Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: After

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Directed by Ryan Smith
Seabourne Pictures / Quite Quick Productions / Magnetic Dreams /
M.O. Pictures / MVD Visual
90 minutes, 2012 / 2017

When I first heard the title of this horror thriller, I was honestly a-feared that it might be one of those post-rapture Left Behind dreck kinds of things. Considering our society is being currently run and overrun by people who think the earth only 6000 years old and probably flat not only makes that a real possibility, but also, puh-leeeze. Thankfully, I was wrong, Amen.

The film starts off calmly enough, with two people sitting on a bus, being the only passengers. They only start to get to get introduced to each other (she’s really not into him), though they find out they live a few blocks from each other, when the bus crashes (off-camera).

When she awakes in her own bed, she heads off to work at the hospital and finds she’s the only one there in the entire building. Soon she realizes it’s not just there, but the entire town. She finds the dude, who is apparently in the same situation, so they go searching for answers together.

This may sound familiarly like the 1964 “The Twilight Zone” episode written by Earl Hammer Jr., “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” but that is where the similarity ends. Luckily, Jason Parish and director Ryan Smith’s story takes a different tack from that episode into something pretty unique, albeit familiar, as it does seem more like something Stephen King might take to write in about 800 pages.

While searching through their small town, secrets of their past will come to light, giving clues to how to possibly get out of the situation. They do figure out pretty quickly what is the outcome of the mystery, but not the how to beyond it. That’s what the plot is for, of course.

George (Steven Strait) is a film projectionist who draws comic books on the side, which he has done from his youth. Ana (Karolina Wydra, from “True Blood” and “House”; her look reminds me a bit of Andrea Marcovicci) is a nurse who dreams of being a fantasy writer. Well, first of all, that makes a strong combination if they pitch their tents together going forward. I know a writer who recently married a comic artist (Hey, JD and Kris!), and their co-work is phenomenal. But I digress…

As their bodies flash back to a time when they were children in the same town of Pearl, they watch themselves on the same day of consequential events, and try and figure out the clues. Meanwhile, the town is surrounded by a wall of smoke that starts to tighten its grasp, giving them just a few days to work it all out.

When they are in the present with the clouds looming, the film has a blue-hued, drab, colorless look to it. When they have moments in the past, viewing themselves, friends and relations (especially her aunt, played by character actor Sandra Lafferty, who you will probably recognize from The Hunger Games or the Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk the Line), the colors are bright. This reminds me a bit of the Richard Matheson 1988 novel, What Dreams May Come, where Purgatory is similarly gray.

Filmed in a few towns, all with two hours of Birmingham, it makes sense that this would be hellish. Okay, that’s kind of an inside joke as one of my best friends just moved to that state from Brooklyn; I really don’t have an opinion.

There is a strong fantasy element running throughout the picture, even beyond the mysterious flashbacks and literal encircling black cloud hanging over them. The two examples I’ll share is a magical wooden door just outside the evil cloud ring with a key that needs to be found, to a smoke monster that longs to kill the two that is on a chain that’s half a mile long before, they figure out how to get in the doorway.
Let’s get a bit to the nitty gritty of it. The smoke monster, as it roams around the city hunting them, looks kinda cool but definitely has a digital effect to its movement. That being said, when shown in close-up, it’s great. There isn’t much blood throughout (i.e., less then you’d see in a typical television crime drama), but that’s okay because this is more story-oriented.

Being story-driven rather than effects-focused (not that there aren’t SFX, such as the cloud and monster) was a smart move. This brings the person-ability of the two characters more to the forefront, making us care about them. After (no pun intended) seeing so many films filled with blood and guts in graphic detail, it’s nice to see one that is more simplistic in its approach, relying more on what is happening than how it is happening, if that makes any sense.

Except for some trailers to other films (not this one), there are no extras, but I do have one question, and one complaint (what can I tell ya, I’m crotchety). First, the question: what happened to the bus driver after the accident, who is never seen nor mentioned later? It would have been cool if he was the smoke monster, but that’s never really put out there. The complaint is that the incidental music by Tyler Smith is just way too overwrought and emotional Lifetime Television sappy orchestration.

This film was a bit of a eye-opener to me. I didn’t know what to expect from the name or cover, but it certainly came as a pleasant and enjoyable surprise. And there is a bit after the credits, for those who watch those things, as I do.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Review: Bleed

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Directed and edited by Tripp Rhame
Spitfire Studios / Gravitas Ventures / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2016

In an attempt to reach for some originality these days, some features try to combine a bunch of different subgenres together to create something new. Sometimes it fails to work in any of the classifications, let alone a new one. On the other hand, the rare one comes along that takes you by surprise by giving you something that catches your eye and raises an eyebrow.

Bleed definitely falls into that latter group. Director Tripp Rhame takes us on a shady side of rural Atlanta, including a mysterious Civil War-era house (with a round tower – I love those) and a burned down prison, which is actually a real place giving credence to the story and a bona fide creepy vibe, amid its trash and graffiti’d walls. This is especially true when the cast leaves the roofless upper floor, and goes down to the level of the relatively still intact cells.

Couple A
So, a couple (Sarah and Matt, aka Couple A) who are expecting a baby shortly, unknowingly move to a rural area in the south that has some The Wicker Man / Rosemary’s Baby / Grave Encounters vibe secret Satanistic-type sect happening. They are joined by her best friend and new beau (Bree and Dave, or Couple B), and her wayward brother and new (to Couple A) bohemian girlfriend (Eric and Skye: Couple C) for a weekend at the house. I have to say that this is one of the most beautiful cast overall I’ve seen in a while. Not only that, but each of the eight principles have a bubbling under career that is about to pop, and have made some noise in mainstream Hollywood and beyond.

Couple A is Chelsea Crisp (from “Fresh Off the Boat”) and Michael Steger (The Magnificent Seven remake), Couple B comprises Brittany Isibashi (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) and Elimu Nelson (Love Don’t Cost a Thing), and Couple C is made of Lyndon Smith (“Parenthood”) and Riley Smith (“Frequency,” “True Blood,” “Nashville” and the “90210” remake). These are some heavy hitters. And if that wasn’t enough, the local scarred deputy is played by none other than David Yow, more commonly known as the lead singer of the punk band The Jesus Lizard.

As with most films about a group, even in their 30s, the males tend to be a bit on the tool side. One is a stoner who won’t listen when warned by his scared girlfriend, one keeps yelling “boo” and trying to scare his partner in the name of a joke after she asks him to stop, and the third is trying to control his partner through anger and guilt. I must add that on the level of most of the “asshole guys” genre paradigm goes, this one is relatively tame, but there were a few times when I said, out loud, “Really?!” at their behavior. The women are all relatively strong(er) characters – even with one being diagnosed as bi-polar – but part of their problem is that the guys just won’t heed their advice. To the Bro reading this, it’s true that part of the reason why the women in your life insist that they are right is because most of the time they are. If they say they need to leave, go with ‘em. Especially if you’re in this kind of situation… so, let’s continue on with the basic plot:

Rajinda Kala as the vengeful Kane
Learning that there is a prison somewhere in the vicinity that burned down with the inmates still inside in 1979, the men decide to check it out, bringing the women with them. There they run into spookies both of the deceased type and of the local yee-haw cult kind. While some of the horror is telegraphed so you see it coming, it still suffices to say that this is a genuinely creepy film, considering the amount of overused tropes that are employed, such as walking through creepy buildings with flashlights, which is wisely done in small doses at a time, and the torch is not the only light source, a pet peeve of mine (i.e., you can still see peripherally somewhat beyond the beam).

Have to say, the effects are top-notch and creepy as hell (with arguably one exception where the prosthetic didn’t adequately match the source person; not going to give away who), and my only real complaint is about the lighting, that it is a bit dark when we see the physical SFX, which makes it harder to appreciate the incredible handiwork it deserves (might want to back up a bit and use freeze-frame, as I did). There are both appliances and digital at work here, and it’s done quite well and worth the attention you should give it.

Couple C
As these are young but seasoned actors, it should come as no surprise that the method is superb. What’s nice about this kind of film is that the cast has experience, but are still not there yet in their careers where they are holding out for huge paychecks. Some have worked together before; plus, as we learn from the extras (more about that later), the three “couples” bonded and became good friends in the real world, and that camaraderie definitely shows in the final product. They are willing to take chances with their characters in security and trust with/in their fellow thespians.

Even with the few clichés and story parts that come as no surprise, again, this is a nice suspenseful piece that flew by, and has just the right amount of tension to keep you on your toes without becoming wearisome. It’s enjoyable throughout.

The extras are, essentially, a series of fun interviews lasting from five to ten minutes between the lead actors (sans one, though Yow is included to make up for it) and the director; however, there are two of Crisp, who is the lead.

What I find hard to believe is that this is director Rhame’s first feature. He’s been in the business for a while and has his own production company in Georgia. That learning experience shows in this final product. I’m certainly hoping that he continues creating films, and perhaps even gets some wider distribution, because if this is any indication, we have some great stories to watch ahead of us.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: Before I Die

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Before I Die (aka Wake Before I Die)           
Directed by the Jason Freeman and Todd Freeman (aka the Brothers Freeman)
Parade Deck Films / Wooden Frame Productions / Highland International / MVD Visual
112 minutes, 2011 / 2016

I’m a trying to figure something out watching this, through my squinting, concentrating eyes as I focus on what is unfolding before me. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Pastor Dan (Robert McKeehan) and his cheery wife Cindy (Audrey Walker), their sullen young teenage daughter and pre-teen son move to a small town in the Pacific Northwest in Oregon to take over a church (they never say which denomination, and I don’t know why I want to know that, but I do). Soon after they get there they are put in charge of troublesome teenage Sally (Nouel Riel) to keep her away from her stereotypically cinematic JD, (literally) greasy headed and leather jacketed boyfriend, Mark (Joshua St. James). He sneeringly warns Dan that he’s going see Sally no matter what the Pastor says or does. This does not bode well. From the way he looks, I was expecting him to break into the song, ”Greased Lightning.”

A pattern starts to emerge here, and from just watching the trailer or reading the text on the back of the box, the trope becomes clear, and it is a common one: Family – especially when it’s a religious person of some sort – moves to a remote part of the US (or the world for that matter), and sure enough there is some kind of killing cult, be it for Kali, Christ (or an abominated version), or dedicated to some creature / demon / devil-spawn / Satan. What comes just off the top of my head is The Wicker Man (1973) and Black Noon (1971), though the number of these films is legion.

This starts as a very slow story, seeming to have some issue with getting its feet on the ground to get some momentum. The acting is mostly fine, and cinemagraphically it certainly looks good, but the writing is plodding and could use some serious editing and honing down, a complaint I have with many releases that are directed by the same person or people who write it. A critical, third-party eye is really what is needed. For example, one character warns Dan, “Strange people dream strange dreams, Pastor. Even about others…Some people are prone to believe such things here because this is a place where such things can be true. Don’t dig down too deep, Pastor, you might not like what lives down there.” It could have been written by the Department of Redundancy Department; at the very least the script needs a good Thesaurus.

Nearly half way through the film (about 50 minutes in), other than the ominous overtones of Mark’s character, it’s hard to tell there’s anything really wrong, except for the sountrack music’s ominous overtones (see: redundant).

The Pastor, Robert McKeehan
Which leads me to my previous squinting and pondering: I’m trying to figure out who is the good/bad guys, whether the goody-goody Pastor may really be a cultist, if the bad boy may turn out to be a hero (again, this is written just before the half-way point of the film), or perhaps the cult itself is leaning towards the light or dark; this is all information the viewer still has not been given any serious hints at yet. What I’m trying to say is that I’m trying to scope the tone of the film, whether it’s a pro-Jeebus screed or just a good guys-vs-bad guys one. All we know is the Pastor has some serious weird vibes coming from the janitor for some reason we’re not really given privy to yet, other than said janitor giving some seemingly stinkeye in his direction. Now, I also admit, that all this red herring-ness can be a good thing, setting up for a swticheroo of cognitive dissonance in a Robert Ludlum kind of intrigue, which is what I am hoping for in the long run.

In another example of WTF writing, however, Il Pastoro finds a storeroom full of canned food and supplies stockpiled, while on a wall there is the now classic newspaper-clippings-with-strings-connecting-them, a trope that’s been used to show conspiracy theories since at least A Beautiful Mind (2001). The Pastor orders someone, “Don’t tell anyone about this until we know what’s going on…” and the other person says, “…I’ll change this lock.” Err… wouldn’t that let the person who put it up know someone saw it, ruining the secret that they’re on to him/her? Jeebus!

Now there is a murder scene that happens (don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything away) with some beautiful editing overlapping the murder and the events after, which in itself would make a great short, but honestly it drags down the film as a whole, as it takes nearly 10 minutes when it could have been shown in just a few. This is an example of what I mean by the excess that could be edited. Yes, it looks great, and I’m sure it would have been a heartbreak for the directors to snip it down, but really, it’s out of place and takes too much time, no matter how beautiful it looks.

The third acts picks up the pace quite a bit, with few surprises, but still satisfying in the who-is-the-good/bad guys and what is going on. The ending is a bit of an anticlimax, but the film still has a decent 20 minutes in it towards the end. The story is based on the book My Soul to Take, which is written by Dale Freeman, the father of the directors/writers of this film. That does explain the lack of desire to excise. Transferring from book to film is hard enough, but when you’re doing your own dad’s work into another medium? I don’t envy that.

Still, despite the beauty of the look of some of the film in editing and lighting, it still goes on too long. Much of the acting is also a bit dicey and wooden here and there, especially the unengaging lead who seems to mostly sleepwalk through his role relying more on a wholesome look, with an occasional brow roll or eye squint to show emotion. Walker is warmer, and seems to embody the role of her character of the Pastor’s wife much better.

Without giving away too much, part of the problem is that the cult doesn’t really have a focus, other than being a group of non-Believers (and they – shock! – dress in black, wear frilly party masks, and drink alcohol), bringing us to the realization that this picture is a Christian-pointed release with a literal Amen at the end. That alone might drive off some off (and bring others into the film’s…err…flock), but that is not what got under my skin, even though I am not a Believer (thank God); rather it was the poor writing and monotonic acting from an unexcited/unexciting lead.

To top it off, the only extra other than the chapters is a full-length commentary by the Brothers Freeman that is, at best, mostly as undefined as the story, meandering and not giving much to enlighten the tone or help with the conclusion. All in all, the film is a solid meh.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review: Creature Lake (Gitaskog)

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Creature Lake [aka Gitaskog]
Directed by Drazen Baric
BaricFilms Productions / SlevinArts /
Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
80 minutes, 2016 / 2017

I kinda like the sentiments behind this film a lot, which is: respect the land and its guardians. In a time when the government is bullying aboriginal people for their own profits with pipelines and possibly making the area uninhabitable, there is a meta-message here.

Ivan Simanic
We meet five friends who are total greedy tools, not to mention racists (“C’mon, we were just joking…” types) that take a trip into the deep woods “up north” (this Canadian release was filmed near Mississauga, Ontario, which is just outside Toronto). It seems one of them, Jason (Ivan Simanic), has plans to build vacation houses around a lake that is sacred to the local indigenous people. Of course they don’t care about them; it’s the ka-ching that is their focus. They have no problems alienating the locals at a diner, and hell, they even turn on their one black friend Conrad (Brandon Dhue), all in good fun. Yeah, they’re douches.

For example, during a drunken night by the fire, when not insulting their only Black companion, one whines that “Women are never satisfied.” Yeah, if you say that, there is a reason why that is true, and it’s because of you, not them. But it’s important that they be douches for the story, so they can become fodder for both the titular lake creature, and the natives who have no patience (and rightfully so) for those who have no respect for their beliefs to a killer entity, echoing a theme from the overrated Jug Face (2013).

So there are a few elements here that take on other current films, such as the cabin in the woods, and, sadly, the overused found footage motif. If I may be permitted a brief rant here, please, if there is no end to this format, can we at least have a moratorium for a year or two? Found footage is so passé already, though there is a nice spoof here of the snot scene from the granddaddy of this style, The Blair Witch Project (1999; I’ve referenced this so much lately, I even know the year without looking it up).

Anyway, getting back to the meat of the matter, I’m grateful that the guys are their own age, rather than trying to pass them off as teens or college students, as is so often the case with the cabin in the woods trope.

As is typical, not much happens in the first half of the film, other than a cameo by Miss Canada of 2010, Elena Semikina, though to be fair there are two or three good moments that lead up to the fate that awaits.

Some of the effects (mostly digital) are pretty good, and the creature looks great. When it makes its appearance toward the end, it’s kind of worth the wait, even though it’s short. Plus there is a disappearing nude woman and a younger (dressed) one that they do the dark eyes and stretched mouth that has been used often, if I’m correct, starting with Grave Encounters (2011). You can see it in the trailer below.

Speaking of the creature, the original name of the film is Gitaskog, which is actually a real First Nations (the Canadian term for Native Americans) name for a tentacled lake creature (HERE); it seems to be more common to find indigenous names for beasties in films lately, such as with Stomping Ground (2014, which dealt with a Bigfoot). 

One of my big gripes about found footage films that seem to be somewhat consistent is that the cameras never seem to run out of juice, the way guns keep firing in old westerns. These guys are at a cabin/shack with no electricity for three days, run their cameras often during that time, and yet my camera dies after a couple of hours. Suspension of disbelief? I have less trouble with a fantastical tentacled lake creature than I do with dubious camera power. What does that say about me?

I found it amusing that during the introduction of the characters at the beginning, one of them, Todd (Greg Carraro) has a strong Canadian accent (yes, that is a thing), though it’s not really present during the rest of the film. Not a complaint in any kind of way, just a bemused observation.

As found footage films go, this is better than most I’ve seen recently, even with the running through the woods shots (at least it’s during the day and not at night by the camera’s light, or worse, the green “night vision” effect). There is no sadness in the loss of these guys, as they don’t endear themselves to the viewer at all, but that did not hurt the story. I would have liked to have seen the First Nations characters be more sympathetic, to explain why they were doing their actions, but that kind of gets lost (possibly because we are seeing it literally through the eyes/lens of the five-some).

Also, I found it interesting that some of these guys are dispatched by the gitaskog, and some by the creature’s guardians, giving it a more human touch. But there are questions I have, of course. One is, what is the purpose of the younger woman spirit that keeps popping up? The naked woman (siren) makes sense at first, but in later appearances, further from the lake, it’s of more questionable purpose. And lastly for now – and this is more an observation than a question – this is the second found footage film I’ve seen this month where the guy with the camera keeps focusing in on his (female) partner’s ass.

The extras are a nice collection of Wild Eye Releasing trailers (including for this film), and a nearly three-minute slideshow of drawings that would eventually become the titular creature.

As found footagers go, as I said, this one is decent and the effects are well done, so you might get a hoot out of it. Since the acting is pretty respectable and naturalistic, considering this is the only listing for most of the cast on IMDB, that’s also a bonus. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a nice way to spend a rainy/snowy weekend afternoon.