Monday 19 November 2012

The Dead Inside (2011)

Director: Travis Betz
Stars: Sarah Lassez and Dustin Fasching

After Dust Up and Lo, I knew I needed to track down The Dead Inside, the film that Travis Betz made in between those two and which will finally see a home release tomorrow on DVD. It has more in common with the latter than the former, being less of a single coherent story and more of an experimental piece of art. Like Lo, it plays around with genres and tones within a wider framework. This goes even further, if anything, throwing still more genres into the mix, but like Lo, it can't quite nail the consistency it needs. Like Lo, it creatively addresses the lack of budget by embracing restrictions rather than fighting them. Almost the entire picture unfolds within a single house and is performed by only two actors, Sarah Lassez and Dustin Fasching, although they each get multiple roles and they're not always recognisable under heavy makeup. Like Lo, it's great fun, but eventually falls short of the masterpiece Betz will surely one day create.

It opens with a couple of zombies trying to figure out how to get into a locked room so that they can eat the woman inside. They're not your usual zombies; these ones are lucid, romantic, droll, able and willing to self examine their lot in life. And, as we quickly discover, they're not actually the leads in our story, Fi and Wes, or at least they're not quite. They're the gruesomely made up experimental projections of one of them, Fiona Cella, author of a series of zombie novellas called The Dead Survive, who uses the concept to figure out plot progression. Or not, given that she's suffering from acute writer's block, hence the inability of these zombies to get at their food, and she's very easily distracted indeed, which means that they're hardly the focus that they ought to be. Her boyfriend Wes tends to get home nowadays to find her lying on the floor, searching for patterns in the ceiling, or hiding inside a fort she's built out of the furniture. Anything but writing.

I could say that she's letting the fourth novel in her series, The Dead Inside, get to her far more than she should, but it would be a glaring understatement as she's rapidly and effectively losing her marbles. Wes is the rock that her creative soul depends on, but he's not coping particularly well with life himself, being a talented photographer who's having to rely on wedding pictures to pay the bills. It doesn't help when Fi cuts off her own finger with a pair of scissors and then tries to stab Wes in the heart with them. Off to the psychiatric facility she goes to recuperate, but on her return we find that she's not quite the same. Apparently in her weakened mental state, she's been possessed by a dead girl called Emily, and we start to wonder who's actually insane in this picture. Is it Fi or Wes or both of them? Is this him fuelling his creative instincts or her reacting to the changes in her writing? There are certainly parallels.

Thus far, it's been a interesting ride, because it's a lot of different things all wrapped up into one approachable bundle. It's an offbeat zombie comedy. It's a drama about a young couple under a different sort of stress to what is usually depicted in film. It's also an insight into creative juices at work. It's a horror movie, what with the zombies and possession and such. It's an effects film, not only through the excellent makeup work on Fi's zombie couple but through scenes in which she and Wes come to life in photographs on the wall. And, I should point out, it's also a musical, because we get songs about how great the zombie apocalypse would be because they could just stay at home together or how Fi reaffirms control over her body to persuade herself that she's not possessed by a ghost. Unfortunately these songs are fun more for the lyrics than the tunes. Let's just say that while I appreciated the clever lyrics, I wouldn't bother to pick up a soundtrack.
While many comparisons could be made to Lo, and I made a whole bunch in the first paragraph, the biggest difference may be in that this feels like a more personal film for writer/director Travis Betz. It can certainly be enjoyed on the surface as just a freaky weird story, but there's a lot here of substance about creation, innovation and experimentation, words which arrive quickly on the tongue whenever Betz's name comes up. Much of his experimentation is due to his budgets, or rather the lack of them, but I'm sure they're not the only reason. He obviously likes manipulating film in surprising ways, morphing one thing into another when it's least expected, somewhat like a cinematic version of Mr Bungle. Of course, the more outrageous a change is, the more likely it is to fail, but when it succeeds it can succeed magnificently. It also means that to fully grasp the bigger picture, you can't just watch films like this once. They need to be returned to.

From one viewing, I caught a lot of depth. The title has many meanings, for a start: The Dead Inside not just being the latest book in Fi's zombie series, but also a biting metaphor for the lead characters, given the ruts that they're stuck in. More literally, it also speaks to Max and Harper, the undead surrogates inside Fi's imagination, and the ghost that possesses her. Obviously, the theme is the parallel between life and creation, an easy concept for any writer to grasp, as their job is to bring life to their work. The use of zombies though suggests that the opposite of life isn't necessarily death but undeath, a state in which walking and talking continues on but the ability to do anything of substance vanishes. A zombie isn't only unable to do anything meaningful, it's also unable to acknowledge that inability. In their creative ruts, Fi and Wes are no less zombies than Max and Harper, making it appropriate that they're played by the same actors.

I wasn't particularly impressed with Sarah Lassez in Lo, where she may have been the leading lady but a relatively inconsequential MacGuffin of a leading lady who had few opportunities to shine. Here, she gets a great deal of opportunity, not only as she has a lot to do as the leading lady but because she also has plenty to do as the leading lady possessed by a ghost. On top of that she gets to ham it up under makeup as Harper, the metaphysical zombie who may well be the key to the entire story, given that the directions she takes are mirrored in the real world by the character who imagines her. She does very well, much better than she did in Lo and better than her male counterpart here, Dustin Fasching, who is still decent as Wes and Max, though he has less to do as either. He's the one who's let down by the writing this time, as he doesn't get the time and depth that Fi or Harper do.

I expected him to come to life halfway through, thinking that the film would pivot and shift from Fi to Wes, but it didn't. It shifted from Fi to Emily instead, with Fi always floating metaphorically in the background waiting to return. The picture slows down at this point, when it really ought to have kicked it up a notch, lagging for much of the second half before getting back on track by the end. Perhaps the source of the problem is the budget, not directly but because it meant that a few people got to share a lot of roles and, in turn, that Betz got to edit his own work. I'm sure that had he stayed on as writer and director but stayed out of the editing room, the issues with the second half could have been countered. Such are the pitfalls of low budget filmmaking. The benefits are the freedom to make films like this, which could never happen in Hollywood. Betz is a joyously creative indie filmmaker and one day he's going to really nail it. Just not quite yet.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Pig (2011)

Director: Henry Barrial
Stars: Rudolf Martin, Heather Ankeny, Keith Diamond and Ines Dali
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
In one of the more accurate plot synopses at IMDb, 'a man wakes up alone in the middle of the desert with a black hood on his head and his hands tied behind his back.' He has amnesia with mere glimpses of memory. A slip of paper in his pocket reads 'Manny Elder', which may or may not be his name: he doesn't even remember that much, let alone what might have led him to have been dumped out there in an apparent execution. Isabel, a young mother who finds him in the desert and nurses him back to health at her home in Page, AZ, knows from experience that drug smugglers do that sort of thing, as her dead husband was one. Our mystery man doesn't know what he does. Obviously something is going on, but we're not in on the secret either and we don't know who is. We're forced to rediscover this man's past along with him and, because we have no idea where discovery might come from, we have to pay a great deal of attention.

What's important here? Should we focus on the little details that he can remember or those that he can't. Snippets do come back to him, like the tune to London Bridge or a figure of a knight in stained glass at Isabel's house, but nothing substantial or apparently useful. On the flipside, he's forgotten that 'Cheers!' is a toast or that bees sting. Is it notable that wine and pain elicit similar reactions in him? They carry shock and bring a memory that he can't quite define. Is it important that he doesn't dream? Certainly he's completely functional: he speaks English, he can read and write, even draw. He knows what things are, for the most part, and he's at home with his bodily functions. If this was deliberately done to him, who might have done it? All we see is Isabel and her young son, Jason, along with some quick visits from a local doctor to tend to his immediate wounds. The only real clue is the name in his pocket, Manny Elder.

Isabel searches online and finds that he runs a hotel called the Continental in LA, so off he goes to see what might come of talking with him. However, before Elder's door even opens, suddenly he's back in the desert in those plastic cuffs and that black hood. We're thirty minutes into the picture, yet it's apparently starting again. And again. We're only given the benefit of one detail that the man living through this bizarre process doesn't see: the numbers at the corner of the screen that appear each time everything reboots. It was 1.2 when the film began, then it became 1.3 and 1.4, always counting up. We don't have to run through everything again though, we find ourselves right back at the Continental to discover that Manny Elder is a friend, that our guy is called Justin Reeves and that he's subscribed to a substitute teacher agency. Surely it isn't an accidental irony that he likes puzzles, given that he himself is now his own biggest puzzle.

What makes this film special is that, as answers arrive in a flood they only bring more questions flowing along with them. With each fresh discovery Reeves makes about who he is and why this might be happening to him, we make that discovery with him and we can't help but realise that they don't all seem to be compatible with each other. Initially they're just subtle inconsistencies but they escalate in grandeur, to the point that, while he's enjoying some fresh air in LA, a lady in a car calls out to him in German, in which language he promptly answers her. She tells him that he speaks German because, like her, he was born in East Berlin and his name is Lukas Ernst. By now, we're forced into a constant reevaluation of each piece of evidence we're given, juggling it with every other piece to try to build a coherent bigger picture. Increasingly, it feels like we're looking at pieces from two different puzzles, but we try to reconcile everything to being one.

The name behind Pig is Henry Barrial, who wrote and directed, and it's surprising to find that he doesn't have a large body of work behind him. While this features no major stars and obviously doesn't enjoy a major budget, it's a complex film that doesn't feel like it could have sprung out of nowhere. The actors are experienced and some are recognisable. Rudolf Martin, who plays the mystery man at the heart of the film, has many credits going back to 1993, including Hollywood features like Bedazzled and Swordfish. I recognised him from television, where he played Ziva's half-brother Ari on NCIS. All three of the major supporting cast, Heather Ankeny, Keith Diamond and Ines Dali, have similar experience in varying quantities. The production values are high, budget notwithstanding, and there are few issues with the technical side. My biggest complaint was an annoying spelling mistake that reoccurred a few times towards the end of the film.
While Barrial's credits are varied, this would seem to be a natural extension of his core focus as a writer/director. Pig is his fourth feature as a director, three of which he also wrote, and while I haven't seen any of his other films, it's clear just from their synopses that they're are all about relationships. Some Body is a search for something beyond sex in the singles scene, Heartland has to do with a girl looking after a brother with Downs syndrome, and True Love examines three couples at different stages of their respective relationships. While Pig may seem to be something of a departure, it really isn't, as at heart it's about a man's relationship with himself at its most strained. It's a science fiction movie without a single spaceship, ray gun or monster, but it's still science fiction, which at it's best and purest is about tweaking the world in a single scientific way to see how everything else changes because of it. That's exactly what Barrial does.

To my mind, it's Barrial's script that most obviously succeeds here but not completely. He frames the science fiction as a mystery, not to be obtuse but to keep us engaged in the puzzle, and like all the best puzzles it continues to make us think even once we've solved it. Some will figure out what's going on sooner than others, but nobody will leave wondering what happened. Instead, they'll be wondering about that single tweak itself, initially about whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, but then when they realise that, like most changes, it's intrinsically neither good nor bad, they'll wonder about the morality of the concept instead, whether it's ethical or not and how it could or would be abused. If it isn't black or white, how grey does it get? The ending itself is a good one, though it isn't nearly as iconically phrased as other provocative movie endings like those of Brazil or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which still spark debate today.

Rudolf Martin is deceptively great here. As the story is entirely about him, he has to carry it and he proves up to the task, even though he's in a state of confusion for most of it and is frequently missing lines because he has no memory to provide answers to people's questions. He becomes more grounded as the film runs on, with each discovery about who he is, who he was and why he's in this story to begin with, but he plays it more subtly and with less flash than Guy Pearce did in Memento, another puzzle picture. The three main supporting actors back him up well, though their respective stories are fleshed out to different degrees. As Anouk, the German lady who finds an old friend by chance, Dali's is most naturally contained. Diamond's as Manny Elder has a wider scope but it's fairly covered too. It was Ankeny's role that satisfied me least, not for her acting, which is excellent, but for where Barrial takes, or doesn't take, her character.

I had a lot more questions about Isabel than are ever spoken to, as she's a complex and pivotal character worthy of much more exploration than is attempted here. Perhaps it would be tough to include that without detracting from the central character, but I think the fault may be with just how far Barrial was willing to let the science fiction aspect of this story take him. The big reveal, if it could be called that, comes too early to be seen as a twist ending, but too late to shape how the rest of the film goes with any real depth. I felt that Barrial's background with straight drama made him see this as an insular story about one man, but the science fiction approach is bigger than that and once that door is opened it really can't be closed again. Barrial is good at setting up questions but the answers he provides don't complete the puzzle. He isn't willing to take a crack at the new world he's created, remaining content instead to focus on one man within it.

It's not surprising that Pig won for Best Science Fiction Feature at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, and it's not surprising that it's won a whole slew of other awards at other film festivals across the map. Sadly there are few enough serious science fiction features made at this level that when a good one shows up, it's almost guaranteed to accumulate laurels like there's no tomorrow. This is certainly a good one, but it's not a great one and it shouldn't have been the shoe in that it was. I'll certainly be checking out Barrial's previous films, as well as his next one, The House That Jack Built, due in 2013, as they all appear to be straight dramas and it's the dramatic side of this film that he shined brightest at. If he comes back to the science fiction genre, I hope he'll be willing to look beyond the dramatic to the wider questions of change, not just to an individual person or a couple but to society at large.

The Puzzle (2008)

Director: Davide Melini
Stars: Cachito Noguera and Alessandro Fornari

After adoring The Sweet Hand of the White Rose, whatever problems I found with it, I was eager to see what writer/director Davide Melini might have done before that. His previous short film, his third, was The Puzzle, shot two years earlier in 2008. It's much shorter and more to the point, running under five minutes, even including the credits, but it doesn't sacrifice any of the style that was so notable about the later film. It's another agreeably hallucinatory piece that follows a mother unwilling to give any more money to her son. 'It's over, you hear,' she enforces as she slams the phone down on him. So she goes back to her desk to work on a jigsaw puzzle, while the camera becomes her tension, rising and falling and circling around. As time moves on, the curtains swirl and the tension changes, using double exposures along with standard suspense tricks to keep the whole thing stylishly feverish.
There are two apparent flaws. One is that it isn't apparent until the end credits that this woman is dealing with her son. From her language and the photo by the phone I'd assumed it was her lover or even an estranged husband. I don't know if I'm criticising the photo and the choice of line or praising Cachito Noguera, but the other flaw is her acting, which is overdone. She seems to have a perpetual half grin that doesn't fit with the tension she obviously feels. Unfortunately for the most part she's it, unless you can count the house itself as a second character. Certainly it gets as much attention and opportunity to build character as she does, with the Ikea furniture occasionally just as mobile. Really though, Noguera's acting isn't a big deal, given that she gets very little dialogue and is mostly tasked with feeling unnerved, often in fast forward. Like The Sweet Hand of the White Rose, this is about feel and on that front this is another success.

The Puzzle can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

The Sweet Hand of the White Rose (2010)

Director: Davide Melini
Stars: Carlos Bahos, Natasha Machuca and Leocricia Sabán

It's easy to like The Sweet Hand of the White Rose as it starts simply, builds magnificently and ends exactly when it should. It finishes up so well that it's easy to heap praise onto it, but it's not quite that perfect. The good news is that its flaws aren't too important. The most obvious is that it takes far too long to get started, the first three minutes at Bar Zeppelin being wildly enjoyable but precisely nothing to do with the story. It's only when Mary shows up and her boyfriend Mark leaves because he doesn't want to talk to her that we can really begin. Even then, the opening credits haven't quite finished, but we can settle down to hearing about Mark and Rose. Mark is heading out in his car for nowhere in particular, to clear his head of relationship issues, but he crashes because he can't stop looking at his phone. Rose is a young girl heading home on her bike after a fun day in the park. It's clear that their stories will meet right there on the curve.

Thus far, it's been inconsistent. Their monologues are simply written and poorly inflected, as if the speakers don't count English as their first language, even though I'm watching the dubbed version where those speakers aren't the actors on screen and their names in the credits sound British. I'd very much like to watch this in the original Spanish as the actors, Carlos Bahos and Natasha Machuca do everything asked of them, even if young Natasha looks at the camera too often. The settings are spot on, the choreography is well thought out and the camera moves just as it should. Everything proceeds nicely, if perhaps a little too leisurely. And then, seven minutes into the sixteen that this short film runs, everything suddenly kicks into high gear and from that moment it doesn't let up in the slightest. I wonder if starting seven minutes in would provide enough background to the story. If it does, excising that footage would make this astounding.
So let's pretend. As our seven minutes in movie begins, everything is stylish in a very European way. It's dark but we see well by a full moon. A mysterious hooded man arrives at a church and breaks in to pay his respects to a dead girl. The electronic score is overlaid with choral chant which adds to the gothic flavour, while the wind whips up outside so a storm can move in. As he stumbles out into the mortuary to follow a mysterious trail of white petals, giggles and blood, neatly accompanied by an driving prog soundtrack, the camera swirls, the lightning flashes and the stone memorials hem him in and force him on his way. Eventually he finds the girl and with her a bigger truth than he might have expected. We flash back in black and white, then move forward in colour to a superb ending, shot from the right angles, with the right amount of light and with just the right swell of emotion. You'll certainly feel this one as well as see it.

It works without the first seven minutes, but I'm still in two minds about how effectively. Perhaps we should hear the stories of Mark and Rose, but less leisurely and split from the body of the film by a shorter version of the opening credits. But that's just me playing armchair editor, offering unwanted amateur advice to filmmakers who are obviously capable of magnificence. That's the word that springs to mind when describing the style we enjoy from the church onwards. It's very claustrophobic, very giallo, very Italian. It infuses the gothic setting with unashamed emotion, in a way that's very reminiscent of Dario Argento. While I'm not going to say it's perfect, because there are little moments that could have been improved, I will say that I wallowed in its texture. The earlier scenes are no less capably shot and if the biggest complaint I can offer about them is that they're there and perhaps shouldn't be, I'm not complaining too loudly.

The Sweet Hand of the White Rose can be viewed for free at YouTube.

Monday 12 November 2012

Kiddy Kiddy Bang Bang (2012)

Director: Dick Jane
Stars: Devin Werder, Riley Werder and Reed Daniels

I adore the opening credit sequence of Kiddy Kiddy Bang Bang. Against a striking abstract but patriotic background and a striking theme, two twin girls in matching outfits point their guns at the camera and fire. Devin Werder kisses her pump action shotgun in slow motion, Riley Werder duckfaces at the smoke rising from her pistol and Reed Daniels loses his bloody brain matter to a string of bullets. This is as far away from subtle as it gets but it's modern day grindhouse at its finest, too slick to be old school but fitting very well with the Tarantino-inspired revivals. The oft quoted Edmund Burke line that 'the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,' closes them out with a rumble from the speakers. It's wrong on so many levels but I'm sure most grindhouse fans would pay to see what follows. What they need to know is that the best and worst things about this short film are that it's just as blatant.

I watched this a few times to try to figure out which side of a pretty obvious and dangerous line writer/director Dick Jane sits on. In my mind, this puts it aside from exploitation films generally, which ought to be transparent. The exploitation angle was always in getting people onto theatre seats, usually by promising more than would ever be delivered but with enough thrown up onto the screen for those punters to want to come back again. For all its faults, you can't accuse this of false advertising. Kiddy Kiddy Bang Bang delivers exactly what it says it will, no more and no less. It's about twin girls hunting down paedophiles, pure and simple, from accusation to blam blam blam. How you feel about that concept is going to phrase your appreciation, or lack of it, for this short film and, it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest, for the expanded feature version when that becomes available. If you think you shouldn't watch, then don't.
For those who do, it's an annoyingly inconsistent film. It's capably shot, with good lighting and sound, and the characters all look precisely as they should, if your expectations are shaped by exploitation stereotypes. Yet the acting is terrible, both from the kids and the adults, and it's all out of sync, the sound on the copy I saw at Vimeo being an annoying half a second behind the visuals. At first, I thought the kids were being dubbed, perhaps to add in the more unpalatable lines without them having to say them, but it extended to the adults too. The detail is often hilarious, though it requires pausing to catch the full effect. As Sam searches to find the paedophile who apparently abused Penny, pause on Ezekiel Josiah Miloševic's details. You'll see that his ethnicity is 'cracker', his hair 'piss yellow', his eyes 'bloodshot with a hint of green', his sex 'massive' and his threat level 'deep shit'. This suggests a dark humour at play.
Yet the way the story unfolds, without any hint of depth, suggests something else. Sam and her sister Polly assume guilt through a single accusation and promptly wander over to the house of the accused to blow him away. Bill Hannigan only lives three blocks away, where we watch him underline his guilt by asking for God's permission to play. 'Go for it, Billy,' the voice in his head tells him. There's no ambiguity here at all, just a certain knowledge that these girls are dishing out the justice that society has failed to do. Polly shouts back that Johnny shouldn't call the cops if they fail to return. 'They're not on our side,' she says. When she blasts down the pervert and blood coats her face, there's a long, long pause backed by music that evokes a holy moment. What's more, the dedication to the victims of sexual abuse is followed by a sinister count. '1 down, billions to go,' it says, a number reiterated during the film. This isn't dark humour.

So I'm impressed by the balls Dick Jane shows in making this, I love the opening credits and it's possible that this could become a politically incorrect grindhouse joy in feature form. However, I don't think I can buy that on the basis of this short version. It all feels too acutely uncomfortable, too close to propaganda, too far over the line. On his website, Jane explains his cinematic goals and they're laudable. He's a 'radical creative' with an 'inexorable avant-garde stance'. He both condemns and venerates his audience through 'original perspective'. He addresses themes of 'sex, violence and the inhumanity of the human specie.' He's 'anti-sellout and anti-trend since year zero'. This is exactly the sort of filmmaker I want to watch. I'd like to see Kiddy Kiddy Bang Bang as a feature, with the Werder girls as the leads, but only if it drops the propaganda and gains instead either a sense of humour or depth through social comment, preferably both.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Simone (2010)

Director: Joops Fragale
Stars: Jennifer Ward and Erin Nicole Cline

After Date Night, a simple but highly effective short, I had high hopes for its predecessor, shot a year earlier with many of the same cast and crew. Simone turns out to be another capable and enjoyable film with much to praise, but there's also more to dislike and it doesn't succeed to my eyes quite as strongly as its successor. It's more complex and more overtly stylish than Date Night, opening wildly as a handheld camera rushes through the sweeping neon of cityscapes at night but struggles to orient itself in the glaring daylight over the bed where Simone sleeps. The uncontrolled approach ably mirrors the fragments of her dreams as she wakes up with smeared make up and an obvious hangover, perhaps unsure even of where she is. She certainly finds the empty bottle of vodka by the bed a lot easier than she finds her clothes and her phone. Editing and sound work in tandem as enforcement, snapping her back from haze to reality.

One she finds her phone, her voicemail joins the fight as a voice drunkenly tells her that she was a real slut last night. She forces herself to remember, though it hardly looks good as she coughs up blood and hair and follows a trail of blood to the kitchen. Memories are quick to surface but only as blips in explosive club light that highlight mere snippets of a bigger picture. Gradually the memories coalesce enough for us to put that picture together and figure out exactly what's going on. She remembers a bar, drinks, a girl. She remembers passion at the bar, hot girl on girl action in the bedroom. She remembers waking up in the night apparently shocked that she's in bed with a chick, but that's not where this is going. There may be hints at a gay subtext to the story, especially given that the film's theme is about fighting with inherent nature ('fear your instincts' is the tagline), but they remain hints. The story remains a lot more straightforward.
I liked Simone, both as a film and a character, but neither aim as deeply as they should. Jennifer Ward is good but not as versatile here as Erin Cline was in Date Night. Cline is here too, as the girl Simone picks up, but she gets much less to do as it's very much Ward's show. It's the script that lets them down most, I think. While Joops Fragale's story in Date Night works consistently well across three acts, Frazer Lee's here is awkwardly balanced so that the first act gets a lot of attention while the second inherently has little substance and the third is almost skimped over. There are eleven minutes to build but only four to close out. Technically it's not as accomplished as Date Night, with the same inconsistent lighting flaw. The camerawork and editing smooth out with the progression of the story, but they should have gone further. There's more reliance on effects, but they work better through sound than visuals. The last shot is effective but cheap.

And all that sounds far more negative than it should. My biggest complaint isn't that it's a bad film, as it's actually a pretty effective one given obvious budget restraints; it's that it seems to set itself up as something more than it ends up being. It's very possible that I'm reading it the wrong way, of course. Instead of starting with the style of the opening, that strong tie between the sound and the visuals that carries us into the mind of the lead character and draws us into the story, maybe I should be starting with a simple but persistent story that's enhanced by the stylings of the camera, the editing and the sound. The thing is that it doesn't work as well that way, because it stays too simple. I wanted Simone's conflict to be focused on more and earlier, the fact that both lead characters are female to mean something, the last shot to be lingering and haunting. But hey, this is still good stuff and I'm up for more Cline and more Fragale.

Simone can be viewed for free on Vimeo.

Date Night (2011)

Director: Joops Fragale
Stars: Erin Nicole Cline and David Fuit

She's not going out, she emphasises to her friend on the phone. She doesn't want to be a third wheel. She's going to stay home in her dressing gown, catch up on her reading, watch a movie. Any excuse. But our story really begins when she samples the perfume from an ad in a women's magazine by rubbing it on her wrists. When she heads back to the couch with her popcorn, he's right there waiting for her, escaped from the ad with every line in the book on his lips. 'You are so beautiful,' he says, beckoning her to him. 'You ought to be kissed, and often,' he quotes as if he'd just conjured the words out of his head, 'by someone who knows how.' And, as if by some insane impulse given that there's suddenly a stranger in her apartment for no apparent reason, she goes for it. 'Don't leave,' she tells him, and goes to get ready for her dream date, returning to find him there with champagne and strawberries. He even brings the light with him.
David Fuit is wooden for the most part, but then he's supposed to be. He's a walking cliché who sprang to life from a perfume ad. He does everything she could ever want: make salad, rub her feet, play the ukelele. He's confident, he smiles well and he makes her laugh. It doesn't matter how. This isn't his story though, it's hers and the camera rarely strays far from Erin Nicole Cline, who impresses. The material requires her to run through a vast array of different emotions and reactions and she has the acting chops to do just that. It also tasks her with looking completely different at different stages of the film, which is under fifteen minutes with credits. Starting out dowdy but comfortable, she has to jazz herself up enough that the happy date scenes, and the bed scenes that follow, could easily have been lifted from a commercial. Of course, there's a lot more here than just a dream date sequence and the morning brings the other side of the story.

While obviously not shot for the budget of the commercial the middle section looks like, this is very capably done. Cline is excellent throughout and Fuit gets to show a little more range than we get initially. Michael Long's camerawork is fluid, with great composition and movement that makes the progression feel like a dance. The set design is solid, the editing is tight, the music by Christopher Fragale is spot on. Only the lighting shows its flaws a little too often. Even the end credits are good, highlighting simply how so much work is done by so few people on shorts like this, as names scroll down past long lists of roles. Joops Fragale gets most, from writer, director and editor to stab dummy. Long, his partner at 386 Films, gets almost as many. The few people involved here took a good idea and let it flow smoothly to its natural conclusion without ever overstaying its welcome. The ending is textbook, as right as it is expected. It's promising stuff.

Date Night can be viewed for free on Vimeo.

Saturday 10 November 2012

The House with 100 Eyes (2011)

Director: Jay Lee & Jim Roof
Stars: Shannon Malone, Jim Roof, Larissa Lynch, Liz Burghdorf and Andrew Hopper
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
The House with 100 Eyes works primarily because of contrast. On one hand, it's a notably nasty affair, which follows the people behind Studio Red as they work through the process of acquiring, torturing and killing a trio of victims in an attempt to make the world's first 'snuff triple feature'. They're 'taking snuff to a whole new level', documenting everything in order to provide a host of bonus features on their DVD. It succeeds in living up to the language touted during the intro. It's 'shocking'. It's 'depraved'. It's 'condemned'. As co-director Jay Lee points out, there are walkouts at every screening. As I saw for myself, most of them don't even get to see the nastiest bits. Yet, on the other hand, those inherently sick and twisted filmmakers are, from moment one, a rather endearing and outwardly inoffensive couple, Ed and Susan, who have carefully fitted their home for their work, in part by installing a plethora of hidden cameras, the hundred eyes of the title.

Ed and Susan are a joy to watch, which is fortunate as this isn't the sort of material many would choose to sit through otherwise. The charisma they share is because they're married in real life too. He's Jim Roof, who wrote and co-directed this film, in addition to being its most obvious star. She's Shannon Malone, who backs up him perfectly and manages to steal the show on a number of occasions. He's a charmer, who begins the film testing his microphones by singing Hello! Ma Baby, that 1889 song we know today because of Michigan J Frog. He has a contagious smile and says cutesy things like 'Happy hunting!' and 'Home again, home again, jiggety jig!' without ever seeming out of place. She's like a doll, utterly inoffensive and with magnificent giggles. Yet they make snuff films. We can't forget that pointer to depth, which creeps out throughout. He rages against cinematic mediocrity. She merely has 'a little impulse control problem'.

Because Ed and Susan are so joyously grounded, The House with 100 Eyes plays out in a notably different manner to many of its obvious comparisons. Even though it's intrinsically about torture and porn, it doesn't sit well with what has become known as the genre of torture porn. Even in its darkest moments, it doesn't carry an oppressive tone; even at its most sadistic, it's hilarious in gloriously inappropriate ways. It sits far better alongside Man Bites Dog and Long Pigs than Saw and Hostel, most obviously because it's written as black comedy, relying inherently on comedic timing to get us through the grue. It doesn't go so far as to aim for a restrained old school Kind Hearts and Coronets vibe, as it happily puts its money where its mouth is to show us agreeably brutal effects work (though it does blur out naughty bits like Japanese porn). Yet we're never far from a smile, if not a grin, and it feels right because we're laughing at the deserving.
For the most part, that's Ed and Susan, as their sick little house of cards begins to crumble and, with it, the facade that makes them such a quintessentially American postcard couple. We watch them pack their kits, bait their hooks and troll for victims, yet nothing ever quite goes to plan. It's dark situational humour, of course, but it's funny all the same. Even once they find their willing trio, nothing goes right. They're not quite as willing as they could be, or they're too willing. And then there are Ed and Susan's own flaws to add to the mix, which lead to the most telling part of the film for me. That's when Susan protests to Ed about minor indiscretions in a framework built out of major ones. We laugh not at her, but at her hypocrisy, which builds her character superbly and adds a huge amount of depth to the story as a whole. There's not much plot on hand here: a couple entice three youngsters to kill on film, that's it, but there's a lot more in the why of it.

At points we laugh at their victims, a young couple and their friend, but always because of who they are, never merely because they're victims, and that's a surprising but major reason why the film is so palatable. Clutch is a slacker musician who underachieves with aplomb and digs holes that Jamie, his girlfriend, can't always climb out of. They're here because she sees the $500 each for two hours work that Ed promises them as a beginning of a way out, the start of a better life. There's obvious irony at play here, given what we know that she doesn't, but there's also depth in her constant willingness to jump down two steps to allow her to climb up one. Their younger friend, Crystal, is harder to laugh at because she's a less willing victim. Obviously a runaway with regrets who may be younger than the seventeen she claims, the humour in her character is only situational and surreal outside elements have to be brought in to avoid the tone getting nasty.

All these characters are surprisingly well defined, with both comedy and drama stemming from their character flaws. Andrew Hopper gets least to do as Clutch as he doesn't really do anything, merely allows the world to do things to him. As Jamie, Larissa Lynch is his dynamic half, though she's too accepting to counter his passive self-destruction much. She's impressive, though to my mind it's Liz Burghdorf who shines brightest of the victims. Crystal may be the victim with the least humour to her but she has the most drama, none of which is ever actually explained, and she's incredibly good at being almost but not quite strong enough. Clutch and Jamie are clearly the architects of their own destruction, meaning that Ed and Susan may only be hastening the inevitable, but Crystal's doom feels like the hellish product of a single poor decision that she'd undo if only she could. She's the one we want to help, but of course we can't either.
What unfolds isn't going to be too surprising, but it's mostly phrased well as an interesting take on the found footage concept. At the outset, we're told that documentary filmmaker Jay Lee was sent an anonymous package containing a bunch of tapes and DVDs, which he believes are real and which he edited into this film. It's a solid way to take the found footage concept, which is a cheap approach for low budget filmmakers, but provide background, keep a narrative track and escalate to a finalé, with just enough ambiguity at the end for us to reevaluate the introduction. It gets bonus points for internal consistency (I only spotted a couple of minor slips), a believable use for a bunch of youngsters and a thoroughly different approach to drugs, not to mention the voyeuristic nod to reality television that the house with its hundred lensed eyes provides. Even better, the use of handheld footage is kept to a bare minimum, all of it early on.

It's not always successful. The most annoying thing for me (and apparently not just me) was the screaming electronic noise that apparently substitutes for static. Jay Lee feels that it adds some edge to the material, and as the editor of this supposedly real footage I can buy that he'd leave it in for effect, but I found it distracting. For such a well equipped house, with expensive hidden cameras everywhere, I was disappointed at the minimalism of its actual studio: not much more than a mattress and a potted plant. I'd have thought that after soundproofing it as well as they did, Ed and Susan could afford a bed to put the mattress on, maybe something to set the scene. Studio Red claim be taking snuff to a whole new level after all, which isn't apparent here. Judging from the screeching on Ed's home made porn mementos, he skimped on the sound equipment too, which doesn't sit well given how far he took the visual side.

These aren't major complaints though, and this isn't the sort of film that aims to be expansive in its outreach. It's hardly a Pixar movie, after all. Jay Lee obviously feels proud of the niche carved out here and has no expectations that The House of 100 Eyes will ever outgrow it. He talks about walkouts with pride, as an achievement to savour almost as much as the die hard fans who stay through Ed whacking off to a home video of him torturing some woman. He'll happily leave the moneymaking to other projects, like his most famous film, 2008's Zombie Strippers, with Robert Englund and Jenna Jameson, which is just as inviting to a wide horror audience as this isn't. This is a journey that many fans automatically won't want to embark on, just because of the subject matter; or stick with through the icky scenes which do get rather icky indeed down in the romper room. What they'll miss out on is the delightfully dark joy that is Ed and Susan.

Everything comes back to them here, because it isn't about the snuff or the victims at all, even enjoyably quirky ones like Maddie, a quadruple amputee with Stockholm syndrome who's kept in an animal carrier. Ultimately the picture wins out because its focus on Ed and Susan reflects its strongest assets, Jim Roof and Shannon Malone. Ed is the most obvious, not only because he's the driving force in the relationship but because he's so volatile, veering from caring to acidic, understanding to vindictive, pleasant to tyrannical. I enjoyed Susan more as she's endearingly mad. Though clearly one of the bad guys, it's impossible not to empathise with her often. She's like a perfect fifties housewife, merely mad. 'Susan, please don't let him kill me,' Crystal pleads with her at one point. 'You're already dead, sweetie,' she replies, politely tapping her knee. This sort of simultaneously upbeat and downbeat moment makes the movie. Contrast, you see.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

One Down, Two to Go (1982)

Director: Fred Williamson
Stars: Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly and Richard Roundtree
When I asked him at FearCon V to personally pick a couple of movies out of his filmography for me to review, Fred Williamson declined in character as the Hammer, suggesting that any picture he's ever been in is automatically worthy of being reviewed. I'd beg to differ, having seen some of the turkeys he's been in, and even he had to laugh when I brought up the unreedemable Fist of Fear, Touch of Death. So I picked a couple of Hammer movies which appear to have meaning but which I haven't previously seen. First up is the rather appropriately titled One Down, Two to Go, because Williamson isn't just the star, he's also the writer, producer and director. He'd gone beyond acting early on, first writing and producing in 1975 with the western Boss Nigger, then directing the following year's Mean Johnny Barrows, but this one features a blaxploitation dream team, not just the Hammer but Shaft, Slaughter and Black Samurai to boot.

That sort of team up was exactly what blaxploitation needed in 1982. Exploding onto the movie scene in 1971 with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft, it was huge for half a decade but tailed off quickly at the end of the seventies. However most of the stars of those films were still around and just as good as, if not better than, in the genre's heyday. Three of the stars seen here, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Jim Kelly, had teamed up together in Three the Hard Way back in 1974, so it wasn't a stretch to reunite the team, especially with Richard Roundtree added into the mix. Unfortunately it doesn't live up to that potential and one of its biggest flaws is that it never treats these legends as a team, separating them up as much as possible for most of the film. Otherwise it's enjoyable but predictable and pedestrian, Williamson much better on screen where he can exploit his charisma than behind the scenes calling the shots.

It opens up strongly enough at the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey, where a host of martial artists break boards with their fists and feet even while the opening credits roll. This is the warm up to a winner take all karate tournament, which looks a lot more like kickboxing to me but I'm not going to quibble because the fighters really go for it. Williamson wanted authenticity, so he told them to fight for real with the winner of each fight getting five hundred bucks but the loser only a hundred. That's a far cry from the fictional $400,000 on the line in the California vs New York match we're here to see, but it was a lot of money back in 1982. The California team coach, Chuck Wells, is at ringside. That's Jim Kelly with a much smaller afro than I'm used to seeing him in. Richard Roundtree is there too, playing his friend Ralph in a pristine white suit, but they're worried. Something's wrong and Wells wanders off to the dressing rooms to find out what it is.
The good news is that he finds out: Mr Rossi has taken a hundred grand to fix the fights. He's a local businessman who runs a tow company but presumably a lot more. I don't think it ever tells us that he's in the mob but it's pretty obvious with character names like Mr Rossi and Mr Mario. The bad news is that even in the eighties, Jim Kelly had to be stylin' so his bright red and yellow outfit fails utterly to blend into the dim green walls and the nameless local hoods get to slow him down. Jim Kelly vs The Nameless Local Hoods wouldn't be much of a movie and it isn't much of a fight, over before it begins, but one of them decides to slow him down with a bullet and that's a bit more successful. Exit Kelly stage left for most of the rest of the film. Enter Richard Roundtree instead, to pester fight promoter Joe Spangler for their winnings and to team up with sexy bargirl Teri, played by Paula Sills, to spirit their buddy off to a cabin to recover from being shot.

Roundtree is solid here and it's a good thing. Kelly never was a great actor, being watchable not for his stagecraft but for his style and his moves, neither of which get much exposure here. With Fred Williamson and Jim Brown both still conspicuously absent from the picture, that leaves 'the man who would risk his neck for his brother man' to take care of business and he does. The best acting in the picture is when he asks Spangler for the money. For 'asks', read 'politely but firmly pressures', naturally, and he's believably tough but everyday. He's not putting on a star routine; for that we just have to wait for the Hammer to show up. When he and Brown ease into the film in Lincoln limos that get more screen time than Kelly, reality takes a notable raincheck. For now, we're doing the blaxploitation thing, with shifty white jerks bringing the pain to the honest black folk. Roundtree gets beaten down, Sills gets raped and kidnapped, while Kelly gets shot again.

So much for the low key approach. Rossi's hoods would have solved their problem if Teri hadn't rung a couple of numbers that Chuck gave her to call in the cavalry. Here's where Williamson ups the ante and the grittiness of the earlier scenes turns into flamboyance. Into town roll Cal and J in style to track down their friends, Chuck and Ralph, and stir up the pot until the money falls out. What's most astounding about this isn't how much Fred Williamson's stogie looks like a slim jim or how the black guys' handguns are twice as big as the white guys' (compensating for something, gentlemen?). It's that Sheriff Lucas, played well otherwise by Warrington Winters, is the most bizarre lawman I think I've ever seen in film. He pops up continually out of nowhere like he's a time traveller and he lets our heroes get away with everything. He may berate them, but he lets it be. Carry on shooting people and blowing things up! The law apparently doesn't mind.
And the rest is relatively predictable. There's a lot of filler here, with far too many shots of those limos or the Hammer's dog or Cal and J skulking around in the dark, but it delivers on the fronts that it aims at, albeit unimaginatively. The bad guys die quickly, the good guys slowly. There are periodic bouts of toughness, violence, brotherhood, redemption, breaks so the Hammer can get the ladies. And of course, Sheriff Lucas keeps showing up and doing precisely nothing else. This is all predictable but it's also dependable, capable and solid on the one hand but unimaginative and routine on the other. If you've only seen one blaxploitation movie before this, you won't get a single surprise from this one. Of course, it all unfolds to a funky score, which is actually pretty good this time round, in the hands of jazzman Rodney Franklin. For those more into rock than funk, it crosses that line on a few occasions but always stays appropriate for the material.

Williamson plays this one in standard persona. He's always sassy and knowing, less acting out a role and more just walking in front of the camera as he usually is with that Hammer grin on his face almost constantly. It's so personal that I could even believe that this performance wasn't aimed at the film's audience but any ladies hanging around on set behind the camera. Mostly because of this, he doesn't add much to the movie at all, except for one glorious scene at the enemy dojo. Refusing to be threatened by a big martial artist, he slips his even larger gun into the man's belly. 'You may be good at kung fu,' he quips, 'but I'm an expert in gun fu.' It's all the more joyous for being delivered straight. Brown is good with gun fu too, racking up most of the body count, but he's best being cool and threatening, like when he pressures the mob's money man at the bank. He doesn't move much but he demonstrates his dominance absolutely.

The film's problem is that these moments are there but rarely and almost always when there's only one of the stars in the scene. It's not often that they get to interact and, when they do, it's fleeting. Williamson's character needed more substance anyway, but with Kelly and Roundtree nowhere in sight, it needed it all the more. Brown does well, but not so much that he can carry the picture. It needed Kelly back on the screen, actually doing something other than being shot. It needed Roundtree back on the screen, working his subtle charms while Williamson hammed it up and Brown took care of business. More than anything, it needed all four of them to team up and be a joint force. It needed that to make the picture, but it really needed that to have any potential of sparking a blaxploitation revival. As it was, it came and it went and it didn't change anything. Instead, it sadly let the opportunity slide for other films to take a shot at.

The Hazing (2004)

Director: Rolfe Kanefsky
Stars: Philip Andrew, Chariame DeGraté, Jeremy Maxwell, Nectar Rose, Parry Shen, Tiffany Shepis, David Tom, Brooke Burke and Brad Dourif
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
The special guests at FearCon V were blaxploitation legend Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson and scream queen Tiffany Shepis, though both are versatile enough for those perennial descriptions to be unfair. I decided to mark the occasion by reviewing a pair of pictures from each of their expansive filmographies and I gave them the opportunity to pick which. The Hammer declined, staying in persona throughout and boasting that everything he's ever done would be worthy of selection (it certainly isn't), but Tiff played along and chose her pair with ease: The Hazing and The Prometheus Project. It's not difficult to see why. The latter is a recent movie directed by her husband, Sean Tretta, while the former came much earlier and is something of an obscure gem, writer/director Rolfe Kanefsky taking a great dollop of familiar and neatly subverting it into a lot more than any viewer reasonably expected. She also gets the best role, one she built nicely on.

Title notwithstanding, it's less The Skulls and more a combination of The Evil Dead and Night of the Demons, tasking a group of pledges with completing a scavenger hunt that ends with them staying Halloween night in a haunted house, which has more than just seniors trying to terrorise them. It also has an evil professor, who they accidentally killed, using an age old book of blood rituals rescued from the ruins of an corrupt ancient monastery to travel between the dimensions of life and death to return from the grave through a rite of possession. Does that sound like it borrows at least a little bit from every horror movie ever made? It often seems like that's exactly what it does, but with deliberate intent, cleverly aiming at a deconstruction of genre conventions in similar ways to Scream or even New Nightmare and becoming a satire, an homage and a fun game of find the reference points. Needless to say, it plays it all for laughs.

The pledge ceremony we see here is a coed one for a change, which provides us with our mixed batch of protagonists. There are only five pledges to Delta Pi and Sigma Xi this year, three guys and two girls, all in ladies' underwear, holding candles and trying to scream. That's no hardship for the girls but the guys look agreeably dorky. Sadistic Jacob and up tight Justine are the seniors whose job it is to manipulate and demean them, so they send them out on Halloween to beg, borrow or steal an eclectic list of items, then survive the night at the Hack House, the location of a gruesome murder/suicide by Jeremiah Hackford sixty years earlier. They do all this in costume too, leading to a great dig at Reservoir Dogs as they slomo strut outside to Little Blue Dog rather than Little Green Bag. Kanefsky is obviously more imaginative than Jacob, who names his test The Test. There are many little touches like this that could be a drinking game for movie nerds.
These characters and their costumes are stereotypes, so it's not hard to figure out where it's all going. Philip Andrew is Doug, the ostensible leader of the bunch, in military fatigues, but Shepis leads the way in her disco spacesuit as Marsha. The delightfully named Nectar Rose is a popular ditzy blonde, skimpily clad as a Playboy bunny. Jeremy Maxwell plays Roy, a lecherous wolfman and that leaves Parry Shen as Tim, the Asian dweeb in a demon suit. And off they go, to acquire stuff like a live rat, a movie theater seat, a signed photo of Bruce Campbell, that sort of thing. Oh, and a unique book named Saviour of the Souls, which Jacob knows is at Prof Kapps's house. We know too, because the film began with Kapps explaining the book's power and history to a nubile and flirtacious young student before bashing her brains in with his staff. He's Brad Dourif playing a wild cross between Donald Sutherland and John Carpenter after a night on the town.

Jacob has this book in The Test because it's Kapps's most valued possession, almost guaranteed to be the one thing that the pledges won't acquire and thus make him feel even more important. However he didn't plan on Doug knowing where it is, Marsha breaking in to catch Kapps with his dead victim in the cellar or Kapps getting accidentally impaled on a cool horn during the ensuing scuffle. Those events pretty much ensure that whatever theatrics Jacob is going to concoct at the Hack House are going to be totally underwhelming to them in comparison, but also that it'll turn out to be just as interesting a time for Jacob as for his pledges. And from there, it doesn't take a genre stalwart to write the rest of the plot. The success of this film is that you may be right for a while, but then you'll go horribly wrong, because Kanefsky isn't interested in playing all those old games the same old way. He wants to stir it up a little and he succeeds.
Trying to explain how he does that will venture into spoiler territory, so I'll resist the urge. I have to highlight at least some of why Tiff picked this one to be reviewed though. She has a peach of a part, one that feels like it was written for her but wasn't. Apparently it's how she met Kanefsky, for whom she's now made six films, this being the third, as he brought her the script when she was in distribution. Marsha is the least easy to read of the five pledges but she quickly subverts Doug's expected leadership, asserts her authority and highlights to him that this time round it's a chick in charge. Shepis doesn't get a revealing outfit, though it's certainly memorable and has its moments, and she does get to scream like a girl on occasion, but she's surely the brightest and the toughest of the bunch and she's both willing and able to punch Doug in the face when he acts like a dick. That's refreshing to see in a film like this.

Shepis has gone from strength to strength, racking up more films a year than is comfortable to imagine, but it's easy to see this as a real boost to her career. It was made after her Troma films, as she was establishing herself as a modern day scream queen, and it firmly shows that she had what it took. She screams well, she looks great naked and she has a charisma that makes it easy to watch her, even when there's more stuff going on than involves her. More importantly, The Hazing demonstrates that she can take it to the next level, performing all the functions expected of a scream queen while remaining both aware of the genre's clichés and unwilling to kowtow to them or the dudes who usually get to take advantage. Marsha isn't a standard 80s scream queen character in the slightest, she's an update for a new generation, more of a scream queen riot grrrl character and that's a good part of what's refreshing about this film.
Shepis is the big winner here, but Nectar Rose acquits herself really well too as Delia, strangely in many of the same ways. Cast in the stereotypically most throwaway role, Delia subverts our expectations just as powerfully as Marsha and Rose impresses just as strongly as Shepis. She's gone on to much more than she'd done prior to this, swapping uncredited roles in blockbusters like Independence Day or LA Confidential and small parts probably landed because of the colour of her hair, such as Not Another Teen Movie or 50 First Dates, for quirkier indie pictures that look like they play off her hidden depths. I'm sure I'll be watching a lot more of her movies, such as Off the Ledge, just because of what she accomplished in this one. She's like Cameron Diaz, only with depth, and she provides a memorable cover to the DVD. I'd be very happy to see her and Shepis team up again in the future, but it hasn't happened yet.

The guys haven't done as well as the girls. Parry Shen is both the most notable and the one I've seen before, impressing in an indie film called Better Luck Tomorrow. He may have landed this part because of Shrieker, which has vague similarities, but after it he moved on to the Hatchet films, as well as to a comedy with Shepis called The Deviants. Jeremy Maxwell became a voice actor. Philip Andrew's biggest role was as a primary cast member in Power Rangers Wild Force two years earlier, but has done little since. Billy Tom, who plays Jacob, was more experienced at this point, with both Pleasantville and a long run on The Young and the Restless to his name, but he hasn't made a feature since, concentrating instead on television. Brad Dourif continues on, of course, as reliable a character actor as we have right now, one of the select few who's always good even when the films they're in are bad. This film is for the girls though, not the guys.

I don't want to suggest that Kanefsky deliberately crafted a feminist slasher movie, it's that he deliberately messed with our expectations for every character, whether male or female. Add in the possession angle, as Prof Kapps tries to escape death by taking over fresh bodies, and quite a few of the cast get to play not only their own character but their own character possessed by an evil professor too. It's obvious that's a blast for the actors, one of whom has fun in a sort of Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice vein. However it's also a blast for us, because we're kept totally on our toes while laughing our asses off in the process. This is slasher movie as body swap comedy. There's also a chainsaw vs electric guitar duel and a sexual assault by a magically elongated tongue. There are inventive and gruesome death scenes, mostly using scavenger hunt props. It's a little gem, half throwback and half next generation, and I want to watch it again.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Frank DanCoolo: Paranormal Drug Dealer (2010)

Director: Andrew W Jones
Stars: Priscilla McEver and John Charles Meyer

The wildest cinematic rollercoaster I've ridden over the last decade has to be Doctor Glamour, a raucous trip of a movie that may be best described as The Eldritch Horror Picture Show. Andrew Jones, its writer, producer and director, has been a busy man, but not usually on his own movies, most of his credits being for editing TV shows. I'm not sure what editing 52 episodes of The Mr Men Show did to his brain, but you may need to seriously invest in psychotropic exploration to replicate it. If Doctor Glamour wasn't enough to highlight that, its predecessor underlines it in flashing neon. Frank DanCoolo: Paranormal Drug Dealer, shot a year earlier with two of the same actors, is just as outrageous, just as genre-bending and somehow even more fast paced. I'm not yet convinced that it isn't a feature length movie compressed into seven minutes by warping the spacetime continuum. Watch it while heavily sedated to slow it down to normal speed.
The influences fly out of the screen so quickly that by the time you shout out one, a couple more have erupted to take its place. This is cinema for the most severe ADHD sufferers. Obviously initially sourced from The Matrix and the cyberpunk influences that film stole from, it takes mere seconds to veer into anime stylings before screeching backwards to the precode era and setting up Holly Malone as a fast talking reporter. Priscilla McEver mixes some Kate Hepburn with some Torchy Blane but ends up channelling Lee Tracy, if Lee Tracy ever made it into the 25th century. Working in Neo-Mega-Ultra Tokyo, some indeterminate time in the retro-future, she cracks case after case, but one string of murders is tougher. When Broderick Watanabe, her boss, says that drug lord Frank DanCoolo is a myth, she knows she has to find him, and indeed she does, at Club Zygote, where surely William Gibson tends bar with a typewriter spliced into his veins.

It won't come as any surprise to those who have seen Doctor Glamour to discover that it's John Charles Meyer bringing life to Frank DanCoolo, psychopharmocologist supreme. He doesn't get to be as dominant here as he was there, as he has to fight it out on the scene stealing front with his leading lady and that's as dynamic a battle as any fought in this film against hallucinogenic greenscreen backgrounds. Easing forward from the precodes to screwball comedy, like the up ramp on a rollercoaster, we then hurtle through interdimensional kung fu, samurai shenanigans and sci-fi schlock until we arrive catching our breath at the twist finalé. There are gags, reveals, homages, leaps, quips and gimmicks. There's life, there's death, there's everything in between. The only thing the entire Matrix trilogy had that this doesn't is Keanu Reeves and I'm happy he isn't here. 'Frank, that was incredible, I think,' says Malone. I know! But please trip responsibly.

Frank DanCoolo: Paranormal Drug Dealer can be viewed for free on Vimeo. Don't blink, or you'll miss something.

Sunday 4 November 2012

6 Degrees of Hell (2012)

Director: Joe Raffa
Stars: Corey Feldman, Brian Anthony Wilson, Nicole Cinaglia and David J Bonner

A scary dude with bad teeth sharpens his sickle threateningly, so that four youngsters run from him into the clutches of the chainsaw wielding maniac instead. No, it's not the same old cliché hauled out yet again, these are customers at Hotel of Horror, a real haunted house attraction in Saylorsburg, PA, which Joe Raffa, the director of 6 Degrees of Hell, selected to become the fake haunted house attraction in his film. It's one of his better decisions. Screams are in the air and people seem to be having a good time. One thing that I took away from this film is that however awful the fiction gets, the reality looks pretty good. It's too far to Saylorsburg for this film to work as a commercial for me, but anyone more local should check it out next Halloween and let me know how it is. The catch, of course, is that I'm not here to review a key location from this film, I'm supposed to be reviewing the film itself and that's a whole other story.

It's not all bad, I can tell you that, but there's not much that's good and it's notably dishonest. If you look at a poster or any publicity, you'll see the name of Corey Feldman. While I'm far from convinced that anyone would want to watch the Feldmeister play a paranormal investigator in a movie, he is at least a name to act as a draw. Unfortunately he has nothing to do with the story whatsoever. His scenes, which may total ten minutes if I'm generous, place him in a dark room in a police station talking to a cop, the only character with whom he has any interaction at all. He doesn't seem to have liked the idea of being a paranormal investigator so he plays Kyle Brenner like a hardboiled detective instead, one with an arrogant fringe that even emos would shrink at and an electronic cigarette. As you can imagine, it's pretty difficult not to giggle at the levels of toughness he believes he's reaching. We just shrug him off like he's a commercial break.
Writer Harrison Smith started out his career with The Fields, a subtle horror/thriller/drama which generated a lot of buzz, much of it centered around him and his potential after such a promising debut. Unfortunately this doesn't help extend that promise, being weaker in every regard. Early problems tie to the writing, as the three strands of the plot are clumsily woven together. Later, once we figure that out, it improves, but even at its best it doesn't compare well to The Fields. The first strand revolves around Hotel of Horror, a haunted house attraction preparing to open for this year's season. The second ties to a paranormal investigator who stars on television in a show called Dead TV. The last involves four young friends, one of whom has psychic power and who traumatically but correctly foresees the imminent death of one of the others. These three strands are tied together in a number of ways that do become clear but take a while to do so.

Part of the problem is the complexity, but perhaps that goes along with the title. Never mind six degrees, everyone here seems to be a mere two degrees away from everyone else. Part of it ties to the sheer number of characters. We can't easily fathom who's important or whether they're important in themselves or only as links to others. It's unfortunate too that the actors who shine brightest tend to play less important characters. Susan Moses is best in my eyes, playing a local psychic, Mary Wilkins. She's supplied Jack, the owner of Hotel of Horror, with a host of artefacts of real occult power, though we have no idea why; she mentored Erik Sanborn, the star of Dead TV; and she becomes important to June Galloway, the fortune teller of the four kids. It's a shame that her talents are squandered on a character that contradicts herself, makes little sense and promptly vanishes from the film once she's linked others together in our mind.

So we have to figure a lot of this out for ourselves by evaluating why they're there. Gradually we realise, for instance, that the most obvious character, Kellen Hudson, isn't the lead at all. That's an easy trap to fall into because he's played by Joe Raffa, the film's director, because he gets the sassiest lines and because he seems to be the focus so often, arguing with his parents, leaving home and getting into trouble with the cops. Yet he's really only there to be a link between June and Jack, who's his uncle. Once we learn that, he fades away into the background. Similarly, we expect Kyle Brenner to be a focal point given that he's a TV star who did a show on the haunted former asylum that the Hotel of Horror occupies, but really he's just a conduit for June to figure out what's going on before we get to the finalé. If this is the point of the title, that we're drawn closer by degrees to the Hell that will be unleashed, it's notably disappointing.
While the sweep of the writing is clumsy and difficult to fathom, the details are often well done. There's some quality dialogue, not all of it given to Kellen. A few actors, like Brian Gallagher as Uncle Jack, are able to turn relatively unimportant scenes into tours de force because they have such good dialogue to work with. There's also fascinating background detail to be found, though much of it is lost in the morass of not fascinating background detail. For every six scenes about Kellen, we get one about June, who's really the lead character, and we cherish them. She has a real history. She was born with a membrane across her face that was cut off and kept, for some reason, in formaldehyde. Her mum was killed by a neighbour when she was really young. She figures that something possessed her face. She has powers, but isn't aware of how many or how strong. She's a well written character not highlighted enough and Nicole Cinaglia plays her well.

At the end of the day, this is really three films. There's 45 minutes of mediocre complexity with a few good and bad bits thrown in for good measure.There's 10 Feldmeister minutes so he can be the primary draw for the film (the next most prominent draw is Jill Whelan, the little girl on The Love Boat, who only gets a single scene and a single word of dialogue). And, eventually, there's a half hour advert for Hotel of Horror because what the long finalé lacks in substance, it makes up for with sheer exuberance. The performers in the haunted house are the real performers, so they know exactly what they're doing and it's obvious that they relished the freedom to actually touch their customers for a change, albeit fictional ones. Most of the best scenes of the film are parts of the finalé. The rest tie to actors: Gallagher shines, Moses resonates and Faust Checho is a great pain in the ass police chief. It's a shame they weren't in a better film.

6 Degrees of Hell will be released by Breaking Glass pictures on 27th November, 2012.

Saturday 3 November 2012

The Devil's Carnival (2012)

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Stars: Terrance Zdunich, Sean Patrick Flanery, Briana Evigan and Jessica Lowndes

I have to admit I hold a soft spot for Repo! The Genetic Opera. It's far from flawless and I'm not a particular fan of musicals, but it oozed with both style and energy and it became that rare entity, a film utterly different from anything around it that found a firm place in fandom. The creators of the film, Darren Lynn Bousman and Terrance Zdunich, are gentlemen and they worked very hard on the road to promote their film, bringing out a number of their stars and building a real event. I watched it grow as a phenomenon. The first time I saw it was the best, late enough that the buzz had built and the place was sold out but early enough that the shadowcasting brigade hadn't got their claws into it yet. That meant I could see and hear everything, even from a couch jammed in against the back wall of the theatre. Second time, the screen was often annoyingly obscured by costumed amateurs. Third time, the film was forgotten in the party atmosphere. Not my scene.

So I was naturally interested when teasers started to appear online for The Devil's Carnival, an unrelated project but something surely in the same vein, given that it sported the same names, down to a good proportion of the cast and crew. It had solid promise, given that the ground was already broken and the fanbase built and because inspiring new names like Emilie Autumn were attached. Yet Bousman and Zdunich weren't able to finance everything they wanted, so the half million spent went on a mere third of the film, just episode one of three, with the remaining parts written but not shot and heavily reliant on the success of this beginning. That's only one reason why we didn't go to see this one in the theatres. Reports from relatives who did suggested that it wasn't up to the quality of its predecessor and, finally catching up on Netflix, I can concur. It all looks great on paper, and it succeeds in some regards, but it's disappointing overall.

One success is the concept, though with a major caveat. Zdunich as Lucifer is obvious casting and the Devil's Carnival is his domain. It looks roughly as you might expect from the name, with no hint of a lake of fire but an agreeable circus atmosphere. Into this setting comes a trio of the newly deceased, each to play an unwitting star role in an adaptation of a fable from Aesop, as this Lucifer is something of an impresario. The caveat is that these two ideas are uncomfortable partners. Fables speak to life lessons, yet Hell speaks to sins and the two rarely cross paths, as much that might be unwise in a fable wouldn't necessarily suggest a path to eternal damnation. Only Ms Merrywood, a petty thief presumably gunned down by the cops, really fits both sides of the coin, while John, a grief stricken father, and Tamara, a gullible teen, seem out of place down below. They fit well with Aesop but not with Hell, notably lessening the concept's impact.
Bousman and Zdunich performed a number of coups in manoeuvering all these stars into the same place for a mere seven days of filming. Many come from other Bousman films, not only Repo! The Genetic Opera, from which Paul Sorvino, Bill Moseley, Alexa Vega, Nivek Ogre and J La Rose all return, as there's also Briana Evigan from Mother's Day. Half the notable newcomers are musicians: Shawn Crahan, founder of Slipknot; Ivan Moody, singer for Five Finger Death Punch; and Victoriandustrial violinist Emilie Autumn, an obvious choice given the circus atmosphere of her live shows. Her Bloody Crumpets came along for the ride, albeit supporting Vega rather than Autumn. Hell is an inviting place if it has Captain Maggot. Actors new to this world include Sean Patrick Flanery, who joined the Saw franchise after Bousman had left, Marc Senter and television names Dayton Callie and Jessica Lowndes, from Sons of Anarchy and 90210 respectively.

They all benefit from Dawn Ritz's magnificent costumes, the most obvious joy on show, outdoing the sets. Looking at Ritz's filmography, which mostly ties to award ceremonies and talent shows, I wonder if she leapt at the creative freedom. She makes these stars look great, not that some of them needed the help. What they don't benefit from is the running time. So many stars sharing so little time means that most don't manage to become more than mere extras. Inveterate scene stealers like Moseley make the most of the brief time they get, while Vega, Ogre and Sorvino find it harder. Vega's outfit looked amazing but sadly there's little chance to see it, while Ogre annoyingly vanishes shortly into his musical number because of how his character is designed. Singing both parts to her duet helps Evigan outshine Flanery and Lowndes, though all do well, adding little nuances to their lost souls that the singers in the cast are unable to emulate.

Where it goes wrong is with the style, surprising given that Repo! The Genetic Opera was strong on that front. The sets aren't bad but they're unimaginative and both the camerawork and the choreography are real let downs, with even less passion than the sets. It felt like the filmmakers saw getting these stars onto set and into costume as enough with everything we see after that unworthy of similar attention. It doesn't help that the setting can't fail to generate comparisons with cult classics like Santa Sangre or The Last Circus but, costumes aside, it can't hold a candle to them. The songs aren't up to the standard of Repo! The Genetic Opera either, certainly not approaching Tom Waits territory, another inevitable comparison. Some are too long, others too short, gone before they've begun. Unfortunately, they start poorly but end well, with coquettish Autumn getting the best one, after Zdunich himself, who presumably wrote the things.

The stories are unwieldy too, far beyond the caveat already mentioned. Aesop's fables weren't generally long affairs, often running a single paragraph, so there's much opportunity for creative interpretation. Grief and His Due isn't well known, so perhaps plays best with Flanery believably grief-stricken as he slits his wrists over the death of his son, only to search for him in the Devil's Carnival. The Dog and Its Refection is neatly adapted, with Evigan throwing herself into the role of a thief all consumed by the chance to win a huge gemstone. Weakest is The Scorpion and the Frog, mostly because it's so well known that it offers no surprises, Lowndes suitably gullible as a young lady who trusts everyone, always to her disadvantage. The framing scenes are varied, as some may not really make much sense until we see parts two and three. And there's the rub. As a film, it's incomplete. Maybe it'll improve when they make the rest of it.