Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: Decay

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

Edited and directed by Joseph Wartnerchaney
Uncork’d Entertainment / Ghost Orchid Films
98 minutes, 2015 / 2016

On a subtextual level, this psychologically unnerving film asks the question, how far would you go for company if you were lonely? Add some mental instability into the mix, and the margin of extremity is certainly sure to rise, especially in genre cinema.

Rob Zabrecky as Jonathan
Jonathan (Rob Zabrecky, who was also the singer/bassist for the group Possum Dixon in the 1990s) has a case of OCD, where he has to line up everything just right most of the time, opens and closes things twice, and has a series of locks on his door that would make one of the old ladies in The Producers (1967) jealous. He definitely has a bit of a Norman Bates vibe to him, with his tall, lanky appearance and self-uncomfortableness.

Lisa Howard as Mother
Part of this, though, is a form of PTSD after growing up with an uber religious and mentally unstable (bi-polar or depressive, is my guess) mom (Lisa Howard). She is extremely possessive of her son, and will not let him be himself (i.e., a little boy). She mocks and punishes him severely for the slightest mistake. She rebukes him with lines like, “An unlocked door is an evil door.” Part of this begs the question of whether his – well, let’s call it insanity – is nature (hereditary) or nurture (trauma).

Jackie Hoffman as the Neighbor
There are some definite correlations between them, such as his while mother collecting those little spoons you can buy at gift shops, he gathers lost keys and uses them for art projects in his basement, where he also grows and obsessively photographs orchids. During daytime he works as a groundskeeper at an amusement park in Aurora, Colorado (a suburb of Denver where a shooter killed people in a theatre showing a Batman film in 2012), that is preparing to open for the season. There, he shares his lunch with his exact opposite: a loud-mouthed and boorish womanizer (Elisha Yaffe) who is always talking about his conquests. The last person in his life is a neighbor (Jackie Hoffman, who you are bound to recognize as she is often cast as the nosy Jewish neighbor or law professional in television shows).

Hannah Barron as Katlyn
Well, that is only partially true. There is another person who intrudes and has a major effect on his life. A teenage neighbor, Trish (Whitney Hayes) and her visiting friend Katlyn (Hannah Barron) break into Jonathan’s basement to look around and check out the weirdo (the actual motive is either not give or I just missed it), and thanks to some unfortunate circumstances in the first five minutes of the film so I’m not giving anything away, Katlyn ends up dead on his basement floor.

In his own twisted way, he now has a friend of sorts, similarly to Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein (2009). But corpses rot, and he’s into neatness. Will his delusions trump his OCD, or vice versa? And will it calm him down or lead him to manic phases and do more harm to himself and others? All these questions and more are addressed in interesting and imaginative ways that impressed me, writing wise.

Many of the characters echo each other, such as the neighbor talking trash about other neighbors in a similar way that his mom warned him as a child (well played by Reese Elingher), or his co-worker proving his mother right about wild women, and I really wanted to punch that guy out; I’ve actually worked with people like that, and it’s both annoying and depressing to talk (or have to listen) to someone that shallow.

Much of this mirroring is part of how well the script is written, but I’ll get back to that shortly. The whole cast is excellent, with Zabrecky giving Jonathan a really nice and somber tone, without depressing this viewer, or making me tired of the character. There was just the right amount of pathos and creep factor to keep the attention sharp. Zabrecky is a good looking guy, so the dichotomy of the outside and inside makes it even more intriguing.

It takes a while (and worth the wait), but eventually the gore level starts to increase as time and rot becomes more noticeable. There is some excruciatingly unnerving visuals as the physical decay progresses. She’s the yin of the physical decay, and he’s the yang of the mental one, balancing nicely as they both slide into a kind of sludge. Really nice SFX match the beautiful way it is lovingly shot, including an occasional artistic edge that enhances rather than overdoes the events. There are a number of really decent jump-scares as well.

At probably about 10-15 minutes too long, that’s my only “complaint.” The film has a beautiful look to it, the editing and lighting are sharp, and it is very well written. The ending was an extremely nice touch, and did not go for the obvious out, and I am extremely happy about that.

I have to say, I really enjoyed this film, and so if you get the chance, it’s a solid excursion. And realizing that it is the director’s first solo feature effort, well, wow.

Friday, June 10, 2016

DVD Review: The After Death Project

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Live images © Robert Barry Francos, 2016
Other Images from the Internet

The After Death Project: Collector’s Edition 2-DVD Set
Written, produced and directed by Paul Davids
Paul Davids Productions / Yellow Hat Productions
207 minutes, 2013

So, we all know there is death after life, which is physical reality. But the more philosophical one is whether there life after death. If there is, what is the form it takes? Do we go to heaven or hell, meet 72 virgins, get to sit with Ra or Osiris (or the god of your choice), or do we just….fffffttt out?

In my opinion, this is a prospect based on the fear of begin gone and forgotten. There is also somewhat of an ego aspect, as in, I must go on! Most religions tell us that we suffer in this world to be rewarded in the next, but in so many of the ghost stories we are told that the souls that wander the Earth are tormented, either seeking justice, or reliving the nightmare of their death over and over. Or, in some cases, seeking revenge against the living. Every culture has their version of ghosts, from Casper-ish wisps, to see-through people, or the stringier, long-haired and dark-eyed Asian version.

I’ve had my own experiences, as have had most, though I’m still not sure what it was. In my early twenties, I stayed at a friend’s parent’s house where she were still living. They had a full suite downstairs and I snuggled in at some late hour after hanging out with the family. I was just falling asleep when I felt something sit on the bed. I assumed it was my friend to talk more, but I turned on the light and there was no one there. Needless to say, I did not sleep the rest of the night. In the morning, at the breakfast table, I shared my experience. Very calmly, she said, “Oh, that’s just my grandmother. She used to live down there until she died in the bed. She comes back to visit sometimes; she’s harmless. I was furious for not being warned (I would have driven the two hours to get home). We’re still friends now.

This documentary seeks to discover what happens afterwards, especially since there is an entire market of people who are fascinated by the topic, or claim they can be in touch with those “beyond.” I’m not saying I believe it’s true or not, simply because I know that I don’t know. Experts, whatever that means, also take extreme camps on their side of the argument. There was a time in my life that I dated the assistant of a well-known professional psychic. I’m still not convinced, though (part of why she chose to be an ex-).

Forrest J Ackerman / pic by Robert Barry Francos
The first disc has two central characters, one living, and one ethereal. The person still suckin’ air is the director, Paul Davids. The premise is that he has a printed out piece paper from a computer that has a mysterious smudge on it, and he’s convinced it’s a message from the dear departed, writer / Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher and genre promoter Forrest J Ackerman (a man I greatly admire and have seen talk at a few conventions in the early 1990s), who had rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible in 2008.

The documentary is kind of a frenetic road trip attempting to prove that Forry, as he is commonly referred by fans, has been quite active since he’s been bereft of life by throwing down papers, moving objects, filling masks with electric energy, and making coincidences happen around puns.

There is more than a hint of skepticism present, I’m happy to say, by scientists. Again, I don’t have an opinion about an afterlife (though the thought of real ghosts as opposed to cinematic ones still make me unconformable), I’m just against arguments that are only one-sided. For example, one psychologist here states that the human brain tends to put things into patterns to help them make sense, and may see them where they are not, such as seeing shapes by combining stars (e.g., the belt of Orion).

Thing is, everybody loved Forry, and not surprising as he was a genuinely sweet man-child with a pun-loving humor – the worse the better – who touched so many people’s lives, even if you’ve never heard of him. Well, if you’re reading this, you probably have, but I digress… Getting back on point, because he was so beloved, people understandably want it to be true, to keep contact with someone important to them. Again, I’m not saying it isn’t so, but…

Through the length of the disc, we meet scientists, psychics, people who knew Forry intimately (such as his caretaker over the last years of his life, Joe Moe), and even ink specialists who try to diagnose the smudge on Davids’ paper, to try and figure out if it’s supernatural in origin. The filmmakers look at it both from spiritually and as a scientific phenomenon.

There are two ways to look at this body of information, the first being that it’s a lot of coincidences that people see what they want to see (for example, the clock on the wall behind the drawing of Forry on the DVD cover, done a few years before his death, supposedly shows the exact time he passed), or that there is a lot of these events. Either way, they are catalogued and shown in great detail.

While fun to some extent, especially since so much of it is about Forry, who I believe would have be greatly bemused by this kind of attention. It does seem to go on for a long time and over 106 minutes for this disc alone. Which brings us to…

The second disc, at 101 minutes, is titled “Life After Death Project 2: Personal Encounters.” This one takes a bit of a different approach than the first disc; this is more of an investigation of the separation of the spirit from the body in a few different forms.

For example, we meet a number of people, most in the Southwest between California and Texas, talking about seeing ghosts in retirement homes, ERs, and hotels, among others. Some discuss seeing the spirit actually leaving the body in the form of a wisp of smoke out of the mouth, or a gold orb from the chest. We also meet a team of ghost hunters, but the camera stays focused on Davids as he “plays poker” with a spirit, calmly making bets depending on an electronic reader that supposedly reacts to the spirits desires. I’m a bit skeptical about that one.

An interesting segment to me is more about out-of-body experiences, where e person has died and left the body, observing his/her surroundings, and/or talking to spirits (angels?) discussing the situation. No mention of seeing a religious entity, I’m happy to say. If I heard one person saying they saw Jesus, Moses or Mohammed, they would have lost me completely.

One scientist / philosopher states that many who have had these near death experiences gain psychic abilities, which sounds a bit too Stephen King / The Dead Zone to me, though who knows, perhaps that’s true.

My biggest issue with the content is everything is either post-fact or unprovable. Four people say 0ne of them received a phone call from someone who had just died. Okay. Why should I take their word for it? Others talk about how they left their house and an object was moved while they were gone. Okay, how much is being read into it? In another case, a mask flew off a wall (there’s a lot of mask action going on in these films) during a party and lands a couple of feet away from the wall. One person discusses it (the director), claiming there were others in the room, but no word from them.

Forrest J Ackerman /
pic by Robert Barry Francos
As with the first film/disc, there is an awful lot of conjecture based on coincidence, which is like sending someone to prison on circumstantial evidence. Does a distorted video recording a ghost sighting make? If I may digress for a second, this all reminds me that there is a brilliant book from 1976 by Julian Jaynes (d. 1997) called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a fascinating study about what is “consciousness,” and when it first came to humans as a species. The problem with the book, and why some of it was hard to fathom for me – and this goes to these films – is that if certainly feels like the premise came first, and the evidence is used to prove the premise, rather than the proof bringing a conclusion. This film, unlike the first, is more one sided, which was a bit disappointing to me. The first had some skeptics “experts,” but here it’s everyone on the same page.

Oh, this is certainly a fun ride, and despite my own agnosticism about the topic, it was a fun watch, even though, again, much of it felt quite self-serving, as in let’s make a film about this topic and then make me the focus! It’s a well put together work in its narrative framework, but I had more moments of c’mon than I should have.

There were only two secondary but real annoyances though. The first was that the descriptor captions for the talkers went by too fast for the amount of text (two or three seconds), and I had to keep going back and pausing. On the other hand, I appreciate that the titles were repeated when the speakers came back; not enough documentaries do that. The other thing that I found grating was due to the single-camera filming, there were a lot of jump cuts in each segment. One of the director near the end jumps every few seconds. Perhaps most people would not notice it much, but I found it distracting.

There are about 40 minutes of extras included with the DVDs (on the first disc), which I thoroughly enjoyed. There is a Play All button, which I engaged, and sat through them, happily. The only one that came close to being whatever was the last one. The others, mostly about Forry, including his friendships with the likes of Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury dating back to the 1930s (and initiating their careers), are great stuff. Also, more info about his wife and his house (the Ackermansion) which was infamous for its collection of sci-fi (a term Forry is credited with creating) and horror. The extras are:
  • Forrest J Ackerman: He Coined the Term ‘Sci-Fi’
  • Uncle Forry, Joe Moe and the Demise of the Ackermansion
  • The Director’s Relationship with Forrest J. Ackerman
  • Ray Bradbury, Rick Baker and Paul Davids Speaking at the Ackerman Tribute
  • Jacob McMurray, Senior Curator of the Science Fiction Museum
  • Dr. John Allison, 3 Years After the Inkblot Incident

I have no doubt that there is an audience for these two discs, and I do recommend it for them. There is a lot of good information among the peacocking, so definitely check it out if this is your speed of a topic. Off the top of my head, I can think of about half a dozen friends and acquaintances who would get a kick out of this, and will tell them about it, without hesitation.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Review: Comin’ at Ya!

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

Comin’ at Ya!
Directed by Fernando Baldi
CAU Productions / Universum Film (UFA) /
Sternco ED Films / MVD Visual
88 minutes, 1981 / 2015

Arguably, there were three people that set off the whole Spaghetti Western genre: director Sergio Leone, actor Clint Eastwood and composer Ennio Morricone. Once created, the synergy kept the style going, and was often copied. Other big ones at the time included the likes of the They Call Me… / My Name Is… series starring Terrance Stamp, but even as late as 1995, Sam Raimi used the style for his The Quick and the Dead, and there is a lot of it in Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 release Kill Bill: Vol. 2, even though the setting is more contemporary.

By the mid-to-late ‘70s, the style was becoming somewhat passé, but then Fernando Baldi was bold enough to use the most up-to-date technology for colorization and 3D to bring something unique to the field. This was a big hit at the time, and set in motion a wave of 3D releases, including involving and also updating the Jaws and Friday the 13th franchises. The movement toward 3D was actually fronted by a guy named Tony Anthony (aka Roger Pettito, born in West Virginia), who is also the male lead of this film.

Right from the beginning of this cine, you can spot both the familiar and the new. For the old, it’s both the hint of similar but not quite as memorable music with high operatic vocals, and a copious mixing of distant landscape shots with beautiful sunsets and vistas, and extreme close-ups of faces. Many of the medium views are of people being shot, often in slo-mo, of course.

Tony Anthony and Victoria Abril
For the new, there is the 3D, but I’ll get to that later. The quality this film brings to the table is the use of both color and black and white. Why is this so unusual? Well, sometimes scenes will switch from one to the other between edits, others within its own shot, seemingly random change from color to monochrome. But even more interestingly, occasionally it will be black and white with color elements (blood, a dress, a snake), or the scene will be it color, and one person or persons will be in black and white; this is often used to symbolize death, both real and spiritual.

Often, this mixing of hues is just part of the intermingling of both beauty and cheese. The landscape shots are gorgeous, with golden hour sun or spectacular clouds against the background mountains. Even the broken down ghost towns look lovely in their own, decrepit way (I have always had a hankering for taking pictures of falling down barns, abandoned towns and other structures). As for cheese, it comes in two varieties, though both for the same purpose. An example is in one scene where a group of women are attacked by very obvious rubber bats on strings, which are there merely for the purpose of flying into the camera for the 3D.

Abril in 3D
Ah, yes, the 3D. This is your father’s 3D one must remember, even though at the time it was cutting edge. It wasn’t like they could digitally have the background look further than the foreground as they do now, but rather objects needed to be thrust into the camera, and then the color was separated so that it would be effective with two-tone glasses. They do that a lot in this film. Previous ones during the first generation, such as House of Wax (1953) or 13 Ghosts (1960), had specific scenes that were 3D rather than the whole film, and we were told when to put on the glasses. Usually it was about 10 minutes in total in the whole film, though we wore the green (or blue) / red glasses throughout. If you lost the glasses, the film seemed blurry; usually you left the theater with a headache.

Techniques had improved greatly by the time of this film, so they take every chance they can to point guns at the camera, throw objects (such as spears and arrows), and have things crawling or flying at it (the fake bats or real rats – but no cats). Many times the cast looks right at the camera as they flick playing cards, yo-yos (there were no yo-yos in the old west, by the way, as the first factory to produce the toy opened in the late 1920s). They definitely overdo it though, taking every single opportunity, even when not in the promotion of the story, to have things either fly into the camera, or just as often dangle over it as the camera looks up. My favorite shot is of a baby’s bare behind being lowered into the camera. I literally said out loud, “Really? You’re going there?”

But what about the story? Oh, yeah, the story… On their wedding day (a scene that would be borrowed from quite liberally – I mean honored – in Kill Bill: Vol. 2) of H.H. Hart (Tony Anthony) and the lovely Abilene (Spanish born Victoria Abril, who would go on to star in many telenovas), he is wounded and she is kidnapped by two brothers, Poke (Richard Palacios, d. 2015), who is self-conscious about his weight, and the ringleader Pike (Gene Quintano, who also co-wrote the film, as well as a couple of the Police Academy sequels). Abilene is just one of a couple of dozen women who are held Boko Haram style to be sold at auction and sent to Mexico for the sex trade.

Anthony in 2D
While the women are mistreated, natch (I’m taking about the genre, not a preference), so is just about everyone else in the film, including the hero and the brothers. They all get the tar scraped off of ‘em, if’n ya know what I mean. They’re definitely going for the gritty end of the stick (which will eventually be shoved at the camea). Hart goes to get his wife back, no matter what, and there is a tug of war for power among Hart and the brothers, as the women slip in and out of their hands, so to speak.

Even though it was filmed in English, in some cases it’s pretty obvious that it was overdubbed with (better) English-speaking voice actors. That means that even though there is still a difference between the lips and the words spoken, it is much closer than when dubbed from another language. This is a very emotionally charged film, so the women tend to be hysterical and the men get to be mucho angry and violent. A nice touch, though, is that unlike the Man with No Name (Eastwood) or Trinity (Stamp), rather than just squinting to show emotion, Anthony shows his fear, his anger, and pain when he’s beaten. I think it makes for a great hero that is easy for the audience to identify.
One question I have is that many of the villains in the piece, including the gang and one of the brothers, wear Union uniforms (that’s why I know the yo-yos are anachronistic). In the States, usually the bad guys would wear the gray, Reb garb, but not being filmed in North America, it leaves it more open to being either side (i.e., perhaps the costume one could find). I could go into the whole cultural racism of Native Americans and Mexican, who are portrayed  in stereotypical dress, but considering the time period this was film, it was pre-Enlightenment for European filmmaking – and most of North America, as this still goes on; for example, many First Nations actors refused to be in The Revenant (2015) for this reason.

Now, the 3D effects are definitely cool, albeit overdone to the point of (as I said) being a bit cheesy. Though I saw the 2D version, honestly, it’s enjoyable either way. Especially impressive were the opening credits are revealed. The look of the film is spectacular, especially in Blu-Ray HD.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Review: Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon

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

Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon (aka Seepage!)
Directed and edited by Richard Griffin
Scorpio Films Releasing
90 minutes / 2005
The film can be seen HERE. 

There are so many genres and subgenres that it is interesting to look at them over time. For example, there was and is plenty of Hillbilly stuff, especially in the 1970s. Hell, even Opie (aka Ron Howard) started by directing in that field (for Roger Corman) with Grand Theft Auto (1977); and Burt Reynold’s whole beginning oeuvre was steeped in it.

Redneck horror is also a sub-subgenre, with the likes of Redneck Zombies (1989), Bloodsucking Redneck Vampires (2004), I Spit Chew on Your Grave (2008), The Legend of the Hillbilly Butcher, and the short-film compilation The Hillbilly Horror Show, Vol. 1 (2014), to name just a small amount.

But there is also a horny human-like fish-monster subgenre as well, with the likes of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, for which this film is named), The Horror of Party Beach (1964), and Humanoids from the Deep (1980; remade in 1996). Yes, I’ve seen nearly every one of those I’ve mentioned in the last two paragraphs, I’m proud to say.
Most of the films I’ve cited, with rare exceptions, are either comedies or unintentionally funny in a campy way (e.g., Humanoids…). But beyond humorous, they tend to be outrageously so, because if you mock someone’s culture, such as the white Deep South, you better make it obvious that it is poking an elbow rather than pointing a finger, if you want to keep your audience (commented on, somewhat, in the 2014 Bigfoot film, Stomping Ground). This is in the same way that films like Car Wash (1976) or Beauty Shop (2005) are presented, with over-the-top stereotypical characters that are broad enough that many can identify with and mock, rather than are being mocked directly (again, socially commented on in Spike Lee’s 2000 social commentary, Bamboozled).

But I suppose that I should start talking about the film at hand, shouldn’t I? Despite it being filmed in Connecticut (except for a coda scene in Rhode Island), director Richard Griffin tackles the Redneck/Horny Man-Fish genres by wisely combining them into an outrageous and profane comedy Seth Rogan would probably kill to be able to do adequately (he would fail, though still attract an audience for some reason). The acting is wooden, as usually is in backwoods low-comedy style, but nowhere near as forceful and purposefully as it is in his last film, Seven Dorms of Death (2016). Considering the decade-plus time difference of release, it’s interesting to compare them, but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Hillbillies gone huntin'
In a bayou area of the Deep South, the trope of spilling toxic chemicals (e.g., 2007’s Wasting Away [aka Ahh!! Zombies!] and 2011’s Exit 101) into the water is used to produce a hybrid human-fish (that is, man-into-fish, not fish-into-man, or in today’s terminology, perhaps M2F[ish]). This brings four factions contentiously colliding together: (a) a group of young science students who are doing tests on the water (yet still skinny-dip in it); (b) a gaggle of rednecks (two are named Bubba and Cooter) out huntin’, (c) the hitmen from a pharma company responsible for the dumping who are trying to keep it all contained by trying to kill everyone involved (as a reference point, there is The Crazies, both in 1973 and 2010); and (d) the mutant/mutating fish people who have a hunger for human flesh, of course.

There is certainly a – er – certain level a cheesiness present, such as there always seems to be some fog around as people are skulking about, even in a basement. Also, a hillneck (redbilly?) gal in classic daisy dukes and a red checkered Italian restaurant tablecloth design top tied in front falls for a mutant-to-be, a student ends up being an escapee from the evil corporation, and there are hair curlers, beers, and white hazmat suits, along with nudity and lots of decent gore, giving an overall nice scaly shine.

The creatures are definitely a guy(s) in rubber suits – and considering you never see more than one of the monsters at a time, I guessing the same suit – but actually it looks pretty decent for its budget, and I was impressed by them. Truthfully, it looks better than many I’ve seen on shoots with a much larger financial backing.

If you’re not used to these kinds of films, the dialogue may sound a bit, well, stupid, but if you listen carefully with heavy dose of humor, it’s hysterical. For example, when one character sees the dead body of someone he knows, he yells, “Fuck me sideways! Noooooo!” There are also a lot of racial and ethnic comments, and including pointed towards the LGBTQQ+ demographic. This is, however, meant more to shine on the fallibilities of those who are homophobic rather than promoting it.

It’s interesting to see one of Richard Griffin’s earliest releases (which I haven’t seen many) and compare them with his latest (of which I have viewed a few). In this one, it was before he had his revolving company of actors and crew that show up in many/most of the later works. No Michael Thurber, no Sarah Nicklin or Michael Reed, and especially no cinematography by Jill Poisson. His later works have a “look” that this one does not. That’s not to say this film doesn’t look great, because it does, it’s just… different. Good different.

Over the years, there is more confidence built into a final product, and this one is definitely a growth work. What I mean by that is as one learns a craft, one gets better at it (one would hope), and not just in directorial skill, but in fashioning one’s own style and look. On one hand, I think I would say that this looks like a beginning film (it was his fourth) that one learns what’s possible and how to do things more efficiently and effectively. That being said, even with that, it’s actually above most early works of some bigger names (so far). I mean, compare Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1993) with The H8ful Eight (2016), or Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) with Eastern Promises (2007). The viewer can see the skill set growth comparing them. The spark is definitely there, as it is here, but the early films have a certain clunkiness to them compared to their more advanced counterparts. There is certainly a clunky, amateurishness to this one, but it definitely has that umph that would make Griffin so good at what he does.