Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: Bite School

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

Bite School                         
Written, produced, directed and edited (among others) by James Balsamo
Acid Bath Productions
94 minutes, 2015

In a world where indie filmmakers are trying to be the new Spielberg or Scorsese, or possibly even a Craven or Carpenter, James Balsamo seems to be aiming at best towards Landis’ The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), though it would probably be more accurate to say Abbott and Costello or the Three Stooges, with him playing all the key parts, and usually in tight black tee-shirts to show off the “guns.”

Now, there’s two ways to read that paragraph, and if you’re not reading it in the complimentary way, well, you’re mistaken. Balsamo’s films are rude, crude, and full of pulchritude. In other words, they’re fun. Now, there are some A-listers who follow the rude-to-be-rude-to-be-cool rule, such as Seth Rogan and his ilk; personally, I find Balsamo’s stuff way more enjoyable because although it’s pretty obvious he (and the cast) is having fun, it’s not just working hard to reaching goofiness to be goofy, Balsamo’s films are just, well, goofy.

While he’s definitely an auteur and has his own “signatures,” each film has a unique idea at the base of it, and as it follows that thread, everyone and everything is jumping into the fray. One way to look at it is that he leans more to the School of It Don’t Matter (writing, acting, etc.); it’s more about the whole ride.

After a fun animated credits with a really off-key Robert Palmer homage called “Addicted to Blood,” we are introduced to Tony Canoni by Judy Tenuda and her “reality show,” Lifestyles of the Rich and Obnoxious. He’s a narcissistic rich twit (think Hiltons or Kardashians) who cares only about weed, sex, and, well, that’s about it. His girlfriend, Cookie (Sarah Martin), is an obnoxious golddigger twit.

James Balsamo and HG Lewis
After one misdeed too many, Tony’s grandfather (a stumbling Hershell Gordon Lewis, the Mass Market Maven of Florida, who is better known for single-handedly inventing the gore genre by directing the likes of Blood Feast [1963] and Two Thousand Maniacs [1964] ) cuts him out of the family’s fortune unless he gets an edu-ma-cation in the form of a GED. This leads to Cookie leaving him (no loss), being kicked out of his mansion, and asking a number of cameo metal musicians – and Ron Jeremy – for a mere $100,000 to help him get by.

After saving a man from being killed by the Lesbian Mafia (no comment from me) due to his owning them $30K, he talks the troubled and stereotypical gay guy, George (Paul Fears) into letting him stay on his couch in exchange for paying off his debt when he earns his degree and is reunited with his fortune. The apartment is shared by George’s father, the angry and also stereotypical Asian Mr. Woo (Vincent Leong). Tony and George both sign up for the GED class, led by Mr. Fleck (a very wooden, yet humorous Roy Frumkes; he wrote the classic 1987 flesh-melting Street Trash), who gets to spout lines like: “Let me assure you George, a GED is your best weapon against militant lesbians.”

Mandy Cat Kitana
Meanwhile, there is a concurrent double story about a nasty vampire, Gregor (Billy Walsh, who played the main villain in Balsamo’s I Spill Your Guts in 2012) biting assorted people (yeah, mostly women, just like in the Hammer days), and a very diminutive (4’11”) yet sexy and busty vampire princess named Vicky (Mandy Cat Kitana), who hangs out in front of the telley smoking weed with a Teddy-like vampire bat puppet named Spat who talks in a high-squeaky voice (Balsamo?). She’s bored after all these years and so also signs into a night (of course) GED class. The same one as…yep, you guessed it.

As time goes on, the stories continue to collide more and more until the meld into one very confusing but enjoyable mish-mash. Vampires be coming outta da yin-yang by the end, some of them showing ample cleavage – especially high priestess Elizabeth (played by Veronica Freeman) – others resembling classic Romero zombies but with fangs. Then when Elizabeth turns into a two headed vampire bat creature with boobs and a serpent’s tail puppet that, well, a brief description doesn’t – er – bite into it.

There are three constants in a Balsamo film, and I’m grateful for all of them. First, there is the homage to other films, such as a very nice nod to Roddy Piper, especially as this was filmed about the time he passed away. There’s also a bits from Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995) and the great kung fu classic The Flying Guillotine (1976; aka Du bi quan wang da po xue di zi). Of course, he also tips the hat toward many other directors and styles, such as the aforementioned zombie vampires, and even himself, as he has Spat watching a television promo for his own as yet non-existing sequel, I Spill Your Guts 2, as well as some wacky other ads and fake TV clips.

Frank "Fuckin'" Mullen
Second, there are the cameos. It’s kind of a blink-of-the-eye-and-miss-it kind of thing, or many times it’s a matter of who’s that now? For me, it’s especially true of the death metal musicians, as it’s not a genre that speaks to me. There’s also a bunch of indie film actors relatively known, famous, and infamous, such as those mentioned before, Roberto Lombardi who is making a nice niche in fan films with himself as an effective Freddy Kruger, scream queen Genoveva Rossi, genre collector turned actor John Link, John Dugan (the grandpa in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974), porn star Jasmin St. Claire, off-beat Other musician David Peel, and many others. As I’ve said before, Balsamo goes to a lot of horror and music cons across the country, and films little clips with the actors and finds a way to include it in the story: Butch Patrick – wearing a Herman Munster tee – is a perfect example here. Then there is always Carmine Capobianco, who has great comedy timing, and especially Frank Mullen; I’m a fan of the guy, as I’ve said before. He should be in the cable series version of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Last of this list is the humor, mostly of the lower kind, but there are so many gems included that it pays to listen as some of them zing by. A good example of this kind of wit is when after someone demeans Tony, he says, “Do you know who I am?!” The guy responds with a derisive, “This is New York. No one gives a fuck who you are.” Another great and easily missed one is an acquaintance running into Tony stating, “I haven’t seen you since you took that tropical vacation to Vancouver!”

Gore appears often, albeit cartoonish (that’s okay, the whole film is a cartoon, in a way), there’s lots of flesh (wouldn’t complain about more, though), and many of the effects are laughable to the point where you’d almost expect them to be in a Japanese television program. My one complaint, though, is the sound is uneven and sometimes over-modulated to the point of fuzzy. Still, I’ll take it as part of the whole.

So, here’s a true, digressive story: I had to stop watching the film about half way through because of various reasons (not that I wanted to, just life), and planned to finish it the next day. That night I dreamed that I was hanging out with Balsamo (as himself, though I have never actually met him in person), and we were sitting on a couch talking about indie horror films and the Ramones. There are lots of shots of him sitting on a sofa in his films, so it’s no wonder. I don’t do weed, drink much or listen to metal, but as obnoxious as his characters tend to be, this dream shows that he still comes across as someone likeable on a deeper level. That says a lot to me, considering I wouldn’t want to get near any of his characters.

Go watch this film, and have a laugh; whether with it or at it, it’s all good.

Why I’m a Fan:

Friday, September 25, 2015

DVD / Blu-Ray Review: Jack Hill's Pit Stop

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

Pit Stop
Directed by Jack Hill
Arrow Video
MVD Visual
92 minutes, filmed in 1967, released in 1969 / this release is 2015

I know I saw this film in the theater when I was a kid but all I remember is the race car driving. While I was never into car culture, such as NASCAR or whatever it was called back then, seeing all the crashes was fun. I don’t recall any part of the actual story, so here was my opportunity to revisit this classic B-film.

Car racing has been both a mainstream and indie genre for quite a while, sometimes goofy like The Great Race (1965) or Viva Las Vegas (1964), to the more gritty and serious films such as Gran Prix (1966), Winning (1969; the reason why the name of this film was changed from The Winner), Le Mans (1971) or Little Fauss and Big Halsey (1970). Of course, this would lead to the likes of off road chases like one of Ron Howard’s early directorial efforts, Grand Theft Auto (1977), or even Smoky and the Bandit (1977). And don’t get me started on The Blues Brothers (1980). The latest interpretations could be seen as The Fast and the Furious and Transporter franchises, which are essentially races to the death.

Brian Dunlevy, Beverly Washburn,
 Sid Haig, Dick Davalos
With this early indie low-budget classic, we are introduced to Rick Bowman (Dick Davalos, whose Bronx accent occasionally comes through), a tough-as-nails street racer in California who is taken under wing by eye-on-the-buck industrialist and different kind of rat, Grant Willard (the last film of character actor Brian Dunlevy, d. 1972). Willard owns racing cars and a majority share of the local track where stock car drivers race the “Figure 8,” a stupid and dangerous trial by smash-up, and he brings Rick into the fold by psychologically squaring him off against the ridiculously named Hawk Sidney (Jack Hill regular, Sid Haig), who is the one to beat.
Two of the main characters are wholly driven by ego, in two different ways: Rick is a sullen, burning fire of anger, and Hawk is an extroverted loudmouth with a streak towards violence and revenge. Both of them dream of the big time, in the pro races (not a sport I follow, so please excuse the ignorance; for me, while I occasionally drive too fast – or too slow – cars are something for someone I pay to fix). Representing that level is professional race driver and ally Ed McLeod (George Washburn) and the “other side” is Sonny Simpson (Ted Duncan). Stragedy (as Bugs Bunny would say) plays a key part in the roles each character takes in the rise to the top or vice versa in this story of multiple double-crosses, the result of them, and what it takes to go all the way.

Ellen McRae (Burstyn) and George Washburn
With his sullen good looks and bad-boy demeanor (not to mention hair that is so greased it literally reflects light), Rick is a heartthrob to the ladies. There are two here (and the only two significant female roles in the entire film, as race car is a man’s sport; where’s Danica Patrick when ya need her?). The first love interest is Jolene (Beverly Washburn, sister of co-star George; she was also powerful in Hill’s 1967 Spider Baby). She sports short hair, drinks and chews a lot of gum, and while gruff is extremely sympathetic. The other is Ed’s wife and car expert, Ellen McCloud (Ellen McRae, who would soon change her last name to Burstyn and win an Academy Award in in 1974 as the title character in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; though my favorite film of hers is 1980’s Resurrection). When we meet Ellen, she is wearing a similar hair style and one-piece jumpsuit as Raquel Welsh in Fantastic Voyage (1966). There is an immediate attraction between the two, which is obvious.
This black and white release is a pretty dark story (some use the word “gritty”), with the Rick character sort of being the race car version Stephen Boyd’s Frank Fane in The Oscar (1966). Davalos does a good job as the sullen and hungry Rick, in an overaged JD sort of way. He doesn’t talk often, but when he does, his words boomerang rather than hang. If you can picture a yin and yang symbol with both sides being the same color, that would be Hawk. One is a quiet, smoldering time bomb at 11:58 o’clock; the other is a bombastic ass who thrives on attention. As usual, Haig does an excellent job at both manic and depressive, and as always, his eyes tell you he’s in the moment; a great and underrated actor who famously uses the method acting style.

Among the cast are quite a few contemporary racing stars from the circuit playing themselves, which certainly must have helped the box office the Deep South, where race cars are king. There are quite a few then-new technologies shown as the torques is checked, wheels are reinforced, and engines are often revving. Oh, and lots and lots of cars in motion, filmed during six live races. Of course, what we see is mostly the crashes more than the actual events.

The look of the film is dark and, yes, gritty, but thanks to restoration from one of the original prints (aka minus-1 generation from the negative), the contrasts are pretty sharp, which is explained in one of the many extras (such as the original trailer) included on this new edition, the 4-minute “Restoring Pit Stop.” They show before and after images, and well as side-by-side, and it’s quite the difference for the better. It’s still a bit muddy here and there, but much cleaner than it was.

In an 11-1/2 minute featurette, “Roger Corman and the Genesis of Pit Stop,” Corman explains how he was involved with the production, but of course, it’s more about Corman than Pit Stop, but I really don’t have a problem with that. The man is just interesting, and he knows how to tell a story.

“Drive Hard: Sid Haig Remembers Pit Stop” is a 17-minute short interspersed with clips of the film. Haig is a well-spoken man who plays dangerous characters. He talks about motivation, the crew, and a bit about Tarantino. It went by quick and remained entertaining. He’s also a good storyteller. Director Jack Hill gets his own shot with the 15-1/2 minute “Crash and Burn: Jack Hill on the Making of Pit Stop,” with some tales of Pit Stop, though lots of his memories are also in the commentary.

For the full-length commentary, Hill discusses the picture and his entire career in the ‘60s and ‘70s with British film historian Calum Waddell, who literally wrote the book about him, Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film by Film (2008); Calum also directed much of the extras here, which explains the British uses of spelling in the captions (such as replacing the “z” with “s”). While some of the same material is re-discussed as in the Jack Hill interview short, as I said above, there is so much more here that gets covered, and Hill comes across as a very honest and affable guy, who is willing to talk about anything about his filmmaking, from successes to failures; an example he gives of the latter is his Me, a Groupie, from 1970.

Now, here is a weird point: oddly enough we do not see a single pit stop in the film. But of course, taking in a writ large way, Figure 8 racing could be seen as a pit stop in Rick’s career. Or am I over-analyzing? Either way, this was an enjoyable ride, but you may want to wear a helmet when viewing.


Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: The Fappening - The Director's Cut

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

The Fappening: The Director's Cut
Directed by Sean Weathers
Full Circle Filmworks
75 minutes, 2015 

Brooklynite and urban cool guy Sean Weathers has finally returned to the horror genre with his take on the 2014 events of the cell phone hacking and mass distribution of nude celebrity pictures. Some have given the event the name “The Fappening.” For those who don’t know, the word “Fapping” is to – er – take oneself in hand while looking at said type pictures. Me? I’m old enough where my first thoughts were of the Supremes.

The trouble starts in this story when lothario director and actor Alan Smithee (Sean Weathers), who not only has a problem with what Kinky Friedman used to call Peruvian marching powder, i.e., coke, he sleeps with many women, which gets him into  deep doggy doo-doo when his personal sex selfies are among those distributed by the Fappening.

Seybelle Silverphoenix and Sean Weathers
As usual, Sean plays some fantasy version of himself; for those who don’t know, Alan Smithee is a pseudonym often used by directors who want to keep their real name anonymous for whatever reason. Smithee’s discussions about making indie films and wanting to break into the majors is probably a theme in Weathers’ life as well, but in this fictional version, things are going from bad to worse.
Not only is Smithee having trouble getting his latest project financed and is in profound debt and about to be kicked out of his Brooklyn apartment (Weathers’ own apartment substitutes for Smithee’s), but since the Fappening, no one will touch him and the women he photographed and taped having sex (shown in a montage in somewhat detail near the beginning; Sean does love to show off his toned bod and in the act with hot women...hmm, wonder if I’m jealous…) are now getting together a for a class action suit because he didn’t erase the evidence as they had asked.

This is all getting too much for him, until he snaps (as his characters are wont to do). Through some power of anonymous suggestion, he dons a mask and grabs a big butcher’s knife, and sets off to stop everyone on the lawsuit list. This leads to a large body count via various means of disposal, though mostly by stabbing.

Tina Krause
Weathers has gathered quite the cast here, many playing a version of themselves, i.e., characters having the same names as the actors. For example, the person he wants for his agent is one of my fave 1990s scream queens, and fellow Brooklynite, Tina Krause (pronounced Kross). I have been a fan since her W.A.V.E. days (though I wasn’t a fan of that company’s S&M releases), and I had the chance to meet her once at a New Jersey Chiller Theatre; she was nice to me and let me take a picture.

Other actresses doing similar turns include Rachel Robbins and fire dancer Sky Soto. Then there are the cameos of genre directors, again as themselves, such as the great Lloyd Kaufmann (who Weathers once interviewed on his podcast, and came across as, well, Lloyd Kaufmann on Toxie steroids), Joel Reed (1976’s Bloodsucking Freaks), and Jerry Landi (2014’s Bloodmarsh Kracoons, a film I definitely would love to see). Landi was also the Cinematographer for The Fappening, replacing (temporarily?) Weathers’ usual film companion d’arms Aswad Issa.

As for the women who play the disgruntled bedmates, well, most are quite stunning. For example, there’s Weathers’ stalwart Sybelle Silverphoenix (she’s been in more of his films than any other actress) in electric blue lipstick who shows she can handle self-effacing humor, as when she says to Smithee’s landlord, “I’m Jennifer. I know you remember me; it’s kind of hard not to.”

I would also like to take a sec and give a nod to Adonis Williams. In Weathers’ films, he’s the threatening gangsta hoodlum / drug dealer. Well, he plays a similar role here, but it’s much more flushed out, and his acting skills have actually grown quite well. Not DeNiro yet, but he manages to be both scary and sympathetic at the same time. Nice work, Adonis; in some weird way I’m proud of you. Meanwhile, as an inside joke, Adonis’s character is named Jason Voohrees, but he doesn’t get it when Smithee keeps giving him the names of horror characters (e.g., Freddy Kruger) as people in the film and record industry to throw him off, as he does not recognize any of them.

Erika Smith
Sean always manages to wisely use his films as a political forum, sometimes quite shrewdly. For example, at the beginning of this one, while celebutard Kim Kardashian (played by the much cuter Erika Smith, who steals her scenes as Kim, being hysterically funny and scarily accurate) is being interviewed about her images being released, the news scrawl of the bottom of the newscast indicates a black youth hade been shot for smoking a cigarette the cops thought was weed, while a white CEO who embezzled millions gets a slap on the wrist. This segment can also be interpreted  in a non-spoken comment on Kardashian’s history of sleeping with African-American men (though in the case of Kanye, an African-American man-child). Weathers is one of the few, brave indies that knows how to weave the real-life horrors into the fictional ones.
There are many shrewd moments throughout the film, and one that’s bound to stick out and be memorable, is the humorous scene where Weathers is talking with Robbins, and they start using the lyrics of “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League that sneak in naturally as conversation, starting with “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you…”  About this, Weathers told me in an IM message, “…when I rehearsed it I realized how close the scene fit the song, so the day before we shot it, I said screw it and just rewrote the scene and put the lyrics in; most people get a laugh out of it. … I love it when movies [I see] make me want to play a song.”

Rachel Robbins
This is Weathers’ straight-out first feature horror film in a long time, so it’s good to see him get back to his roots. The cast and crew hide the fact that this was probably a micro-budget release, and Sean knows how to work the locations to give it a fuller feel. Even when the action takes place in his small apartment, you never feel claustrophobic.

To me, the one flaw in the film, and this is a lack of suspension of disbelief on my part, is that I cannot believe he was able to do that many killings without being caught, even though all the action is supposed to take place in a single day. One person is on a cell phone to the police screaming his name, and he never, ever wears gloves. Also, some of the killings are done in his own apartment, but you never see him get rid of the bodies, even when people come and go there.

As I’ve said before, with each release, Weathers’ style is becoming more of his own form, and being helped by Landi I’m sure has helped him to get further to achieving that goal. Definitely one of Weathers’ better films, and I’ve enjoyed most of them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review: Killer Rack

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

Killer Rack
Directed by Gregory Lamberson
Crow-Nan Productions / River Ridge Reels / Slaughtered Lamb Productions
97 minutes, 2015

Before I start discussing the film on a deeper level, let me explain what we’re lookin’ at here: Betty (Jessica Zwolak) works hard for the Double D Collections company (“Proudly handling your assets”), but she is the only woman in the office with a low-end cleavage, so her chances of advancement by her boss (the irrepressible Michael Thurber!) fall kind of – er – flat. Her boyfriend Dutch (Sam Qualiana) is no longer interested, and even the horndog cat-callers on the corner won’t even give her the time of “woot.” She has such a low self-image, she can’t see that her friend and co-worker, Tim (Paul McGinnis) is in love with her. Even her therapist (Lloyd Kaufmann, King of Troma, plays an actual role, though it is a bit of an extended cameo, rather than his usual quickies) is on the snide side to her.

Debbie Rochon
She visits a shady doctor (who’s has the words “Plastic Surgeon” handwritten on a piece of paper and taped to the door) named Dr. Cate Thulu (Debbie Rochon, one of my fave queens of indie horror). Thulu has her own agenda, as she serves a Dark God by the name of Mammora (you heard me), and plans to help it control the world by… well, I’m guessing you’re already there.

This is a comedy on a few different levels. It is stupid and goofy as hell, but there is a very sharp intelligence that runs through it if you’re paying attention and can look up to it in the face. Similarly to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you can get out of it what you want, but there is definitely more than it appears. I’ll get to that in a paragraph or three.

Most of the acting is expectedly just a bit over the top as well, but it’s definitely less demonstrative than the awful AC-ting work of, say, John Lithgow in 3rd Rock from the Sun. There definitely are some shining moments from most of the cast, especially from Rochon, who has a particularly good sense of comedic timing, even when her eyes are so emphasized; the brows look like they could be about six inches above her head. She and Thurber actually co-starred in one of my favorite films in the last few years, the very dark drama Exhumed (2011), though they share no scenes together in this one.

Shot around the Buffalo and Cheektowaga area (what, no Tonawanda?), City Hall makes its appearance in the first scene, a place I visited often in the 1980s when I would go and visit a record collector friend who worked there for many years. Most of the filming is actually indoors, but it is good to see some recognizable places. But, as I’m wont to do, I digress…

Jessica Zwolak,  Paul McGinnis
One of the great things about this film is the savviness of references that run throughout. Some are quite obvious, such as Betty showing up the first day after the enhancement saying “Tell me about it…stud,” but it’s the more subtle ones that made me laugh the hardest. For example, after the operation, Dr. Thulu’s assistant, Nurse Herbie (Robert Bozek) takes the exact same stance as Ernest Thesiger in the 1935 classic, The Bride of Frankenstein (see at 1:54 HERE).There is also a moment where some demonic-sprayed breast milk starts melting a businessman’s face, who whines, “Oh, no, not again!” This is particularly funny because he is played by Roy Frumkes, who wrote and produced the 1987 film, Street Trash.   

An alternative poster
Along with the bizarre non-sequitur musical showtune number in a dream sequence (“All you need is a pair of funbags”), there is a lot – and I mean a lot – of out-there humor. For example, there are take-offs of other films such as Tim saying “With great cup size comes great responsibility,” one frustrated co-worker of Betty snidely comments, about Betty’s enhancement, that for herself, “They’re real, and they’re spectacular,” and a great line at the end a comment made by two detectives that I can’t repeat because it could ruin the ending. Speaking of which, the two detectives? They are named Bartles and James.

Pay attention whenever Dr. Thulu and Nurse Herbie get together, because they are hysterical, and play off each other so well. For example there is this dialog:

Nurse: I don’t have any good lines! [he says breaking the fourth wall, reminiscent of a line from Monty Python during the mattress sketch, when Carol Cleveland laments, “But it’s my only line!”]
Dr.: You’re the assistant! All you need to say is, “Yes Mistress!”
Nurse: I refuse to be Igor; I’m way too pretty!

Rochon really does steal the film, and not just because I’m a fan. Just her reading of impatience at Betty’s getting undressed for an examination, saying “For the sake of the Dark One, would you take it off already?! C’mon, chop-chop!” gives some idea of her acting – er – chops.

One of the Killer Racks
I’m sure this will come into scrutiny as some heavy-handed killer female anatomy, but actually it’s quite a decent look at the way society views body image. Feeling inadequate due to small bust size is not male fantasy, but rather the way we are all mediated by prominence of the likes of the Kardashians and Kate Uptons. The film also addresses the male version of that at one point near the end of the film, which would lead perfectly into a sequel that I’m pretty sure is not in the plan (but would be welcomed by me). Speaking of which, stick through the end credits.


There actually is a history (subgenre perhaps?) of one aspect of the film, which is body extensions, be it for evil or not. On the not side, of course, there’s Marshall McLuhan’s image of technology being the extension of the body, such as the pen for the hand, glasses for the eyes, and computers for the brain. The evil side is more Cronenburg’s early work, such as Rabid (1977) and Videodrome (1973). More recently killer female anatomy could be seen in Teeth (2007) or appendages from transplants such as in Dustin Mills’ Night of the Tentacles  (2013).

I’ll admit I was looking forward to this as a bit of empty-headed fun. What I got instead was a multi-layered social treatise that was intelligent, psychotic, and yes, goofy. It was one of the more enjoyable films I have seen this year because it was so smartly ridiculous. And if you’re into it, as a drinking game, take a sip every time you recognize a reference. If you’re a film maven, I guarantee you’re gonna get smashed (not that I’m recommending that…).


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Review: American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore

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

American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore
Written, directed and edited by Stephen Biro
Unearthed Films
73 minutes, 2014 / 2015

If you are looking for a complex and deep storyline about searching one’s soul and the meaning of life, well, you’ve come to the wrong place. The premise is that two women are kidnapped, given a nerve inhibitor drug so that they can’t move, a shit load of LSD, and then are systematically tortured and eviscerated until dead. Except for a brief prologue and coda, all the action takes place in one room, and filmed mostly in real time and chronological order. Yep, what is promised and that is what is delivered.

The Director, Second Unit, The Actor, the first Victim
The cruelty is perpetrated by a bunch of guys: The Director (Scott Gabby) on 8mm camera, another camera person with a VHS camcorder (David Hood), a Second Unit on 8mm (Rogan Russell Marshall), and the bulky guy with the “Hard Times” tattoo on his pecs, credited as The Actor (Eight the Chosen One) who does all the dirty work. All the men wear masks, as the Director tells the Actor what to do (“Always start on the left, never on the right!” he commands repeatedly). We see the action through the lens of those cameras. This is supposed to be the 1980s, and that’s why the old equipment.
This is certainly a minimalist film just as the premise is a single note struck over and over again. That’s not to say it’s redundant, but it is pretty straightforward, making it less of a distraction from the hacking and sawing and poking and pulling. There is a kind of Zen to it all, I suppose. Look, I’m going to admit that I like a good story with my gore, even with something like A Serbian Film (2010) or Collar (2014), but the core of the matter is the look of the gore¸ which I will get to shortly.

First of all, the actresses who play the victims (Caitlyn Dailey and Ashley Lynn Caputo) are in films after that, so it’s a story of a snuff film, not an actual one. I say that specifically because of two reasons. First, it’s all “found footage” of a sort, as the film is shot by the actors in the story. There is the occasional break while the 8mm stock is replaced, and then it goes on. Second, I have to commend the SFX people, Oddtopsy, because the body parts look real, with the right flexibility and tone. I watched the whole bit-by-bit vivisecting things without turning away…okay that’s a lie. I did turn my head with the eyeball stuff, one of my admitted Achilles heels with this kind of thing.

Of course, the questions that arises through this is the why they are doing this. It’s obvious the VHS guy is being blackmailed (“Remember, we have your kids, so don’t fuck it up!”) into it about a third through, which further, again, the reason for the extremity of the torture. Early on, the Director mentions that the women were specifically chosen for their “role,” and I wondered if that could be a further clue to the reason for the actions. It feels like this is just the first of a series, but according the one of the commentary tracks, it is not. I was hoping it was so perhaps we’d learn piece by piece (pun intended), sort of like the conspiracy arc of Lost or The X-Files, more of the background story over time.

For me, the major problem is not that this is a gorefest, and superbly done at that. Okay, it’s partly that it is two women who are tortured, not a male, but that’s not the biggest issue I had though it made me uncomfortable, nor that the characters live way past the level of what a human body can actually endure. It is as follows (this is my issue which is mine, too; aheeeem): When you just have splatter that is one tone and consistent, without a context for the action, it gets kind of, well, mind-numbing. I’m not saying this is a boring film, I’m saying it becomes a little bit tedious. Chop, saw, poke. Saw, saw, poke, chop. Chop, chop, poke, saw, chop. Spam eggs sausage and spam (oh, what a giveaway; sorry…).   

I do understand that this is part of a homage to the Japanese underground Guinea Pig series that had bootleg tapes passed around, and was infamous for its unprecedented levels of unrelenting violence and graphic sadism, especially the second of the series, Guinea Pig: Flowers of Flesh and Blood (1985); there is an indirect mention in this film when the Director comments, “Let’s bleed this flower out.” It makes sense, too, as Unearthed Films also released all seven of the Guinea Pig films in a deluxe DVD box set. It’s also probably part of the reason the film is set in that decade.

The Actor
This DVD is also loaded with extras. To start, there is the trailer, which I have not included below due to its extremity (the one I've linked was supplied by MVD and stars Eight the Chosen One, and can lead you to the actual trailer, which as the words "Series 2" in the title). The next one I watched was the 40 minute single-camera interview with two cast member who are also aficionados in their own right: Pete Townsend look-alike Jim Van Bebber (The Editor), who is the director of films including Dead Beat at Dawn (1988) and The Manson Family (2003), and Scott Gabbey (The Director), who is also president of Ultra Violent Magazine, as well as an actor. While a bit long, it is chocked full of interesting stories and back-stage anecdotes, so it mostly kept my interest. The only thing I found annoying, and I may get picked on for this, is the constant calling of the two actresses as “the girls.” None of the rest of the cast and crew is called “the boys,” but the N-word does make its presence.
An almost 5-minute music video of “Chambers of Perdation” (appropriately meaning "Chambers where there are attacks") by the band Perdition Temple (for those that don’t know, “Perdition” is the time spent in hell). The song is classic death metal with the chucka-chucka guitar sound and the solos, and the growling, distorted voice where you can’t make out a single word (captions, please!). It is interspersed with graphic clips from the film, so don’t look for it on VH1, but perhaps in a future Metal Retardation release from director Bill Zebub?

I was looking forward to seeing the 21-1/2 minute “Preproduction Video,” to see some of the behind the scenes work, and wasn’t disappointed. We see the face masks being made, Gabbey rehearsing his lines, and the full body casts. They don’t show how they do the internal body gore, I’m sorry to say, but still very enlightening.

The first commentary I watched was of director Steve Biro and fellow director / actor / director of photography of this film, Jim Van Bebber, who contributed to the interview segment above. Van Bebber tends to commandeer the conversation, often loudly interrupting Biro to the point of annoyance, but there is also a fuck of a lot of information that I didn’t get from the film that I learned from this commentary, including some religious significance, and the relationship of the two women. It is also the closest that it comes to explaining motive (just the fact that the two women were named after Biro’s ex-wives says a bit).

The final commentary is Biro again, but this time with main person who did the SFX for the film, Marcus Koch (pronounced “cook”). I always start at the end of the extras and work my way through to the one I’m looking forward to the most. However, though there is some info, this commentary was particularly a letdown as there was hardly any talk about the effects, and a lot of it was repetitious from the other extras. At the end, Biro mentions that Koch will direct the next American Guinea Pig, which should be interesting as he knows what he is capable of doing, SFX-wise. Brio also disses commentaries, saying how only the fanatical watch them. Yes, but it is precisely those enthusiasts who are the fans of this kind of extreme fare.

Between the film and its two commentaries, I essentially sat through the film three times, not counting the clips included in the likes of the music video. What is the end result? Yes, this is an extremely brutal film for both the characters, and the audience. But it is bound to reach the audience who it is directed at, which is the point, so in that way, it is very successful. It has an interesting look via the mix of 8mm, 16mm, and VHS, and if you can keep your eyes on the screen, it will keep your attention, in the same way a magic trick is performed. I guarantee there will be moments of “How the fuck did they do that?!?!?!” To me, that screams achievement.

I’m also curious to see how they top this one.



Sunday, September 6, 2015

DVD / Blu-Ray Review: Spider Baby

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

Spider Baby (or The Maddest Story Ever Told)
Directed by Jack Hill
Arrow Films
MVD Visual
85 minutes, (filmed in 1964) released in 1967 / this version released in 2015

I pride myself in my knowledge of classic horror films, as I grew up watching them either in theaters or on television. In that way, I’ve seen most of the classics, but due to lack of distribution, Spider Baby, which was shot in 1964 and finally released in 1967, is one I have missed; for years I have wanted to get a gander. Luckily, the opportunity has arisen, in a bee-utiful restored deluxe edition.

A very, very, very dark comedy, Spider Baby belongs more in the subgenre among the likes of the less than humorous Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Strait-Jacket (1964), and the similarly black absurdity of Hershall Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), where the maniacs that should be hanging out with Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) at best, or Arkham Asylum at worst, are out running around, with knives in hand.

Through a fourth-wall breaking expository introduction and conclusion, we are informed about the Merrye (get it?) family, who as they approach puberty, the older they get the more they mentally regress to the point of violence and cannibalism (it’s not for nothing that this film was also named at different points as Attack of the Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy). Also, I’m sure the secondary title is a play on the 1965 film about Jebbus, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which was possibly still playing around in some theaters around that time, especially in Dix-say. (Note: this is confirmed in one of the included extras, which I saw after I wrote this part.)

We are initially introduced to the Merrye clan through the eyes of a messenger, played by Mantan Moreland (he infamously had a recurring role in the Charlie Chan films as the always loyal-yet-scared helper who, along with Stepin Fetchit, famously said, “Feet, don’t fail me now!”). Of course, it doesn’t end well for him, but his cameo is sympathetic to both his career and the man as an actor.

The Merrye Children: Sid Haig, Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn
The isolated Merrye estate (on a busy street in real life) is in sharp disrepair. They never explain where the money came from, but it is certainly near the end of the dynasty. Poppa has died a number of years ago, leaving the caretaker in charge of the remaining family, since they are not up to it themselves. The oldest is Ralph, a rapacious lad played by a young Sid Haig (!) who dresses like a little boy in rags, drools, leers and snarls, but has already regressed to the point past speech, in some sense on the level of the family dog. Haig, who always seems to be in the moment, has had a long career, but to modern audiences is mostly known for his role of the head of another killer clan in Rob Zombie’s House of a Thousand Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). The middle child is Elizabeth, who is obsessed with the idea of hating and anger (“He’s gonna hate you for that!” she spits out joyfully). She’s played by previous child star Beverly Washburn, who Trekkers will know more from “The Deadly Years” episode. The youngest sibling is Virginia, played by the very cute Jill Banner (d. 1982 in a car accident); rumor was that the Beatles had a thing for her around this time. She is the title character, named so because of her love of spiders – be it as pets, or as food. From her first introduction onscreen it’s pretty easy to see you don’t want to be stuck in her “web.” Even Peter Parker should be afraid. Oh, and in the basement are their two aunts and an uncle who have regressed so far they are the cannibals discussed earlier.

Watching over them all is said caretaker / chauffeur named Bruno, and star of the film, Creighton Cha…I mean Larry Talbo…I mean Lon Chaney (sans the Jr.). He arguably gives one of the most heartfelt readings of the films of his later career. You can see his slow boil desperation grow to a breaking point as it becomes harder and harder to control the feral nature of these three young adults, that he called “The Children,” and the current state of affairs.
Part of the problem is that some distant relatives have come to claim their property, as technically they are the next in line to inherit the Merrye fortune (from where?!), and they want to take position with the help of their shyster lawyer and his secretary. The plan is to put the children into a mental facility and then sell the property for development. Sounds a bit like an adult version of The Little Rascals, doesn’t it (“We gotta save grandma from getting evicted, Stymie!” “Mmm-Hmm!”)?

The relatives are a brother and sister, who arrive together. She is the voracious and greedy Emily, played by Carol Ohmart, possibly typecast as a similar character from when she was Vincent Price’s wife who takes the acid bath in The House on Haunted Hill (1959). At one point, she even wears similar sheer night clothes with a black bra showing ample cleavage for its day, stockings and garter belt that would make Bettie Page proud. It’s dismaying to know that she’s a Tea Party Conservative in real life now (then again, Bettie Page was a Born Again Christian for a large number of years, though she embraced her past before she passed on in 2008). Then, even in her 40s, she was pretty hot.

The brother, played with laisse faire finesse in a suit and tie is Peter, ambley brought to life by 1950s-sit-com-handsome Quinn Redeker. Peter is fine with either eating cat (he guesses rabbit), or the children’s antics. He’s likeable and it’s no surprise that Ann, the assistant to Emily’s lawyer, played by the lovely Mary Mitchel (yes, with one “l”, who was married to the Assistant Director here, and would later do a lot of behind the camera work for Coppola), goes a bit gaga for him; the attraction is mutual. The last of the characters is the shady and, yes, greedy lawyer, who is aptly named Mr. Schlocker. He is humorously embodied by the diminutive Karl Schanzer (d. 2014), who helped director Jack Hill find the moneymen and some of the cast; in real life he was a real-life PI!

The trouble truly begins as they all spend the night in the old dark house, with people traipsing around looking for clues, searching for things of value, and avoiding murderous intent. There are a couple of gruesome scenes, but it certainly is a case of eat or be eaten, both figuratively and, well…

Mary Mitchel wolfing up Quinn  Redeker
Did I mention this was a comedy? My favorite moment is at a dinner table where Peter and Ann are discussing their enjoyment of the Universal classic horror films, and at one point they mention the mummy, and it’s clear from the body language that they are not talking about the Imhotep (Karloff, 1932) version but rather the 1940s Kharis (Chaney) ones. Of course, they mention Frankenstein, meaning the monster, which Chaney played in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Dracula which he played in Son of Dracula (1943), and of course his most known character, The Wolfman [yes, Chaney is the only one to play all four of the classic monsters onscreen]. What makes it even funnier is Ann stops before actually saying the full creature’s name and looks over at Chaney, who summarily looks up at an angle and says in a perfect Lawrence Talbot worry-voice, “There’s going to be a full moon tonight!” I had to stop the film and go, “wow!” and then realize that I haven’t seen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) in a really long time. Oh, and by his mentioning the full moon, perhaps they were also covering the shadows during the day-for-night shots?

I would like to share a special nod and raise a glass of a Virgin Shirley Temple to cinematographer Alfred Taylor, who does one of the more amazing lighting jobs I have seen in a black and white film, arguably equal to Gregg Toland’s handiwork in Citizen Kane (1941). Taylor gives amazing depth to the basement, the back ends of the rooms, and in the outdoor scenes. Some of the bootleg and VHS copies are quite murky from what I understand, but this remastering is just jaw-droopingly beautiful.

With Spider Baby taking on the American International Pictures style (Roger Corman mentored Hill) and mixing it with the even more absurd (but not as silly) The Raven (1963), over the early years of its existence this film had been pretty maligned. But it is due in part to bankruptcy of the producers and a legal issue with ownership of the negative, which is why it didn’t play on late night television like some of the others mentioned above. I’m not sure it would have been shown on television anyway without being cut to ribbons by censors because this film is quite wonderfully bizarre in its creepiness, and unique in its story, written by the director, Jack Hill. He would go on to write and direct such exploitation classics as The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974, which received a big pictorial write-up in Penthouse), and The Jezebels (1975; this would arguably be an influence on 1979’s The Warriors).

Over the years, however, as these kinds of things do, there has been an ever growing fan base (Marshall McLuhan’s “Rear View Mirror Thinking”) that has come to realize what a stunning work of dark fiction it actually is, and deserving of the praise it now receives.  This notice has even taken its director, Hill, buy surprise, as it was his first feature on a small budget of $60,000 (that’s $456,000 in 2015 currency).

This release abounds in extras. Not in order of sequence of the menu, of course there is the trailer, but that is only the breadcrumbs before the feast. There is an additional 30-minute black and white short Western called the Host from 1960, listed as Sid Haig’s first film. Looking like a cross between an old Twilight Zone episode and a college film (it was Jack Hill’s student project), we meet an escaped robber (Haig with hair!) who comes across a mysterious religious Mission in the middle of the desert. He is called upon to complete a task, and though you can see the ending coming, it’s quite well done.

There is a 33-minute panel discussion (2012?) from the American Film Archive, who had a showing after preserving the release from the original negatives. The panel is Jack Hill, Beverly Washburn, and a bizarre turn by an interruptive and muddled Quinn Redeker. It’s funny, fact-filled, and with Quinn’s part, a bit sad as he tries to tell a number of stories about working with Chaney, but hardly ever gets there.

Another 2006 short is nearly 8 minutes of filmmaker Elijah Drenner (who directed “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” discussed below) and Jack Hill returning to the since-restored Smith Estate in Los Angeles, which stood in for the Merrye Mansion. We never see the inside, but the tour of the grounds help you realize how creative they had to be to make it appear isolated.

Getting back to the film, there is an alternative credits (under the title of Cannibal Orgy) and an extended scene as we all get to meet Schlocker and Ann. These are more historical references than anything actually necessary. Though the backstage stills collection is nice and telling, especially about Ohmart, who looks like she’s not having much fun (the look she gives directly at the camera made me shudder; in the commentary, however, Hill said she had a lot of fun). The 11-minute “Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein,” focuses on the man who composed the music to this and many other Corman films. It kept my interest throughout.

The penultimate is a 30-minute, “The Hatching of Spider Baby, or the Making of the Maddest Story Every Told,” with interviews of most of the living cast, and other filmmakers such as Joe Dante. Not dull for a second, this is what “Making Of” featurettes should be like: a little bit technical, a little bit of anecdote, and a fast pace without being maudlin.

The cherry on the cake, though, is the full-length commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig. One of the better commentaries I’ve heard in a while, it really is a nice mix of filmmaking and personality discussion. They are both open to express what worked, how they did it, giving proper due to the cast and crew, being open about their reactions at the time, e.g., Haig explaining how he had the flu during one sequence, making it the hardest work he did in his then-45 year career (again, around 2006 when this must have been recorded). It was also nice to have the English captioning for when I was listening to this track.

I am definitely a convert to the film, and will take pleasure in repeated viewings. I believe that says it all.