Monday, July 25, 2016

Review: Mécanix

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

Written, directed and edited by Rémy Mathieu Larochelle
Ofilms / Avant-Gore Films / IPS Films /
Unearthed Films / MVD Visual
70 minutes, 2003 / 2016

Many cities have arthouse theaters. In New York, we’d head down to those like the Film Forum on West Houston Street, occasionally watching real life art going by such seeing rats running down the street as we went into the theater (happened more than once).

Along with the Scandinavian films that would depress a hyena (which SCTV lampooned so well with Whispers of the Wolf), we’d also see films that were certainly not conventional in any way, such as those by Richard Kern, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1964). Occasionally there would be a Canadian entry, and some were quite innovative, like the shorts Pas de Deux (1968) and Neighbors (1952), which we saw together in revival form (hey, I’m not that old).

The genres of avant-garde and transgression are different, but they can overlap, sometimes quite extensively, occasionally blurring the lines. The Montreal-filmed Mécanix can be seen as just such a film. But, of course, it’s open interpretation. In an interview segment included as an extra, the director also mentioned German Expressionism, which was at its height during the silent period with the likes of Nosferatu (1922 by F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, by Fritz Lang). Similar to that style, there is very little dialog (more on that later) until the final act, though there is a lot going on here, especially visually.

Non-human (goat creature)
Metropolis is actually a good comparison point because of some of the similarities in themes (though the resemblances kind of end there). The story, from what I make out, is about a world split into two strata. The first is the lower class humans who service the overlords. The second is the creatures who rule the humans, which consists of mostly animal-like puppets and pixilated clay beings of a mostly rudimentarily shaped type (though the goat one is quite cool looking). Like Metropolis, part of the plot is the human’s trying to overcome by… well, it is confusing as it’s a bit philosophical, quite fantastical and poetically opaque. It’s also about, as stated during the film, “The desire of all things.” Note that the film is in Quebecois French with English subtitles, though as there is so little speaking, it’s not like the viewer is going to spend much time reading.

Speaking of the story, I’m going to do something I’ve rarely done before, which is repeat what’s on the box (in part), because I had trouble following a narrative:

…The last human beings are forced to be the slaves of the strange creatures that rule this strange world. There is only one thing these beasts fear – the embryo of the universe: the origin of everything … is hidden in the last freeborn man. The scientist helping the beasts must vivisect every human on the planet to stop this embryo from growing and destroying it forever.

What interests me, as a media theorist (that’s right) is the hinting of both the works of French philosopher Jacques Ellul and Toronto professor Marshall McLuhan, whether intentional or not. McLuhan tends to be thought of as dreading the inevitability of the takeover by technology, but it was actually Ellul who posited that theory (beware!) in his seminal book, The Technological Society (1964). He described what he called Technic, or the way things are done; for our film here, the term used is Mécanix.

In Understanding Media (also 1964), McLuhan theorizes how technology is an extension of humans (e.g., cars are extensions of the legs, pens are extensions of the hand). One of the stop-motion creatures even states (whispering soto voce) to the central character: “Mécanix are the extension of your being, like you are an extension of nature.” In actuality, though the humans are here are the extensions of the creatures, helping them get fed (though it seems like they always refuse the food), and to try and find the “embryo.”

Both human and nonhuman
The motion of the creatures is jumpy (you do what you can with your equipment), especially considering this was done with 16mm film rather than digital. There is no computerization used (anti-technology, or just what was available?), which is admirable. In fact they use the same technique/technic for the mixture of animation and living actors that they used in silent films. This is explained in the interview extra.

There are some really nice moments, like a beastie who interrogates the main human character has his snout wrapped in wire, and before he asks any question it unwraps and a ball of wire falls from his maw. After each query, the ball goes back into his mouth, and the wire wraps it up again. Larochelle designed and built all the puppets and animation creations, and also pixilated them, which took about half a decade.

The image of the film is murky, like the Yellow River: muddy dark brown and a bit hazy at times. But it is not as convoluted as the narrative. I’m not saying this as a negative, but if you’re looking for light and airy fare, or a blood feast, this may not be where you want to be searching. However, it is interesting cinema in its artistry, and in its sheer labor (oh, wait, it’s Canadian… labour), considering the filmmaker was just out of college.

Included as its only extra (not counting the chapters) is a single camera 30-minute interview with the director and a producer, Phillippe Chabot. The prewritten (but previously unread by them) questions were handed to them on a sheet of paper that is held during the taping. About 50 percent of it is interesting, but when it is and they are taking it seriously, it had my attention.

I’m glad this is getting a new release, because works like this deserve to be in the film canon, and I certainly hope at some point Larochelle releases a follow-up of some kind (does not have to be directly related to this), because he shows he has a head on his shoulders with this dark almost-poetry and definitely philosophical allegory. That being said, I also hope he actually adds a commentary track on the next reissue to further explain what he was meaning by the actions on the screen.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: Don’t You Recognise Me?

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

Don’t You Recognise Me?
Written and directed by Jason Figgis
October Eleven Pictures
80 minutes, 2015 / 2016

In an Amusing Ourselves to Death world, according to Neil Postman in 1985, entertainment becomes our focus, rather than the real world around us, leading to the collapse of culture. Examples of this abound, with some people walking off cliffs in search of non-existent Pokémon Go characters, others drive two-ton machines full speed down a highway or crowded street while texting. There are also those who would rather watch sports than participate in them or other actually important social contract behavior such as voting for a viable leader; they’d rather opinionate without doing the research, or instead watch a woman with three dragons take sword to kings on television. But it runs both ways, as not only are there viewers, but there are also the creators of such distractions.

In Ireland, as we are introduced to this story, is Tony Aiello (Matthew Toman), a slimy Geraldo-style “journalist” with no moral compass, whose purpose in life is to find people to interview, and make them look as foolish in documentaries. With his film crew (Alan Rogers on camera and the cute Emma Dunlop on sound boom), he has lined up his latest victims, obtained from social media contact: the Gallagher family, small-time operators who are willing to let Aiello into their world. But right from the start, the viewer knows that something is rotten in the state of County Dublin. The title of the film even hints at it.

I promise I won’t go into spoiler alert territory, but it soon becomes obvious that while Aiello is playing the Gallaghers for his own gain, the tide will soon turn for ominous reasons.

The Gallaghers and their crew are a nutsy bunch, showing that a level of insanity may run in this family and group, possibly on the Usher level (the EA Poe story, not the singer, so back off). K (Jason Sherlock) is the pretty face that draws the flies to the spider, as it were, but it is brother Daz (Darren Travers) who is in charge of the operation (and it’s Travers who steals just about any scene he’s in). Also aiding them silently in a possible Leatherface nod is Nickey Gallagher, aka Babyface, for reasons that are immediately obvious (played menacingly by the very muscular and intimidating director, Jason Figgis).

If I may pull back and digress here a mo, this documentary style filming is an offshoot of the found footage subgenre, in that those on camera filming the story are actually shooting the film, as well. There is a nice touch as the scenes cut between the two camera, and you hear the differences in the sound from each (the quality changes between the boom and the home videocamera, for example, or those closer to the shooting are louder than those further away). For once, not balancing the sound makes sense.

Starting off slow, the menacing and alarm levels start to kick in at about 15 or 20 minutes (the first of which are used for exposition), and then continue to increase exponentially. By the time everything is explained out, the viewer will cringe, but at the same time has some sense of identification with the retribution-seeking Gallaghers.

Darren Travers as Daz
Joining the family is some friends, including two camera people (video and still), and the hair obsessed Terese (Shauna Ryan), an intense woman who does not take kind to insult and is often saying, “You take that back!” There is actually a lot of repetition of dialog by many of the characters, such as Daz’s insistence to just about everyone, “Are you gettin’ this?!” It actually makes it even more frightening rather than “samey” as you see the level of madness – both in the level of anger and craziness – reaches the crescendo. That aspect also gave it a real feeling, perhaps of improv on the part of the actors. Anyway, it works.

If I could change any one thing in this film, I would add subtitles, as sometimes the accents get a bit thick, but it’s always easy to pick out the oft used “fook.” Perhaps the option will be on the DVD release, but there are parts where I really had no idea what was being said literally, but the intent was loud and clear so I don’t think I really missed anything.

There is little blood in the film, and much of the actual violence is done off-screen, but that does not hinder the level of both malevolence and banality of evil that are present. Bleak has its place in life, and this story certainly lends itself to just that. In fact, it is the quality of the story and the compassion for the characters that actually arises out of that despair, even with the excess violence.

Figgis seems to revel in the bleak, such as in his previous film reviewed on this blog, Children of a Darker Dawn (HERE). That being said, it should be added that he excels in it, as well, even with the feeling that it could have been edited down a bit. However, it is also enhanced by the mostly subtly and dissonant notes of a really fine score by Michael Richard Plowman.

Sure there is no sign of cell phones, nicely making the timing of the film a bit up in the air, but even so the prevalence of technology still manages to make itself felt, as both sides of the table document the situation, including some group shots of both victims and victors, even though in the long run, everybody loses a bit of their own soul, and not just to the image as some religions believe about taking pictures.

Film's Trail to Be Added Shortly...

Friday, July 15, 2016

Review: My Master Satan: 3 Tales of Drug Fueled Violence

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

My Master Satan: 3 Tales of Drug Fueled Violence
Written and directed by Dakota Bailey
R.A. Productions
71 minutes, 2016

There are generally two definitions of “underworld,” and neither of them invokes good images. One is where criminals dwell, and the other is where you go when you die. In Western culture, that usually is the place ruled by the devil (though in ancient Egypt, it was a good place run by Osiris…but I digress…). Here they are kind of simultaneous.

This is an anthology film with three dire and overlapping stories of dealers, criminals, psychopaths and drug users. The running together of the term underworld works in a similar way that the stories all meld, which is a nice touch.

Completely devoid of any kind of humor, these bleak stories rely more on realities – even with the inclusion of the voice-distorted devil, making it cringeworthy (a good thing) to watch these low-lifers react, take actions that would be shocking to most, and often talk while driving around about the motivation for their actions.

While there are three stories here, let’s be honest, who gives a fuck? They are so interconnected, one could just look at it as a series of events without compartmentalizing them into individual “tales” as much as chapters of the same book, and get the same result with the identical outcome. This is not a criticism in any way, shape or form. I actually like that it’s kind of overlapping or overflowing into each other’s messes. Also, I enjoyed that the characters not only remained the same, but kept such a good touch of a feeling of realism.

Dakota Bailey
The group of drug takin’, murderin’ and socially unacceptable people are so vile, and so heinous, that it’s both hard to imagine wanting to remain in their company, yet like watching a train wreck, you’re grateful for the opportunity to do so in the safe haven of your electronic viewing equipment. There is no lead character per se, though one can’t help focus more on Alister, perhaps because he is portrayed by the writer/director, Dakota Bailey, or maybe due to that he’s the one whose name is spoken most often. Others include the despicable Bubba (Matt Marshall), Woody (Wild Willy Wakefield), Charlie (Brian Knapp) and Dealin’ Dick (Larry Bay). The one decent character is a property caretaker (well played by Chuck Frost), who looks like he could have gone either the straight and narrow way or not. The rest just seem to be born bad.

With the exception of two bad, synthetic wigs on Bubba and Woody, these guys all look and sound the part; it’s more like they’re playing themselves than characters, which is quite the compliment. Even the locales are probably more like where these people would live, on the brink of poverty and in most cases, squalor (money going to drugs rather than accommodations and Feng Shui).

As murky as is their lifestyles and living, it is matched by the visuals of the camera. Shot on VHS, it has a look more of 8mm, with mostly a dull sepia tone, scratches, visual and sound noises, and tied up in some sharp and snappingly harsh edits. It’s not always easy to make out what is happening, and the sound quality is variable (purposefully, apparently), much like real life. Oh, and just about the only time we see color, it’s in an extreme oversaturation during LSD visitations by the title character.

We watch as our little band of degenerates steal, dig up the bodies of cheating loved ones (it’s in the film description), chainsaw victims (I did say serial killers, didn’t I?), peep in on the bathing mother of one of our crew, rat each other out, and just get involved in all kinds of mischief. Well, “mischief” is a much kinder word than their actions, but all of it is believable for these characters. The only question I have is about how they almost never wear gloves during any of their actions, like these are just natural day-to-day goings-on. Then again, perhaps it is, or they are too doped up to care.

Bailey directs the film more like a fly on the wall than as a third person, bringing the viewer in on the action rather than merely viewing it. That was a nice touch, and not always easy to achieve without making it into some sort of lost footage thingy; there is no doubt that is not the direction of the camera. This reminds me a bit of early Martin Scorsese films like Mean Streets, but Bailey is no Scorsese (who else is, right?). Then again, even in his grittiest period, Scorsese’s film felt realistic, but the viewer was still removed from the action (i.e., you knew you were watching a film in the classic sense).

While there is definitely blood, most of the action occurs just outside the camera range, and yet Bailey manages to make the suddenness of it shocking. Again, this is a nicely creative touch, keeping with the realism of the setting. Also, it does for Denver what Taxi Driver did for New York City on setting a grittiness level.

As I said, the sound on the film is variable, and in certain parts, even at full blast, I had trouble making out some of the dialog. This is my one key complaint. But this sort of leads me to a quick question, that’s kind of rhetorical, but I’ll ask it anyway. The music in the film is straight-out death metal, mostly by Luciferian Insectus. Now, Bailey’s voice here sounds like he’s talking like death metal singers vocalize. Is that his natural voice, is he also a singer in a DM band, or is he channelling Alister? [Since the publishing of this review, I have been informed by the director that it is, indeed, his natural voice.]

This is a very unusual film in its content, its characters, and its medium (e.g., look, editing, sound). This makes it not necessarily an easy film to snuggle up to like a typical horror or crime drama release, but I believe that if you give it a chance, you may find yourself drawn into a story populated by unlikeable people who you may never associate with in real life (hopefully), but still respect that you have been invited into their world for just a moment.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review: Winners Tape All: The Henderson Brothers Story

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

Winners Tape All: The Henderson Brothers Story
Directed and edited by Justin Channell
IWC Films / Brainwrap Media
67 minutes, 2016

The timing of this film is very – er – timely. What I mean by that is there is a wave of nostalgia in the genre market for the quickie and cheap films that arose during the 1980s, flooding the hungry retail market for horror films and giving birth to the B-level slashers. Okay, sometimes C- or D-level. Yet, were these films actually any good?

Don’t get me wrong, I was one of those renting and watching as many as my time and money (and occasional schoolwork) would allow. Even then, as now, I preferred the indie, micro-budget films like The Orbitrons (1990), as I do now, and I wallowed in the Foreign releases that glorified (and rightfully so) the likes of Fulci and Argento, but also (and perhaps not as rightfully so) Paul Naschy. It also gave prominence those such as Fred Olen Ray and Jesse Franco. Thankfully it also began the careers of the Scream Queen royalty, such as Brinke, Linnea and (my then-personal fave) Michelle Bauer.

If one were to look back at some of these releases that we enjoyed so much, if we haven’t kept watching them over and over, would we still find them so fascinating? Would The Boogey Man (1980), Creepozoids (1987) and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) still retain their charms? That is the premise of this mockumentary.

During the late ‘80s, the fictional West Virginia-based Henderson Brothers, Michael (Zane Crosby) and Richard (Josh Lively), made two straight-to-video films, The Curse of Stabberman and Cannibal Swim Club. And much like Nicholas Garreau did in real life as an obsessed fan of George Romero in Fan of the Dead (2007), the Hendersons also have their own both charming and creepy uber cheerleader in Henry Jacoby (Chris LaMartina).

Richard (Josh Lively) and Michael (Zane Crosby)
Bonded together by their love of horror films at the age of 10 when their parents re-married, the step-brothers took advantage of both the outlet for indie VHS and their lives basically being in the crapper (e.g., dropping out of college), to live their dream.

Mixed in with the talking-head interviews with the brothers (and Henry, of course doing solo “analysis” of their releases), sometimes together and sometimes by themselves, is scenes from the two films, …Stabberman and Cannibal…, with Michael and Richard giving play-by-plays that essentially are like commentary tracks. Of the two, the latter is the more wacky one, and thereby all the more fun. Many of the scenes are joyfully stolen by the horrendous acting of the “swim club owner,” Jerry McElroy. His cackling and on-screen script reading (like Brando in the “Gatfather” [sic] says Michael), kept me more than amused, as well as his tendency to Jay Leno a pun by explaining it, such as, “I don’t see this new job panning out for you. ‘Cause it’s a pan!”

Not only financial constraints darken the Bros filmmaking, but so do the occasional rise of sibling rivalry, or weird choices, such as Richard’s tendency to put on a Quint/Robert Shaw type gruff New England accent when one is not called for the story.

Henry (Chris LaMartina)
A reality of this piece is how one of the main props (a hand) is used in both films. If you tend to listen to as many commentaries as I do, you often hear the directors or SFX people talking about the appropriation of sets, people and paraphernalia in future endeavours. It was a wise choice to do this here, in a bit of a subtle way as they don’t discuss it, though it is prominently placed.

Starting especially in the ‘80s was the use of “themes” (as Michael Henderson might say), which would become tropes used even to this day. There are a bunch of them that are touched on here, such as one camper giving the history of the villain (i.e., Stabberman, whose real name made me laugh hard enough to pause the film) to the others (and us viewers) around a campfire. But there is also taking advantage of the moment scenes that are used (e.g., rain), which often happens in fly-by-seat-of-pants productions.

There is also a bit of reality in this story as well, being this is sort of how Hershell Gordon Lewis became an icon after a series of fun and badly shot films reached a fan, Jim Vraney (d. 2014) who promoted him (and others) via a VHS distribution company called Something Weird Video (I own a number of SWV films; yes, on VHS). Lewis was a direct marketing guru at the time of his re-emergence (and still is), and now his films from the early 1960s and ‘70s are considered horror classics – and rightfully so – even though they are not exactly strong in the writing or acting.

Even now, thanks to digital technology, people are shooting their own films and then editing it on computers, such as then 15-year-old Johnny Dickie’s Slaughter Tales (2013; reviewed HERE).Will Dickie be a future Lewis or Henderson Brothers? Time will tell, but I bet there will be “Henry Jacoby”-type fans to support him and others like him.

So this particular film also looks like it was made on a dime (and the use of a 110 camera, apparently!), but to the better of the result than the hindrance, since that is the look it was going for, in the long run.

Any fan of micro-budget films, be it from the 1980s VHS boom to digi productions now, is going to get the elbow in the ribs humor that runs from beginning to end. If you’re more used to the bigger budget Sinister or Insidious kinds of films, it may be a bit over your head (or under it), but I know I was smirking at the least and laughing at the high-jinx of these three guys (including Henry). The outtakes near the end with Michael and his whistle are particularly enjoyable.

Be sure to stick around and read the credits, as there are little “Easter Eggs” of humor throughout the text and visuals.