Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: Conspiracy Theory

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

Conspiracy Theory [aka Lake on Fire]
Directed and edited by Jake Myers
Team Octagon / Ruthless Films / MVD Visual
79 minutes, 2016

The biggest complaint about the recent Paranormal Activity film series (starting in 2007) is not that it’s in the found footage genre, but rather that it takes way too long for anything of interest to happen. Arguably, a similar comment can be made about the granddaddy/-mommy of modern found footage, The Blair Witch Project (1999).

This waaaaaaait for it… aspect has been a key element of found footage since Project, at least. It’s annoying and pointless, and fills out a film to full length when it could have been a very comfortable 20-minute short (or even less). Some recent examples include The Purging Hour (2015) and The Devil’s Forest (2016, aka The Devil Complex). There definitely are ones that are enjoyable, like The Changing of Ben Moore (2015), but they are rare, and more so over time.

Rather than just a bunch of jocks/couples taping for no other reason than to film and accidentally capturing the mysterious whatever, this release has a premise: we meet the film crew to a “reality” cable show on the Mystery Channel called “Alien Engineers,” which posits that many of our modern structures, such as Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead are constructs that use technology given to humans by the “grays.”

Ben Kobold
Leading this fivesome is its host, the heavily orange-skinned spray-tanned Bjorn Eriksson (Ben Kobold), along with the rest being his crew (cameras and sound), including the loony Britney Big Time (Jennifer Mills), the sensible Jamie Bragg (Jamie Mackie), the angry Brian (Brian Schroeck), and non-descript Brock (director Jake Myers). We watch them as they go to the locations I mentioned above, and most of them, well, acting like jerks both while the show is taping, and especially when just filming each other – and in Britney’s case, often herself(ies) while frequently sticking her tongue out.

To begin, let me discuss the good points, because there are a few. First of all, they nail the whole guerilla filmmaking down pretty well, as Bjorn interviews scientists and “man on the street” types, and manages to put words in everyone’s mouths, claiming that they were the ones that said it (reminding me of the more recent Melissa McCarthy SNL Sean Spicer spoofs). Bjorn keeps trying to goad interviewees into saying something controversial that is alien-related; or interrupts often like Charlie Rose, but more to “shock,” like Geraldo Rivera. This is both goofy and enjoyable to watch, as the people squirm, or are often bemused by it all, taking it in good fun.

Which brings me to another decent aspect, which is that there is a fine mixture of real people mixed with fictional characters, and sometimes it’s not always easy to tell one from the other, playing with story’s credibility in a fun way. For example, TD Barnes, who actually worked in Area 51 and has appeared in other films as himself, is questioned, much to his amusement, as Bjorn turns everything he says into something alien. Actors Scott Butler and David Liebe Hart also play themselves in cameos.

The tricky part is many of the other roles are people whose names are very similar to their real ones, such as Andrzej Stratos (played by Andy Seifer), Rizza Villalobos (Rizza Abrera; in case you miss it, the character’s name is “Wolf House”), and Erika Miller (Erika Michaels). My favorite ones are twins Toni and Traci Von Daniken, portrayed by twins Toni Van Laarhoven and Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers (I’m guessing a relation of the director). By the way, I checked, and Erick Von Daniken only had a single daughter, but I don’t know about grandkids. And, of course, there’s the difference between Van and Von.

Jennifer Mills
So, while those points are quite intriguing, ultimately the film fails overall for one basic and nearly constant reason: there is way too much filler crap with nothing to add to the story. For example, I really don’t need or care to see extended scenes of drinking in a hotel room bathroom or on the street, nor the crew gambling at a casino. One of the worst, though, was a third of the way in, as we travel along in a car with the crew while for long minutes Bjorn/Ben and Britney/Jennifer (good thing she’s cute) make up some ridiculous song about butt fisting; in the credits, it’s listed as “Fuck Town.” It’s not the rap per se, but just the sheer waste of time of it all as, again, it does absolutely nothing for the story.

It seems like a large part of the film is mostly a travelogue of home movies that doesn’t really mean or add up to anything, including character development. It’s almost like the crew (who are obviously friends as most have made other films together) wanted to go to Nevada on a trip, and figured if they made some kind of story about it, they could write off the expenses. While they seem to be having fun, it didn’t really transfer well to the audience (okay, to me; I’m not gonna talk for the rest). By the time of the rap, I was getting pissed with all the unnecessary bullshit.

I don’t think it’s going to take a rocket scientist (or extraterrestrial) to figure out by the end, at some point, it’s going to be a case of be careful what you wish for because it may come true. I won’t divulge the final moments, but the general idea is not only easy to figure out, well, just look at the image on the box or watch the trailer fer chrissake.

There is a kind of conspiracy theory going on, but whether it’s by the aliens or humans is left up to the viewer. The last 20 minutes or so are…okay, with about 10 interesting minutes here and there, but by far the best parts of this film are the interviews.

The only extras are the chapters. That’s okay, because I don’t think I would actually want to hear a full length commentary, or a Making Of featurette, since the nearly the entire film is actually the latter. Can we please have a moratorium on found footage now?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review: Lake Eerie

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

Lake Eerie                              
Directed by Chris Majors
Savage Beast Films / Solid Weld Productions /
FilmRise / Gravitas Ventures / MVD Visual
103 minutes, 2016 / 2017

Let me start of by stating that the name of this film is brilliant, and I wonder why I’ve never heard of anyone else using it. Kudos on that!

When I think of Lake Erie, I tend to think of the New York end of it, having so many friends along it’s east shore. In actuality, the Great Lake touches on four states (not counting Ontario to the north): Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. It is the latter, in the town of La Salle, where this was both filmed and takes place (in the family-owned domicile of the director). It’s a huge house just off the lake, in this story recently bought through a repossession auction by a young woman who has moved off the farm to forget the recent death of her husband. Having been abandoned and untouched since 1969 when its previous dashing anthropologist owner mysteriously disappeared, it gives the widow, Kate (Meredith Majors, the director’s spouse who also wrote the screenplay), a way to start over and get some therapy through painting (and a large amount of prescription pills apparently, considering the number she downs in the course of a few days).

Meredith Majors
Soon after she is given the keys by the realtor (Marilyn Ghigliotti, who rose to some fame as the female lead in Kevin Smith’s overrated 1994 debut, Clerks), most people in the area have already packed up from the Lake for the season (i.e., post-Labor Day). That is, except for the nice lady who lives a few doors down, Eliza (Betsy Baker, who will forever be associated as the demonically laughingLinda in 1981’s classic The Evil Dead). I quickly got the heebie-jeebies about her, just from the constant use of her calling Kate “Dear.” Not a good thing for a neighbor in a horror flick having to do with spirits and demons (1968’s Rosemary’s Baby comes to mind).

Sadly, this “tell” is endemic to the writing of the film, which makes questionable moves throughout, even when trying to strike some originality. More on that later. Kate makes many, many, questionable choices. For example, on the first night, she is on the main floor and sees a huge and unknown man (Allen Sarvin, better known as wrestler Al Snow, who has been making quite a nice dip into the indie horror film market) in a cowl and cape in her living room, and does she run out the door, which is rightthere? No, she runs into the kitchen to grab a long knife, high-tails it up the stairs, and then takes a pill and promptly goes to sleep to have a sex dream about her husband and another woman. In the morning light, does she contact the police? No, she goes on with her day calmly and has some muffins with Eliza. Whaaaaaaaaaaa?!?

Annemijn Nieuwkoop
I won’t go into much more of the story, as this is all still the first act, which ends with the introduction of Eliza’s niece, Autumn (Danish actress Annemijn Nieuwkoop, who also goes by Anne Leigh Cooper), who is obsessed with Harrison (director Chris Majors), the archeologist who used to own the joint.

There are some definite issues with the story, which is quite lackadaisical in its approach. I mean, if you need to grab a kitchen knife two nights in a row (your first two nights) – once because of the big dude and another after a nekkid woman (Victoria Johnstone) rises from the lake and goes into your house – and then you go speed upstairs and fall asleep after taking pills, rather than getting leaving the house – even after a kinder spirit tells you that you are in danger and to get out…twice – then it’s hard to feel some kind of empathy for that character.

Lance Henriksen
It’s nice that the story tries to throw the “Is it real or in her head?” motif, which always is a fun twist. Here, we are given that by the appearance of Kate’s Pop (legendary Lance Henriksen, who pretty much sleepwalks through his one scene, and still manages to steal it), who wants her to come back to the farm because he thinks she needs help. Actually, what Kate needs is, well to be honest, acting lessons. This is Meredith’s (since both star/writer and director have the same last name, I will be impertinent and use the first) initial starring film role, and she does not seem to be up for the task. She looks cute in an everywoman kind of way with a smack of a Jane Alexander vibe, but her acting is, well, wooden. I’m betting she’d be fine in a best friend or neighbor role, but she cannot carry a film on her own at this point in her career. What I mean by that is that she looks like she is wincing when trying to emote, and you can almost see her thinking (i.e., pausing too long) between showing a feeling or speaking a line.

Betsy Baker
But she’s not the only one, to be fair. Most of the cast seems to be polar opposites in either being in a daze or a bit over the top, such as Nieuwkoop; though to be fair, the part written for her is as an avid fan of the previous owner who disappeared before she was even born, though she comes across more as a chipper and giddy teenaged-level cheerleader than a true scholarly researcher as she claims. Again, you can tell from the dialog part of this is definitely how the role was designed. She’s kind of the reverse of Henriksen’s underplayed role. I do have to say, that despite the “dear” business, Baker comes off the most competent (and I’m not saying that because she’s exactly two days older than me), although the role itself is clich├ęd.

There are few surprises in the story, including the conclusion, but for me the biggest problem here is in the editing of the text. I’ve said this a number of times regarding other films as well: rather than being well over an hour and a half, it would have behooved the writer and director to narrow it down to about 80 minutes. Considering the long stretches where nothing really important to the story happens, this could have been done with no ill effect on the plotline (please, if you can’t do text chopping, give your ego a rest and call in someone who can!). Yet with all that extra time, there are still plot questions that arise that haven’t been answered.

For example, if you’re dealing with an eternal ancient Egyptian underworld/eitherworld, why are the guardians/demons dressed in modern clothing, rather than galabeyas at the least? I mean, I have my own from when I visited Egypt back in ’93, so shouldn’t the snake-eyed guardians of that place have them as well? Also, on a feminist perspective, considering this was written by a woman, why is the only nude scene a woman, and not including Kate’s husband? These were just two of the many questions that ran through my head during watching the film.

The only DVD extras are chapters and English Captions (always a fave of mine). And yet, the nagging question that remains at the end is, surprising to me as hopeful, will there be a sequel called The Eerie Canal?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: The Evil Within

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

The Evil Within [aka The Storyteller]           
Written and directed by Andrew Getty
Supernova, LLC / The Writers Studio Inc. / Vision Films
98 minutes, 2002 / 2017

What would you do if you had large funds and wanted to direct a horror film? Add to that, you’ve written a script that has a mix of some old ideas infused with some unusual visions thanks to a mind riddled by years of a methamphetamine addition? Andrew Getty was in this fairly rare situation and started this project in 2002, which didn’t see an outlet until this year, two years after Getty’s death in 2015 from a mixture of an ulcer-related gastrointestinal hemorrhage, and a toxic level of meth (thanks to Producer Michael Luceri, who saw the project to completion).

Literature, especially during the 19th Century, often had characters whose inner voice was way more sophisticated than the person speaking them. A perfect example is 7-year-old Pip in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, where the youth speaks in grammatically perfect English while everyone else speaks colloquially. I am guessing / assuming / presuming that Getty may have felt a bit like that while under the influence: the ranting of a drug fueled brain while probably feeling like he was making sense, yet not understanding why others could not see what he saw. This story and film would have been a way to express that, and as from what I’ve read from various sources, Getty had a history of bad dreams, the tripwire on which this film lies.

Michael Berryman (L.) and Frederick Koehler (R.)
Dennis (Frederick Koehler) is a man whose inner voice is one of intelligence, keen observation, and fury, while outwardly he is mentally challenged. He is being cared for by his older brother John (Sean Patrick Flannery), who is well-meaning, but lacks patience and sensitivity for Dennis beyond his own needs after caring for him so many years, and not realizing the weight of the PTSD of guilt. Yet he is truly concerned about Dennis and is adamant to take care of him rather than have him go to a facility run by the State. Though his intentions are essentially good, this brings him on the negative side of some people, such as Mildy (Kim Darby!), an overzealous social case worker who wants to yank Dennis out of John’s fraternal grip.

Sean Patrick Flannery
We are introduced to Dennis through his inner voice, as he relates bad dreams he’s had since he was a mere wisp of a boy, mostly involving a demon named Cadaver (Michael Berryman) and a more newly introduced mirror that may reflect evil. Mirrors as a trope for a window for malevolence certainly isn’t new, and was even used as recently as in the 2013 Oculus. Psychologically, it is also a “window” to one’s deep self, and that is what a large part of this film plays on, specifically how much is external and to what level internal.

Often, the viewer sees Dennis having conversations with his image in the glass, his “true” self a mental and physically slow man, and his “reflection” a balanced, intelligent and violent personification of Cadaver, who we also see in the background, or somewhere in a reflection of a reflection as Mirror Dennis has Body Dennis point the new mirror to face one on the wall, giving unlimited and not always duplicated images. This is a theme that runs through the whole film.

As much as this is a horror film, with a demonic creature influencing the living and infirmed, there is also a strong thriller level. Since we see Dennis slipping in and out of the Body and Mirror versions of himself in single camera shots, the audience is left to wonder if Mirror Dennis is all in Body Dennis’ physically damaged mind. Even with some of the weirder, supernatural things that happen, you’re bound to wonder if it’s a dream of Body Dennis, all in his cranium, or is there really something sinister going on in a supernatural plane.

Dina Meyer
Adding to the family tension is John’s girlfriend, Lydia (Dina Meyer), who is left in the dark on John’s refusal to let Dennis go, rather than settling down with her to a life of wedded bliss. And Dennis has a crush on Susan, the cutie at the ice cream store (Brianna Brown, who really knows how to facially go from stunning to creepy in a nice turn), who of course is incredibly out of his league). The three key women in the film have almost no contact with each other, and this would certainly fail the Bechdel Test, but at least the women – even Mildy – come across as caring rather than shrill, albeit heteronormatively stereotypical.

Other than the cast, many of whom have had decent careers both before and/or after the shooting (e.g., Meyer was just off of Starship Troopers, Darby has a long track record, and Brown would go on to be a key player in General Hospital and Devious Minds; even Koehler started out as the kid in the sit-com Kate and Allie), it’s easy to see that a majority of the $X millions that went into this film was used for the SFX. Don’t get me wrong, it looks good enough to be a theatrical release, rather than a direct-to-digital one.

Brianna Brown
The post-Getty’s demise editing alone, by Luceri and Michael Palmerio, is eye-catching, such as when we are introduced to Mildy talking to John; the angle keeps changing as the camera zooms around them. Beyond that, the SFX are pretty creepy, and when there is some gore, it looks sharp.

Speaking of the cast, everyone does really well, beyond what you would expect for a b-film, but that’s not surprising considering the pedigree of actors, right down the line. Pluto… I mean Berryman, who is completely covered in green body paint, looks menacing, but I felt that he was underused, mostly in the background to – err – reflect what the Mirror Dennis actually looks like, or possibly the evil side of Body Dennis’ soul, anyway.

The story of Dennis’ past, which I won’t divulge in a spoiler, kind of gives credence to the anger he would feel and the deep level behind Mirror Dennis’ bitterness. This is a nice touch; again I believe reflecting on the director’s own dabbling experiences. However, there definitely are some holes in the story and certain things left me scratching my head.

Even so, it’s an enjoyable film to watch. It’s a shame Getty never got the chance to do more, and we’ll never see what he could have accomplished. Stay off drugs kids, or this could happen to you!!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Parasites

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

Written, produced and directed by Chad Ferrin
Crappy World Films
81 minutes, 2017

“Living in a jungle, it ain’t so hard /
Living in a city, it’ll eat out, eat out your heart.”
- The Heartbreakers (Thunders not Petty) [HERE

Nothing makes me happier (well, perhaps that’s an overstatement) than a film title that can be seen in multiple ways. As for this film, I’ll be getting to that in a bit.

Three college jock-types are roaming around the big bad city and get lost. Not a good thing, especially in the neighborhood in which they’ve landed. Now, get your mind out of the National Lampoon’s Vacation view of Detroit, this area of Los Angeles is not colorblind, but it is certainly greenback poor. The key word there is poor, and then add in homelessness and frustration-fueled anger… that’s a volatile mix in an indie screen world.

The three dudes, including Sean Samuels as Marshall (middle)
As the dudes drive around, getting deeper into the vicinity, they make comments about the homeless they see like, “Give them a broom to clean that shit up,” and sarcastically, “Look! That one has a cell phone!” We’re definitely not dealing with liberal-leaners, but a Trump squad mentality. Then, they run over something and get a flat. And that is where the story really takes off.

In an updated idea right out of Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), they are confronted by a mob of homeless men (and one woman) who don’t take kindly to strangers in their neighborhood, such as it is. It quickly escalates, and before you know it, one of the trio, Marshall (Sean Samuels) is running down the street nekkid in fear for his life, with a band of bums out to even the social score a little bit.

Okay, that’s about as far as I’ll give in details to the plot (the box and trailer below give similar info, so I’m not divulging too much). The patriarchal leader of the mob is Wilko (Robert Miano) who exudes anger, hate and racism beautifully. The problem with Wilko is a human one rather than merely of poverty: he is a narcissist who blames others for his own actions. One could argue that he is a product of having nothing left but ego, but I could also see that it could be part of what brought him to that level in the first place. In this case, his actions have left a witness, and he has to deal with it. As the de facto leader of our not-so-merry troupe, he brings the other street people with him to clean up, as it were.

Robert Miano as Wilco
While they are (nearly all) men of the streets, they are strong, but can they deal with Marshall, who is a quarterback in top physical shape? Quick to adapt, he does what he needs to survive, as he becomes the focus of a distorted version of The Warriors, without the fancy costumes and catchy dialogue. He has no choice but to come on out and play as he is hunted down by the urban version of the backwoods mob. It becomes a question of how does one win against a group that has nothing to lose.

The added social commentary is as Marshall becomes more and more identified as a homeless person, wearing their clothes, limping from a wound and covered in blood; being African-American in this case especially demonizes him as “Other.” He becomes a target not only of his hunters, but of the very people that he was accused by the gangly group of being in the first place, one who targets the homeless with paintballs and flame by people his own age who are slumming and looking to burn off some political incorrectness.

Joseph Pilato as Wilde
One of the standout roles here is a drunken ex-soldier, Wilde, a homeless man who is at odds with Wilco, played with great dexterity by Joseph Pilato. If you need clarity, he was the asswipe army leader, Rhodes, in Day of the Dead (1985) who famously gets ripped in half by a mob of zombies. He definitely proves here that he’s got acting talent.

For me, one of the rare disingenuous moments is a scene depicting how the mentally ill get released to the streets (the “droppin’ the kid off at the pool” bit). I know that after Geraldo Rivera’s “Willowbrook” expose in 1972, a lot of the psychologically infirmed were booted out of mental facilities which then closed their doors, but this seems more like fiction. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, because what the hell do I know from my privileged white male position, but it didn’t feel right, somehow. Hopefully.

As the athletic Marshall runs for his life, he meets Wilco’s diminishing band of followers, who seem to meet up with Marshall one at a time, forcing his hand to do things he probably never would have believed himself capable. But does that make him culpable? The effects of these actions are done with practical SFX, which are nicely handled (even with the lack of continuity of the absence of blood on a recently used rake)

This film is definitely testosterone fueled, as there are only two women in the entire cast, being one of the followers (Suzanne Sumner Ferry) and a prostitute (Silvia Spross); as a side note, both Ferry and Spross also appeared with Miano in the television series “Sangre Negra.” Sure, some of the guys are just there to kick ass in a pissing contest against Marshall, but as the numbers dwindle, the remaining ones begin show some sense. Whether that is good for them or not in the story, I won’t say.

Getting back to what I meant at the beginning by the meaning of Parasite, the film actually asks the audience to think about exactly whom the term refers. Is it the street people, who certainly those of a Republican bent (in the present political environment) would see as living off the teat of society without giving anything back, or the Bourgeoisie college students who use the homeless as paintball target practice because they deem the homeless lives as worthless?

The music is quite minimalist and stunningly stirring, especially the folk-laden tunes like “House of the Rising Sun” and “In the Pines,” mostly sung by the cast, such as Miano and Samuels.

The film is actually quite effective and engaging, well shot, and the acting is quite good. Even the over the top moments (such as Wilko shouting, “I’m gonna kill ya dead!”) are not played to the point of making the viewer wince, but keeps one in the moment. The story will probably retain the viewers’ interest throughout (I did for me), as Marshall literally runs around the empty streets of Los Angeles fending for his life. The ending is effective, albeit predictable, considering the zeitgeist of the film’s tone and story direction. It’s a worthy viewing.