Tuesday, December 25, 2012

DVD Review: Bloody Christmas

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

Bloody Christmas
Directed, produced and written by Michael Shershenovich                 
90 minutes, 2012    

Christmas horror is not a new genre. It arguably goes back to the kid-friendly likes of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966) or even possibly How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). However, it wasn’t until the 1970s and into slasher craze of the ‘80s that we started to see Tales from the Crypt (1972; the “All Though the House” segment), Black Christmas (1974), Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974), Christmas Evil (1980), To All a Good Night (1980), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), Santa Claws (1996), and yes, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). This is a new dip in the Christmas horror pool list, but does it get candy or coal in its dripping stocking?

The main theme of the film is the loss of Christmas spirit, and the result of it. A priest, Father Michael (Robert Youngren, who has played a lot of religious leaders in his career) laments that no one is coming to his church’s Christmas service, including his staff. Rich Tague (Steve Montague, who ironically has played Hitler more than once, including a film called Ultrachrist! [2003]), the film’s main focus, is a down-on-his-luck ex-action film actor who has just been fired as a store Santa (by a character played by the director), the check cashing place won’t touch his last payment, and he’s just received an eviction notice on his trailer for back rent. His anger and frustration slowly builds in him as we see flashes of his fantasies of killing those who offend him or his sensibilities.

Meanwhile, someone is killing people in the area of Binghamton, NY, including the son of Gaylen (Geretta Geretta, who looks a lot like Donna Summers; she was in the 1985 Lamberto Bava classic, Demons, which many feel had been remade as [*Rec] in 2007). Her first scene, which opens the film, is totally out of context and a waste. The police, led by the extremely underused Detective Steinman (Robert Arensen, who has practically made a career playing cops), believes it could be a serial killer.

The killer’s identity is not really a surprise at all, but that’s okay, all things considered, as this is a thriller, not a mystery, after all. The rough edge that runs throughout, though, is that first-time director Michael Shershenovich is still in the growing pains of filmmaking. For example, the digi-camera is nearly always handheld, making for some shaky viewing (though nowhere as bad as, say, Cloverfield). There are also some rough zooms and too many mid-close-ups, rather than alternating between full- and close shots. Also, he doesn’t always get the best out of his actors. It’s as though he rarely reshoots a scene, no matter how much the dialog gets trampled. But the most egregious sin is the total lack of pacing. For a slasher pic, it’s slow and plodding, with very little action and too much pointless dialog that doesn’t really add to the story. And don’t get me started on the weak fight scene that is at the climax of the picture.e There T

The gore level is pretty small and amateurish looking, with the exception of the last gunshot, which looked great. There is no sex, but a nice nude shower scene by the incredibly named (and built) Nova Lox. Like most of the rest of the younger women in the film, she has multiple ink and piercings.

Throughout the entire picture, there is a less-than-subtle pro-Christ in Christmas message, as characters comment about commercialism, the true meaning of the holiday, and the like. Yet characters have paper (Halloween) skeletons on the wall. It’s a bit too all over the place.

Extras include interviews with some cast members, a couple of nothing deleted scenes, and a the film’s trailers.

I don’t believe Shershenovich should take this too much to heart, but use the experience and criticism to make better films. My suggestion is to take on a crew who is more experienced, and can help him along. The best way to learn is to do.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

DVD Review: Mark of the Devil

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2013
Images from the Internet
Mark of the Devil: Yack Pack
Directed by Michael Armstrong
Cheezy Flicks Entertainment
96 minutes, 1970 / 2006 / 2012

This German film, originally known as Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, is a classic in early torture porn. Obviously modeled after the increasingly sexualized Hammer Films of the time, it incorporated the ethos of the graphic violence of likes of Hershell Gordon Lewis.

Taking place in some European country - supposedly England, I believe, considering one of the characters played by Herbert Lom (d. 2012), is named Lord Chamberlain - it takes place around the 17th Century, a time of witch hunters (a role both Vincent Price and Peter Cushing played for Hammer).

Reggie Nalder
The small town that is the focal point of the film is under the thumb of the despotic local hunter, who uses his power to get what he wants, be it money, power, or sex. He needs to keep this control because he is one ugly dude. Named Albino, which strangely he is not, he has a face that was ravaged by fire (in real life) channeled by the underrated Reggie Nalder, (d. 1991), who made a career playing the heavy.

While Albino is supposed to follow Church law and have indictments and trials before the torture and executions, he just takes what he wants, and then burns anyone who he wants out of the way in an auto da fe (look it up). But his power comes under scrutiny with the arrival of said Lord Chamberlain, the governing Church-appointed witch hunter, as well as his student and an underling (who has as much morals as Albino).
Udo Kier

The student and hero of the piece, Christian (of course), is played by now-cult actor, Udo Kier, who would rise to fame just a few short years later as the star of such classics of bad cinema, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973) and Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974). He looks much younger in this film; he was quite handsome in the two latter releases, but his blue eyes and baby face are stunningly handsome. I’m not attracted, I’m jealous.

Olivera Katarina
Catching the fancy of Albino and Christian is Vanessa, played by the very heavingly-buxomed, and actually not as pretty as Kier, the Serbian actor Olivera Katarina (last name credited as Vuco here). When Albino can’t have her, she’s declared a witch, and love-interest Christian is out to save her.

The secondary plot, which has some historical truth to it from what I remember, is that the Church gave the landed gentry who opposed the high taxes or balked at oppressive religious laws a choice: turn over their money and land to the Church, or be tortured and condemned to be killed and the Church would get their holdings anyway. That is Chamberlain’s purpose, apparently, which is a turn because at first you are led to believe that he is a savior, rather than an every worse criminal than what we are introduced to in the beginning. Whether he is out for himself or as a direct edict from the Vatican is something unexplained). This is also part of why the US Constitution has a separation of Church and State (the first government to ever do so).

It is sort of like the 1975 James Clavell novel Shogun, where the reader is introduced to the local government which has power of life and death, and then as you work your way through the society with the main occidental character, you find that they were just minuscule in reality to the larger hierarchy. The Church of those times was like that, with those in charge with absolute power (i.e., as Lord John Acton correctly posited in 1887, “…absolute power corrupts absolutely), and yet there were those more powerful above them.

I believe that while this is true, it is especially accurate when embodied by a religious order, who can justify it in their own minds as God makes right. The nastiest person I ever met was a born-again Christian who firmly believe that God wanted her to have what she wanted by any means necessary, even if it meant stabbing co-workers she didn’t like in the back (as she tried and failed with me; I guess God wanted her so bad, He had her join Him in her mid-20s via cancer – note that I believe if there is a God, there is no gender involved, so I’m just using her terminology). The Judeo-Christian West believes that Muslims are alone in their “God is Great” jihads, but Christianity (and Judaism in pre-Roman times) was just as fierce and cruel. There is a lot of injustice in the Bible, for example. Comedian Jackie Mason once stated that according to the Bible, the punishment is the same for adultery and eating non-Kosher food, to which he quipped, “I tried them both and don’t see the comparison.”

There is plenty of torture laid out for the viewer here (which is shown in the trailer, and why it is not included, as I don’t want this to be an “adult” site), including tar and feathering, burning at the stake, various mechanisms designed purely for cruelty (e.g., the thumbscrew), and in the most infamous scene, the removal of a tongue by pincers. The thing rarely talked about is that every one of the implements used is based on reality. The whole Church R&D team of that era was focused on finding ways to help the sinner confess and find God through the most gruesome means. Many are shown here. In college, I did a paper on the Spanish Inquisition, which no one unexpected, and many of the tools shown here are mentioned in detail in books about the period.

And with all this going on, there is an incredulous sappy love story that happens with gooey and tinny music played over and over as a lover’s theme, in typical European films of the time.

This is an absolute benchmark for what would become a genre that includes the likes of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975), Thriller – A Cruel Picture (1973), the whole Italian giallo (e.g., the zombie films by Fulci, and demon ones by Lamberto Bava), the abovementioned Warhol pix, and even continuing to today with the likes of the Saw and Hostel franchises, and A Serbian Film (2010). If you enjoy the genre, then this is a must for you.

There is one complaint I do have, and that’s more about the company that puts this out. Don’t get me wrong, Cheezy Flicks Entertainment re-releases some amazing period exploitative films, and I have never been sorry to see anything they’ve released. I mean, even this one actually has a replica vomit bag that was distributed when it was first released (kudos to Cheezy). However, I often find that my player had trouble reading the discs, and it tends to skip, much as it does with DVD-R recordings. I’m not sure if they’re going the cheap route or what, but it is annoying to have to keep going back to see the parts that were skipped, or to get the digital noise and stalling as the player tries to make sense of it all.

There are some cool extras here, including some retro-trailers and intermission ads that are on many of the Cheezy releases.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

DVD Review: The Color Out of Space

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

The Color Out of Space
Directed and screenplay by Huan Yu                  
Brink Vision                                      
86 minutes, 2010 / 2012    

This is hardly the first adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s well-known 1927 short story of a meteorite hitting the earth, and the evil effects it has on a household (or community, depending on the version). Just off the top of my head, there’s Die Monster Die (1965) with Boris Karloff and Nick Adams, The Curse (1987) with Claude Akins and Wil Wheaton, and arguably the Stephen King episode of Creepshow (1982).

This version is also known as Die Farbe, or “The Color,” because this is a German production, though early parts are filmed in English, and the rest, which takes place in the Germany countryside, is in Deutsche with English subtitles.

The previous versions were generally really bad, cheesy horror films (i.e., fun), but this one has an arty-indie feel to it (i.e., not pretentious), to which the number of world-wide festival winning and nominations bend. It’s filmed in black and white, except for when the “color” appears, drenching specific objects in a purplish-pink hue.

It has been way too many years since I’ve read the original story to speak to its accuracy, so I am going to take this film on its own story merits.

In present time, a scientist who was an American soldier stationed in rural Germany at the end of Dubya-Dubya Duce, goes back there and disappears. His son investigates in the small town in which he had been, and is told by a local (and we see in a series of long and detailed flashback) how a meteorite landed in the village even before the war. The stone, however, starts to disappear / evaporate.

Soon, all the fruit in the area start to grow Monsanto size, with a weird aftertaste. Hit the hardest is the farm on which the space rock landed. Everything starts to die, the mom goes mad, everyone gets sick, and slowly the family starts to melt into lavender droplets.

Over time, this effect would have a lasting influence that… well, I’m going to stop there, because the film is worth seeing, and I don’t want to give it all away. The effects, both physical and graphic are worth seeing. The look of the film is astonishingly crisp, thanks to a home-made camera (apparently called the DRAKE) that evidently makes HD looks like 55mm film stock. While the movie is nearly completely humorless (sans a scene where a German native mocks an American’s grammar), it is also uses the contrast of light and dark to its utmost, and the digital effects are sometimes quite understated, and others a bit shocking.

The extras has a couple of the film’s trailers, the availability of subtitles in many languages, a “lost” scene, a 22-minute day-by-day making-of featurette (in German with subtitles), and a fascinating 6-1/2 minute special effects explanation that shows how they used layers of mattes so effectively. The under 7-minute “Science Horror” short is the one to really watch, as it explains a bit of the subtle ending, and tells about how Lovecraft’s story about an alien parasite has some scientific lineage.

There is little gore (certainly no more than an episode of Bones or CSI), and certainly no sex, just a good story that will keep you at attention. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

DVD Review: Exit 101: Halloween Party Massacre

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2012
Images from the Internet
Exit 101: Halloween Party Massacre
Directed by Doug Cole                
World Wide Multi-Media (WWMM)                       
105 minutes, 2011 / 2012  

Sometimes a thematic cultural trend can get tiresome pretty fast, especially when it seems like it’s everywhere. But for some reason, no matter how corny or commonplace it gets, there’s something still appealing about a zombie movie, be it viral, radiation, braaaains, other fleshy bits, or just walking-and-decomposing corpses.

But the place where it is popping up the most, and is largely and lovingly touted, is in independent cinema. Lots of gore and make-up effects raise the possibility of a happy crew and cast. Whether overrun in the city or deep in the woods, a chompin’ cadaver is always welcome.

This indie film’s title place is real, making it a bit different right off the bat. Down in Cordele (renamed Lakeshear for the film), Georgia, at Exit 101 off highway 75, is the town attraction: a 15-foot Titan 1 missile frame. This is the focal point of the film, the hub where the action emanates.

We meet a group of (too old to really be) high school students whose hangout is at the missile’s site, where apparently in 1969, a failed secret military formula was hidden in the projectile. Of course, our noble drawling clique finds it a few days before Halloween, and on a dare, the green fluid is downed by intrepid Caleb (Joseph Lavender, who also wrote and produced the film).

The bunch of bananas includes the power couple of the cute dumb girl Stacey (Kasey Stewart) and the football player Blake (Dennis Proulx) who is a bit of a bully, the cool goth/punk girl Erica (the smokin’ Raina Ashley Strickland), the weird-nerd Colin (Sebastian Gruber), the hip token black guy Reggie (Devin Ray), the plain girl Sarah (Cassandra Johnson, who is married to Lavender in the real world) who is secretly in love with Caleb (i.e., she’s the heroine), and then there’s Caleb, who’s the slacker.

As Caleb slowly “turns” over the days, between blinding headaches for which he doesn’t think to see a doctor, he starts to eat raw packaged chopped meat and doing in a wayward pizza delivery boy as a bite, for starters.

Did I mention that this is a comedy? Thankfully not on the bad pun level of, say, ThanksKilling (2009), but rather more of a humor flavor throughout. Parts of this film was incredibly effective. There is one great scene, for example, where some rednecks meet pizza boy and things turn nasty. The three actors playing the back woods trailer trash just nail it.

Of course, our likable yet not overly bright group and the growing number of zombies are destined to converge at the big high school costume party in the woods, where blood, gore and humor come to a head.

The mentioned gristle is mostly fine, with an occasionally too thick blood to look real, but it’s excusable considering how much works well.

The extras are a gag reel that’s amusing in some parts (especially the rednecks ad-libing). The making-of doc is occasionally interesting. As for the commentary, it’s director Cole and writer Lavender. They vary from fascinating when they are on topic of the production information to a tad talking over each other. The only real annoyance is that Cole is too close to the mic so you can hear him breathing through his nose, and Lavender is occasionally too far from the mic, so he’s hard to hear.

But it’s the film that the important thing, and luckily that is well done and worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

DVD Review: Johnny Dickie’s Slaughter Tales

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

Johnny Dickie’s Slaughter Tales
Directed by Johnny Dickie             
Briarwood Entertainment / Libra Verde Media               
91 minutes, 2012    

You may not know this, but in the late 1960s to mid-1980s, in the pre-video days when film was expensive, some of the better known directors of the time got their experience and hands-on training by making porno films. Yep, the industry hired students from NYU and UCLA film schools who were inexpensive to use and in need of practice, plus cash to pay for the university. For anyone in their younger years back then, there was always 8mm and Super 8 film, which was incredibly hard to work with, as I found out in the couple of movies I tried to make with a friend.

This changed a bit with video and the camcorder, but tapes were still hard to edit, needing a linear editing bay which was expensive. Of course, now with the digital age and most new computers having relatively advanced editing programs, it is not surprising to find that more and more are making films independently to various successes, such as Bill Zebub, Creep Creepersin, Dustin Mills and Sean Weathers.

Nearly fifteen-year-old Johnny Dick uses a digi-cam to shoot his stories, and then transferred it to VHS to give it a true grainy texture to produce a first-time full-length feature. Is it good? Nah. Is it fun? Oh, yeah, if you can just set your mind to remember that it’s a film by a kid in middle school.

As a framework, Johnny, who also stars in the film, steals a videotape with the same name as this one from a store (one of the only parts outside his house other than a brief rooftop scene). Despite a ghostly warning, he decides to watch the tape anyway. While this is not a new concept, from Ringu (1998) to the new release V/H/S (2012), it’s certainly underused more than, say, the found tape subgenre that is so overdone.

We watch with Johnny as different stories unfold, all of them starring, well, Johnny. There are a couple of other actors here and there, but he’s in the large majority. Between the anthology, the viewer sees Johnny commenting on what a piece of shit the videotape is, and in fact, at one point, he even wears a tee-shirt that says “This movie is terrible.”

Mostly there is nothing drastically original or shocking in the film other than watching a teen constantly cursing and talking repeatedly about “skin mags.” And yet, of the three or four of the other actors, most who also multi-role, Johnny is actually the best one.

Part of the fun is that often for props, he uses severed limbs you buy in a store at Halloween, or just obviously molded clay (not sure if it’s PlayDoh or the real deal). There is also some cool pixilated animation with worm-like creatures that work pretty well. Remember, Raimi did the same thing at the end of Evil Dead (1981). Lest I forget, there’s the old Alka Seltzer as rabid-mouth trick that is always effective.

Oh, and mucho kudos on a very fun cameo by Toxie’s dad at the end! Oh, stay tuned for the scenes through the final credit, if you made it that far.

As a side note, I want to say that I really enjoyed the cramped and sometimes messy space in which the film was recorded (i.e., Johnny’s parents’ place). There is media everywhere, from rows and rows of books and DVDs, and lots of shelves of LPs. Ah, I could nearly smell the vinyl… And then there is the changing length of Johnny’s hair throughout (it took two years to shoot this). At one point towards the end you can actually see the shadow of the camera and tripod. I’m just sayin’.

If I was to make any fatherly advice to Johnny about a change, it would be to get some kind of help with the dialog. For example, if I made a drinking game out of every time he said “Oh my fucking God,” I would be lifeless from alcohol poisoning. Hell, Jerry Lee Lewis would be dead of it. But the second conversation between Johnny and the tape’s spirit in the bathroom is hysterical. More like that, please.

But my biggest piece of suggestion would be to keep going. Continue making films, because this experience will probably prove to be invaluable. One learns through crap and adversity, to partially paraphrase philosopher Johnny Dewey. I would like to add that I also hope that rather than release a flood of films, he will do them carefully one by one, because thinking about the productions are as important as the filming itself.  

Extra include 2 trailers for this film (one without the “camcorder effect,” which is truthfully much better, though I understand the idea Johnny was trying to posit. There is also a couple of minutes long behind the scenes called ”Making an American Nightmare” that shows a couple of scenes being filmed, and an 11-minute featurette titled “The Effects of Slaughter Tales.” This is an interesting sort-of how-to for new filmmakers. Yes, there is also a full-length commentary with Johnny and a couple of friends who discuss the filming in surprising detail, despite the goofy tone, so I can suggest a listen.

Listen, this truly is a case of Buyer Beware. It’s a film made by a kid mostly in his living room. If you’re willing to accept that, and know what you’re getting, you may be surprised by how much you laugh. I look forward to seeing more of Johnny’s output as he grows both physically and aesthetically.