Friday, November 15, 2013

DVD Review: Sanguivorous (Kyuketsu)

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

Sanguivorous (aka Kyuketsu)
Directed, edited and music by Naoki Yoshimoto                       
Tidepoint Pictures
Rain Trail Pictures
Stavros Films                                
56 minutes,2009 / 2013

Literally translated, the title of the film is to feed off the blood of the living, usually referring to parasites and certain bats; here, it is merely shortened to “sucking blood.” That works, too.

It is not surprising to me they shortened the definition, because the film runs just over 56 minutes. It’s on that borderline that makes it more of a featurette, which works well on the festival circuit rather than a cineplex. But this will probably never play as a first liner except at conventions, fests and possibly art theaters.

Sangafanga, as I’ve been calling it, is a Japanese vampire film that is over-burdened with an art aesthetic that is both beautiful and cumbersome. Much like films such as Where the Dead Go to Die (2012, reviewed HERE) or Profane (2012; reviewed HERE), the director, Naoki Yoshimoto, has a more ambitious vision that he wants to put to digital celluloid, as it were.

Ayumi Kakizawa
Mixing black & white, color, muted color, and digital film effects, Yoshimoto brings us into a world that is usually dark, both in tone and vision (or, if you will, figuratively and literally), as we are introduced to the only four characters. First there is a young woman played by Ayumi Kakizawa, who is haunted by weird visions, strange feelings, and general anxiety. Her thin-cut side-burned (hipster?) boyfriend, embodied by Mutsuko Yoshinaga, reads a text that borrows from the Bram Stoker idea that a ship with a coffin containing a many-hundred year-old vampire came ashore onto Japan centuries before, and the heirs of its contents still have the vampire blood floating around waiting until it is aroused (the film’s term, i.e., lose your virginity and…). Joining in is an older couple (her parents?), played by Masaya Adachi, who has the prerequisite Asian long, white fingernails, and the striking, muscular and bald Ko Murobushi, who looks like he was imagined from a manga comic (Ko is a leading avant-garde butoh dancer in his “day” job).

The story is kind of murky for a number of reasons. First, there is barely any dialog, other than exposition, so most of the storytelling relies on visuals and sounds. The main reason, however, is its artistic bent. Mostly filmed in black and white, it is often digitally treated to look like the Nosferatu period (1922), or scratchy, or with just a hint of color. Occasionally there may be one object in vibrant color, such as a red kimono, and more rare, a shot entirely in vivid color, such as a field of yellow flowers.

Ko Murobushi
Even with the blending of visuals, arty editing, unusual angles, extraneous close-ups of objects, and all the other modern methods to make it look older, there is definitely a beauty to the film. The way characters move, and how they are presented speak as much as the sparse dialog. Sure, you really do need some patience in this post-MTV/Transformers world, because this mostly moves at a snail’s pace, while still managing to fill the senses with unusual imagery.

While there is some blood, and some wicked looking teeth, I would hardly call this a gory film by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the shock value comes from the use of sound, be it a sudden loud noise, a piece of dissonant music, or just silence. Yoshimoto, who plays the piano on some of this, ties it all together to make it work, even if it is unconventional.

Speaking of Yoshimoto, there is a 10-minute or so making of short where the relatively young director talks about how the film came to be, mixed with some short interviews with Kakizawa and Murobushi. His solid grasp of English makes it coherent and helps to explain a bit of what is going on in the film.

The other extra is an additional short film called Nowhere, which is also around10 minutes. It definitely has a similar auteur feel to Sangafanga, in which a man stumbles into a deserted factory and screams a few times, before walking out an meeting someone on the road. Again, there is no dialog other than the repeated yelling, and we a presented with a switching of color and B&W. I believe it is about a post-apocalyptic world, but I am not sure. It did win a prize for digital short at a festival, and that is hardly surprising.

To recap: the film is esoteric (perhaps not as much as, say, Dog Star Man (1962, by the way overrated Stan Brakhage) and intentionally obscure, but it is also a beautiful piece of art with horror as it heart. I’m leavin’ it all up to yo-oo-oo, as the song says.


Monday, November 11, 2013

DVD Review: Murder University

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


Murder University
Directed by Richard Griffin
Scorpio Rising                  
96 minutes, 2012 / 2013

 Okay, I’m going to admit it. Richard Griffin is becoming one of my favorite indie horror directors. He has covered many different sub-genres in his films such as The Disco Exorcist (2011) and the stunning Exhumed (2011), and now this one, which is homage to ‘80s slasher movies. Of course, the comparisons are inevitable with the Scream franchise, but I’m not going there; I don’t really feel a need to do that because the Wes Craven film had a budget of about $15 million, and this was shot for a mere $6,000, and yet accomplishes so much.

This picture follows many of the formulaic cliché’s that crop up in these kinds of films, but it is rarely done as well, in this tongue-in-cheek way. For example, there is the obligatory “prolog” that sets up future events. This takes place in 1983, at a college in Massachusetts (though was filmed in Rhode Island, as is most of Griffin’s releases). Most of the time, the rest of the film is in “the present,” but this one is set just a year later, with anyone hardly caring about the ghastly events that took place on the campus of “Murder U’ (i.e., “murder you”). Apparently there is a devil masked (and hooded cloaks, of course) group using sharp objects such as axes and knives to create some serious damage.

But let me back up a bit for a moment to make a comment on that opening sequence.  Did not see the surprise coming; I let out a big laugh and a wow, which is quite the statement after having seen slashers since Joan Crawford’s Strait-Jacket! (1964). This moment alone tells you that you are not going to see a standard, run-of-the-mill chop-em-up.

The story is written by Lenny Schwartz with flair towards both the gruesome and the funny bone. Most of the comedy is not played for broad laughs, but rather it’s done smartly and on occasion, such as a running joke with the main character’s mother. My favorite though, and this was extremely subtle, was the password for getting into a frat party by saying a password to a redneck (wearing a Stars and Bars toga) at the door, which is a line from James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

But the writing is only one of the pillars that make this a strong and multiple (festival related) award-winning film. Another is the look of it. The picture is HD and clear, including the night scenes. The use of RGB colors for the lighting, especially in the night and forest locales is beautiful, giving it a nice ‘80s Creepshow (1982) feel, but with a clearer and sharper image, and applied subtly (there’s that word again) rather than garishly, as most use it.

The next pillar is the acting. Griffin tends to use many of the same folks in multiple releases, and this seems wise (though I miss the team of Reed and Nicklin). Many of the cast come from the New England the-yay-tah crowd, so they know how to nail a scene quickly and accurately. Yes, there is a bit stage overplaying here and there, but it seems less as time and films go on. The three main characters are strong in both writing and presention.

Michael Thurber
Griffin stalwart Michael Thurber is solid, period. Sure, he was a bit goofy in The Disco Exorcist, but his Exhumed performance was a nuanced tour de force. Here, he plays the aggressive, loner, verbally vulgar police detective Forresster with a deeply buried soft spot. From what I understand, this slovenly character, who wears a Columbo-type overcoat, is far from Thurber’s real personality (he wore a tux to the film’s premier, for example), but his naturalistic acting ability makes the detective come alive.

Samantha Acampora
His daughter and co-sleuth, Meg, whose mother had been killed by the demon-masked killers when she was a wee lassie, is portrayed by the very fetching Samantha Acampora. With those lips and doe eyes, man, I would have had such a crush on her in college. Luckily, she’s a naturalistic actor, and takes the kind of female-lead-yet-support role as if she were part of that personality, which is falling in love with the central character, Josh.

Jamie Dufault
I know I’ve seen Jamie Dufault, somewhere, but I cannot remember where. However, here he takes the lead. Though obviously diminutive (most characters tower over him), he creatively works both the shy-virgin and passive-aggressive sides of his character with conviction.  Josh is a shy lad with a sad secret who is starting college (like much of his classmates, he’s obviously older than the part he’s playing, but that’s pretty endemic in the genre, so I’ll move on).  He is a wide (blue) eyed youth who leans towards sweater vests (there is some kind a running motif where many characters wear horizontal striped shirts, including a Freddy Kruger colored one worn by Meg) and deer-in-headlight reactions. But you know there is an itch tugging inside him (again, the genre). One thing I found interesting, and this really has nothing to do with anything per se, but Jamie has a couple of interesting “tells,” where he will either turn his head or lick his lips as the excitement level is ramping up, or a key comment is about to be spoken.

There is also an exceedingly large support cast (all the better for sizable body count), and I need to comment here. Again from a theater background, they run from the average looking to the attractive (e.g., Elyssa Baldasssarri and Tonya Free). Plus there are a number of outstanding basically secondary or even tertiary characters which stand out, such as Sean Sullivan as a leather jacketed insane thug, and especially Aaron Peaslee as a tool DJ, Juicy K. Thunder (who, in a throwaway line, mentions his college radio show called “Morning Mishegas”); check out his dancing in the DJ booth in the background at a gay strip club (where Forresster frequents for – er – coffee). You may not notice him at first, but if you do, he’ll steal the scene. Oh, and there is also a police investigator who looks alarmingly like (but is not) disgraced ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.

Griffin has quickly developed into a decent filmmaker. His shots inside a particular modernistic building are a good example. He uses the frosted glass stair landings in a way to show movement that is quite lovely, and the first time we see Josh walking through the building, the stairs and floors almost look like an MC Escher drawing.

Along with the remarkably large body count, there is also a fair number of gore scenes (without being “gore porn”) which are sometimes amusing, but most times well done. The only effect that gave me pause was a scalping that looks good for the effect itself, but it almost looks like the knife isn’t really touching either the head or the scalp. Otherwise, every other effect, from different levels of beheadings with a knife to more subdued killings (such as using shadows, or in one case, showing someone at knee level). What is also nice is that these killers are not gender specific. In other words, it’s not just females that are hacked, but rather everyone within range, including some guy getting an ax (the weapon of choice here), well, let’s just say sharp edge up.

The extras include some trailers (including two of Griffin’s I mentioned here) from Wild Eye Releasing and a deleted scene. There are also two commentaries. One of them includes a number of the cast (excluding the two male leads) which occasionally gets overwhelming trying to tell who talking, though it’s still worth a listen because they do manage to put out a lot of information. The other track is the director and writer, which is more interesting, though I suggest listening to both if that interests you.

It’s nice to see a horror film with humor that doesn’t rely on Adam Sandler-level toilet jokes, but rather is quite intelligent, along with some twists and turns that have some originality to them. And besides Thurber’s perfect nuances, Dufault has a delicious sense of timing, and can spit out dialog that is clear and emotive/empathetic. There are lots of surprises here, but one that isn’t is the consistency of Griffin’s output, as all his films have a shine on ‘em. I look forward to seeing the projects that came after this, including Dr. Frankenstein’s Wax Museum of the Hungry Dead and especially Normal.