Stars: Kane Hodder, Tiffany Shepis, Rena Riffel, Dustin James, Owen Conway, Taryn Maxximillian Dafoe, Jason Spisak and Dan Higgins
There's not a heck of a lot of ambiguity anywhere else in the film, because writer/director Robert Conway knows exactly what he wants to throw on the screen and he can't be accused of false advertising. This is neo-grindhouse pulp, painted in that modern style that grindhouse never really was but we imagine that we remember. Of course, the music is newer and heavier and the editing, especially during the opening credits sequence, is MTV ADD. After that, the artificial aging is predominantly restricted to wild transition effects; there are a lot of them throughout but they're not omnipresent. Instead we're given reminders of that seventies vibe in changes to the colour saturation levels and noticeable rear projection, not bad per se but deliberately noticeable. Most of all, the subject matter continually plays out in the neo-grindhouse style, full of drugs, gore and freakiness. It's not as stylised as Rodriguez, as cool as Tarantino or as nasty as Zombie, but it plays well to its budget. This is the sort of VHS you'd have gladly rented in 1985.
Perhaps my memory is playing up, but watching Exit to Hell on Netflix, I found it slightly different to what I remembered of Sickle, which screened with a Q&A at Phoenix Comicon last year. I remembered the odd footage from Conway's gore short, Necro Wars, that kicks in before the movie proper as a wild extension to the various production company idents, but I didn't remember there being quite so much of it. All told, we surely see most of that ten minute short dotted throughout the movie, which isn't good given that the running time is a brief 81 minutes. Knock out Necro Wars and the credits and the picture proper clocks in around the 70 minute mark, hardly a substantial piece. The thing is that I remember more of it from when it was called Sickle, with certain key scenes feeling a little less substantial here and the pace a little more pepped up. Didn't Sheriff Sickle get to use the enhancements on his police car bonnet or was I dreaming at the end of a long Comicon day? Certainly this could easily benefit from more flesh on its bones.
The story is pretty simple. A gang of thieves are robbing strip clubs and their latest target is Baby Dolls in Phoenix. Well, that's what the sign says, even if the DJ calls it the Pink Pussy. Their approach is to infiltrate a place and then wait for their moment to strike. Here, they've become Travis the DJ, Tasha the bartender, Jenna the stripper and Randy the customer, and their moment arrives in notably bloody fashion as Randy has a temper and the place promptly turns into a bloodbath, what the news dubs the Silicone Slaughter. Off they drive through the night to the border, but Randy lands them in Red Stone instead. We know what happens in Red Stone, because we've already followed a couple of opportunistic killers there in the form of a bug eyed Jose Rosete and a coked up Shane Dean. Cheno and Pablo really aren't bright but holding up Mordin's gas station just as Sheriff Sickle walks in turns out to be a particularly dumb move. The cop demonstrates why his name is appropriate and we're down a couple of talented local names.
Fortunately there are more to come. The leader of the thieves is Dustin Leighton, who I last saw in a short film, Kerry and Angie, but was also the lead in Conway's debut feature, Redemption: A Mile from Hell. The most prominent of the thieves turns out to be Jenna, played by scream queen Tiffany Shepis, who doesn't scream much here because she's clearly too strong to be a stereotypical victim, even while being chased down by Sheriff Sickle. Boris, who ran the strip club, is Michael Harrelson delivering a pretty good Russian accent. Even better is Jason Spisak as his boss, Yakov, a ruthless Russian crime lord who chases down the thieves and naturally ends up in Red Stone too. Spisak has appeared in a number of Arizona horror flicks, from Piranha to Locker 13, but he's far better known as a voice actor, probably why I first experienced his work as a narrator in Avé Maria. Shane Stevens gives a good showing in the coda and the late Noah Todd philosophises well while feeding his snake. As he died in 2010, this film obviously took a while in post.
There are two other prominent actors in the same boat. Rena Riffel is another actor brought in from out of state, but she's particularly sidelined, even if she gets an exotic dance of her own. As Penny, she's tasked with little more than playing a stereotypically dumb blonde stripper who inadvertently puts Yakov on the trail of the thieves. The other is Dan Higgins, who thankfully succeeds where most of these actors failed, by stamping his presence on the film so emphatically that he's who I remember most when I think about it. That's a notable accomplishment when the lead is a force of nature and both Shepis and Riffel deliver pole dances, but his role is as a backwoods gas station owner. He's consistently note perfect, but his real scene to shine is the one when Yakov walks in and asks how he can find the thieves who are clearly here in town. It's a wonderful scene, a great adaptation of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, because Mordin defies Yakov in ways he never imagined. Both actors ought to win, but Higgins takes it.
That's the best scene in the film, even if, like most of the rest, it deserved to run longer. Others are much more exploitative, outrageous and/or gruesome, but Conway lets loose with the gore far more than any of the other elements he plays with. The nudity is restricted to early scenes and sex is rarely suggested. The cool angle to neo-grindhouse isn't prominent in the dialogue, which is relatively routine and mostly shorn of bad eighties puns, or the enhancements to the bonnet of Sheriff Sickle's car, which are wasted in this cut, even if they were given a use in my memory of the one I saw at Phoenix Comicon. Esther Goodstein deserves a mention as Sickle's wife, even if her cool role is restricted so far as to be a prop, yet another reminder that everything in this film is strong and consistent but used too sparsely. It would be better if the Necro Wars footage was stripped and every character and every scene bulked up so that this would run ninety or even a hundred minutes. As it is, it's a promise rather than a delivery.