Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet
This has been a good year for the lower budget genre films. Surprisingly, more serious films caught my attention, when I’m usually attracted to more humorous horror. As always, I will republish the rules I have about such lists as these first:
I have an issue with “Best of” and “Worst of” year-end lists for the following reasons: most are chosen from either those that play in theaters. For me, I like to watch the DIY ones, for these tend to have more heart. My list consists of films that I saw and reviewed in 2017, not necessarily ones that were released in that year.
As for Best and Worst, I never liked those terms; art is just way too subjective, which is why I called them Favorites and Not Favorites. That being said, even the “Not” ones have redeeming qualities, and the fact that they don’t touch me means nothing. I’ve hated films that have won tons of awards, and liked some that other find abhorrent, so don’t take anything I say, good or bad, as the law. It’s just opinion, and I welcome you to agree or disagree. It’s all good.
These two lists are alphabetical, rather than ranked (another thing I don’t believe in).
The Acid Sorcerer
Written, produced, directed and edited by Dakota Bailey
With Dakota Bailey’s third feature, he’s found a niche of reality that can scare the viewer, but not because of the supernatural but more because of a vision of life. Americans are capable of doing just about anything, even if it’s against their own self-interest and Bailey’s focus is on that to the extreme, at what most would probably consider the lower rungs of the social contract ladder, with 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 no real past tense, there is only whatever is happening in the moment, and the people act accordingly and usually impulsively. 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. Despite (or perhaps because of) the despicableness of those who infest the film, the viewer kinda wants to know what happens to them. 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.
Badass Monster Killer
Written and directed by Darin Wood
This picture is from a director who comes up with a fine mashup that is both head scratching WTF? and laugh-out-loud Say What? 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 ; early on, we even see the Loveshaft Hotel in the background. More likely it’s a reference to H.P. Lovecraft, as this takes place in his mythos with references to Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones. But I would posit that it’s closer to Dolemite  than Shaft. Chevelle’s subject of investigation is a sect that wants to bring back said Great Old Ones via weed that makes you susceptible to them. Heading this group of miscreants is Reverend Dellamorte (Ryan Cicak), a goateed white guy with a thick southern accent. The dialog is hysterical, and occasionally repetitious, in a running gag form, “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. There is a lot of good writing. Another incorrect comparison, in my opinion, is to the film Sin City , 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. Sin City was like a comic book, while this is more cartoonish. 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, but in this context, they are fun to watch, like bad stop-motion. In this completely produced and processed world, I thought the monsters were smile-worthy rather than cringe-. 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. 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. 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.
Written, directed and edited by Todd Sheets
For this film, Todd Sheets takes an interesting approach, asking us to question which is worse, the big bad trio of wolves outside the door, or the human monster inside with the knife and sadistic attitude. That is the predicament in which Todd has placed his main characters. Emily (Eli DeGeer) and her teenage daughter Eden (Anna Rojas-Plumberg) are on the run from one human monster, an abusive husband (Aaron Brazier). When their car is toast, in part due to the hairy threesome, they wind up in a house with serial killer Coen (Douglas Epps) and his hostages, Tina (Millie Milan), Lucy (Dilynn Fawn Harvey), and Suzy (an extended cameo by Linnea Quigley). Between our furry friends outside and the less hairy one inside, there is a lot of damage that happens to everyone involved, leading to tons of carnage and gore. Luckily, both of those are Sheets’ specialities. Also at the heart of the whole visual is that all of the effects and wolfie-poos are practical SFX rather than digital. Sheets tends to show the carnage in extreme close-up. Most of the acting is quite powerful. As the two leads, Plumberg and especially DeGeer hold their own as strong women who are put in extraordinary circumstances. The rest of the film looks great, with sharp editing and visuals. There is nothing really fancy here, no “artistic flares,” which suits me just fine. A meat and ‘taters creature feature is just what the witch doctor ordered.
Directed by Erlingur Thoroddsen
The seemingly mandatory prologue at the start, 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. 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. The heroine of the story is Helen (Cait Bliss), 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. The thing that is most important is simply that this really is a creepy-ass film. The pace is great and the plot not completely predictable. The actual image is pretty dark, though the cinematography by John Wakayama Carey is spot on so you can see everything you’re supposed to view. 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). Bowery’s make-up is really well done, by Fiona Tyson, who should be commended, as well. The gore shows up in small amounts but frequently, and always looks damn good. This film could have been corny and clichéd, 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.
The Ladies of the House
Directed by John Stewart Wildman
In this story, three bros go to a strip club to celebrate a birthday. After the performance one of them pressures the other two to follow her home, where she shares a house with three other dancers. His intention is to pay her for sex as a present. Of course, things go awry, and when the other women come home, that’s when the second act begins and the picture kicks up into a much higher gear. These are certainly not women you want to trifle with, that is for certain, as the guys learn, one by one, becoming prisoners. This tragic start leads to a revenge-fuelled carnage. It comes down to the three bros against three of the women While angry, they are more cunning than reactionary. They have obviously dealt with men in such a fashion before, as they have a calm routine way of… dismantling. One of the things I like about the film is that while it’s technically not a horror film, relying more on terror and suspense, it certainly does not shy away from a bit of violence and gristle here and there (well done by Oddtopsy SFX, led by indie effects maven Marcus Koch); when it does, because it is not the main focus, it comes out as a bit more shocking and welcomed, without wearing out its welcome. The four female leads are spot on, with just the right amount of sexiness and cold-hearted determination. They are to be feared, but without losing their humanity. Yet through the carnage and chopping and caging and slicing and hacking, somehow, on more than one level, this remains… a love story?! This shows some solid directing. The lighting, the angles, and the gore, all look and feel glorious. This is hardly what one would necessarily call a date movie, depending of course on whom you are relating, but for the genre fan, it was an entertaining.
Long Night in a Dead City
Directed and edited by Richard Griffin
This is a strange, ethereal and episodic story of Daniel (Aidan Laliberte), who awakens in an alley on New Year’s Eve, beaten and bruised. He begins a quest to find his brother Charlie (Anthony Gaudette), which brings him into contact with various characters in an ugly side of a city full of back streets, litter, snow and steam. The shadow side of Voltaire’s Candide, Daniel wanders into others’ lives, and vice versa, with something quite off about all of it. Mannequins, a possible serial killer, and a sultry bartender (Anna Rizzo) who knows his name in a tavern where everyone is photo-still, is just the start of some of those who will make this dead city night interesting, albeit bizarre. In some scenarios, Daniel is the protagonist, in others he is an observer, as sort of a solo Greek Chorus in a modern day tragedy. In all, though, there is an either explicit or implicit invitation, spoken or not, for him to join, and to stay in that moment, in that place. A mysterious woman, Holly (Sarah Reed), takes the place of both companion and Dante-esque guide. Many of Griffin’s films deal with heaven, hell, and other variations of what happens next, and this continues to take a different view of that aspect of life and death, which makes for a further interesting vision that one may not expect, keeping the viewer’s interest. Even if you have an idea of where the storyline is going, the ride there is still going to be from a perspective you probably would not have thought of, giving new blood to a not-so-new concept. There is definitely a feeling of surrealism, but not to the point where it’s so obliquely opaque in the events that it loses direction. Chalk yet another one on the plus side for Griffin. Also worth checking out are his other two films of the year that were squeezed out by space here, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Strapped for Danger.
Murder Made Easy
Directed by David Palamaro
I found the whole film production reads like a play. It’s heavy in dialogue, mostly takes place in a single room, and the pacing of the whole thing could easily be mounted on a stage. This feels very Frank Capra-esk in the way the words are spoken in a quick and light patter. This murder mystery has been compared to the game Clue, but I definitely believe that it’s more the source material of the dining room murder mystery that they have in common rather than the end piece. This is a very dark comedy. Like most murder mysteries there are a lot of characters most foul, and even more important, there is double-crosses upon double-crosses. In the story, Joan Chandler’s (Jessica Graham) husband has been dead for a year. Not happy with the way he was treated by his friends, she and mutual pal Michael (Christopher Soren Kelly) decide to take matters into their own hands, and make things right by… well, the title is more than just a hint. The cast is really tight, like they’ve been doing this particular piece for a while. Solid professionalism. While there are some standout performances, there is not a weak moment in the acting, from opening scene to close. That being said, it feels like the camera loves Graham and either keeps gravitating to, or lingering on her. Luckily, Graham can handle it, as she says so much with a snide smile, a frown, or a subtle shift in mood. Kelly is the yin to her yang, a ball of kinetic energy to her nuances. They spin around each other like a double helix, boosting each other’s characters. Of course, little is as it seems. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors, as there should be in this kind of story, and I recommend giving yourself enough time to watch it twice. In case I haven’t made it clear, this is a strong and solid piece of work. The writing is crisp and sharp as a razor, which never takes the easy way out.
Written, produced and directed by Chad Ferrin
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. This area of Los Angeles is not color-oriented, but it is certainly greenback poor, with homelessness and frustration-fueled anger; that’s a volatile mix in an indie screen world. As the dudes drive around trying to find their way, they make obnoxious comments about the homeless they see. Then, they run over something and get a flat. And that is where the story really takes off, as they are confronted by a mob of homeless men (and one woman) who don’t take kindly to strangers in their neighborhood. It quickly escalates, and before you know it, one of the trio, Marshall, 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. The patriarchal and dictatorial leader of the mob is Wilko (Robert Miano) who exudes anger, hate and racism beautifully. 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. Quick to adapt, Marshall 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 by strangers as a homeless person, wearing their clothes and being African-American, demonizes him as “Other.” The ending is effective, albeit predictable, considering the zeitgeist of the film’s tone and story direction. It’s a worthy viewing.
Directed by Jason Koch
Recently, there have been a series of gritty, realistic stories that are there to disturb more than distress; we’ve seen it before in films like Suburbia (1984), Scorsese‘s Mean Streets (1973), or even The Day of the Locust (1975). The difference is that of late, realism has faded away into the static camera of torture cinema which is less about story than effects; realism is just the opposite, even with its level of gruesomeness. I didn’t really have any expectation about this film, so its level of initial low-key grittiness took me by surprise. Here, Zack’s (Lucas Koch) world is one of dysfunction. The tall and lanky13-year-old stoic skater, whose school nickname is Pig Pen, lives in a home where nothing gets cleaned and supper consists of cold cereal mixed with water. His mother is zoned out on booze and pills, and her new, abusive “entrepreneur” boyfriend pimps her out and sells drugs. Insisting that Zack bring in some money, suggesting by doing what the guys on the corner do for cash, the boy is thrown to the streets, where we watch as he learns to survive amid desperation, stealing and violence. As a nice move, Koch edits in flashback scenes throughout that lead up to the present, as we see how life has spiraled out of control step by step. Of course, the past catches up in an explosion. This film doesn’t pull any punches. It gives a realistic feel of the dangers of living on the street, including gangs and perverts. But Zack isn’t like other boys his age. His moral compass has already been turned up this side of Sunday, and he isn’t beyond thievery even before the boyfriend. Like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Straw Dogs (1971), Zack will fight for his life no matter what it takes. This is an intense film right from the start, and it just keeps building right until the very end. Its sheer level of everyday kind of violence means the story begets the violence rather than the other way around, as in most films of this type. It really is a horribly beautiful film. The editing, the lighting, the camerawork is all spot on. If you’re in for a good story with some excellent writing and acting to back it up, tension that is palpable in a building crescendo, and some way-above standard physical effects, this will be a good direction to go.
Before I Die (aka Wake Before I Die)
Directed by the Jason Freeman and Todd Freeman (aka the Brothers Freeman)
Pastor Dan (Robert McKeehan) and his cheery wife Cindy (Audrey Walker), their sullen young teenage daughter and pre-teen son move to a small town in Oregon to take over a church. Soon after they get there they are put in charge of troublesome teenage Sally (Nouel Riel) to keep her away from her stereotypically cinematic greasy headed and leather jacketed boyfriend, Mark (Joshua St. James). A pattern then starts to emerge here, as sure enough there is some kind of local killing cult. Still, there is some issue with getting some momentum in the story. Cinemagraphically it certainly looks good, but the writing is plodding and could use some serious editing and honing down. For example, one character warns Dan, “Strange people dream strange dreams, Pastor. Even about others…Some people are prone to believe such things here because this is a place where such things can be true.” At the very least the script needs a good Thesaurus. Nearly half way through, it’s hard to tell there’s anything really wrong, except for the minor-key sountrack. There is a murder scene that happens with some beautiful editing overlapping the killing and the events after, which in itself would make a great short, but as a whole it drags the film down, and could have been shown in just a few minutes. The third acts picks up the pace quite a bit, and the ending is a bit of an anticlimax, but the film has a decent 20 minutes in it towards the end. Still, despite the editing and lighting, it goes on too long. Much of the acting is also a bit dicey and wooden here and there, especially the unengaging lead who seems to mostly sleepwalk through his role relying more on a wholesome look, with an occasional brow roll or eye squint to show emotion. Part of the problem is that the cult doesn’t really have a focus, other than being a group of non-Believers (and they – shock! – dress in black, wear frilly party masks, and drink alcohol), bringing us to the realization that this picture is a Christian-pointed release with a literal Amen at the end. That alone might drive off some off (and bring others into the film’s…err…flock), but that is not what got under my skin; rather it was the poor writing and monotonic acting from an unexcited/unexciting lead. All in all, the film is a solid meh.
Conspiracy Theory [aka Lake on Fire]
Directed and edited by Jake Myers
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. 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). 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.” Leading this five-some is its host, the heavily orange-skinned spray-tanned Bjorn Eriksson (Ben Kobold), along with the rest being his crew, including the loony Britney Big Time (Jennifer Mills). They go to the locations mentioned above, and act like jerks. To begin though, they do 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. This is both goofy and enjoyable to watch, as the non-actors squirm, or are often bemused by it all. There is a fine mixture of real people mixed with fictional characters, playing with story’s credibility in a fun way. Sadly, the film ultimately fails overall for one basic and nearly constant reason: there is way too much filler with nothing to add to the story; for example, extended scenes of drinking in a hotel bathroom or on the street. It seems like a large part of the film is mostly home movies, almost like they 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 doesn’t really transfer the audience (okay, to me). I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist (or ET) to figure out the end. There is a kind of conspiracy going on, but whether it’s alien or human 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. Can we please have a moratorium on found footage now?
Directed by Chris Majors
The name of this film is brilliant. The location is a huge house just off the lake. In this story, it was recently bought through a repossession auction by Kate (Meredith Majors, the director’s spouse and film writer), who has moved in to forget the recent death of her farmer husband. Having been abandoned since 1969 when its previous dashing anthropologist owner, Harrison (director Chris Majors), mysteriously disappeared, it gives the widow a way to start over through painting (and a large amount of prescription pills). Soon after she moves in post- Labor Day, most people in the area have already left. That is, except for the nice lady who lives a few doors down, Eliza (Betsy Baker, aka the demonically laughing Linda in The Evil Dead). I quickly got the heebie-jeebies about her, just from the constant use of her calling Kate “Dear.” Sadly, this “tell” is endemic of the film writing, which makes questionable moves throughout. Later we meet Eliza’s niece, Autumn (Danish actress Annemijn Nieuwkoop; aka 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 a big dude in the kitchen and another after a nekkid woman (Victoria Johnstone) rises from the lake and goes into your house – and then you go upstairs and fall asleep after taking pills, rather than getting leaving the house – even after a kinder spirit tells you to get out…twice – then it’s hard to feel some any empathy for that character. The story tries the “Is it real or in her head?” motif, which always is a fun twist. Actually, what Kate needs is acting lessons as she is so wooden. Majors cannot carry a film on her own as she looks like she is wincing when trying to emote. But she’s not the only one, to be fair: most of the cast seems to be either in a daze or over the top. There are few surprises in the story, including the conclusion, but for me the biggest problem is in the text editing. There are long stretches where nothing really important to the story happens. And yet, a nagging question is, will there be a sequel called The Eerie Canal?