Thursday, June 20, 2013

DVD Reviews: Iron Doors

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films Blog, 2013
Images from the Internet

                            

Iron Doors
Directed by Stephen Manuel
MVD Visual
Jingai
80 minutes, 2010 / 2013
www.MVDvisual.com

This film has won numerous awards in the festival circuit, including best picture, best actor and best cinematography. It left me with more questions than answers.

Before you read further, know that the whole film is available for free, linked below the trailer at the bottom of this review. While I won’t give away any endings or major plot secrets, there will be minor spoiler alerts throughout. Okay? Then let’s continue.

 
An unnamed investment banker, played at full emotion by German actor Axel Wedekind, wakes up in a locked vault with nothing but a dead, maggoty rat, and a locked locker that looks like it could have come from any gym or high school. At first he thinks someone is playing a practical joke, but comes to realize that there is more going on than that. What he faces is, well, survival.

In a way I won’t divulge, he pairs up with the only other person in the story, an unnamed African woman (Rungano Nyoni, who also writes and directs films) who disappeared from her own country, waking up inside a coffin for some reason. So, the two of them have to figure out the puzzle together.

This is obviously some kind of game. In fact, this film is curiously like two others, one being Saw (2004), and the other is the way underrated Cube (1997), but without the gore, though with a few disturbing scenes.

As these two struggle to find a way out, themselves and unbelievably, each other (a sex scene, after 4 days of no food, really?), the thought occurred to me, I don’t care. There is no context for the two of them, their lives before, or anything else. Surely, that is the reason, because the story wants you to see them from scratch, I get that. It’s also why I am so ambivalent. He basically rants and raves a lot, with enough “fucks” thrown in to make David Mamet happy. She just goes from scared to totally calm pretty damn fast.

More than once – make that often – I was tempted to reach for the fast forward. That I didn’t is amazing. It’s not because I couldn’t stand the apprehension, but rather it was more of “get on with it already.” Supposedly there is a claustrophobic element because they’re locked in a vault for the whole time, but I felt much more of that in the first Saw and Cube than here.

While I liked her more than him, her expectation of him as a man to take care of her (no, you chisel, I’m too delicate and precious for that) irked the crap outta me, quite honestly. In Africa, a place of every-day desperation and a high death rate, I cannot believe she wouldn’t just swing that hammer like John Henry, rather than the light tap-tap-tap. This was obviously written and directed by a man, steeped in masculinist beliefs, who has no concept of what women are capable of doing.

And this may be picky, but we see that they pee, but don’t they have to take a dump, at some point, as well? I mean, I don’t need to see it, but if you’re gonna indicate bodily elimination, some discussion may be necessary in that department as well, especially since there are two strangers sharing this space.

As for the conclusion, well, hunh?

This would have been a good chance for a commentary track, but the only extra is the trailer.  The original film was in 3D, which seems odd to me, in the same way some radio news stations (e.g., New York’s excellent 1010WINS) brag about the channel being in both stereo and HD. It’s just talk, so why bother? The DVD (at least my version) is straight 2D, but my opinion would not change if it were one more dimension.  
           
 



Saturday, June 15, 2013

Two DVD Reviews: A Day of Violence; Slice

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2013
Images from the Internet

These two films have some common threads. First, they are international cinema, from other sides of the world; second, they both deal with crime and punishment in the gangster genre; third, they are exceedingly graphic in their portrayal of violence and its aftermath, which you can tell from the titles alone. They make good companion pieces because they are so different in their approach and story, and yet have many overlapping themes.

 

A Day of Violence
Written and directed by Darren Ward                  
Giallo Films / Jingai                        
78 minutes, 2010 / 2012    
www.Giallofilms.com
www.MVDvisual.com

The Brits definitely have a history of ultra-violent crime films, evident in the likes of The Long Good Friday (1980) and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover (1989). But there is a difference between those and this one, other than those above both having Helen Mirren as the female leads.
 
Both Friday and The Cook, while unflinching looks at the mob for the time, they were both relatively mainstream films that played in the theaters and though pushing the envelope, had limits if they wanted to maintain a relationship with the theaters. Day is 30 years later in the post-torture porn era. The gloves are off, the appliances are on, and the blood and body parts will separate.

The story focuses on a very low-end gangster, Mitchell Parker (Nick Rendell), who works for the mob as a collector of money owed. After an extended sex scene with his wife, the next shot is of him on the morgue table, still giving a Sunset Boulevard/William Holden (1950) type of voice over. He had found an incredibly large sum of cash held by one of his marks, Hopper (played by Giallo legend Giovanni Lombardo Radice, who was in such classics as City of the Living Dead [1980], The Church [1989] and Cannibal Ferox [1981], often under the pseudonym of John Morghen), who he then murdered and took the cash. From there, things start falling around him.

We watch as a number of people involved in the missing money get beaten, tortured and… No, I’m not going to give too much away, but it all shown in glorious and gruesome detail. This is to gangster behavior what Trainspotting (1996) was to addiction, and Kids (1995) was to adolescence. If the viewer is anywhere near squeamish, hopefully the title alone will inform them, never mind the cover art shown above. The first two-thirds of the relatively short film are hard to watch, even though there really aren’t many sympathetic characters.

Keeping that in mind, the last third is a grand old shoot-em-up with lots of collateral damage that everyone can enjoy who likes these kinds of action things. Perhaps a bit more bloody than a Die Hard film, but it matches the firearms.

If you’re taking anything I’m saying about the film as a negative review, that is not how I mean it. Darren Ward does a great job of directing in Guy Ritchie territory (without the humor). The camera angles are sharp, as is the editing, and the color saturation is of earth tones, highlighting the oppressive and colorless lives and to play up the “claret” as the blood is described more than once.

The story tries to justify Mitchell’s stealing of the cash, hence the “redemption” in the catch phrase, but that does not reason out his brutal killing of Hopper. For me it was one of the flaws of a very strong, yet simple story at its core. There are no grand twists, no unexpected duplicities, including the multiple double-crosses, just a grand meat and ‘taters tale. Nuthin’ wrong with that.

The extras are plentiful. The Making Of documentary is as long as the film, broken up into four segments. About half it is fascinating, the other half you may want to zoom through here and there. But let me digress here for a second. Much of the added footage is about Radice, who essential has an extended cameo. Yes, I know he is a “legend,” but he gets first name credit, and so much of the footage in the extras is about him; setting up for his kill, showing how they made the fake neck for it, and quite frankly boring interviews with him (mixed with some interesting comments by him). It seems a bit obsessive to me. Yeah, I love those old Giallo films too, but c’mon. Okay, back on track: other shorts include some extended scenes which are mostly good and enjoyable, but rightfully taken out, especially the car ride with the big boss and the schmuck underling.

I’m not sure if this is a commentary about modern British society, or the government (as The Cook was back when), but even if it isn’t deeper than the Platte River, it gets the job done, with little budget that looks much larger on the screen. If you can take realistic violence (as opposed to “cartoon” aggression of a Steven Segal type), odds are this will be worth your while, even with the sometimes incredibly thick British accents, mate.


 

Slice (original Thai title: Cheun)
Directed by Kongkiat Khomsiri     
Casino Crush / Five Star Productions    
99 minutes, 2009 / 2012    
www.MVDvisual.com

Tai is an assassin for an underworld boss. He gets set up and sent to prison for 10 years for wounding a cop, and while in the joint, he’s told who to kill in there. However, after a few high-profile and bizarre serial slayings that angers a politician, he’s taken out of prison and sent to find the possible killer, who may have been a childhood friend.

The killings, which we get to see in full detail, are carried out in quick, brutal fashion by a figure in a full and flowing red cape and hood, carrying a large red rolling suitcase that will eventually house the cut-up bodies (which we also get to see; the corpses, that is). The victims seem random, though they are all despicable, including child molesters (a big industry in Thailand, and I’m sure this is a commentary on that subject) and spoiled, oversexed political scions. Though you would think someone walking in a flowing bright red full-body cape and hood with matching luggage would be easy to spot… I’m just saying…

Now, Tai is no magical Jet Li / Bruce Willis character, he is more human with deep emotions and a girl friend who wants him to get out of the business. He is promised if he find the killer in 15 days, a deadline demanded by the angry politico, he will have his record cleaned and become a police officer, working with his dyed white (you can see the roots) and wild-haired police acquaintance.

We follow through with Tai’s investigation of his friend / suspect back in the village in which he grew up. We also follow the progression of his friendship with a fey neighbor, who is constantly being picked on and called variations of the “fag” word. For a while Tai joins in with the taunting, but a bonding occurs. It is a brutal childhood for both, but especially for Nut, who becomes his only friend.

Some of the characters of the film, such as the Don King-wannabe copper, are a bit, well, perhaps not stereotypical, but definitely over the top. Tai seems pretty standardized as a person, though more Jack Nicolson in Chinatown than Van Damme in everything. There are no martial arts, not an excessive amount of shootings in the street, nothing blown up, and yet the story remains riveting.

For parts of the film, there’s a level of expectation, which is rewarded. However, I did not see the reveal coming, and kudos for that. Many times I’d watch a cop show and within the first five minutes know who was the baddie, but not this time.

While the killings are disturbing, we’ve seen it all before as limbs get blown off, heads explode, and knives plunge. In a “realistic” film setting rather than the cartoonish Saw or Hostel franchises, the grittiness gives the violence a certain further edge, even with some ridiculous characters (e.g., the white-haired cop). What disturbed me more, however, were the convincing looks of the bodies after, and the extreme level of gay bashing that runs throughout.

This is an incredibly well-made film, and beautifully shot, and yet exquisitely painful to watch, as are many Asian films of this genre. The horror is in the everydayness of the brutality. Sometimes the viewer doesn’t know whether to look or turn away, not because of fear of the “boo!”, but rather the transcendence of what violence truly looks like. I’m willing to bet the ones who would have the most trouble viewing this would be those who work in hospitals, ambulance drivers and the police, because it is so accurate to that humanist side of rage. That is a complement to this film.

Monday, June 10, 2013

DVD Review: Bad Meat


Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films Blog, 2013
Images from the Internet

                            

Bad Meat
Directed by Lulu Jarmen
MVD Visual
Jingai Films
92 minutes, 2011 / 2013
http://en.wordpress.com/tag/bad-meat
www.MVDvisual.com

I truly had high hopes for the proudly self-proclaimed heavily flesh and fluid film that is Bad Meat. After all, it was filmed around Winnipeg. But alas and alack, it wasn’t meant to be.

Indie horror films, even bad ones, can be a joy, sometimes because of how bad they are. Then there is something like this one. Before I wrote this review, I actually did something I never do, which is read other people’s reviews. I’ll explain why in a bit.

Shades of the original The Hills Have Eyes II (1984), this project was started and not really completed first time around, under the helm of Robert Schmidt. The budget either was pulled or ran out, or studio interest waned, and the project was pulled after being mostly put in the can. After the relative success of some of this young cast, it was decided to be revived. Stories vary whether it was Schmidt who sewed it together with some new footage, or gave up and the studio did it. Either way, Schmidt didn’t want his name on it, and they put the imaginary Jarmen to it.

While there are definite problems with the initial storyline, it still had a lot going for it. The plot centers around six teens (who for once actually look like teens), three males and three females, who are dumped by their parents at a motivational camp for various “crimes,” such as fire fetish, lesbianism and letting the frogs loose from the school’s biology lab. Hardway is not so much an Outward Bound as a hard labor camp. All that’s missing is the metal balls chained to their feet. Running away isn’t an option because it is too far in the middle of nowhere (okay, no Winnipeg jokes here).

The camp is run by a physically and emotionally sadistic leader (scene stealer Mark Pellegrino) who is obsessed with Nazis (e.g., he has a chessboard where the “king” is Adolph), and he is shown reading a book about the Final Solution (Death Camp: The Josef Mengele Story) and laughing. His underlings include an Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS type, her lover/co-“counselor” is an equally sadistic huge black man, with the last being a bar bell boy that could be Larry the Cable Guy on steroids.

All of them abuse the young six, as well as the hired cook. The latter takes some tainted dog meat and serves it at dinner, before quitting and taking the only vehicle on the property (of course). The young charges are forced to eat a potato while the bullies have the, well, bad meat, thereby unintentionally saving them from it. After a night of a lot of puking on a The Family Guy Ipecac level, the four leaders become guttural, sex-obsessed cannibals.

The story is shown in a series of flashbacks by the sole survivor (I’m not giving anything away here since that is explained in the first few minutes), who is wrapped from head to toe in bloody bandages that continually weep red.

The gore effects are mostly top notch, relying totally on appliances, models and make-up rather than digital enhancements. They are beautifully done and appropriately gross with lots of vomit, blood and body parts

All of the actors playing the teens are solid in their parts, having made their way through multitudes of recurring parts in various television series. And some even have famous siblings in real life (Dave Franco, brother of James, and Tahj Mowry, brother of twins Tamera and Tia). But I digress… There isn’t much chance for character development because they obviously filmed some of the harder scenes first, probably leaving that to the end of the shoot.

And there lies the problem with this film. Because of the disruption to shooting and the slapdash way it was put together, there are way too many gaps in the story. I’m not talking about a question here and there, but rather entire scenes missing. I thought the DVD had skipped, and that’s when I went to other reviews to see what I had missed. Apparently, everyone had the same comments. Characters disappear and reappear as just a jaw bone being chomped. Another, who is given the impression of being the lead, is tossed away in a cage and we never see him get out (or die). In fact, more than half the characters are still alive in the flashback when the final shot is shown in the present.

Whether Schmidt gave up trying or he was booted for going over budget (the film does have a wonderful and mainstream look), this is a sorry case of caveat emptor, because this sounds like it should be a great film, and it really could have been, but it’s not all there, like your money when you purchase it.

 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

DVD Review: Strawberry Cliff

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2013
Images from the Internet 


Strawberry Cliff
Directed and written by Chris Chow                     
Cinema Asian Releasing              
105 minutes, 2010 / 2012  
Let me take you down coz we’re going to Strawberry Cliff, a late comer in the Asian horror genre that has apparently taken it’s time to get to the Western market. This is strange, considering it is mostly filmed in English and contains location shots in Los Angeles, Paris, and the majority takes place in Hong Kong.
 
 
Apparently, L.A.’s occidental waitress Kate (Leslie-Anne Huff) has the ability to know when someone is going to die just by looking at them, though she doesn’t know how, as is explained in the very first and expository scene. She tells a young man that he will perish that very night. It seems everyone she tells has no more than a couple of days. In typical Asian cinema, there is some figure that is too white to be natural crawling around to help speed things up.
 
 
Leslie-Anne Huff
To further complicate matters, this doomed man, Jason (Anthony Chaput), is part of a mental collective of three called a hive, where different individuals all share a “soul”. They can each see what the other is doing as they live their own lives. One character explains that it is like watching multiple televisions as the same time. Truly a cosmic consciousness. The other two, are Jeanne (Antonella Monceau) in Paris, and Darren (Chinese pop star Eason Chan) in Hong Kong.
 
 
The irony of the film is that while Kate can look at others and know, she cannot do the same with herself, despite the fact she has grown up with a congenital heart disorder that should have killed her years before, even though she is a young woman in this story (the film description is that she is a teen, but I don’t buy that). A secondary fatefulness is due to her and Darren’s particular psychic histories, as both have low-level jobs, with Kate working in a diner and Darren as a bartender; we see both taking abuse from overly masculinist customers. You know something has changed when one stands up to their bully. An inconsistency, however, is that both Jeanne and Jason seem to be doing quite well, judging by their clothes.
 
 
Despite some reminiscence of Ringu (1998), such as the quest and the fate of one of the characters, this film relies a lot more on atmosphere than on horror. Sure, there are a couple of good scary moments peppered within, but much is played up in mood, highlighted by a haunting score full of drawn out violin bass notes and woodwinds.

Eason Chan
While Huff’s Kate is obviously the central character of the film, it is also abundantly clear that Chan is the star. Heck, it’s his picture on the cover, and his appearance is probably what sold most of the copies of this film. The Asian markets love their pop stars, and Chan is right at the A-line. As with so many of these stars, especially in Hong Kong, he is also an actor, but thankfully a good one. This is his first film in English, and though he states that he had to learn a whole different rhythm of acting thanks to the new language (from the making of documentary that is not on the disk, but is on YouTube for those interested), it is seamless, and he appears confident in the role.
 
 
Huff’s character often seems stunned about what is happening or being said around her, but that is not surprising as I have found that Asian horror either over- or under-explains things, and this case is the former. Not a complaint, just an observation.
 
 
Another character of the film is the city of Hong Kong, with its numerous dauntingly high buildings (this statement coming from someone from New York City), and both new opulent and older seedy neighborhoods. For us in the West, a good thing about filming in Hong Kong is that because it was until recently a British regent, nearly everyone speaks English, and all the store signs are bilingual.
 
 
 
The way the film leaves off would make it primed for a sequel, though as far as I know there haven’t been any plans for it. I get the feeling this didn’t get the audience numbers it was expecting, despite Chan’s presence. I’m not surprised, because today’s audience of Asian horror have come to rely on much more creepy killings, in such now classics as the aforementioned the Ringu (The Ring) series, Ju-on (aka, The Grudge, 2002), Gin qwai (The Eye, 2002), or Chakushin ari (2003), rather than this amount of suspense and mood.   

 
That being said, this film kept this viewer’s attention throughout, even with all the expository chatter, and the action moments (such as the growing shadow) were all the sweeter for their moments. Personally, I hope a sequel does rear its head.


Bonus video:
 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

DVD Review: The CareTaker

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2013
Images from the Internet



The CareTaker
Directed by Tom Conyers              
Little Man Screaming Films
Seminal Films / It’s Time Entertainment             
96 minutes, 2012    
www.thecaretakerfilm.com
www.seminalfilms.com
www.MVDvisual.com

Aussie films tend to have a slightly different flavor, even one that borrows liberally from classic and more recent themes. And this (un)dead serious flick shows that the sum is great than its parts, even when the portions are fine by themselves.

Essentially, and elementally, this is a zombie film where the zombies are replaced by vampires. For example, the theme relies heavily on 28 Days Later (2002), as people get transformed into vamps after contracting the disease from bloodsucking mosquitoes (not sure if that was meant as ironic, but there ya go).

Four people are trapped at an isolated vineyard and farmhouse, trying to keep the vampires out in a similar fashion to Night of the Living Dead (1968), though there are more points that reflect that film. Each character is flawed in their own way(s), and yet there is a level of pity for most. Well, four people and one vampire, I should add, who used to be a doctor. He strikes a bargain with those who are there for various reasons: simply he will protect them from the vampires at night, and they will protect him from the humans during the day. Definitely a Faustian bargain for all, including the vampire.

Mark White
These aren’t the sweet vampires of late mainstream blockbusters, or even the erudite ones of, say, Blade (1998) or the underrated Daybreakers (2009), these are mostly feral scavengers who are more interested in severing necks than ties. Okay, with the possible exception of the good ex-doctor, played by folically shaved Mark White, who does an excellent job of simmering bloodlust, malevolent anger, and violence. Did I mention he was also an executive producer of this film?

While this film also borrows liberally from others in the same genre, such as 30 Days of Night (2007) and the oft-copied stiff-as-a-board rising by Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), there is a lot of originality here. For example, the vampires will not only fight each other to the death, but will drink one another’s blood, as well. I don’t remember seeing that before.

There is definitely a sticking to the vampire canon, though, such as no reflection in the mirror, super-speed, super-strength, aversion to the sunlight and stakes through the heart or die, and the change of eye color (pale blue in this case). No mention of garlic or crosses, though.

Getting back to the story, the four major characters are:


Anna Burgess
The tense, type-A malcontent named Annie (Anna Burgess), and her jobless and hapless boyfriend Guy (Clint Dowdell), who are on the verge of relationship meltdown.
Then there is misogynistic Ron (Lee Mason), who is in town to propagate the end of legal divorce, which is meant more as a means of control rather than religious reasons. He wants power, but refuses the responsibility that goes with it. He’s essentially a bully (think of the EDL).

Colin MacPherson
Lastly is Lester (Colin MacPherson), who owns the farm. He’s a lonely guy, but also exceedingly creepy. He keeps a mannequin (who looks oddly like Annie, for whom he lusts), and has a brief speech about how he’s 57 but desires 20-year-olds. Colin occasionally steals the scenes when he’s on, which is noteworthy because the whole cast is solid. What makes this so is Colin’s use of subtly, letting the viewer know what he’s thinking (when the director wants it) just by facial expressions or voice tonal inflections. While coming across as a milquetoast, could he possibly be the most dangerous of all?

Along with the substantial acting, the film is shot beautifully in an area in Victoria, outside of Melbourne. There are some quick action shots, but most of the film leans on longer sequences that show off the actors and the natural light of dusk and dawn. There are a few special effects, literally smoke and mirrors (especially in a scene with Lester’s mum), but much there is also a lot of focus on character. Also, there is a lot of blood with very little gore, so be sure to bring your whole family!

Guy Dowdell
The humans, including others in the story, are as potentially dangerous as the supernatural beings, as human nature has proven throughout history. Being a serious drama, you know that, as the Heartbreakers (Thunders, not Petty) sang, most of the characters are “Born to Lose.” But it is a tight-knit ensemble cast that squeeze the most out of a strong story.

The dialog is well written, with the good doctor vampire spouting out philosophical treatise to others (though he seems to be talking more to himself) when he’s not fighting off other vampires to the death. As he states (as opposed to stakes) at some point, he did not realize how much he wants to live, even if it means as the undead.

Lee Mason
This is Tom Conyers’s first full-length feature, but he shows some early expertise, such as the first act while we meet the characters, going back and forth to them slowly at first, and zippering their scenes together until stitched into one spot. He also avoids the “shot in one room” (which he posits on in the commentary) claustrophobia, and takes advantage of the nearby town and uses the beautiful surroundings to juxtapose the horror of the events.

The extras are pretty interesting. Along with a couple of trailers (teaser, theatrical), there is a Making Of documentary that is lengthy and keeps attention all the way through, as it shows the process of the filming, recording, and the beautifully scored soundtrack. A full-length commentary is hosted by director Conyers and producer/actor White, who, I am grateful to state, talk about the making of the film, rather than “there’s my third cousin on my mother’s side” kind of nonsense. Lastly, there is something called the “Lester Rap,” which is hysterical. MacPherson apparently has a great sense of humor, and with Conyers editing scenes from the film with “Lester’s” dialog and a beat track and with extra filmed footage, we get the entertaining song “Lester the Molester”. Burgess and Dowdell join in as the chorus, and they all seem to be having so much fun doing this that it’s catching.

This is an indie with a large heart, and one worth the viewing. With substantial backing, Conyers could be a force in the film field.