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 clich√© 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.

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