Monday, October 31, 2016

Review: Halloween Spookies

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

Halloween Spookies
Directed and edited by Dave Parker and Dustin Wayde Mills
65 minutes, 2016

Dave Parker, aka MrParker, has earned a reputation as a film collector / vlogging reviewer, and now he’s moving well into writing and directing for his second release, under the tutelage of a master of the micro-budget genre, filmmaker and puppet creator Dustin Wayde Mills. They’ve been friends for years, along with stalwart actor / writer Brandon Salkil, working and playing together into a cohesive unit.

After a nicely done first-person intro that goes from day to day-for-night to a cool model house, we meet two witches (Joni Durian and Haley Madison, who was great recently in CarousHELL [2016]). In order to keep our protagonist to stay until a potion is ready, we get the three stories in this anthology.

First up is “The Babysitter,” a play on the bad guy in the house theme, but also takes from the news of weird people dressing like clowns to scare others. It’s kinda goofy, in a good way, and we certainly get a result of what could probably happen in real life. The two kids in the story are excellent, as is B.J. Colangelo in the titular role. She ain’t no Mary Poppins, that’s as sure as the kids aren’t the Banks children, either. For a story geared for the young’ns, there is an effective level of suspense for everyone.

The second tale, like the first, is directed by Mills, who happily goes back to what he built his early films on, which is a peculiar level of ironic humor. Here, he takes on the black-and-white tale of some schulb (Mills’ regular go-to actor, Salkil, the writer of this piece) who is visited by “The Messenger,” a ‘50s leather jacket-wearing Juvenile Delinquent spirit played with fervor by Parker. The gross-out level is high here in a kid-friendly-yet-icky way. What stood out for me is that both actors played against their own type. Salkil tends to play – well, yes, schlubs (not counting Skinless) or raving maniacs, but here he is more subtle, showing some more depth than usual (knew he had it inim). Parker, who tends to play more constrained characters, plays his role appropriately over the top in a way that is broader than I’ve seen him before, showing he’s got some chops that go beyond his online film reviews as MrParka. The story has a good youth message about not giving up and persevering, no matter what comes knocking in the middle of the night.

The main piece, though, is the third tale, “The Familiars,” is written and directed by Parker, who also plays a pizza delivery guy. So, one of these two not-to-bright comic nerd guys (kind that still live at home way past their due) decides he wants to join the local gang, The Cruising Bruisers. But as one of the two notes, “They don’t even ride!” Now, this gang is, well, beyond dunces. There’s the leader (Salkil in full jagged-up mode), a metal-head who only says “Metal” and makes the two-fingered sign named Devil Horns (Mills), and one who amusedly only speaks in very poor Spanish, named Macho (Aaron Anthony). Calling these guys idiots would be an insult to idiots.

The two doofus dweebs perform an incantation from a book similar to the one in Evil Dead, except that this one looks like it has the image of the demon from Mills’ Easter Casket (2013) on it. Mills got his start making horror films dealing with puppets, and he contributes his skill to Parker’s vision by creating three demons right out of Ghoulies (1984), one of which looks really cool (the cat), and two others that are more leaning towards the Paper-Mache, but hey, still good-if-not-better than the Ghoulies’ rubber models.

With a nod to the Three Stooges – or as Macho might say, “La Tres Estupidos” – the tiny creatures go on a rampage of killing, with a decent amount of a body count considering the age-level for the film. At half an hour, this is the longest bit, and a good companion piece to the other two (and witchy wraparound, of course). This particular story is a bit more violent and raucous than the others, but nothing that can’t be shown on television uncut (or hasn’t been of late), with possibly one exception, which involves the mentioning of a succubus. Now, even Bugs Bunny used to have a touch of adult humor it in (sexy cross-dressing Bugs or Elmer, as an example), but those days are questionable now. I mean, violence has always been more accepted by mainstream media than, well, (read as sotto voce) S-E-X, or in this case, being implied.

I would say the age level for this film is arguably over 10, when one considers the gross-out level (albeit mild), the demon killings, the use of the word “crap” throughout (the strongest cuss word here), and that one character has a cigarette (always unlit) usually dangling from his lip; that being said, I remember the media uproar on television in the 1980s when a child character said something like “bite me” to her bothersome brother. It’s a new world, folks, and thanks to streaming services, kids are more accustomed to things we didn’t see as a youth (which makes me think of Neil Postman’s 1982 treatise, The Disappearance of Childhood, but I won’t get all theoretical on ya).

This is an enjoyable release, and I’ve seen lots of good words about it around the Interwebitivity, and rightfully so. It’s funny on many levels, from goofy and slapstick to “oh, yeah” connections that you’ll get even if the kids won’t. It’s fun, it’s free, and it’s worth a view for children of aaaaall ages. C’mon, whatcha gotta lose?

Friday, October 28, 2016

Review: Die and Let Live: 10th Anniversary Edition

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

Die and Let Live: 10th Anniversary Edition
(aka Zombi 9)
Directed and edited by Justin Channell
Heretic Films I IWC Films
75 minutes, 2006 / 2016

To celebrate the release of their recent – er – release, Winners Tape All: The Story of the Henderson Brothers (reviewed by me, HERE), director Justin Channell and his two writers / stars, Josh Lively and Zane Crosby, have just re-dropped their zombie comedy film from a decade ago.

Zombie comedies were timely when this first came out, soon on the heels of Shaun of the Dead (2004), yet before the likes of Ah! Zombies!! (aka Wasting Away, 2007), Zombieland (2009) and Bong of the Dead (2011). This shows they were ahead of the game without even realizing it!

This crew specializes in “back yard” filmmaking, where they shoot micro-budget features, and this is actually a loving and yet enjoyably demented. It’s a bit amateurish, and yet they managed to keep it interesting, without losing any of the cheese.

Right from the beginning “prologue” scene, you know you are in for a decent film with bad acting and lots of zombies and blood, for which we are shown relatively plenty for the buck. And while this is an aside in a way, I’m impressed they got the rights to songs by the likes of Canadian ska group The Planet Smashers (I’m especially fond of their “Fabricated,” but I digress…) and Big D and the Kids Table, along with so much other fun music on the soundtrack. My fave cut here, though, was the inane “Fanny Pack,” by Rappy McRapperson (I kid you not). Anyway…

The two main protagonists are life-long pals Benny Rodriguez (Lively) and grammar nazi – which involve some great running gag bits – Scotty Smalls (Crosby), who are reminiscent of characters from Clerks (1994), but with a punk rock vibe rather than hipster. Benny has a very cute girlfriend, Liz (Ashley Goddard) but also has a crush on redheaded Stephanie (Sarah Bauer), who seems to date losers. As they say in the film, Benny’s definitely thinking with the wrong head. Perhaps a good theme, considering the film, would be Loudon Wainwright III’s “Unrequited Love to the Nth Degree.” Meanwhile, her over-jealous and body-modified musician boyfriend Andrew (Jonas Dixon) is cheating on her. As all this is going on, there’s a zombie apocalypse on the verge thanks to a leak at some nearby secret lab. And this is only 7 minutes in.

Written by the director and the two leads (as well as ad libs from the rest of the cast, for which the credits acknowledge), those writing sessions seem like they must have been a hoot and a half. And that arsine, juvenile humor translates into the story quite effectively. Hey, to be clear, the company name, IWC Films, is for the acronym “Idiots With Cameras,” and they take their silliness seriously.

Yeah, it’s micro-budget, yeah the acting is occasionally (okay, usually) not top notch – even though Lively and Smalls seem quite natural as though they seem to be pretty much playing themselves (I’m assuming, as I don’t know the gents, but I’m going by the “Making Of” featurette) – and yeah, there are the occasional continuity quirks, but the end result is a film that is, well, funny in a way that Clerks was meant to be but never quite achieved, in my opinion (I was never a fan of the film; to me the only watchable Kevin Smith is Dogma [1999], but again, I digress…).

The thing about this is that what I believe makes it so enjoyable is the fact that they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously, and that they were out to have a good time making this. At least that’s what comes across, and it improves the viewing. If they had been as serious as some other micro-budgets, such as the overrated and drippy nosed The Blair Witch Project (1999), this would be excruciating, painful rather than incredibly funny.

The trio’s latest film, Winner Tape All, is indirectly about the process of filming this very kind of film, and I’m pretty sure is shot around the very same pool. Even though there is a decade separating these two releases, there are some consistencies, such as a bro code of honor, and the sense that “a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat.” In other words, they are not going to shy away from anything that’s non-PC.

Being a zombie apocalypse film of sorts, there is a lot of blood and latex, which looks more cheesy than real, but it still works in the context of what the film is focusing towards, which is unabashed amateurism; this works in their favor, rather than against. Again, if they would have tried to do this seriously, it would not work at all. And, that it seems to be modelled somewhat on the paradigm of “I saw Clerks and I can do it too!”

The cast is full of odd characters, and what I like is it isn’t the same cliché bunch of “high school students.” Zack Boyce is a hysterical scene stealer as the exuberant Todd, and make sure you listen to his throwaway lines; filmmaker Henrique Couto (pre-moustache, who I am guessing is wearing his own clothes during the shoot) does a great job as a television director who is friends with our two lovable misfits. Honestly, I kept looking for other filmmakers from their area of West Virginia up to Western Pennsylvania, such as these guys, Couto, Dustin Mills and Steve Rudzinski (who is thanked in the credits). Someone should do a documentary about this group of West Virginia-thru-Westylvanian genre filmmakers.

For the mandatory cameo, there is Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, who plays a gonzo journalist named – I kid you not – Floyd Faukman. Then the wonderful Debbie Rochon in kinda on hand as a disembodied voice on ta phone, but her tone is totally recognizable.

I was particularly amused about a bit concerning PF Flyers sneakers, and smiled when they quoted the commercial about “running faster and jumping higher.” During the early punk days of the mid-‘70s, most of us wore either PF Flyers or Keds. Good enough for the Ramones, good enough for us.

The film is snarky, there’s no getting around that, and there is quite a bit of that non-PC humor, but the point of films like this is to be just shocking enough to show “look how cool we are, we can break the PC,” yet not get steeped in it by having other things be over-the-top outrageous as well.

Extras abound, such as the 58-minute Blooper reel, which feels a bit long, but definitely shows the camaraderie within the cast and crew (many of whom overlap). It also shows they certainly picked the right shots for the actual release. Same is true, choice-wise, with the 4-minute Alternate Takes and almost 3-minute Deleted Scenes. For the 40-minute “Behind the Scenes,” which is mostly the cast and crew acting silly, it is way more than I needed to see, but again, it’s clear that their friendships go beyond just working together.

This is definitely a bro film, with most of the males being somewhat loveable tools, but the women, as attractive as many of them are, appear as either fantasy images, stereotypically liking the one who treats them like crap, or they are fickle. To put it another way, in an alternate dimension, this probably would have starred Seth Rogan as Rodriguez and Jonah Hill as Smalls. Now, while I’m not a fan of those two actors (especially in films where they appear together), I actually mean this as a compliment, as this is actually funny, despite its low-budget, early-career flaws. Hell, it’s from 10 years ago, and we’re more evolved now, aren’t we? Well, Winners Tape All shows that these guys have grown for the better, but this is still a hoot to watch in the basement with the buds.
* * *
Post-review note from the Director, Justin Channell (thank you!): 
Judging by the PF Flyers paragraph, I think you might have missed that most of the third act is actually an elaborate homage to the '90s family film The Sandlot [1993]. The characters are all named after the kids in the movie and since the movie is about the kids trying to get a signed baseball from a huge dog on the other side of the fence, we swapped it with pizzas and zombies. Just for the record, I actually hadn't seen The Sandlot until very early in the brainstorming stage. I had actually pitched a subplot where side characters order a pizza, a zombie kills the delivery guy, so they order a pizza from another place and it continues until their yard is filled with zombie pizza guys. Zane just said, "Why not just have them try to get the pizza and it's just like The Sandlot?" and they made me watch it and it all spiralled out from there.I liked the idea because the characters were guys who weren't bright and when they're in over the heads have to step up to save the day, the only experiences they have to reference are from movies. The Forrest Gump [1994] flashback was meant to really drive that home. There was also a flashback in the script that was written as a soapbox derby race that was the ending from Cool Runnings [1993], but we didn't have enough money.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: The Inhabitants

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

The Inhabitants: Standard Edition
Written and directed by the Rasmussen Brothers (Michael and Shawn)
Lascaux Media / Sinister Siblings Films /
Film Rise / MVD Visual
90 minutes, 2015 / 2016

I love when a title has a cool double or even triple entendre to it. As an example, this one works quite well, and I’ll get to that in a sec.

Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who apparently like to be known as “The writers of John Carpenter’s The Ward” (2010),” also wrote and directed this one, the second feature for which they sat in the main chair(s). The outcome is a different vision when you can make the whole film you write, so this gives them some freedom of self-expression.
This was filmed at the Noyes-Parris House (built in 1669), somewhere in a wooded suburban area of Wayland, MA, approximately 30 miles due west from Salem. The Heritage Home, which doubles for the March Carriage B&B here, actually has an historical, sinister connection to the infamous witch trials, giving some credibility to the look and tone of the film.

Elise Couture Stone
Into the picture come Dan (Michael Reed) and Jessica (Elise Couture Stone), a young couple who buy the mysterious B&B from its previous owner (Judith Chaffee), a widow who has been sinking into senility. Pretty early on – enough towards the beginning I don’t feel like I’ve giving away anything – we learn that the house was originally owned by a woman named Lydia (India Pearl), a witch who was hanged in – yep – 1669. Needless to say, she hasn’t exactly vacated the premises, and has found ways to create a family writ large.

If you watch the trailer, which gives away too much of the story, pretty soon you know wifey is under Lydia’s spell; this spells (pun intended) trouble for just about anyone and everyone. So, this brings me to the point I mentioned earlier about the entendre: are the Inhabitants the earthly ones living in the house, the supernatural ones lingering (as the band Sparks might sing), or the supernatural one inside the living one? Gotta say, whichever way, it works.

India Pearl
The premise itself is hardly new, and I even predicted most of the ending about a third of the way through: been there, seen that. That being said, and this is a big however, the Brothers Rasmussen have taken an old motif and really worked it like kneading a raisin challah. The end result is quite delicious, even if you’ve eaten that kind before.
There are some really nice jump scares, but that is due to both the surprise and a lot to the make-up, which is really top notch Lydia and the others look just plain free-kaaay, with the wide, white eyes. Again, I’ve seen this so many times before, but the look and lighting works so well together to make it pop. I admit freely that ghost stories have always been my favorites; spookies + body count = happiness, for me. That does not mean that all of this genre are good, but this one certainly is better than most I’ve seen recently.

Michael Reed
The acting is also quality work. For example, Reed has never disappointed, even in outrageous roles (e.g., The Disco Exorcist [2011]). If I recall correctly, he may be using his own jacket because I could have sworn I’ve seen the (faux) fur-color thing before. But I digress… Here, as the husband who is trying to work out what the hell is happening to his life-partner while still trying to maintain his own space in the house, he comes across as both strong and flawed. Couture is the centerpiece of the film, as the wife who is dealing with a supernatural assault. She gets to play the role in two modes, being a loving wife for the first half, and then nearly as a somnambulist as she is influenced by the evil being living in her home. As the evil Lydia, the lovely Pearl dons the fright make-up and goes full throttle as the wicked witch of Wayland. Her scenes are short, but she makes her presence (pun intended) known to the viewer.

My complaint about the film, as I stated before, is that the trailer gives away too much, so I recommend seeing the film instead. But that note is a minor chord, as the film really is a fun watch, from beginning to end. While there is little character development, you do get the impression that the couple love each other, and you feel the ominousness almost from the gecko (yes, I know it’s “get-go”). Plus the effects are also enjoyable; the blood is not plentiful (and rightfully so for the story), and also seems to have the right consistency, i.e., doesn’t ooze like chocolate syrup.

The house, the lighting, the editing, the acting and the story all work together to create a totally enjoyable ghostie. By “Standard Version,” as this release is called, I am assuming means that it is CD rather than Blu-Ray, and perhaps has less extras, but that’s okay, as it still packs quite a punch.

Part of the reason why this is such a fun flick, as I’ve mentioned before, is the pacing of the film. What I mean by that is the Bros. don’t fall into the trap that many do: normally, I really hate the whole walking cautiously through the dark house / basement / cellar / woods / scenes with a flashlight (or candle, depending on the film), in what feels like an endless padding of time. The suspense is kept in play because it’s done in short segments. Also, it’s not so dark that all you can see is whatever the light falls upon, nor is it a shaky camera, for once; thank you for that. Makes me forgive you for (please read the rest of the sentence in a Maxwell Smart voice) the old moving-the-bathroom-cabinet-mirror-and-suddenly-the-ghost-is -behind-the-person trick.  

Other than chapters, the only extras are two different types of sound and subtitles (always appreciated).

This is one of the better indie films I’ve seen this year. The Rasmussens have taken some tired and tried ideas and actually improved them to the point where I didn’t feel, really?! That is actually saying a lot. Go and check it out. A great Halloween watch.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: All Sinners Night

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

All Sinners Night
Directed by Bobby Easley
Horror Wasteland Pictures International /
High Caliber Films / World Wide Multi Media / MVD Visual
90 minutes, 2014 / 2015

You reap what you sow, I guess. This Satanic cult film was shot in the Hoosier state of Indiana, where the governor is a Far Right Christian by the name of Mike Putz…I mean Pence. Yep, he's the very same one that Trump guy picked as his running mate. That this was made in his state make me, well, smile.

The way the story is set up, we meet two people with something in common, though just how they found each other I’m not sure. David’s (Tom Sparx… hmm, I wonder if that’s his birth name, he asked with a nod and a wink) wife killed herself (on camera) on Halloween, and Lana’s (Brittany Jessee) brother disappeared at the same time. They meet in a town 12 hours away on the next Halloween, though I’m not clear how they knew where to meet either, or how they knew when.

As you can see, there are some issues in the story. Perhaps I missed the connector? Either way, they go to the sheriff and the deputy (who they do not shoot because they are not Bob Marley, nor Eric Clapton, but I digress…), who of course do not believe there is anything mysterious is happening there and now because, well, these occurrences happened 12 hours away a year before.

Meanwhile people in masks are killing men and kidnapping women left and right. Honestly, most of the masks are quite cool, and I kept thinking, “I want one of those!” even though I have nowhere to put them in my house. Of course, people are going to reference The Purge franchise because anytime anyone is silent and does things violently as a group in masks these days, that’s the vibe that resonates. In this case, however, I don’t think that applies to the actual Purge story, from what I could make of it. To me, The Purge chain is more equivalent to The Hunger Games.

Why the killing? Why the kidnapping? How do these two strangers fit into it all? That actually gets answered, but I’m not gonna be the one to break it to you and be a spoiler.

The film actually looks decent, with lighting and editing, though the storyline is somewhat compromised. Also, there are a couple of scenes towards the end where the sound is so highly modulated that the voices actually buzz. This should have been fixed in post, in my opinion, but I’ll move on. What I found likewise found strange was that it seemed like some of the sounds were looped, so you would hear something like screaming in a certain pattern, and then repeated in that exact same way with a jump between the two, so it definitely was a tape played over once or twice, if not sometimes more. Kinda distracting, quite honestly.

The one thing that’s consistent throughout, though, is incredibly bad acting by just about everyone. Sadly, the worst of the batch is Jessee, which is a shame because she really is attractive and I’d otherwise like to see her in more roles (so far, this is her only IMDB credit). She looks like she is always looking to the side to read cue cards, which I call the Saturday Night Live Syndrome. Hamming it up to the nine’s, though – in a different style of bad acting – is Bill Levin, who plays the hyper-intense Reverend Hiram Graves (if you can’t figure out his role in the whole shebang, you probably shouldn’t be doing crossword puzzles). With this forceful level, the irony to me is that Levin is the founder of the First Church of Cannabis! But even though he is chomping on the scenery every chance he gets, he has a great look for the part, with an angular face and penetrating eyes that fit the role perfectly. Not sure about the Joker purple and green wardrobe, but whatever.

Actually, the best acting is by John Dugan, who plays a small but pivotal role that is almost comic relief but not quite. For those who don’t know, he’s the guy who played Grandpa under the rubber mask in the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974. It seems like every production needs to have at least one great genre cameo these days, and I say that with glee not derision. Coming in second acting-wise is Jackie Palmer who plays – er – Deputy Palmer. It’s not a flawless rendition, especially her last scene, but she has good conviction.

I will say that this is an earnest film, and the last act is definitely ramped up from the rest. Also, the raids to kill the men and kidnap the women that show up sporadically are usually handled well, despite the acting limitations. Throughout, the makeup effects by Phil Yeary are stupendous (with one exception, where there is a close-up of a shot-in-the-head victim who you can easy see the hole is drawn on). Everything else looks really great. The only nudity, since we’re talking about this kind of thing now, is the same person, twice, from the waist up.

For extras, there is a music video by Dead Dick Hammer which is fun but not spectacular, and a bunch of cool trailers (including this film and another by the same director). Then there is 7:02 set interviews feature with the director, cast and crew; it’s short and interesting. Also included is a 6:29 outtakes reel which is a combination of mistakes and pleased comments by the director that were taken off the original track in post.

All in all, it’s not a great film due to many factors, but it’s not so bad it’s bad, nor is it quite up to so bad it’s good. On the other hand, it certainly has its redeeming moments of action that make the in-between hunh? flashes livable.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: The Invoking 3: Poltergeist Dimensions

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

The Invoking 3: Poltergeist Dimensions
(aka The Invoking 3: Paranormal Dimensions)
Written and directed by Lee Matthews
Ruthless Pictures / MVD Visual
81 minutes, 2016

Just a couple of housecleaning bits to begin. First, although this is the third of the anthology Invoking films, I have never seen the earlier editions. Second, although Lee Mathews is listed as the director, with one exception, he is actually the compiler of the shorts that make up the collection, and in fact he directed only the last of the nine tales included in this edition. And lastly, while the subtitle of the DVD is Poltergeist Dimensions, the film itself and all information about it has it as Paranormal Dimensions. Perhaps it was changed legally so as not to step on the foot of the overrated Paranormal Activity franchise?

Although independent from the other Invoking series, the overarching theme remains the same in that it is supposedly based on true events in the supernatural world, or as the film states it: “Although hundreds of disturbing paranormal events occur every year, most of these chilling encounters go unreported – until now.”

There is no overriding arc or bookending addition that ties them all together, but rather it lets each speak for itself. The one thing all these dark tales have in common is the title cards, which state the location (twice with typos) and time of day. The shorts come from around the world, although most from the eastern half of the United States. Like the ABCs of Death series, another anthology work with multiple directors, many of these are either without dialog, or kept at a minimum, but is not afraid to use the original language in which it was filmed (for which I totally agree); in those cases there are subtitles.

Like most collections, there is a wide range of quality of story, though each looks good (i.e., not amateurish) in its own right. The weakest link, in my opinion, is the opener, “The Dark Comes Quickly” (2014), a 15-minute found-footage style opus of a trio of obnoxious PhD students who go looking for a temple in the Mictal Mines in San Luis Potosi, Mexico (about 250 miles due north of Mexico City). It’s frat boy mentality and handheld cameras. There’s a cool beastie and Aztecs warriors, but it falls flat. The other eight tales are more interesting and much less annoying.
Fortunately it is followed by “The Dweller” (2016), a 6-minute piece filled with yuck, rot, worms and something hiding. The only human character here is well handled by the busty Tessa Netting (she was on Glee and Disney’s Bunk’d, but thankfully she actually acts here rather than emotes like a cartoon), arguably the biggest name in the film.

The theme of this particular short, the figurative thing under the bed, is a common thread/threat throughout a few of the films here, two of them being incredibly similar in the final act: this one and the finale, “3 AM” (2016), though both “Selfies” and “Bedroom Window” (2016) come awfully close.

Don’t get me wrong, they are all fun, even though they rely on a similar trope. Others include (but not exclusively) aliens, demons, and the zombie apocalypse.

Lemme get to some of the standout pieces, though I don’t think there was a stinker in the house, even with my whine about the opener. Let’s start with “La Dama de Blanco” (2015), also found on YouTube as “The Lady in White.” Four young men (college age) take a night drive to the beach resort of Puerto Piritu, on the north-central coast of Venezuela (about 200 miles East from Caracas). The time posting for this episode is 4:44 AM. The story has an inevitable and obvious track, and it’s a tad too long at 17 minutes, but it’s actually well directed, acted, and lit, considering most of it takes place in a moving car in dead of night.

“Prisoner at Bannons" (aka “The Thing at Bannon’s Lookout”; 2006), takes place in Lawrence, Kansas, dealing with an exchange between a couple and some mysterious woodland creatures. It definitely has a couple of big surprises in it, including a bucket of deplorables turn of events, but the Richard Matheson-worthy twist is the icing on the tale, as mixed metaphors might say. The news crew aspect is a bit of an add-on that I can understand but believe to be not totally necessary because it doesn’t really add to the story (other than perhaps comic relief in a Scream/Gale Weathers kind of way), but it also doesn’t take away much either. With or without, it’s one of my faves here.

One of the two stories based in New Jersey (isn’t that scary enough?) is the brief “Heartbreak of the Dead” (2014) which starts off confusing, but leads to a very satisfying ending. Thousands of miles away in Prague, I’m mixed about “She is Not My Sister” (2016; 7 min, which can be found on YouTube), where a a boy and his step-sister deal with a playground demon. The effects are great and the verbal punchline is cute, but on some level the ending left me uncomfortable and sad.

The last short I’ll discuss is, as I said, the finale, “3 AM,” directed by Matthews. Located in the bleak (here, anyway) and desolate Brecon Beacons area of Scotland at 3:00 AM, a woman is alone and frightened by, well, just about everything, including a Romper Room jack-in-the-box. Yes, it even has the official RR logo from when I was a kid. Didn’t even know they were still a brand. But I digress… This short was a bid of a joy ride, and Matthews manages to make the viewer jumpy about practically everything. He works the dread nerve like a pro.

There are no extras other than the chapters, obviously broken up by each story as a new chapter. This is the second film by the director, the other also an anthology of shorts (I’ll bet there is included one by him) that is not part of the Invoking series. I have to say that I like horror shorts because they’re usually more directly to the point, without too much fluff. And that’s just what you have here, a nice bunch of meat and taters tales to tantalize by keeping interest taut.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Review: The Devil’s Forest

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

The Devil’s Forest
(aka The Devil Complex; The Devil Within)
Directed by Mark Evans                                   
Lonely Crow Productions / itn distribution / MVD Visual
80 minutes, 2016

The Hoia-Baciu Forest is a real place in the Transylvania area of Romania, just outside the city of Cluj, that is known as one of the most haunted forests in the world. UFOs, ghosts, weird plants and trees, and images appearing in photos are reportedly common there. It’s also infamous as a “Bermuda Triangle” where people disappear. While the name of this film was originally The Devil Complex,” it kinda makes sense that the DVD would be changed to add the word “Forest,” not to mention being able to cash in on another film with a similar name about a mysterious woods in Japan.

To be honest, I’m a bit apprehensive about starting this one, for two reasons. No, it’s not because I’m afraid it will scare me, but rather that it’s a found footage film about a trio of filmmakers scared in the wood who – and here’s the apprehensive part – “were never seen again.” Sound familiar?

I am not one of the cult of The Blair Witch Project (1999) [BWP], and found nearly the whole thing extremely tedious, as I do with many other found footage films. The whole term “never seen again” already tells the viewer way too much. And I’ll tell yaz right now, if I see someone crying into the camera by flashlight with snot running down their nose, I’m gonna lose it. But rather than whine more, I’m turning the film on. See you on the other side (pun intended).

Maria Simona Arsu
Right at the front, we’re told they die. Woo-hoo, so no spoiler alert. Three go into the woods (no Stephen Sondheim pun nor wit here): there is a student, Rachel (nerd-cute Maria Simona Arsu), and two macho putzes, Tom the interpreter (Patrick Sebastian Negrean, and the camera guy, Joe (Marius Dan Munteanu... yes, all three actors use three names). Taking them as a guide is Mr. Dogaru (the deep-toned Bill Hutchens, who was in the last two The Human Centipede films).

Near the start, after immediately not liking the guys here, we are presented with a BWP – er – homage with the actors asking the local populace (mostly non-actors, I believe) for stories about the forest, and it certainly appears they are being honest of the culture of the place, including one amusing skeptical guy.

For some reason, they pick the dead of winter, with the forest full of snow, as the time to go venturing, giving the first big whaaaaaaat? moment.  I’ve seen films of the actual forest, and even though people are afraid of it, there are defined and easy to follow trails, so why go when snow hides all that?

Now I won’t give away much of the actual woooooo (to be read as a spooky sound) moments of the film, but I will talk about the framework, hopefully without too many spoilers.

After a while, deep into the trek and a third of the way into the story, the guide runs off, leaving the trio with no map, no food, and a lot of anger and especially angst. So they walk through the snow, and bicker. And walk through the snow. And walk through the snow. There’s nothing more exciting that watching people walk through the snow except possibly watching people keyboarding. Or watching people running through a snowy forest in the dark by the light of the camera, as also occurs (again, BWP).

And that brings me to another question, and that is how long does a camera battery last? How many did they bring? All I know is they run the camera the whole time and never mention new batteries. And why am I thinking about that during a film that is supposed to keep me jittery?

Yes, there is the guy giving his final talk in the dark tent with the light of the camera, but thankfully no snot, just drinking from a flask. Yet another question is if we are going to spend so much time with these three characters, why can’t they be likeable, so you feel something when anything happens. For at least two of them, I think of the Darwin Awards: Really? Deep forest in the winter. With snow. In what is known to be a dangerous place, i.e., no great loss to humanity, especially a fictional one.

This really is a winterized version of BWP, with the creepy house at the beginning rather than at the end (again, I’m sure it’s a homage). All the tropes are there, the running and walking and kvetching and being scared about… what again? Boy, I really want to discuss the ending right now, but I won’t.

What blood there is appears to have the consistency of chocolate syrup, and certainly no exposed body parts in this weather.

The only extra is the trailer, and not even a cursory offer of chapter choices. The production is micro-budget to the point where the largest expense, other than catering, was probably the art design of the poster or DVD cover.

The film is like a cross between a haunted winter evening Robert Frost poem and Poe, but without the eloquence. Perhaps it’s because it’s become cliché? Nah, I felt this way about hand-held found footage films since I first saw BWP. Did I mention how much this is like BWP? If you are/were a fan of BWP or hand-held running, or even found footage films, this may be right up your alley. Me? I’m taking some Dramamine and going to bed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review: The Carnage Collection

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

The Carnage Collection
Written and directed by Bob Ferreira, Derek Ferreira, Kimball Rowell
Point and Shoot Films
85 minutes, 2015 / 2016

Back in the mid-1970s, some low-budget “sketch” sex comedy films came out with names like If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind!!! (1975) and Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glasses? (1977; Robin Williams’ first on-screen appearances). They were short bits, sometimes with the same actors playing different roles.

The Carnage Collection presents a similar model, except it focuses on various forms of horror. Here, all the stories are written by brothers Bob Ferreira and Derek Ferreira, who also co-direct along with Kimball Rowell, all of whom also act in multiple segments..

There is a minor bookending story of someone getting free cable, and what we see is what he watches, but it’s such a dippy piece, with some downright gawdawful fun acting by Tom Ferreira (Bob and Derek’s dad?). This is not meant as an insult to the wrap, it’s just kinda superfluous for the meat of the matter, which are the stories.

There are eight tales in total, averaging about 10 minutes each, covering different horror genres. They range from incredibly silly to quite decent, albeit a bit on the amateur side. Feels a bit like “let’s make a movie,” and for the three New England filmmakers, this is kinda true as it’s all their first shots. That makes me happy.

I’m not going to go into super detail about each story, but I’ll skim a bit. Do note, however, that there is a humor that runs through this, but not buried in "jokes," but in an amusing manner that makes it fun rather than punny. Again, appreciated.

Amusingly, they start off with a Christmas horror story of sorts, as a magical, killer life-size Santa ornament pops in and out of reality, spewing inane Kruger-isms. His victims? The Brothers Ferreira, Bob and Derek, who play themselves. I had a good laugh at the roly-poly Bob, shirtless and tied to a chair by Christmas lights, yelling at the Santa and calling him a “fat fuck.” Is it me or smile-worthy that the first story is about something that is at the end of the year. Perhaps I’m analyzing too deep?

Speaking of which, holy-man the characters say fuck a lot. Not a compliant, but definitely an observation. Honestly, was a bit of a distraction for me, sort of like an easy way to expand the dialogue, but hey, I’m gettin’ old, so what the fuck do I know?

A couple of stories do kinda fall flat, such as one with a guy literally screwing his resentful VCR (using a very pale dildo in place of his real bits), and another torture porn tribute about a guy in a mask doing nasty things to a woman who is tied up (his ex?).

On a more positive note, similarly to the Santa story is one where a killer clown is visualized by an angsty teen girl, who somehow magically comes to life and does some serious damage to a few people. Happily the clown is female, and I say this because (a) its gender is obvious, and (b) it goes against the male killer clown stereotype. Good choice.

Felisia Grimm and Rufio
Among the eight are at least two really good ones. The first deals with a suicidal rich man who is followed by an apparent derelict that he meets near a bridge who knows more than he should. The other is the final one, about a lonely woman-child who is obsessed with stuffies and Jeebus, and is in unrequited love with one of the girls (now woman) she grew up with. This one is also pretty sexually graphic, including using dolls as sex toys. While not a new premise, they use the device of a sloth stuffie named Rufio (don’t call him “Rodeo”) who goads her on, or perhaps it’s her own inner voice?

I find it interesting that some of the actors kinda have fake-sounding porno names, such as Druscilla Deville, Felisia Grimm, and my favorite, Mandatron Divine. Not sure why, but I really don’t care, because Grimm (who plays both the Clown and Andrea, the woman-child), is a standout.

This film certainly won’t win any awards, as most of the acting is wooden, the writing is obvious and the direction is rough. That being said, there are some really decent effects, especially in the Santa episode, the clown piece, and the one with the rich guy. There are also some cheesy ones, such as the obviously rubber sexual prosthetics employed.

Here’s the thing, and I’ve said this in the past: my punk rock ethics says “form a band, it’s the best way to learn.” In this context its more “pick up a camera.” So many first films are ones that people will look back on and think, “Oh, I could have done that better if I could do it now” (which is why so many musicians cover their own material on later recordings). That is pointless thinking, because the first films are the training wheels, where one (or, in this case three) learns the craft which can only be done by doing, not by reading about it.

Shooting an anthology to start was a smart idea, because it’s actually like making eight short films, using different styles to stretch the envelope of learning. That would explain why some of them are a bit more developed than others, which shows a good level of growth in a short amount of time.

From what I understand, The Carnal Collection 2 is currently being filmed. That made me happy to hear. For a first project by a group with little experience, this was actually quite a decent accomplishment. Check it out so you can say, “I saw them when…”

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Review: A House is Not a Home

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

A House is Not a Home
Directed by Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray
Deinstitutionalized Films / Tiki Terrors / Transformational Films / MVD Visual
92 minutes, 2015

Have you ever noticed that many of the horror films that focus on African-Americans are not only comedies, but really bad ones? I blame the Wayans family for that, who took a fine family cinematic heritage and ruined it the likes of A Haunted House (2013) and any Scary Movie (2000) past the first sequel. Sure there is the likes of indie director Sean Weathers who is taking a more serious approach, but generally they tend to rely on either stereotypical characters or ones that are so deep in the culture that it comes off as shrill and hard for anyone else to identify: think Beauty Shop (2005) as an example. This is a thankful reprieve from that: a serious horror film where the main characters are Black, without it being “Minstrel Show” as decried in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000).

The loving but self-described “dysfunctional” Williams family move into a stunningly beautiful yet mysterious house where, we learn from the prologue (as they must always be a prologue, it’s the law), evil things are amiss, as if we didn’t know already. There’s patriarch Ben (Gerald Webb, who has worked with the director a number of times before both in front of the camera and behind it), Linda (Emmy-award winning for actress Diahnna Nicole Baxter), 16-year-old Ashley (Aurora Perrineau) and 15-year-old Alex (Vine Internet star Melvin Gregg), the latter two playing much younger than their years.
As a quick note, there were a couple of things that felt off pretty early on. First of all, while being shown the house by character actor Bill Cobbs (who will forever be thought of by me for the underrated 2000 show, The Others, though most probably will remember him from the Night in the Museum franchise), there is the closed room the Williams are not allowed into but they still buy they house. Nuh-uh, that Is not gonna happen. When we bought our modest little house, we went over every inch of it, and knew exactly what was there and what wasn’t, because we needed to know what needed updating or fixing. I mean just to start, if the last owners used a rotary phone, there may be some electrical updating needed, not to mention painting, etc. Our house had all newly painted walls by the previous owners, and then we repainted them all to the colors we wanted. None of that goes on here, they just move in. Okay, okay, suspension of disbelief, I get it. Thing is, it only works up to a certain number of times, and then it becomes less ignorable. Also, you know the real estate agent is in on/part of the mystery, because, well, they always are (in fact, I feel like I would be giving something away if I said he wasn’t).

The loving-yet-dysfunctional Williams family.
From the first night the troubled family moves in, things are already going wonky. One member is finding murder photos, another feels like he’s being followed (of course he is), another has creepy old dolls appearing that had been put away (Annabella anyone?). Oh, and the leather tablecloth is growing veins. Let me repeat, that’s the first 24 hours.

Another of the tropes strongly relied on here is The Amityville Horror (1979). We met the previous owner in the form of the driven-mad dad (which apparently must always be played by a television actor), played with glee by a heavily made up Richard Grieco (yep, the dude from “21 Jump Street,” a co-producer of this film), who is still ghosting the house covered with blood, more than hinting of a supernatural/evil force floating around.

During the day, everything relatively human seems to be happening and somewhat normal (if argumentative among the participants), but at night, things go bump and shadows roam, even in dreams. I wonder about the weirdness at night and normality in the morning; wouldn’t you talk about it with the family, or at least be shaken up? My one (possible) real-life ghost experience was mentioned the second my ass hit the chair for breakfast.

At first, there are no characters you really interact with on a deep level at first, and little character development to build on, even with their previous foibles (affairs, drinking…you know the drill), until the viewer gets “comfortable” with the family, just in time for, well, I’ll get there.

Nearly everything happens inside or just outside the door of the house, surrounded by trees, giving a claustrophobic feeling of a tiny budget. We hear the kids talk about school once, but both the adults work from home: him as an architect and her as a piano teacher. I have no doubt that it is exactly what was intended, the feeling of no way out. While this also helps with the budget, it also can be an effective tool to the story, as it is here.

Truthfully, the film drags a bit during the first half, but the mood and tone change drastically at the nearly half-way mark, and the story amps up drastically and dramatically. This begins with the introduction of a voodoo practicing college professor, Lucas St. Michelle (Eddie Steeples, to be – like it or not – forever known to a generation as “The Crabman,” from “My Name is Earl”), who comes to exorcise the house. Dressed in a fine white suit and, for some reason that is never explained even in the commentary, wearing whitish contact lenses similar to the kind used by Marilyn Manson, he unites the Williams family and joins forces with them to fight back. But is his mojo strong enough to rid the forces of evil from the abode? In today’s cinema climate, it could go either way, and I’m not going to say which.

Once the battle begins, the film really draws the viewer in, and becomes a lot more interesting. It seemed as if this part of the film was about half as long as the first half. Perhaps that is a clearer example of a bit more towards what I am trying to say.

As they roam through the house, other tropes ignite, such as the rooms changing order as they walk through the doors, as in Grave Encounters (2011), or one nasty spirit sporting dark make-up a la Insidious (2011). The smoke spirits were pretty cool looking, and the main villain, who is mostly seen in silhouette, is particularly nasty and effective, though dressed in something you might see in a 1970s gay leather bar.

The one that drives me crazy though, and this is true of more films than I can think of off the top of my head, is if the doors won’t open, why would the protagonists not try to break a window (though you don’t seem to see many windows in this house). Odds are nothing would happen, but still... Also, the only phone seen throughout the film is a rotary one (a scare device is used in relation to that object that I first saw on soap “Dark Shadows” in the late ‘60s to introduce the Quentin character, and it freaked me out as a kid); in other words, teens with no cell phones? Say what? No computers for that matter, either, that I can remember. The kitchen’s appliances seems pretty modern, though. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to keep the timeframe questionable? If that’s the case, well, never mind.

While the film has quite a serious atmosphere, there are some comedic tones that crop up once in a while, such as a comment here and there by the son, one character giving a knowing smile at the camera – both funny and very creepily effective – and a phone number indicated as 666-1313 (with a Los Angeles area code, though the location of filming is Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco).

The acting is all fine, especially Diahnna Nicole Baxter, who feels the most natural in a most unnatural situation. She’s the one who seems the most annoyed and also the most scared of the lot. Grieco also does well, even with his mostly silent role after the intro. His stares are quite intense, and from what I gathered from the commentary, he was doing The Method method; I get the feeling he’s actually a better actor than many of the roles he’s been given.

There is zero nudity (again, serious film) and while there is some blood and a couple of semi-gore effects, this story isn’t necessarily about that: it’s more about arcing events than carnage moments, and rightfully so. There are a few jump scares here and there, but I don’t think this will really scare anyone who is reading this review. The second half, however, is definitely entertaining, even while stretching credulity at times.

The soundtrack by DJ/musician Knappy is also moody and well done, but you know things are getting really bad in the house when the same few discordant and tinny notes on the piano play over and over (yes, another trope).

The extras on the DVD include the trailer and a 10:25 Making Of documentary. Director Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray (aka Chris Ray) and actor / producer Gerald Webb sit in what looks like a home theatre and discuss the production, the cast (the core of whom also comment in on-situ interviews), and the reaction to the film, including winning Best Film at the Burbank Film Festival where it premiered, and the two adult leads also were nominated for best actor/actress.

There is also a commentary with Olen Ray Webb is quite decent. Because they’ve been friends and working together for years, they are obviously comfortable with each other, which comes across in their banter. They are respectful and don’t try to talk over each other, and they give mostly anecdotes and some information about the film that is easy to take: not too technical, and not too fluffy; but rather a conversation. There is a bit of redundancy (such mentioning Eddie Murphy’s excellent bit about Black people and horror films from his seminal – and hysterical – stand-up film Delirious from 1983), but still worth the listen.

Considering this was filmed in a single location over a mere eight days, it’s actually quite accomplished, especially the second half. The atmosphere stays moody, with some of the hue zapped out of the image; it’s not quite sepia, but it certainly isn’t a blast of color, either. Douglas-Olen Ray, son of genre cult figure Fred, has his own history of action horror (most of which borders on the WTF), such as Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus (2010), 2-Headed Shark Attack (2011), and 3-Headed Shark Attack (2015), settles into the straight horror genre decently, without pandering to just an African-American audience, but one we all can relate to, relative to the topic of course.

Whether you turn it on from its beginning or at the half-way point, by the end you may feel satisfied with your time spent.