Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: Thorn

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet
Thorn [aka Legacy of Thorn]
Photographed, written, directed, edited, etc., by MJ Dixon
Mycho Entertainment Group / Wildeye Releasing / MVD Video
97 minutes, 2016 / 2017

Although the more human Leatherface pretty much began the thread of masked killers with sharp objects in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), it was kicked into high gear with the Michael Myers / Halloween (1978) and Jason Voorhees / Friday the 13th (1980) one-two punch of the additional supernatural nature of the hulking killing machines. While not yet cliché, the theme of the Thorn character is also certainly not exactly new. But then again, I truly believe it’s time we had a fresh franchise, doncha think?!

The original character of Thorn was from 2009; he showed up again in Slasher House in 2012. I have yet to see those first two releases, but this comes across as a remake/reboot by its creator. There are a couple of differences I already know about, and it’s probably a good idea to start fresh. Someday, though, I would like to see the original to compare. For example, in the first, Thorn was the concealed character’s family name; now perhaps it refers to the mucho grande machetes he carries.

The story is set in Avondale, a relatively new village in a suburb of industrial England (filmed around Greater Manchester). The film is broke up into two segments, which intercut between each other throughout. One is the modern Leap Year of 2012 (when it was filmed), and the other takes place the previous one, four years earlier in 2008. What is extremely well done is that the present one is chronological, but the previous is shown in reverse order, so it starts with the end of the day, and goes back to the beginning of it. I thought was well written/done is that you don’t lose track of either, and the viewer knows which is which. Bravo.

Thorn is a huge, brute of a man with an arm full of tribal stripe-style tattoos, dressed in tight leather (it must have been hell for Richard Holloran, who portrays him). The mask is interesting with a metallic sheen, and more so the two enormous machetes he carries crossed on his back, though most of the time at least one is in his hand. With superhuman strength (more on that later), he can easily chop a human into bits, though a mid-section stab from front or back seems to be the preferred choice.

The high school into which he enters – nay, saunters, as he has a very confident swagger – to obliterate anyone in his path is full of bullies/mean girls, cheerleaders, nerds and the cool Black guy (Paris Rivers). However, it doesn’t seem to be infested by any supervision. The only adult seen (not counting Thorn, that is) is the janitor, and he’s part of a bigger, cult happening (shades of the Wicker Man, Batman!). Perhaps the teachers and admin are in on it, but it’s never really explained. More on that, later, too.

Jade Wallis
Thorn’s focus is on one of the cheerleaders, Jessica. While he kills anyone who gets in the way of reaching her, he also seems to go out of his way to build a substantial body count. Jess is definitely a flawed human (as are all of us) in a film locus. An odd mix of ego and fear, gets to scream and cower a lot, needing – or demanding – help from others, which doesn’t end well for them. Local actor Jade Wallis does a decent job of it, though occasionally shrilly; but then again, I’m willing to bet someone in that position, being faced with an immortal with superhuman strength and twin machetes, just might be a bit shrill. I’m just sayin’. Jane Haselhurst, who plays her frenemy, Alice, does a nice turn, as well. Actually, the whole cast mostly does a decent job of it.

One factor I enjoyed was watching the difference between the characters in the 2009 sequences compared to the later 2012 ones. Some personalities are completely different, even in body language and tone.  

There are some issues with the film: the biggest one, for example, is that there are some conversational parts that go on way longer than they need be, past their point of usefulness to the plot. This would have been a very tight thrill-ride 80 minutes, but considering the action-to-talking ratio, this is better than most, and its concentrated in just a few scenes here and there.

Also, there are some plot holes, such as the why does this mask have so much power and where does it come from. Why only on Leap Year day. When – and why – did it all start? There are hints that the story will go on (having a title card saying “Thorn will return in” another film is a strong indicator, along with how, to some extent. What is the cult that it seems much of the town’s power class seems to be in on? As with many films of this nature, the first one introduces the evil character, and the sequel(s) tell the backstory in more detail.

There is a lot of blood (much spewing from the mouth) with little gore (juicy bits), and the SFX are largely applications, with some digi stuff thrown in to beef (pun unintended) it up. A couple of nude scenes mostly from the back, ample cleavage and braless tees add to the viewing, but nothing for the women as the men stay clad (and remain mostly clods).

Make sure you stay past the credits for a Marvel-like bit at the end. The extras are a standard-albeit-interesting 22-minute Making Of which includes backstage footage and interviews of the cast shot by the cast, and two different trailers for the film.

With the imperfections in place (hey, I had issues with both the original Halloween and Friday the 13th, too), I have to say this was still a fun film that goes what it sets out to do, create a new and enjoyable killing semi-human killing machine that can become a new – err – legacy to enjoy. I do recommend it.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Badass Monster Killer

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

Badass Monster Killer
Written and directed by Darin Wood
TFO Productions / Wildeye Releasing / MVD Video
96 minutes, 2015 / 2017

After watching this enjoyable spoof/nod to the exploitation / Blaxploitation / sexploitation genres, I had an interesting discussion with a friend while I was trying to explain the basic premise to someone who (a) has not seen the film, and (b) not really into the styles it’s based upon. He said that if a film is purposefully over-the-top, then it loses its association with others that are unintentionally so-bad-they’re-good. My response was that it depends on the attitude of the secondary feature. If it is trying too hard to the point of where it becomes something else, and it becomes so-bad-its-bad, yes, I agree. This is true of films like A Haunted House [2013], or the likes of Vampires Suck [2010]. But there is a fine line where it works, such as Richard Griffin’s Seven Dorms of Death [2016], or this one.

This picture is from the director whose last release was The Planet of the Vampire Women [2011], which was a nod to ‘50s sci-fi (e.g., Queen of Outer Space in 1958) mixed with ‘70s sex sci-fi (such as Spaced Out in 1979). Now, he’s delved a bit deeper, and come up with a fine mashup that is both head scratching WTF? and laugh-out-loud Say What? As I proceed through the review, I will delve a bit into its references.

Amelia Belle and Jawara Duncan
The basic premise revolves around a hyper-cool brother who is a police officer for the Department of Supernatural Security named Jimmy Chevelle (Jawara Duncan). Did I mention this takes place in Camarotown? Anyway, along the way he meets women who fall for him and become sort of an army. Most reviews claim this is based on the Blaxploitation style of Shaft [1971]; early on, we even see the Loveshaft Hotel in the background. To be fair, this could also be a reference to H.P. Lovecraft, as this takes place in his mythos with references to Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones. Or, this is strange enough that the hotel name actually be a cross between both. But more than Shaft, I would posit that it’s closer to Dolemite [1975], and the better for it.

His subject of investigation is a sect that wants to bring back said Great Old Ones via weed that makes you susceptible to them (a motif also used in Todd Sheet’s Dreaming Purple Neon). Heading this group of miscreants is Reverend Dellamorte (Ryan Cicak), a goateed white guy with a thick southern accent – fighting the black guy…get it? – and wearing what I think is a full-length, sleeveless black leather dress. Now, to be fair, his gang of goof-ups include Latinos and African-Americans, so I’m not sure if my mind is interpreting more than I’m seeing. Still, it works for me, even with that inconsistency.

The dialog is hysterical, and occasionally repetitious, in a running gag form (Wood did a similar thing, also successfully, in his previous film around the term “vampire”). The word diabolical, for example, may be in every other sentence. Duncan is really good at spitting out strings of script in an amusing way, making it not feel repetitive as much as humorous. For example, every time he meets a woman who is in danger, he says to her, “Take it easy baby, I’ve got everything under control. Listen ‘cause I’m only gonna say this once: I work for a very top secret branch of the government that exists to do battle with supernatural, diabolical forces that most people don’t even know exist. Now, if you’re cool with that, later maybe you and me can get it together, but right now I got business.” This inevitably leads to a kiss between them before he fights whatever is the threat.

There is a lot of good writing and fine Dolemite-like moments. For example, when some guy is in the street screaming hysterically, Chevelle snarks to him, “What the fuck is the matter with you? Hunh? I’m in there trying to come up with the plan of how to keep the Earth from being enslaved by fucked up creatures from beyond and shit. How’s a brother supposed to concentrate with you out here screaming like a bitch!? Don’t make me beat yo ass!”

In case you’re wondering, I’m actually not giving away too much because there are a lot quotes that could be used as examples.

Another incorrect comparison, in my opinion, is to the film Sin City [2005], since nearly all of Badass is shot in green screen (other than two solid sets), with all the buildings and other objects leaning towards the center. This is more reminiscent of the work of Jimmy ScreamerClauz. If I may digress for a sec, check out some of the signs in the background for a laugh, such as Arkham Sam’s Liquors. So, back to the background art: I can understand the comparison, but it doesn’t hold up for me. Sin City was like a comic book, while this is more cartoon. Okay, another way to phrase it might be the latter is more Wally Wood, while this is more Basil Worthington. Both films take place in a world that couldn’t exist in real life, but SC went for more realism; BMK isn’t interested in any form of reality, it’s nearly surrealistic.

Which brings me to the monsters. Each one looks fake as can be, with cheesy digi-art or rubber limbs when they interact with the actors. They also look silly, again like something from the mind of Worthington. But in this context, they are fun to watch, like bad stop-motion. I mean, they’re right up there with the creatures from The Giant Claw (1957) or From Hell It Came (also ’57). In this completely produced and processed world, I thought the monsters were smile-worthy rather than cringe-.

As for the music by Phillip Baldwin, it’s a nice mix of funk and ‘70s porno chic-a-wah-wah, but if you listen carefully, the lyrics are exactly matching what is happening on the screen. It’s hysterical and incredibly well done.

One might expect – and one would be right – that the acting is a tad over the top. And again, it works here. It’s not so broad that it becomes as cartoonish as the backdrop, but it’s definitely what I call the John-Lithgow-on-a-sitcom level. As I said, Duncan is perfect in the role, able to handle both the smolder and the sass (and afro) to just the right tone for the film. Sometimes Cicak is a bit too Snidely Whiplash, but I understand it. I was almost expecting him to literally say, “Mwah-ha-ha!”

Most of the cast is female (not a complaint), though a majority seem to be strippers, hookers, a crime boss named Lola Maldonado (Amelia Belle; Maldonado is also a surname used in his previous film), and cops. For me, a standout was the Liz Clare, who has done some strong work in other productions, as well.

The Army of Foxes
A chunk of the action takes place in a strip joint, and even beyond that there is dancing, lots and lots of go-go style dancing. You see a street? There are women dancing in the shot. As overtly macho as the men are, most of the women need to be rescued until Chevelle trains them into an army of “foxes” (one black, one Latina, one white). Other than Chevelle’s boss, an exception is Maldonado, who is strong and smoldering from the beginning, but still has trouble resisting Chevelle’s funk-a-wonk-a-wong-wong mojo. This theme does feel a bit like Sin City to be honest.

The first extra is a 6:23 Deleted Scenes that were rightfully taken out, though most of it is related to the infected pot theme that doesn’t go anywhere in the story anyway. However, it is interesting to see the green screen sets to realize how much work went into the background. This is followed by a 14:40 onstage Q&A at a showing during the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. It consists of a few of the crew, including Wood, and some of the cast, specifically Duncan and Cicak. The sound is kinda fuzzy, seemingly recorded on a cell phone, so it picks up the fuzz from ambient room echo. Still, the info given is worth the listen. The last two extras are versions of the trailer.

I have no idea of H.P. Lovecraft had a sense of humor, but if he did, he would have gotten a hoot outta this, especially the battle of good vs. evil at the conclusion. How long this review is just an indication of how much I enjoyed it.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: The Acid Sorcerer

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

The Acid Sorcerer
Written, produced, directed and edited by Dakota Bailey
R.A. Productions
50 minutes, 2017

They say (whoever they are) that when you find something you’re good at, stick with it. With this being Dakota Bailey’s third feature, he’s doing just that. He has found a pretty unique (at this point) niche of reality that can scare the viewer, but not because of the supernatural but more because of a vision of life. If the past year has shown anything, Americans are capable of doing just about anything, even if it’s against their own self-interest. Bailey’s view is that to the extreme, at what most would probably consider the lower rungs of the social contract ladder.

Bailey has his formula, with title card introductions for characters or “stories” (all of which intermingle in a porous way) about drug dealers, prostitutes, hired killers, serial killers, and essentially the kind of people that fascinate when reading about on the paper or seeing on the big (or small) screen, but not necessarily someone whom you would want to share breathing space.

Mostly filmed in black and white, there is the occasional smattering of psychedelic color tones thrown in to represent alternative realities due to illicit substances. The atmosphere is stabbed by the soundtrack by metal band Ramesses. As this all unfolds, we are introduced to the characters one by one, and shudder.

Dakota Bailey as Smoke
There is no real past tense in this film, there is only whatever is happening in the moment, and the people act accordingly and usually impulsively. Also, there is no real need for character exposition to know that you cross the other side of the street when you see them. Bailey touches that instinctual, repulsed side of the average viewer: you don’t need to learn, just intuitively know.

There is also an unexpected, philosophical touch to the film, as it acknowledges its own inner darkness, as well as those as the characters. It’s a chilling and nihilistic view of a nearly claustrophobic group of people whose lives are revolving around the seven deadlies, and it’s hard to see past that, even when one character, a drug user named Crawdad (Darien Fawkes, who is also AD on the film), mentions a glimmer of hope at one point. Religion tries to open some light, but that door quickly slams shut.

The weird thing – and what makes Bailey a force on the rise – is that despite (or perhaps because of) the despicableness of those who infest the film, the viewer kinda wants to know what happens to them. For some of them, that feeling goes beyond the time length of the actual story. I promise, I won’t give away much.

While there isn’t any central character because the story is so episodic and scene driven, our introduction is with Smoke (played by Bailey). Not only is he a drug using… okay, I’m gonna stop there for a sec… let me suffice it to say that just about everyone in the story is a drug user. Okay, getting back, Smoke is a bit of a schizophrenic, or perhaps one via shooting up or through acid flashbacks. His “other” is the cloaked and appropriately named Leach, urging Smoke to be a serial killer, ridding anyone who is perceived in his way. Leach is the demon on his shoulder urging him on, without the aid of the angel on the other side. Of course, this is merely a reflection of his own drug-induced id taken shape… or is it something more sinister?

Nick Benning is Nikki
Other major characters include Crawdad and his pregnant meth-addicted girlfriend Vermina (Natasha Morgan), a cross-dressing sadistic snuff filmmaker Nikki (Nick Benning), a truly nasty drug dealer who likes to see his clients suffer named Eyevin (Brian Knapp), and an HIV-positive prostitute named Ecstasy (Selene Velveteen). Most are not going to fare very well in this lifestyle.

The film is literally littered with death, as we watch the characters interact with each other behind a wall of ego, masculinist posturing (in most cases), the urge of desire and need, and trying to figure out how to survive the present moment.

Part of what makes it all so compelling is that it feels like the dialog is ad libbed, as if it were actual people talking to (or at) each other. Mostly they’re lost in their own altered minds, awash in whatever substance is available, especially ego. Since most of the characters fumble through their lives in the realities that exist in their own heads, Bailey wisely has them verbalize their thoughts, to let us wussy straight-edgers know what is happening to them, such as (as this is not a direct quote), “Ha! Look at that guy! Can you believe it!?”

The film is visually dark, as are Bailey’s previous works, but thanks to it not being as grainy, it is a bit easier to see, especially since most of the action happens at night. Yeah, the acting is occasionally either stiff or over the top, but if you think about it, we all tend to do that; we’re just not used to seeing it on the screen.

This does for Denver, what Taxi Driver (1976) did for New York City: it focuses on the seedy, the dirty and the back alleys, where the denizens of the story would likely live, rather than the posh side of the city most people know from previous cinema. If you have walked down the central street in downtown Denver, with its book stores, its restaurants and watering holes and the sudden proliferation of weed shops, you would not recognize the city from these perspectives, both literally and figuratively.

There is a mention on IMDB about Bailey that states, “he does not think of himself as a director or an actor just a film fan who is making the kind of movies he wants to see and he never went to film school.” Yeah, you can tell. And I’m grateful for it because he has his own voice that I don’t see elsewhere, and would not want to see it “directed” through someone else’s vision of what cinema is supposed to be. The fact that none of the actors in this film are professionals but actually friends tells a lot. Sure, I’d like to see a larger female presence in this films (two out of eight here), but hopefully that will come over time.

If I could make any suggestions of help it would be twofold: first, to get some more practice in tone corrections to make the films a bit lighter and easier to see considering the many night scenes. The second would be in sound as sometimes the voices are a bit hard to hear over the ambient street noise. I fully acknowledge that it makes it more real (better than overdubbing the voices, that’s for certain), it’s just that a couple of times I had to back the film up to be able to make out what is being said. These are both minor bits, and it’s pretty obvious that on many levels, Bailey is a natural. And I’m not just saying that because I’m mentioned in the Thanks section at the end.

There is an interesting interview short on YouTube of some of the actors in the piece that’s also worth seeking out.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: Curse of the Crimson Altar

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

Curse of the Crimson Altar [aka The Crimson Cult]
Directed by Vernon Sewell
Cheezy Films / MVD Video
87 minutes, 1968 / 2017

In my life, I have been a member of three cinema-related fan clubs: for Pamela Franklin, Peter Cushing, and William Henry Pratt. Who was that last one, you ask? Well, when he started acting in 1919, he changed his name to Boris Karloff.

Karloff had quite the illustrious career thanks in part to the ego of Bela Lugosi, but that’s not what this review is about. Despite that profession, as with many genre actors of b-films from the studio years, his golden age was not quite filled with gems. With the exception of Peter Bogdanovich’s stunning Targets (1968, the same year as this one), Karloff arguably hadn’t made a standout film in quite a while, and that would be true until his demise in 1969 (although his pictures were being released until 1971).

Boris Karloff, Mark Eden, Virginia Wetherell
This British flick, now rereleased by the wonderfully relentless Cheezy Films, was originally put out by Tigon British Film Productions; the US version of The Cult of the Crimson Altar [TCotCA] was release two years later as The Crimson Cult by American International Pictures (AIP); I saw it at the Thalia revival house in the mid-‘70s with Targets. Honestly, I don’t remember it at all. Tigon was no Hammer Studios; it did, however, produce some cult classics, such as 1968’s Witchfinder General and 1971’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw. And yet, TCotCA had four major horror stars, namely Karloff (born in England, then moved to Canada), Christopher Lee (d. 2015), Michael Gough (d. 2011), and the enchanting Barbara Steele.

The film is certainly a child of its time: Britain was post-Sgt. Pepper’s, and psychedelia was certainly on the mind of the public, if only in its infancy of hippie-dom. As with most youth cultures, since movies are written by adults catering to a young demographic, this is more how the writers probably imagined the scary times that were a-changin’ at its highest peak, trying to appeal to teens and young adults, yet scare the middle aged parents and up who were curious to find what all the noise in the papers and telly was all about. The motorcycle gang films of the period just before this used the same formula.

Christopher Lee
For example, early on in TCotCA, there is a wild party (though “the boys were wearing ties,” as the Shangri-Las sang in “Sophisticated Boom Boom”) with lots of drinking (drugs are assumed, considering the relatively strict film permission laws), half naked women in bikinis and underwear dousing themselves with alcohol while the guys drink the run-off, or having paint stripes across nearly bare boobs, and all the wild, chaotic laughter over formulaic and forgettable music. A standout moment is when two couples play “chicken” in the main room with the women on the dudes’ shoulders, attacking each other with paint brushes. It made me tense as I kept thinking, “Watch out for that chandelier!” (yeah, I’m gettin’ old…).

There is, however, a nice-yet-subtle self-referential humor, such as the following dialog:
Female lead: It’s like a house in an old horror film.
Male lead: I know what you mean; it’s like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment.

As for the story, there is an introductory scene about a certain character who’s more felt than seen going forward in the story, while we meet an evil supernatural being in a low-cut blouse named Lavinia Morely (the Barbara Steele), the “Black Witch of Greymarshe” (but her skin is blue, not black nor grey…never mind). You can tell she’s beyond human because her voice is so highly reverberated, it’s hard to make out what she’s saying-aying-aying-aying.
Barbara Steele
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the UK, Robert Manning (then-television actor Mark Eden, who gets equal billing) is wondering whatever became of his brother Peter, so he goes in search for him, winding up at a strange and isolated manor, where he runs into said party. In the wings are the owner (Christopher Lee), and his slow-but-faithful man-servant, Elder (Michael Gough). The party is run by his deep voiced and skin-tight clothed niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell, who has an Angelique Pettyjohn-type appeal).

 Karloff the Great makes his entrance in a wheelchair (he suffered from severe arthritis in his later years) as Professor John Marsh, in order to catch Manning – and the audience – up with the history of Lavinia, or as we critics like to call it, the exposition. He explains the party is to celebrate Lavinia, as the participants march through the woods in a scene that is reminiscent in hindsight (as this came first) to The Wicker Man (1973). Lee was also in that one, and actually both roles are similar. It’s also interesting to see both Karloff and Lee together, considering they played some of the same icon horror creatures, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy (although Karloff was Im-Ho-Tep, and Lee was Kharis…yes, I knew that from memory, and yes, I’m showing off).

I could go into a whole rant about the subtle yet rampant sexism that goes on, though it was common enough in that time period. Beyond the party scene where many of the women are nearly naked (to be fair, there are a few skimpily clad men, as well) and the sacrifices are all female, there’s a moment when Marsh is dishing out a rare brandy and states, “Completely wasted on women” (even though it’s Manning who it proves to be unappreciative of the high-end hooch). But it’s important to note that it’s not just then: when marching through the woods in the ceremony with torches, the party revelers chant “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!” which has the exact tone of the more modern “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

Michael Gough
The thing about the main male protagonist, Manning (aka “Bob”), is that he is an absolute boor and brute. I found him totally unlikeable. When he isn’t insulting his hosts and the local traditions (which the audience accepts, I’m positing, because of the assumption they are evil, and that makes it okay) or trying to get Eve in the sack by grabbing and kissing her in unsolicited fashion, he just clamors around like a buffoon. For example, he’s warned to leave by someone, and then doesn’t, but that’s to be expected. However, he tells everyone which person told him that without anyone even asking. What an ass. Bull in a china closet, he is. I kept wishing him harm, but that would make the film way too short.

Considering the age of the film, it’s a decent copy, though it’s hard to tell if it’s from a negative or a video. Cheezy Films has once again managed to find a version that is watchable of a somewhat fun film, relatively speaking for its time period and b-level. What should be a considered a big bonus is that they found the original British version, which is somewhat different than the American release (for example, the British government detested violence like the US government was scared about nudity, so there was more of the latter there than the former).

There are few surprises and an amazingly small body count. While it doesn’t live up to what Hammer produced, this is certainly worthwhile a watch if merely for the historical document of who was involved onscreen. Thankfully, even with an obnoxious protagonist, the story is still decent enough (and is certainly, in rear-view mirror viewing, dated). It’s a hoot, anyway, and is an enjoyable night’s screening.

The only extras are chapters and a few similar-period British horror trailers.