Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Effects

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

Directed by Dusty Nelson
AGFA / Something Weird Video / Bududa Inc. / MVD Visual
84 minutes, 1980 / 2005 / 2017

So-called snuff films became a focus in American culture during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, in large part, for two reasons. The first was due to some pretty bad films such as Snuff (1975), which supposedly had a real snuff scene at the end (any seasoned SFX fan could see that it was fake), and the Faces of Death series (which was also bogus when concerning humans). The other was the rising video boom that was desperately in need for film fodder for fans, and would take anything they could find and put it out there in the exploding video store market. Snuff, a film that probably would have easily passed into the mire of bad cinema along with the Face of Death, found new life and became shocking sensations that made national news.

This led to a series of “realistic” releases trying to ride the wave. Hell, no one would have probably even heard the word “snuff” if it weren’t for those reasons. But it did lead us to Dusty Nelson’s film, Effects. Thanks to a revival of the VHS craze from that period, which has now passed into the nostalgia phase, companies like American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) are putting out hi-def, Blu-ray versions of these very same films. In this case, thanks to distribution and legal issues, this film was not actually released until 2005 on DVD, and now this Blu-ray from a rare print (more on the quality later). Thing is, as bad as some of these releases are, I’m glad they are given new – err – life.

Joseph Pilato, Tom Savini
Essentially, in a convoluted way, the film plays with the notions of what is real, what is pretend, and what happens when they mix in the world of film (although there are some moments that seem like it’s television). This is what is facing the dating couple of special effects expert/cameraman Dom (Joseph Pilato) and actress Celeste (Susan Chapek); they – and others – are caught in a web of confusion, like the audience. How will this effect the director, Lacey (John Harrison), fellow actors Barney (Bernard McKenna), Rita (Debra Gordon) and Nicky (SFX wizard Tom Savini in one of his early acting roles)? The big question, however, appears to be how far would/should/could one go to make a film?

Though I’m certain they were just trying to keep current, it’s interesting to me how many then-current cultural signifiers they use throughout the film, such as someone playing the electronic game Simon, or all the drug references (e.g., lines of coke and Maryjane). Then there’s the clothing, such as the common place jeans-and-tees (with images like The Rocky Horror Picture Show logo from 1977). There are other small touchstones, similar to a take-off of the Bill Saluga classic, “You doesn’thave to call me Johnson” bit.  There are more references in here than in a Family Guy episode. Heck, there’s even a bit of a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Susan Chapek
Speaking of the “looks of then,” it’s amazing how the look and pacing of the film is like porn films of the period. Yeah, there’s a couple of (female) nudie scenes, such as the then-obligatory and totally unnecessary-to-the-story shower scene that opens up the pic, but nothing that would really qualify as even softcore. And yet, the feel of the film, the pacing, acting and ambiance screams late ‘70s adult cinema.

That being said, much of the cast and crew are part of the Pittsburgh area film group, which included George A. Romero (RIP). Many of the cast and crew were in front or behind (or both) the camera on numerous Romero releases. In fact, one of the lead actors, Pilato, would play a pivotal role (and have an iconic scene) in Day of the Dead (1985).

Filmed in a pre-MTV period, by the standards of even a couple of years later, the camera is quite static, with long shots and dialogue that keeps the story at a steady pace, as we get to know, although not necessarily like (which is the point), most of the main characters. The camera pretty much sits there, or just lazily cuts from character to character.

Debra Gordon (Bernard McKenna in mirror)
Along with the languid pace until the last 15 minutes, even though there are some decent moments of tension throughout, the film bleeds out rather than spurts. I wish the story was a bit clearer as it was happening, but even with all the character build-up, there isn’t much to connect to with hardly anyone. This is not helped by the very grainy visuals (shot in 16mm) and spotty sound, but I’m glad to have had a chance to see this almost-lost piece of cinema history from a very specific period of time.

The first extra is the 59-minutes documentary After Effects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking (2005; Red Shirt Pictures), directed by Michael Felsher, in which Felsher interviews the cast and crew 27 years later in Los Angeles. The arc is how the director and his team first got into making indie films (then called guerilla filmmaking) including and documentaries and commercials, and grew into raising the funds and gathering all the threads with enough cojones to make Effects. Also featured and interviewed is the late, great Romero (d. 2017). There are also some cleaned-up clips both visually and audibly from the film that I wish had been the whole film proper. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of watching this long featurette because I thought I was going to be bored by it for the hour, but it’s actually quite well done and kept my interest throughout. There is an additional After Effects full-length commentary with the director. Much of the talking is about the distribution deal that squashed the original film, and how it eventually came out. It’s also the link between Effects and After Effects. Not overly exciting stuff, honestly, but somewhat interesting in its historical perspective. To be truthful, I made it through about the first 20 minutes.

Next up are two rare shorts. The first is the 12-minute Ubu (1973), an experimental picture directed by John Harrison, who plays the director in Effects. He actually has a few really nice credits under his belt, including the 2000 mini-series version of Dune. Here, we meet the titular Ubu, who is the tyrant of a Dark Ages version of Poland (or, as the marionette narrator states, “that is to say, nowhere”). It’s definitely a piece for its time, in a period of paranoia about the Nixon Administration. This is followed by Dusty Nelson’s 15-minute Beastie. Chris (Paula Swart) is hitchhiking and gets picked up by George (Steve Pearson). They instantly start a relationship, and we follow it until… well, I’ll not give it away. It’s also a story of its generation, which seems to be just-post-hippie.

Last up is the 2005 full-length commentary with Nelson, Harrison and Pasquale Buba, who all make up the production company, Bududa Inc. It’s a quite decent combination of technical matters, anecdotes and intentions. They work really well together, and it shows in the way they respectfully let each other finish their own bits, such as positing what the film is actually about: “…What’s real and what’s not, and if you don’t know the difference, does it matter?” Even though it’s hard to tell who is telling what story, it really isn’t important because it’s the content of the tale that matters. It was interesting throughout.

In some ways Effects reminds me of Maniac (also 1980, and name checked in one form or another in the documentary sides, which is not surprising considering Savini also worked on that one), which also had an appearance and – err – effects by Savini. I would recommend any fan of the VHS or Pittsburgh film school to see Effects, because it is an important piece of work, even with its occasional wonkiness.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: The Faith Community

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

The Faith Community
Directed by Faith R. Johnson     
Vicious Apple Productions
88 minutes, 2017
While I’m generally over the whole found footage genre, every once in a while someone uses it effectively, though that’s rare and far between. Guess which side of the coin this one turns up on, thank Jeebus?
Jeffrey Brabant, Janessa Floyd
On the car ride over to Camp Nazareth, we meet a trio of college students. The leader of this particular group is Hannah (Janessa Floyd), who is president of the school’s Christian club. Although opinionated, rather than making her self-righteously obnoxious like, say, Tracy Flick in Election (1999) or obnoxiously overbearing like, well, most of the present US government, she actually seems like a nice person… But not to the level that I’d necessarily want to hang out with her, or agree with her much. This alone tells you that something here is going to be different.
Her two companions are Andrew (Aidan Hart) and Colin (Jeffrey Brabant). The former is obviously interested in experimenting with religion, though not as obsessed as a believer, and the latter seems to be along for the ride; he’s profane and less Biblically knowledgeable than his companions. These two guys do most of the filming.
The point of the road trip is to hook up with a religious community that Hannah found online for a Bible study weekend retreat, but once they get there, duh, it’s a not exactly what they expect. The sheer “rustic-ness” (i.e., camping) of the group is only the beginning.
Jeremy Harris
The leader of this smallish and cultish clan is a 30-year-old man (Jeremy Harris) who calls himself “The Messenger.” As for Harris, despite this being his only listed IMDB credit, gives a chilling performance with a mix of confidence, child-like exuberance, devotion, and… seemingly just a touch of madness.
Do I really need to say that things gets progressively stranger as time goes on, so I don’t need to say “spoiler alert”? If I’ve ruined anything for you in this paragraph, you need to see more fictional films about religious cults. Y’knowhadimsayin’?
Even though this release has some of the things I truly dislike the most about found footage, including running, pointing at the ground, pointing at the sky, and characters talking while the camera is pointed elsewhere, all things considered it’s possibly one of the better ones I’ve seen in a while that I can think of, at least since The Changing of Ben Moore (2015).
In fact, much of the film has a kind of fuzzy look that is often washed out in sunlight, almost like it was filmed through some kind of gauze. This gives it a kind of VHS feel, though I’m not sure that was intended. The poster of the film gives some idea of what I’m trying to explain.
Aiden Hart
There is nothing supernatural in the film, no great goat-headed demon rising out of the ground to rip souls and bodies to shreds, but that’s part of what makes the story so potent and chilling, in that we are dealing with mere humans with expectations of God and the Devil. What I mean by that is, well, I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Oh, Lord, protect me from your believers.” I think that is a bit too broad and inaccurate. A more suiting message that would be applicable here (and life) is, “Oh, Lord, protect me from your interpreters.” I only needs to watch modern televangelists to get what I mean (i.e., “My God can beat up your God, even if it’s the same God”).
The screenplay and story by director Faith (yeah, I snorted back a bit of a laugh at that piece of irony) Johnson and Robert Trezza is pretty interesting, but it is the acting by the troupe that really brings this to life. I wonder how much of this is written dialog and what percentage is ad-libbed, because there are some long stretched of talking very fast. I am assuming a bit of both, but it’s blended really well. Most off-the-cuff conversations tend to be clumsy, but here it stays where it should, with the storyline.
Most found footage is a lot of cockiness followed by the comeuppance of running around screaming, and while there is a bit of that here, too, the strength of the cast makes it work rather than be an annoyance. The proof is in the long shots of conversations or rantings that hit all the marks, and keep the viewer interested.
I also liked how there were a few set pieces of Colin and Andrew interviewing some of the cult members in extended Q&As or monologs that were as spooky as an action piece, such as with The Messenger, or Michael (Oliver Palmer). But what I also found impressive is that for most of the cast this is, if not their first credit, then one of few, including the director.
Nicely done is that sometimes the camera would be focusing on someone talking as something is happening in the background, and you’re aware that the person shooting it is just as aware as you are. It’s like, “Wait, am I seeing that right?”
Sure, it’s shot amateurishly (on purpose is my guess) with a single camera and no musical soundtrack, but for once it’s more honest that way. I still have an issue with how a camera can keep running for so long without being recharged, as there is obviously no electricity going on at cultville, but in this rare case I’m willing to forgive it for the sake of a rare, decent found footager.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!

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

Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill! (aka Halloween Hell House)
Directed and edited by Jared Cohn
Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2017

To be honest with all  y’alls, this review is going to be a bit schizophrenic, or at least seeing both sides of the coin, as it were. Take it as you wish, just know it is honest.

 The obligatory story prologue takes place on a Pakistan battlefield in which some US soldiers come under direct attack by the bad guys, including one who has great indignities done to his body and mind.

From there we are taken to a more present Halloween where all-girl “punk” band Kill, Pussy, Kill are playing a show at a club and are preparing to take a van to play their biggest one yet at a festival. Their cliché and bright colored costumes remind me more of the Josie and the Pussycats film with more skin and tighter tops than, say, anything Riot Grrrl. With internal stress brewing within the group and the male manager (white dreads? really? why not a man-bun?) who is trying to keep them all together, they end up in a situation that is thematically more reminiscent of the Saw franchise, Cube (1997), or In the House of Flies (2012).

They are under the control of some guy doing a Jigsaw in another room, playing “games” with the group white sitting in front of video monitors, where they have to make life and death choices or suffer harsh consequences, such as being sprayed with an acidic liquid (don’t worry, I won’t give too much away).

Sometimes it feels like the women aren’t characters, but rather they are just there for the body count. There is very little we know about them, or even learn to care about. This is a flaw of many of these types of films. In the three previously similar storylines I mentioned above, they all gave us people rather than characters who the viewer may not even know what they are named.

When the architect of the whole experiment explains why he’s conducting it, one of the Pussy members says it best for me: “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” The Saw series was essentially a morality tale about our culture (or at least they started that way), but this one lacks that, though it seems to try to give the “don’t waste your life” message while wasting lives: when I was in elementary school, we had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the weekly assembly. If we stumbled with it or seemed unenthusiastic, the Assistant Principal would get angry and scream at us from the stage, “There are boys dying overseas for you, so you better say it again with meaning!” That’s a similarly nonsensical comment as to why these women are put through these rigors.

Among other things, part of the problem to me is that some of it is not very well researched. For example, at some point the nerve gas sarin is used, as we see it fill a room. Even the most basic of research will show that it is odorless and colorless (it’s a florescent hue here). Also, after being sprayed, the effected in this basement torture chamber live, even though the smallest amounts of the gas are extremely toxic (thank you, Wikipedia).

The voice of the villain, who is swathed in bandages, is Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. This is a similar theme to In the House of Flies, where the bad guy is voiced by Henry Rollins of Black Flag (etc.). At least Henry’s is instantly recognizable. Mustaine? Not so much (at least not to me).

Now, before y’all get on my case about the negativity, I do want to say that a bit after the halfway mark, when “new players join the game” (as the swathed one posits), the film starts to get better. However, I find it interesting that the strongest character is a man, as one is also the weakest (his companion). The women vary in strength but tend to get a bit screechy, rather than steely.

Richard Grieco
Part of what improves the story is beyond the basement. We learn that Mr. Bandageface is not alone in this escapade, but has an equally insane nephew, spouse, and possibly…a child? Anyway, the wife is played with extreme gusto by Kelly Erin Decker, who I think makes her scenes standouts. She’s hysterical in a killer statuesque, cute and nerdy-looking way; I want to see a film of just her character. Richard Grieco (who is also a producer) shows some aplomb as the drawling garage owner that brings the group into the situation in the first place. I’m not totally sure, but they seem like the family out of House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), more than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

The basement setting is an old one, again reminiscent of Saw, which seems to be the go-to theme, as the victims go from room to room, with commands that are disastrous to others, and even to the psyche of those who continue on.

There is a smear of gratuitous nudity (not a complaint), but what stands out even more is the gore. It looks flippin’ great. Ron Karkoska does a bang-up job on the makeup effects, all of it practical as far as I could tell. There’s lots of it, as well, so that was quite satisfying.

Also a stand-out is the acting by the whole cast. Although Decker won my heart in her naturalness, that does not take away from any of the cast. No wooden line readings, just full gusto. The big cameo, though, is held by Oscar winner Margaret O’Brien (that young girl who sat by Judy Garland as she sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944), who appears as a drug-induced hallucination. Nice touch having her as an evil grandma!

As for the extras, well, there is a ton, many of them different variations of a “Making Of.” To start, there’s “Basement of Blood” (4:51), “Behind the Scenes” (8:27) that is called “Plot Description” on the menu, and a “Video Diary” (10:03) which focuses on Richard Grieco, how the Kill Pussy Kill band originated, and the final day of shooting (the prologue). A cool featurette is a mock “ZH1 Beyond the Music” (7:32) documentary about the band after the whole situation (with one of the Pussy’s putting on an out-of-context British accent) that is about twice as long as it needs to be. There’s also a nice focus on “Jared Cohn: Director of Horror and Action (6:24)”. In addition are two music videos, one by Jyrk!: “Last Halloween” (4:03) in which the singer seems to be channeling the emo version of Dave Vanian, and Kill Pussy Kill’s “Superstar” (3:22). Last up is a Slideshow (2:10) and the film’s trailer (1:41).

This is conjecture on my part, but I am surmising that the problem is that the director, Jared Cohn, is possibly a bit too prolific? I kinda wish he would focus more on the project on hand and not worry so much about everything else. If he did even two or three films a year instead of five or six, the quality control may be a bit more followed through. I truly respect his work ethic, and some of his films, but I do wish he would slow that mustang down, Sally. I mean that as a positive statement, because his films look good (Director of Photography Pascal Combes-Knoke deserves a huge nod for that, too), from lighting and editing, but it’s the story quality that feels rushed.

I like the hats off to Russ Meyer in this film’s title, but I also appreciate the original name which is often referred to in the extras, Halloween Hell House. But fear not, it can still be used, as they have set it up so it can be a franchise if it catches on. And honestly, compared to what’s out there these days, it could and possibly should. But please, one film at a time! Who loves ya, baby?!