Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: Tấm Cám: The Untold Story (Tấm Cám: Chuyện Chưa Kể)

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Tấm Cám: The Untold Story (aka Tấm Cám: Chuyện Chưa Kể)
Directed by Veronica Ngo (aka Ngo Thanh Van)
VAA Productions / BHD Vietnam Studios / Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Visual
115 minutes, 2016 / 2017

Well, I must say, this is my first Vietnamese film viewing that has nothing to do with the action there during the 1960s and early ‘70s. This is more the sweeping epic kind of period story one would expect from either Japan, or especially China; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) comes to mind.

Asia has a history of taking Western stories and Easternizing them, such as Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957) and King Lear (Ran, 1985). Then again, the West has taken the Eastern stories as well, and either transplanted them (The Magnificent Seven, 1960; A Fistful of Dollars, 1964;, more recently The Ring, 2002), or merely placed themselves in the story in Asia (Shogun, 1980 and The Great Wall, 2016, for example).

For this release, it is in part a reimagining of the Cinderella story, set in the magical past of Mainland Southeast Asia.  We see sweeping vistas and mountain castles as the camera swoops and flies in both the real and digital realm, and it’s all beautiful and lush (and easy to distinguish between the two, but that’s alright).

Ha Vi and Isaac
Even before the credits, the handsome prince with Spock-like eyebrows, Thái Tử (translated as “Prince”; Isaac), is all bedecked in gold armor while racing to see his dying father. He and his posse almost runs over Tâm (“Center”; Ha Vi), and it is love at first sight. But, as the story goes, he takes off without finding out who she is, which he will later regret.

While pretty accurate to the Grimm’s Fairy Tale, there is also a lot of minor tweaking along the way. For example, along with the evil step-mother Dì ghẻ (“Step Mother”; director Veronica Ngo), there is only one nasty step-sibling, Cảm (“Cold”; Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc), who is a horribly spoiled brat. Also, rather than a fairy godmother, there is a fairy godfather, But (“Shoes”; scene stealer Loc Thanh), who is obviously based on the Robin Williams’ Genie character from the animated Aladdin (1992). He has a nasty sense of humor and also mentions things that have no place in the story or time, such as the Energizer Bunny. Dressed like the White Wizard phase of Gandalf (sans hoodie), with eyebrows that go down to his chin, he is quite hysterical.

The Cinderella part is actually quite abbreviated, even if it gets the most credit, with the entire story taking only the first 30 minutes. For example, the whole “fit the foot to the shoe” bit takes place at the initial ball when Tâm first walks in dressed in her fine outfit.

People may not remember this, but fairy tales were often quite dark, such as in the original Cinderella story, one of the step-sisters cuts off part of her foot to try and make the shoe fit. Here, while nothing this gruesome visually occurs, there ae some sad and surprising moments with death, the threat of murder, and war never far away. You may certainly begin to wonder about the “Happily Ever After” part.

Huu Chau
There are many layers of fantasy here, including ghost stories, reincarnation, and a bit of another Fairy Tale, “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m not necessarily up on my Tales since I haven’t read them (or had them read to me) since I was a small kinder, but there is much in the way of intrigue, betrayal and resurrection. And like many Tales, this is a bit over the top; honestly, though, this is the kind of production that is built for it. When I was in Xi’an, China, a few years ago, I saw an opera/ballet called A Song of Everlasting Sorrow, about the first Emperor of China and his Concubine; there are some similarities here, as well. This also is a story of love that goes beyond death, treachery and friendship.

As for the betrayals, some come as a surprise (as they should be in the true definition of the word), but the obvious one is the main villain, a Fu Manchu-ish, Saruman-like Magistrate, Thừa Tướng (“Prime Minister”; Huu Chau). He is more cartoonish in a Ming the Merciless way, though the main difference is that he is actually is played by an Asian actor (unlike anyone in the West who has played Mr. Merciless).

Ngoc Trai
Along with the character But, my favorite is Nguyên Lực (“Resources”; Ngoc Trai): who is a friend to the prince, and also an outstanding comic relief. Trai is never ridiculous to the point of losing credibility, sort of in the way that Donald O’Connor would play to the likes of Gene Kelly.

Of course, there must be sweeping battle scenes, and there are a few, which are very well composed and shot. Yeah, they fly through the air with the greatest of ease, though not always getting the outcome you might expect. Once again, there is a strong mix between real, harnesses, and digital. The end and inevitable battle between good and evil is nearly all Digi, and it looks a bit silly and great at the same time.  

The story is, well, a Fairy Tale, and I wonder how much of it is based on Vietnamese folklore that I haven’t a clue about. I mean, while someone in the West may wonder, what?!, I’m betting there’s probably somebody saying the same thing there about a story of someone who is nailed to a piece of wood and comes back to life three days later. It’s all perception and culture.

The only extras on this disk are the trailer and the chapters.

The lovely director Ngo, who can also be seen in the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), does a splendid job with her second directed film in bringing this all together, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her output.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Review: Devil’s Trail

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Devil’s Trail
Directed by Henrique Couto
New Dynamic Pictures
73 minutes, 2017

The New Jersey Devil is rumored to be in the wild nature preserve called the Pine Barrens, which occupy the lower southeast third of the state. You never heard of the creature? Where did you think the name of the hockey team came from? Nearly every state has its own version of the Yeti, or Loch Ness Monster. In Joisey, it’s da “devil.” You can find out more about it on Wikipedia, but I digress…

For our story here, we meet Dallas (John Bradley Hambrick) and Hank (director Henrique Couto), who are filming themselves for a survivalist show, where people live in the wild for 21 days with only three items. Even though it’s October, no one thinks of gloves (which is actually addressed in the story), but again I digress… The spot they choose, of course, is the rough and tumble Pine Barrens.

As they stumble around, increasingly getting on each other’s nerves (as familiar companions do), they try their best to find food and water, goad each other, and run into some nude witches. Oh, didn’t see that coming? First day out (and very early into the film), they find themselves in the company of some “Wiccans” (as our intrepid wannabe heroes call them; the women sort of shrug the term off) in the middle of a ceremony. Other than the nudity, they do serve a few purposes to the story, including filling in the role of the “locals who warn.” Rather than the old guy or the gas station attendant who says, “Turn back before it’s too late!!!” these women (Joni Durian, Rachel Redolfi and Erin R. Ryan) take the role on with their robe off.

Hambrick and Couto, with the Jersey Devil's Triangle
As the guys wander over the river and through the woods to eke out some kind of reality star existence, there are the red eyes and screaming in the woods at night that only one of them sees (along with us).  The other meets this with skepticism; is he playing some kind of joke on the other? Well, the title cards at the beginning and night vision camera sensors tell the audience that there is something else afoot.

Yeah, this is a found footage [ff] release, and if you’ve anywhere familiar with my reviews, you’ll know it’s not one of my fave subgenres. But before you think, “okay, he’s going to tear this release a new one,” it’s actually quite good. I’ve had a discussion with Couto about ff, and we generally agree on why it’s a pain in the ass, and he does quite well to avoid many of the pitfalls. For example, rather than just having a camera with batteries that are never exhausted, as most of them do, Hank explains that he has 21 days’ worth of batteries in his backpack. And while there is some running around in the wood in the dark, rather than the light from the camera, they actually have some decent flashlights.

Night visitation
What’s also nice is that they both have tripods which they use as selfie-sticks held to their waists. We get to see the flip back and forth between both cameras, and it’s easy to tell which we are watching because one has more of a blue filter, and one is skewed towards a yellowish green.

The cast and crew is part of an Ohio group of filmmakers centered around Dayton that often work together (e.g., Ryan is in many of Couto’s releases), so they have a way of playing off each other that is an advantage to the audience, not to mention they all have some skill in improvisation that gives more of the feeling of spontaneity than just sounding stupid and uncomfortable with dialog, as do many freewheeling ff films.

Couto quite dressed down for this role
As with most ff, there is a lot more footage presented between the red eyes and people appearing out of nowhere, but they fill that gap with giving tips about surviving in the wilderness, which is actually more interesting than sheer nonsense time filler. You get more of a feeling of being with them, rather than spying on them. This is something so many ff releases lack. Usually, by the time something happens, I’m bored, but here, the interest is kept present by the two protagonists.

Through all the squabbling and breakdown into insanity over time, stick with it, because the ending actually took me by surprise – in a good way.

What I like about Couto as a filmmaker is that he is solid meat and potatoes. He doesn’t go in for the Fancy Feast, he goes for the Purina, meaning he tends to strip the story down to the bare bones and gives us something to gnaw on. Be it a western, a love story or horror, whatever the genre, he sticks to the essentials, and the film is the better for it (and having the talented Ryan in most of them doesn’t hurt).

Couto has been doing more acting lately, including in other director’s works, and the practice carries over into his own films, as he is one of the two leads here. Both him and Hambrick hold the story and present a solid package. Yeah, the genre still annoys me, but it’s great to see someone actually using it well.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review: The Sword and the Claw

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Sword and the Claw (aka Kılıç Aslan, aka Lion Man)
Directed by Natuch Baitan (aka Natuk Baytan)
AGFA / MVD Visual
109 minutes, 1975 / 2017

Recently, I reviewed a trio of top-of-the-line action films in the gangster genre by Japanese director Takashi Miike. So now, to go down the ladder a bit, I’m about to watch a Turkish delight known as The Sword and the Claw, among other names. To tell ya the truth, I’m just as excited. Miike makes films that are cinematically well-focused and a tad off the wall, but here, who knows what to expect.

During the 1970s, the first boom of kung fu films started flowing into the West after the popularity of the television show “Kung Fu” (1972-1975) took just about everyone by surprise. The mostly Chinese releases were cheesy and good fun, and the best were period pieces set in the early days of the Shaolin period. Turkish cinema is long known as having a “cash-in”/”ride the wave” philosophy, with unintentionally funny remakes of stuff like Star Wars and “Star Trek.” 

Please note that I am not in any way trying to insult the Turkish film industry, rather the opposite. I find it great fun and worth seeking out for the very nature of the releases. This is a film I’m not familiar with, especially since while I enjoyed the whole cinematic kung fu invasion, it was not a genre in my field of expertise; besides, most of those original films were pretty laughable in their own right, as people flew through the air, caught shurikens with their bare hands, and beheaded people with hats.

What I did grow up with was the old Italian sword and sorcery-type gladiator films, like Hercules Unchained (1959), which were arguably even cheesier than the kung fu films. Again, I watched and enjoyed them whenever they came on television (though in all honesty, I don’t own a single one in VHS, DVD, or digital).

The Original Poster
Not surprisingly, the opening battle scene is one of the Turkish Army fighting the Crusaders from Europe (i.e., Christians). It’s all on horseback, where every one-on-one fight is a single slash or fist blow, accompanied by a grunt (it sounds like a few used over and over). Every group on the European front is apparently involved, as it looks like there are Vikings, Knights Templar in black robes, and even a leather-covered gladiator. The soundtrack playing over it all is some lighthearted music that you might expect to be heard to welcome spring. You know right from the onset this is going to be a hoot.

After the battle, King Solomon (who looks a lot like a bearded Guy Williams) is seduced by the blonde European Princess, Maria, who states, “I am also attracted to you as a man.” The King is assassinated by the Westerners, led by the villain of the piece, Antoine. Meanwhile, Solomon’s wife, Amelia (also blonde) bears his son in the woods. Suleyman Sah (Cüneyt Arkin, who goes by Steve Arkin in the dubbed version) – aka “The Claw” of the title – has the same elaborate “birthmark” on his shoulder as Solomon. He gets raised by a den of lions, Tarzan-style. His brother by Maria, Alkar – aka, “The Sword” – is raised Moses-like as the son of Antoine, to whom Maria was forced to marry. For the story, I’m not going to go too far into details beyond this point, but suffice it to guess that the brothers are going to meet at some point.

Suleyman is hysterical, being dressed in loincloth; plus he kills with his bare hands. He hits you with his open palm and nails, and you’re in heaven, Valhalla, Jannah or whatever is viewed as the hereafter in this period of Turkish history (I’m assuming Muslim, but other than the bad guys having a cross, religion proper is never mentioned).

The Lion Man and Ida
The love interest is the lovely (raven-haired) Ida, who is a leader of the Turkish rebels. The love interest of whom? Or both? That remains to be seen by you. She reminds me a bit of a mix of the sultry Yvonne Romain in 1961’s Curse of the Werewolf, and just-post Elvis-era Priscilla Presley. She’s a strong woman, but of course she’s put in harm’s way all the time, but all things considered, she also defends herself more than most cinematic women elsewhere in the world at that time. To be fair, women in action films tend to fare better than those in most other genres.

Yeah, the story is ridiculous, but it’s actually more complex than I was expecting. There are quite a few different subplots and a large number of characters that are fortunately easy to distinguish. Of course, men outnumber women by quite a large number, but if you take out the hundreds of extras who are killed, it evens it out more: by my count, there are 4 (in total) women in the story, and 7 (key) men. I was also surprised, considering its locale, that nearly all the women were the aggressors when it comes to the bedroom (a common Turkish fantasy? I really don’t know, I’m curious), and in one case there is an ample showing of cleavage. Other than Akins, no character is listed in the credits, so I don’t know who was playing whom.

The most common comments I’ve seen about the film, other than its complete preposterousness3` – and yes it is, but in a very fun way – is the way it’s dubbed into English. Honestly, I don’t see much difference between this and most of the period-piece kung fu stuff coming out of China and Samurai material from Japan around the same time. Meaning, yes of course it’s badly done, but they all were. Part of the charm, as far as I’m concerned.

This film was huge in Turkey when it was released, and made Arkin a big star there. There is also a sequel to the film, which would have made sense to add as a second feature rather than the one included (I say that before seeing it), but I’m happy to have had the opportunity to have viewed this one.

Most people have compared this film to the Conan franchise, but I disagree wholeheartedly; I believe its solid Tarzan meets kung fu mixed with the sword and sandal genre. Either way you look at it though, it’s a blast to watch. You may laugh at it, or you may laugh with it, but I guarantee, you will enjoy yourself, if this is the kind of film you looking for on a rainy weekend. I know I did.

Along with a truly fun group of “super” European trailers, the other extra is an entire second film, reviewed below.

The Brawl Busters (aka Sa-dae-tong-iue-moon aka Dragon From Shaolin)
Directed by Tommy Kim (aka Jeong-young Kim)
82 minutes, 1978 or 1981 / 2017

You know this is going to be fun when one of the first title card reads: “The Chinese Black Belt Society and Extraordinary Films presents Black Jack Chan.” I kept hearing that line from The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977): “We are building a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude!”

While it would have been nice to have had the sequel to the film above, it’s interesting to see one from South Korea, an area where my film knowledge is up-to-now virginal. Oh, and to be brutally honest, I didn’t get the joke of the title I until the beginning of actually starting to watching it.

It kind of makes sense when you realize the basic plot: During the dynasty era (yes, a period piece), a nobleman named She-Ya is assassinated by Kow-Ying Len, the leader of a quintet of female killers from Very Tea Lodge, who is a master in Tornado Feet Kung Fu; err, considering the locale, shouldn’t that be Cyclone Feet? At least she’s not using Jazz Hands Kung Fu. Meanwhile, She-Ya’s son, the villainous She-Hao, vows revenge. At the same time, a young buck (Bruce Cheung, aka the Black Jack Chan of the title card) has been tutored (off camera; no training montage) by a wise older master, and is on the road. You just know the guy and the woman at some point will eventually team up.

Essentially, this is a story about revenge told in a long and convoluted way that kinda makes sense, though why the original wrong took place is confusing. But what the hell, this has numerous fights, arguably nearly as much time as not.

Let’s talk a bit about the fighting (okay, I will). First of all, as with many releases in this genre, there is no logic, or physics for that matter. People fly through the air, bounce among the trees – though not as well as in larger budgeters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Another example is more than once someone will throw, say, some shurikens, and the intended target will hold up a small hand-held object that all the pointed thingies will stick to, even though the person isn’t moving. Unlike some movies where it looks graceful, here the action often looks clumsy and obviously either shown in reverse or sped up. For example, one of the villains wears a full length cape when he’s fighting. Even though he uses it to his advantage at one point, it still hinders rather than helps.

Personally, I believe that the filmmakers weren’t really trying to be rocket scientists about it, just to rush out a movie to sell to the foreign market for as inexpensive as posssible. This is the same philosophy of many of the B-films of the 1940s through ‘60s, such as the Frankie and Annette beachers, Noir detective stories, and those that fall into the psychotronic subgenre. But as you know, those styles were also a lot of fun. So is this.

Now, about the dialog and vocals. Due to some pieces of the film being missing, probably broken off between reels in the editing and reediting process in the projector rooms, there are some gaps and definitely harsh jumps. But it’s the dialog that is the most crazy, with the likes of, “When a woman kills one of our people it look very bad,” and “Her kung fu is excellent. It’s hard to believe she’s a woman!” “Bastard” and “bitch” seem to be used as much as the word “the.” To add to the head scratching is the dubbing itself, as the voices sound American, British and Crocodile Dundee-level Aussie (Kiwi?).

I haven’t found a link to a trailer, but this is worth seeing for the experience. Bad acting, bad writing, and bad dialog all adds up to – what else – a fun film. If you like Ed Wood and that ilk, you’re bound to find something for you here. If you’re you prefer the likes of Jet Li’s Hero (2002), well why hell are you reading this?

Friday, January 5, 2018

Review: Truth or Dare – A Critical Madness

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Truth or Dare: A Critical Madness
Directed, and written by Tim Ritter
Sub Rosa Studios
87 minutes, 1986 / 2010

Around the time VCRs came into fashion during the early to mid-1980s, the top two sellers / renters at video stores were porn and horror. This opened up a whole new genre of cinema, the made-for-video release. Most of the time these were shot on low budget, making some of Roger Corman’s films look expansive, on inferior quality stock and with actors who were, well, lets just say not exactly of Meryl Streep's caliber.

Director Tim Ritter was 18 or 19 when he directed this film, shot entirely on 16mm which gave it a grainy, ‘70s television feel (the main character driving a ’77 Firebird helps with that image; I kept expecting Dolemite to exit the car). The Chicago company that helped finance the project tried to take it away from him when they found out his age, but with a lawsuit, he retained "custody." In the meanwhile, they undermined him at every turn by changing plot points, actors, and even core storyline on second string shooting, making this an inconsistent mess as far as continuity, so the viewer must go beyond suspension of disbelief, and enter a land of no limits, to the level of Gilligan’s Island. A well-discussed point is that the main villain (there is no mystery on who the killer is from the first scene) keeps coming up with weapons out of nowhere, including machine guns, a (very fake looking) mace, a machete, and a large bolt-cutter.

Okay, that being said, if one is willing to accept the film for what it is and the period it was birthed, this is a fun popcorn-chomper. It really is a time capsule when the rules for straight-to-video product had not yet been written, and anything was possible. For this subgenre at that time, Truth or Dare is a fun ride almost because of the sheer ridiculousness of it all, and I do not mean this as a put-down at all. It is what it is, and this film is no better or worse than, say, 1978’s The Tool Box Murders (sans Pamelyn Ferdin, of course).

Lead nutcase Mike Strauber, acted at first as nerdy and rising to full insanity, is played by John Brace, whose previous credit is as a member of the Burt Reynolds’ Playhouse in Jupiter, Florida (near where this film was shot). His only other credit listed is also from 1986, which is an appearance on Cheers. Brace does some serious scenery chewing, but he manages to be one of the more professional actors in the picture; though I wonder how much he was actually there since during the last half he is wearing a full-face mask made of copper (wouldn’t that get really hot in Florida?) and his body shape and hair changes often, as his character is obviously being played by stunt people.

Most of the cast is amazingly amateurish, in a fun way, though. Raymond Carbone plays a wild police detective named Rosenberg who is obviously from the Chicago area (and a real ex-cop), Terence Andreucci plays the comic relief cop who is way too old and physically stiff for his part (it’s fun watching him try to crouch behind, say, a small rider mower), and Kerry Ellen Walker portrays a baffling hitchhiker (though her brief role soon becomes clear) who was obviously hired more for her cleavage, boxy figure, and big hair then for her acting talent (this is her only credit). And practically the entire Duff family makes an appearance in various roles (perhaps since the film was cast by Priscilla Duff?). I was especially laughing at the “teen punks” who were obviously in their overweight 30s. Then there is the wonderfully named actor Asbestos Felt, one of the only people in this film that has an upcoming credit.

The only on-camera cast-person who had a somewhat healthy career is Mary Fanaro, who played Stauber’s wife, though her many credits seem to peter out in 1999. Of course, there is an infamous cameo by a then-tween A.J. McLean, who would go on to have silly facial hair in the Backstreet Boys.

Perhaps because of the time period before MTV was influencing everything with music video style editing, or maybe it was that Ritter just didn’t really know what he was doing, the edits are kept to a minimum, with shots lasting much longer than one would expect these days, lingering in imaginative ways. For example, when Mike leaves his house after finding his wife in bed with her boss (hey, the first shot is of them in action, so no spoiler alert needed here), he storms out with his wife standing at the door. The camera stays steady on her back and the door as he storms out of frame for a few seconds, and then his car appears backing out of the driveway into the street. With such slow editing and pacing, more drama is built up. Sure, Sergei Eisenstein said that editing equals action, but in these days of 2-second cuts, this works by doing the opposite.

Yes, there is gore and appliance special effect, and some of them are well done, though most of kind of cheesy, of course. A majority of the action is done off-camera, such that the viewer will see the knife come down, and then the next shot the limb is already cut in CSI full gore. It’s rare to actually see the action itself rather than the aftereffect, and yet it still retains a nice blood-to-gore ratio.

There are a lot of enjoyable holes in the story, of which my favorite – even more than the mysterious appearing weapons – being that the police have trouble finding Mike, even though he drives around in his ’77 Firebird, wearing a full-face copper mask (surely a nod to Jason and the Shape), with his blinkers on throughout the whole film. And I won’t even go into him shooting three people at a bus stop with a machine gun while traffic continues to flow around him on a busy street.

There are some obvious comedy set pieces, as well as the unintentional, such as the use of the text crawl under the image of the Sunnydale Mental Institution, or the complaining neighbor who rants, oblivious to Mike loading up on weapons from the car.

The music deserves some comment: wow. Tacky ‘80s synth (usually one bar repeated over and over) for the tense moments, lame piano twinkling (probably also the synth) for the softer emotional parts, and the final credit song, “Critical Madness,” which is just, well, bad (in a fun way), sung occasionally on key by Kay Reed with the Church of Our Savior Choir (I kid you not), from Chicago.

There are extras on this DVD. Trailers for this and the next two (shot on video) Truth or Dare sequels (fourth is currently in production) – they look more like porn S&M tapes – and an interesting Behind-the-Scenes documentary, which is essentially Ritter talking over clips, like a commentary. And speaking of commentaries, there is a full length one by Ritter and a couple of the actors. Now, don’t go expecting a shot-by-shot analysis, but the conversation is pretty interesting about getting funded, the lawsuit, and the like, to keep it from getting dull (like any of the Farrelly Brothers’ or Kevin Smith bore-fest talks).

The word classic has been bandied about for this film, and in its way, it is. It was one of the first of a new direct-to-video genre, and while it’s far from perfect, it’s more than adequate if one is willing to take the step to just accept it for what it is. I probably won’t be the only one to say this, but: go ahead a get this film… I dare you.

This review was originally published in

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Favorites and Not Favorites for 2017

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

This has been a good year for the lower budget genre films. Surprisingly, more serious films caught my attention, when I’m usually attracted to more humorous horror. As always, I will republish the rules I have about such lists as these first:

I have an issue with “Best of” and “Worst of” year-end lists for the following reasons: most are chosen from either those that play in theaters. For me, I like to watch the DIY ones, for these tend to have more heart.  My list consists of films that I saw and reviewed in 2017, not necessarily ones that were released in that year.

As for Best and Worst, I never liked those terms; art is just way too subjective, which is why I called them Favorites and Not Favorites. That being said, even the “Not” ones have redeeming qualities, and the fact that they don’t touch me means nothing. I’ve hated films that have won tons of awards, and liked some that other find abhorrent, so don’t take anything I say, good or bad, as the law. It’s just opinion, and I welcome you to agree or disagree. It’s all good.

These two lists are alphabetical, rather than ranked (another thing I don’t believe in).


The Acid Sorcerer
Written, produced, directed and edited by Dakota Bailey
With Dakota Bailey’s third feature, he’s found a niche of reality that can scare the viewer, but not because of the supernatural but more because of a vision of life. Americans are capable of doing just about anything, even if it’s against their own self-interest and Bailey’s focus is on that to the extreme, at what most would probably consider the lower rungs of the social contract ladder, with drug dealers, prostitutes, hired killers, serial killers, and essentially the kind of people that fascinate when reading about on the paper or seeing on the big (or small) screen, but not necessarily someone whom you would want to share breathing space. Mostly filmed in black and white, there is no real past tense, there is only whatever is happening in the moment, and the people act accordingly and usually impulsively. Bailey touches that instinctual, repulsed side of the average viewer: you don’t need to learn, just intuitively know. There is also an unexpected, philosophical touch to the film, as it acknowledges its own inner darkness, as well as those as the characters. It’s a chilling and nihilistic view of a nearly claustrophobic group of people whose lives are revolving around the seven deadlies. Despite (or perhaps because of) the despicableness of those who infest the film, the viewer kinda wants to know what happens to them. This does for Denver, what Taxi Driver (1976) did for New York City: it focuses on the seedy, the dirty and the back alleys, where the denizens of the story would likely live.
Original full review HERE

Badass Monster Killer
Written and directed by Darin Wood
This picture is from a director who comes up with a fine mashup that is both head scratching WTF? and laugh-out-loud Say What? The basic premise revolves around a hyper-cool brother who is a police officer for the Department of Supernatural Security named Jimmy Chevelle (Jawara Duncan). Did I mention this takes place in Camarotown? Anyway, along the way he meets women who fall for him and become sort of an army. Most reviews claim this is based on the Blaxploitation style of Shaft [1971]; early on, we even see the Loveshaft Hotel in the background. More likely it’s a reference to H.P. Lovecraft, as this takes place in his mythos with references to Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones. But I would posit that it’s closer to Dolemite [1975] than Shaft. Chevelle’s subject of investigation is a sect that wants to bring back said Great Old Ones via weed that makes you susceptible to them. Heading this group of miscreants is Reverend Dellamorte (Ryan Cicak), a goateed white guy with a thick southern accent. The dialog is hysterical, and occasionally repetitious, in a running gag form, “Diabolical,” for example, may be in every other sentence. Duncan is really good at spitting out strings of script in an amusing way, making it not feel repetitive as much as humorous. There is a lot of good writing. Another incorrect comparison, in my opinion, is to the film Sin City [2005], since nearly all of Badass is shot in green screen (other than two solid sets), with all the buildings and other objects leaning towards the center. Sin City was like a comic book, while this is more cartoonish. Both films take place in a world that couldn’t exist in real life, but SC went for more realism; BMK isn’t interested in any form of reality, it’s nearly surrealistic. Which brings me to the monsters. Each one looks fake as can be, with cheesy digi-art or rubber limbs when they interact with the actors. They also look silly, but in this context, they are fun to watch, like bad stop-motion. In this completely produced and processed world, I thought the monsters were smile-worthy rather than cringe-. Duncan is perfect in the role, able to handle both the smolder and the sass (and afro) to just the right tone for the film. A chunk of the action takes place in a strip joint, and even beyond that there is dancing, lots and lots of go-go style dancing. You see a street? There are women dancing in the shot. I have no idea of H.P. Lovecraft had a sense of humor, but if he did, he would have gotten a hoot outta this, especially the battle of good vs. evil at the conclusion.
Original full review HERE

Bonehill Road
Written, directed and edited by Todd Sheets
For this film, Todd Sheets takes an interesting approach, asking us to question which is worse, the big bad trio of wolves outside the door, or the human monster inside with the knife and sadistic attitude. That is the predicament in which Todd has placed his main characters. Emily (Eli DeGeer) and her teenage daughter Eden (Anna Rojas-Plumberg) are on the run from one human monster, an abusive husband (Aaron Brazier). When their car is toast, in part due to the hairy threesome, they wind up in a house with serial killer Coen (Douglas Epps) and his hostages, Tina (Millie Milan), Lucy (Dilynn Fawn Harvey), and Suzy (an extended cameo by Linnea Quigley). Between our furry friends outside and the less hairy one inside, there is a lot of damage that happens to everyone involved, leading to tons of carnage and gore. Luckily, both of those are Sheets’ specialities. Also at the heart of the whole visual is that all of the effects and wolfie-poos are practical SFX rather than digital. Sheets tends to show the carnage in extreme close-up. Most of the acting is quite powerful. As the two leads, Plumberg and especially DeGeer hold their own as strong women who are put in extraordinary circumstances. The rest of the film looks great, with sharp editing and visuals. There is nothing really fancy here, no “artistic flares,” which suits me just fine. A meat and ‘taters creature feature is just what the witch doctor ordered.
Original full review HERE

Child Eater
Directed by Erlingur Thoroddsen
The seemingly mandatory prologue at the start, taking place 25 years before the main story, is a bit more unsettling than most, and better for it; but it does set you up to know that you are not about to see the average slasher or murderous spirit. The legend in the small town of Widow’s Peak (filmed in, Catskill, NY) is that there was a crazy man, Robert Bowery (Jason Martin) who had macular degeneration and ate people’s eyes because he believed it would keep him from going blind, but he was especially attracted to those of youngsters because “the fresher the better”. Now it is quarter of a century later since the last attack. The heroine of the story is Helen (Cait Bliss), who is in the mid-20s. She’s forced to babysit by her police chief dad for a widower who has recently bought the old man’s house for himself and pre-teen son. The thing that is most important is simply that this really is a creepy-ass film. The pace is great and the plot not completely predictable. The actual image is pretty dark, though the cinematography by John Wakayama Carey is spot on so you can see everything you’re supposed to view. But the film is also dark in a more esoteric way in that, hey, it’s a story about someone/something that eats children’s eyes and then kills them, and also eats their bodies (as well as adults). Bowery’s make-up is really well done, by Fiona Tyson, who should be commended, as well. The gore shows up in small amounts but frequently, and always looks damn good. This film could have been corny and clichéd, based on tropes that have been around for decades, but Thoroddsen manages to take a relatively fresh approach. That makes this enjoyable to watch, and its mood and motif may help make that chill go up and down your spine. You won’t be able to – err – take your eyes off it.
Original full review HERE

The Ladies of the House
Directed by John Stewart Wildman
In this story, three bros go to a strip club to celebrate a birthday. After the performance one of them pressures the other two to follow her home, where she shares a house with three other dancers. His intention is to pay her for sex as a present. Of course, things go awry, and when the other women come home, that’s when the second act begins and the picture kicks up into a much higher gear. These are certainly not women you want to trifle with, that is for certain, as the guys learn, one by one, becoming prisoners. This tragic start leads to a revenge-fuelled carnage. It comes down to the three bros against three of the women While angry, they are more cunning than reactionary. They have obviously dealt with men in such a fashion before, as they have a calm routine way of… dismantling. One of the things I like about the film is that while it’s technically not a horror film, relying more on terror and suspense, it certainly does not shy away from a bit of violence and gristle here and there (well done by Oddtopsy SFX, led by indie effects maven Marcus Koch); when it does, because it is not the main focus, it comes out as a bit more shocking and welcomed, without wearing out its welcome. The four female leads are spot on, with just the right amount of sexiness and cold-hearted determination. They are to be feared, but without losing their humanity. Yet through the carnage and chopping and caging and slicing and hacking, somehow, on more than one level, this remains… a love story?! This shows some solid directing. The lighting, the angles, and the gore, all look and feel glorious. This is hardly what one would necessarily call a date movie, depending of course on whom you are relating, but for the genre fan, it was an entertaining.
Original full review HERE

Long Night in a Dead City
Directed and edited by Richard Griffin
This is a strange, ethereal and episodic story of Daniel (Aidan Laliberte), who awakens in an alley on New Year’s Eve, beaten and bruised. He begins a quest to find his brother Charlie (Anthony Gaudette), which brings him into contact with various characters in an ugly side of a city full of back streets, litter, snow and steam. The shadow side of Voltaire’s Candide, Daniel wanders into others’ lives, and vice versa, with something quite off about all of it. Mannequins, a possible serial killer, and a sultry bartender (Anna Rizzo) who knows his name in a tavern where everyone is photo-still, is just the start of some of those who will make this dead city night interesting, albeit bizarre. In some scenarios, Daniel is the protagonist, in others he is an observer, as sort of a solo Greek Chorus in a modern day tragedy. In all, though, there is an either explicit or implicit invitation, spoken or not, for him to join, and to stay in that moment, in that place. A mysterious woman, Holly (Sarah Reed), takes the place of both companion and Dante-esque guide. Many of Griffin’s films deal with heaven, hell, and other variations of what happens next, and this continues to take a different view of that aspect of life and death, which makes for a further interesting vision that one may not expect, keeping the viewer’s interest. Even if you have an idea of where the storyline is going, the ride there is still going to be from a perspective you probably would not have thought of, giving new blood to a not-so-new concept. There is definitely a feeling of surrealism, but not to the point where it’s so obliquely opaque in the events that it loses direction. Chalk yet another one on the plus side for Griffin. Also worth checking out are his other two films of the year that were squeezed out by space here, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Strapped for Danger.
Original full review HERE

Murder Made Easy
Directed by David Palamaro
I found the whole film production reads like a play. It’s heavy in dialogue, mostly takes place in a single room, and the pacing of the whole thing could easily be mounted on a stage. This feels very Frank Capra-esk in the way the words are spoken in a quick and light patter. This murder mystery has been compared to the game Clue, but I definitely believe that it’s more the source material of the dining room murder mystery that they have in common rather than the end piece. This is a very dark comedy. Like most murder mysteries there are a lot of characters most foul, and even more important, there is double-crosses upon double-crosses. In the story, Joan Chandler’s (Jessica Graham) husband has been dead for a year. Not happy with the way he was treated by his friends, she and mutual pal Michael (Christopher Soren Kelly) decide to take matters into their own hands, and make things right by… well, the title is more than just a hint. The cast is really tight, like they’ve been doing this particular piece for a while. Solid professionalism. While there are some standout performances, there is not a weak moment in the acting, from opening scene to close. That being said, it feels like the camera loves Graham and either keeps gravitating to, or lingering on her. Luckily, Graham can handle it, as she says so much with a snide smile, a frown, or a subtle shift in mood. Kelly is the yin to her yang, a ball of kinetic energy to her nuances. They spin around each other like a double helix, boosting each other’s characters. Of course, little is as it seems. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors, as there should be in this kind of story, and I recommend giving yourself enough time to watch it twice. In case I haven’t made it clear, this is a strong and solid piece of work. The writing is crisp and sharp as a razor, which never takes the easy way out.
Original full review HERE

Written, produced and directed by Chad Ferrin
Three college jock-types are roaming around the big bad city and get lost. Not a good thing, especially in the neighborhood in which they’ve landed. This area of Los Angeles is not color-oriented, but it is certainly greenback poor, with homelessness and frustration-fueled anger; that’s a volatile mix in an indie screen world. As the dudes drive around trying to find their way, they make obnoxious comments about the homeless they see. Then, they run over something and get a flat. And that is where the story really takes off, as they are confronted by a mob of homeless men (and one woman) who don’t take kindly to strangers in their neighborhood. It quickly escalates, and before you know it, one of the trio, Marshall, is running down the street nekkid in fear for his life, with a band of bums out to even the social score a little bit. The patriarchal and dictatorial leader of the mob is Wilko (Robert Miano) who exudes anger, hate and racism beautifully. He is a narcissist who blames others for his own actions. One could argue that he is a product of having nothing left but ego, but I could also see that it could be part of what brought him to that level in the first place. Quick to adapt, Marshall does what he needs to survive, as he becomes the focus of a distorted version of The Warriors, without the fancy costumes and catchy dialogue. He has no choice but to come on out and play as he is hunted down by the urban version of the backwoods mob. It becomes a question of how does one win against a group that has nothing to lose. The added social commentary is as Marshall becomes more and more identified by strangers as a homeless person, wearing their clothes and being African-American, demonizes him as “Other.” The ending is effective, albeit predictable, considering the zeitgeist of the film’s tone and story direction. It’s a worthy viewing.
Original full review HERE

Pig Pen
Directed by Jason Koch          
Recently, there have been a series of gritty, realistic stories that are there to disturb more than distress; we’ve seen it before in films like Suburbia (1984), Scorsese‘s Mean Streets (1973), or even The Day of the Locust (1975). The difference is that of late, realism has faded away into the static camera of torture cinema which is less about story than effects; realism is just the opposite, even with its level of gruesomeness. I didn’t really have any expectation about this film, so its level of initial low-key grittiness took me by surprise. Here, Zack’s (Lucas Koch) world is one of dysfunction. The tall and lanky13-year-old stoic skater, whose school nickname is Pig Pen, lives in a home where nothing gets cleaned and supper consists of cold cereal mixed with water. His mother is zoned out on booze and pills, and her new, abusive “entrepreneur” boyfriend pimps her out and sells drugs. Insisting that Zack bring in some money, suggesting by doing what the guys on the corner do for cash, the boy is thrown to the streets, where we watch as he learns to survive amid desperation, stealing and violence. As a nice move, Koch edits in flashback scenes throughout that lead up to the present, as we see how life has spiraled out of control step by step. Of course, the past catches up in an explosion. This film doesn’t pull any punches. It gives a realistic feel of the dangers of living on the street, including gangs and perverts. But Zack isn’t like other boys his age. His moral compass has already been turned up this side of Sunday, and he isn’t beyond thievery even before the boyfriend. Like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Straw Dogs (1971), Zack will fight for his life no matter what it takes. This is an intense film right from the start, and it just keeps building right until the very end. Its sheer level of everyday kind of violence means the story begets the violence rather than the other way around, as in most films of this type. It really is a horribly beautiful film. The editing, the lighting, the camerawork is all spot on. If you’re in for a good story with some excellent writing and acting to back it up, tension that is palpable in a building crescendo, and some way-above standard physical effects, this will be a good direction to go.
Original full review HERE


Before I Die (aka Wake Before I Die)           
Directed by the Jason Freeman and Todd Freeman (aka the Brothers Freeman)
Pastor Dan (Robert McKeehan) and his cheery wife Cindy (Audrey Walker), their sullen young teenage daughter and pre-teen son move to a small town in Oregon to take over a church. Soon after they get there they are put in charge of troublesome teenage Sally (Nouel Riel) to keep her away from her stereotypically cinematic greasy headed and leather jacketed boyfriend, Mark (Joshua St. James). A pattern then starts to emerge here, as sure enough there is some kind of local killing cult. Still, there is some issue with getting some momentum in the story. Cinemagraphically it certainly looks good, but the writing is plodding and could use some serious editing and honing down. For example, one character warns Dan, “Strange people dream strange dreams, Pastor. Even about others…Some people are prone to believe such things here because this is a place where such things can be true.” At the very least the script needs a good Thesaurus. Nearly half way through, it’s hard to tell there’s anything really wrong, except for the minor-key sountrack. There is a murder scene that happens with some beautiful editing overlapping the killing and the events after, which in itself would make a great short, but as a whole it drags the film down, and could have been shown in just a few minutes. The third acts picks up the pace quite a bit, and the ending is a bit of an anticlimax, but the film has a decent 20 minutes in it towards the end. Still, despite the editing and lighting, it goes on too long. Much of the acting is also a bit dicey and wooden here and there, especially the unengaging lead who seems to mostly sleepwalk through his role relying more on a wholesome look, with an occasional brow roll or eye squint to show emotion. Part of the problem is that the cult doesn’t really have a focus, other than being a group of non-Believers (and they – shock! – dress in black, wear frilly party masks, and drink alcohol), bringing us to the realization that this picture is a Christian-pointed release with a literal Amen at the end. That alone might drive off some off (and bring others into the film’s…err…flock), but that is not what got under my skin; rather it was the poor writing and monotonic acting from an unexcited/unexciting lead. All in all, the film is a solid meh.
Original full review HERE

Conspiracy Theory [aka Lake on Fire]
Directed and edited by Jake Myers
The biggest complaint about the recent Paranormal Activity film series (starting in 2007) is not that it’s in the found footage genre, but rather that it takes way too long for anything of interest to happen. It’s annoying and pointless, and fills out a film to full length when it could have been a very comfortable 20-minute short (or even less). We meet the film crew to a “reality” cable show on the Mystery Channel called “Alien Engineers,” which posits that many of our modern structures, such as Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead are constructs that use technology given to humans by the “grays.” Leading this five-some is its host, the heavily orange-skinned spray-tanned Bjorn Eriksson (Ben Kobold), along with the rest being his crew, including the loony Britney Big Time (Jennifer Mills). They go to the locations mentioned above, and act like jerks. To begin though, they do nail the whole guerilla filmmaking down pretty well, as Bjorn interviews scientists and “man on the street” types, and manages to put words in everyone’s mouths, claiming that they were the ones that said it. This is both goofy and enjoyable to watch, as the non-actors squirm, or are often bemused by it all. There is a fine mixture of real people mixed with fictional characters, playing with story’s credibility in a fun way. Sadly, the film ultimately fails overall for one basic and nearly constant reason: there is way too much filler with nothing to add to the story; for example, extended scenes of drinking in a hotel bathroom or on the street. It seems like a large part of the film is mostly home movies, almost like they wanted to go to Nevada on a trip, and figured if they made some kind of story about it, they could write off the expenses. While they seem to be having fun, it doesn’t really transfer the audience (okay, to me). I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist (or ET) to figure out the end. There is a kind of conspiracy going on, but whether it’s alien or human is left up to the viewer. The last 20 minutes or so are…okay, with about 10 interesting minutes here and there, but by far the best parts of this film are the interviews. Can we please have a moratorium on found footage now?
Original full review HERE

Lake Eerie
Directed by Chris Majors
The name of this film is brilliant. The location is a huge house just off the lake. In this story, it was recently bought through a repossession auction by Kate (Meredith Majors, the director’s spouse and film writer), who has moved in to forget the recent death of her farmer husband. Having been abandoned since 1969 when its previous dashing anthropologist owner, Harrison (director Chris Majors), mysteriously disappeared, it gives the widow a way to start over through painting (and a large amount of prescription pills). Soon after she moves in post- Labor Day, most people in the area have already left. That is, except for the nice lady who lives a few doors down, Eliza (Betsy Baker, aka the demonically laughing Linda in The Evil Dead). I quickly got the heebie-jeebies about her, just from the constant use of her calling Kate “Dear.” Sadly, this “tell” is endemic of the film writing, which makes questionable moves throughout. Later we meet Eliza’s niece, Autumn (Danish actress Annemijn Nieuwkoop; aka Anne Leigh Cooper), who is obsessed with Harrison (director Chris Majors), the archeologist who used to own the joint. There are some definite issues with the story, which is quite lackadaisical in its approach. I mean, if you need to grab a kitchen knife two nights in a row (your first two nights) – once because of a big dude in the kitchen and another after a nekkid woman (Victoria Johnstone) rises from the lake and goes into your house – and then you go upstairs and fall asleep after taking pills, rather than getting leaving the house – even after a kinder spirit tells you to get out…twice – then it’s hard to feel some any empathy for that character. The story tries the “Is it real or in her head?” motif, which always is a fun twist. Actually, what Kate needs is acting lessons as she is so wooden. Majors cannot carry a film on her own as she looks like she is wincing when trying to emote. But she’s not the only one, to be fair: most of the cast seems to be either in a daze or over the top. There are few surprises in the story, including the conclusion, but for me the biggest problem is in the text editing. There are long stretches where nothing really important to the story happens. And yet, a nagging question is, will there be a sequel called The Eerie Canal?
Original full review HERE