Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Shadow World: The Haunting of Mysti Delane

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

Shadow World: The Haunting of Mysti Delane
Written and directed by Daniel E. Falicki
Sector 5 Films / Rotomation Pictures
Chemical Burn Entertainment / WWMM
75 minutes, 2014 / 2015

I believe I said this before, but here I go: the more of Daniel Falicki’s film’s I see, the more I’m impressed. There definitely are themes that seems to run through them, such as a strange, shadowy creature of some sort, some mysterious place (be it in an abandoned building or house, or a dream state) that damaged humans manage to invade and disturb, and a level of artiness that is an addition to the viewer’s reception rather than an annoyance.

Peri Jill Phillips as Mysti
In this film, all of those aspects are present in an absorbing tale that is essentially a two-person piece. Of course there’s the title character of Mysti Delane (Peri Jill Phillips). She is a woman in her late teens or early twenties who is living in an isolated farmhouse. Weak and withdrawn both physically and mentally, she habitually gets some psychotropic ayahuasca vines (also known as yagĂ©) from a cemetery, boils them down, and drinks the potion. This takes her to the mostly peaceful titular place that is a lovely and serene forest which is unfortunately also inhabited by a horned and demonic man-beast that has escaped into the real world. It usually shows up in dreams, causing terror and physical manifestations, such as scratch marks on Mysti’s body. She is aptly named because her psyche is “misty” with both a fear of the shadow world and an ever growing desire to go back to it. Also, Delane means “From the Elder Tree Grove,” which may represent her use of the elder tree vines.

The second main character is Mysti’s aunt, Aurelia (Liz Nolan), who comes to check in on Mysti, only to find her in rough shape. You see, she too has dabbled in the Shadow World, as had other members of the family, but Aurelia put a halt to the practice before it became overpowering. The name Aurelia means “the golden one” in Latin (it was Julius Caesar’s mother’s name), and is associated with leadership, honor and bravery.

The only other two “characters” are a brief but memorable cameo by the director as the cemetery caretaker, and the beastie thingie (Rich Granoble, an acting pseudonym for Falicki), who, as I said, is mostly shadow.

While the pace of the film is pretty slow, it never let me down or bored at all. I was riveted by the building story, and even more so by the acting of the two leads, Phillips and Nolan who carry the film, along with the photography (more on that later). Phillips does well to carry the personal pain of Mysti’s life and need for the Shadow World despite its obvious dangers in her face, though mostly in the hollowness of her eyes. She carries Mysti in the moment, whether it’s fear, being distraught, or just passing on the torment of her views of reality; Mysti writes a manifesto on the ills of the world in her diary, that we hear in an internal monolog full of anger at a world that’s overpopulated and self-destructive (ironic as she lives on a secluded acreage, but I’ll pass on that). Her feverish writing has the uncomfortable feel of a meth-head, driven by something personal that has to get out, much like the shadowy demonic presence.

Liz Nolan, who plays Aurelia
Nolan is much stronger here than in her nearly comic-relief-yet-pivotal role in Falicki’s 3:33: The Witching Hour. She brings Aurelia’s fear and concern into the present, mixing both strength and weaknesses without being awash in being over the top. Aurelia arrives just past when things are getting out of control for Mysti, and she tries to rectify them through use of the craft, but the question is whether it’s even possible by this point. If you haven’t caught it yet (i.e., if I’m being clear or not), there is a strong correlation of the Shadow World and opioids. Both are something that starts out recreational, and becomes addictive, to the point of a “monkey on your back” (i.e., demon in your dreams) that will eventually destroy you in one way or another (a subtle subtheme of another of Falicki’s work, Awaken the Devil aka The Un-American). This is also expressed in Aurelia’s reactions and behaviors as a past user. The analogy of the two themes is a strong indicator for the film, making it that much more interesting to me (no, I’m not a user of opiates nor ayahuasca; I’m happily boring in that way), having been in a punk rock world that included the Ramones and the Heartbreakers (no, not Tom Petty, but the real Heartbreakers), seeing the devastation that addictions can incur (RIP Shandi). But I digress…

Director Daniel Falicki's cameo
The solitary farmhouse life Mysti inhabits in the real world is represented by a run-down house that is a hollow space in a dead homestead, which surrounds the claustrophobic room in which she mostly inhabits. The post-potion Shadow World, on the other hand, is a beautiful forest, shot though an overwashed lens possibly to indicate a nearly unbearable lightness of being (with apology to Kundera), even with its inherent danger. This is a moody piece for certain, that follows the story without the need for gore to keep the viewer’s attention, yet for certain there are some nice jump-scares and digital effects that are – er – effective.

This isn’t a sit in the basement with buds and beer, and point out the silliness kind of film, but rather a slow and building character study about sadness, obsession, and the care of these two women for each other, as well as, if you’ll pardon the expression, the dark side. If you’re in the right frame of mind, and want to see a smart indie micro-budget film that tells a story yet has a heart, as well as a few horrors, yeah, this could be a wise pick.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review: Deadly Revisions

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

Deadly Revisions
Written, produced and directed by Gregory Blair
Pix/See Productions / Good Kids Productions
SGL Entertainment / MVD Visual
94 minutes, 2013 / 2015

While they were together, actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page had a mailbox outside their New York apartment that read “Torn Page.” I was reminded of this by the use of names in this film.

Bill Oberst, Jr.
Grafton Torn (genre rock star Bill Oberst, Jr.) is a horror screenplay writer who has been having troubles of late. His main characters are a man with a hatchet, another with a noose, and a demonically haunted doll. He’s been in an accident in his home, and is suffering from some amnesia about the last few hours before. Dreams are filled with images of his written imagination, and to add to it, he’s in the middle of a divorce from his harsh wife (though we are not privy to why she wants the divorce for a spell). Even a hypnotherapist (Cindy Merrill) can’t seem to break through.

Cindy Merrill
A lot of the characters have *wink wink* names, such as the above mentioned Torn, whose appellation is a bit of an oxymoron as “Graft” is to join, and “Torn” is, well… Then there are other players whose monikers include, in part, references, such as Dr. Myers, Ash, and Nurse Voohrees. For me, this is rookie thinking, as it’s a bit clichĂ© to do that, especially in a drama.

Now, this is going to be a bit of a hard review to write, because I want to discuss the ending so badly, but I won’t because it isn’t fair to the viewer, but I will say the following: about 20 minutes into the film, I took a guess at the ending, which didn’t seem such a stretch. Not a new theme, it’s used often enough to have its own descriptor (which I will not reveal, as it would instantly give it away). At that point of the story, I said out loud, “I hope I am wrong and the film surprises me; if that is the conclusion of the major plot, I’m going to be really disappointed and pissed.” Sadly, I was right.

 f you don’t guess it, and are shocked by the end’s twist, as apparently many people have been, you may want to watch it again in that Sixth Sense way to see the clues after the fact and go, “Oh, I missed that.” If, like me, you figured it out early on, you will catch the hints at every turn, confirming your own suspicions. At that point you can either be proud of yourself, or if you’re like me, you will be disappointed at such a hackneyed punchline.

I should point out that this has won numerous awards in festivals, and except for what I have been talking about, I can sort of understand it. It’s problematic in parts (even without the end), which I will go into a bit, but there is also a cohesiveness that belies a talent from the director that I hope he will evolve with. Good things can come out of the practice of this work. Do I think it deserves the prizes? Let me think about it, and get back to you on a future date.

Dawna Lee Heising
The two leads, Oberst as Torn and Mikhail Blokh as his pal Deter fare well (even though Deter is written to sound a bit like Maynard G. Krebs, with lots of “Hey man” kind of lines). Both are strong actors. Some of the rest of the cast is occasionally questionable in acting skills, if bombastic in other ways; one, who is quite intelligent in real life, comes across more as a living cartoon character thanks to what appears to be physical enhancements. Others range from decent to, well, stereotypical indie acting.

But for me, the biggest bitching I have to say is about the night lighting. You can’t see very well when the characters are roaming around outside at night, or in the house with the lights off. It’s a bit frustrating.

The extras are a Blooper/Gag Reel that is okay, and two trailers.

To be fair, this is the director’s first outing in that role, having been a genre actor for a while. I’m cutting him some serious slack, because there is a lot of promise in this, and I’m hoping he’s learned a lot from the experience, and rightly so. Editing wise, this is well done, and the general foundation of the film, such as look (other than the darkness) and feel, are actually pretty successful. I also like how the soundtrack uses a lot of dissonant bass notes rather than screeching tones to indicate warning. There are plenty of nice touches, such as the creepy doll with the glowing eyes, so I am hoping Blair keeps going, and I’m interested to see his skill increase.

Now I’m going to go to bed and turn off the gaslight, and unlike the Torn character, have a good sleep.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: Flowers

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

Written, shot and directed by Phil Stevens
Borderline Cinema / Frog Militia
Unearthed Films / MVD Visual

Philadelphia, where this story takes place and was mostly shot, is known as “the City of Brotherly Love.” Well, for Flowers, it is certainly not the city of Sisterly Love. The reason is that there is a serial killer on the loose who targets women in their twenties who have been “naughty,” by various means. But when most films of this type start with the women being captured, this one goes for their souls after they are already dead. This is not the first film to use this premise (Carnival of Souls [1962] and the recent Normal [2013] are but a couple of examples), but director Phil Stevens manages to take a pretty unique perspective.

Bryant W. Lohr, Sr. as killer The Exile
Over ambient sounds and music, and a lack of dialog throughout, we follow six women who have been mutilated for sexual pleasure by an older, overweight man known only as The Exile (Bryant W. Lohr, Sr.). His countenance is stoic and unemotional, his body sometimes bare (i.e., nekkid), and judging by the number of bodies his killing spree is huuuuuuge (sorry, was watching idiot Trump recently, but I digress…). But he is only the catalyst here, and not the focus. Most of the story takes place after his actions.

Of the multitude of deaths, the film focuses on six of his “flowers,” most of who disappear from their everyday lives without notice due to their marginalized status, such as sex workers or substance abusers. Each come to their after-consciousness confused, silent, and with an autopsy “Y” crudely stitched across their chests.

Each of these women ends up in a dilapidated part of a house that looks like it has been deserted since the ‘30s. There seems like there is some playing with time, such as a rotary phone and old photographs, but the hair styles and colors, tattoos and piercings tell you it’s in the present time; it’s the purgatory that is timeless.

Anastasia Blue as Flower #3
One ends up in a crawlspace under a porch full of bodies in and out of garbage bags, one in a bathroom that would make the one in Saw (2004) look appetizing, another in a kitchen, and so on. There are some consistent themes across the stories, though, such as a dead pig (especially the head), old photographs, and lots and lots of decay in the form of muck, mire, decay, and worms.

Most of the cast have no previous credits before this release, but every single one holds up fine under what appears to be quite the arduous filming conditions, such as crawling through the substances mentioned above, being nearly constantly in filthy clothes and schmutz on their bodies, and in some cases in very confined spaces. In that way, it’s a pretty disgusting and gross picture.

Being director Phil Stevens’ first IMDB indication of helming a picture, he certainly had nothing to lose by experimentation, and in this case, most of it works really well. The film is presented in a world that is drained of most color, seeped in sepia tones, to represent a different worldliness of being lost. It’s a really nice touch. The lack of sound – I’m guessing in part so he could give directions throughout – also works, as he manages to still get the story across.

This is a very slow paced film. You definitely need some patience with it, but if you do, you will find it’s worth it. Many of the shots are longer, and you stick with each of the stories for a length that you would not expect in quite a few cases. I’m not sure how much of the lack of speed has to do with Stevens or his editor, Ronnie Sorter (who directed some of his own genre films back in the VHS days), but in either case, it works for rather than against this film.

The women who are the victims here certainly are not girl next door types, and there is very little character background if at all, and yet Stevens still makes you feel for these people. Their acting also does as much in that direction, which is all the more impressive considering for most this is their first (credited) roles. The characters are put into situations where they supposed choose their actions, seemingly a few on the line with some of the “7 Deadly Sins” such as gluttony, vanity, and lust.

The film has a great look. The make-up, the way Stevens sets up the shots (all by him on a relatively steady hand-held camera), the gore and disgusting room set-ups, it all works to gnaw on the viewers uncomfortablility level (for me, it was the close-up on a real injection). My favorite shot was one of the final flower reaching into her own body cavity, as seen from the inside (a very manga idea).

There are some questions I have about the film that were not really answered in the story, such as the reason for the pig and pics (other than availability), or who goes to heaven and who ends up in hell. Also, why is Defect written on the wall in one scene (and is it read as DEE-fect, as in something wrong, or De-FECT, as in give up). Unfortunately, these questions are not answered in the two commentaries, one by director Stevens, and the other with editor and sound designer Sorter. Their talks are totally from the technical end of writing, building the sets (actually quite interesting the way they do it) and getting funding, or sound and editing (duh). Neither barely touches the storyline at all. There is a third extra track that isolates the ambient soundscape, which has a cool, only wind-through-tunnels feel.

Other extras, which are worth the time, are a 10-minute interview with our killer, Lohr, the full 14-minuite audition tape of Flower 6, Makaria Tsapotoris (who also was a major part of the production crew and Stevens’ “right-hand person,” as he describes in the commentary), 15 minutes of really interesting behind-the-scene stills, and a bunch of Unearthed trailers (including this one).

During his rambling-but-enjoyable discussion, Stevens mentions the Deleted Scenes reel…which is not included here, but in another triple-disc released version (one is the soundtrack CD) that is also available. Would have liked to have seen that, but I’m happy to have had the opportunity to see this film.

I don’t know if I would use the word masterpiece, but a successful project? Yes, without a doubt. For a debut feature, Stevens, cast, and crew did a remarkable job. There is sort of an indication of a possible sequel – and just to show you how off the wall this film is – in the opening sequence. I would look forward to seeing where they go next.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Q&A With Genre Director James Balsamo

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

I am proud to say that I have now reviewed all of the films of James Balsamo that he has directed and released to date: Hack Job (2011), I Spill Your Guts (2012), Cool as Hell (2013), Catch of the Day (2014), and Bite School (2015). He has two more scheduled for next year, 60 Seconds to Die and Killer Waves. This does not include the multiple ones he appeared as an actor (though I did write up 2012’s Bloody Christmas and his sneeze-and-you-miss-it cameo in 2013’s Blood Slaughter Massacre). These can all be seen by searching this blog.

Balsamo’s specialty for most of his films is the goofy self-centered fish out of water, usually played by himself. Much of it could seem just plain silly, but if the viewer actually pays attention, there is a lot of sharp dialog and action, with lots of gore and nudity. They are definitely a fun ride.

Another of his forte is having guest cameos. As Balsamo travels around going to genre conventions, his up spirit, the joy of what he’s doing, and his general personality lends itself to other actors and musicians being willing to record a visual bit that can be included in his films, often of which is humorously belittling Balsamo either verbally or physically. Some of them obviously are filmed in the street or hotel lobby right at the convention site, which will somehow be included in his latest project. That actually says a lot about the joy of being a genre writer, director and actor; he’s not just in charge, he’s also a fan. I’ve seen some of the selfie’s he’s done with various artists and his ecstatic expression is identifiable as truth, which usually says, “Holy fuck, I can’t believe I’m standing next to so-and-so!”   

Balsamo is one of the new breed of guerilla filmmakers who grab a camera (or more than one) to a location and shoot away, especially in Long Island locales, but as his releases are getting increasingly popular, and he attends more and more conventions (make sure you go by and say hi at his table…and pick up a film or tee-shirt or two), his loci for taping is ever expanding.

Not only does Balsamo make films, he also releases them under his own brand, Acid Bath Productions, which has one of my favorite logo animations used at the beginning of all his releases and trailers. But I’ve rambled on enough. Let’s meet the man behind the cannoli:
You’ve been an actor longer than a director. What was the moment that made you want to make films as well as act?
James: I started out at a young age to aspire to star in horror films. But since I didn’t know anybody who made horror films, I decided to go to film school and make my own damn movie. Five feature films later, now I get to hack and slash on screen and off camera (when the craft service table runs out of doughnuts).

What drives you to make films?
James: While filming topless women and partying with some of the rock stars and celebrities in my films are a great perk, what really drives me to make them is my love for cinema. But let’s be real: mainly it’s for the boobs and partying at this point in my career.

You’ve made five three comedies (Killer Waves is in production) and one drama. Why the change with the tense I Spill Your Guts?
James: After a not so enthusiastic response after my first film, Hack Job, I set out to show the world that I had more ideas than just fart jokes and naked women and made a captivated military thriller – I Spill Your Guts. After the film’s release, critics of Hack Job quickly did a 360 and praised the film for its great dramatic overtones. But like I said, a lot of people are just like me: we really like fart jokes and boobs so that’s what I went back to. After three horror-comedies, I’ve decided to go back to a thriller with Killer Waves, which promises to be the most brutal film I’ve made.

You tend to have some very attractive women who both are willing to be naked and can actually act in your films. Why are you so lucky?
James: Our casting process is really complex. A lot of work goes into the entire process and it involves a series of auditions and usually a lot of debate. I’ve always had a charm with the ladies but of course on an Acid Bath Productions set, all of our actors and actresses are treated with the utmost respect when doing nude scenes.

Tell us an anecdote about working with the late Dave Brockie, the lead singer of Gwar (d. 2014).
James: Dave Brockie was an amazing guy to have worked with. He will truly be missed. Dave came to set excited about the project and before he got into his Oderus [Urungus] costume, Dave played a role out-of-costume as a diner owner. We handed Dave his wardrobe, which was brand new, and he said he really wanted it to look authentic. We were filming in a club that had a kitchen and Dave put his hand under the grease trap and was wiping the dirt and grime all over himself and his clothes. He was a true method actor.

How do you get so many major named stars of both cinema and music to appear in your films?
James: A little bit of chloroform goes a long way. Acid Bath Productions is a growing name in the industry so we’re seeing a lot of these rock stars and celebrities are excited to work with us and be in an Acid Bath film. If that doesn’t work, we usually kidnap a loved one and hold them for ransom until they do a cameo.

Debbie Rochon is one of my faves. What is it like to work with her?
James: I’ve known Debbie for almost a decade now and not only is she always stunning to look at, but she has such an amazing sense of humor and such a great presence to her. The last time I filmed with Debbie she was playing a psychic and made an actress lick a dried goat penis (read: beef jerky). If you haven’t seen the scene, its hilarious goodness is in Catch of the Day.

Do you usually shoot with one camera, or do you occasionally shoot with more?
James: Catch of the Day was the only film shot primarily with two cameras. Obviously there are always a bunch of cameras shooting different angles, but we try to stick with one primary camera. Though you’d be surprised how handy the extra footage from the other cameras can be!

According to IMDB, your last film, Bite School, cost $60,000. Really?
James: No, it actually cost more than that. Blowing up cars and driving through walls seems to drive up the production bill. Don’t remind me – or my bank account.

Have you ever had to deal with a prima donna actor/actress? How do you handle that situation?
James: Like I said, a lot of work goes into the casting process and we’ve been lucky that we haven’t had to deal with such an incident, but when the time comes we do keep a machete on set.

You’re very loyal to Long Island, and your Italian heritage, yet you’re not afraid to make fun of both, as well as other races. How does your nonni feel about that?
James: She’s 89 and kicking. She loves it, but she does occasionally need to beat me with an Italian bread to keep me in line, but I’ll always be her little meatball.

The characters you play tend to be drug- and alcohol fueled airheads with some position of power. How close is that to reality?
James: I know the first step is admitting you have a problem, so let’s move past that and say I am far from the characters. But drugs aren’t really a problem as long as you can afford them, am I right?

You also act in other people’s films. Do you ever get the urge to grab the camera and show them how it’s done?
James: I always restrain my urge to start directing other people’s projects if they’ve hired me as talent. I respectfully hold that position, unless of course they ask for my opinion and then I’m more than happy to show them or just take over the show.

Frank Mullen is another one of my favorites who appear in your films. His characters definitely have a similarity to one another. How parallel are they to him? I always thought he would be a great addition to “Blue Bloods” or “SVU.” Discuss.
James:  Yes, Frank embodies that character. I don’t usually even have to give him a script, I just let him yell at people in real life and happen to be there with a camera to capture it. In all seriousness, Frank is a great actor and we’re happy to have him as part of the Acid Bath family. I’m not the biggest “Blue Bloods” fan, but Frank is truly a brilliant actor and I’m happy to call him a friend. I’m sure he’d ace any role he was cast for. If you haven’t seen him perform in Suffocation [Frank’s band - RG], you’re definitely missing something special.

Is there anyone in particular you want to have in your films that you haven’t been able to get yet, and why?
James: We have a couple of people in the works, so I don’t want to give away too many secrets just yet. And that would tip them off that the creepy noises they hear in their house at night is me.

Any other amusing story you want to share?
James: After filming with ECW legend Balls Mahoney [Jonathan Rechner – RG], he heard that I was a varsity wrestler back in high school and challenged me to a wrestling match. Mind you, the night before, Balls Mahoney wrestled and broke his arm when fans threw all their chairs in the ring. So literally part of his bone looked like it was about to pop out of his arm and so I’m pleading with him that I don’t want to wrestle him because he clearly has a broken arm but he persists. Being a man of honor I couldn’t just lie down and let him pin me, so I wrestled a one-armed Balls Mahoney and pinned him not once, but twice. Fair match. (Have you ever seen that guy swing a chair?)