Saturday, April 4, 2015

Review: The Killer 4 Pack: The Day of the Dead; Jezebeth; Carnage: the Legend of Quiltface; Hellweek: Grindhouse Edition

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

The Killer 4 Pack
SGL Entertainment
358 minutes, 2014

SGL Entertainment is a relatively new releasing company that has purchased a few dozen films, and is now releasing them. They also are starting their own franchise called Jezebeth, the first of which is included in this collection.

The Day of the Dead
[aka El dia los muertos]
Directed by Ricardo Islas
Alpha Studios
106 minutes, 2007
Not to be confused with the George Romero …of the Dead franchise, the title here refers to the November 2nd Latino holiday, where the dead walk the earth. This is certainly a good film to start off this collection. It has a professional look, it has depth, and it has a message. Actually, a number of them.

Venezuelan-born director Ricardo Islas shot the film in Chicago and Joliet (about 45 miles apart), focusing in on a gang of five (three males, two females) who get their kicks by brutally killing homeless women. This isn’t a “wilding” kind of thing where people are picked randomly, they are methodical, smart, and “take their time,” as a coroner says. Also, most of them are white.

Their newest sights are on an illegal Mexican woman, Ana (Rosa Isela Frausto), who is desperate for work as a domestic, to get money to go home as she does not like the big city. When they focus in on her, well, you know it will end badly.

Islas takes his time with the story. We get to meet the characters, to get some degree of history of Ana, so when things go wrong, we feel a degree of loss, unlike most slashers where everyone is there merely to meet their end, and their deaths are only considered collateral damage. Here, even as the death metal blares and the perpetrators are reveling in their bloodlust, some pity is felt for Ana. We also feel for the lead detective in the case who is going solo lobo, the lovely Carla (Christina De Leon); she gets in a bit over her head.

The film has a gritty urban feel, reminiscent of majors like The French Connection (1971) or Death Wish (1974). Streets are dirty, alleys have stagnant water, and buildings are brick blockhouses, giving us a Taxi Driver (1976) tour. It feels like the ‘70s all over again. And each of the three acts is almost their own genre. For example, the first is a bit like a slasher film, the middle a detective story, and the final, well, let’s just say it’s a revenge story. Each has elements that overlap the others, so the feel is organic (unlike, say, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 [2003] and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 [2004], which are completely different genre styles).

The one fault I could pick on is that someone breaks a pair of handcuffs on a piece of stone. Not just the chain, the whole thing falls off at once. That would not work with tungsten steel, the material ‘cuffs are made of these days. But hey, if that’s it, we’re in good shape, y’knowhadimsayin’?

Not just a crime drama, and not just a horror film, not just a revenge tale, Islas also has some social commentary mixed in on both a blatant and subtle level. Filmed during the incompetent GW Bush years, there is discussion of illegal immigration and the effect on those immigrants (Bush’s “reuniting families” speech is shown for the farce it is), white power and privilege, how uncommonly high the assault and rape statistics for women are in the Latino community, and the lack of city, state and federal funding to help through community centers. But he doesn’t just go the easy and too common road of Evil = Whites, as two of the murderous group are women of color (one is a bi-asthmatic), even though the three males are white and racist (yet the white leader is in a relationship with the Asian woman).

One would think with so much going on, both blatant and subtle, from violence to social messages, this would be a mess or at least too preachy. In the hands of other directors, this could be a strong possibility, but here, Islas handles it with a level of mastery, despite the low-albeit-not-micro budget.

Directed by Damien Dante
The Phoenix Group / Satania 666 Films
SGL Entertainment / R-Squared Films

80 minutes, 2008-2011
It’s an interesting premise from the start: a young woman from a questionable past worships the devil, invokes a demon possibly with the same name as her (though a male voice is used), and becomes a Goth, death metal guitar wiz, sadist vampire.

This film is the centerfold of this collection, as it is not only directed by the owner of SGL Entertainment, but there is also a sequel with two more in the works after that, a comic book, a record deal, etc. That’s some pretty big plans.

Quite beautiful to look at, with a mix of black & white and color, intense editing, weird angles, and loud music, in fact, much of it feels like a series of death metal music videos, with some story in between. Song by bands like Slam Bang, Grigori 3 and Supermercado feature heavily, along with others. There are also some musicians playing themselves, such as drummer Gregg Potter – who tours with the Buddy Rich Band even though he looks like he’s in the Chesterfield Kings – and Wolf McKinney. Pin-up model Baby D. Frost makes an appearance as herself as well.

Okay, I’m digressing, so let’s get back to the film: Jezebeth lives in a house with a group of women, most of who hate her and want her out, and one who is her S&M slave. They all dress in black, have dark hair, and pale skin. Jezebeth, played by the toothsome and attractive Bree Michaels, often wears full-face white make-up and black lipstick. Did I mention Goth before? What holds these women to this place is unclear, and how they make a living is unmentioned. It’s hinted that they grew up together, but only a suggestion. It’s a mystery left as such. It certainly can’t be a religious affiliation, though one is indicated as being a devout Christian, because they curse like a motherfucker (yes, including the Christian).

This truly is Goth heaven (pun intended), touching on many of the principles of the subculture, some mentioned above in the first paragraph of this review. There’s lots of lace, black matt clothing, cemeteries, blood, death, demons, and vampires. But suddenly, and gratuitously, there’s a long scene in a Chicago strip club for absolutely no reason, as we watch five dancers do their thing with a pole. Hunh? Is stripping Goth? That’s a new one for me.

As for said vampires, there are two, and apparently they are unbothered by the sunlight, not even needing sunglasses. Sure, this isn’t the first film to use that premise, but I thought Goth was kind of 19th Century based (hence the “Gothic”), when vampire fiction became popular. Musing aside, it’s an observation, not a criticism.

As films go, as a whole it’s a pretty picture. Sure the black and white is blue tinted and probably should have been more effective as sepia, but it’s still has a flair to it. As far as story and acting goes, it’s a mess. There is no coherency, no character development (including Jezebeth), and no need for half of the visuals (e.g., the lengthy clips of people standing around as music plays).

Sure, one may think, oh, maybe it will be explained in the next film, since this is a pre-planned franchise. Well, considering Jezebeth is played by a different actress in all three films listed, and the second one is a Mexican-Western-Motorcycle glom called Jezebeth 2: Hour of the Gun (scheduled to be released this year; trailer HERE), I’m going to doubt clarity is the focus as much as marketing.

I’m going to guess that I’ll probably never receive another SGL release after this.

Carnage: The Legend of Quiltface
[aka Carnage Road]
Story, produced and directed by Massimiliano Cerchi
Rounds Entertainment
70 minutes, 2000
Starting with the standard genre set-up to introduce us to our killer, a guy in a mask and onesie with a machete, we meet a couple out in the desert near Las Vegas which is obvious since the woman is wearing a t-shirt that says as much. She’s a tough woman with tats, and while he plays horny, he also comes across as a bit, well, fey. Nevertheless, as is par, they get it on (to porn-type music), so they die in a nicely done scene, though the camera is purposefully albeit unnecessarily shaky.

Shot on video (pre-HD), this is honest in not trying to look like film; perhaps at the time the technology had not caught up to that, or was not yet affordable as it is now with MacPro. It does have a nice, clear look, though, and I’ll happily give it that.

All the classic kids-in-the-elements (woods, caves, or in this case, dessert) tropes are here. The comic relief who gives the back story, the old guy (who can sometimes also be the back story teller), the tall (albeit very thin in this case) masked killer with the big knife who seems to be able to not be seen by the protagonists when standing up in a clear field, usually with the shoulders back, feet spread apart a bit, and the hand with the knife held out at a 40 degree angle. And where does it say that is it necessary for women to trip when running away? Of course, my big question is, if you get the better of a killer for a moment, why not pick up a rock and smash the fuckin’ guy’s head in, rather than run away?

In this version, rather than campers, we have four not-too-bright college students who are out in the desert taking photos (film camera) for an extra credit class assignment. All the shots they take, essentially, are of themselves smiling and posing next to each other, like every other damn shot you see. If I was their prof, I would fail them, whether they survive or not. Not even landscape or close-ups of desert foliage – I mean, the desert is a beautiful place, and lord knows this film could have been about 10 minutes shorter if some of the walking / running through the dirt roads was trimmed – instead of them just standing together and smiling. I was waiting for the modern, ever-present “v” sign.

How smart is this group? They are to spend the day in the desert – dropped off in the morning to be picked up in the evening – without taking any water, any sunscreen (the women are in shorts), or any food. All they have is one camera bag and the camera. Period. Shit, they deserve to die just to project the human race from them reproducing.

So, there is the lead, very pretty, super-blonde couple, Robert and Linda (Dean Paul and Molanee Dawn). When she’s not whining, she seems nice. Cute, anyway. Dean Paul, who has an assumption that he’s the “leader” of the group, is a sniveling, domineering bully, and yes, whiny. Along for the ride are two classmates. One is the whiny and kvetchingly spoiled Amy (Melissa Brown) who is vain and thick, and would rather look in the mirror and whine than be there. And last is super-nerd Mike (Sean Wing, who has gone on to have quite the relatively successful career since this), who is presented more like Rainman than merely geek (i.e., the pre-Big Bang Theory stereotype).

Now that I’m through being whiny myself, there are actually positive things to say about this film. For one thing, it has some really good humor it in. No, I mean purposeful laughs. For example, the character of The Driver, as played by Mack Hail, is a hysterical scene-stealer from the moment he comes on to the screen to the time he leaves. There are also quite a few throwaway lines that I had to back up to make sure I heard right because they were so humorous.

For a film that’s made with a single camera, it’s put together quite well. Yeah, there’s the occasional sound galumphs here and there, but it also causes a change in the theme of the action. Ever since Sergei Eisenstein, who during the silent era said that editing = motion, there have been quick cuts; but with one camera, it takes a bit more work to keep up some kind of pace with long, static shots. Cerchi makes it work, thanks to the efforts of the editor, Ed Polonia, of the infamous Polonia Brothers.

Quitface’s mask appears a bit more like rubber than human leather, but it still looks great when you finally get to see it close, made up of stitched faces. There is minimal nudity and some blood, but emotions are actually a bit more realistic than in most films. At the end, Paul, who sounds like a screeching weasel through nearly the entire third act, is believably scared. When he’s hit on the head, even though there is hardly any blood when the head actually bleeds like a motherfucker in real life, he acts woozy, stumbles along, and looks exhausted, rather than unrealistically shaking it off and carrying on. Kudos for that.

Cerchi (and the Polonius Brothers, for that matter) make micro-budget films, and even if the stories can be a bit clich√©, they retain a level of fun that still make it worthwhile to sit on the couch with some buds and Buds, and have a hoot. But make sure you listen to those throwaway jokes. They’re worth the attention.

Hellweek: Grindhouse Edition
Directed by Eddie Lengyel
Fright Teck Pictures
102 minutes, 2009
Don’t let this film get confused with the 1981 Linda Blair classic of bad cinema, Hell Night, even though the premises are pretty similar: Pledge night at a frat, but rather than going to a haunted house to roam around in the dark for most of the film, here it’s a frat party that goes to a supposedly haunted abandoned warehouse (probably for clothing, because there is a sign leaning against the wall for Perry Ellis). Evil things wearing masks, as we learn early on, are afoot there.

The central character, who from early on you hope is going to die a slow and glorious death, is JJ (overacted by Rob Jaeger), president of the frat which I believe is never named. Throughout the movie people repeatedly call him an asshole, and he is. Thing is, if he isn’t in the scene, people are talking about him. I mean, he’s blond, he calls people “nigga” and “faggot,” and he cheats on his girlfriend Cara (the very comely Karen Fox) while she’s in the same house. Wadda douche.

Despite a couple of really nice, digital deaths early on, this film takes a really – no, I mean really long time to get its gore groove on after the initial metal-on-flesh. Some of the women go to a psychic who warms them of cheating (yep, JJ) and peril. Then there’s a stretched out party scene where we get to know a little about some of the characters that are fodder-to-be, and yet we still are given no reason to care about them.

One thing this filmmaker does that I genuinely find amusing is that he sometimes addresses odd things people in the audience might say, such as one character stating, “We just went down the stairs and now we’re going up?!”

While no subsequent kill is as good as the first batch, our supernatural villains do not want to be disturbed, and of course, nothing annoys supernatural villains more than frat shenanigans. Actually, considering some of this batch, I don’t blame ‘em.

The film itself has an interesting look, with pockmarks and discoloration like it was shot on film and left underwater for a few days. Sometimes it looks great, sometimes it’s a hindrance, but either way it’s a nice touch. Also there are scenes that are kind of dark, or happen too fast (flash of seeing a disembodied head, for example), but there is also come nicely done creative editing otherwise.

If the film had lost the entire 20 minute frat party scene at the end of the first act, it would have not been any loss. If the bickering between Cara and Hayley (the equally cute Michelene Pancoe) was not such a repeated focal point, that would have been okay, too. Cara had enough trouble dealing with JJ, so who needs the extra angst?

In total, it’s not a great film, but it definitely has its glorious moments.

Day of Dead




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