Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Bloodsucker’s Handbook

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

Bloodsucker’s Handbook [aka Enchiridion]
Written, shot, directed and edited by Mark Beal
Trenchfoot Productions / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
81 minutes, 2012 / 2017

Just to get it outta da way, an Enchiridion (the original name of the film) is the Latin term for a primer, or handbook. Personally, changing the title to its present name was a wise choice. “Bloodsucker” is bound to come up in a genre keyword search more than that. Hell, I have a Master’s and had to look it up.
Cory W. Ahre
The story, which takes place at the end of the 1960s, is essentially broken up into two segments. At the first, it’s almost like a joke: “A guy walks into a bar…” Here we are introduced to the main protagonist, a campus minister (priest) named Father Gregory (Cory W. Ahre, who looks a lot like Kyle Mooney from “Saturday Night Live”). He’s a bit slovenly, wearing an oversized gray suit jacket over his collar and black shirt, and his hair is shoulder length and a bit scraggly. He also smokes and drinks, so you know he’s going to be conflicted about whatever is coming his way; after all, this is a genre film. Did you see The Exorcist? But I digress…

A mysterious Federal government agent enlists him to talk to a prisoner, the titular bloodsucker named simply Condu (Jeremy Herrera) – perhaps meaning “conduction,” for the passing along of an evil current? He has apparently been writing the “handbook” of the history of vampires in Latin (why not Romanian?), starting of course with good ol’ Vlad the Impaler (aka Vlad Dracul). There is a question of whether or not Condu actual is Vlad. Gregory is also asked to translate the book.

As a sorta sidebar, Vampire teeth seem to fall into two categories: there are the classic large incisors a la Dracula, and then the Nosferatu-ish extended and sharp two front teeth. This film plays with both. While Condu’s lean towards the Nosferatu (though all uppers seem to be big and sharp), other children of the night have the more Dracula-like choppers. Mixing it up seems like a smart way to handle that.

As for the other vampire tropes, well the story wants to keep with the legend, but bends the rules just a bit. For example, crosses, sunlight, holy water, dirt from graves, and blood-drinking of course, all are employed. However, what they leave off is that vampires are shape-shifters, and can turn into animals such as wolves or bats, or even mist. Of course, that would not work with this story as Condu is chained up in some dark room, so that’s conveniently (and rightfully) left out.

Gregory and Condu seem to hit it off, as we see them in cat-and-mouse dialogues that actually are quite interesting and decently written. While the acting is questionable at times (more on that later), the story manages to hold the film together, along with the other… stuff.

Jeremy Hererra
This interaction leads to the second half of the film where Condu is out has escaped, and the hunter-hunted takes the storyline beyond the verbal into the physical, as Condu tries to get his book back and Gregory searches for the mysterious Edie (Jessica Bell). She is seemingly an ex-girlfriend, though the Father seems to have conflicting issues between religion and lust.

As polar opposite stories like to point out, well as conflict we also see that both Gregory and Condu have some similar issues, mainly with drinking, as one sucks at hard alcohol, the other the sticky red liquid of life. Both have a strong desire towards their fluids, but they also have a kind of detachment to it, as well – even though Condu is probably more self-honest about the need.

What I meant earlier by stuff is the framework of the film. Mark Beal makes some interesting artistic choices that take it to another level. For example, the second half is almost a noir mystery, with a wild jazz score and a private eye named Valentine. And here is only part of why I said stuff: Valentine is a stop-motion dog puppet (literally) in a jacket. He is a “loyal” – err – puppet (figuratively) of the Gregory side. On the Condu end, there is a stop-motion puppet baboon (both nicely created by Richard Svennson).

Animals play a big part in the film. For example, many of the bars that are visited either are named for them (especially birds), but also have them inside the establishments, such as a flamingo. Then there is the whole subplot about toad licking (which we get to witness), reminding me of a Mason Williams poem. This is all part of a surrealism that crops up regularly.

Now, most of the time surrealism is used, it is so symbolic that its meaning can get lost. For this film, well, sure you could ask why a dog or baboon, but generally speaking the surrealism doesn’t get so far out there that it become opaque, for which I’m grateful. Other examples include using stop-motion dolls to play out Vlad’s history, or the use of angles and jump cuts to make it just a bit jarring at times. The use of lighting is really interesting and stands out in a good way. Yes, it’s a bit distracting, but it also raises the film to a higher plane. It’s this feature, as well as the story, that rises above the acting issues I was discussing earlier. But even that over-the-top-ness seems to work for this because of the sporadic surreal nature. That being said, even with all the issues, Ahre comes across as likeable, and Herrera makes a compelling foil, nicely working with the large teeth rather than tripping over them (impressive for a first film, I might add).

Extras include about 8 minutes of some meh bloopers and a feature-length commentary track. Normally I would whine if there are many speakers on a single one, and here there are the director, four key players and a crew member. But everyone seems to be respectful of others so there is no taking over and showboating, and even better is that not only are there interesting anecdotes about the filming, we get to hear what the actors thought was happening. Better still, we get to hear the director/writer discuss his own ideas. In a film like this, that can be crucial in helping to fill in story blanks (I had a couple that were satisfied).

Filmed in Bryan-College Station, Texas (about 90 miles north of Houston), we see both the sunny and darker sides (alleys, etc.) of the area, representing both Gregory and Condu, relatively speaking. While this is an obviously micro-budget film, and it certainly has its issues, I do have to say it kept my interest throughout. A pleasant surprise, I really enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the interplay between its two lead characters. Worth checking out on a rainy weekend.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: American Mummy (3D)

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

American Mummy (3D) [aka Aztec Blood]
Directed by Charles Pinion
TX-2 Productions / Fusion / Inferential Pictures
Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2014 / 2017

I have absolutely no doubt that this film, originally titled Aztec Blood a few short years ago, is being rereleased under its new title because of the re-tick of The Mummy series with the diminutive Tom Cruise. If he find out, will he dance in his undies to “We take those old films off the shelf / Rename them to promote ourselves…”?

Tezcalipoca mask
Honestly, I have no problem with any indie, low-budget film doing that (though it may be irksome if a major did it). The possible problem I do see with this, though, is part of me is wondering if it smacks of appropriation. This is supposed to be about finding a remanence of an Aztec culture, a civilization pretty much wiped out through European intrusion in the 16th century (I suggest reading James Michener’s excellent and massive centuries-spanning 1992 tome, Mexico). In this case it’s regarding a god named Tezcalipoca and of… well, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be the mummy of Tezzy himself or one of his priests The latter would actually make more sense considering Tezzy was one of the four creators of the world; it’s nice they made a film about him rather than the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, another of the four who gets way more coverage.

Suzeiy Block
Anyway, this film should be noted as one of the few I’ve seen to have two prologues that set up the story, which is, essentially that an archeological class from Monroe College (thank goodness they didn’t use the overdone Miskatonic name) is out in the desert somewhere on a excavation, which I’m assuming a Southwestern state considering the film’s title [The director, Charles Pinion, wisely pointed out post-publication that: "Regarding 'American,' I'd like to flip that to the presumption of 'American' only including the United States. Mexico is in fact on the American continent. United States' imperialism (the name Monroe College alludes to the Monroe Doctrine) is central to the under-arching theme, if you will. They find something, they claim it, and they plant a flag there."], after a couple of students come across said mummy. The dig is led by the totally inept Professor Jensen (Suzeiy Block), so it’s a good thing she’s cute; had a boss like that once, but I digress…

Of course, there’s that one student – in films like this anyway – that has an ulterior motive: Carmen (Esther Cantana) is trying to raise the mummy using an ancient Aztec book of the dead. At this point it may be worth noting that there are a bunch of themes used from other films, such as the cabin in the woods/camping in deserted areas tropes, of course the mummy series, and mostly the Evil Dead (1981). Another to add on could be the viral zombie mini-apocalypse, or even Bava’s Demons (1985) and [*Rec] (2007). One could argue for The Thing (1982), but I would disagree due to lack of shape-shifting.

Erin Condry
I will applaud that they do try to build up some context through exposition of the characters, rather than them being merely fodder. Yet it’s still tough to feel deep sympathy, never mind empathy, for most of the characters, though I did for at least one named Connie (Erin Condry, who I’m pretty sure I’ve seen elsewhere in a genre pic that’s not listed on IMDB).

That’s not to say there isn’t a certainly level of accuracy about the characters. I mean, I’ve been to a few academic conferences, and there is a lot of hooking up and abuse of substances that goes on in that world, never mind in the middle of nowhere. In films like this, I’m happy to say that leads to a lot of nudity, though most of the sex is implied. They even manage to have a shower scene in the middle of a desert. For that alone, they get some extra points. Thankfully, it’s an attractive cast.

As Dylan said, “The line it is drawn / The curse it is cast,” and you know that one-by-one the demon fever (or whatever it is) will spread through the group via blood and green tongues. The effects are pretty nice, with lots of blood and even some unbelievable bits look pretty good. It seems most of the SFX are appliances rather than computer generated, and that’s another check mark in the plus column.

Esther Cantana and her green tongue
The acting isn’t necessarily stellar throughout, but there are some fine moments and decent characterizations, though some are a bit over the top; an example is the seemingly unnecessarily thickly-accented Dr. Lobachevsky (Greg Salman, who is also a producer on the film). I could never find a reason why he was Russian in the story, or what his true purpose was to the story as a Russian, as opposed to a scientist of any other nationality.

One aspect I find interesting is the actual lack of motion of the titular character, other than some limb wiggling. As a side note, I think calling it an “American” mummy when the mummy-proper dates back before the Europeans even came to the New World is presumptuous and a bit settler colonialization (or, as I up it at the beginning, appropriation; this is the same mentality that uses the term American Indian, rather than First Nations, as do the Canadians). Getting back to the point, it does sort of leave it open to the interpretation of the viewer whether it’s some kind of genre viral infection (such as was true(r) with the Tomb of King Tut’s “curse”), or the actual mummy having some mystical power raised by the fanatical student and her sycophant.

There are definitely a few holes in the story, the biggest perhaps is why Carmen was so determined to raise the mummy – or his curse, anyway. In other films, such as various Universal Monsters’ version of the Mummy, at least we were told that the person performing the rite was part of a cult following of the person/god/mummy. Well, even from early on, it’s obvious she’s eager to find the thingy, so that’s something.

There are a bunch of extras that come along with this Blu-ray, such as both a 2-D and 3-D version, some minor and quick outtakes and behind the scenes that don’t really add up to much, and a couple of different generations of the trailer. Being a Wild Eye Releasing – err – release, there are also a bunch of other trailers.

This film isn’t brilliant, but it’s certainly enjoyable, and the second half certainly is bloody and has a decent body count. Plus, there is a lot of decent research on Tezcalipoca and Aztec sacrificial procedurals that make it even more interesting. It did keep me pretty entertained all the way through.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Review: Child Eater

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

Child Eater
Directed by Erlingur Thoroddsen
Wheelhouse Creative / Blue Fox Entertainment /
Black Stork Productions / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2016

One of the strongest held of the original no-nos of cinema was that you do not harm a child, even with Hitchcock blowing up a kid and a bus in one of his British-era films. Well, certainly those years are gone, especially since the nasties of the 1980s. Even so, it’s still a subject that is uncomfortable with many, and of course that works out well for a genre film.

This is the grounds on which this story’s seeds are sown, and expressed through the seemingly mandatory prologue at the start of most horror films. This one, taking place 25 years before the main story, is a bit more unsettling than most, and better for it; but it does set you up to know that you are not about to see the average slasher or murderous spirit.

Based on a 14-minute short film in 2013 by the same director, with the same basic plot, similar artwork, and the same lead actress, this new version is more fleshed out – its a shame they didn’t add it to the extras on this DVD. You can see it HERE, but I recommend seeing it after the feature. 

The legend in the small town of Widow’s Peak (filmed in, Catskill, NY) is that there was a crazy man, Robert Bowery (Jason Martin) who had macular degeneration and ate people’s eyes because he believed it would keep him from going blind, but he was especially attracted to those of youngsters because “the fresher the better”. Now it is quarter of a century later since the last attack, and that same victim from the prologue has announced to the coppers “He’s awake,” giving this a kind of Jeepers Creepers creature premise.

Cait Bliss
The heroine of the story is Helen (Cait Bliss, who has a kind of Lisa Gerritsen appeal, and is originally from Catskill), who is in the mid-20s. She’s forced to babysit by her police chief dad for a widower who has recently bought the old man’s house for himself and pre-teen son. It’s pretty easy to put the pieces together about the shell of what’s going to happen, so the question is can Helen come to the rescue? Can she convince Ginger (that last Bowery victim), who has never truly recovered mentally, to help her? I am not going to say much more than that as far as storyline goes.

Even with pushing the envelope of the number of shots of roaming around in the dark with flashlights – both indoors and out – it rarely gets to the point of being too long to get tiresome. But the thing that is most important is simply that this really is a creepy-ass film. The pace is great, the plot not completely predictable, and yet the story does leave the viewer with a few questions (perhaps to be answered with a sequel that can actually be an origin prequel?).

Though shot in Upstate New York, about 100 miles north of New York City, the director is Icelandic, which means sensibilities are a titch different than what we would expect from someone from the West, which I’m guessing is where some the surprise twists and turns originate from, being more of a European-ish/Scandinavian-ish sensibility. This, I’m sure may have to do with the different aspects of dark that surround the film. For example, the actual image is pretty dark (just look at the cropped screenshots included), though the cinematography by John Wakayama Carey is spot on so you can see everything you’re supposed to, which is not an easy feat in that light (he also shot the short, but he did not shoot the deputy). But the film is also dark in a more esoteric way in that, hey, it’s a story about someone/something that eats children’s eyes and then kills them, and also eats their bodies (as well as adults).

Jason Martin
There is also a metaphysical aspect to Bowery in the same kind of Michael/Jason way in which he is more than merely human and hard to put to rest (just look at the image on the box). Which brings me to the SFX. Bowery’s make-up is really well done, by Fiona Tyson (who also works on the shows “Vinyl” and “Gotham,” and also did the original short, but did not do the dep...okay, I'll stop now), who should be commended, as well. The gore shows up intermittently but frequently, and always looks damn good.

One of the extras is a 16 minute “Deleted Scenes” series that are nicely explained via title cards. Most were rightfully taken out, and a couple I believe could have stayed, but there is not any fluff. I recommend watching it because in a couple of instances it will explain some questions that may arise (such as why Helen’s hand is covered with blood in a shot in the third act). Then there is a full-length audio commentary with the director, and two main leads, Bliss and Martin. About half of it is joking around, but the other half makes it worth sitting through. For me, the big problem was the sound: Bliss is clear and near the microphone, but Martin and Thoroddsen are harder to hear, especially towards the beginning, even with the sound at full volume.

This film could have been corny and clich├ęd, based on tropes that have been around for decades, but Thoroddsen manages to take a relatively fresh approach. That makes this enjoyable to watch, and its mood and motif may help make that chill go up and down your spine. You won’t be able to – err – take your eyes off it.