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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Dust Jacket (2013)

Director: Kenneth Miller
Stars: Kat Bingham, Pete Kelly and Anne Gentry
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
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.
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
My possibly imaginary memory of seeing Fidelia as a festival screener aside, I first saw it in the horror shorts selection at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival this year, which is where I also first saw Dust Jacket, even though it had played the Phoenix Film Festival a few months earlier as part of their Home Grown Shorts selection. It's another strong and well recommended local short, this one made by debut director Kenneth Miller, with assistance from Charles Peterson, who shot, edited and co-produced the film and supervised its digital effects. Their filmmaking collective was well represented at Jerome, both in person and on screen, as may be highlighted best by pointing out that Carrie Fee's first three films were each screened in completely different tracks: Sex and Violence, Clint and Dust Jacket. Her fourth, The Greatest Lie Ever Told, from another co-producer of this film, Cody Everett, didn't arrive until after Jerome, but I'll be reviewing it here shortly anyway. It's just as good but it's completely different again.

Dust Jacket is more of a thriller than a horror piece, but it fits well in both genres. After an artistically shot pre-credit sequence, in which what appears to be a dismal aerial seascape turns out to be the worn trunk of a Galant that a cop lifts to expose a girl's corpse with the words 'Red Menace' carved into her belly, we follow a young lady and discover that we're not alone in doing so. She's Ginger, for obvious reasons, and she's just shopping for her evening meal, but there are a couple of guys clearly watching her from the moment she leaves the supermarket. What follows is something of a textbook on how to generate suspense, from Miller's neatly droning, pulsing score through slightly unnerving camera angles and careful editing to the unfolding of key background on radio and TV. If the cast didn't all have completely unremarkable hair, this could easily pass for something made in the early eighties, like a lost John Carpenter short. Miller could have added gimmicks to make it look like VHS.

There's a lot that's good about the film. The tension is maintained all the way to the end, which is a strong and powerful one. I particularly appreciated the lack of dialogue; this is far from a silent movie but nobody in the main body of the story says a word until the credits are about to roll. What we hear is associated but abstracted; there's a DJ and a newsreader on the car radio as Ginger drives home and there's a true crime author, Wendy Wassinger, being interviewed on a TV talk show once she gets there. The acting is solid, albeit archetypal; Miller, who wrote as well as directed, leads us deliberately into assumptions and the actors do absolutely nothing to dissuade us from them. In many ways Miller steps back in his writing hat so that we can write his story for him, but he's ready to step back in with a good shock or surprise at the right moment and he does pick a perfect one in which to do both very capably indeed. You can't trust what you hear on TV, right?

There's very little that's bad. The worst thing in my eyes was the cover of Wendy Wassinger's book, Great White Sharks, which certainly wouldn't prompt me to buy it. I was more impressed by the lady pitching it, the elegant Anne Gentry, who delivers all her lines well except her first one, which would be Wassinger's stock response to the same old introductions on talk shows and so is suitably wooden. Pete Kelly impresses too as Skip Sammons, the believably inappropriate talk show host interviewing her but all too ready to make it all about him. It seems strange to highlight them over Kat Bingham, the girl who rarely leaves the screen and whose plight we follow from the very beginning of the film but, without a single line, she's as much part of the set decoration as she is an actress playing a role. She's a standard prop for a serial killer movie, one that merely happens to walk, and we instinctively know her place as well as we know that of anyone or anything else in the movie.

And that leads me to the title, which was the only confusing aspect to this picture for me for a while. Why is it called Dust Jacket? Surely it isn't to highlight the dismal cover to Wassinger's book. Maybe it's some sort of euphemism for redheads but googling doesn't back that idea up. So I'm assuming it has to come down to that play on expectations, where Miller sets us up to make assumptions about where he's taking us and then consistently refuses to put us straight. Surely it's shorthand for the old truism that you can't judge a book by its cover, or perhaps its dust jacket. Perhaps Miller sees himself less as a writer here and more of a cover artist, painting a picture that happily misleads us. It's never about the characters or even the story, it's about the ability of a filmmaker, or indeed the painter of a book cover, to use their art to take us wherever they want us to go. We are hapless pawns, unless we see the little details which they have to feed us. I just hope that Miller feeds us more pictures.

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