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Thursday, 4 September 2014

Heavy Metal Horror (2014)

Director: Richard Boylan
Stars: Keltie Squires, Damian Dunwoody, Daphnee Hanrahan and Anthony Rotondi
While we frequently can and do complain about the dearth of cool genre film events in Arizona, a couple of established festivals notably excluded, sometimes we get slapped with a few of them all at once. I was elated to see a feature called Heavy Metal Horror announced at the Valley Art in Tempe, especially with a few of the cast members there in person for a Q&A. I'm a metalhead, a horror nut and a film critic, so this is about as tailor made for me as any movie could be. Unfortunately I was hosting my own film event the same night at LepreCon, so couldn't make it. However executive producer Mel Hoy kindly sent a screener my way so I can catch up, however far after the event. Bizarrely, the film is at once exactly what the title suggests and nowhere near what I'd expected from it. Most obviously, metal is usually fast and this is far from that, even though Armifera, the band who feature here as a fictional version of themselves are very much an old school thrash band. It's a slow, grounded movie that has no concerns about taking its time.

Initially it appears to be two completely different films. The first half of the title naturally follows Armifera, whose original guitar player, Richard Boylan, wrote and directed. Originally named Death Metal Horror, it also inspired their song DMH. Armifera are a real band from Edmonton, Alberta, which is surely why they sound so tight on stage in a tiny club. They're not a groundbreaking act, but they're clearly very capable musicians. I'd happily go to see them live, especially in a club that small. Off stage, they don't appear to be particularly bright, though I don't know if they're putting it on for the sake of the story. Their side thus far is the sort of thing you'd expect: they get together, buy drugs and rehearse. It's no hard task to watch them noodling around and chatting, because it feels very real and thus very believable. We do wonder if it's going to take us anywhere, but it does ground the film effectively while we take in what we're seeing from the second half of the title, which eventually becomes 'horror' but starts out as 'whore'.

In this thread, Boylan adds the hat of documentarian and interviews a hooker about a story she's wanted to get off her chest for a couple of years. Her name isn't Julia but she chooses it for the interview because she liked the movie Romeo and Julia with Claire Danes. Yeah, there are clearly some damaged brain cells in play here, though the actresses (Keltie Squires in older scenes, Daphnee Hanrahan in newer ones) feel as appropriate for the part as Armifera are playing themselves. Julia is lucid but disillusioned, clearly not all there but never too far away. She's a faded beauty, but with solid potential to look good again with an effort. She's a little stupid and a little slow but she's still able to call others on stupid questions. She's not too comfortable about being in the profession she is, apparently, possibly because she was trying to quit two years ago and didn't manage it. 'I'm a hooker' she says with her eyes notably elsewhere. 'I do what I gotta do.' Yet she talks in euphemisms, referring to her sex work as 'arranged meetings' and the like.
The biggest flaw of the movie is in how long it feels like it takes to get moving while we're watching. With hindsight, the pace isn't a problem, but we have to get to the end to realise that, rendering it an odd but eventually satisfying picture. We know the two halves of the story have to connect at some point, partly because there wouldn't be much point otherwise, partly because Julia's interview footage interrupts the renactment of what she's building up to and partly because she's all white and dressed in black but with very red lips, like she's all ready for a role in a stylistic movie with a deliberately restricted colour palette. For a while, the biggest suspense is wondering if the inevitable is really inevitable or whether the halves will remain unconnected. She offers background that's interesting but doesn't seem to take us anywhere; they just do what bands do without ever suggesting why we're watching them do it. It doesn't even seem like we're watching a horror movie, until Chris the guitarist lets us know he's planning to raise a demon.

Now, I've seen movies where bands raise demons and they're not remotely like this. I remember watching The Gate on its original release then walking down to my local record store to order the Sacrifyx album. It was great being a kid watching The Gate, Trick or Treat and their ilk, but this isn't remotely like that. We're not enjoying another cheesy horror flick, we're watching an adult drama, phrased as a fake documentary and with a real band playing themselves to make it seem all the more believable. After so many routine scenes, which frankly include the vocalist putting up freaky fliers with a Satanic vibe, we're conditioned to take the whole demon raising concept as completely normal. Similarly, we hear enough about Julia to quit asking questions when odd things come up. She lived in a haunted house when she was a kid, or at least she thought so. It seems to us like she still does. When she was a kid, her imaginary friend was a hole in the back yard which told her to throw things into it. Like rocks. And cats.

And finally, things start to connect. Vincent, her pimp, texts her to meet a john and she won't do it. She's going to quit the streets. He rings her driver. She runs. And hey, all of a sudden, there's the bar at which Armifera are playing. The stars are finally aligning and we have ourselves a movie, both subplots still in play but unfolding together until the conclusion. As a drama, it's surprisingly engaging for such an odd framework, but as a horror flick we wonder what we actually saw because the finalé is far from explained, probably because the whole tone of the piece is documentarian in nature and open to our interpretation. I had a whole bunch of questions. Is Julia speaking out of guilt or horror? Was something summoned or was something brought? If the latter, who brought it? The film's synopsis suggests that Julia is 'hounded by an evil spirit' but is that before or after? What's with the hole? Does that have a deeper purpose? Is Julia crazy, schizophrenic or demonic? Maybe a second viewing might tell me but the first didn't.
I enjoyed Heavy Metal Horror, though it's far from what I expected it to be. It's not a horror movie; there's nothing camp here, even the parts that would be under different circumstances like the cheesy demonic book. It's more of a drama that reaches into horror territory towards the end, a slow paced one that's all the slower because of the approach taken to mix documentary footage with a reenactment and because it spends far more time than is usual grounding the story in reality. Musicians will surely subconsciously nod their heads while watching this movie because the little details are so true, like the band taking time after their performance to deconstruct their show and all their little mistakes. I wonder if any ladies of the evening watching might do the same, Julia so often talking but not talking or detailing the things she'll do and the things she won't. In the end, it's a sort of art film, something you might expect to watch on IFC or the Sundance Channel rather than on FearNet.

As you might imagine, none of these actors are particularly experienced, but they're all very believable. There's good reason for the band to feel real, of course, given that they are a band; Armifera are a going concern playing gigs in northwestern Canada and festivals like the Calgary Metal Fest and Farmageddon, in the countryside east of Edmonton. Their debut album, Eradication, is also now available and based on what they sound like in this film, it ought to be a good buy. Making an intriguing feature film is surely an original way to build publicity and I wish them well. I have friends in Edmonton, one of whom often stays with us in January, so I'll make it up there one of these years, probably for one of the genre film festivals that sells out up there like DedFest or Deadmonton. Seeing Armifera live on the same trip would be cool. The individual members are characters but not so much that they would thrive outside the band. They're charismatic enough to appear as themselves, but clearly it's music that drives them, not acting.

Of course, the film's approach really doesn't call for acting, mostly calling instead for its cast members to act as naturally as possible. While Anthony Rotondi does get to shout a lot, the only one who really gets the opportunity to act here is Daphnee Hanrahan as the modern day Julia. IMDb only details one previous picture for her, Bridges Over Montreal, a Canadian romcom in which she presumably goes on one of the five memorable first dates that it covers, which all take place, as you might expect, on Montreal bridges. That would seem like a notably different role to this one and I'd be interested to see how she does. This is hardly the sort of movie that allows us to really gauge her talent. She's believable in the role of a hooker wanting to not be a hooker and she gets enough little quirks of character in there to become memorable. In many ways the film itself does the same thing. It doesn't seem to do much, but it does it uniquely and it's all the more memorable for that. It's definitely not your usual horror flick but it's still worth a look.

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