Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: Talon Falls

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Talon Falls
Written and directed by Joshua Shreve
Lost Empire Entertainment; JJ Films; Flashback Pictures; MVD Visual
75 minutes, 2017              

Hey, after all, what is more realistic than reality, am I right?

Within the first 10 minutes, if you’re truly a genre fan, you know where the story is going, how it’s going to get there, and where it’s going to end, thanks to a helpful prologue. Of course, the question is, what’s a-gonna happen between those bookends, once they get there. That is the meat off the matter.

The “they” is two couples (usually it’s three to add the body count, but the filmmakers managed to figure out how to work their way around that very nicely). Among the first couple is Lyndsey (Morgan Wiggins), the sensible one who does not want to venture out of the way, though she initially comes across as kinda standoffish. Her boyfriend is Sean (Ryan Rudolph), who is leaning towards unlikeable due to the way he ignores Lyndsey. The other couple is the hot Ryder (Ryan Rudolph, aka Roller Derby Queen Black and Blue Jay), who is out for some fun (understandable), and her love interest is Lance, the macho moron of the bunch (his backwards, sparkling white baseball cap is surely an indicator). He is a hyper, macho, privileged white male and has no problem expressing it; in other words he’s the one you are really hoping will die.

The fetching foursome – college students is my guess though the they are referred to as “teenagers” in the description – are on a trip from Nashville to a place in Kentucky called Goreville (wait…what?) and get sidetracked after seeing a sign at a gas station run by a very loud speaking good ol’ boy (Evan Miller). Now, in these situations, pay attention to the guy you meet at the gas station before the whatever happens, as you can usually tell by the age whether he’s a “good” or “bad” guy: the old crazy coots are those who warn the travelers (“You kids better not go there!”), the younger kooks are more the ones who direct the action (“I know a great place for y’all to check out!”).

Where our protagonists are led to a “haunted house” themed place called, of course, Talon Park.  Once they get there, it’s at an actual crowded theme park, but they have been singled out by… well, I won’t say who though it’s a given in the storyline. They are ushered through the line and separated from the herd by sliding doors and walls. As they roam around (and of course get separated), they all slowly come to find out that not everything is what it seems, and that they are in for the Hostel experience.

I’ll stop there story-wise, as this is merely the set up that is obvious. It’s at this point things break out into its own until the end, and I don’t want to give it away. Amid all the clichés that bookend the main thrust which starts, yes, at about 20 minutes in, to take on its own and twisted path. In other words, it begins to get really interesting. Unlike other films that tend to start at 20 minutes, there’s enough to keep you watching from the beginning, even though flush with clichés, but don’t be lulled into the belief there’s nothing original here.

Evan Miller
This story is, if I may pontificate for a moment, a good glimpse into American culture, where the women are instinctively aware that there is something wrong in a bigly way, and the dudes just will – not – listen because they are so sure they are right. I find this to be true a lot. If your girlfriend is saying don’t go there, my friend, you should not go there. Not just in the pictures, but in life. Get off your frickin’ macho horse and listen, even if you don’t agree with it right off. I find, in my life, when my partner says something, I think through it rather than just being dismissive. Trust her spidey-sense; it could save your life, especially in a genre flick! But I digress…

If you’ve ever been to a “haunted house” (no, I have not and have no interest; my love of horror exists in the screen, not in a live dimension), from what I understand, the best ones are those that are pretty realistic. That is what this film is playing on. Of course, it helps that it was filmed at the real Talon Falls Screampark in Melber, KY. It was a smart idea to play with the how realistic do you really want it? notion, so that those observing what is actually happening assume it is part of the oeuvre of the place.

As the story unfolds, it gets more intense, more realistic, more snuff-like, and pretty damn close to touching the hem of torture porn. But what takes it beyond into the Meta is having ticketholders watching what is happening to our poor travelers through glass windows, now subjects of the grand experiment. My guess is that this was filmed in the rooms actually used for the screampark, but what I ponder is whether the people who are observing through the windows really watching them make the movie are extras who are placed there by the filmmakers, or paying screampark customers. What I mean is, are the audiences watching aware of what is really happening to the trapped, thinking it’s part of the park’s action? Other than the protagonists early on, you see the patron window viewers only through said window, from where those in peril can see them. Quite the Catch-22, and I applaud the filmmakers for that. Honestly, I don’t need to know definitively, but that question got my attention.

I’m not quite positive when this is actually supposed to take place on the calendar, as. cell phones are minimal, VHS tapes are prevalent, and all the cathode monitors are black-and-white rather than High-Def. We see that the VHSs are dated along the first decade of the 21 Century, the latest being 2010, but wasn’t DVDs big by then (they were introduced in the US in 1997), or is it that the technology just hadn’t caught up to that part of the Blue Grass State yet? Y’know, in the scheme of things, that’s not an important detail.

Torture scenes are wisely broken up with other parts of the concurrent story, which is also at high tension, so we don’t overdose or numb out on the pain a character is feeling as a constant stream (or scream). Going against logic, by cutting away from one action and flipping back and forth to another, the story manages to keep both streams taut rather than dissipating it; it’s good writing.

The gore is extremely well done and there’s plenty of it, and is not for the squeamish (though odds are if you’re reading this, you’re probably beyond that). Also, considering that many in the film have only this for their IMDB credits, there is a load of decent acting here, and I’m looking forward to seeing the cast in more.

Tim McCain
For me, the biggest flaws (and nearly every film has at least one) are as follows: first, the film is too damn dark. It looks like there is some kind of filter on the lens, sometimes with a dark blue hue (day-for-night, perhaps?), that occasionally interferes with the action (but none of the more gory bits) – not enough to totally obscure, but you may want to watch this in a darker room to make a better contrast for the screen. The only other thing is that while the masked villain (Tim McCain) is great at being threatening, considering some of the injuries he acquires it does not seem reasonable for him to be at 100%, no matter what his size.

Other than the trailer, the only extra is a fun 10-minute Behind the Scenes featurette. It has no narrative theme, just a jumble of bloopers, some brief in-process interviews (such as while make-up being applied), and showing that the cast and crew got along real well. It’s an enjoyable piece of fluff that doesn’t really push the film any, but I still recommend the viewing because it gives some personality to actors behind the characters.

To sum it all up: as I said, you know how the ride starts on a nice and even track, and it’s pretty darn easy to predict how it’s going to end, but the hour in the middle is definitely a super-express terror ride that’s worth the time and the price of admission.

As for the real Talon Falls Screampark? Nah, won’t see ya there, but if you like haunted house amusements, it does look like it’s a non-stop adventure.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review: Devil’s Domain

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

Devil’s Domain
Written and directed by Jared Cohn
Cleopatra Productions / MVD Visual
93 minutes, 2016 / 2017

Beyond the bulimia, it feels eerily like the opening shots of the film were geared towards me. On a walls and doors are a number of LPs covers, including the UK Subs, the Vibrators, Iggy Pop, Nico, and pictures of the New York Dolls, Sid Viscous and Johnny Ramone. Also present are some colored vinyl LPs tacked here and there. Despite the vinyl and related material, I would say this takes place in the “present,” which enlivens Marshall McLuhan’s statement that when a technology becomes obsolete, it comes back as art.

Madi Vodane
Our main protagonist, Lisa (Madi Vodane), is a burgeoning but closeted and in denial sister of Lesbos, who mistakenly misread some signals from her bestie, Rhonda (Brenna Tucker) which has led to her becoming a pariah among her ex-peers in high school. And for that rare moment, most of the actors could pass for the older edge of that age group.

She takes her anger and frustration out through binge eating and forced puking, and, well, taking matters into her own hands. Unfortunately, thanks to an ex-friend and scuzbucket Andrew (Zack Koslow), she’s now being harassed online and cyberbullied. Now what’s the best way to deal with this kind of emotional pain? Well if you’re a genre fan, make a deal with the lovely woman (Linda Bella) who is, (super)naturally, the devil. As a side note, why does Satan often introduce itself in films lately as “I am known by many names”? Perhaps this could be called Lisa and the Devil II, and if so, where’s Elke Sommers? Okay, I both digress and kid…

While her well-meaning step-dad (Michael Masden) tries to be there for her (good luck when you’re a big, tattooed dude dealing with a teen step-girl), Lisa’s mom (the excellent Kelly Erin Decker) is less forgiving and wants to dump her in a rehab somewhere, though it’s hard to tell if it’s for the bulimia or for lesbianism – or both.

Linda Bella
The very tall and very lanky Destiny, aka the Debbil, is much more accommodating, since it’s what Beelzebub (not to be confused with the director Bill Zebub) does until either the contract is in effect, or does not get what it wants. Or in this case, of course, it is both.

This film is interesting from a media theorist’s perspective, especially if you’ve ever read any of social critic (don’t call him a social scientist!), Neil Postman. Almost omnipresent in the film is both media technology and what is now being called new media. The world here revolves around cell phones, websites, mini-cameras, digital flatscreen televisions, and there’s a shout-out to Snapchat. Postman infamously said that technology is a bargain with the devil, because while you get good things out of it, there is inevitably a dark side of things that you lose, most of them unpredictable until later. Cyberbullying is a good example of that.

On many levels, the story is quite bread-and-butter, nuts-and-bolts, and any other cliché expression you may want to add. What I mean is that it’s simple and to the point, which is part of what makes it so enjoyable. This is the third Cohn film I’ve seen, and while they varied in my feelings about them, this is by far my fave. Now he makes a lot of films, and three is half of how many he usually makes a year, but I’ll go with what I know, and enjoying it is, well, what I know.

Michael Masden
The cast hits the notes necessary for the story, with New Zealand newcomer Vodane definitely hitting all her marks, as does just about the rest of the cast. Sure Masden looks a bit like he’s stunned here and there, but something that’s been generally true for a while; I really like the guy, but I wonder what happened to him that made his career end up in micro-budget indies. Desanka Julia Ilic also is in fine form as Kate, leader of the mean girls.

There isn’t much in the way of nudity or sex, though much is implied and shown off-camera with one exception, but I’m totally fine with that. Though it does make me wonder about how I didn’t get to go to a school where everyone, female and male, are attractive. I mean, they call Lisa “fat ass,” but in my Brooklyn school, she would definitely have been one of the elite.

The Devil costume looks interesting, and the gore throughout is well handled and has a nice texture to it. What I mean by that is it is not necessarily too realistic: bones and sinew are fine for more intense films like torture stuff or heavy dramas, but when it comes to a fun flick like this one, despite quite effective moments of tension, having a red gooey mess is perfectly good (and more marketable… I’m just sayin’).

The first extra is the commentary track handled singularly by the director, Cohn. To be totally honest, it’s a mess, don’t bother. He sounds like he’s totally drunk, slurring his words and more often than not, just saying what’s on the screen (to paraphrase: “She’s opening the door now [pause] going inside.”). He mentions “white sky,” whatever that is, more than once; I assume he means it’s sunny and cloudless. There are a couple of interesting bits of stories here and there, but I got annoyed enough to turn it off at the 29 minute mark.

“The Devil Made Me Do It” is a 6:15-minute Behind the Scenes featurette. It’s decent, and kept the interest level up. It’s mostly interviews and overviews of the filming. There’s nothing explosive, but it’s certainly not dull. Next up is an 8-minute Red Carpet Premiere bit with interviews containing most of the cast and the director (in his normal voice) that that is more interesting, as well as a 42-picture slide show that includes a mix of film stills and behind the scenes shots. Last is the trailer, which I find interesting that it focuses in on cyberbullying more than the demon at hand, and I think that works for the piece.

What I learned from the extras is that the seed of the story came from Cleopatra Records, who owns all the music in the picture (including Iggy and the Stooges) and asked Cohn to write a film about cyberbullying. While that was achieved, he took it to another level by adding in the reliance on technology and the fascination with fame that so many teens have nowadays thanks to the rise of instant-viral videos. There is also a nod to peer pressure, as Lisa’s ex-friends Andrew and Rhonda prove they will do just about anything to fit in with the cool crowd. I remember thinking at the time that Andrew would be called nerdish in my school, but he is obviously being manipulated without realizing it, and his moment of rue shows that he is becoming conscious of it.

So, to sum up, with lots to chew on in a peripheral and sociological way, the basic story is one you can watch that is pretty straightforward, but the subtle cultural messages are actually enjoyable rather than getting in the way. Nice job.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Night Zero

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

Night Zero
Written and directed by Mark Cantu
Lost Empire; Cineworx; Tredd Productions;//; Dreaming Droids Productions; MVD Visual
81 minutes, 2017

First of all, right off the cudgel let me posit that Night Zero is a great title. For those who don’t know, when the word “zero” follows a noun, it usually means “where the destruction began,” such as the first known to die of AIDS being called “Patient Zero.”

As the prologue shows, there is some kind of explosion that releases a chemical gas – it’s ambiguous by whom – with a toxin that increases the person’s rage, and also takes away all inhibitions. Thereby, the infected becomes extremely angry and violent without the compulsion of socially constructed guilt. One might think from the trailer that this is yet another zombie movie, but rather it’s more insanity with the blood lust, without the need to consume said blood or body parts. Just Me Smash!

Dawnelle Jewell, Monisha B. Schwartz, Katie Maloney
For the meat of the film, we are introduced to three couples who come together to celebrate the moving away of Sophie (Dawnelle Jewell) and Eric (Vincent Bombara) from a small-ish town in Pennsylvania (more on that in a sec) to Boston. Joining them are interracial couple Monica (the fabulously monikered Monisha B. Schwartz) and Danny (Umar Faraz), and the two main protagonists who are on the verge of separation, Nina (Katie Maloney) and CJ (Eric Swader).

For the first 20 minutes or so, we get to hang out with these three pairs, as they talk, argue, talk, argue, celebrate, and then talk some more. For an action film, there is a lot of conversation at the onset, but I have come to believe that when cinema historians look back on the horror genre of this period, they will come to the conclusion that the first 20 minutes of most films is basically lead-up time and exposition.

This all takes place in a burg about 20 miles away from Pittsburgh (actually filmed an hour south of Steel City). Of course, Pittsburgh is a touchstone town for this kind of story as most of the …of the (Living) Deads took place in that area, thanks to the godfather of the modern zombie and violently looney genres, George A. Romero.

There are many film references and hallmarks that are reminiscent of others that came before. Let’s start with the local, mainly being the trapped in the house as the infected try to get in of Night of the Living Dead (1968), and the diseased violence of the Crazies (1973). But here, those effected by the gas can run (though we don’t see much of that), such as in 28 Days Later… (2002). Like 28 Days, neither that nor this is a zombie film per se, but rather both pertain to a disease or infection, and this is certainly closer to 28 Days than to NotLD. There is also the cabin-in-the-woods claustrophobic feel and fear of Cabin Fever (2002), and the last is the slow, inevitability of On the Beach (1959).

Eric Swader and Umar Faraz
Especially once the film gets on its hind legs, there is a lot to like about it. For example, whether you like them or not, the main characters feel like real people; they make good or bad choices, but mostly it feels realistic, such as Monica wanting to go home even though there is extreme danger in the streets and a greater possibility of absorption of the gas. They also turn on each other out of fear, even after years of friendship, which also feels accurate to me. But on a more subtle note, the audience begins to wonder about how much of the anger this group exhibits among itself is the onset of the toxin, or just righteous indignation and anxiety.

What especially impressed me was that while the cast is certainly attractive, they also have more of an everyday look, rather than as if their second jobs are models. For example, while low on role credits in IMDB, Maloney would be more believable to me as Tonya Harding in the new film, I Tonya, than poster queen Margot Robbie (plus, I believe Maloney would do a great job of it).

Writer (and director) Mark Cantu wisely adds two characters later on: a cop (Mike Dargatis) and a scienist (in this case, the ironically named Tom Mirth), who both help with exposition and to be the connection to what is happening beyond the door – which is locked, but never barred, even with all the glass.

Going against the grain, I’m guessing in part due to direction and budget constraints, this is more of a thriller than a gorefest, into which it could easily have waded. There is some violence, and there are spurts of the salty red stuff, but it’s kept at a minimum and is not a key part of the zestiest. It’s more about how the characters interact with each other and their situation that is the locus focus.

For me, the one flaw is that the protagonists are trying to avoid being seen by whomever is out there, yet walk around with flashlights on making themselves targets. Me? I would turn off all the lights to avoid attraction, but they’re swinging the huge torches around, even when not needed, such as waking through the center of town.

Despite the budget and a few of the actors with limited credits, the cast is quite strong and work together well. With a mixture of good writing, editing that isn’t in hyper speed, and a wise use of the unseen (such as being able to hear the screams and sirens from outside without needing to drive the audience into it), Cantu comes up with a film that is subtle and one that becomes more interesting as time passes over its single night.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Effects

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

Directed by Dusty Nelson
AGFA / Something Weird Video / Bududa Inc. / MVD Visual
84 minutes, 1980 / 2005 / 2017

So-called snuff films became a focus in American culture during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, in large part, for two reasons. The first was due to some pretty bad films such as Snuff (1975), which supposedly had a real snuff scene at the end (any seasoned SFX fan could see that it was fake), and the Faces of Death series (which was also bogus when concerning humans). The other was the rising video boom that was desperately in need for film fodder for fans, and would take anything they could find and put it out there in the exploding video store market. Snuff, a film that probably would have easily passed into the mire of bad cinema along with the Face of Death, found new life and became shocking sensations that made national news.

This led to a series of “realistic” releases trying to ride the wave. Hell, no one would have probably even heard the word “snuff” if it weren’t for those reasons. But it did lead us to Dusty Nelson’s film, Effects. Thanks to a revival of the VHS craze from that period, which has now passed into the nostalgia phase, companies like American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) are putting out hi-def, Blu-ray versions of these very same films. In this case, thanks to distribution and legal issues, this film was not actually released until 2005 on DVD, and now this Blu-ray from a rare print (more on the quality later). Thing is, as bad as some of these releases are, I’m glad they are given new – err – life.

Joseph Pilato, Tom Savini
Essentially, in a convoluted way, the film plays with the notions of what is real, what is pretend, and what happens when they mix in the world of film (although there are some moments that seem like it’s television). This is what is facing the dating couple of special effects expert/cameraman Dom (Joseph Pilato) and actress Celeste (Susan Chapek); they – and others – are caught in a web of confusion, like the audience. How will this effect the director, Lacey (John Harrison), fellow actors Barney (Bernard McKenna), Rita (Debra Gordon) and Nicky (SFX wizard Tom Savini in one of his early acting roles)? The big question, however, appears to be how far would/should/could one go to make a film?

Though I’m certain they were just trying to keep current, it’s interesting to me how many then-current cultural signifiers they use throughout the film, such as someone playing the electronic game Simon, or all the drug references (e.g., lines of coke and Maryjane). Then there’s the clothing, such as the common place jeans-and-tees (with images like The Rocky Horror Picture Show logo from 1977). There are other small touchstones, similar to a take-off of the Bill Saluga classic, “You doesn’thave to call me Johnson” bit.  There are more references in here than in a Family Guy episode. Heck, there’s even a bit of a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Susan Chapek
Speaking of the “looks of then,” it’s amazing how the look and pacing of the film is like porn films of the period. Yeah, there’s a couple of (female) nudie scenes, such as the then-obligatory and totally unnecessary-to-the-story shower scene that opens up the pic, but nothing that would really qualify as even softcore. And yet, the feel of the film, the pacing, acting and ambiance screams late ‘70s adult cinema.

That being said, much of the cast and crew are part of the Pittsburgh area film group, which included George A. Romero (RIP). Many of the cast and crew were in front or behind (or both) the camera on numerous Romero releases. In fact, one of the lead actors, Pilato, would play a pivotal role (and have an iconic scene) in Day of the Dead (1985).

Filmed in a pre-MTV period, by the standards of even a couple of years later, the camera is quite static, with long shots and dialogue that keeps the story at a steady pace, as we get to know, although not necessarily like (which is the point), most of the main characters. The camera pretty much sits there, or just lazily cuts from character to character.

Debra Gordon (Bernard McKenna in mirror)
Along with the languid pace until the last 15 minutes, even though there are some decent moments of tension throughout, the film bleeds out rather than spurts. I wish the story was a bit clearer as it was happening, but even with all the character build-up, there isn’t much to connect to with hardly anyone. This is not helped by the very grainy visuals (shot in 16mm) and spotty sound, but I’m glad to have had a chance to see this almost-lost piece of cinema history from a very specific period of time.

The first extra is the 59-minutes documentary After Effects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking (2005; Red Shirt Pictures), directed by Michael Felsher, in which Felsher interviews the cast and crew 27 years later in Los Angeles. The arc is how the director and his team first got into making indie films (then called guerilla filmmaking) including and documentaries and commercials, and grew into raising the funds and gathering all the threads with enough cojones to make Effects. Also featured and interviewed is the late, great Romero (d. 2017). There are also some cleaned-up clips both visually and audibly from the film that I wish had been the whole film proper. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of watching this long featurette because I thought I was going to be bored by it for the hour, but it’s actually quite well done and kept my interest throughout. There is an additional After Effects full-length commentary with the director. Much of the talking is about the distribution deal that squashed the original film, and how it eventually came out. It’s also the link between Effects and After Effects. Not overly exciting stuff, honestly, but somewhat interesting in its historical perspective. To be truthful, I made it through about the first 20 minutes.

Next up are two rare shorts. The first is the 12-minute Ubu (1973), an experimental picture directed by John Harrison, who plays the director in Effects. He actually has a few really nice credits under his belt, including the 2000 mini-series version of Dune. Here, we meet the titular Ubu, who is the tyrant of a Dark Ages version of Poland (or, as the marionette narrator states, “that is to say, nowhere”). It’s definitely a piece for its time, in a period of paranoia about the Nixon Administration. This is followed by Dusty Nelson’s 15-minute Beastie. Chris (Paula Swart) is hitchhiking and gets picked up by George (Steve Pearson). They instantly start a relationship, and we follow it until… well, I’ll not give it away. It’s also a story of its generation, which seems to be just-post-hippie.

Last up is the 2005 full-length commentary with Nelson, Harrison and Pasquale Buba, who all make up the production company, Bududa Inc. It’s a quite decent combination of technical matters, anecdotes and intentions. They work really well together, and it shows in the way they respectfully let each other finish their own bits, such as positing what the film is actually about: “…What’s real and what’s not, and if you don’t know the difference, does it matter?” Even though it’s hard to tell who is telling what story, it really isn’t important because it’s the content of the tale that matters. It was interesting throughout.

In some ways Effects reminds me of Maniac (also 1980, and name checked in one form or another in the documentary sides, which is not surprising considering Savini also worked on that one), which also had an appearance and – err – effects by Savini. I would recommend any fan of the VHS or Pittsburgh film school to see Effects, because it is an important piece of work, even with its occasional wonkiness.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: The Faith Community

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

The Faith Community
Directed by Faith R. Johnson     
Vicious Apple Productions
88 minutes, 2017
While I’m generally over the whole found footage genre, every once in a while someone uses it effectively, though that’s rare and far between. Guess which side of the coin this one turns up on, thank Jeebus?
Jeffrey Brabant, Janessa Floyd
On the car ride over to Camp Nazareth, we meet a trio of college students. The leader of this particular group is Hannah (Janessa Floyd), who is president of the school’s Christian club. Although opinionated, rather than making her self-righteously obnoxious like, say, Tracy Flick in Election (1999) or obnoxiously overbearing like, well, most of the present US government, she actually seems like a nice person… But not to the level that I’d necessarily want to hang out with her, or agree with her much. This alone tells you that something here is going to be different.
Her two companions are Andrew (Aidan Hart) and Colin (Jeffrey Brabant). The former is obviously interested in experimenting with religion, though not as obsessed as a believer, and the latter seems to be along for the ride; he’s profane and less Biblically knowledgeable than his companions. These two guys do most of the filming.
The point of the road trip is to hook up with a religious community that Hannah found online for a Bible study weekend retreat, but once they get there, duh, it’s a not exactly what they expect. The sheer “rustic-ness” (i.e., camping) of the group is only the beginning.
Jeremy Harris
The leader of this smallish and cultish clan is a 30-year-old man (Jeremy Harris) who calls himself “The Messenger.” As for Harris, despite this being his only listed IMDB credit, gives a chilling performance with a mix of confidence, child-like exuberance, devotion, and… seemingly just a touch of madness.
Do I really need to say that things gets progressively stranger as time goes on, so I don’t need to say “spoiler alert”? If I’ve ruined anything for you in this paragraph, you need to see more fictional films about religious cults. Y’knowhadimsayin’?
Even though this release has some of the things I truly dislike the most about found footage, including running, pointing at the ground, pointing at the sky, and characters talking while the camera is pointed elsewhere, all things considered it’s possibly one of the better ones I’ve seen in a while that I can think of, at least since The Changing of Ben Moore (2015).
In fact, much of the film has a kind of fuzzy look that is often washed out in sunlight, almost like it was filmed through some kind of gauze. This gives it a kind of VHS feel, though I’m not sure that was intended. The poster of the film gives some idea of what I’m trying to explain.
Aiden Hart
There is nothing supernatural in the film, no great goat-headed demon rising out of the ground to rip souls and bodies to shreds, but that’s part of what makes the story so potent and chilling, in that we are dealing with mere humans with expectations of God and the Devil. What I mean by that is, well, I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Oh, Lord, protect me from your believers.” I think that is a bit too broad and inaccurate. A more suiting message that would be applicable here (and life) is, “Oh, Lord, protect me from your interpreters.” I only needs to watch modern televangelists to get what I mean (i.e., “My God can beat up your God, even if it’s the same God”).
The screenplay and story by director Faith (yeah, I snorted back a bit of a laugh at that piece of irony) Johnson and Robert Trezza is pretty interesting, but it is the acting by the troupe that really brings this to life. I wonder how much of this is written dialog and what percentage is ad-libbed, because there are some long stretched of talking very fast. I am assuming a bit of both, but it’s blended really well. Most off-the-cuff conversations tend to be clumsy, but here it stays where it should, with the storyline.
Most found footage is a lot of cockiness followed by the comeuppance of running around screaming, and while there is a bit of that here, too, the strength of the cast makes it work rather than be an annoyance. The proof is in the long shots of conversations or rantings that hit all the marks, and keep the viewer interested.
I also liked how there were a few set pieces of Colin and Andrew interviewing some of the cult members in extended Q&As or monologs that were as spooky as an action piece, such as with The Messenger, or Michael (Oliver Palmer). But what I also found impressive is that for most of the cast this is, if not their first credit, then one of few, including the director.
Nicely done is that sometimes the camera would be focusing on someone talking as something is happening in the background, and you’re aware that the person shooting it is just as aware as you are. It’s like, “Wait, am I seeing that right?”
Sure, it’s shot amateurishly (on purpose is my guess) with a single camera and no musical soundtrack, but for once it’s more honest that way. I still have an issue with how a camera can keep running for so long without being recharged, as there is obviously no electricity going on at cultville, but in this rare case I’m willing to forgive it for the sake of a rare, decent found footager.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!

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

Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill! (aka Halloween Hell House)
Directed and edited by Jared Cohn
Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Visual
82 minutes, 2017

To be honest with all  y’alls, this review is going to be a bit schizophrenic, or at least seeing both sides of the coin, as it were. Take it as you wish, just know it is honest.

 The obligatory story prologue takes place on a Pakistan battlefield in which some US soldiers come under direct attack by the bad guys, including one who has great indignities done to his body and mind.

From there we are taken to a more present Halloween where all-girl “punk” band Kill, Pussy, Kill are playing a show at a club and are preparing to take a van to play their biggest one yet at a festival. Their cliché and bright colored costumes remind me more of the Josie and the Pussycats film with more skin and tighter tops than, say, anything Riot Grrrl. With internal stress brewing within the group and the male manager (white dreads? really? why not a man-bun?) who is trying to keep them all together, they end up in a situation that is thematically more reminiscent of the Saw franchise, Cube (1997), or In the House of Flies (2012).

They are under the control of some guy doing a Jigsaw in another room, playing “games” with the group white sitting in front of video monitors, where they have to make life and death choices or suffer harsh consequences, such as being sprayed with an acidic liquid (don’t worry, I won’t give too much away).

Sometimes it feels like the women aren’t characters, but rather they are just there for the body count. There is very little we know about them, or even learn to care about. This is a flaw of many of these types of films. In the three previously similar storylines I mentioned above, they all gave us people rather than characters who the viewer may not even know what they are named.

When the architect of the whole experiment explains why he’s conducting it, one of the Pussy members says it best for me: “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” The Saw series was essentially a morality tale about our culture (or at least they started that way), but this one lacks that, though it seems to try to give the “don’t waste your life” message while wasting lives: when I was in elementary school, we had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the weekly assembly. If we stumbled with it or seemed unenthusiastic, the Assistant Principal would get angry and scream at us from the stage, “There are boys dying overseas for you, so you better say it again with meaning!” That’s a similarly nonsensical comment as to why these women are put through these rigors.

Among other things, part of the problem to me is that some of it is not very well researched. For example, at some point the nerve gas sarin is used, as we see it fill a room. Even the most basic of research will show that it is odorless and colorless (it’s a florescent hue here). Also, after being sprayed, the effected in this basement torture chamber live, even though the smallest amounts of the gas are extremely toxic (thank you, Wikipedia).

The voice of the villain, who is swathed in bandages, is Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. This is a similar theme to In the House of Flies, where the bad guy is voiced by Henry Rollins of Black Flag (etc.). At least Henry’s is instantly recognizable. Mustaine? Not so much (at least not to me).

Now, before y’all get on my case about the negativity, I do want to say that a bit after the halfway mark, when “new players join the game” (as the swathed one posits), the film starts to get better. However, I find it interesting that the strongest character is a man, as one is also the weakest (his companion). The women vary in strength but tend to get a bit screechy, rather than steely.

Richard Grieco
Part of what improves the story is beyond the basement. We learn that Mr. Bandageface is not alone in this escapade, but has an equally insane nephew, spouse, and possibly…a child? Anyway, the wife is played with extreme gusto by Kelly Erin Decker, who I think makes her scenes standouts. She’s hysterical in a killer statuesque, cute and nerdy-looking way; I want to see a film of just her character. Richard Grieco (who is also a producer) shows some aplomb as the drawling garage owner that brings the group into the situation in the first place. I’m not totally sure, but they seem like the family out of House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), more than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

The basement setting is an old one, again reminiscent of Saw, which seems to be the go-to theme, as the victims go from room to room, with commands that are disastrous to others, and even to the psyche of those who continue on.

There is a smear of gratuitous nudity (not a complaint), but what stands out even more is the gore. It looks flippin’ great. Ron Karkoska does a bang-up job on the makeup effects, all of it practical as far as I could tell. There’s lots of it, as well, so that was quite satisfying.

Also a stand-out is the acting by the whole cast. Although Decker won my heart in her naturalness, that does not take away from any of the cast. No wooden line readings, just full gusto. The big cameo, though, is held by Oscar winner Margaret O’Brien (that young girl who sat by Judy Garland as she sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944), who appears as a drug-induced hallucination. Nice touch having her as an evil grandma!

As for the extras, well, there is a ton, many of them different variations of a “Making Of.” To start, there’s “Basement of Blood” (4:51), “Behind the Scenes” (8:27) that is called “Plot Description” on the menu, and a “Video Diary” (10:03) which focuses on Richard Grieco, how the Kill Pussy Kill band originated, and the final day of shooting (the prologue). A cool featurette is a mock “ZH1 Beyond the Music” (7:32) documentary about the band after the whole situation (with one of the Pussy’s putting on an out-of-context British accent) that is about twice as long as it needs to be. There’s also a nice focus on “Jared Cohn: Director of Horror and Action (6:24)”. In addition are two music videos, one by Jyrk!: “Last Halloween” (4:03) in which the singer seems to be channeling the emo version of Dave Vanian, and Kill Pussy Kill’s “Superstar” (3:22). Last up is a Slideshow (2:10) and the film’s trailer (1:41).

This is conjecture on my part, but I am surmising that the problem is that the director, Jared Cohn, is possibly a bit too prolific? I kinda wish he would focus more on the project on hand and not worry so much about everything else. If he did even two or three films a year instead of five or six, the quality control may be a bit more followed through. I truly respect his work ethic, and some of his films, but I do wish he would slow that mustang down, Sally. I mean that as a positive statement, because his films look good (Director of Photography Pascal Combes-Knoke deserves a huge nod for that, too), from lighting and editing, but it’s the story quality that feels rushed.

I like the hats off to Russ Meyer in this film’s title, but I also appreciate the original name which is often referred to in the extras, Halloween Hell House. But fear not, it can still be used, as they have set it up so it can be a franchise if it catches on. And honestly, compared to what’s out there these days, it could and possibly should. But please, one film at a time! Who loves ya, baby?!