Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: Dark Mountain

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet 

Dark Mountain
Written and directed by Tara Anaïse
Superstitious Films
81 minutes, 2013 / 2014

You know what drives me crazy about found footage films? It’s not the shaky camera, the grainy look, the too-dark scenes, the running with the camera on… okay, I guess that, too. My problem though, is that you already know everyone is going to die, because it says so right there on the box, so there’s no suspense in that part: X group goes to Y remote location where Z bad thing happened before, and were never found again. Then add that this is a “reconstruction of their last days.” Not even ”original” found footage, but speculation?

While I realize that it may sound like I am approaching this with a negative attitude, it’s actually the opposite. You see, I am hoping it is going to be better, by turning old clichés into something new.

I totally admit to the reader that I wrote that above before seeing the film, which I am placing into my players now. See you on the other side.

Aaaaaaaand, I’m back.

The plot is as follows: three filmmakers (why is it almost always three, just because The Blair Witch Project [1999] did it?) who go to investigate a mine in the Superstitious Mountains, a real place in the Arizona desert where supposedly the Dutchman buried some gold (this is an actual local legend there), and many people seem to have disappeared looking for it.

With cameras and lights that are used constantly and never seem to run out of juice, our very attractive twenty-something trio, a couple (Sage Howard and Andrew Simpson) and a friend (Shelby Stehlin), camp in the scrub and then run around a lot – and I mean most of the picture – in the dark (like the Blair Witch Project [BWP]), with only the camera lights or night-vision scope turned on.

The picture starts with the woman of the trio sobbing in her tent, afraid [BWP; though happily no dripping snot from the nose seen this time] before flashing back to some locals being interviewed on camera documentary-style [BWP] about the strange goings on and thereby helping with the exposition. These are non-actors, and come across as the everyday public that they are [BWP].

Getting back to our trio, they track through the desert on foot and camp out after doing the interviews, so we’re already at the half-hour mark. Some cool mysterious things happen with… no, I’m not going to tell you, but I liked it. Of course this leads to more running around in the dark among the desert shrubs.

There are a couple of scenes in the titular dark mountain, but most of the action actually occurs in the dark desert. Lots of mysterious things happen that are unexplainable, but by the time any consistent action, other than teasingly occasional flair-ups, there’s about 10 minutes left in the thing. And you’ll never guess: it happens at night. In the dark. With just the camera lights. Heck, maybe they should have planned it around a full moon?

This isn’t the greatest film in the world¸ and can only be considered adequate, even for the found footage genre. I am disappointed because I was rooting for the female East Indian-American director to succeed.

The filmmaking is full of genre clichés, right down to the being pulled backwards by the feet into the dark gag that’s been in too many films in the past few years (can we let that one go now, please?), as indicated by the cover art above, but most of the action is right out of the BWP playbook, a release I always thought was overrated film as it was.

But the biggest annoyance of the film was the way the vocals were turned down, and the music turned up. Even at top volume, I had trouble hearing what the trio were saying most of the time, but the occasional music was so loud I jumped from that suddenly coming on more than the action (or lack thereof) that was onscreen. At first I thought the sound problem was my computer, but during the extras (the only extras), which is extended interviews of a few of the locals, the sound was crisp and clear. All things considered, though, I thought the acting was top notch, and deserves to be noted.

This is a first and only full length release for director Anaïse to date, but I hope she keeps filming, and comes up with some cinematic ideas of her own. Make me proud, and Namaste!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: Indemnity: Rage of a Jealous Vampire

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet
Indemnity: Rage of a Jealous Vampire
Written, edited and directed by David Dietz
z-Diet-3 Productions
World Wide Multi Media (WWMM)
60 minutes, 2010 / 2012

Just a little bit of housecleaning first: the film is mostly known as simply Indemnity, as that was its original release title, but the DVD- issue title has been enhanced. This actually makes sense to me as there is no way to tell “Indemnity” is any more than a payback Noir or crime drama. Even we dim reviewers like a bit of a clue as to what we’re watching.

Films located in a Roadhouse are pretty common, especially after the 1936 Bette Davis classic, The Petrified Forest. Heck I’ve even reviewed one recently from Down Under on this blog called Savages Crossing (2011). But of course, this release has an added element of the supernatural, thankfully.

William (director David Dietz) is on the run from his beautiful and petite girlfriend. You can approximate why from the title. But there’s more than meets the eye going on here, fer sher. He finds himself in a C&W honky-tonk bar (filmed at Rinky Dinks Roadhouse in Amity, Pennsylvania!). There, Billyboy meets up with bullyboys Bubba and Zeke (now-retired professional wrestlers Seth James and CJ Sensation, respectively), a friendly and flirtatious waitress, Irlene (Megan Yost), and the willing ear / soundboard (i.e., the viewer gets to hear exposition) bartender Joe (Dan I. Radakovich). But you know she is coming.

While William is the protagonist, he also comes across as, well, a tool. I was kind of hoping he was going to get his by the time it was over. As for 5’3” Angela (musician / model / actor Crystalann Jones, who often goes by her first name alone), she kicks ass, and looks good doing it.

Crystalann Jones and David Dietz
Like many micro-budgeters, the crew is also much of the cast (especially Yost, it seems, who has her hands in nearly everything), and most of the filming is either at the bar or on a deserted road. No digital effects that I could tell, but none needed, really. There’s blood, but I wouldn’t call it a bloodbath, just enough to get your – er – mouth wet. I also enjoyed catching some of the shortcuts taken (the way Angela jumps up to – and down from – a table, for example).
The acting is mostly pretty respectable, and director David does manage to get some sympathy for a number of the characters, as well as the appropriate anger at others. Also, even though I could see the ending a mile away, it was handled in a way that was still well written and shot. What I could say I would change would be minor, such as the Bubba’s overuse of the word “boy” as a threat, and I there is one word in the new title that needs to be revised, but that’s picky stuff, really.

There are lots of extras on the DVD, including the trailer, slideshow, and an interesting albeit overlong behind the scenes where we get to see them shooting a key set piece. The two deleted scenes are meh, but the alternative two takes with a different actor than Crystalann as Angela is quite interesting.

The last extra is a 20 minute B&W short film (and trailer) from 2010 titled Shade’s Last Run, directed by Jason Bender, and also stars David Dietz. It’s an interesting piece of Noir with a nice twist to it, and actually quite a balanced companion to the main feature.

For a film that more novella than novel, Dietz does a lot with the story, brings in some refreshingly new ideas on an old trope, and he even manages a bit of humor here and there. It’s a good showcase for him, as well as the rest of the cast.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review: Dead Kansas

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

Dead Kansas
Directed by Aaron K. Carter
Rotten Productions
64 minutes, 2013

I guess it’s kind of obvious that there are going to be references to the Wizard of Oz, even if you’re dealing with a post-apocalyptic zombie flick. To give you just three quick examples from the first 15 minutes and then I’ll leave it alone, promise:

1.    It begins in B&W
2.    One of the main character’s name is Emma, or for short, Em (i.e., “Auntie Em!”)
3.    A tornado.

There, I got that out of my system, so let’s move on, shall we?

Emma I (Alexandria Lightford)
and her dad Glenn (Aaron Guerrero)
We are introduced into a dystopic Kansas that is a mixture of The Walking Dead and The Road Warrior (1981). The zombie catastrophe has come and a significant time has passed, enough for everything to “normalize.” Known simply as “Rottens” for obvious reasons, everyone is pretty calm about them, and are more concerned about how to survive food shortages, supplies, and apparently a lack of suitable – er – mates, i.e., someone to continue the human race. It’s a very Republican way of thinking in my mind: We barely have enough food for ourselves, so to hell with birth control, let’s procreate!

An interesting concept presented by Carter is that the viewer doesn’t get to see the Rottens, but rather we get to occasionally see through their eyes, in black and white.

As the film weans on, so does the desperation of the characters. One could see this as a kind of Christian parable, being the protagonists are solid believers in the big JC, while the bad guys follow the path of the unrighteous. Now I know this is was filmed before the rise of groups such as those in Africa or the Middle East, but there is a similarity between the gang mentalities of outlaw macho men seeing women as slaves to sell. This is obviously a coincidence on the film’s side, but on the other hand, it can also be seen as somewhat prescient to what has occurred since its release, sad to say.

Antagonist, guitarist and
Noddy Holder|look-alike Michael Camp
Another “Biblical” indicator, knowingly or unconsciously by the writers, is that it is the women who first become infected as Rottens that starts the apocalypse, then turning on the men, is sort of the traditional Eve and Adam allegory.

The film is actually a five-part Web series that has been collected into a single set, which flows pretty evenly, coming across as chapters (indicated by title cards). Because it was filmed over time, part by part, that means some actors will be in some chapters, but not others. Hell, even the main character, Emma, does a Darrin (or Becky, if you will), in the first half played by Alexandria Lightford and Erin Miracle in the second. Actually, it felt a bit seamless, though in retrospect, definitely different in the cheekbones. Still, it works, and that’s what matters.

The two Emmas: Erin Miracle and
Alexandria Lightford
The ponytailed, wild-eye villain is played by musician Michael Camp, whose last name in this case is accurate. Let me be clear, much of the acting in this film is either over the top or wooden, but I really insist that it should not get in the way of either watching it or affect the quality of the viewing. In fact, it’s part of the fun in this case.

For example, the only other female in the cast (other than part of the background) is Juliette Danielle, who plays Emma’s mom in a flashback. She is known, especially in the Canadian Prairies, as the lead in what is commonly referred to as the worst film made in the 21 Century, The Room (2003), which has an enormous cult following (e.g., yearly screening get sold out in Saskatchewan). Juliette comes across fine here; in fact, she is one of the better actors of the troupe. My point is, it’s not just the acting, or the writing, or the cinematography, it’s the whole enchilada, and in this case, it’s worth the view.

I think it’s a smart idea to (mostly) not show the Rottens. It’s sort of like in General Semantics when they don’t use the “to be” verb. The crew needs to find different ways around the story that enhance it by demanding difference, which makes the film more of a psychological battle rather than just aim-and-shoot gore. Lots of gun (and pitchfork) usage, as well as other action, but taken from a bit of a different perspective. It also saves on the make-up budget, as well, I assume. The addition of some comic moments also moves things along.

Movies are a mindset. The biggest mistake mainstream viewers make is to approach a micro-budget indie with the same standards as a multi-million dollar blockbuster. That’s like going to see Clerks (1994) and expecting it to be like Ocean’s Eleven (2001), to pick another genre; it’s just not realistic, and gets in the way.

Dead Kansas may be just over an hour, but it goes quickly and mostly enjoyably.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Review: The Sins of Dracula

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

The Sins of Dracula
Directed and edited by Richard Griffin
Scorpio Films Releasing
80 minutes / 2014
The film can be obtained HERE.

When I was an undergrad in Brooklyn, I was invited to a screening of a film on campus that was marketed to us as modelled on The Exorcist, and being the horror fan, I said sure. It ended up being sponsored by the Jews for Jesus and the Newman House Catholic Club organizations, with a mallet-heavy message of accept Jesus or burn! For the college newspaper, as its reviewer, I not only panned it, I ridiculed the message and had both those organizations try to kick me off campus. And this was a year before I started hanging out in CBGB’s.

There is a whole subgenre of accept Jesus or burn!!! films out there, this seems to play mostly on campuses and Southern high schools, or to teenage church groups. While it’s becoming more popular in the mainstream, with the Kirk Cameron Left Behind series at the forefront, it is still worthy of ridicule It’s about time someone did a spoof of it. Sure, Saved! (2004) did a nice job on the mentality behind these beliefs, this is the first I know to actually be modelled on the genre, and apparently Richard Griffin is just the guy to do that. The Sins of Dracula takes this sub-standard subgenre and methodically breaks it down, wisely taking the less-than-subtle message and making it a less-than-subtle comedy, using the same tropes to say the opposite.

Sarah Nicklin
If you haven’t been following Griffin’s career, this New England filmmaker has made some of my favorite films over the past few years, such as Exhumed (2011), The Disco Exorcist (2011), and Murder University (2012), all of which you can find my reviews elsewhere on this blog site. Also wisely, he has chosen a talented cast he is mostly familiar with from these other releases (I will use the initials of the films in which they appear from this list after their names).

Seemingly taking place in the late 1980s, if I’m judging the photos on the walls correctly, Billy (Jamie Dufault; MU) is a “pure” and innocent lad who sings in his church choir, but is itching for more. His girlfriend, Shannon (the ever exquisite Sarah Nicklin; E, DE) is a bit more… in the real world, i.e., her tempter Eve to his innocent Adam, and convinces him to join her theatre troupe (aka the body count). The company is full of out there characters, including the New Wave guy (who is more pre-Goth than New Wave, in my opinion), the shy gay guy, the hallucinating druggie guy, the nerd gamer girl Traci (the also exquisite Samantha Acampora; MU)… well, you get the drift.

Jamie Dufault
As preachy as this subgenre tends to be, this film, written by Michael Varrati, uses the form to be mockingly sermonizing in another direction, with such great lines as, “Your whole world is based around a man getting nailed to wood, and Lance’s whole world is based around getting nailed by a man’s wood,” or “I promise you, you won’t live to regret it!” There’s also a part where the main character is praying and he says, “Dear, Lord, it’s me, Billy. No, the other one? From choir? I know it’s been about a half hour since we last talked…” So many others, but I don’t want to show too much of the hand before you see it.

The over-the-top-ego and dressed all in red director of this theater production is, of course, named Lou Perdition (Steven O’Broin).  If you don’t know, Perdition is your time in hell after you die, if you follow Christian dogma. His assistant, the sarcasm-dripping Kimberly (the also exquisite Elyssa Baldassarri; MU), is equally smug with obviously a secret to hide (that I will not give away).

Samantha Acampora
It makes sense that the framework for the film revolves around an indie theater group, since so much of the cast has its history in local theater, especially Michael Thurber (E, DE, MU), who plays the titular character of Dracula with finesse and grace (of course), who also the founder and artistic director of the Theater Company of Rhode Island. What makes it even more charming is that Thurber is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He is, one may say, Griffin’s acting muse, and has appeared in nearly all of his films. Thurber has shown a level of elegance in Exhumed and in a campy way that is appropriate for this release, he continues on that role. I’m definitely a fan.

This is one damn enjoyable piece of work, but at exactly one hour in, it ramps up and it’s almost like the same film on adrenaline. The comedy is more pointed (it was already sharp, but it goes from ginsu to katana), the visuals are bloodier, and the comedic drama even more enthralling. Fuck, let’s just break it down and say it gets even more fun. The dialog between Billy and the Pastor (Carmine Capobianco who is often a regular in James Balsalmo’s films, e.g., I Spill Your Guts (2012) and Cool as Hell (2013), both also reviewed elsewhere in this blog) had me laughing so hard, I actually had to play it again to hear the parts I missed!

Michael Thurber
Billy and Pastor Johnson head off to bring down Dracula and his minions. They are joined by an exorcising (another well-played short set piece reminiscent of Richard Pryor’s Saturday Night Live spoof from 1975) Latino hardass soul brother Pastor Gibson (Jose Guns Alvez) that could have been a replacement for Shaft. This is where I am going to stop with any kind of story description, because you really need to see this.

Rigidly religious films are not the only model used here. There are a lot of Hammer Films influences, from Thurber’s take on Christopher Lee’s Dracula (who also did not talk much in the heady early Hammer days of the 1950s-‘60s) to the stark primary lighting of red and blue (and some green), which gives it an appropriate ‘80s feel, like something out of Creepshow (1982), or Dario Argento’s canon. Usually the sharper the color, the more intense the action, is how this works, y’see. If you didn’t know that, horror fans, y’need t’do some schoolin’.

Elyssa Baldassarri
On a sociological level, there are many aspects that one could note. For example, there is a lot of playing with sexuality (plenty of sensuality and sex acts here, but no nudity to note). In one instance, there is a mash-up of two separate couples, one straight and one gay, as if to say there is no difference. I like that one could interpret that as both are expressing love, or both are equally sinning (to paraphrase a bumpersticker I once saw, “Oh, Lord, protect me from your interpreters”). In another moment, someone comments on someone who is transgendered, though taking place in the ‘80s, so there is no “populous” word for it. That was a sly addition by Varrati that made my media theory mind perk up. There is actually a lot of justifying of actions through both positive and negative religious followings, which I believe is where this film’s tongue is firmly in cheek, as it were.

Thurber makes a strong-but-silent Dracula. He plays his character with his eyes and mouth a lot, as did Lee, and also subtly uses his hand movements to indicate menace, or acknowledgement (e.g., see the ring? Beeeeware!). One of the thoughts that went through my head is that the center of evil is actually the Theater’s artistic director, a role Thurber possesses in real life. I hope he got as much a kick out of that thought as did I.

There are three extras, all worthwhile. The first is a short, 10-minute fake trailer which is amazing called "They Stole the Pope's Blood" (pssst, you can find it on YouTube, but don't tell anyone). There are also two excellent commentary tracks, one with the director, Richard Griffin, and the writer, Lenny Schwartz, and the other with lead pair Sarah Nicklin and Jamie Dufault, and again, but not least, Griffin. It actually was worth sitting through the film two extra times to hear it, as it's full of interesting anecdotes rather than fluff. A great package altogether.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: The Campground

© Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films
Images from the Internet
The Campground
Directed by Roman Jossart
Studio 605 / SydSo Media
54 minutes, 2013

Even though the “Kids go to woods à kids get dead” subgenre of slasher films is a pretty common opening gambit for new filmmakers, Roman Jossart (aka RoJo) takes some firm steps in the right direction.

He has stated that he has filtered the light more to the green than blue to set himself apart from the crowd, which is a good way of thinking in my book, but even without that, the film looks pretty good. The lighting, even for the night scenes, is nicely achieved. You can only see what the camera wants you to see, so the bleak and darkness that surround the characters is almost a driver in itself (plus it helps hide the real and used Indiana RV Camp where it was filmed). Also, the editing does not rely on the quick cuts to hide the action. I’m guessing RoJo used one camera (let me know if I’m wrong), so shots linger a bit, giving the viewer more of the feel of the scene and location. Thanks for that, alone.

Another good choice is that the set-up scene for the horrors to come is embedded in the film rather than at the head of it, though yes, there is a bloody prologue. Still, I actually prefer it this way than the standard “Michael kills his family, and now it is years later” kind of trope. Here’s the set-up is as a campfire ghost story, and though that’s been done before, it’s still different enough from most to be appreciated.

The cast of couples heading to camp out is large enough to make a decent size body count, although the downside of course is that the more people there are, the less exposition. What motivates these people?  For example, one finds his girlfriend dead, and races back to the rest of the group who basically take it like, Well, okay, I guess we should hang out and drink beer while you calmly walk to the car to get help. Me, I woulda been outta there faster than butter melts on the sun. This calmness in the face of death is, to me, one of the major flaws of the film. I mean, the main character (played by the director) is more concerned with the loss of his mask than about his dead or missing friends. My suspension of disbelief took a bit of a hit with that one.

Two other quick things in this regard: there’s a killer on the loose, so why would someone sneak off to use the camp’s bathroom rather than in the sightline of companions, never mind without letting anyone know, and if the killer calls someone on a cell phone, that means there is service, so why not call the coppers?  But, moving on…

The use of death by screwdriver is cool, especially since it’s the more painful (i.e., less sharp) Phillips Head rather than a Flathead, although the Canadian Robertson Squarehead would be even more disturbing, he said with a wicked smile.  While this isn’t the only means of dispatching, it is the most oft used, to satisfying effect.

RoJo is obviously a fan of the Friday the 13th series (see his ~30-minute fan film short HERE), and this film is an outcropping of that. Heck, there’s even a sequel coming (apparently, heroes can’t do simple math).

While the nudity is nonexistent and the blood is kept to a minimum, the effects that are employed keep the story moving, and even with the occasional holes in the story, such as those mentioned above, for a first go-at-it, and the minimal budget (IMDB lists it as $3,000, which means it’s probably less), RoJo does a commendable freshman job. If you’re a genre fan, I think you’ll get a kick out of it.