Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Normal

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

Directed by Richard Griffin
Scorpio Films Releasing
89 Minutes, 2013

And it is no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.
2 Corinthians 11:14

Many directors it seems, especially ones known for releases generally having some level of humor, at some point want to make a “serious” movie. Most, such as Woody Allen with Interiors (1978), are arguably not successful (it was a beautiful film that critics loved, but it bored audiences). Director Richard Griffin had tried this before with much more success with his bleak, black and white noir thriller Exhumed (2011), which I rated as the best indie film I had seen that year.

Sarah Nicklin and Michael Reed
Taking a step into even darker material – albeit this time in color – Griffin once again joins forces with his Exhumed leads Sarah Nicklin and Michael Reed, only this time with Reed as the focal point rather than Nicklin. But as with most films that pair them, they are some form of a couple, such as in The Disco Exorcist (2011).
Let me say, as a straight Ally, Reed is one handsome fella. Luckily, he does not really need to rely merely on that as he is also one damn fine actor. He plays Jim, who owns a run-down apartment building in Boston (he even drives past the Citgo sign, giving me fond memories of The Rat[skeller] club, but I digress…), apparently co-owned with his brother, Tom (Nathaniel Sylva giving a solid and emotional performance). Jim is also the not so handy superintendent, unsuccessfully able to fix fluttering hallway lights or thermostats, thematically matching his mind and moods, perhaps. Now, his brother is pressuring him to sign away the building to be sold for his own – yet understandable – reasons we come to learn. So, poor Tom is feeling quite some pressure in his life.

Elyssa Baldassarri and Michael Reed
Along with his brother, there is also strain from a number of the tenants who desperately seem to want something of – not just from – him through some form of affection and attention, including both genders (yes I know gender is more than binary, but let’s move on). Through flashbacks and verbal hints, the viewer learns some of the key secrets of the story at the end of the first act, but that certainly should not have you give up, but rather put a little additional jam on the toast, if you will, because the ride is just getting more interesting.
The tenants and a couple of visitors are part of what makes this film so… disturbingly curious. For example, there’s Reed’s companion who often comes and goes named Shelley, played by the amazing… Sarah Nicklin. That pause is because I was going to call her a Scream Queen, but honestly, you can tell she can play beyond the genre. Let me further say, as a straight Ally, Nicklin is an attractive woman. I’ve seen a few of her films, and when she and Reed have scenes together, there is definite magic as they play off each other so well.

The mysterious Michael Thurber
There is also a married couple (Monica Saviolakis and Rich Tretheway, who just keeps getting better in every film I see him in), two women who almost remind me of the twins from The Shining (1980), amusingly named April and June (Samantha Acampora  and Shannon Hartman, respectively), the older man who has a crush on Jim (David Erin Wilson), and a woman constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Elyssa Baldassarri, also giving an extremely strong performance somewhere between pathos and scarred; I’m looking forward to seeing her first lead role in Griffin’s latest, Accidental Incest: The Musical, which was just released, and soon to be reviewed here). Then, of course, there is the mysterious stranger, sharply portrayed by Griffin regular, Michael Thurber. Thurber can sometimes be over the top when he should be, in comedies like Future Justice(2014), Dr. Frankenstein’s Wax Museum of the Hungry Dead (2013) or The Sins of Dracula (2014), but when he hunkers down to serious roles like here and Exhumed, man, is he a force to reckon with.

Samantha Acampora
Griffin’s sense of the scene, placement of the camera, lighting, and mood are impeccable. There’s one shot of Tom leaving a bar with the soon to be full frontal Patrick Keefe, which is so well done, I actually backed it up to watch three or four times, with each viewing I noticing something different. From the dull, yellowish lighting to one that is bright and glaringly stark white to show, again, state of mind, the direction is nearly a character in itself.

While the symbolism runs higher than usual, unlike with, say, Interiors, it never gets in the way of the story, a fault that tends to run in those trying to make “art” instead of a good film. There is a reason why so many quality actors flock to and then stick around for other Griffin films, because (a) it really looks like they are supported by the director, (b) the roles are juicy as get-out, and (c) he makes quality films. There is no other director I know who is this prolific (18 full features and a few shorts in 11 years) and retains the high level of quality.

Helping along of course is the writer, Lenny Schwartz, who has penned a couple of Griffin’s other films, including the above mentioned Accidental Incest. Schwartz has a very sharp sense of humor, a touch of the deranged, and knows how to tell a story. I mean, if he can give away key plot points a third of the way through and still not have it be anti-climactic, that really is saying tons.

One would be hard pressed to call this a splatterfest, and blood is kept to a minimum, but its presence is more meaningful than your average killer film, but that’s because Normal delves us ore into what makes one do terrible things, and yet manages to keep us in suspense, as a thriller should.
As usual, Schwartz and Griffin play with cultural gender roles, with no character necessarily being 100% anything other than themselves,  and giving the audience enough credit to accept that. As it should be. Just playing with the theme of what is normal and what is “not” can be taken on many levels here. Sure, there is the mental question, but where does that line fall, and more importantly, who is to say what is “normal?” Greenwich Village? Indiana? Fangoria? Me?  

There are a bunch of points I would love to discuss about the ending here, but won’t for obvious reasons. Let’s have some tea, and we can talk.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: Motivational Growth

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

Motivational Growth
Written and directed by Don Thacker
Parade Deck Films / Imagos Films
104 minutes, 2013 / 2014

When we meet Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) – whose last name could possibly signify “folly” or “fall over,” regarding a scene early on – he hasn’t been outside his apartment in 16 months. He has no job, has no ambition, and has no life, really. The three strongest things in his existence are the literal and existential mess he’s living in, the Commodore Cabinet TV that he has named Kent and he considers his best / only friend, and his deep and dark depression. We meet him as he blankly flips through the channels of this imaginary October 1991, and then Kent finally goes kablooey. Enough is enough.

After some machinations that I won’t detail, he finds that there is a huge mold growing in his bathroom that not only has teeth and a mouth, but talks to him. The Mold (the voice of indie horror icon Jeffrey Combs) sounds like Robert Stack and talks in Noir detective story metaphors that would make Mickey Spillane either smirk or wince.

When things start to – er – normalize with Ian and The Mold, The Mold tries to snap Ian out of his stupor, to shave and clean house, and to make a play for the hottie next door, Leah (Danielle Doetsch) who appears to be almost as nutty as Ian. Actually every character in the film has a bit of a screw loose, from the landlord’s enforcer who asks questions and then yells “Shut Up!” before Ian can respond, to a television repairman who licks the big screen of the TV. But something even weirder and possibly sinister is up.

The dark comedy in this story may not be for everyone, but it sure worked for me. I can see elements from so many other films, but the off-kilter tone and over-the-top characters (and sometimes purposeful hamming strongly reminded me of a 1989 classic that I believe may not have ever been released on DVD called Dr. Caligari

One of the ways Motivational steps on convention is to have Ian talk directly into the camera, not only to explain what is going on in his head, but for exposition as well. At the oddest times, he will stop an action, or just take a step back and face the audience, and talk about his life, both before and during the present moment. At first this is a bit surprising, but that passes quickly as the viewer gets into the rhythm of the action. I mean, there’s a talking fungus, so it’s not like there is any kind of suspension of disbelief needed, thankfully.

The most obvious comparison, story-wise, is probably going to be the MTV film from 1996, Joe’s Apartment, where a lonely guy is desperate for the girl next door and is aided and abetted by thousands of singing and dancing waterbugs (aka, American cockroaches; the small ones are German Cockroaches, FYI). But I say, unlike what’s going on in the music industry, the stories may have similar themes, but very different approaches. Here, the humour is less over-the-top (and musical), and more cynical and cinematically blasphemous, which gets a gold star in my book.

The Mold kind of reminds me of Audrey, the plant from Little Shop of Horrors (either 1986 or even the original 1960 one), as the puppet monster seems benign but it’s pretty obvious we just have to wait it out to find out the real purpose of its presence, but of course you know it isn’t everything it claims to be, and a whole bunch more of something else.

The whole pathetic guy adoring the girl next door and creature who may be for or against it are elements is also reflected in a film that came out about the same time as this one by director Dustin Mills called Night of the Tentacles (2013). But what this film reminds me of the most is a story from 1891 (you read that right) by Ambrose Bierce called “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” one of the great and dark early Modern Era short fiction. I’m also sure some reviewer is also going to bring up Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and a few others with similar themes.

Despite all the references, there is quite a bit of exciting elements here, and I want to make sure to note that. Along with the breakdown of the wall between the main character and the viewer (yes, I know you can bring up The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show [1950]), the intermingling with Ian and the television programs, and occasionally turning the entire film into an 8-bit video game, it’s actually the combination of all of the above that, along with the acting talent and sharp writing, that make this a fun way to spend a weekend or evening.

While there is some gore, it hardly tops just how disgusting the living room is, never mind the bathroom. Then there is the multitude of green and syrupy vomiting from our less-than-intrepid Ian. DiGiovanni does a superb job producing different shades of Ian’s moods, from nearly catatonic to excited like a puppy, to shock and disgust, and anger. His conversations with The Mold are exceptionally funny and full of clues. For example, The Mold will only call Ian “Jack,” but insists on being called The Mold (and always refers to itself in third person). The shows the power dynamic between the two. However, it’s Jeffrey Comb’s reading of The Mold’s script that keeps the film on the edge of possible rewinds with “What did he just say?!” Actually nearly all the characters give verbal hints throughout, and rewatching makes an “Oh, there it is again” head nod for clues you may have missed the first time around. As the object of desire, Doetsch easily holds her own, with Leah just being quirky enough to be adorable, but not creepy. And they are merely the tip of an extremely large cast for an indie, all of whom manage to make their characters unique.

There is, of course, a whole metaphysical element that I could go into with analysis, but won’t because it would contain too many spoilers, but let’s just say that I figured out what was going on pretty early on, but it did not matter. I still sat through this joyride twice, and enjoyed it both time. Why? Because The Gary knows, indie fan, The Gary knows.

The extras are two trailers, a photo gallery, English subtitles (thank you ) and an excellent commentary track with the director, DiGiovanni, and Combs, who tends to talk over the other two.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Review: Collar

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

Written and directed by Ryan Nicholson
Unearthed Films / Plotdigger Films
77 minutes, 2014

Especially since Hershell Gordon Lewis, there has been gross-out flicks meant to shock as much as entertain. This is a bit different than transgressive cinema, which is both political and “art,” but what I’m talking about is merely meant to make most viewers uncomfortable for the gotcha factor. For this subgenre of brutality, the godfather would have to be Day of the Woman aka I Spit on Your Grave (1978), though the more recent turn of the screw game changers are Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and especially A Serbian Film (2010; reviewed HERE), the latter arguably being the one to top.

Lots of directors are testing these waters, such as Bill Zebub (though he does it often with comedic elements, which almost seem oxymoronic, e.g., Jesus Christ, Serial Rapist [2004]) and Dustin Wayde Mills (with fare such as Her Name Was Torment [2014]). This is also Ryan Nicholson’s realm, with films like as Collar.

This piece of work has been blasted by a number of viewers and reviewers, but I’m going to take a different approach of this, because as I have said in previous blogs, one does not look at a film like this in the same way one may look at a larger budgeted SFX-driven mainstream release, like, say, The Cabin in the Woods (2012) or Final Destination (2000). It is not fair to use the same judging scale for Sharknado (2013) as one does for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

The story-line actually is not as simplistic as these kinds of things usually are, and many elements play out, such as the villain, Massive (Nick Principe) and his back story, the cop Dana (Aiden Dee) and her backstory that also plays into this one, the hooker Maria (Mihola Terzic) and her family and relationships, two scummy hipsters (as they are referred to in the film) who get their jollies playing people against each other and filming it, and other various denizens of the hard street life.

One of the problems with this many divergent stories and the lack of either text editing or budget (or both), is that there are certainly many holes, such as: what happened to the police car? Didn’t the two cops report where they were going? That’s just two. Still, I would like to foster this larger storyline thinking than just someone tied up in a place and being tortured, and that’s essentially it.

Nick Principe
Except for the two main leads, a lot of the acting is a bit wooden, or goofy, and at other times it’s the best that can be gotten from the script; in a case like Momona Komagata (as Rachel, the mondo grosso gravida girlfriend of Dana), you just know in a different film there would be more serious acting and less hamming.

The best performances here are by the two principals. Principe’s Massive is effectively terrifying. With a backstory of childhood abuse by a priest, he takes his mostly silent role and makes him one scary sumbitch. I wonder if his having slightly Arabic looks adds to the subliminal fright. Shaving his head with a piece of glass, or switching moods between blank-faced assaulter (or, as that great philosopher Bugs Bunny might have said, “a ment’l case") to utterly terrified little boy while remembering his past, Principe manages to get all that across barely saying a word. And the fact that after all his brutalizing he still manages to occasionally get a feeling of pity from the viewer shows that the chops are there.

Aidan Dee
As Dana, Dee is not just all plush lips, deep blue eyes and eyebrows that won’t quit, she makes her character vulnerable in so many ways, including being brave with extreme nudity and ultraviolence. If you can make it through her brutal treatment in the first five minutes of the film, which reminded me of a scene from Irreversible (2002), you should be able to handle the rest.

The third character is Maria, a secondary role that transforms over the length of the film. German-born Terzic plays her a bit like she’s stoned much of the time, and that could be the role. But there is room for growth there, it seems to me.

One of the biggest controversies about this film is about the many detailed rape scenes. Sometimes they may be called for in a story, such as with Two Women (1960, for which Sophia Loren won the Academy Award), the revenging I Spit on Your Grave, or its practical remake Demented! (1980; with Harry Reams, RIP). Then there are the gratuitous ones, such as in the otherwise excellent Street Trash (1987), for which I am strongly opposed; I became embroiled in a somewhat heated dialogue with its Associate Producer, Frank Farel, at a private screening over the scene). For this film, I can understand Nicholson is trying to make a point about Massive’s (and others’) brutality, but it goes beyond what is necessary, in my opinion.

I will say that what kind of annoyed me more was lingering shots over the bodies of the women’s victims as they are brutalized, focusing in on breasts while those parts did not have anything to do with the event happening. This is a bit too much real-life rape culture mentality. You want to focus on body parts during a gratuitous shower scene, fine, but during a violent act, it sends a different message. I also realize that the majority of the audience is teenage boys, but remember that teenage girls are starting to get interested in genre films, so why discourage/alienate a growing market?

One aspect I found strange was that the titular device is seen occasionally in the film, but isn’t used until at least the middle of the third act, but isn’t really a central part of the story and tends to be removed easily because no one’s hands are tied. It’s more symbolic than anything else.

Moving onward, I actually like the look of the film, and found that especially impressive. It felt as grimy as it looked, with nearly everyone looking realistically physically filthy, dark and dank. The editing is sharp and the lighting, albeit dark, is appropriate and gloomy. Let’s just say Vancouver is not going to be using this as a vacation marketing tool. I haven’t seen any of Nicholson’s films before, but was captivated by the possibilities that are showing through. I would like to see him have someone help with his scripting and text editing, and encourage him to forge ahead, perhaps with more men in sexual danger, to balance out the sheet.

The extras are a stills gallery, and just under 10 company trailers. I wish more would do this with trailers, as it seems to have fallen off the DVD creation board as more are moving to VoD, but that’s for another blog.
The trailer is HERE

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: Fetish Dolls Die Laughing

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet
Fetish Dolls Die Laughing
Directed by David Silvio
z-Diet-3 Productions / Kiss of Death Productions
World Wide Multi Media (WWMM)
100 minutes, 2011 / 2012

The premise is simple: the creature your parents always invoked when you were a wee one as they tickled you (“It’s the tickle monster!!”; I’ve done this, myself, to my wee ones) is an actual demon that transports from body to body, much like the one in Fallen (1998). You can tell the possessed by the red eyeliner, pale skin and yellow teeth, not to mention the evil giggling of the host.

Now, as a confession, this is not a joyous thing for me as I am hyper-ticklish, much to the dismay of loved ones who I won’t let touch me that way. The last time I punched someone was in junior high, when the much larger kid behind me in line would not stop poking me in the ribs, which for most people is ticklish, but for me is painful. After asking him to stop a few times, I lost my temper, and punched him in the jaw. It was seen by my classmate’s mother who worked in the lunchroom (she, like her son, would later become a principal; RIP Mrs. Daub) and I did not get in trouble for it, but the other kid did.

Point is, most people will see this as a – er – laughing matter, but the terror that is being struck in the story is a bit more palpable to me. This actually made me happy because it added another layer to the onion, as it were.

And you may wonder, how does this deranged demon kill? Well, along with the tickling, he also rips out your innards, with lots of blood and some gore, or as the story goes on, methods of  disposal of  course ramp up. So, of course, the fiend tends to transfers into males, so we can get the great and curious title of the film.

Laura Romeo and Michael McGovern
The first half of the film is a bit convoluted with many different deaths and multiple directions involving not only our happy monster, but other deaths as well, such has by hatchet, leading to an extraordinarily higher than usual body count. This also gives us a chance to be introduced to some of the key players.  Of course, this is also a set up for the action to come in the third act, as we learn the lead cop, Greer English (well played by Laura Romeo) is sort of a Dirty Harriet (or pick-a-TV-cop) who tends to put her own life in danger by going rogue and solo, to nab a killer. You know that’s going to turn out badly, since this is a genre film, and “you don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
A nice proposition is that the tickle monster (or is it Tickle Monster?) invades the body of someone who runs a fetish film company along the lines of W.A.V.E., for those who remember that New Jersey-based company (whose specialty included various fetishes, SM/BD, torture, and tentacles; no I don’t own any of their features) from back in the ‘90s, which introduced some amazing talent, such as the underrated Tina Krause). If you are into fetishes like feet, tickling, plastic wrap bondage, and a host of others, of course, there may be other reasons for watching this.

There is an extremely large cast (including many Italianos), topped by four characters. There is the lead cop, the aforementioned English, and her partner, the love-jealous and borderline sexual harasser Leland Tucker (Angelo Bruni, who looks a lot like a ‘80s Lenny Kaye, right down to the haircut), English’s love interest Adam Bishop (Aaron Bernard), and the possessed wacko fetishist killer, Billy Tagg (Michael McGovern). Now, all due respect meant, McGovern is a decent actor considering his lack of screen credits, but I do find it hard to believe the amount of women way out of his league who throw themselves at him (i.e., victims). Even his late wife, Tanith (Diana Silvio, the director’s spouse), who ran the fetish website which Bill takes over, is quite bosomy and fetching.

There is a lot of sexual tension, attractive women, short skirts, and displays of fetishism, but surprisingly no visual naughty bits. Yet Silvio makes the film kind of weirdly sensual and sexual without it. Again, tickling or feet aren’t my things, but watching other peoples’ out of control lust is fascinating, in the words of the late, great Mr. Spock. The gore is effective and not overdone, though it’s more blood than viscera. However, the ickiest moment to me is when a main character doesn’t wash hands after using bathroom.

Technically, this is a dark comedy, so there’s lots of self-references throughout, sometimes quite subtle as done in An American Werewolf In London (1981), such as someone on the phone saying “You don’t sound tickled to death to be there,” or we see a young couple in a loving tickle fight. One of my fave moments is a cigarette bit at a hospital early on that I won’t ruin.

Sure there is a lot of goofiness, and none of the fetishes are mine, as I said, and yet, despite some wooden acting, this film is actually successfully effective. Part of the reason for that is it’s not just tickling, not just toes (though a lot of that), but a string of many scenarios that play out in a Hershell Gordon Lewis / The Wizard of Gore (1970) bloody kind of way. The body count is large, as I stated, which is all the better to balance out its moments of silliness (again, not meant as an insult in any way, because, well, this is a micro-budgeter with a huge cast, and is supposed to be a dark comedy), such as a smiley-face blanket on the torture table.

For me, the problems with the film are just logistical, which really shouldn’t be applied in cases like these, but it’s the way my analytical brain (or some other organ) works. For example, the torture chamber is set up a room in an apartment. Wouldn’t other tenants hear the screams? And there is at least one attempted escaper in a prone position who could have easily have raised a knee hard enough to cause some damage and escape, but of course, that would lower the count. Also, the echo in the Maniac (1980) inspired dream sequences are just a bit too reverbatory (yeah, I know it’s not a Scrabble-worthy word) to make it clear what is being said. But mostly, it could use a bit of trimming to keep it less than 90 minutes.

It’s obvious from the beginning they are setting up the go-on-her-own main character to fall victim to the tickler, so I’m not giving anything away there, but the question is, though, does she get out of it. Not gonna tell. But I will say that one of the aspects of the finale was not what I was expecting, which I admired.

The extras are a 9-minute deleted scenes collection that mostly doesn’t add much, a decent gag reel, a trailer, and two “Webinars,” which are actually two decent short films worth watching.

So, to sum up, despite the incredibly silly name of the film, it is actually a fun ride in part for the lack of single direction of the story, and by adding elements to the plot – such as a second murder storyline – it becomes more interesting than just goofy.

As a side note, this was a perfect time to see this release as another big budget fetish film you may have heard of called, oh what was that again… oh, yeah, Shades of Grey (2015), opened in theaters all over. Coincidence? That question tickles my fancy.

Trailer HERE