Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: Zombie Undead

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Blog, 2012
Images from the Internet
                            
Zombie Undead
Written and directed by Rhys Davies
Hive Films
83 minutes, 2010     
Hivefilms.co.uk
Zombieundead.com
MVDvisual.com

May I start by saying that when I saw the title of this film, I thought that it is redundant.
 I would have the same comment about something called Undead Vampires. But then I started to think about it a bit…

Generally speaking, there are three major turning points in the modern zombie film: the first is the Night of the Living Dead (1968), where zombies went from Haitian victims to flesh-eating undead. Then there was 28 Days (2000), where the maddened were not really dead, but rather rabid-like, yet it is still considered in the zombie genre (perhaps we need a plague subgenre?). This also started the ongoing and occasionally heated “fast vs. slow zombie” debate. The last was the addition of a comedy / absurd element with Shaun of the Dead (2004).Sure there was some overlap (e.g., Return of the Living Dead [1985] had some comedy elements) and even some borrowing (e.g., it could be argued that 28 Days was more The Crazies [1973] than NotLD, both directed by George A. Romero), but basically they revolutionized how we looked at the creatures.

Of the three, it could be noted that the latter two were British, who have been leading in innovation in the zombie field (though I would arguably say that some American low-budgeters deserve some more focused attention, such as Aaah! Zombies!! [aka Wasting Away, 2007; my evaluation HERE] and the recent Zombie A-Hole [2012, HERE] ). Zombie Undead is also from the British Isles.

This film, directed by Rhys Davies and written by Kris Tearse, both first-timers, borrows liberally from predecessors, including others not mentioned above, such as Dawn of the Dead (1979; e.g., mostly it takes place in a single building, and there are many debowelings).

What sets it all off – and I won’t give away much, I promise – is a biological terrorist’s bomb in a hub train station. From there, of course, things deteriorate as people who were killed by the blast rise up, and slowly and inevitably, of course, chomp.

We meet the heroine, Sarah (Ruth King), who has brought her father into a hospital after he is injured and bloodied. She passes out at the stress at some point, and wakes up alone in a corridor of the hospital (shades of The Day of the Triffids [1962]). She is quickly rescued by the hulking Jay (played by writer Tearse), with machete in hand, and they are joined by the sympathetic-yet-cowardly cab driver who took Sarah and pop to hospital, Steve (Barry Thomas). From there, they work their way to the top of the building to search for relatives – and to have an excuse to hang around the single structure set – where they meet others who have survived (for now), passed on, and who have returned to join the search for – er – food.

Considering that none of the core actors in the film have any previous experience listed on the IMDB, they do a truly splendid job. Yes, there is the occasional wooden reading (I’m assuming that it is supposed to be them being in shock more than anything else), but each one holds their own both in solo pieces and in a group. I’m hoping if Davies continues, he will have the opportunity to use the cast again, as indie filmmakers tend to use a cadre of talent repeatedly. There is usually a large range of emotion that is needed when these kinds of films go serious, as does this one, so with a novice film crew, it’s ever more impressive, even on a repeated viewing (hey, I hadda show it to my zombie-lovin’ hombres).


As with most British core cities, the one used here, Leicester (a 100-mile drive north-northwest from London), looks like a series of rundown row-houses and brick buildings with some parks (mostly golf courses, according to the maps I’ve seen). Actually, a perfect setting if one wants to do the geographical / cultural analysis of what the zombies mean (you know, how critics talk about Dawn of the Dead being about consumerism, etc.), but I like to take these stories for what they are, rather than find the commies-in-the-pea-pods, if you get my drift.

While I commented before about how there are borrowed elements here and there, it should be strongly noted that there are some really fine touches, as well, such as a tragic case of mistaken identity, which is all I will divulge  here, because the film is worth checking out. Yes, there are the occasional holes, but it could easily have been far, far worse. Just know that while this is a compelling film, it is a relentlessly grim story with no respite from beginning to end. It may not always be action-packed (thought it often is), but it will still keep your attention righthere.

Lastly, there is the gore element. The effects are mostly prosthetic, from what I can tell (kudos!), such as said intestines and other assorted body parts, and the blood is among the best in viscosity I’ve seen in a while: not too thick, not too thin, not too light or dark. Really good, considering the sheer abundance of it. And, do I really need to go into the question of a body count considering the subject matter and the aforementioned tone? Didn’t think so.

There are no extras on this DVD, be it commentary, bloopers, deleted scenes or even a coming attraction for this film, never mind others on the brand. Zip. Zero. Zilch. But I won’t disappoint you. Here is the trailer:
                                               

Friday, August 17, 2012

DVD Review: The Disco Exorcist

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2012
Images from the Internet
           
The Disco Exorcist
Directed by Richard Griffin                
Wild Eye Films, 2011
80 minutes, USD $16.95        
It seems the whole retro exploitation movement came into full fruition with the Tarantino / Rodriguez double-billed Grindhouse (2007), with fake period pieces added, digital scratches to look old, and “missing scenes” taken out. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the genre, out comes The Disco Exorcist.
 
Despite the obvious comparison to the previous film(s) mentioned, The Disco Exorcist is, well, amazingly enjoyable. Director Richard Griffin has a history of making horror films of various genres, occasionally with a retro feel. He has certainly hit the pin on the voodoo doll head with this one.
Taking place in 1979, at the height of the disco era and just as it was starting to thankfully wane (to be replaced by the equally noxious hip hop), there are three main characters around whom the plot revolves, each with less than subtle character names.
 
First, there is the title fellow, otherwise known as Rex Romanski (i.e., king of romance). He’s sort of like John Revolta / Tony Monero from Saturday Night Fever (1977), who dances and then subsequently beds all the women, and then moves on to the next one with no thought of hurt feelings. He leaves a string of women who sit at the dance club watching him move while bitterly (and humorously) make snide comments like a rejected Greek chorus. Donning a ‘70s style long-haired wig and full of baby blue eyes and dimples, Michael Reed plays him almost as an innocent, rather than the pig Rex actually acts. Without malice of thought, Romanski just lives his life, which just happens to involve disco, dipping and dumping. His sidekick, Manuel (Brandon Luis Aponte, taking a fun turn), is rarely from his side, even when he’s in a porn theater – er – touching himself, watching his favorite actress perform.
At the club, he meets the edgy, sometimes beautiful / sometimes scary Rita Marie (a derivative of the name Miriam – Moses’ sister – Marie means “Bitter”… yes, I just knew that off the top of my head; Rita, a derivative of Margarita; is a pearl… that one I looked up). We see from the first scene that there is something wrong with Rita, who has more power than she can use wisely, and rather takes her anger issues out by… well, you’ll have to see the cool period aesthetics. Ruth Sullivan, a consummate actor actually, does just the right amount of scenery chewing for this role, which calls for a lot of hysterics, yearning, burning, and literal finger-pointing.
Lastly, there is Rex’s idol and eventual lover, porn star Amoreena Jones (as in Amore). Beautiful with pouty lips, Sarah Nicklin is fearless in her role as the focus of Rita’s jealous vengeance. This is another part that could have been dismissed by an actor of less caliber, and cheapened by the action, but Nicklin actually comes out the best of the three as far as skills go – and that’s saying a lot considering the amount of talent is actually present despite the budget – not by doing her “Linda Blair” bit of being possessed, but by her comic timing and treating this as a she might, say, The Godfather (yeah, okay, that was a weird comparison, but hopefully I made my point). Oh, as a sidebar, in the real world, the leads Nicklin and Reed are married, so some of the positions they assume were “familiar,” as they state in the commentary.

All three of these actors are part of the New England theater scene (as are most of the secondary and ancillary cast), and Griffin, from the area himself, filmed much of this in Pawtucket, RI, as he does with most of his releases. As such, the three are part of his stable of on-screen (and quite some behind-the-scenes, as well) talent, having all appeared in a number of his flicks.
I must say, that as a retro film that was supposed to look like it was released at the end of the ‘70s, Griffin does take it a bit too far. For example, in that period, you never saw male genitalia, unless it was a rubber dildo. Even then, unless it was someone like Russ Meyer, it was highly unusual, and no theater (other than pornos) would have shown it, unless, of course, it was Meyers, an even rarer exception, and yet only in some major cities. Even with female nudity, it was T&A, but no genital hair for a long time. The one exception I can think of, though, is the actually boring The Harrad Experiment (1973), where we got to see Don Johnson’s – er – johnson.
Going in that direction for a moment, it is interesting to note that part of the this excursion into dat ol’ tyme exploitation horror, there is a set piece involving the filming of a porno film (stolen, in part, by the faaabulous scenester and collector – IMDB refers to his “paranormal artifacts, murderabilia, sideshow exhibits and downright weird stuff” –  Babette Bombshell, who also designed the hexilious voodoo doll). I bring this up because recently, I reviewed the re-release of the mostly expunged Gum (1976) [HERE], at the correlation between the two is remarkable, including cheezy sets and lack of acting (although this would become especially true when porn switched from film to video in the ‘80s).
Also, check out the commentary, consisting of director Griffin, actors Nicklin and Reed, and producer Ted Marr. Usually, when you have that many people doing the annotation, it gets muddled and people talk over each other, but here, not only do they respectfully let each other have their say, but what they say is relevant to the film. Plus they still keep it humorous, again indicating that it was an enjoyable shoot for them, which passes on to the viewer.
I gotta say that this was a hell of a hoot (pun intended) to watch, and I recommend it to those who are not offended by body parts, both attached and un-. And, in the meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the sequel, The Brother of the Disco Exorcist,  listed as turning its head in 2013.
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Monday, August 13, 2012

DVD Review: The Hunt

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Blog,
2012 Images from the Internet

The Hunt

Directed by Thomas Szczepanski
Full Screen
74 minutes, 2010 / 2012
MVDvisual.com

I have seen a lot of disparaging films coming from Europe over the past few years that deals with violence, nihilism, gore, disturbing messages, and a story that somehow involves the porn industry in some fashion. A Serbian Film immediately comes to mind, for example.

The latest was actually completed in 2010, but somehow only made distribution in the New World recently. Filmed in French with subtitles, although there are actually whole swathes of this movie that have no dialog, so it’s not like you have to worry about reading the translation, right?

The basic premise is that a scandal reporter, who is stuck writing bestiality porn (see?), is told by his editor it’s either find a story for her to buy or it’s buh-bye. Through information from his girlfriend (a dominatrix, of course; I mean it's France, right?), he finds out that something salacious is happening at a mansion in the woods in which rich people partake. Shades of Hostel, one may think, but actually it is yet another remake of The Most Dangerous Game. Really?

I will definitely give it that there are some modern (culturally speaking) touches, bringing in that bleak tendency that central Europe has been favoring for its storytelling over the past few years. In other words, it is unpredictably predictable. You may not see exactly what is going to happen coming, but you’ll probably know somewhat where you’ll be by the end. Perhaps I’ve watched too much CSI, Law and Order, Mystery Theatre, etc.?

Let me say that the movie is actually beautifully shot, with loving care to shadows, light, angles and the like, and the gore is handled well (I’m guessing a mix of prosthetics and digital). The acting is also right where it should be, especially when so much of this is silent (other than an annoying instrumental soundtrack) so there is a lot of reliance on facial features.

However (you may wanna duck now), even at the short length of 74 minutes, I found this long and tedious. Despite the gore and body count, I was bored most of the time and had to really concentrate not to do some scanning. It’s a good 40 minutes before anything in the story starts to take real shape, not counting the opening, which would have been perfect as a short.

By the time things picked up, I already didn’t care about the main character, who is dragged down to the level of the game participants as he varies between hunted and hunter.

Sure it’s a beautiful looking piece of art, but there is just too much lack of originality, pacing, and real story as opposed to numerous artsy shots of the sky through the trees.

Hopefully, what happens (or doesn’t happen) at the end does not mean that a sequel is in the works. It’s rare a film makes me feel like I’ve wasted my time, even those with zero budgets, but this is certainly one of them.

.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

DVD Review: Headspace: Director’s Cut

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2012
Images from the Internet
                            

Headspace: Director’s Cut
Directed by Andrew van den Houten                    
Modern Cine, 2005 / 2012
84 minutes, USD $14.95   

As this film shows, it’s not who you know, it’s where you go to film school. Put together by recent New York University film school grads, it is absolutely astounding the sheer level of talent that is present in this production.

But first, let me step back. The director is one Andrew van den Houten (I thought the Dutch were chased outta New York in 1674?*), who started as a director (he looks like he’s about 12 in his cameo as an EMT), and is currently a producer who runs Modern Cine, helping others who choose to direct (including some of the actors here).

Starting in a small-town, we see an idyllic family as they celebrate one of two pre-tween brothers’ birthday. From here, thing turn strange to ugly very quickly, resulting in one of the best effects in the film, and there are many.

From there we head off to New Amsterda… I mean New York in the present (well, 2005, anyway), where we meet handsome and shy Alex, the protagonist of the story (not counting in a brief prologue, making all of this either a backflash, or a backflash within a backflash). Alex’s job is house-sitting (in my head, I hear a Yiddish accent asking, “Nu? From this he makes a living?”), giving him time to roam around the city. Newcomer Christopher Denham (who has since appeared in the likes of Shutter Island and Sound of My Voice) plays Alex at first with a bit of awe and shyness, and then towards the end of the film with, well, some froth and madness. He’ll really powerful as an actor, with a wide range.

Also strong and a newcomer as well, is Erick Kastel, as Harry, who uses the money the makes as a chess shark to fund his paintings. As with Alex, who he casually meets in a park while playing the master’s game, he goes from a bit bitter yet together, to completely manic as time and events progress. When Erick and Christopher work together, they feed off each other’s energies and make a really powerful team. Their scenes together are especially fun.

One of the main motifs of this film is whether it is monsters of the mind (they play with possible substance abuse or schizophrenia) or demons of the pit , making them both possible or improbably. This also leads to one of the questions I have about the film, being does bleeding lead to you being attacked by creatures, or does it turn you into one? Or perhaps it could go either way, and if so, what makes the choice? This comes across as a hole in the story for me, but it is not enough to put a dent in its strength. Though I also need to say I say that while the final “shock” came as no surprise at all, it was fun nonetheless.

Now, about those guest stars… One of the first scenes (though the last one filmed, apparently) has Catwoman wannabe Sean Young as the nice mom of the brothers. Yep, the Blade Runner’s squeeze (1982). And, of course, she does a great job with the little time she’s onscreen. Glad she’s back in action.

In the story, for some reason, a page is taken from Phenomenon (1996), and Alex gets headaches and starts becoming smarter in increasing degrees. After passing out, he is sent to a series of doctors, each with their own increasingly physical to metaphysical agendas. We start of with the first pair of neurologists in a hospital: one is played by Dee Wallace (Stone), more famously known as the lead in the classic The Howling (1981; a publicity still of her and real-life late husband Christopher Stone from that film is framed on the wall of her character’s office) and as E.T.’s “mom” (1982). It’s always good to see her as she has such a naturalistic acting style. The other doctor is William Atherton, most famously (infamously?) known as Walter Peck, the officious idjit-stick who shuts down the grid in Ghostbusters (1984; I do hope he embraces the often-used reference, because he helped make that movie the hit it was). They both bring a level of legitimacy to this nearly-student film.

When nothing can be found with the neurologists, Alex then gets directed to a spiritualist-based psychiatrist played by Olivia Hussey. Now, any straight male my age most likely had some level of crush on her when she starred as the lead in Romeo and Juliet (1968).  Sadly, she goes through the film looking like she’s in a confused daze, with eyebrows knit and a blank expression on her face. She’s a much better actor than she lets on here, but it’s still great to see her and I am certainly glad she accepted the role.

Then, of course, there is Udo Kier as a priest in a small, yet pivotal role. Supposedly, he was asked to play one of the neurologists, but thought the priest would be more fun, and he was right. Now, Kier is – and never has been – a great actor, but he is always fun to watch, even going back to the Andy Warhol versions of Frankenstein (1973) and Dracula (1974). I think I can say quite honestly that I would rather watch Udo do some scenery chewing than, say, Leonardo DeCaprio’s arguably top-notch acting. And Udo’s in fine, bloody form here. I stand to salute you.



Now that I’m sitting again, I’d also like to mention, while we’re talking talent, Pollyanna McIntosh, who plays an incidental role (and the only female nudity, which is stunning), but shows she has some chops by stealing many of the scenes she’s in; I’m looking forward to see her star turn in another Modern Cine release, The Woman (2012) at some point. The trailer for this film and others from this company is included in the extras.

Let’s get back to Headspace. It isn’t just the star power that makes this such a watchable film, it’s the entire zeitgeist. But you’re asking yourself, how are the effects? Nearly all of them are prosthetics (there are exactly two quick CGI shots), and the feature is certainly the better for it. Sure the blood is juuuuust a bit too thick and dark, and the creatures look a bit like people in rubber suits (something I know they were trying to avoid by the commentary) covered in slime, but most of the look of gore, make-up and FX is totally enjoyable, especially the first big set piece, as I said earlier.

 There are a number of good extra features here. Usually when there is more than one commentary track, I think, oh, great, that’s 4 hours I have to spend with a film. However, they are both worthwhile, I’m happy to say, to hear process, some exposition, and many other annecdotes of dealing with the star cast. Then there is the choice of captioning (I usually like to turn it on, for some reason), an Edited, Extended Scenes and Alternate Takes segment (though I understand why most of it was removed, it helped clear up some storyline questions), and a selection of FX photos. And…

There are two documentary featurettes attached, at about 20 minutes each. The first is called “Fractured Skulls: The Making of Headspace,” which was filmed at the time of creation and is enjoyable from beginning to end. The second is “Headspace Revisited,” where director van den Houten and star Christopher Denham meet up in 2012 and sit in a park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where some scenes were shot. They discuss windmills… I mean reminisce about the shoot through a rearview mirror, with hindsight. While not as appealing as the first feature, it is still interesting enough to sit all the way through it.

Usually when graduate film students try to take themselves seriously, they fall flat on their faces (though sometimes it’s worse when they try to do a comedy). Not this troupe. This film has rightfully won a bunch of film festival awards, and it’s no doubt in my mind why.

* That’s a joke

Friday, August 3, 2012

DVD Review: Kids Go to the Woods… Kids Get Dead

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2012 Images from the Internet

                            
Kids Go to the Woods… Kids Get Dead
Written, produced, directed by Michael Hall                  
Dark Star Entertainment / Planetworks Enterprises, 2009 / 2012
85 minutes, USD $14.95       
Darkstarentertainment.net
Kidsgetdead.com
MVDvisual.com

There is a large difference, in my mind (such as it is), between a horror film and a slasher one, even if they overlap to some extent. This definitely falls into the latter category. But there’s nothing wrong with that…

Michael Hall writes, produces and directs his first full lengther here, with a mix of ‘80s-style clichés and some interesting updated touches, which are just enough to send this into the interesting aisle. Supposedly, the idea and film’s name germinated from watching Friday the 13th, which he described as this release’s title. Not surprisingly, a lot of the elements of that 1980 piece of cinema appear here.

For example, rather than following the recent done-to-death found footage route (thank you for that), he presents this as a ‘80s film that was taped over some VHS home movies. There are also some (fake) commercials and a horror hostess that interrupts the film to bookend the “ads” and return to the story. This is part of a non-existing program called Midnight Movie Madness – though I can see this as part of a series – presented by Candy Adams (a name take-off of the non-sexy Cindy Adams?) played with lots of cleavage and innuendo by Carly Goodspeed. While a smart idea, it is also one of the just misses of the film in that Candy is more goofy than goddess, e.g., Elvira (the obvious go-to comparison, I know) or Ivonna Cadaver, nor does it match the over-the-top campiness of, say, Matilda LeStrange or Morella.  But Goodspeed shows she’s game and seems to be having fun with her role.

The premise of KGTTW…KGD is that a group of (high school? college?) friends get together to celebrate the birthday of one of their clique, who is forced to bring along her younger brother by her parents. He is reading a horror novel, in which a gas-masked killer terrorizes the woods, and then appears to come to life to start picking them (and others) off, until there is an adequate body count. Unfortunately, how (and I won’t give away the plot line) this becomes a reality is never explained.

Perhaps the point is to – er – point out the clichés of the ‘80s straight-to-VHS films that glutted the market, and in that case it was successful, though the fact that I wonder about it means it’s not as effective as it was meant to be, in that case. Here are some examples, and please know I don’t mean this as whiney as I make it, mostly.

There was a MadTV sketch called “Pretty White Kids with Problems” (great theme song by Lisa Loeb, but I digress…) about older actors playing teen roles in over-dramatic television shows (can anyone say Pacey? Dylan?). This is what we are presented with in this film, as well. Everyone here seems to be at least in in their late 20s (didn’t spot any bald patches, at least). This is especially egregious in the younger brother character, Scott (played by the great monikered Andrew Waffenschmidt). Either he is supposed to be around 15, or he is, as they say in New England, wicked retahdid (no insult meant).

Here is the group that takes off into the woods to be to potential killer-fodder: there's said brother, the birthday girl and the lummox who is trying to bed her, her bestie and the lummox who is trying to get past third base with her, and a lesbian couple who have been having home runs apparently many, many, many times (and supply most of the nudity). The two guys are just brutal to the equally lecherous (in his own way) younger bro, and I was sitting there listening to them talk and smirk, just hoping the dude in the mast would show up soon to shut them the hell up.

Leah Rudick
The acting by this troupe is passable, but you don't really get that they're taking this too seriously, while the director seems to be taking it much too seriously, espeically for a supposed comedy horror (as it is listed on IMDB). The one who ares the best, though, is the birthday girl, Casey, excellently played by Leah Rudick. She definitely comes across as the most talented of the group in this department.

As for the ancillary characters, there is the nutsy older local who runs the gas station / convenience store, a Vietnam Vet who warns the hero/ines to stay off the moors… I mean out of the woods. He is especially played to a chewing the curtain rods level (I’m thinking purposefully) by Kevin Shea. Then there is the totally ineffectual town cops who are too busy threatening the local previously mentioned Veteran to stop bothering the “kids” rather than to notice that anything is amiss in the burg.

Now there is the killer, played forcefully and effectively by Joseph Campellone (paisan!). Unfortunately, the name of this beast is, well, “The Killer.” No fancy “The Shape” or “Jason” that’s memorable. The audience never sees his face, of course.

I must say, though, for a film shot for $10K in the woods around Orange County, NY (the Middletown / Goshen area, aka The Catskills, as my grandparents would have called it), it has a good look. There’s lots of gore for the buck (though they need to work just a bit on the formula for the blood mixture), and that is a plus, and even a couple of good shocks (unfortunately, one is spoiled by the trailer).

The one stereotype that really bugged me, though, was that the killer always walks at an even pace while the youngsters he is chasing run like mad. And yet, when they inevitably trip and fall (I thought, at the time, “really?”), he’s a few feet right behind them. And, of course, they roll over onto their back (or just lay on their front) and cry while the guy with the knife walks over to them, rather than getting their asses up and running more. Didn’t like that in the ‘80s, and it still annoys me now.  

 As the slasher genre goes, this is pretty par, though for the production financials, that’s saying a lot in the positive column. Plus, the film gives a whole new meaning to the expression, “Not on my face” that alone makes this worth the watch.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChFkPBDk4K0

<Strong>Trailer: </strong>
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<Strong>To view film online:  </strong>
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