Saturday, April 30, 2016

Review: Stray Cat Rock: 5 Disc Set

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

Stray Cat Rock: 5 Disc Set
Hori Productions / Nikkatsu
Arrow Films / MVD Visual

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (aka Nora-neko rokku: Onna banchô)
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
81 minutes, 1970 / 2015
Rumour is that Roger Corman based his motorcycle films on this one, though there is also a strong indication that DGB was influenced by the likes of Riot on Sunset Strip (1967). However, I question that, considering he directed The Wild Angles in 1966, four years before this one. The mixture of topical music artists and the independent crime/drug genres are blended seamlessly, with one of the main characters being the throaty Ako played by pop star Akiko Wadda. She stands nearly a head taller than most of the rest of the female cast.

Mei (Meiko Kaji), who would become the star of the rest of the series, is the leader of a bunch of tough women called the Stray Cats (or Alleycats, depending on your translation). She dresses what you might imagine Peggy Lipton wearing on “The Mod Squad,” (1968-73) or Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974), such as a loose fitting brown suede pants suit. In other fashions, there are a lot of multi-colored sunglass lenses, including blue, yellow and tan. Speaking of which, I ask this as an honest cultural question, as I simply don’t know. Do gangsters or motorcycle riders tend to wear tan pants in Japan? Or is it supposed to reflect the uniformed worn by the film’s crime syndicate? More on that later, but, ah, makes me wonder…

The exception in this crowd is Ako, who dresses in leather as she drives a motorcycle, yet she still joins up with the group. I’m not sure if the title refers to her or Mei, honestly, but then again, I’m more concerned about the story in general than any specific thing like that. When one is watching a foreign film, especially from an Asian country, you have to accept that the translation into English is not going to be exactly accurate, so you go with the action.

A right wing nationalist syndicate comes into town (they dress like soldiers), and joins up with a male motorcycle gang since their leader of the hog riders is the brother of the crime group capo. The Don, as it were, looked familiar and then I realized it is Tadao Nakamaru: he played Shephard Wong, in What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966). As in most Japanese gangster films, they are up to no good. For example, they try to buy off a boxer to throw a fight, but thanks to Ako egging him on, as well as Mei’s boyfriend being the one who convinced him to throw it in the first place, he KOs the opponent. This leads to trouble since the syndicate lost a lot of smackeroos, so they take it out on the b/f.

Hitting him with Aikido sticks, the women come in and rescue him, and now the syndicate is after the ladies, as well. One of the vehicles the syndicate drives, a Fellow Buggy, has an Ohio plate, perhaps a nod towards Kent State University, which was still fresh on the news? Okay, I won’t talk about that the plate is from 1961, especially since on the back are two plates, from Florida and another from Texas. Perhaps they were predicting the bushwhacking Bush brothers’ 2000 election. A bigger question is why would a vehicle belonging to a nationalistic Japanese gang have US plates?

Music has a much to do with the film, mostly indirectly. For example, there is a Lot of jazzy sax playing over the action, like many cool movies did in the States in early-to-mid-1960s to indicate toughness, sexiness or socially Outsider action. Also Akiko gets to sing a couple of numbers, one from a club’s stage, and the other in a more musical film way, singing about how “girls are girls.” Another band at the club, which is nowhere near as raucous as the Chocolate Watchband, is called Ox; no, there wasn’t any sign of John Entwistle.

And in the realm of the senses of stream of consciousness, here are some quick thoughts: there is a chase scene in here, through subways and over walkways, and I must say it’s one of the more silly ones I’ve seen , though not anywhere near as purposefully bizarre as The Blues Brothers (1980). The Ako character is very butch, but this is 1970, so in one scene they have her drooling over pretty dresses in a storefront window; gender politics, indeed. The ending, especially the final shots, is right out of an Alan Ladd Western.

Overall, it was very ’60-‘70s Corman, or more accurately reminded me of Jack Hill’s Pit Stop (1969), though not as gritty nor noir. It was a good ride, and a fine place to start on the quintuple series.

Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo (aka Nora-neko rokku: Wairudo janbo)
Directed by Toshiya Fujita
84 minutes, 1970 / 2015
Five minutes into this second in the series, and I can already see four commonalities. First, there is, of course, Meiko Kaji; second is disenfranchised youth at a crossroads; third a Buggy, though different from the first film, and; fourth is an almost immediate Coke product placement (in both films, pop singer Akiko Wadda plays a female motorcycle rider; in this one it’s a cameo, where she drinks a bottle at the beginning).

The gaggle group of early 20-year-old-or-so are poor and call themselves the Pelican Club, and share a room in a poor, industrial part of the city; the junk yards and debris is another element in common with the first film. Even though they like jazz, as evidenced by the album covers that cover the walls of their second-floor shack, they are less likeable than the Alleycats. They think nothing of driving dangerously with an overcrowded Buggy cab, or shooting out the tires and kidnapping the driver of a mysterious religious group (a stand in for the right wing nationals in the first film).

At the core of the film is social inequity, however. Our poor shackrats have a serious rivalry going with a group of rich kids. They run each other off the road, or go to their abodes and wreck it. The rich kids are pricks, no doubt, as is often portrayed in films from his era, but so are the poor ones, and it’s hard to take either side (at the time, most likely, the viewer would probably identify with whichever social strata s/he was in).

One of the Pelicans is a gun nut, and finds a treasure trove of two handguns and machine gun from World War II hidden in a school yard (oy), and the machos of the group go try out their new toys (to keep their heads expanding, as Lene Lovich may have said). One of them, the hot headed one, dresses loosely like Clint Eastwood in his Spaghetti Western mode.

And then one of the crew, who falls for the equally mysterious driver, starts dressing smartly, and moves all the Pelicans to a resort beach to train them for... Well, I ain’t gonna tell ya, you’ll have to see it.

This one is a bit more imaginative as far as theatrics go, with fancy (for that time) graphics, artistic editing in little pieces, and even some “Pow” kind of overlay, like in the Batman series (1966). However, this one moves at a much slower pace than the first, possibly because it is hard to identify with these young’uns. They’re sort of like a mild version of the groups from Lady in a Cage (1964) or especially Hot Rods to Hell (1967). When all hell breaks loose by the end, even then it is more the music that makes one feel any emotion than the action.

Though I wasn’t crazy about this one, it does fit in well for the canon of youth out of control genre that was popular from the beginning of rock and roll, right up until the early 1970s (arguably brought back again for 1995’s Kids, if not 1979’s Rock and Roll High School). It is okay for a laugh, as is much of the genre, and it fit somewhat comfortably into the formula. That being said, I envisioned a different ending, so in that way it made me happy.

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (aka Nora-neko rokku: Sekkusu hantaa)
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
85 minutes, 1970 / 2015

While we once again are introduced to a variation of the female Alleycats girl gang in opposition to the male Eagles group, this film tackles the social schema of race relations. Taking place in Yokosuka, there a U.S. Naval base is located there since post-WWII, and especially because both China and Russia are right around the corner (“I can see Russia from my house!” said Tina posing as Sarah). The end result was a lot of mixed race Japanese with both Caucasian and Black American fathers. These offspring were treated about as well as Blacks were treated in the Deep South in the 1950s, seen as unpure.

As we meet the two gangs, they both start out somewhat on the same team, with Mako (Mieko Kaji) leading the ‘Cats, and Baron (Tatsuya Fuji, who would star in In the Realm of the Senses in just six years) heading the uber-macho Eagles. Despite some co-mingling (i.e., sex) and sharing of drugs (hash and pot, from what I could see), one of the ‘Cats turns down advances from an Eagle because she is in love with one of the Japanese / Black sires. This infuriates the birdbrain because (a) her love interest is mixed, and especially (b) it isn’t him.

The poor guy is beaten to a pulp by the Eagles, and he is defended by Kazuma (Rikiya Yasuoka, d. 2012), another mixed-race guy in one of the worst fight scenes I’ve seen in a while. I don’t think I’m giving anything away in that the filmmaker is obviously setting up Mako to become a love interest with him.

Baron and crew decide to war against the “half-breeds” because he doesn’t want them touching “his women.” But you also know that there will be hell to pay with Mako and crew. As the leader of the ‘Cats, this is by far the coolest Kaji has looked to date with long, flowing pants and wide-brim hat (again, reminiscent of Pam Grier, who apparently was the model for what is “cool” in this films). Of course, in a perverse sense of irony, the guys all drive around in U.S. jeeps.

Yeah, the Eagles are definitely winners in the gene pool, not only picking on people, as gangs are wont to do, but it’s always the entire group of a dozen guys picking on a single one. No balls at all, but typical of the mentality of these kinds of films.

But as much as this film is about race, it’s also about gender, with the men being possessive of the women, dealing in human trafficking to the “Harrys” (Westerners and Europeans), and assuming all women are “bitches” (again, taken from the language presented). But obviously, they underestimate our dear Alleycats. And you know it is going to lead to a showdown at the ol’ corral.

While this feels like the most complete of the films so far in the series, it is also a very unsatisfying ending for me. I was expecting more of it than some posturing macho stupidity. There was so much more that could have been done to make it complete, but this was 1970, not 2016; if this were made now, after a span of 45 years of ever-stronger women, this certainly would (and should) have a more meaningful ending.

One last comment is that, thinking collectively again, there are some elements that these three films had in common: first, women who drive motorcycles (the only one that does not stand in all five, as the last one women are on bicycles, but I jump ahead); second, a vehicle driving down steps; and third, lots of Coca-Cola placements. Sure, there’s a Pepsi sign in there too, but it’s mostly Coke. The last is music. Lots of then-modern music with an acid rock or blues touch. For live sounds, there is the girl pop group Golden Half, made of equally Eastern and Western members, all singing in Japanese. Nice touch considering the divide between cultures in the rest of the story.

Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal (aka Nora-neko rokku: Mashin animaru)
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
82 minutes, 1970 / 2015

With her wide-brimmed Clint-Eastward-No-Name cowboy hat hanging over her back, Maya (Meiko Kaji) is the head of the Yokohama girl gang to whom we are introduced even before the credits, revenging a near rape the night before by a group of foreign sailors.

Joining them is another male gang, the Dragons, and they take off, only to stop and harass two guys from out of town who are apparently having car trouble. You feel sorry for these two as maroons until we learn that they are actually good guys trying to sell 500 hits of LSD to pay for a boat to get an American ‘Nam deserter buddy (as well as themselves) on a boat and outta Japan to Sweden. And that is where the clash of the male gangs begins, with our ladies in the middle.

How do the ‘Cats get involved? First, by stealing the car with the hits, and then becoming sympathetic to their cause. Then it’s them against the bad boy Dragons, led by the sidecar riding Jerry Lewis (sans funny) looking Sakura (Eiji Go). No one seems to be able to hold on to the drugs very long as it either gets lost, stolen, taken, or sold out from under. Then there is the real head of the Dragon gang, a purple-obsessed and wheelchair bound woman named Yuri (Bunjaku Han; d. 2002). Will she take the sisterly side of the women in the gang? Will the bi-gender-segregated gangs sort it out? Will the drug sellers and “deserter” get on their boat?

Well, it’s Japanese cinema, the Game of Thrones of its time, and you never know who is going to live and die. I will tell you, however, despite the lack of Coke logos (though Honda is prominently mentioned), there is the inevitable scooter chase through the back alleys, ship yards and factories (as well as restaurants). My, how cell phones would have changed these stories.

Over jazzy music that reminds me, again, of Hot Rods to Hell and other youth exploitation films from the period play over scenes of people running around, or in Easy Rider (1969) mode of montages of the gangs riding cycles, cut with weird editing, like the screen split horizontally to show concurrent actions, or wiping across. This is both imaginative (even if borrowed) and in the pre-digital days, not an overly easy process.

There is also a lot of music in this film; with so many scenes taking place in a nightclub, it gives the audience a chance to see some live groups and singers lip syncing their songs, and even a character or breaks into a song at an emotional point, as does the angst-lyrics number by Kaji as she philosophies with the LSD dealer, Nobo (Tatsuya Fuji; his name is shortened from “Nobody”). He and his friends also want to escape to the West from the ennui that has set in on post-WWII semi-occupied Japan.

The language (translation) of the film is interesting, with lots of uses of the term “chicks” and “rednecks,” and other terms that were then hip/now outdated. How accurate it is done, again, I’m not sure. I mean, there could be a Japanese slang term for women that would make no sense translated directly; after all, would Japanese terminology understand that “a tomato” at one time was a slang term for females? My guess is the translation from the film is more Western cultural than literal.

But there is also a political aspect to this one, too. With the Viet Nam war coming around the bend to a conclusion in just a few years, and the pressure on by the counterculture, the topic was – er – topical and hot. Various characters have definite opinions on deserters, even if it was by the Yanks, who were also coming to an end of their occupation of Japan.

This film, like many of the others, has obviously been influenced by both the realities of post-wartime occupation and possibly the Italian Cinema of Realism, because typically in this genre of film, you never know who is going to live or die, and there doesn’t necessarily need to be a happy ending.

Stray Cat Rock: Beat ‘71 (aka Nora-neko rokku: Bôsô shudan ‘71)
Directed by Toshiya Fujita
87 minutes, 1970 / 2015

As the 1970s progressed, even though in its early stages, the psychedelic counterculture and the cinema that reflected it started appearing outside the borders of the contiguous United States. This would also affect the releases of other countries, including the conclusion of this series.

The hair is getting longer, and while drugs are more discussed in in the previous film, with brief scenes of people indulging, here it is a bit more prevalent. There is also quite a bit more of the straight cultural hegemonic world meeting the equivalent of Japanese hippies in a different clash of cultures, rather than Japanese vs. foreigners (Yanks, etc.) in the earlier releases. Also added is an element of classism, with our hippie troupe against the corporate entity mayor, and his loyal townsfolk (though I wonder if it’s more loyal to the power, than the person, i.e., keeping the status quo).

While on a romp in the city of Shinjuku with her boyfriend, Furiko (Meiko Kaji) and Takaaki (nicknamed Ryumei; Takeo Chii) are beset upon by a male biker gang, led by President (once again, Eiji Go), and in the melee, the boyfriend stabs one of the bikers. He’s taken away by a very straight capo, Ryumei’s father, who is the corrupt Mayor of a rural town. Of course, Furiko is set up for the murder and is sent to prison, where she escapes with her sister two months later (though it’s not explained why the sister was there). From the looks of the fence, escaping from a women’s maximum security prison isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, like presented in films like The Big Bird Cage (1972). Throughout the film, the police’s presence is, to say the least, minimal, and usually laughable.

For me, it was interesting watching their version of cool-meets-uncool, a general theme in much of the Roger Corman-esque catalog at the time, such as The Trip (1967). For example, a straight reporter interviews and photographs our hippie anti-heroes in an abandoned VW bus, and he is played for laughs and derision, rather than the counterculture subjects that are meant to attract the audience demographic.

Though aiming for the youth crowd, there is actually less music than in the previous four films. There is a MOR band playing in a club at some point, and Kaji sings a mournful number acapella in a cell, but there is one near-metal group that appears on the back of a flatbed truck for some unexplained reason for one scene. They are called the Mops in the story, though actually they are played by the Spiders, who sing in English.

Our protagonists are not your stereotypical hippies, though, full of sunshine and loving peace. These guys and gals are not afraid to fight, or use knives and guns, as they are ready to use force to get what they want, be it Furiko or vengence.

Furiko’s group, for once, is not segregated by sex, but an equal number of men and women. However Gender politics definitely have a hand; although the sexual revolution was in full force, Feminism was in its nascent stages in the West, but hardly as much in the East. As the earlier films showed, women could be strong and in charge, but usually only if it involved other women (other than occasional bursts of violence against Westerners). Here, we get to see the male leader of Furiko’s hippie group, Piranha (Yoshio Harada) say about rescuing Furiko, “The men will think it over tonight. Then we’ll decide.” Also, during an orgy scene put on for the reporter and his photographer, the women get nude and the men wear shorts. Woof.

But getting back to the story, Ryumei, who has renounced his hippie ways for the corporate entity of his father, is none too pleased to see the escaped convict Furiko show up in his town of Kurumi. While rejecting her, she gets kidnapped by the motorcycle gang that attacked them in the first place, taking her to be locked in a barred cell at the mayor’s palatial estate (of course, every mayor’s estate needs to have a caged cell in the basement, donchaknow). While the series has moved away from the tried-and-true motorcycle gang genre, it still has a prominent place in this story, I’m assuming for consistency sake.

I found it amusing that the hippie group (would it be fair to call them “gang” considering some of their actions?) hide out at an old deserved mine area (ghost town) where, as is explained in the story, Westerns are filmed – probably that is actually true – and you know at some point there’ll be a shoot-out. Is it a spoiler alert when it seems so obvious? Don’t worry, I won’t comment on the fallout, but again, being the gritty ‘70s, with the Viet Nam war still raging just a few hundred miles away and the Cold War around the corner, not to mention the complete commercialization (again, lots of Coke, and even the name “Ryumei” is a product brand that sells fancy tea sets, cups, and high-end tea itself) and industrialization of Japan reaching point of no return, things are going to be dire. The hippie lifestyle was viewed as a direction of “No Future” before the Sex Pistols, so expectations were low and there was negativity worldwide just beneath the day-go surface.
Meiko Kaji


As for extras, there are mostly the trailers. However, what I found most interesting was a three-part program called ”Testimony of Outlaws: Faces of the ‘70s,” a Japanese documentary averaging 30 minutes apiece, one focusing on director Yasuharu Hasebe, and one apiece on actors Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada, all of whom talk about their collaboration on this series.

Yeah, this is an extremely enjoyable set of films, and I am happy to have finally had the opportunity to see them, after hearing about them all these years. They are also available in Blu-Ray, so you know the images are crisp. Whether you are a fan of Japanese cinema (though I would say more “crime drama” than “Samurai saga period piece” genres), that period of angst-driven culture shock, or even as a film historian, there is a lot to mull over. Besides, mostly they are entertaining stories, even with some of the dated politics writ large.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Review of Film Short: Attack of the Killer Chickens

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

Attack of the Killer Chickens
Written and directed by Genoveva Rossi
Cluck, Cluck Productions / Impersonation Films
6:23 minutes, 2015

There is a lesson to be learned from the likes of Gilligan’s Island and Welcome Back Kotter, and it is simply this: if you’re going to go silly, go mad, batshit silly. Happily, Genoveva Rossi and crew have taken that to heart in Rossi’s first directorial outing. The story, spoofing the Planet of the Apes franchise from what I gather from the catch phrase (“It’s the dawn of a new age…a chicken age…”), but it’s more Hens from Space as cheesy and fun chicken puppets start to attack humans in a plot to take over the world. Introduced to a couple (Rossi and Pamela Martin) at the opening, they – and we – come to learn through a hyperactive newscast that chickens, who outnumber humans on Earth, are rising up to avenge their murdered fowl sisters (and brothers). They are becoming more human-like, in an Animal Farm kind of way, thanks to a talking (rooster?) leader (also reminds me of a Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch about an intelligent sheep named Harold).  

Genoveva Rossi and some of her killer chickens
Anyhoo, in its acceptance of its own absurdity, it’s much easier to just take it as it lays (pun intended), and just have fun with it. The puppets are absurd and obvious, the gore is daftly fun, and the mood – especially the scenes with Mr. Hush himself, rock writer Edward X. Young – are especially enjoyably ridiculous. Only thing missing is Graham Chapman’s Colonel coming through and interrupting the action.

There is a history of killer poultry, such as Turkie in ThanksKilling (2009), with a similar level of insanity and puppet fowl, but here it's a bit closer to Night of the Living Dead (1968) mass attacks than a single, possessed gobbler. Turkie was profane, but the chickens in this film are more urbane, if that is a suitable way of putting it.

In case this isn’t clear, I really enjoyed all 6+ minutes of this goofy excursion. I look forward to the deep-voiced Rossi picking up the directorial helm again, if she can find the time through her numerous acting credits, as this is just so entertaining.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Review: Binge

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

Written, directed, edited, etc., by Wesley Mellott
109 minutes, 2014
Thinking Arts Entertainment

Most of us probably know a guy like Max (Andrew Glessner). He’s the kind of dude who only puts the glass down when it’s empty, which is often, and doesn’t always remember much because of it, like why the car has a dent, or the reason the woman he is attracted to is mad at him. The person I know like Max equates beer as “soda” (well, in his terminology, “pop”), and will easily drink a six pack or more between supper and sleep, after the whisky and Cokes he had with the meal.

Max has a drinking problem, and is slowly coming to that realization, along with others, such as that he has offended the female friend he believes he loves and wants to go to the next level (i.e., sex), Miranda (Bex Etter), who rocks the hell out of an angel Halloween costume. To gain his life back, and hopefully Miranda, Max makes the big decision to fly sober, starting by dumping the hard stuff and replacing his fridge full of beer with bottles of agua. Note that this is all in the trailer, so no spoilers here.

As the months roll by between New Year’s and Halloween, and the clearer he gets, the more he starts remembering some gaps. However, they come and go in snippets, and make no sense to him. It gave me just enough clues, though, so that I kinda figured out some of it. Meanwhile, there is someone mysterious who keeps tempting Max with drink sporadically through his recovery (which he does Cold Turkey without AA).

Andrew Glessner is Max
Max is an everyman, even if every man isn’t an alcoholic. We are given some reasons why his life has gone down this road through a nice exposition scene with him giving a soliloquy to a therapist friend (as a side note, this person is the only one at the Halloween party that doesn’t wear a costume. Hmm, I wonder how that made him feel… But I digress…). The question I’m having is it nurture or nature: his childhood guilt or family medical history, but as much as I like exposition, this is my internal monologue responding, it probably won’t be yours.

Glessner does a really nice job both making the alky Max annoying, and the sober Max a sympathetic character. As he is in most scenes, the film really does revolve around his character, so his strong performance helps things. Etter is nice and perky, with a charming smile, so even when she’s perturbed at Max, you feel for her. This is totally neither here nor there, but she reminds me of a singer in Nashville, though I can’t think who it is. Don’t ask, I can’t explain.

The film mostly moves at an even, though slow pace as we get to know some of the characters (which is nice for a change). Even when some of them act like complete assholes in certain situations, it’s easier to feel compassion rather than just “I hate that guy, I can’t wait till they kill him off,” like is so prevalent in slasher movies where jerks = enjoyable fodder to the killer.

Bex Etter is Miranda
But this is not that, it’s more a mystery and thriller than anything else. While the first two parts (which I call Wet, and Drying) are pretty smooth going, the film ramps up for the third act, thanks in part to being shot as single-camera scenes. It has some effective and good looking violent moments (and more than one extended vomit scene), but it’s not some mystical incognito bruiser killing randomly slashing anyone that crosses his path. Well, there is sort of a masked sort of bad guy, but it’s more a matter of planned timing and directed motive than anything else. But, again, I won’t go into details, I promise.

An interesting aspect of this film, and I’m sure people in the trade would not be happy with it, is that the production is entirely crewed by the actors themselves (being on a micro-budget), but it looks consistent and the shots are well framed and lit (especially the post-Halloween party scene, in the rain).

It’s a “small picture,” to be sure, as is indicated by its budgetary restraints, but everyone obviously does their best to keep the quality going. If you’re going for the big bang swingin’ by the entrails, well, try Hollywood blockbusters; if what you want is a decent story with characters to which you can relate on some level, now yer talkin’. Usually I’m wary about films that earn a lot of festival awards, as many of them win because of the Festival board trying to show how intellectual they are – or goofy ones to show how cool they are – but this one, which has a really nice resume of Fest showings and “Best Ofs,” seems like a good choice.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Review: In the House of Flies

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

In the House of Flies
Edited and directed by Gabriel Carrer
Parade Deck Films / Bleeding Apple /
Black Fawn Films / Latefox Pictures
89 minutes, 2012 / 2014

In my youth, I was a huge fan of comix like Eerie and Creepy (Archie Goodwin was my fave). As much as I enjoyed them, I was also a fan of their brain-damaged cousins, the stranger ones that were the low-run rip-offs that reprinted no-name author and artist EC Comics-like tales of murder and mayhem from the 1950s or so. There was one story I remember where this “scientist” kept young couples in love in cages, starving them and meting out just bits of food, and seeing how long it would take for them to turn on each other. I was reminded of that particular tale with this one.

This is also a good example of how one film can be influenced by another, and yet still shine on its own. The premise smacks of Iron Doors (2010; sans the sci-fi element) and the moralizing of Saw (2004) without the brain cancer reasoning, mixed with the television game shows “Deal or No Deal” or “Fear Factor,” but it remains raw and draws the viewer into a ring of hell.

It’s 1998, and a young pre-engaged couple are having fun at Niagara Falls (the Canadian side, of course; if you’ve been there, you know what I mean). They are kidnapped and awaken in a plain basement with a tiny window, a bunch of locked suitcases, and someone giving them directions by voice only on a phone that cannot dial (you heard me) out. I kept expecting someone to say, “Let’s play a game” (actually, at almost the hour point, it is indeed stated).

Over the following days, the two captors make their presence known: Mr. Arm (Ry Barrett) and The Voice (almost instantly recognizable to me as Henry Rollins) are both treating them like dogs (“Apologize”; “No more damage”) mixed with non-religious sermonizing memes (“Envy creates silent enemies”; “You should have taken care of him/her”) on how to be a better person (to Rise Above? Sorry…). While slowly starving them, with just small amounts of food in suitcases that they get to open every few days, the tasks assigned them get harder and harder. No, I won’t reveal any of them, but it is pretty obvious he is watching and listening in to their conversations.

Ryan Kotack
The guy is Stephen (Ryan Kotack), who is a mild looking dude, but full of masculinist behaviours, subtly ordering his mate around and treating her poorly at times (in my opinion; general consensus probably would not see it); he also reacts violently against his “host” in ways that would not help in the big picture. Heather (Lindsey Smith) is placed in the position of subservient to both Steven and The Voice. Smith comes across as a strong woman in a role that makes her the object of both verbal and physical abuse, more so than Steven. Honestly, it pissed me off.

It is made clear that Heather and Stephen are not the first couple chosen for this conundrum (“You’re worse than the others” The Voice tells Heather), so surely then he must know that people cannot survive without water for more than three-to-five days. In the meanwhile, there would be renal shutdown, illness, cramps, hallucinations, etc., few of which are present here after denied water for four days straight, at one point.

The big question about what is happening to our lovebirds is a big why. Is it sadism? Were they hired to take care of them? It sure seemed like they were targeted from the opening scene. Personally, I wasn’t satisfied with the answer, but don’t worry, again, I won’t discuss it and give anything away. Not seeing the bad guys is a nice choice even though it leads more to confusion than conclusion, but I’m guessing that is part of the point, eh? Oh, did I mention it is a Canadian film, shot it Guelph, Ontario?

Lindsey Smith
Despite the whining by me, the film has a really good look, both set and camera-wise, and the lighting and sound are nicely handled, as well. While the editing is also interestingly paced, at the same time, there might have been a bit more terseness if the film was a bit shorter. Okay, philosophically, I believe I understand the thought behind it, since long-held shots add to the tension in a world that has gotten accustomed to bam-bam editing. By the halfway point, however, my tension had turned a bit to tedium on some level, and I really wanted to skip a bit, but this reviewer don’t play that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a tension of the action, but one of ennui as I kept saying, “Oh, c’mon, this is gender normative even for 1988.”

Despite the phone calls, the film is essentially Heather and Stephen, and both actors do quite fine work. Considering it’s the first (but hardly the last) credit on their IMDB profile, that’s saying a lot. I look forward to seeing them both again in the future.

The first extra is a 40-minute Making Of called “A Fly on the Wall.” It is interesting in parts, but it’s really self-indulgent to expect the viewer to watch that much detail about production. The second is 7-1/2 minutes of the film’s premiere in Spain of all places, at the Bilbao Fantasy Film Festival, that is more a travelogue than anything. Then there is the trailer, some stills, six whatever deleted scenes that average just over a minute apiece, and an English captions option (for which I’m always grateful). The DVD box says there is also a commentary track, but I didn’t find it, quite honestly.

I want to warn couples, do not see this film as a “date,” unless you are accustomed to watching genre types, because I can almost guarantee that a fight will ensue. “What would you do in this situation? Would you hit me? Would you make me hit you?” You see where I’m going, I hope.

Lastly, I should add that this film has been shown at a number of festivals, and has been highly praised by other reviewers.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review: Seven Dorms of Death

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

Seven Dorms of Death
Directed and edited by Richard Griffin
Scorpio Films Releasing / MVD Visual
80 minutes / 2015

I am not sure if this would fall under the umbrella of DC or Marvel (or Archie), but if director Richard Griffin were to be considered a superhero, his power would certainly be taking used-up ideas and bringing new life into them. Wes Craven (d. 2015, RIP) is credited with doing that with the slasher genre when he released Scream (1996), but other than a huge budget, he gets to be the sidekick in my fantasy. Not to take away credit for any of his amazing earlier ground-breaking films, but when it comes to the rejuvenation of a subgenre, it would be hard to find someone to outmatch Griffin, considering the budgetary restraints and sheer volume of his output. I have not seen a single release of his to date that I would not recommend.

Yes, I’ve said this before, and I may repeat it every time I see one of Griffin’s films, that no matter what the genre he tackles (Shakespeare is next, I hear), I look forward to sitting down and turning on one of his films for the first, and even second or more times.

In the video nasty days of the 1980s, during the cheapie VHS phase of indie filmmaking, there was a different mindset to making a movie. Now, shooting, in itself, is no extra cost because it’s all digital, including the editing. Back in the day, though, getting film was much harder, and getting good quality material was even more difficult (i.e., it cost much more; and that expense doesn’t even go into the area of processing). Because of that, it was rare for reshoots, and it was realistic policy to employ as much of the processed film that could be used. If there was an accident, or an anachronism, it was either dealt with in editing, or most likely given an “oh, well…”stance. Fixing it in post was much more difficult, and also highly less likely.

Classic old guy giving the "you're all gonna die" warning"
It is with this premise as a motif that we are introduced to the 1983 Dunwich High School theater troupe, filled with ‘80s cliché characters, such as the pretty boy with attitude, the virgin, the cool/mean girl, the long Jeri-curled black guy, and the weird hippie occultist. Being a horror film based on the that period, there’s lots of H.P. Lovecraft references, a particular metal band mentioned often supposedly to try to connect with its audience of demographically teenaged boys, and some sex, nudity and, that tried-and-true trope that exists even today, the unnecessary-to-the-story shower scene.

It would be nearly impossible to categorize all of the intentional mistakes that were put in the film; blink and you could miss the script person in the scene, or the dead body breathing, or an actor looking for his mark. It’s also pretty obvious that the masked killer is played by numerous people, and the way Griffins concludes this particular cliché is, frankly, hysterical. In fact, the whole film is hilarious because of these inclusions. It may take a few recommended viewings to play Spot the Mistake-ake-ake-ake [supposed to sound like a fading emphasis echo]. Don’t make it a drinking game, though, or I guarantee a hospital visit.

Aaron Andrade as Vargas
The (again, purposeful) overacting, especially by the head police detective Vargas (Aaron Andrade), is so painfully bad that it’s stellar. The virginal heroine is named, of course, Severin (Anna Rizzo, wearing Catholic school girl attire, rather than shiny boots of leather), is nerdy-cute, and tackles the role with gusto. Another standout character is ace Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Pennysaver, Jane Peach (Laura Pepper), who amusingly and effectively brings back the quick-style dialogue reading of the 1940s, often employed by the likes of either Katherine Hepburn or especially Rosalind Russell (as a example, see His Girl Friday [1940]).

The body count is high and the gore is, well, strange. There is a lot of it, but much of it is just plain (and, once again, purposefully) silly. That also makes it part of the fun, whose quotient is exceedingly high in this film. And though taking place in the early 1980s (i.e., was supposed to be filmed then), Griffin still finds a way to work in gender/sexuality politics, and rightfully so, especially in this present political climate, similar to the homophobic Reagan regime.

This is supposed to be, in part, a reflection of the guiallo European films, such as Jesse Franco’s, but for me this comes across as very American, as small companies tried to cash in on the quickly expanding VHS market (whose biggest sellers were horror and porn) as major companies still eyed the cinema showcases, i.e., theaters. However, the ending of this film is straight out of a Lucio Fulci (d. 1996) playbook, especially like The Beyond (1981, aka Seven Doors of Death, along with a multitude of translated names).

The film reminds me of an earlier (and also excellent) Griffin comedic horror film, The Sins of Dracula (2015), though both approach the topic differently. In each release, it’s a theater troupe that’s in danger (here it’s overaged high schoolers; in Sins it is Community Theater) from murder and the occult. This is also helped by the sharp blue and red lighting, which are employed in both. I suggest not seeing one or the other, though, but rather both, as one shows what happens when the film technique is successful, and one where it is played as wonky.

But oh, there is so much more. The framework around the film is that it is being shown on a Monster Chiller Horror Theatre type program called Baron Von Blah’s Celluloid Crypt, with the venerable stage actor Michael Thurber playing the Baron, which mixes a bit of Count Floyd and his own scene stealing Roger Keller character from 2013’s short “Crash Site.” This is meant as a compliment, of course. Within the bookends and inserts within the film, we see fake commercials and promos (e.g., a trailer for Dracula’s House of Sadism), which essentially are shorts (very short) mostly directed by Griffin, but also the likes of Alex DiVincenzo (whose other worthwhile shorts have also been reviewed on this blog, but I digress…).

Michael Thurber as your host, Baron Von Blah
Taken all together, this is a beautifully hot mess, that any fan of the genre will watch with glee in the same way one would watch an April Fool’s version of The Simpsons or Family Guy (also taking place in Rhode Island!), where the references are more visual than just verbal connections.

One can’t help but admire Griffin’s acumen in such an output of films, and his merry band of actors keeps on growing – and coming back – which shows that they know they are dealing with quality product, writing (the main story here by Matthew Jason Walsh), and dedication. And there is so much for the growing fan base to enjoy, as well.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Review: Hank Boyd is Dead

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

Hank Boyd is Dead
Written and directed by Sean Melia
Bag of Cats Productions / Loree Lewis Motion Picture Company
76 minutes, 2014

I have know quite a few “bubbling under” actors in my life. While the cliché is that struggling artists are wait staff in diners and restaurants while they anticipate their big break – and this is somewhat true – but what I have found to be closer to accurate is that there is more of a tendency to work for catering companies, both private and corporate. Some have even gone on to more success running these outfits than acting careers. And that, in part, is the premise of this film. But more on that in a couple of paragraphs.

Major films tend to go for the “easy kill,” as it were, with simple premises that have been proven to satisfy, such as masked killers and the like, repeated over and over. They’ll take a premise from an unexpectedly successful indie film, for example Friday the 13th (1980), or Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and then decimate the story into the ground by a matter of redux (A Nightmare on Elm Street No. 25: Freddy’s got COPD; coming soon, probably, to a theater near you). If they don’t do an umpteenth sequel, then it’s either a prequel or a “reboot” to start the series from scratch.

Indies, however, freed from the burden of corporate sponsors, tend to take chances, hence most of why the franchises started out as independent releases. Even with old tried-and-true ideas, they look at things in different ways, such as with this film.

Stephanie E. Frame as Sarah
In this story with comedic overtones, the action actually starts post-murders, and the death of the killer, the titular Hank. He has been found hanged in his jail cell after being arrested for several murders. It’s at that point we meet our protagonist, Sarah (Stefanie E. Frame), an struggling actor who is on her first day of work as a caterer. After years of taking care of her ill dad, she arrives at Hank’s family home to work. Only then is when she learns not only whose house it is, but that she actually went to high school with Hank a decade earlier. Small towns are small towns, even in New Jersey.

As much as Sarah is the central character, it’s the Boyd family (and acquaintances) that are the real scene grabbers, as each is looney in their own way, much in the direction of that old stalwart, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944; if you haven’t seen it, you are missing one of the great horror comedies) or Spider Baby (1967). Mama Boyd is well on her way to dementia, but enough is left to leave some fear in the viewer and an understanding of the family history and dynamics. Carole Monferdini does a stellar jobs shifting from one mode to another, like a light switch, and keeping her character genuine.

Her kids are also deranged, such as the youngest, pretty, wide-eyed and not bright Aubrey (Liv Rooth); her eldest brother is sociopathic (look at those intense and finely manicured eyebrows!) cop David (David C. Wells). We don’t get to meet the middle kids, one a sister who has already died mysteriously, and the titular Henry (ironically named after 1986’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, perhaps?), aka Hank. The other main character is Ray (Michael Rogan), who is David’s sexual degenerative PO partner.

Papa Boyd is also long dead, but the apples don’t fall far (etc.), and in fact, each generation seems to – er – degenerate, or de-evolve. Are we not men? We are Boyds. As more than one member of the clan is known to say, which in olden days would be put on a shield in Latin, “It’s what my family does” (Quid mihi est familia, FYI). This is especially true as the film continually gears up, eventually going past the tipping point and into ever deeper violence.

All of the acting here is stellar, and not just for an indie, mini-budget production. The reason is that the cast is part of the theater scene in New York (though filmed in Edison, NJ). Pooling the talent of a troupe that has practice working and thinking on their feet, ready to meet the story head on, works well for this production.

There is no nudity, and the blood is kept to a “reasonable” amount, but holding back actually works for the film because it doesn’t become a distraction. Rather, it is more effective due to its use when necessary, rather than “look how many gallons I can use!”

Most of the filmmaking is pretty straightforward, which is a compliment these days. There’s a story and they stick to it. That’s not to say it’s not creative, though. Throughout the film, there are clips from old 8mm family footage and “educational” ones. While some appear random, others mirror what is happening at that moment on a more abstractive level. Other are thrown in so fast and seemingly subliminal, that it’s startling.

I have no problem calling this a black comedy, but it delves into a deeper, more murder thriller than horror. Perhaps noir comedy? Obsidian comedy? One of the problems I have with many horror comedies is that they are rarely story-driven as much as goofy, such as Scary Movie (2000; the first one was smart, the rest, well, not so much), A Haunted House (2013) and any one of a dozen other spoofers like Vampires Suck (2010). When the mix is both comedy and horror or dread that follows a decent plot, that’s what gets my attention more than cramming in as many references as one can because that’s what passes as cool to these hackneyed filmmakers (I’m talkin’ to you, Wayan Bros). Fortunately, this one falls into the comedy/dread category rather than spoof humdrum.

As I said, the film never lets up, but does not weary the viewer with undo tropes. For example, there are no long shots of someone walking down a corridor while we wait for something to eventually leap out at them for a jump scare. What we are presented with, instead, is a taut dynamic that doesn’t pander, and doesn’t let go, right to the end. Plus there are some really unexpected moments. Considering this is the director’s first full length feature, that’s quite impressive.