with a stack of corpses and a girl presiding over them. The camera lingers voyeuristically, hovering with relish over the results of her carnage for a while before we backtrack and watch her dance into a motel room with a man to get roughed up and raped. Like she wasn't up for this anyway? The tone is just right: grainy footage shot in a cinema verité style with elegantly passionate and utterly inappropriate classical music to accompany the brutality. Next time we see her, she's in as much control as she wasn't in the motel room and she's taking her revenge on every category of male sexual deviant. She's the Party Girl of the title, a female serial killer who we're invited to sympathise with, and that alternative perspective is capably matched by the notably subversive twist sicced on us at the finalé, one that I appreciate more and more every time I think about it.

Candace Porter plays Party Girl and she's the focal point throughout although she doesn't get a single line of dialogue. It's surprising to find that this is her only credit at IMDb: it's not the usual debut performance and it's not the usual final performance either. Presumably she was just the right girl at the right time, channelling a Sally Field air as she massacres monsters. Then again, I've never seen Sally Field cut off a man's dick and feed it to him. Initially I felt that her lack of dialogue helped the mystique of her character but didn't help the story, with too many scenes just slow motion and gore, albeit capably done gore. I wanted more iconography. It's only later when we realise who the story is all about that we realise why it was shot this way and it stands up well to repeat viewings, partly because of the peripheral nature of Porter's performance. She does precisely what she's tasked with doing and she does it capably.

All the dialogue goes to Tom Young, who delivers it well, even before we realise his perspective. The words come from Dustin LaValley though, who wrote the source short story, to be found in a collection called Lowlife Underdogs, which I really should check out. If this is anything to go by, it should be a subversive glimpse into urban mythology, gritty and noirish and darkly delicious. That's a lot of compliments to throw at something I haven't read yet, but I have the impression that this isn't really a film, it's more dark poetry as performance art. Having the author killed off by Party Girl speaks volumes. Shooting it in an abandoned brothel in Corsicana, Texas does too and the bum that pissed on the set just added colour. While this initially feels like a collection of gore effects, capably done by Evil John Mays but often obscured in grainy footage and overdone red lighting, it really isn't about anything but feel and tone and that realisation elevates it.

Neon Killer (2008)

Director: Ben Robinson
Stars: Roger Robinson and Louis Raynes
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.
I enjoyed every moment of Neon Killer so much that I've lost track of how many times I've seen it now. Part of its appeal is that it only has to achieve one thing, which is to invoke the spirit it aims for, and it succeeds on that front magnificently. It's at once a spoof and an homage to the Italian crime films of the seventies, less the giallo movies and more those of the poliziotteschi subgenre that featured more vigilantism and graphic violence, inspired by tough American pictures such as Dirty Harry and The French Connection. In fact the line of dialogue that serves somewhat as a tagline for the short is the title of a poliziotteschi movie, Ruggero Deodato's Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man. As long as it evokes the right feel, anything good about Neon Killer would reflect well on the film itself but anything bad would reflect negatively only on the genre that inspired it. It's a good thing that writer/director Ben Robinson nailed that feel with a vengeance.

There was a lot of thought put into how Neon Killer was constructed. It isn't just the aging, which is impeccable and evokes not just 35mm but VHS too. It isn't just the fact that the British actors don't only pretend to be Italian actors but badly dub themselves into English too. It isn't even just the glorious title sequence that pretends at being a 1986 Italian movie with the names of cast and crew translated into fake Italian equivalents. It's in all the careful attention to detail: the vivid lighting that changes from green to blue to red in successive scenes, the turtlenecks of the lead cops, the repeated death scenes, the nod to classic English literature, the gratuitous nudity that arrives out of nowhere and just as quickly disappears back there, the electronic soundtrack, the nonsensical revelation that comes at the end of the film as one of the cops retires, even the freeze frame that it all ends on. Robinson knows his stuff, that's for sure.

It's an entire feature film's worth of material condensed into a glorious five minutes. There are a lot of cuts to keep it moving along and even the segues ring very true. There are so many gore shots that many of them get a mere second or two of screen time, but they're highly varied in style and consistent in quality that this almost becomes a portfolio for Alex Chandon, the effects maestro who also made Bad Karma, wrote Pervirella and even shot a Cradle of Filth video. 'So much death,' says Barry, and he isn't kidding: we're treated to death by fire, acid, drill, hammer, machete, electrocution, even a leg severing pendulum. At the end of the day though, and while I can't really fault any part of this production, it's the voices of the lead actors that stay with me. Presumably they're Roger Robinson and Louis Raynes dubbing themselves and they're both note perfect in their intonation. I could listen to this as much as I could watch it. Time for another go

Teleportal (2009)

Director: Paul Shrimpton
Stars: Aaron Daynes and Charlotte Bulmer
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.
Almost the definition of short but sweet, Teleportal runs so short that it's almost over before it's begun, under three minutes including title sequence and ending credits. You won't be shocked to find that there's very little to it but it's a sweet little picture that was tailor made for the horror festival screen. Aaron Daynes plays the unnamed lead character who gets almost all of the very little dialogue on offer and directs it at the zombies on his TV screen. He's playing an agreeably violent video game, all exploding heads and zooms through holes in bodies, but he finds that it's a little more interactive than he ever expected. Logic is suspended throughout, the title is really a spoiler and our gamer and his girlfriend are only there as props. Yet we don't care. The gore is delightfully gratuitous and very well done, courtesy of Alex Chandon, who also provided the gore for Neon Killer, and it's a one trick pony that's worth watching a few times over.

Blockhead (2010)

Director: John Francis Conway III
Stars: Alan Wells, Cheree Sager, Donnie Faught, Bri Prooker, Whitney Ullom and Marlo Dell' Antonio
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.
To highlight how gloriously hip and with it I am, Blockhead won for best short at the Phoenix Fear Film Festival in 2010 but I didn't much like it at all. In fact, I felt that, if anything, it was closer to the worst end than the best. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad film, as it was certainly up against good competition, but I don't think it was a particularly good one. It was capably enough done, the lighting was appropriate and there was some agreeable gore. There's a bookstore and a cute girl and having those things in a movie always helps in my book. Yet I didn't care for any of the characters and the story didn't seem to make a whole heck of a lot of sense. It ended up feeling more like an attempt to be cool than an attempt at anything coherent and my threshold for that is decreasing with every year that passes. Many of the crew behind Blockhead were also behind the twisted feature Sick Girl and I enjoyed that a great deal more than this one.

The first few minutes are the best, perhaps because we haven't got to know the characters yet. Dave is on an apparent date in a restaurant with Anna, an enthusiastic and flirtacious teacher. Dave is distracted but Anna pushes to go home with him anyway and that turns out to be a Bad Idea. Home is where Blockhead is, the monster of the piece, though that's a strange name for someone with a block for a foot. As Anna writhes in her bonds on a table, Blockhead stumbles out, stabs her with a trowel, pulls out some of her insides and stumbles off again. No, it doesn't seem to have a point but there are some well framed shots, some appropriately red lighting and the potential of an interesting monster with a leg like Hellboy's arm. Unfortunately the capable gore effects are countered by what seems to be a costume made out of a pair of shorts and some dried paint and this particular monster turns out to do very little indeed.

It goes downhill after the title sequence. We find ourselves stuck with a trio of moronic bimbos. Sam is cute, at least, and she's the one interested in Dave, who we now find runs a bookstore but picks up girls to feed to his elder brother. Books and death scenes in the same movie could never be a bad thing, but that's about it for the last three quarters of the twenty minute plus running time. There's a lot of talk to build characters we don't care about or set up the conflict that never really arrives or maybe just to validate the gore but little else. Mostly I wondered how the people who made Sick Girl, a edgy picture which revolved around the quirky and fascinating female title character, could also make something like this, where the women are stereotypically dumb victims. I wish they'd have added a narration to the opening sequence then skipped to the very end of the picture and missed out everything in between.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Familiar (2011)

Director: Richard Powell
Stars: Robert Nolan, Astrida Auza and Cathryn Hostick
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.

It's a pretty good sign that a film is a good one when you're still thinking about it two days later. I watched Familiar on Sunday, then watched it again on Monday as a double bill with Worm, which was made a year earlier by the same director, producer and lead actor. Now I'm thinking about both of them, individually and together, not just because they're both highly recommended short films that carry a powerful punch, but because they work well as a pair. What's more, how you read the second affects how you read the first, which then affects how you read the second and, well, you see why I'm still thinking about them. Worm was hardly a minor short film, a deluge of bitterness unleashed through a bravado performance by Robert Nolan as a twisted teacher on the edge which takes us from initial sympathy to acute discomfort. It's a movie that stays with you and shapes how you see reality. Well, trust me, Familiar is even better.

Obviously more polished from moment one, it begans as a quieter replay of the same story. The title resonates: this is very familiar indeed, as Nolan plays a twisted teacher on the edge whose bitter inner monologues drive the film forward. His wife is a jailer, his daughter a parasite. Things are OK at night when everyone is asleep, but then 'they always wake up and ruin everything'. As excellent as Nolan was in Worm, he's better still here, with more subtle and guarded bitterness. His inflections are pristine, his sarcasm deep and his condescension deeper. His mouth twitches almost as subtly as his eyes. As the film begins he hardly moves, but his twitches develop with the story and his control slips along with the walls he's patiently kept up for decades. He's been waiting for Jordan to grow up and go to college, so he can put his savings into a truck and leave his worthless existence behind. With four months to go, it all turns to crud.

It's impossible not to look into the depths of these films, because there's back story that is only available outside the movies themselves, this world obviously being carefully crafted. We know that the lead character in Worm was Geoffrey Oswald Dodd, not by watching but because it tells us that on the poster, the initials for this petty tyrant also being very deliberately chosen. Initially Familiar feels like a continuation to Geoffrey's story, but no, the lead this time out is apparently his twin brother, John. They have a great deal in common, not least a similarly bleak outlook on the world, but that they're identical twins cannot be ignored: as we think about John, we have to think about Geoffrey too. While this story only ever follows John, that link makes it a progression for both characters, which is a neat trick indeed on the part of writer/director Richard Powell. In fact, what happens here forces us to reevaluate what we learned in Worm too.

There are a number of ways to read the story that unfolds. What we see may be metaphorical, John's bitterness eating him from the inside out. It may be a physical manifestation of guilt, as he gets to act on certain impulses here that Geoffrey never got a chance to act on in Worm, and the finalé is set up by a last ditch fight against those impulses. It could be schizophrenia or some other form of insanity: 'We've always been together,' the voice in John's head tells him. 'I'm your best friend.' The title suggests a literal reading, neatly morphing both Dodds from psychopathic to sympathetic with a single twist of plot. Yet I can't ignore that these are twins. It all could be about the bond between identical twins, thus making us wonder if one is affecting the other. We see benign characters exposed as rotten and twisted, only to be prompted to wonder if one isn't dominating the other. Does one deserve our disdain and one our pity? If so, which is which?

This tortuously playful nature is reflected in the titles of the flims, both of which carry multiple meanings and could even easily be reversed. While Worm was appropriate for a drama about the inner decay of an outwardly trustworthy figure of authority, especially given that the apple metaphor is obvious for a teacher, it's just as appropriate here in a horror based variation on the same theme with particularly gruesome special effects. Similarly, Familiar, which has an overt supernatural meaning in this horror tale, could also be applied to the overriding fear invoked by the first film, with its revelation that even the most familiar people may not be anywhere near who you think they are inside. So is this film, as much as it stands utterly on its own without any background whatsoever, also designed to be a layer on top of its predecessor that tells us that our expectations can be or should be turned on their heads?

Maybe I'm thinking too much. Maybe these are both straightforward monologues that deserve minimalist stage adaptations so as to emphasise how great the lead roles are for Robert Nolan, who is blisteringly good. These could be radio plays and he would be magnetic, but the physical changes he builds into these performances are a joy to behold. It's no surprise to see his credits proliferating exponentially. He is certainly not going to be wanting for work any time soon and you will see his name grow for sure. That said, while he dominated Worm to the degree that it was sometimes hard to acknowledge anyone else, much of that was because it was literally all about him. Here Astrida Auza gets the opportunity to build her own character as Charlotte, John's wife, and she plays off Nolan well. Cathryn Hostick is fine as his daughter, Jordan, though there's not much for her to do. We literally don't see anyone else in 23 minutes.

Behind the camera everything is very capable, Familiar feeling very much like Fatal Pictures felt so strongly after Worm that they could raise the stakes. This is not an effects film but there are special effects here and the animatronics and make up work is very professional indeed, more sophisticated by far than I'd have expected to see in a low budget Canadian short film from an up and coming production company. Powell's direction is gloriously slow and steady, with fluid camera movements and nothing flash, just a few neatly glitchy editing moments to highlight the more strained moments. The worst thing about the film is that presumably we have another year to wait before we can see what's next. Are we going to discover that the Dodds are triplets and Nolan can add another facet to his performance as all three of them, as what we think we know after two films is shaken up yet again in a third. Is this to be a delightfully twisted trilogy?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

El Monstro del Mar! (2010)

Director: Stuart Simpson
Stars: Nelli Scarlet, Kyrie Capri, Karli Madden, Kate Watts and Norman Yemm


I watched Night of Fear ahead of a fresh viewing of El Monstro del Mar!, a modern Aussie horror movie obviously rooted in the Ozploitation genre and which features Norman Yemm almost forty years after his groundbreaking debut in Night of Fear. I'm watching again as El Monstro del Mar! has been thankfully picked up for DVD release in the US by Breaking Glass Pictures and will be available at the end of this month. I found that I had quite a bit more to say about the movie, not only because so much seems to have happened in the year and a half since I last reviewed it. In case you haven't read that review, Stuart Simpson's film is an outrageous but entertaining romp that takes us from a black and white homage to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! to a colour take on H P Lovecraft. I think this is my fourth viewing and I'm still enjoying the heck out of it. The full DVD will have many extras including two shorts, Acid Spiders and Sickie, which I really want to see.

Acid Spiders features Karli Madden, who plays Blondie here, which I'm especially thankful for as our trio of troublesome leading ladies don't seem to have racked up any more credits. Each time I watch them, I'm astounded by their magnetism. Obviously not established actresses, they still feel like something fresh even after repeat viewings. They are completely natural on camera and while they throw in little touches here and there to build their characters, it all feels spontaneous and unscripted. It seems utterly obvious to me that their talents do not end with their looks, however great Kate Watts looks in a leopardskin bikini, and other filmmakers would be remiss to overlook grabbing them whenever possible, especially as a trio. They bounce off each other with ease, like three notes in a chord, and whether that was a deliberate spin on Faster Pussycat, just subconscious on the part of the actresses or pure fluke, I don't really care. It's palpably there.

The trio are not nice girls, far from it. They are predators who end up in an Aussie seaside town to be confronted by a much bigger predator, the monster in this monster movie that comes out of the sea. Nelli Scarlet is the most obvious as Beretta, her charisma able to hold them together. She has power, not just in her Amazon appearance but inside too. In fact it comes out most in her less exploitational lines, like the one where she tells the local good girl Hannah to embrace her fears. There's nothing exploitational about it, just blistering honesty in a quiet moment that underlines who she is: someone who confronts anything that gets in her way. I totally bought into that and it makes her an obvious character to lead a film like this. Since I last saw it, there's all the more reason for her to return to the screen. Tura Satana, her most obvious influence, died a year ago, and Scarlet is the closest I've seen to a replacement, overtly channelling her or not.
Karli Madden is the most nuanced of the three as Blondie, with a gloriously varied repertoire of little hints and looks that aren't restricted to her eyes, but her mouth and the rest of her body too. I think I enjoy Kate Watts the most, as Snowball, even though she got the least screen time. She's the freest of the three and doesn't care even when it comes to not caring. She works well as the glue between her sisters in sin. They each give the impression of being good people to be around who merely have the looks and the talent to play at being really bad. Thrust into their company, Kyrie Capri is suitably out of her depth around them as a naively innocent teenager who won't let her boyfriend go beyond kissing. She tells them she's seventeen but is obviously lying. She finds her confidence out in the water the next day and it's palpable. The best actress of the bunch, she also gets the most overt character arc.

In such a female dominated picture, only Norman Yemm really gets the opportunity to hold up the side of the male sex. He's great, obviously the same actor from Night of Fear but entirely different in tone and texture. Almost forty years separates the two films and the two roles could hardly be more different, but he nailed both of them. Here, he builds the most deep character in the film as Joseph, the only one left who got to deal with the monster last time around and who has been utterly changed and shaped by the experience, both mentally and physically. While the girls get far more screen time and are naturally far easier on the eye, it's impossible to not watch Yemm when he's on screen because he utterly sells his character. Most of the menace of the film comes from him, because he seems capable and strong but is obviously scared witless by what we don't see until later.

On the technical side, I'm happy to report that the sound issues from my last screener have been addressed in this one. I didn't miss any dialogue this time around and everything was perfectly balanced. Strangely, the video seemed a little less strong on the newer version, with a little blur where there shouldn't be blur. Mostly the flaws lie with the script, which should have fleshed out the film more. Some of the scenes drag a little, which isn't good in a 75 minute film. The iconic opening scene, for instance, unfolds wonderfully until we get to the cleanup phase which runs on and on. When Beretta announces that it's time to leave and Blondie mutters 'About time!' she's speaking for us too. We've had our intro, let's get on with it. It felt like there was more monster footage this time around too, though I don't know if that's really true or not. It still comes at the right time and looks great. If you're into old school monsters, you shouldn't miss out on this one.

Night of Fear (1972)

Director: Terry Bourke
Stars: Norman Yemm, Carla Hoogeveen, Briony Behets and Mike Dorsey

I'd always heard that the reason The Texas Chain Saw Massacre didn't have any blood in it was because Tobe Hooper was trying for a PG certificate. Of course it didn't get one, instead being so horrifying to censors that it was banned outright in many countries. What I hadn't realised until now is that the most obvious inspiration for such a classic terror film had a similar history. Night of Fear was the pilot episode for an Australian TV series called Fright, which itself was promptly banned by horrified censors. It features a young lady who finds herself outside her comfort zone in rural Australia terrorised by a backwoods psychopath. No, there's no chainsaw but otherwise it has many similarities to Hooper's film, merely made two years earlier in similarly grainy 35mm. I wonder if Hooper saw it and thought that taking the blood out would avoid the controversy that the film had encountered.

It opens innocently enough, with a young lady riding a horse out in the countryside. She ties it to a tree and sits down in the woods. The aura is of rural bliss. Then the sinister music kicks in and we see a man sharpening an evil looking axe. Cue the chase scene, which of course she loses in time for the Fright title sequence to run and set us up for the film proper. There are two reasons why this is such a fascinating piece of cinema. One is that it's utterly anonymous, the characters without either names or voices. The credits list them as simply Horse Girl and The Man, and they play this out without words. The other is that there's no fannying around whatsoever as this film gets frantically down to business. She chases her horse to a farm, where the first thing she sees is a gravestone. As she hears her horse whinny, she unknowingly slips away from the clutching hand behind her. One minute of bliss, six of terror: it's the textbook horror short.

After the credits, we watch the same thing expanded to three quarters of an hour with different characters and more depth. This time the unnamed young lady is The Woman, in the delightful form of Carla Hoogeveen, who starts out in the shower and spends most of the film in a notably short skirt. She might be cute, but she's not shown with much sympathy. The establishing story has her escape her husband to get a good workout with The Lover at the Silvercrest Tennis Club, both on and off the court. She's a terrible driver too, which is why she ends up forced down a dead end side road from a blind curve to end up in The Man's world. As such we're already set up nicely to see her get hers, and frrom here the plot, such as it is, progresses precisely as you might expect, with every genre convention catered to. Everything you think you'll find from a backwoods terror movie is here, though it may have originated many of those conventions.

Two things struck me immediately and continued to do so throughout. One is that it's a notably experimental piece, most obvious in its jarring music and lack of dialogue, but also apparent in its camerawork and editing. The camera is very personal and often plays a voyeuristic role. One scene in particular alternates between shots of the leering and gibbering maniac and his torn victim with the camera looking at her sprawling form from between his legs. Occasional shaky scenes work well, mostly because they're not continual, just used in particularly tense scenes. The editing is frequently done with the aim of alternating between the routine and the freaky. There are also many very fast cuts, not truly subliminal but obviously with that aim in mind. A number of these glimpses are of unrecognisable chunks of hanging meat, presumably cut from Horse Girl's horse. We don't need to see exactly what they are to get the intended effect.

The other was just how far this picture went in embracing the excesses of the seventies, to a much greater degree than I would ever have expected on television in 1972. It was shot by a production company called Terryrod, named for writer/director Terry Bourke and producer Rod Hay, as the pilot for a horror themed TV show, with broadcast rights given to ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in return for use of crew and production facilities. It isn't surprising in the slightest that the ABC execs were so shocked by what they saw that they promptly cancelled the entire series. I'd love to know what else Bourke had up his sleeve for the other eleven parts as this is purest exploitiation cinema condensed to two thirds of the normal theatrical running time with an experimental edge that makes it even more fascinating. His subsequent career has been varied, with 1975's weird western Inn of the Damned being the obvious companion piece.
Norman Yemm is a suitably freaky backwoods hillbilly nutjob. He never speaks, merely moans as if he's inbred and retarded but otherwise appears completely in control. He doesn't wear a mask made out of human skin, so he looks less like Leatherface and more like a hillbilly version of Kris Kristofferson, but the tone is all Leatherface, merely with a shovel not a chainsaw. Oh, and rats, lots of rats. When he first glimpses The Woman, while walking towards her crashed car, there's one on his shoulder. The whole time he pursues her through the Kuringai Chase National Park, it's stuffed down his dungarees. There are many more back at the farm, live ones on the mantel and stuffed ones in glass cases. He also has cats in cages, butterflies in a shadow box and clippings of the female anatomy in picture frames. The farm is all backwoods crafty, though not in great shape. I got a particular kick out of the madonna and child machete stand.

Sure, having newspaper clippings about rape and murder pinned to the wall is sinister and the bloody lumps of flesh he feeds his cats are suitably exploitative, but the real freakiness is in the sexual side of things. I remember the British censors getting upset about of lot of things in film, but the one that was guaranteed to have them snipping away was any overt link between sex and violence, especially with a female victim. Maybe Australia was more open about this sort of thing than the UK but I'm utterly unsurprised that both ABC and the Australian Censor Board got their knickers in a twist over what unfolds here. The masturbation scene is as overt a link between sex and violence as I've ever seen, even though we don't actually see any masturbation. The most outrageous visual image has The Man walk up to a bound naked girl with her legs apart, naked himself and holding a bloody skull between his legs. And it got banned... what a surprise.

Carla Hoogeveen is not the greatest actress in the world, but she's admirably willing to get more and more haggard as the film runs on. She's a pretty girl but she gets more damaged and more frazzled with time. She does pretty well, especially given that she has no dialogue and the sound effects weren't added in until afterwards. Given the open framing of the film, there's very little to bounce off or react to. She screams less than she flounders and cries but there are screams too and a decent percentage of the scenes revolve around nothing but her being terrorised. Her best moments are when her wits are apparently leaving her, though her falling asleep scene is rather over the top. Her fainting scene, on the other hand, is a peach. Yemm doesn't actually do much but he's great. For the most part he just has to be there on the other side of the window with his chirrupping rat on his shoulder. The Frankenstein's Monster foot can't hurt either.

Night of Fear certainly isn't without flaws. It's only fifty minutes long for a start and there's too much setup. We really don't care about the moving van that causes The Woman to be run off the road, for instance. Not all the experimentation works but it's groundbreaking nonetheless and it was very timely. There's a capably shot transition in the film, that takes The Woman from the city/civilisation/carefree illicit country club sex to the backwoods/middle of nowhere/scary place as the sun goes down. The light to dark parallel was no doubt deliberate, but it turned out to be mirrored in real life, as this may be the first home grown horror movie to see a theatrical release in Australia, after being rejected from the small screen, and thus spurring the horror side of the Ozploitation boom, which began a year earlier with the introduction of the R rating and the birth of the Australian New Wave. Only the 1971 Donald Pleasence film Wake in Fright might predate it.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sinkhole (2009)

Director: Eric Scherbarth
Stars: Jason Harris and Dan Leventritt
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.
Even more than Dead Creek, the setting of Sinkhole dominates the film but, unlike Dead Creek, I knew about Centralia beforehand. It's a ghost town in Pennsylvania, which is almost empty today because of a fire in 1962, but not just any fire. The accepted story is that the local volunteer fire brigade cleaned up the town's landfill site by burning it, as they'd done many times before. The problem was that this time they didn't quite put out the fire, and that year the landfill was on top of a coal mine. The fire eventually found its way into the mine, which has now been burning for fifty years. Let me repeat that. The mine in Centralia has now been burning for fifty years. People started to notice when the road began to split apart and people started falling into sinkholes, not to mention the local gas station owner finding that the temperature of his underground tank was 172°. Congress allocated relocation funds and in 1992 the state claimed eminent domain.
The whole story is worthy of a film itself, with the irony of firefighters starting a fifty year fire and the human interest in a few evicted townsfolk refusing to leave because they believe that if they do the government will get their mineral rights. Yet what's most cinematic is the location itself, a place I'd only seen in still photos until I saw Sinkhole. Its apocalyptic look is a natural for a horror film, given that much of it is flattened and what's left is literally steaming. The roads in and out have been blocked for half a century. I'm thankful that writer/director Eric Scherbarth visited the town to shoot this short, especially as he conjured up a suitable little tale to set there. It runs a mere thirteen minutes and features only two actors but it nonetheless uses the hellish landscape very appropriately. It starts in literal darkness as a realtor exits a tunnel and ends in figurative darkness as he finds far more than he ever expected to in this unnamed version of Centralia.

Jason Harris is an experienced actor best known for his voice work, which is surprising as he does a fine job visually here, suitably slimy as the broker trying to con a relic out of his land. He looks as utterly out of place in this landscape in his suit, tie and salesman's haircut as Dan Leventritt seems at home there as the man he's trying to con. The pair have nothing in common beyond the location which would drive the two utterly apart if not for the plot which forces the realtor to try to close that gap. The dynamic changes well, Harris driving the story and getting all the early dialogue but gradually ceding the film to Leventritt, who has the last word. This sure ain't Kansas any more, Toto. I only wish everything had got quirkier, wilder and more outré, but it stops when it gets interesting, leaving the quirkiness to the Tom Waits song that closes. There's a peach of a horror movie to be made in Centralia and while this isn't it, it does me nicely for now.

Dead Creek (2008)

Director: Mike Turner
Stars: Kerrin Jeromin, Taryn Hough, Max Cook, Laura Dunn, Grace Experience Blewer and Ryan Kehoe
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.
Dead Creek is one of two shorts from the 2010 Phoenix Fear Film Festival that made great use of their settings (the other was Sinkhole). Mike Turner, who directed and co-wrote (amongst many other roles), used to live near a wildlife management area really called Dead Creek, which is in Addison, Vermont. If that's the location we see in his short, then I'm not surprised in the slightest that it resonated in his mind and he went back to fabricate a horror story out of it. It's a leisurely and subtle piece that avoids cheap shock moments for the most part in favour of a slow burn of tension that's handled professionally well. Nothing much happens for the majority of the sixteen minute it runs, but we're drawn in nonetheless by a palpable aura of menace, as sisters Erin and Jess get lost in the woods and find their bearings at Dead Creek, which they recognise as the place where one of their friends died during a camping trip years earlier.

What initially grabbed me were the visuals, which are immediately engaging. I liked the colours at the beginning, red and blue becoming yellow and green as younger versions of our characters wander around the misty woods at night. When we skip forward to meet the grown up Erin and Jess, things open up in the daylight but are shot with a still photographer's eye. In fact there are a number of stills here, appropriately used, and they're all worth looking at on their own. While Kerrin Jeromin and Taryn Hough are capable leads, the swamp is omnipresent and dominates as its own character. Of course this is the whole point, but the characters brought into its grasp can easily be seen as either part or not part of it. Those that are not part of it all end up as part of it. It's a place that lives and feeds. I remember the French Quarter of New Orleans feeling that way. It's easy to see it in Dead Creek.

As capable as the visuals are, the sound captured my attention too and rewatching I believe that it's the strongest part of the film. The visuals shine predominantly through the choice of location and the framing of the camera, but that camera can be a little shaky and it isn't always where it should be. I would have liked to have seen it float low over the water a lot more and a lot longer than it does and move more organically too. Yet the sound is difficult to fault, either the quietly subtle music or the ambient sound of the swamp which provides a good deal of the score itself. As much as I enjoyed the visuals, I found that the film plays even better without any. I listened to the entire short twice with the picture off and it enthralled me, even though the voices warble a bit on occasion, presumably a technical flaw rather than one due the actresses. I say 'actresses' as the subtlety is aided by there being no recognisably male actors. It's a feminine horror story.

And the story warrants praise too, for all that there really doesn't seem to be one. As I mentioned very little actually happens for the most part. As our leading ladies walk around, there are some fleeting glimpses of things to help build the atmosphere, none of which surprise, along with an astutely handled shock moment which is all the more powerful for being the only one in the film. The twist at the end is a good one, though I don't think the very last shot was needed. However, especially with repeat viewings, I wonder how much of what goes on is real. If I put my mind to it I could perhaps put a case that Erin and Jess never got to grow up, that they died years earlier at the campsite along with Sarah and our short is them finally realising it. Maybe I'm spinning too much out of too little, but Dead Creek does feel somehow both empty and yet full of depth just below the surface. Perhaps that's just the location taking over the film.