Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review: Nightmare_Code

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

Story, produced and directed by Mark Netter
Dark Program Productions / Nettertainment Films
Indie Rights Movies / MVD Visual
89 minutes, 2014 / 2015

Borderline personality disorder computer whiz Brett (Andrew J. West, who appears in a lot of guest roles on television shows, including Gareth in The Walking Dead), got caught up in a scheme, which cost him his job, perhaps his family (wife and kid), and some time in prison. Desperate, he finally gets a job at a start-up computer company after a coder went crazy and shot up the place, killing some of his coworkers. His job is to figure out just what happened.

Of course, being a computer company verily there must be geeks (where is Suzy the headbanger’s mother?). Someone’s been watching Big Bang Theory or just going to horror or comic conventions, because this crew is loaded with eccentrics, with the exception of the very serious female lead Nora (Mei Melançon).

The Programmers, including West (second from left)
and Melancon in front.
Among this group of big brains and little social contact, Nora remains the only really likeable character that one would naturally root for – even though she does something I found pretty out of character and kinda despicable – as not only are there nerds, but the business side is classic corporate nasty folks with little care about their employees, only their product (to be honest, I worked for a company like that for over a decade that a good friend just called “the Evil Empire”).

While Brett is working on the mysterious surveillance project that everyone is trying to keep hush-hush and yet still expecting quick results, he is sleeping on the office couch and Skyping with his daughter and trying-so-hard-to-accept attractive wife (Caitlyn Folley). While this is all going on, he is also investigating exactly what happened to his predecessor, the shoot-'em-up guy, Foster (Googy Gress). Natch, he finds clues which lead him to discover, pretty early on so I’m not giving much away, that the guy may have actually managed to write a program that put him into the machine’s circuitry upon crossing over.

Folley in the center and West in the Insert
The ghost in the machine – here used more literally – is hardly a new premise in this day and age of nearly omnipresent computer technology; hell, it’s been fodder for stories since probably the 1950s or ‘60s. Japan has tons of stories along this idea, especially in manga books.

Even in death, the murderous previous programmer is having a disastrous effect on whomever views the computer files, bringing murder and death reminiscent of the last act of Five Million Years to Earth (1967, aka Quartermass and the Pit). He could also be seen as a Jim Jones, or the leader of the Heaven’s Gate debacle.

But I’m happy to say that the director, Mark Netter, wisely takes some original steps along the way, making this watchable, especially the cool ending. The code everyone is working on is for worldwide surveillance, a hot topic right now. To make it even more interesting, this is kind of a found footage, ironically using the very surveillance cameras in the organization (where a very large majority of the film takes place). Sometimes we are viewing up to four cameras at the same time. But to make it even more interesting, Netter sometimes fools around with the chronology just a bit to make it more dramatic, and that works, too.

Most of the effects look nearly as good as, say, CSI: Cyber, though I going to guess the budget here is significantly lower, so kudos on that. There isn’t much blood, though considering the way things are going lately thanks to the NRA-influenced “give guns to everyone” reality we currently live in, there are plenty of real people going to offices and letting a few rounds fly (as I write this, someone has just shot up an office in Toronto, and this month some teen shot up a school in northern Saskatchewan, making this kind of currently culturally salient to the point of it may or may not strike a chord and make the viewer squirm a bit, taking even the sci-fi premise a bit close to home.

There is a lot of media theory in here, which is touched on in the extras, including determinism, Neil Postman’s theory that every technology is a Faustian Bargain, and sometimes technology ends up doing exactly opposite of what it was intended for, such as the Internet supposedly connecting us all, yet we are even more isolated in our own rooms, reaching out.

There are a few extras, most of which are about two-to-three minutes long, including some technical stuff and character examinations that I recommend watching after the film, the trailer (a version of it below), and a full length commentary by the director, lead actors West and Melançon. It’s actually an excellent one as everyone doesn’t try to talk over the others (though it happens occasionally naturally), and the content is a nice mixture of shooting anecdotes, technical stuff, and the thoughts behind the story.

While the film is ambitious, it doesn’t try to overreach its goal, which is a compliment. Sure, in a world where so many indie directors are trying to build an art piece because they own an Apple Computer and know some editing tricks, Netter instead knows he has a good thing going with his application of technology and the various media arenas used, from said surveillance cameras to cell phone messages, to…well, let’s just call it the version of The Cloud, and he seems to know that’s a lot to deal with on its own.  Include the time warping, and that’s makes the mundane into the interesting.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Review: Captain Z and the Terror of Leviathan

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

Captain Z and the Terror of Leviathan
Directed by Steve Rudzinski  
Silver Spotlight Films / MVD Visuals                           
74 minutes, 2014 

With a name like Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan, there are things that are going to be assumed, the most obvious of which is that this is going to be a really terrible film, or a WTF hoot. Thankfully, this very generously falls into the latter.

For those who didn’t grow up in the Wheeling, WV, area, Captain Z is a commercial character that has been seen on local television for decades to promote a store that buys and sells jewelry (think about it, “Arg, matey, sell us your treasure”). It was started by co-writer and actor Zoltan Zilai’s dad (get it? Captain Z? There ya go), and is now played by him. Having worked with Pittsburgh-based writer/director Steve Rudzinski before on Everyone Must DIE! [reviewed HERE], it makes sense he tapped Rudzinski to complete an idea to use his Captain Z (aka Captain Zachariah Zicari) character in a more full-blown production. Rudzinski picked up the challenge.

Apparently, as the expository prologue provides, 300 years ago to the year (1714), in picturesque Wheeling, WV of all places, four humans possessed by demons – two of which are not overly bright – try to raise the dark god Leviathan to bring destruction on the puny mortals of earth. All they need is an amulet, a redheaded woman (I wonder, does it have to be a woman? What about a redheaded man? Oh, yeah, cleavage factor, right… okay, onward) and a sentence-long incantation, and Leviathan rises from…the Ohio River? Thanks to the quick actions of the good Cap Z and Rosa, his sidekick chicken (you heard me), the demons are vanquished into a void that also drags the good pirate along with ‘em.

Heather, Captain Z and the Professor
Some credits later, we are introduced to a motley crew of (mostly) slackers who work at a museum giving tours to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the saving of the town (“Captain Z Days”). Among them are the interesting looking but nowhere near intelligent Heather (played with charm by Madison Siple), the intelligent yet abrasive Samantha (Cerra Atkins), the enthusiastic Neal. (Josh Devett) who dresses like the Captain at the museum, and his dad, who is the monotone, slow-burn curator of the place, Sterling (cinematographer, editor, etc., Scott Lewis). Along comes a spi… I mean a professor of mysticism, played snarkily and humorously by Rudzinski (in a role similar to the Giles character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except with cool appeal), who arrives searching for the amulet that has been missing for 300 years.

Of course, the very day he shows up, it’s found by a family of rednecks who read the incantation on it and are instantly possessed. The leader of the quad is played by the buxom Aleen Isley, and among the rest is Seth Gontkovic, who nearly steals his scenes, as he did in EMD! as DJ Pink. He wears a bright and obvious copper-colored wig, for some reason, like he’s trying to look like an adult Opie Taylor. Like many of the others in this film, Seth is a regular in Rudzinski’s endeavors. I say when you find people who work out, keeping them close is a good thing. When the demons return, it also brings back the loveable Captain Z.

Aleen Isley as Vepar
The game is afoot to get back the amulet, and have the good Capt. get adjusted to the new-fangled contraptions (he really wants to drive/command a car) and cultural mores. He a somewhat good man in a strange situation; as he states to a pirate groupie (Lacy Brooks in a fun turn, who also does much of the great make-up effects) at a wild beer- and drug-fueled party, “I’ve done some bad things, but not evil things.” Honestly, his “arg” and “mateys” get a bit tiresome at times, especially how bad his accent is, but hell, this movie is a broad comedy so I’ll let it be and take it for what it is.

There is easily a Pirates of the Caribbean meets Demons vibe going on here, but the jokes are sometimes really good. For example, Heather collects “deformed jelly beans,” and another cries out after being interrupted, “Dude, I’m trying to bang your sister!” There is also a very brief homage to Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety (1977) when someone comments in a throwaway line, “I got it; I don’t got it.”

Played over the top just enough to be broad without being cartoonish, the acting here is quite substantial for this kind of gig, and nods to one and all. The gore effects are not over the top, but are quite well done throughout, most accomplished with appliances rather than using digi (with a rare exception being a Dustin Mills’ CGI creature). As with other Rudzinski productions, the women are not model types but have real curves and the occasional chunky parts, which is appreciated. Besides, there is ample cleavage to keep the viewer happy, if that’s a thrill for ya.

The extras are two commentaries (which I didn’t get to hear), a long segmented interview short with the director and some of the actors (Lewis comes off as charmingly abrasive), some of the Captain Z Jewelry commercials through the years, a blooper reel, and lots of others.

There is obviously room left at the end for the next adventure of the professor and the pirate, apparently dealing with vampires. Is this film outlandish? Most certainly. Is it goofy? Hoooh yeah. Is it worth seeing? Most definitely. This isn’t necessarily something you’d watch as a companion of, say, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1960), but would easily be seen with the likes of The Puppet Monster Massacre (2010) or The Disco Exorcist (2011). Actually, it would play well with The Pirates of the Caribbean series, though bang for the buck spent by the production, this might win.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: Abandoned Dead

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Images from the Internet
Abandoned Dead
Written and directed by Mark W. Curran
Nightwatcher Films / Pacific World Pictures / Pocket Studios / MVD VIsual
77 minutes, 2015 / 2017   

Californian rent-a-cop security guard – as in needing to feel secure – Rachel Burke (Burke’s law?) has been assigned to begrudgingly watch over the Mayfield Addiction Clinic over the Memorial Day Weekend (memorial = dead). It’s a clinic which deals with, well, addictions, and there is methadone stored there – not to mention frequent break-ins– so it stands to reason it can’t be left alone without some protection.

But, this is a genre film, so naturally things aren’t what they appear to be. They certainly don’t seem benign, as objects move, shake and appear in the shadows. As with most thriller kinds of films of this type, you are most likely looking not at the central character as she moves around, but the dark space down the hall, or the doorway on one of the sides of the corridor. Then there are the mysterious phone calls and the static that appear on the radio as a supernatural “tell” that something is about to happen. Woooooooooo, eerie, boys and girls.

The mysteriousness level is enhanced by the sharp use of stark color lights (red, blue, etc., or even the clarity of white). Most of the time, due to its use by so many other films, this visual has become kind of hackneyed, but Curran manages to make it work quite well here, showing emotion rather than just “Boo! Different lighting!” That makes me happy.

Also, this film is not just about the supernatural (or is it?), but a supernatural thriller (or is it?). See, that’s when a film becomes a thriller, making the watcher wonder. That leads me to another commonly used trope that is exploited here, which is a character (Burke) walking around a dark building with many doors, using only a flashlight (the lights go out during the story, not like CSI where they never turn the lights on in the first place…never understood that…”Look, audience, we have cool little flashlights!” But I digress…

As far as walking around the building, usually I hate these moments because they tend to last too long, turning suspense into annoyance and finally boredom. While there are a lot of scenes like that, again Curran takes the high road and tends to break it up into shorter segments, keeping the suspense high. Amusingly, the only distraction that really took me out of the moment was a scene where Burke investigates a bathroom, and the toilet seat is up. The back of my neck hairs stood up. Any male reading this that is cohabiting with a female partner will understand.

The premise is not new (not going to give it away) and I saw the central theme coming early on, though I wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. That helped in part to keep my grubby fingers off the fast forward button. This, actually, is a compliment to Curran’s direction and writing, to take a tried-and-true idea and jig with it in a way to keep the interest level.

Sarah Nicklin
Burke is played by multi-festival award-winning Sarah Nicklin. Now, I have to admit I love Sarah – no, not in that creepy older guy lusting after a hot younger woman, but rather I enjoy her acting skill and I have for a while, as she is a very natural talent. Yes, the role here plays towards the mostly “scared,” but that also makes the contrasts even more realistic and jutting.

While the idea of this film is similar in some ways to another film she was in (though not as the locus character) called Normal (2015), it takes a different turn than the previous one, and her character is very dissimilar than the other lead. Again, this is a good thing.

Judith O'Dea
The cameo du jour for this film is Night of the Living Dead’s (1968) Judith O’Dea, as a Doctor of the Mind (okay, psychiatrist… happy?). To be honest, I always through her acting in NOTLD was kinda wooden, even if she is one of the central characters who is supposed to be in shock, but she certainly does fine here, and I’m glad to see her working again. I would also like to congratulate Curran for not having someone say to her, at some point, “They’re coming to get you, Doctor.” Not every actor needs to have a “Woha” or “I’ll be back” that they just have to use to remind everyone (i.e., beat over the head with their ego) of their classic turns. Besides, she gets to say the film’s tagline, so that’s good enough for me.

There is no nudity in the film (though Nicklin carries the undies scenes quite well), but a nice level of gore FX is executed. Not a huge amount, but enough to make it stick out a bit more and be quite effective.

I enjoyed how this careened over a number of genres, such as slasher, doctor experimentation, supernatural, zombie, paranormal, social commentary about family dynamics, psychodrama, crime drama, and straight out horror; and yet, it doesn’t stay in any one stream long enough to overstay it’s welcome, nor pass so fast that it is ignorable.  

According to IMDB, this is Curran’s second full-length film (he directed the recording of a live stage production about Edgar Allen Poe previously). As such, it’s a work to be proud of, and there’s plenty of fodder there to grow on. I look forward to charting his path.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Favorite and Not Favorite Films of 2015

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Images from the Internet

As I said this before, bear with me. I have an issue with “Best of” and “Worst of” year-end lists for the following reasons: most are chosen from either those that play in theaters, or viewed on PPV such as Netflix and film channels by the television provider. For me, I like to watch not the major indies, such as It Follows or The Green Inferno, but rather the DIY ones. These tend to have more heart, where often the cast and crew overlap, and it is pretty common that the films cost less than $5,000. Most of these can be viewed for a small fee.

Because I don’t often go to theaters, I rely on what is sent to me via discs or links, which means it may be a while before they get to my player or computer. Therefore, my list consists of films that I saw in 2015, not necessarily ones that were released in that year.

As for Best and Worst, I never liked those terms; art is just way too subjective, which is why I called them Favorites and Not Favorites. That being said, even the “Not” ones have redeeming qualities, and the fact that they don’t touch me means nothing. I’ve hated films that have won tons of awards, so don’t take anything I say, good or bad, as the law. It’s just opinion, and I welcome you to agree or disagree. It’s all good.

These lists are alphabetical, rather than ranked.


 Bite School
Directed by James Balsamo
Filmed and released in 2015
Writer / director James Balsamo’s films are like cotton candy: they may not be heavy in nutrients, but they fill a need for goofy, frat boy fun. It’s pretty obvious that the cast is enjoying themselves, which makes it that much more pleasurable for the viewer. There are two stories running throughout – one of a rich, spoiled brat (Balsamo) being stripped of his wealth until he gets his GED, and a sexy female vampire (Mandy Kat Kitana) who is trying to break her own bonds of boredom after many years of throat-biting. Balsamo manages to get a lot of music and genre film world cameos into his film (e.g., Hershell Gordon Lewis) to create a culture of obnoxiously loveable characters. It is self-mocking and well-written, and easily Balsamo’s best film to date. [Original full review HERE]
Bloody Indulgent
Directed by Ken Roht
Filmed in 2014 / released in 2015
This film is an absolute mess, trying to be a comedy, musical and gory vampire flick at the same time, with Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys as its lead villainous anti-hero. And somehow it all comes together. It may not always make sense, but outrageous characters and not taking itself too seriously helps rather than hinders. Its self-sarcasm and mostly bad songs (e.g., Diva Zappa’s dance number) work; the occasional decent song (such as the opener) is a bonus. It’s the kind of film that, if you turn your Spidey-senses off, can be a hoot. [Original full review HERE]

Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween
Directed by David Campfield
Filmed and released in 2015
This updated Abbott and Costello-ish meets the Three Stooges-ish franchise has grown up a bit from its earlier releases, much to its own and the viewer’s benefit. The characters have matured (somewhat) and the storytelling is more gelled to spoof with wit, rather than relying mainly on slapstick and insults. Caesar is less of a clown making him a bit more realistic and therefore more identifiable. There’s still plenty of yuks and silliness to keep it consistent with the rest of the films, but I like how it has grown into its backstory. With genre-referential nods both subtle and writ large, it is an enjoyable release. [Original full review HERE]

Flesh for the Inferno
Directed by Richard Griffin
Filmed and released in 2015
The first Griffin release on this list, the prolific director takes a page from the Fulchi / Argento Italian Giallo video nasty films from the 1980s to bring ghostly killer nuns (back) to life, free to terrorize a group of overaged teens who are in the process of cleaning up a church. There is a lot of mayhem, blood, and a sizeable body count making this an incredibly joyous release from a creative team who appear to be dedicated on being a force to be reckoned with on the micro-budget front. The strong cast and crew, as well as writing and cinematography make this even more watchable. [Original full review HERE]

Directed by Phil Stevens
Filmed and released in 2015
Sometimes being arty gets in the way, and others it enhances the experience for the viewer. Fortunately, this falls into the latter (obviously, since it’s on this list). This is a sort of anthology about half a dozen women who have met up with a specific serial killer, picking up after their demise, and their struggle with their post-mortem fate. With no dialog, striking images and ambient sounds, Stevens’ feature debut is a strong entry into the genre. There are plenty of gross images and intense situations, not to mention intriguing locales (such as a disgusting bathroom) that make each individual story compelling, but having enough consistency to keep them all flowing in a similar motif. [Original full review HERE]

Killer Rack
Directed by Gregory Lamberson
Filmed and released in 2015
It is what it says. Tentacle boobs with a bite that takes a shy lass (Jessica Zwolak) and turns her into a killing machine, thanks to the machinations of an insane doctor (Debbie Rochon). What would have been a completely silly exercise in sexist politics actually turns it into a raucous (and yes, often silly) look at culture and the way it produces unrealistic body images to keep both genders distracted and depressed. While doing this, it remains smartly funny under the guise of fluff (think of how adult Bugs Bunny could be). On the surface it’s WTF, but underneath, there is a level of truth without being at all preachy. [Original full review HERE]

Motivational Growth
Directed by Don Thacker
Filmed in 2013 / Released in 2014
As with some of the releases mentioned above, on the surface this is a pretty silly film about a weird loner named Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) who is in an Audrey II-ish power relationship with a big glop of mold in his bathroom that has a mouth and teeth, and spouts philosophical inanities like, “The mold knows, Jack; the mold knows.” Through a mixture of flashbacks, hallucinations and reality, it’s actually a deeper story of transition, if one is willing to look under the rock. So many of us have felt like this guy at least once in our lives, so the identifiablility level can be high. That the mold is voiced by indie genre idol Herbert Wes… I mean Jeffrey Combs is a large bonus. [Original full review HERE]

Directed by Richard Griffin
Filmed in 2013 / released in 2015
Griffin, oft known for his horror comedies, succeeds where Woody Allen failed here, by releasing a dead-serious, creepy as all hell scenario of a serial killer. We see both what is in his head, and the results of his actions in the real world, brought to life beautifully by Michael Reed. The supporting cast of Griffin regulars ebb and flow around Reed’s character in a way that is not only intriguing, but important information is given away early on, and rather than making what comes after anti-climactic it merely adds to the texture of what is to come. It is a thought piece that can and should be discussed and debated. [Original full review HERE]

Shadow World: The Haunting of Mysti Delane
Directed by Daniel E. Falicki
Filmed in 2014 / Released in 2015
I’m not quite sure why I haven’t heard more about Falicki until recently. Sure, sometimes his films can be arty and a bit opaque, such as Awaken the Devil, aka The Un-American [2014], but most are intelligent set pieces centered on a central locus of activity. He seems to specialize in the supernatural (demons, ghosts, and vampires, for example), and this mostly two-person treatise on spiritual addiction is no different. He takes a somewhat simple premise and makes it quite intriguing. I’m quickly becoming a big fan. [Original full review HERE]

She Kills
Directed by Ron Bonk
Filmed and released in 2015
Grindhouse genres fly by in this spoof of ‘70s and ‘80s video nasties about a poor woman (Jennie Russo) who is cursed with a firecrotch. Apparently the aroma of her womanhood as she becomes aroused drives everyone into hysterics of lust. This is the second film on this list where women’s body parts are killing machines, used to both amuse and give a bit of a batshit lesson of our modern mores. Overacting, over-arching and over-ridiculous, one familiar with the revenge subgenre especially will find a lot to recognize in “a-ha” moments. It is funny, fast, and smarter than it presents, if the viewer is paying attention to the subtext. Plus, some of the quotable dialog (to the right person[s]) had me in hysterics. [Original full review HERE]

The Sins of Dracula
Directed by Richard Griffin
Filmed and released in 2014
More than Hammer (though some of that is here), this is a witty and sharp playing of the Christian scare films of the ‘70s. Writer Michael Varrati mixes in just the right amount of comedy, horror and gore to keep the story going and yet acknowledging the references without pandering to them (such as a recent vampire floating outside a window who does not follow the rules). It’s a gorgeous feast for the eyes, and the acting really is superb, especially for this genre. Michael Thurber’s silent Dracula is played with his eyes and enormous ring to incredible strength, and lead Jamie Dufault just nails it as a tempted pure religious soul. Even if you are not aware of the style it is based upon, there is certainly enough here to fill your cup of…wine. [Original full review HERE]

Spider Baby
Directed by Jack Hill
Filmed in 1964 / released in 1967 / rereleased in 2015

It took me decades to finally see this creepy and dark comedy that has finally been released on DVD/Blu-Ray. Gorgeously shot in high-contrast black and white, we follow an insane family as they self-destruct through greed, murder, and general mayhem; and yet keep you laughing from beginning to end, when the back of your neck isn’t twitching. In one of Lon Chaney (Jr.)’s last roles, he play the caretaker of the nutzoid group with charm and with some effective emotional baggage. It was certainly worth the wait, and if you like dark films such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, but want to see a witty side to it, this is your chance. [Original full review HERE]

Angel Maker: Serial Killer Queen
Directed by O.H. Krill
Filmed in 2014 / released in 2015
Amelia Dyer was definitely one sick 19th Century woman whose murderous spree over the years had resulted in the death of numerous babies, for profit. This documentary of her life tries to be like many of the television shows that focus on these kinds of actions, but to much less success. The problem is that it draws the story out much longer than is necessary or that there is sufficient footage for usage, so we are shown the same images over and over, with large gaps between the set pieces with no real substance. This would have made an interesting half-hour program (including commercials), but the content does not justify the length, leading to ennui of the viewer. [Original full review HERE]

Dark Mountain
Directed by Tara Anaise
Filmed in 2013 / released in 2014
Despite decent acting, this found footage (ff) film falls short of its potential. Full of clichés and borrowing way too much from previous releases like The Blair Witch Project, we are subjected to multiple scenes of running through the dark with the lights of the camera as the only source of vision, and a convoluted story of greed and possibly supernatural subjugation. This is only one example of how much the ff genre is bleeding the indie releases by making the cast and filmmaking simultaneous, therefore saving on crew members, but, well, enough already. Having cast and crew is fine, but enough already. [Original full review HERE]