Thursday, June 20, 2019

Review: ZOO

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Directed by Antonio Tublin
The Orchard / PingPong Film / Logical Pictures
95 minutes, 2019

Paul Simon once famously sang, “Love emerges and it disappears / I do it for your love.” That’s a tidbit to hold onto in this zombie apocalypse dramady taking place in London, though it’s origination is from Scandinavia (Demark and Sweden), though filmed in English.

Well, zombie is debatable. As with 28 Days Later… (2002), the world is infected with a virus which turns people into wild flesh eaters (“fast zombies”), but the debate can be later discussed on whether these are technical zombies because we’re not really sure if they are still alive. I’m not gonna touch that question or discussion at this time.

We are introduced to very attractive couple John (Ed Speleers, best known for Eragon in 2006 and “Downtown Abby”) and Karen (Zoë Tapper, who has appeared in several British programs such as “Mr. Selfridge” and “Demons,” where she played Mina Harker).

When the infection shebang hits the fan, they are in a strained relationship due to not being able to reproduce their beauty to children (my snide take on it, not the films), so they are stuck in their high-rise apartment waiting for rescue while the world explodes around them. They hunker down with food they’ve stolen from other apartments, and apparently a vast amount of wine and various hard drugs.

These tight quarters, of course, force them to refocus their relationship and rebuild their bodies to fight whatever may come through the door, and relearn about each other. The dialogue is witty and there is a strong, dark sense of humor about it all.

But while the world turns dark, strangeness also is rising in John and Karen’s haven during the second act a third of the way into the film when a couple from the building that they don’t know (but whose apartment they pillaged) show up at their door asking for help. Reluctantly, they let that other variance of evil in, in the form of Emily (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and Leo (Jan Bijovet). This second couple see what our heroes have, and plan to do whatever it takes to make it their own, in their version of murder and pillage…but who’s the stronger and willing to risk the most?

But this is only one set piece that includes roving gangs, intimate dialogue, and yes, those pesky zombies that are only present in the storyline on occasion, though they are the spine to the entire story.

This is not 28 Days Later…, which is wide roving through London. This is more personal and claustrophobic as nearly all scenes are shot in their apartment, and as other characters may come and go, John and Karen and their travails and swirling relationship are the focus of the story.

There is definitely some violence and blood, but no more than you would see in a gritty crime drama, but because its so sparse, it also makes it even more effective in a little-is-more way. Sometimes the violence comes as absolutely shocking, other times you’re cheering it on, as this couple delve ever further into a symbiotic unit that focuses on what must be done, while the mayhem also robs them of their social humanity piece by piece.

That’s what makes this a smart film, in that the presence of zombies are always felt, but rarely seen, and the story focuses on the cultural breakdown while waiting for that rescue. Survival is a strong master, and one does what one must; it’s the human imperative. And yet through it all there’s the intimacy and tenderness.

The one thing that drove me crazy about the story, though? And Jeez, I know just how petty it is, is as follows: our intrepid couple in the high rise are stuck there for a long yet undefined time, and yet the electricity never goes out. In a real crisis where society has completely broken down? I’d give it a couple of days, max, even with the generators and batteries.

Well, despite that last paragraph rant, this is a strong film that wisely refuses to take any one direction of thriller or romance, but manages to have extended periods of both, and they make it work. Of course, the quality of the actors and a strong direction by Tublin also help.

If you want a bloodfest, this is not the zombie film you are looking for; if you want a deeper story with some human emotion, well, it’s worth checking out.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Review: Haunting Inside

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Haunting Inside
Directed by Henrique Couto
New Dynamic Pictures
78 minutes, 2019

The indie filming scene around Dayton, Ohio, is not to be ignored. There is a core of directors and actors that overlap into a powerful and quite interesting clique of artists, such as Henrique Couto and Erin R. Ryan, among others.

For this release, director Couto has assembled some of his regulars and also new talent to release a demonic tale involving a Ouija board and the requisite evil spirits.

Joni Durian
The center of the film is troubled Sylvia (lovely Joni Durian), who has several mental ailing, such as ADHD, agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house), OCD and seems to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Durian does a strong job playing a wide range of emotions right from the first scene, which is off-putting until the viewer realizes pretty quickly that she’s not just quirky, but rather disturbed.

Her guardianship is in the hands of her brother Sammy (Couto’s go-to actor John Hambrick), who obviously cares for her, but is on the brink. He buys board games that she likes to play solo and watches whatever Sylvia wants to see on television (but no indication of a computer or cell phone for her). He also does his best to stop her from self-destructive behavior and tries to help her focus on a task. He’s getting to the point of burning out and drinking too much. Sammy’s girlfriend is Rebecca (Ryan), who often comes to visit and is a seemingly calming influence and supportive of Sammy’s taking care of Sylvia.

Among the stack of games Sammy misguidedly brings home from a comic store, of course, is said Ouija board. If there’s a Ouija and it’s on-screen, you know trouble and malevolent forces are not far behind; especially when the dissonant note music starts on the soundtrack when the board is introduced. Just so you know, I am not giving anything away here, this is the basic set-up to the action in the first few minutes of the film.

John Hambrick
Sylvia is obsessed with two things: games of any sort and a desire to make friends (she feels like those she watches on television are “friends” in the same way we believe that people we don’t really know or have met on social media are “friends”). And it is these two things that Sylvia’s trio of spirits of the Ouija board manipulate for their own purposes.

The title of the film is a bit of a double entendre because Sylvia is house bound by her OCD fears of going outside since her parents died, and the much-desired friends/spirits are also within the domicile. The second meaning for quite a while is that the trio may actually be inside her mind as well. For example, the board’s planchette moves in extremely fast circles, but she is still able to “read” it (without the audience having to watch everything tediously spelled out). This is a nice touch that enhances the complexity of the story, and of Sylvia’s mind; she’s not stupid, just troubled with mental illness.

It’s understandable that Sylvia is attracted to these spirits: they appear caring, tell her truthful dark secrets about others in a blunt manner, and keep reminding her that they are all in the middle of playing “a game.” The purpose of said game is the question the audience will be asking, though it comes across as obvious very soon (hey, it’s a relatively short – but perfect length – film).

Couto seems to do well avoiding clichés, but he does have his tropes. As in many of his films, one of the main characters is a struggling writer. Perhaps this is Couto’s own real-life haunting inside (note that this film was written by Dan Wilder, but certainly Couto had some influences on the story).

Dorian’s acting style can be quite jarring here, as she shows the audience Sylvia’s brain trying to process the information of what is happening around her. It took a couple of minutes to get into the vibe of it until her situation is understood, so it works well. Her moments of lucidity under the guidance of the spirits becomes the oddity, which works really well. Most of the rest of the cast is pretty good in their performancesf; the spirits can be a bit over the top in the acting department here and there, but in the long run it all works together.

Erin R. Ryan
These spirits, wisely, are very different from not only the principal characters, but among themselves. Also, they are different from most other demons (I’m assuming) you would expect from this sub-genre. They are a little girl obviously played by an adult (Alia Gabrielle Eckhardt), a wise-acre wiseguy gambler in a sharp suit who also helps Sylvia with recipes in the kitchen (Joe Kidd), and a punk rocker who wears her hair in a distracting Misfits’ front rattail style (Rachael Redolfi). As I said, Couto does not usually dwell in the house of cliché.

While most of the cast is attractive, there is no nudity or sex, a low body count per se, and little bloody visceral material, but the story easily holds the attention of the viewer anyway as this really is character based more than SFX. That being said, there are some beautifully shot sequences that are effectively unnerving, such as Sammy’s recurring dreams about Sylvia’s future.

If you’re looking for knives and gore, there are other Couto films to check out, such as Babysitter Massacre (2013), but this is, as I said, story- and character-based, and I say it’s all the better for it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Documentary Review: Terror in the Skies

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Terror in the Skies
Directed by Seth Breedlove
Small Town Monsters
68 minutes, 2019

Folklore horror is a hidden gem that doesn’t get talked about much. Well, apart from the granddaddies of them all, the bigfoot/yeti and the Loch Ness monster. But nearly every corner of the world has their own equivalent mystical creature. For example there is the Jersey Devil, or the Mothman, or even the Gitaskog. Many of these tales arise from the oral cultures of the Indigenous people of the area, but there are many that rarely make it to the mainstream.

One of the things that makes this film different is that director Seth Breedlove has gone beyond the genre into the documentary realm, making it real. This is not a mocumentary like the extremely overrated The Blair Witch Project, but he takes a serious probe into the story we are to be presented.

For this case, we are looking at the giant birds of Illinois. Not birdmen, but birds proper, although to be fair, there is a correlation explained here with the West Virginia Mothman. But the focus here to start is Alton, Illinois, along the mighty Mississippi. The local natives (pre-settlers) called it the Paisa Bird, the stories of which were passed down to the French explorers of the area in the 17 Century.

We’re not talking about just big birds (and not the ones who live on a PBS street), but humungous ones that are described as the size of a Piper Cub airplane, and eats livestock and – you guessed it – human piggies, especially piglets (i.e., kids).

The film begins with a history of these sightings dating back to colonial times by bringing out a slew of experts in the field, including a world renowned crypto-zoologist (not my term). They tell of the eyewitnesses from long ago, where it’s necessary to have a secondhand experience because, well, we’re talking a span of hundreds of years. That being said, most of the sightings in the early part of the film are from the 1940s through the 1970s.

What is my opinion about all these gigantic birds? Y’know, I think it’s possible, though it seems strange that no one has ever captured one, and the tales of people shooting them posit that they burned the bodies because they were scared. I’m on the fence at the 40-minute mark because I do think it’s possible for there to be big birds. Ten to twenty-foot wingspans? Well, that’s easy to mistake. Most descriptions seem to be like condors, which can be believable. And that they come and go, well, there is migration and even small birds can fly thousands of miles away (though I’m still not sure about coconut laden sparrows who are African or European). Perhaps they end up in South America for stretches of time (lots of condors down there). Hell, big pelicans keep migrating up to Saskatoon from Mexico every summer, so I can see the possibility of it all. To sum it up at this point, I’m firmly perched on the fence.

At the 40-minute mark, the film takes a strange turn and for me kind of puts pressure on the vibe when the possibility of these Thunderbirds (as Native Americans call them) are of a mystical nature is introduced. From nature to paranormal, essentially. Suddenly there’s the question of whether they are supernatural harbingers of doom, or multi-dimensional beings. Oh, please.

As the tale moves north to the Chicago area, suddenly we’re introduced to the “Chicago Mothman,” a more human, bat-like creature, reminiscent of the film Mimic (1997). Wisely, the director chooses to be a bit skeptical at this point, mentioning the fact that there are 71 sightings in a city of millions, and not to mention the number of CCTV cameras around. But it is here that we get to start hearing directly from the “witnesses,” though there is still commentary by the experts; that being said, I found the addition of the belief in the paranormal aspect gave loose on their credibility a bit.

Despite my skepticism, which is not to be read as criticism, this is quite a well-put together film, that is the right length for its topic, rather than being longwinded like this sentence. Along with live footage and quite a bit of from-the-sky drone shots (and rightfully so considering the topic), there is also some decently done animation (nothing too elaborate) to demonstrate the eyewitness reports, or what the creature(s) looks like from description to description.

This documentary was actually quite fun, presenting one of the first crypto-zoological animals that I believe could be possible (at least in the first 40 minutes), and kept my interest throughout its hour length.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Review: Near Extinction: Shangri-La

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

Near Extinction: Shangri-La (aka Shangri-La: Near Extinction)
Directed by Nick Wauters
Incompass Media / Man on the Moon Productions /
Pizza Box Entertainment / MVD Entertainment
95 minutes, 2018

Sometimes you just want a film with lots of cheese, and arguably the best genre for that is sci-fi. I mean, look at the original “Battlestar Gallactica” (both 1978 film and series), “Space 1999” or even the original “Star Trek” for that matter (those sets, Oy!). If that’s what you’re in the mood for, well, there is this release.

This plays out almost like a television show (from the creator of the NBC sci-fi series “The Event”) in that it obviously wants to be a franchise in that it has a similar feel to recent films like The Maze Runner saga.

Eric Szmanda
The way this film does that is by packing as many storylines as they can that overlap, to hopefully keep the interest and make it more complex, i.e. suitable for additial viewing, especially when one needs to catch up with the next episode… I mean release. The original Star Wars trilogy was great at doing that.

Speaking of plots, the first of the three storylines here is introduced with title cards to give us some idea of what is going on, without giving too much detail, but heck, we know we’ll figure it out by the end; it’s not James Joyce, after all. Apparently, some multi-national scientists had created a sentient creature called Konglings that soon mass produced (“Nature will find a way,” you can almost hear Jeff Goldblum say). To kill them off, the global governments created a world-wide Ice Age to kill them off, also knocking off most of the denizens of everywhere. In other words, the cure was as bad (worse?) than the disease.

Patrick Batiste
Much like in Creepozoids (1987), among others, a small group makes its way through a mostly-dead post-apocalyptic world – in this case of snow – as they are hunted down by something called “the green eyes” (yes, you will know by the end of the film). There are two leaders of the group, and you can tell because you hear their internal monologs (sounding like Kirk doing the log). The first, and star of the film, is Vargas (Eric Szmanda, most commonly known for his role as investigator Greg on the original “CSI”). The group of five or six travel the globe in search of a safe haven called, yep, Shangri-La, while going to lab facilities that may bring to mind the Umbrella Corporation (with some puppet-like creatures here and there as well). This is the main storyline.

Another is the origin story of the Konglings, which is interwoven, as the scientists create said creature a la films like the superior Species (1995; which has its own “CSI” connection) and the inferior Splice (2009). Unlike those two films which rely on the start-up, here it is secondary to what is happening in the segment above.

The third – and more ridiculous of the three – is the bizarre-Jedi militant cult of which one of our crew, Kalo (Patrick Batiste) is an ex-member. They have a weird, thick strand of hair glued to their foreheads, wear red robes and hoods that are straight out of any Satanic film, and of course make human sacrifices. One more enemy for our crew to fight against.

Sara Malakul Lane
Considering how much of this is played against a green screen, the look is pretty good considering the overall budget of the project. It is definitely ambitious, which works both for and against the project. For the good, there is obviously more that CGI can do on a low budget than the practical SFX of a mega-buck summer release. On the other hand, it takes a certain talent to be able to act against a green screen where you have to “imagine” the action, and while some are up for it, others – err – lack the ability.

While some of the creatures (such as the bat-like ceiling dwellers) look really bad, most of the beasties look great, especially the Konglings. What is also a nice touch is that you never really know who are the good guys and who are the bad, and it is well played as such right to the end – and even then, there are some good conversations that can follow.

The more subtle crux of the story is that the multi-national corporations and the governments are deeply co-joined at the hip, and it’s quite clear here that it’s the former that are running the latter. Sound familiar? Wisely, director Wauters also uses a multi-national cast with a strong Asian influence, such as Pamela Chau and Thai actress Sara Malakul Lane (who plays two roles!). This was a strong choice and an accurate note considering the origin story.

The only real extras with this DVD are the trailer and a quite good 17-minute “Making Of” featurette that’s worth watching after finishing the film.

While I stand by my judgment of this being cheese, please note that it actually took me by surprise that I enjoyed it as much as I did, all clichés considered. As far as the name change for the release goes, well, I actually like the new one better, but I think it’s going to be confusing for the franchise, if there is one.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Two Reviews: Unexplained Explained; Haunted Changi

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2011
Images from the Internet

The reason for these two films to be reviewed in this blog together is that they both purport to be about the making of a documentary regarding ghosts.

Unexplained Explained: Ghostly Paranormal Actvity
Directed by Nick Padley and Nigel Albermaniche
World Wide Multi Media
75 minutes, 2011

Presented as a British television shot-on-video documentary, producer Paul Wookey of the Brit program[me] Quizworld, teems up with professional psychic Diane Howe, who has appeared on some shows like Psychic Interactive. She’s there as the ghost “attractor,” as you will, like the main characters from Medium or Ghost Whisperer.

They set off into the bucolic U.K. countryside to the town of Pendle, in Yorkshire Dales. There they reach their destination, an old pub called The Anchor, which is supposedly haunted by multiple spirits.

I’m not sure if the owners of the pub are looking to this as a serious documentary about the spirit world or as a chance to get some free publicity (or both), but they appear to be in earnest as the camera follows everyone as they walk through the darker places in the joint, such as a cellar that’s partially filled with water, or another room filled with tipped-over casks of booze (that seem to be quite old). “Oh, I have an odd feeling about this room!” someone says once in a while. As with most psychic readings, which drives me crazy (this includes you, Sylvia Brown – who is not on this DVD), there is no way to prove what they are saying, and no indication of research to verify. When she (or any psychic) describes a spirit, it could be an albino dwarf with three heads, but there is no way to substantiate it. I’m not saying people do not have the gift, but I’d like to see some confirmation before I go “wow! S/he nailed it!”

A centerpiece of the DVD is a sort of Ouija board set-up with a group sitting around an upside down glass which they all touch with a finger, and the glass goes round and round and round. I’d have been more impressed if the glass shattered (but not to the point where anyone is hurt, of course) or moved on its own, rather than just when touched. Too easily faked.

Usually, by this time I’d be getting the willies (yes, I have a touch of phasmaaphobia in real life, since I have had at least one pretty-sure experience), but not even a hair on the scruff of me neck raised. The pace is glacial, and the events are minimal. The camera is always in tight so you can’t see much of the surroundings, which also raises suspicions to me of being contrived through ocular claustrophobia, but that doesn’t ring true either.

Truthfully, part of the issue for me is everyone has somewhat thick accents (especially Howe, who mumbles often), and there is a throbbing dissonant musical tone that is played over the readings, making it even harder to understand what Howe is saying about whatever it is she is “reading” of the psychic world. A choice of turning on captions would have been a nice addition.

The revelations about one or more of the spirits during the séance is creepy to say the least, and at the end of the program, there are written updates title cards that don’t really say anything substantial (asking around if someone knows something about the events that allegedly happened between a 50 year period over a hundred years before; good luck with that). One of the cards even goes to state, “Opinions are divided regarding the plausibility of their findings.” Well, if even the show can’t stand by their own work, why should the viewer?

Usually, I like stuff like this, but this particular exercise left me kinda cold, and not the fun, unexplained-icy-spot-in-the-corner kind. Lastly, note that this is a DVR, with no extras whatsoever. In all, I found it a bit disappointing. The DVD box images are scarier than this film, quite honestly.

Haunted Changi
Directed by Tony Kern
Mythopolis Pictures / Seminal Films
81 minutes, 2010
The premise of this film is clearly stated on the box: In January 2010, a group of filmmakers began exploring old Changi Hospital in Singapore…with terrifying and tragic results. The film contains the crew’s original footage.

Apparently, The Blair Witch Project did more than scare most people, it created a whole new industry of the “found footage” films industry, spurring the likes of Cloverfield and [Rec] (though, to be fair, this style did exist before, with films like the classic 1980 Cannibal Holocaust).

So, supposedly, This group of four (well, actually five, but one of the women is not listed in any credits) decides to go check out Old Changi (pronounced Chang-ee) Hospital, a real place that is now abandoned and graffiti-riddled, but after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, was locally known as a location for numerous Japanese beheadings (hence the DVD cover image) of prisoners and intellectuals that was said to be in the five figures. This led OCH being rumored to be highly haunted.

We watch as they prepare to set out to the hospital on an official permission of two days (one daylight, one evening), though they apparently are there more often than that. We watch early on as they prepare the credits to their “film,” which sets up the expository story about the Japanese invasion at the beginning of Dubya-Dubya Deuce, using film footage from an early U.S. television documentary. We also see what is probably real person-on-the-street footage of people discussing their own opinions and experiences dealing with hauntings at Old Changi. Nice mix-up of real and…maybe…

The film is obviously shot in Singapore, but is mostly in English, with some occasional Chinese thrown in; however, thanks to the heavy accents and colloquialisms, as you can hear in the trailer below, I found it easier with the captions turned on.

I will admit that this is one creepy film for the most part. I kept expecting, as one might, that at any second something was going to jump out into the camera range, like those ferstunkiner videos that get RE’d and FWD’d around on emails where they show some peaceful, idyllic scene, and at the end, something jumps out and screams (gets me every time, dammit!). But, of course, the real joy is of anticipation, much like never actually seeing the Blair Witch. There is an occasional glimpse of something that if you turn away for a second you can miss. I know I slo-mo’d the rewind more than once to make sure I saw that I thought I saw. That’s a good sign.

Yeah, as you’re walking along the real hallways of OCH seeing only what the camera is seeing in “real time” (and the occasional look back in an editing bay), this film is very effective in the creepy mode. I know I was squirming more than once thinking, “Okay, when are they gonna go boo?!?!” The last two-thirds are especially creepy in that way, though a run through the sub-basement corridors of the hospital in the dark toward the end was claustrophobic at best, expectant at its worst (meaning most scary). Yes, there are a couple of really good shocks and a creepy playback that are especially effective. The viewer definitely wants to be paying attention, despite the use of more anticipation than actual scare. Plus, the use of night-vision green is very effectively used here.

Amusingly, on the IMDB, there are two versions listed of the same film, the first as a fiction, and the second as a documentary with the names of the cast changed ever-so-slightly from their real ones to their characters..

As I said above, there are five people who are the focus of the film, though one woman is not mentioned in either listing. Curious. Perhaps she’s the real ghost? Anyway, the film is listed on one as being directed by Andrew Lau (played by Andrew Lua; see how that works?). He’s the hardest to understand among the filmmakers, and has the most dialog. Go figure. The sound guy is Farid Azlam (Faridino Assalam), who is seen more in the first half. The photographer is Audi Khalis (Audi Khalid), and the producer (and most convincing actor) is Sheena Chung (Sheena Chan). It feels like much of the dialog is spontaneous which either means it’s better acted than I realize, or they are good at improv.

There are a couple of tweaking points that make me ponder… First and foremost, although they don’t show much of the supernatural world, it still felt like a bit much. I won’t go into detail and ruin it, but note that this question may be a spoiler, so skip ahead: why is one of the ghosts a Japanese soldier. I thought the whole point was that the Japanese killed locals, Chinese, and British (who were defending the island), so shouldn’t the ghosts be primarily them?

There are some inspired extras here. First, there is the full 20 minute or so documentary about the fall of Singapore from which the clips at the beginning of the film are taken. There is also a BlogSpot page for the “crew” which is hard to read (it’s also available on the film’s website), and three chapters of a book by one of the crew (not well written).

Anyway, this is a pretty effective film and can get real creepy at times. Don’t watch it before bedtime.

These reviews were previously published HERE.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Review: Goldstone

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Writer, director, editor, director of photography, composer: Ivan Sen
Lightyear Entertainment / Screen Australia / Archlight Films / MVD Entertainment
110 minutes, 2016 / 2018

Goldstone (as opposed to Tombstone) is a small Australian town where three cultures meet: the indigenous population, the white settlers, and the Chinese workers. This trio is bound to cause not just sparks but raging fires. Of course, it’s up to the police to put out those fare-ups, or is it?

Although taking place in modern times, this cop drama that relies heavily on motifs from the original Walking Tall (1973), this is considered by most to be a Western, and I can certainly understand why, with the beautiful Australian Outback being the backdrop, but more on that later. In an off-beat way, one could also say it’s a buddy movie, with the typical trope of two people (coppers in this instance) who don’t like each other initially learn to trust and rely on each other, even if hesitantly.

Alex Russell and Aaron Pdersen
There are a lot of powerful Aussie actors who make their presence felt here (big country, but small film industry). The two leads are Goldstone Sherriff and lone law enforcer, Josh (Alex Russell) and aboriginal federal agent with a sad past and a problem with the bottle, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). character was resurrected from a 2016 film that was a hit in Australia, Mystery Road, and would reappear in the 2018 mini-series, also called “Mystery Road.”
This story relies a lot on corruption and questionable behavior on everyone’s part, even the police. But the main source of evil doing that needs to get eradicated is big business in the form of a gold extraction company that is bribing and killing to get land from the Aboriginal people of the area, and who delve their hand in human trafficking for the workers in the desolate areas.

Jacki Weaver and David Whenham
Running the whole evil gold company is Johnny (David Whenham, who played Faramir in The Lord of the Rings films), and his accomplice and lover, Maureen, who is the Mayor (Jacki Weaver, of Bird Box and Silver Lining Playbook fame). Their malevolence is felt before it’s identified to the viewer. In an extended cameo-yet-pivotal role we meet elder Jimmy (David Gulpilili, of releases like Walkabout, Crocodile Dundee, and Rabbit Proof Fence). Bringing in the gravy further is a dispassionate madam, Ms. Lao (Pei-Pei Cheng, from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and the female lead and possible love interest, May (the highly attractive and tall Michelle Lim Davidson).
Needless to say, the acting level is superb, and I have no qualms with stating that. Sometimes the accents are a bit theek-ahhs-flyees, and a bit to grabble with, but it’s worth it, even on a subtle level; for example May’s mouth quivers when she speaks, but the Mayor’s teeth are fixed in a way like a shark ready to bite.

Michelle Lim Davidson
While this is a buddy movie offshoot, the police are among the weakest characters as far as flip-flopping morals (the “bad guys” are just flat-out evil with no other shades), and the trafficked women are often in peril (though lots of determination towards a goal all the way around), there actually is quite a gender balance as far as power goes, and that’s pretty refreshing.
There is a lot of action in the third act (i.e., the last 20 minutes or so), and I’m happy to say the ending does not follow a formulaic conclusion; the rest of the film is a very slow build-up to the final showdowns. For example, considering the buddy picture aspect, these guys are barely in the same scenes together other than the occasion, until they arm up to the nipples with ammo.

David Gulpilili
There are a lot of gems in this film, such as the photography and scenery. The desert looks beautiful rather than just burning sand and rock, and wherever it is that Jay and Jimmy canoe is just stunning. Plus there are a lot of great overhead shots I’m assuming done by a drone expert (consistent altitude with little movement, which was impressive). Although polar opposites, director Sen uses the desert as a character in a very similar fashion to Scorsese’s presentation of New York City in Taxi Driver: a forbidden wasteland that still manages to hold its beauty like a snake about to strike.
There are a few extras here which are worth noting, all of them coming in under two minutes and featuring interviews of the major cast and director, describing anecdotes/motivations of the characters. These are “Detective Jay Swan,” “Alex Russell as ‘Josh Waters’,” “Jacki Weaver as ‘The Mayor’,” “Ivan Sen, writer, Director, Editor, Composer, DOP,” “The Corruption of Goldstone,” and “The Indigenous People of Australia.” Thanks in part to their briefness, they were enjoyable and easy watches. There are also two trailers for this film and two for others.

This may have nuthin’ to do with nuthin, but there are a lot of characters with “J” names in this film, such as Johnny, Jimmy, Jay, and Josh.

Despite the slow buildup, I can certainly understand the attention this film has received, and it is well worth the watch if you like Westerns or gun-based crime dramas.



Saturday, May 25, 2019

Review: Purgatory Road

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Purgatory Road
Produced and directed by Mark Savage
Delirium / Purgo Road / Unearthed Films / MVD Visual
98 minutes, 2017 / 2019

Many a year ago, I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read, “Oh, Lord, protect me from your believers.” While this is true, I also believe a more accurate way to phrase it might be “Oh Lord, protect me from your interpreters.”

These days there are a lot of strange readings of the Bible’s contents, including an “every word is truth” fanatical faction: think Westboro. Well the main character of this tale makes them look like wusses when it comes to raining God’s punishment on mere mortals.

Gary Cairns
The main focus for this story is Father Vincent (Gary Cairns), who believes in the literal word and work of punishment as described in the Old Testament. Calling himself a Roman Catholic priest, in fact he has been defrocked by the Church for his fanatical beliefs, fostered by a tragic series of events from his youth, which is shown in the prologue.
In other words, Vinnie is a psychotic serial killer feeling justified in his ways, like Dexter, as he delivers what he believes to be God’s punishment on the wicked: salvation through death, via gun, knife, whatever. Helping him reluctantly on his path is his younger brother (“family sticks together”), Michael (Luke Albright). He is relentlessly picked on by Vincent as not being as supportive as he would like, even as he aids in chopping up the multitude of bodies.

The two travel around a region of Mississippi called Safehaven, in a beat up old camper, which has been turned into a traveling “confessional”; and if the Padre does not believe you are repentant, it becomes a bit of an abattoir. Of course, Vincent does not recognize his own foibles, including that of lust.

Trista Robinson
Meanwhile, a sweet and squeaky voiced young thang named Mary Francis (Trista Robinson) is on a murder streak as she is also a psychotic serial killer in her own right. She picks up on the brothers’ vibe and manages to widdle her way into their lives and livelihood by joining the band of blood. She has no hesitation in ending life. She and Vincent couldn’t be more similar, not counting the religious differences (i.e., Mary has no problem diving head first into her own lust). And you know at some point this trio is going to explode into violence among itself through viciousness and double dealings. In that way, it does not disappoint.

The moral compass of nearly all the characters is askew, as they make their way through the mire of sin, truth and forgiveness, and lack thereof. With wicked good lighting and angles, this is solidly atmospheric and full of gothic horrors that would make Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) want to order a mint julip.

There is no shying away from the violent nature of the characters, nor their actions. It’s no surprise that it is released by Unearthed, because there are severed body parts a plenty, but without the surgical precision of body torture. That being said, there are some both physical and emotionally squeamish moments throughout, all handled beautifully by the great Marcus Koch and Cat Bernier Sowell (more on them later). To put it in another way, the film is sheer brutality from beginning to end, but the story keeps up with it. Never having been a fan of violence for violence sake, I like the story to bring the intensity, rather than the other way around. This one has both feet on the ground in that way, and it never lets up.

Luke Albright and Gary Cairns
The extras start with a commentary by Mark Savage and screenwriter Tom Parnell. Not only do they discuss shot by shot, but also go beyond into motivation of characters (in case the viewers have any question), and how they came up with the ideas. They also talk about what it was like to physically shoot the film.
Next is a 16-minute featurette called “The Grisly Art of Marcus Koch and Cat Bernier Sowell” which is a series of stills as make-up and special effects are applied. Cool stuff. After that is the 29-minute “The Actors Speak.” Essentially it’s the main three leads individually talking about how they got involved with the film, how good the story is, what their personal lives were like at the time, and so forth. The three are then edited into a precise swirl of actors (Cairns, then Robinson, followed by Albright, then Cairns, etc.). It’s a bit long, but most of them talk at a deeper emotional level than these things tend to be, so it was pretty interesting.

In a talk with the co-writer, “Tom Parnell: Beyond the Day Job,” Tom discusses how he is a lawyer in real life, but has a passion for both writing screenplays and acting (he plays a cameo role as a Sherriff here). He brings up how he got into the arts, and what he wants to bring to it. Good stuff at 9 minutes. Shot at a festival, the 20-minute “Purgatory Road Q & A” with the director and Cairns, then joined by other cast and crew. As is common with these things, the sound quality is not that great and it keeps going in and out. Of course, as the final extra, there are four Unearthed trailers, including for this film.

This is a top notch film that is full of thrills and terror that is palpable by the characters. The acting is solid, as is the writing and cinematography. It’s a perfect storm in a positive direction.