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Thursday, 9 May 2013

Black Gulch (2003)

Director: Michael Strode
Stars: Christopher Bradley, Stephen Taylor and Joshua Miller

Michael Strode has a full decade of credits to his name, but they're not generally in the roles you tend to see referenced in reviews like this. Instead he seems to have collected those colourful job descriptions that people who read long scrolling credits wonder about. You know the ones I mean: he's been the gaffer and the best boy and the key grip, all important technical positions within the electrical and lighting departments. Well, here's where he notched off some that we actually talk about, like writer, producer and director. Given how solid this short film is, it's only surprising that he hasn't reprised them more often, but this is his only film as a writer and director and he's only produced one other picture since, a post-apocalyptic vampire musical from 2005 called Sacrifice. Given that this little film is vastly superior to most of the horrendous movies getting churned out by the ton nowadays, I wonder why he hasn't made another short on his own terms.

Clearly he and his crew knew what they were doing because there's a notable amount of control from the very beginning. In quick succession we're shown where we are and who we're supposed to be watching, while we're introduced to other pertinent details through colourful dialogue. The where is a van speeding through the desert to the town of Black Gulch, while the who is Everett, the leader of a bunch of crooks who are about to take down the Savings & Loan. Strode sets it up superbly. While Randy rattles on nineteen to the dozen because he's nervous and his mouth runs faster than his brain, his uncle Everett stays icy cool until he's called on to throw out a quotable line. 'Relax, friend,' he tells him in a suitably deep voice, 'We got your back.' That's when Chase, the tough guy, and Tom, the thinking man, look at him as if in wonder because he's obviously as green as they aren't, a fourth wheel in a team of three, but it's just as obviously Everett's show.

And so they pile out of their fake plumber's van in Black Gulch and race into the Savings & Loan, to find the last thing they expected: absolutely nothing. The lights are on but nobody's home. It's their lucky day, you'd think, and sure, the tills are full of cash with nobody to stop them waltzing away with all of it, but if it was as simple as that we wouldn't have a movie. There is something in Black Gulch and, as they say, it ain't no man, so we watch Everett and his men hunt it down as it picks them off one by one. There's a lot here that you'll have seen before in other movies, but it's superbly handled by the cast and crew and there's a neat little twist coming that's telegraphed in little cues here and there if you're paying attention. The dialogue is full of eighties cool, especially when it comes to Everett but, frankly, the story rings true and clear even if we watch the entirety of it with the sound on mute. That's how textbook its construction is.

After debuting in a fun but routine slasher movie called The Initiation, Christopher Bradley built a great run in cult movies as the eighties ran into the nineties, films like Iron Eagle, Waxwork and a personal favourite of mine, Sonny Boy, but he was confined to smaller roles. Only in 1992 with an indie remake of Mad Dog Coll and its sequel did he find the lead, but this fifteen minute short film is enough to demonstrate that he could carry it. Sure, this isn't the most original characterisation in the book, Bradley borrowing as much from Tim Thomerson as from Kurt Russell, with moments of Bruce Campbell never hiding too far below the surface, but it's exactly what's called for. Black Gulch has a very eighties feel and so he plays Everett like an eighties lead, all macho loyalty and cool one liners. Word is that Strode made this with the aim of expanding it to feature length. If so, that's where Bradley's work could have really shone.

It's not entirely his film, as you might expect when he's co-starring with a 6'10" stuntman known as Big Dave with a wicked costume and some neat moves, and he's not the only one stealing our attention. I kept waiting for Stephen Taylor to trip over his own tongue as Randy with his mile a minute mouth, but he made it through intact. Joshua Miller, only eleven years old, is superb as a kid called Simon, the lone survivor of whatever took down the town. Of course Everett, the tough bank robber, takes him under his wing for he's not bad, he's just drawn that way. To me, Bradley's biggest competitor for our attention though was the film itself, as it stole mine with the way it was constructed. Other than a few clearly greenscreen scenes, it's technically spot on, with everything done for a demonstrable reason: every angle, every zoom, every pan, every cut, every camera movement. Watch on mute and learn the trade. If only all textbooks were this much fun.

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