Friday, January 25, 2013

DVD Review: Dropping Evil

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

Dropping Evil
Directed by Adam Protextor          
Wild Eye Releasing                        
82 minutes, 2008-2012

 The publicity for this indie is proud to state – and does so often – that they had the whole idea of watchers as some kind of overlords to a group of teens who are brought together in seclusion for a reason unknown to the youngsters way before the recent hit, A Cabin in the Woods (2012). And rightfully so. Do I think the makers of Woods ripped off this film? Highly unlikely, even though it took four years to film this one, but Dropping Evil is low budget enough that it probably wouldn’t have been noticed by the big boys.

This piece of cinema is definitely one of the more ambitious indie films I’ve seen in a while, and certainly a brave release. It’s not surprising it took so long to record and let loose. The question I have is as follows: how successful is it in reaching its goal?

Well, certainly, there are problems. Note that any indie film has its issues, no doubt, especially one with this vast a cast and ambition in story. And the sheer filming time frame must bring its own set of issues.

From what I can figure out through some of the story is that there are at least three separate levels going on (how very X Files / Lost). First, there’s the four life-long mid-20s high school students off for a weekend in the woods, including a couple (Tom Taylor, Rachel Howell), and as a possible set-up, a nerdy girl (Cassandra Powell) and a volatile religious fanatic (Zachary Lint; he even gets upset when his bottle of juice is next to a beer can in the cooler). Add a little tripping powder and “Mr. Jesus” (whose name is Nancy, by the way, which is never really explained other than his mother chose it) gets busy with an ax, as is seen on the DVD box artwork.

On the second story level, we view the ValYouCorp organization, who apparently specializes in artificial body parts and robotics (played by actors wearing motorcycle helmets), but who seems to be looking at a (evil?) larger picture than is let on at first. It is run by scheming CEO (played by name character actor Armin Shimerman; you’d know him is you saw him, e.g., as Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or Principal Snyder on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). His vision, involving the four friends, could change the fate of the entire world.

The third level is more meta-physical and less clear. From what I can figure out, it involves God, who seems to be missing (shades of Kevin Smith’s 1999 Dogma), a host of other older gods and goddesses from the Classic Greek period, and even older gods than that called the Titans (whom Zeus defeated to become king of the gods in Greek mythology; scarily, I knew that without having to Wikipedia it. That’s right, I used it as a verb, wanna make somethin’ of it?). A new war coming? Again, it is reminiscent of another film, The Prophesy (1995).

This is a mixture of both a dark comedy and an occasional slapstick one, the latter of which is more successful. For example, one of the better moments is handled deftly by the lovely and underused ex-Troma actor and current exploitation queen Tiffany Sephis, who plays the goddess Dionysia (I met her once at a Chiller Theater Con in New Jersey during the 1990s, during her Troma days, and she was very nice).

Honestly, as original as the story is, and credit should certainly be given, it is also exceedingly convoluted. Half the time I didn’t know what anything meant to the storyline, and there isn’t really too much of a conclusion that explains it. I would, however, recommend following the film with the two deleted scenes and especially what is called the “sequels,” three shorts (between 15 and 20 minutes each) that come with the DVD in the extras. My guess is that it was either too much footage for put in the film, or too short amount to make a true, complete sequel. But it will definitely help fill in some of the questions (but not all) that are bound to come up. And besides, this is the only way to see any of the footage of ‘70s action star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, in a bit of an extended cameo that is not really explained well¸ as is another short bit by Edwin Neal, who plays the POTUS; not bad for someone who started as the insane hitchhiker in the original 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The film has a bit of everything (too much?). For example, when God is missing, people do not die no matter how grievous their injuries, and the dead also arise. This gives way to an amusing social bias between those who died before or after God’s disappearance. This would make an interesting full-length feature in itself, especially in our current zombie-fixated and partisan culture.

With this entire convolution, what actually annoyed me was the shoddy camerawork. It felt like a high school project. Shaky cameras are bad enough, but badly handled shaky cameras are something else. There are also some larger choice questions I had, such as: if ValYouCorp can make a camera that that fit inside someone’s eye without being detected, then why does their hit team need to film their excursion into the woods with a 1980s sized camcorder?

Despite my whining, there are a lot of imaginative uses of the image, such as thoughtful switching between color and black-n-white, stylized imagery (including with the hit team mentioned above), and the occasionally really smart use of contrast and lighting.

There are a few good giggles in there, and at least three times I found myself laughing out loud. It’s a fun film, but it does take some work to watch (i.e., it can’t be put on in the background if you want to make anything of the plot), and whether you think it is or not, could depend on factors such as some history with J.J. Abrams and Chris Carter material, how stoned you are at the time of viewing, and level of patience. Especially the latter. I enjoyed the experience, but felt exhausted.

As a sidebar that has nuthin’ ta do with nuthin’, I find it cool that the actresses of the two couples of youngins have last names that rhyme.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

DVD Review: Profane

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

Directed by Usama Alshaibi         
78 minutes, 2011

This film touches a lot of cultural hot button topics, such as sex workers, and both the assimilation and strength of Muslim culture into the West (in this case Chicago). One of the areas not often breached is the blending of both.

Iranian-born director Usama Alshaibi takes a peek at the mixture of the two in an experimental release that is both explicit and artful. As Usama is male, it is no surprise that it also has a patriarchal perspective. There is a certain level of titillation that may not be as strong a focus if this were directed by a Muslim woman. But I jump ahead.

The story focuses on professional dominatrix Muna, beautifully portrayed by the lovely and full lipped Manal Kara (yes, I am a self-admitting patriarch). Usually accompanied by her Western cohort Mary (Molly Plunk), she moves seamlessly between her work, her life, and her boyfriend (also a Westerner), with the help of drugs, alcohol and attempting to reconcile and reconnect to her faith.

This begins to change, however, with two overlapping events. First, she starts hearing voices that she is convinced may be a djinn (an Arabic demon, pronounced as “gin”) whispering to her in the nights and when she tries to pray. The second is that on the way home one night from a gig, Mura and Mary get picked up by a cab driven by Ali (Dejan Mircea), a religious Muslim who believes it is his mission to save her both from her hedonistic life, and from the djinn (it is he who names what is occurring to Muna). She is confused and conflicted by both these happenings.

While a loosely narrative film in linear time, it is not necessarily undeviating from the story. Played more like a documentary (though not as “found footage” per se), there are many departures from the scope of the story with arty shots that under a less talented tout ledge, would be a mess, but Usama uses the additions to show that life is not all straightforward, and that there is even beauty in the unconventional.

Part of what is uncomfortable (well, for me anyway), are the explicit S&M scenes, as Mura and Mary (among others) stomp on scrotums, use clients as bathrooms, and abuse willing masked men in various ways, all in detail. In real life Kara and Plunk actually are sex workers, and from what I can tell from the credits, these are some of their real-life clients. While I am sure that this is prurient for some of those who will watch this, it is not for me. Sure, I love a horror movie where someone gets their face chewed off in close-up, but I can distinguish in my mind between the appliance/CGI and reality. Here, there is no question that what is happening to those men and their penises are real. In the credits, they are listed with such names as Slave Jeff, Slave Drum and Footpuppy.

When I worked in a movie theater in my youth, I remember that whenever there was a scene where some man was kicked in the nuts, immediately even man in the audience went “oooff,” followed by all the women laughing. I’ve never been sure if they were laughing at the action on screen, or the reaction of their partners. But I digress…

There is some interesting moments, whether intentional or not. For example, each scene with Ali driving the cab must have been done the same night, because it seems to always be snowing. I’m not sure if this means that it does all take place in one ride cut up into out of sequenced snippets, or they just taped it in one night, and it is supposed to be different times. Just part of the enigma of the film, I guess.

There have been some descriptors of the picture as being part of the Cinema of Transgression genre, which I can both understand, and yet with which I cannot totally agree, which is in no way indicative of how strong a film it is. Transgression brings to mind the likes of Richard Kern, Nick Zedd and Lydia Lunch. Most of this style is incoherent, played strongly for shock, and totally low-budget DIY. It’s for good reason it was closely associated with the New York punk and No Wave movement when it started. And none of this is meant as any kind of implication questioning its worth. Yes, this release has a lot of its elements, but there is a level of art and professionalism that raises it above Transgression, though it certainly does push some envelopes. Perhaps I am wrong, and ease of technology has redirected Transgression into a higher level. After all, the genre has been around since the late ‘70s, and change gotta come, as the band X-Teens once posited.

Now, this is a blog about horror films, so what does this piece of artiness about Islam and S&M have to do with horror, you may be asking yourself. It’s in the djinn (hey, I’m a poemist, as Tommy Smother’s said). Apparently, Muna was mistreated by someone in her faith in her youth (school? Clerics? Parents?), and was forced to undergo a traumatic exorcism, a somewhat common, albeit uncomfortable practice in some parts of the world. Perhaps she really was possessed, and the djinn returned? Or is it all in her mind?  Perhaps PTSD?

There is a lot of graphic and real sex-related content in the film, nearly all of it literally torturous. This is lingered upon what felt like longer than it needed to be, and while Muna and Mary are supposedly in charge, they are also slaves to their own, well, demons, such as the aforementioned drugs. There are also lingering shots of nudity, some sensual and others not, but it is obviously looking through the male eye. While I don’t think there will be many turned on by this, even with the publicity around 50 Shades of Grey, there are also many solo sensual shots of Muna in various states of undress that feel gratuitous at times. While I am not one to buck at a shower scene or something unjustified in something like Zombie Babies (2011) or The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made: The Re-Make (2008), it feel different here, and perhaps it would be less so with a woman’s perspective?

Anyway, it’s sort of a moot point, because despite the high level of real sadism and masochism present, this is an incredibly beautiful looking film, and if your stomach is up for it, it’s an interesting ride that will at the very least get you talking.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

DVD Review: The Dead Matter

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

The Dead Matter
Directed by Edward Douglas        
Midnight Syndicate / Precinct 13 Entertainment            
89 minutes, 2010 / 2012

A modern vampire story with no werewolves? Wow, I am unsarcastically impressed. At least there are zombies. But I get ahead of myself, sorta. The whole film has a really good look, for the $2 mill budget, reminding me of quality fantasy television shows like Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite whatever problems I found with the film, it’s an enjoyable viewing exercise, and worth the rent.

The film opens in a small town in Germany with a bunch of zombies stumbling along in the thrall of a vampire, rather than wanting to eat some wet bits. Well, at least they have the mandatory gray shade and blood/gore attached to their faces.

We momentarily meet the main vampire of the story, Vellich, played by Andrew Divoff, who was also in the film Wishmaster (1997) and on television’s Lost. He tends of overact, but it’s good. The odd thing is he wears this long, flowing white wig that is so obvious, and makes no sense whatsoever, and it nothing less than distracting. The director says during the commentary that it is very much along the lines of Hammer Films, so I’ll give him that.

Andrew Divoff on the right
What Vellich and the zombies are in search of is a scarab-shaped amulet, being protected by the bearded Ian (Jason Carter, of Babylon 5) and the muscular Mark (Brian van Camp). They escape and take the necklace to a “mystical nexus,” or as we know it… wait for it… Ohio.

It’s there that the amulet gets hidden before a big fight, and is found by two couples. More about them later. Meanwhile. Vellich runs into a new order of vampires in the Buckeye State, who are under the wing of Sebed (make-up and effects wizard /actor / legend Tom Savini). He envisions an almost mafia-like vampire society with himself as Don, while Vellich is old world / old school. And we all can guess who is going to come on top by the end.

Now, does any of this sound familiar? There are a whole lot of themes from other films here, and I’m not saying this in a negative way, exactly, I’m just noticing the trend. For example, taking the trinket to somewhere else to destroy is right out of Lord of the Rings (2001), modern vs. old zombie clan(s) could be Blade (1998), Underworld (2003), perhaps Twilight (2008). During a séance featuring the aforementioned couples, amorphous shapes come out of the amulet and swirl around and through the participants, straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

But, let’s get back to the aforementioned foursome. Y’got your nerdy scientist dude, Frank, played (sorta) by Christopher Robichaud. This is his only credit. He plays the role like someone in a cheap ‘50s horror film. Actually, he reminded me of the main character of the classic Equinox (1970). His clothes look like that as well (checked yellow-tan shirts, and the such; at least they didn’t give him glasses). The director and producers are solidly behind Christopher, so maybe it’s me? Frank works for a corporation making a diet product.

Next up is his newish girlfriend, Jill, portrayed well by CB Spencer. Where Frank is logical and scientific, she’s more Wiccan closer to the supernatural. She’s pretty solid in the role.

Sean Serino
The hero (does anyone still say heroine) is Gretchen, played by the amazingly cute Sean Serino. Killer smile, dude. Gretchen is in pursuit in finding a way to contact her brother, who died in a car accident while she was the driver. Nearly a Candide figure (look it up), she tends to look at the positive side and be cheerful, even when there’s a zombie at the door and vampire in pursuit.

Her boyfriend is Mike, acted by Tom Nagel. Mike may be the logical one who help keep it real for Gretchen, but he comes across as just a bit of a dick (sort of like the husband on that show The Medium). Truth is, the part is seriously underdeveloped, and you can tell that Nagel is a better actor than as the role is written.

That may be the biggest problem with the film to me – which is actually quite enjoyable, despite all the flaws I’ve mentioned – in that with the exception of Gretchen, there really is little context or character development.

I found it amusing that one of the better characters is a nearly voiceless zombie under Gretchen’s control. Brian van Camp does a spendid job keeping us interested in Mark, even though all he does basically is stare into space while eating, drinking, and other things asked by Gretch, or whoever else touches the purple-glowing amulet.

While not a comedy, there are definitely some fine comic moments. One is Gretchen putting one of those car pine-shaped odor eaters around the zombie’s neck before an amusing montage as she takes Mark for ice cream (relevant to a memory of her brother) and to a merry-go-round. Another is the following dialog (which is included on the IMBD page, so I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away):
Jill: A zombie?
Frank: They prefer to be called Post-Mortem-Americans.

While the story is occasionally incoherent (why does the vampire want the amulet exactly? Okay, it controls the dead, including vampires (who are dead), fingernails and hair, apparently, but why he wants that control is never really explained. And why do the new vampires want to get their cohorts addicted to a drug? Yes, there is a positive side effect explained in the film, but not enough to make them drooling junkies shooting up.

There is a decent if not abundant amount of gore, such as a ripped off head and a yank-removed jaw. There are also some fun surprise moments, especially towards the end that alone make this worth the view.

There are a few extras that are noteworthy including a gag reel and theatrical trailer. There are also a bunch of music videos that are okay in the spooky or death metal way. The longest is a feature-length documentary called “Maximum Dead Matter” in which the screen is broken up into four simultaneous sections. The top left is the film running, and the other three are full of interviews, original art, behind the scene shootings, and make-up. It is the most interesting when they involve the actual scene that’s running at the moment. It gets tiresome at times, but I watched the whole thing and wasn’t sorry.

The best extra is the commentary track with the director, producer and co-writer. Even though it was hard at times to tell who was talking (i.e., three dudes), they explained some of the questions I had, and didn’t veer much from the shoot, which is a lot more interesting to me than joking around (even though they obviously are having fun doing it).

 So, yes, I was a bit hard on the film, but now having sat through it three times (original and two extras modes), I still found it enjoyable enough to say it’s worth the Saturday night viewing with the buds.