Wednesday 20 April 2016

Night of Something Strange (2016)

Director: Jonathan Straiton
Writer: Jonathan Straiton from a story by Jonathan Straiton and Ron Bonk
Stars: Rebecca C Kasek, Trey Harrison, Wayne W Johnson, Toni Ann Gambale, Michael Merchant, John Walsh, Tarrence Taylor, Nicola Fiore and Brinke Stevens
This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2016 films.
It wasn’t surprising when Night of Something Strange won Best Horror Feature at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival because it was the one that had the buzz. The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man was different and enjoyable but everyone was talking about this one instead, whether because they loved it, they hated it or they just couldn’t believe what they had just seen. I talked to quite a few people in each of those categories, but along with The Greasy Strangler, which wasn’t in competition, it was the film on everyone’s lips this year and it won’t take much to explain why. In fact, I can just explain some of Wayne W Johnson’s role as Cornelius and you’ll get the picture. He’s not the star of the movie, though he is the first person we see and he continues to show up throughout. He’s just the actor who gets to do the most outrageous things, even without a heck of a lot of screen time. I can’t think of another part in any movie that does as much, even if we don’t correlate to time on screen. If we do that, he’s in a league of his own.

Let’s start at the beginning. This film kicks off with a necrophiliac rape and only digs a deeper hole from there. Yes, that’s Cornelius in the morgue getting his rocks off with a Jane Doe. He should have read the card, because this unknown naked chick died of a virulent STD and, next thing we know, he’s back in his trailer with burning junk, raping his wife. She knocks him out with a heavy phone then sticks him with a kitchen knife, but he rips out her uterus and eats it. At least, I think it’s her uterus. It’s possibly a foetus and I wouldn’t put it past writer/director Jonathan Straiton. By sheer coincidence, he and actor Michael Merchant were sat immediately in front of me and it was fascinating watching them watch the audience and laughing at their disbelieving faces. Let me highlight that we’re about five minutes in at this point and we’ve had two rapes, one of them of a corpse, and an ingestion of the female reproductive system. This film clearly isn’t going to hold back and it’s really only just getting started.
Now, some people told me that it was a disturbing film and I don’t buy that at all; this is a comedy more than it is a horror film, though it’s very much both. Other people told me that it was offensive and I don’t buy that either; it could have offended a lot more people by simply mentioning politics or religion and it steers clear of both. It’s really an icky film, a professionally icky film that does the sort of things that we usually only see in Troma pictures but with real actors and higher production values than Lloyd Kaufman is comfortable with. That doesn’t mean that this cost a lot, because Straiton told me how much he spent on it and it’s certainly not what you might think; it’s just that all the money is up there on the screen. He claims to have been influenced by eighties horror movies, especially slashers and zombie flicks and that makes a lot of sense. I saw it as Brain Dead meets The Taint with live action hentai and the odd nod here and there to classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. So not disturbing, not offensive but very icky.

While Cornelius reappears at points to do something else utterly outrageous, as if he’s determined to be a drinking game, the movie couldn’t sustain its impact if that was everything that happened. So, we shift back to school and meet a host of characters who will soon leave for Spring Break and end up running in to Cornelius and/or his zombie STD creations. If we hadn’t realised Straiton’s influences already, we can’t miss them in the names of the five kids who head out to the beach together. There’s Carrie and her dorky cousin Jason. There’s her boyfriend Freddy and her friend Christine. The only one not named for an iconic horror movie character is the token black guy, Brooklyn. Skipping out of class early to leave before them is Pam, whose boyfriend Dirk shows up in a black muscle car blasting Mean Motherfucker Blues by Angry Johnny & The Killbillies. No, this movie isn’t interested in being subtle but thanks for the heads up about that band, folks. How have I never heard of these guys before?
I throw all those names in quickly because that’s how the movie does it. While it generally nails its goals, there are flaws and the rapid fire introduction of characters is one. I couldn’t keep up at this point, so had to figure out names and relationships as the film ran on, and it took until the Q&A to figure out Cornelius raped his wife rather than his mother. Another problem is that the cast here are generally young so a few had to put on make up to look aged. The clerk we’re about to meet at the gas station in Goldvein, VA is a great example, as she looks like she’s young but made up to look thirty years older, yellow and wizened to boot, because she chain smokes. She’s a minor character so it’s no real spoiler to highlight how funny her death scene is, with her avoiding a zombie mailman who aims to rape her to death by crawling slowly away while still puffing away like a true addict. This also highlights how much this is a comedy as much as it is a horror movie. I missed what may have been her best line because people were laughing so hard.

Everyone ends up at the Redwood Budget Motel and, well, here’s where I’d usually say that you can write the script yourself but… I have to be a little careful this time out. No, there’s no attempt made to twist the tried and tested formulae of zombie flicks and slasher movies into something clever and original. We get what we expect to get on that level: good looking teens with their little relationship dramas aiming to get laid when the apocalypse hits and kills them one by one. However, Straiton ratchets up the ick factor with the delight of a pixie. While he succeeded in making the sort of picture that he wanted to both make and watch, I honestly believe that his true joy is in sitting back at a festival and enjoying how much it grosses people out. And to say that it grosses people out is an understatement, though I do wonder how many of today’s kids will be freaked out more by the brief appearance of a clown than anything else. Highlighting that this could be called Freddy vs Jason is guaranteed to make anyone who’s seen the film cringe.
And, as much as this is an homage to the eighties, just as its companion piece, She Kills, is an homage to the seventies (Straiton would like to see them exhibited as a double bill), this is a product of today. Things didn’t get this outrageous in the eighties because this would have been seen as too much. I grew up as a horror fan in England, where we suffered from the censorship inherent in the video nasty era, but none of the VHS tapes I bought under the table at market stalls because they were technically illegal to sell could dream of doing what this film does. Only today can we make pictures that feel like they could have come from the eighties in an alternate dimension. This one is also a child of the internet age. It’s a gimme for a subset of websites to throw together cheap lists of the film’s top ten grossout moments. People will share scenes on YouTube without context just to gross people out and the few will proudly identify the source. I believe it’s as much a challenge as a feature too, throwing down the gauntlet to see who can top it.

And, because of all that, everything keeps on coming back to Cornelius. Sure, Dirk’s really the hero of the piece but he’s only the hero just as Pam’s the nympho and Jason’s the dweeb and Freddy’s the clown. It’s Cornelius who’s going to show up on most of those YouTube shares because he gets almost nothing to do except prompt us to ask, ‘Oh my God, he’s not going to do that?’ and then do exactly that. Over and over again. Straiton spoke well about his film but I want to read an interview with Wayne R Johnson about why he chose to do this and what he sees his legacy as being. I should also call out Michael Merchant here, as he gets some similar moments as Freddy, including one set that took him three days to shoot in, shall we say, rather trying conditions. His dedication to do that deserves our respect and his ability to stand up in front of a sold out screening and talk about it deserves even more. ‘This is the worst Spring Break ever!’ he cries after one fantastically wrong scene. ‘Well, second worst.’
I should also come back to the production quality. Any detailed synopsis of this film is going to throw up a Troma vibe in anyone who knows what Troma is, but this doesn’t feel like a microbudget film. Straiton was never interested in mining the ‘so bad it’s good’ vein or just lining up a showcase of ickiness to trump the production values. Night of Something Strange will never be mistaken for a $300m James Cameron epic but it does look like a ‘proper film’ with a ‘proper budget’, however little it really cost. Cut out the outrage and it’s nothing special but it’s still capable and still watchable. Add the outrage back in and it’s a picture destined to reach a cult audience. Universities should leave one in every dorm room just to save students from having to discover it themselves. It deserves a run on the big screen just so folk can see it once and then come back to watch other people watch it. Sadly, it’s more likely to be self-distributed and build its audience from festival buzz to rock what’s left of the rental market. Oh, and let’s see the drinking games!

1 comment:

Wayne W. Johnson said...

Thank you so much for the great, detailed review and kudos to me and the rest of the cast / crew of Night of Something Strange. I'm the actor who played Corneilus in NoSS. Maybe one of these days there will be an interview out there that will address those questions