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Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Death Factory Bloodletting (2008)

Director: Sean Tretta
Stars: Claudia Vargas, Noah Todd, Shane Dean, Kareem McRoy, David C Hayes, Jeanna Coker, Josh Bingenheimer, Timothy Pontecelli, Joth Andrews, Nadine, Shareese Hegna, and Michelle Mousel
The Prometheus Project may well be Sean Tretta's most ambitious feature and Death of a Ghost Hunter may be his most consistent work thus far, but both titles are likely to be lost to future pictures. As M is for Matchmaker, his top 12 entry to the ABCs of Death 2 competition last year highlights, his work is notably getting better. Somehow though, I don't believe The Death Factory Bloodletting will ever lose its throne as his guilty pleasure picture. It's not a great film by any measure, though it is in a whole different league to Death Factory, its vaguely related predecessor, but it throws enough edgy material at the wall for a whole dubious bunch of it to stick. Certainly when I think of a number of the film's actors, the twisted characters they play here are the ones that spring quickest to mind, however much I see those actors in other, often better films. Shane Dean has made movies as impressive as Deadfall Trail and David C Hayes has been in every other Arizona feature of the last decade, but these are their archetypal screen characters.

For half its running time, The Death Factory Bloodletting is a massive amount of fun, precisely the sort of film that generates a cult following, its fatal flaw being that it runs out of steam, feeding that first half so well that there's relatively little left for the second half, which drags quite a bit and so loses our attention. It takes very little to figure out what went wrong: just basic quantifying of how much awesome populates the first half and then trying to figure out what's left in the second. The problem isn't that the second half is filler, it's just inherently less interesting because most of the cool aspects have been dealt with already and what's left is unable to drive the film forward. Trying to reedit this down to an hour by chopping away half an hour of less interesting material wouldn't do the trick; Tretta would need to replace it with footage that bulks up all the characters who don't make it that far, footage that was probably never shot. His error was simply to make his disposable characters so interesting that we missed them when they were gone.

We quickly meet the ostensible good guy and bad guy. Ana Romero is the good guy who's documenting a journey for posterity, one that she knows she may not survive. She'll be attending an event known as the Bloodletting, the ritualistic murder of a young woman known only as the Object. Denny is the bad guy, as he's running it, even though he seems to be a highly unstable religious freak who wants to help homeless people but kills them instead when he thinks they're doing drugs. The Bloodletting is as secret as it could be. You can't even get invited unless you're a major trader in illegal material who lives on the darknet. If you're invited, you'll have to pay a couple of grand to get in and you'll have no guarantee of getting out again. Bloodletting minions will duct tape your mouth, tie your hands and throw you in the back of a van, so you can wait in an undisclosed location until everyone is present to hear the rules read. If you leave, you die. Make the guy in the balaclava nervous, you die. Clearly this event isn't for the fainthearted.
Of course, none of the characters who have signed up for this treat are remotely fainthearted, not least Ana Romero, who's on a revenge kick. Someone murdered her daughter and, years of wallowing through online filth at a site called the Gorehouse later, she believes she's figured out who it is, so she's coming to the Bloodletting to take him down with extreme vengeance. She's played well by Claudia Vargas, who has racked up surprisingly few credits, given that she gets a lot more screen time and opportunity than the other actors with few films behind them. Given that the framework calls more for individualism and character from Bloodletting attendees than any particular acting talent, I'm surprised that most of them weren't tasked with doing more than a token scene or two. We're given ideas about who these folk really are through simple interaction after the opening credits, but they're introduced properly twenty minutes in, online text giving us names, Gorehouse handles and tastes, while they back it all up verbally.

They're a varied set of freaks, as you might expect. Henry Becker aka White Manson is a Neo-Nazi white supremacist who's also into 'rape, underground fights, snuff, no big deal.' Not happy to be in the same room with him is Jerome Larson, or Black Johnson, an African American white slave trader with a female export business down in Atlanta. Patricia Snyder is Slutty Baby, a high priced call girl who sees this as a little balance after what her clients do to her for money. Bobby Shupe is the notably nerdy Cock-Master, an anarchist who's planning to commit a major killing spree someday. Hansel and Gretel are a dom/sub pair, though it's the latter who's clearly in charge, very much into F on M sodomy; they get off on places where people have died. Charles Donnely is Rubber Love, a very meticulous paedophile who's aiming to broaden his horizons. And Ana Romero is Massive 9, the biggest trader on Gorehouse, who did all of it to track down Rubber Love for a little motherly vengeance.

While there are a lot of introductions here, they run smoothly because everyone's so easy to delineate and because Tretta and his crew refuse to let anything slow down long enough to be boring. The editing is fast, without approaching the rapid fire craziness of today, the camera is usually moving and there's a staticky industrial soundtrack peppering emphasis behind the dialogue. The soundtrack is hallucinatory, especially as the film moves on, combining TV evangelism, pulsing ambient weirdness and Denny's odd, rambling commentary into something that's equally sacred and profane and wouldn't have been out of place on a crazy public access show. While the actors were cast as much for their unique looks as their acting talent and the visuals are particularly strong in these early stages, I wonder how this movie might play as an entirely audio experience. I especially wonder how people who haven't seen the film might imagine the character of Alexa, the flesh eating creature who returns from the original Death Factory.
In fact, Alexa may well be the only element to return from the original film. There, Alexa was a chemical plant worker, who, after exposure to a radioactive leak, turned into a demonic Goth chick with sharp teeth and unwieldy metal contraptions on her arms that make her fingernails deadly weapons. Most of this was changed for the sequel: the eighties goth look was replaced by longer hair and a fetishistic leather outfit of straps; instead of being a wild urban legend on the loose, she's a monster manipulated animalistically by noise from Denny's control room; and she's much quicker and less awkward. She's even portrayed by a new face, Michelle Mousel, especially surprising as the original actress, Tiffany Shepis, had, since the first film, become Mrs Sean Tretta, the wife of the director of its sequel. The only aspect to work less well here is Alexa's contact lenses, which look cheaper this time out. Otherwise, even the blood shed is more effective with plenty of arterial spray, though gore is oddly minimised by the camera looking away.

While the set up is notably innovative, light years ahead of the by the numbers approach of the original film, it's not too surprising to see how it all unfolds. It's not even surprising to see how the various guests wait for the action to begin, though we're hardly looking for surprises at this point. Rubber Love quietly contemplates the image of the Object, David C Hayes as fundamentally creepy here as he's ever been, which is saying something. Gretel takes Slutty Baby for a coked up lesbian sex session in the bathroom, while Hansel, easily the most disposable of the characters, is shredded by Alexa while he investigates a strange noise. After that, Black Johnson and the Cock-Master look for a way out, only to find an electrified fence. Massive 9 naturally focuses on her real quest, which doesn't quite go the way she expects. Tretta, who wrote the screenplay with Mike Marsh, inserts a few twists which work for the most part, especially early on and especially around her. Of course, people die, frequently and not always at Alexa's hand.

And here lies much of the problem. Every time a character dies, their potential story arcs evaporate and they're missed, even if they were only providing decoration. Claudia Vargas does well in an odd lead role with a surprising amount of substance, but she's far from the most memorable of the characters and Ana outstays her welcome, her story extending only to embrace further twists for us to care progressively less about. By comparison, Jeanna Coker and Nadine are massively less substantial as Slutty Baby and Gretel, presumably cast from outside the film world, but they look freakily awesome and they could have spiced up more scenes than they were allowed. Timmy Ponticelli is no actor either, but he's perfectly cast as Sid, Denny's mindless paeon of a cousin who's clearly in thrall to him. No offence to Ponticelli intended, but if he's given a story arc then why couldn't one be given to Coker or Nadine? I'd much rather watch the hot blonde chick and the freaky dominatrix, however much they need acting classes.
With most of the characters gone by the halfway point, much of our interest in the film wanes. Many of them never got story arcs, just the opportunity to decorate the screen for a little while, and only one was ever in our sympathies, so we do wonder who we're supposed to care about. While we had sympathy for Ana, her story arc appears to end and we find ourselves unsure as to why she's still in the movie. Alexa is the monster of the piece, but she only has presence, never character, and she's a monster who's more of a victim than anyone else in the film. Sid is a question mark but he can barely function. Denny is the loon in charge of the show, so we know he has activity coming but we don't really care. The most watchable of the characters turns out to be White Manson, who gives Shane Dean's famous arrogant grin a chance to manifest itself as a character all of its own. Once Hayes is gone from the film, it's Dean's to dominate and he has no problem doing precisely that, however freakily cool Mousel looks as Alexa.

At the end of the day, half of this film is an underground cult gem but the other half is a slow wait to see if there's anything still worth watching. Even with that massive flaw, it's a league above the film it claims to be a sequel to. With a new location and a complete set of new characters, this is hardly a sequel, more of a completely new story that could be said to be set in the same universe as Death Factory, given that one character reappears. However, with Alexa so wildly different, utterly silent and never a driving force, that becomes a real stretch. This is therefore a sequel in name only, existing entirely to capitalise on the success of Death Factory, which was popular for reasons I still can't quite fathom. I've been wracking my brain to see if I can think of another such blatant cash-in that even reached its predecessor in quality and I'm coming up dry. This, however, exceeds it so effortlessly that it's hardly worth the comparison. It's just a shame that it fired all its rounds so quickly and couldn't find a way to effectively rearm itself.

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