Monday, December 15, 2014

DVD Review: Attack of the Morningside Monster

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2014
Images from the Internet

Attack of the Morningside Monster
Directed by Chris Ethridge
Making Monster Productions / Blue Dusk Productions
Apprehensive Films
93 minutes, 2014

The fictional town of Morningside is in New Jersey, and the two top cops are a local (Tom Haulk, played by Robert Pralgo), and one from the Bronx (Klara Austin, embodied by the underrated Tiffany Shepis, who started out in the Troma camp). I really didn’t get a Jersey vibe from the film (it’s based on the more rural Wharton area; I drove through it on 80 more times that I remember) mostly due to the lack of Tri-State accents, but considering it was filmed in Lawrenceville, GA, that’s not surprising. All I’m sayin’ is it goes without sayin’, as I once overheard someone say.

Someone is gruesomely (of course!) killing off some local drug dealer scumbags while wearing a hooded robe and a cool ritual mask (see the DVD cover above). Using various devises such as power slicers and a kind of mace, victims are immobilized and have internal organs removed; sometimes this happens while they’re still alive.

There is nothing exotic or artsy about this film as far as form goes, but sometimes meat and potatoes is just what is needed. Skip the weird shadows, the strange angles, the symbolic lighting, and just get to the “meat” of the matter. Director Chris Ethridge, in his first full length release, cuts to the chase and gives the audience a taut and bloody drama without the bells and whistles, just gristle. Perhaps, over time, this will change, but that’s okay, too. I believe that many directors try too much on their first outing, and find out that it’s harder work than was necessary to advance the action. The fact that this release has won a bunch of awards in festivals shows that it’s definitely reaching where it is needed.

You know what’s a good sign? I didn’t figure out the killer for a while, which is rare. I made guesses, and was wrong on three of them. When I did figure it out, about 20 minutes before the end, I thought “really?”, sometimes the trickiest of all choices is in front of your face.

For a first full feature, Ethridge manages to find some real talent, with lots of credentials. The two leads, for example, are seasoned professionals, with Pralgo being in a bunch of high-level cable shows and major films, and Shepis has a long history in the genre. The big name here, though, belongs to Nicholas Brendon, who was Zander in the popular series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Okay, yeah, he’s a pretty one-note actor, but there is no doubt he is known.

For me, the fault that is in the film – and this is true of most genre releases both big and small – is the shallowness of exposition. Why is someone from the Bronx the Deputy Sheriff? What is her background? Who is the Sherriff’s girlfriend (Catherine Tabor)? The bad guy’s wife (more cameo than anything by the lovely April Bogenshultz)? There is, fortunately, some indication of why the Sherriff is so committed to his best bud’s wife (Amber Chaney, who played Avox in The Hunger Games)?

On the flip side, what is great about the writing is that it isn’t cut and dry in that the “monster” is not – er – unhuman (e.g., Jason, Michael). Mistakes are made, and people who should not be involved become victims by accident. I think this is a real bonus and one I’d like to see kept up in other films. Kudos. Also, there is a great red herring a bit over half-way through that is not only well played, but well placed.

Nudity is kept at a minimal, and the gore effects look really good. There isn’t an overabundance of visceral matter, but what is present is nice and messy. Most of it is post-attack, rather than the actual action.

The extras are a couple of trailers and an interesting commentary track with the director/co-producer, writer/co-producer Jayson Palmer, and co-producer Michael Harper discussing the production, actors, and all that. Though I don’t remember who is saying what (one of the problems with three or more people on a track), it’s kind of irrelevant because it’s the info that matters.

I like that the film doesn’t do the usual killer pseudo-teens + sex = death (though there is a bit of a nod to that), and that most who die deserve it, so when those who aren’t “worthy” bite it, it actually makes it more moving. It may be meat ‘n taters, but as I said, sometimes you can get more accomplished by going for why the audience is there in the first place.


Friday, December 5, 2014

DVD Reviews: Films based on HP Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep" and Rudyard Kipling's "Mark of the Beast"

Text by Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2014
Images from the Internet

Discussed here are two films based on short stories from about a generation on either side the turn of the 20th Century. The writers of these tales, HP Lovecraft and Rudyard Kipling, are known for their verbose language and tales of the wild side of life. Free PDFs of the original Lovecraft short story can be found HERE, and the Kipling one HERE. The adaptations are updated to the present, but retain their original pastiches, including first-person narrations.
The Thing on the Doorstep
Directed by Tom Gliserman
Handsome Spyder
Leomark Studios
89 minutes, 2014

The 1933 H.P. Lovecraft short story, with the same name on which this film is based, although apparently considered one of his lesser literary works, has one of the great and memorable opening lines in 20th Century horror literature: “It is true that I have just sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer.”

Without giving away too much, Daniel (Rob Dalton), the rascally rich lifelong pal of the narrating character, Edward (David Bunce), falls for a mysterious woman named Asenath Waite (portrayed by the film’s writer, Mary Jane Hansen). Asenath has a dark reputation as a hypnotist at good moments, and a necromancer/witch at less forgiving times. Added into the mix is Daniel’s pregnant wife, Marion (Susan Cicarelli-Caputo). This is a major variance from the original story, as Marion is barely mentioned by H.P., but is thankfully given full personhood here.

As time goes on, it is pretty obvious that Edward and Asenath’s relationship is becoming increasingly mystical and toxic. I’m grateful I read the original (see the link in the blog’s opening paragraph) before seeing the film, for a few reasons. The most obvious is that I could compare the two. Also, there were a couple of gaps here and there in the film that were not major flaws, but the story helped fill in. For example, the first couple of pages explain the relationship between Daniel and Edward, whereas in the movie adaptation, which has been modernized to the present, they are friends, but the exposition is kind of iffy.

One of the aspects that interested me is that it is generally known that Asenath is one of the few strong female characters in Lovecraft’s literary camp, but the two points that stick in my craw is that (a) she keeps wishing she were a man because men have stronger brains, and (b) she may only be a woman in meat puppet form. I was wondering how the film would present this men’s vs. women’s argument, which it does, but writer Hansen balances it by having Asenath make the same argument only to be refuted by Marion. I believe bringing up this argument from the book and addressing it in this way was a brave – and somewhat necessary – thing for Hansen to do.

Hansen actually takes some other wise steps, like adding in a psychological aspect on top of the pure mysticism of the original. She does this without losing the power of the story, and considering this is her first screenplay, that’s quite impressive. Asenath’s session with psychoanalyst Marion gives the impression she is talking about Daniel, but there is more afoot that will come to light.

In the book, Asenath is attractive but weirdly bug-eyed (not in those words), but Hansen is quite fetching in a young Blythe Danner sort of way.  She is just one of a relatively strong albeit mostly unknown cast.

Shot in Saratoga Springs, in Upstate Eastern New York, Gliserman gives the film a dated, eerie feeling, making it almost claustrophobic with many close angles. Even an overhead shot of a car on the highway seems limited in space. This is achieved in part by muting the color tones into a sepia-filtered light, so it’s in color, but there are no bright hues. There is also some interesting shots and editing, giving it an arty feel without going into the obtuse. Gliserman did the cinematography, and job well done.

For me, the flaw of the film, as it were, is the title creature, which looked a bit like it needed the touch of someone with a more SFX experience. Otherwise, the creep factor stays high. Lovecraft is hard to adapt, given his language (for which the dialog here gratefully borrows plentiful) and the more than 80 years since its release. Sure, you could just totally revamp it, like Stuart Gordon’s infamous Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), but it takes courage to keep it loyal even with the updating.

Extras are chapters and a trailer.


Rudyard Kipling’s Mark of the Beast
Directed by John Gorman and Thomas Edward Seymour
Bloodbath Pictures
72 minutes, 2012

Rudyard Kipling was more known for fantastical stories of India, where boys live in the jungle and converse with animals, or brave British/white men fight battles against raging local/Indian wild jungle men. But there is also a darker side to Kipling, who would occasionally write about the more mysterious, dangerous, and supernatural view of life.

Mark of the Beast, in the original 1890 story, also has its loci in the dark wilderness of India, but in this retelling, we are logically and micro-budgetedly moved to (possibly) rural America, where somehow natives (I am assuming they mean Native Americans, though it could just be a cult, it’s not explained well) still manage to worship a monkey god.

The basic premise of the story is that Fleete (genre writer and Film Threat editor Phil Hall) is a drunken lout, and manages to offend the monkey god worshipers by putting a cigar out on its alter. He is attacked by a leper (in the States, while extremely rare, can be apparently contracted from armadillos, I kid you not) or something more sinister for his misdeed, who is known as the Silver Man due to the way the light reflects off his…er…skin. Fleete starts quickly turning into a similar creature, gnarling and gnashing, eating raw meat and attacking others, but that is only the beginning of the story, and I won’t give away much more.

As with many of the fictions of the period, most were written by men about men. In the original short story, there is talk of a nurse, but all the main characters are male. Co-directors Gorman and Seymour not only take a turn at the gender, they have the lead and first-person narration personified by Debbie (in the original story, the narrator is unnamed) voiced over by B-Queen goddess Debbie Rochon, giving yet another top-notch-yet-underappreciated performance; I would arguably say she gives the most naturalistic performance of the lot. It’s kind of a shame that the person who receives top billing, who seems to be there mostly so the film has a name, is the diminutive Ellen Muth, the star of the spectacular Dead Like Me series. It is good to see her work as I certainly enjoyed the AMC show, and she is a superb actor, but she doesn’t really do much here more than be in the shots as a brought-along friend (lover?) of another character (Margaret Champagne) who was not in the Kipling story. Yeah, it’s great they’ve added women roles, as I said, but I would like it to be more substantial than just peripheral characters who are there to scream and panic, or be fodder for… nah, not giving it away.

One of the comments often made about the original story is that there is a bit of torture thrown in by two of the main characters, including Strickland (Dick Boland) who is a police officer trying to get information, and to help his obnoxious friend (acquaintance?), Fleete, recover. In the original, Kipling skips over this part and a couple of other gruesome moments as the narrator refusing to put it down to writing. But now, we live in a post-9/11, Homeland and 24 world. Many people in the West are having attitude changes towards getting information any way possible because of their fears, real or imagined. For example, the torture report about the CIA under the Bush Administration is released to a resounding “Is Miley pregnant?” attitude. Now, during the commentary the directors say they are against the practice, but there is a bit less of the shying away of Kipling’s to the technique. Here the camera lingers on the gruesome inflictions.

There are some nice additions and touches added here, such as uber-Christian Strickland trying – with Debbie’s help – in an exorcism. Strickland, once realizing that Christianity isn’t going to change anything, and that the monkey god may also have some power in the situation, decides he and Debbie need to take matters in their own hands, with cudgels in hand in a nicely blue tinted day-for-night chase. Going from God loving to torturer seems like a natural progression. And what does one gain if one loses their own soul, is the – er – soul of the story, both the original and this interpretation.

What I find amusing about adaptations like this, where they take a story from another time and culture zone and update it is how they leverage the older with the modern. Even though some of the language is the same, the addition of profanity seems to be a way to say, “Hello! This is now, people, not then!” I don’t believe it’s a good or bad thing, just a bemused observation.

The make-up effects look better than the budget implies, with the blisters and dusky, scaly skin of the leper working into the story. The bite marks left by Fleete look appropriately gory in an almost modern zombie touch, if shown – er – fleetingly. Much of the cast also doubles as crew, including producers and many other hats. That is a sign of dedication that I respect, being willing to work hard on both sides of the camera, and more than just as a cameo appearance (such as the opening party scene), which is always needed in a micro-budget indie.

Filmed around Voluntown, Connecticut, the woods look mysterious and deep, and isolated (the sign of decent camerawork). The footage is color graded to give impressions, such as the previously mentioned blue-hued night shots. Unless used garishly in extremes, such as in, say, Creepshow (1982), if used correctly as it is here, it can convey subtle moods and ambience, pushing those micro-dollars quite a bit further.

I think it’s important to note that the film has added a really nice touch to the ending of the story, beyond where Kipling tread, showing the futility of… well, I’m not going to say. This is definitely a film worth watching, but know that there are squeamish parts because of the humanity/inhumanity of it (unlike, say, torture porn) for those mainstream viewers. For the genre fan, this may actually seem a bit mild in the action, but in the larger picture, it points to the flaws in the way we may think or believe.

The “Making of The Beast” extra is 12 minutes of the first and last day of shooting, and keeps it interesting as we meet the make-up mavens, introductions to most of the cast, and general discussions thankfully on-set as opposed to talking head interviews, which can be fun but are less in-the-moment. Other extras are two of the film’s official trailers, and two winners of a college contest for best editing of a trailer and teaser. They take Sergei Eisenstein’s posit of editing = action seriously, and both are well done. However, the feature itself actually uses very lax editing, using longer than usual shots, which is noted with joy by me in this post music video/mainstream action film world.

Lastly, there is the Commentary Track with the two directors. They had previously directed the Bikini Bloodbath series, so it’s good to hear them talk about the film from various technical as well as personal aspects. They are obviously knowledgeable about cinema history, not just horror, so the pace keeps up. There is a bit less of goofiness between them here, and more actual film talk so I can say positive things about the track, as they take it seriously, but not dryly so. The biggest revelation to me was that they intended this to be vague as far as time and location, though considering the lack of melanin (with one exception in a b-roll cameo, who was also part of the crew) and tans of the cast, I can only say “USA.”

I’ve watched it twice now, and it has kept its integrity throughout, so I say go for it.
Thing on the Doorstep trailer: HERE