Friday, June 15, 2018

Review: Dark Vale

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet
Dark Vale
Written and directed by Jason M.J. Brown
Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
90 minutes, 2017 / 2018

Let me start off with the obvious, in case there are any questions: this British film is not the video game, and has no relation to it. Honestly, I’ve never played the game, but now I have seen the film, so let’s move along.

In our household, we tend to watch a lot of British television mysteries. In England, they have a different sense of the temporal, such as with literature such as Dickens, which has a history of an author being paid by the word rather by action. It could take a whole paragraph for someone to open a door (for example, it could be “He reached for the door knob, his hand hesitating over the round globe of metal. The coldness on his hand felt like…” etc.; that kinda thing). Of course, this isn’t true of everything from the Isles, as with films such as 28 Days Later... (2002) that is at Mach 10, but generally things take a bit longer there, and I believe it is culturally expected to be that way.

For a non-Brit who is used to Americanized MTV speed editing and shorter attention spans, this can be an issue, something for which I am occasionally guilty as well. This film is closer to the Dickens than the music video in its pacing.

Darren Randall
It’s also a much smaller film in scope of cast. While there are other, peripheral characters that pop in and out occasionally, especially in the mandatory and in this case gratefully expository prologue, this is essentially a two-and-a-half person cast. The main protagonists are a couple, Leah (Cara Middleton – no relation to Kate, I assume, though she does bear a resemblance to Indian actress Priety Zinta) and Tom (Darren Randall); the “half” is the seen-in-spurts murderous ghost of Lady Lucy (Chloe Clarke).

The first third of the film is the audience getting to “know” the couple who have been together for a while, but only now just talking about moving in together. They go on a vacation, and on the way back, their car breaks down on a backwoods road in… The Vale (da da-da-DA) of the title. They walk to the house down the road and start going through stuff, and when they hear footsteps in the hall, they hide. Wait, what? If I was in someone’s house, especially if I didn’t know them, (a) I would call out asking if anyone was there, (b), I would not go through their possessions, and (c) if I heard footsteps I would check to see if it was the owner, not go slinking under furniture, especially if I didn’t know the Lady Lucy legend. This felt either disingenuous to me at least, fookin’ rude at most. But what do I know; I live in Canada, eh?

The ssssssllllllloooooowwwww pace (note that this is an observation, not a complaint) gives the viewer a chance to think about what is happening and to notice small things. For example, Ben walks into a cathedral and the candles blink on. It’s obvious to tell, however, that the film is just shown backwards due to the wafting candle smoke going downward. Still, a nice and easy way to get a decent effect.

I’m tempted to call the film arty, and on some level it is, but it is not so overpowering that it gets in the way to make the film obtuse. Don’t get me wrong, I have some issues with the it, which is far from perfect, and I’ll get into that a bit more in a mo, but the level of art actually aides in the texture and mood of the film, especially considering it appears to be all shot on a single camera. I do believe this is what one might call an old fashioned gothic ghost story, rather than an Insidious style of shock-a-thon.

The plot borrows liberally from the likes of Wuthering Heights and the first season of “American Horror Story.” And like Cathy and Heathcliff, Leah is annoyingly needy and whiny, and Tom is overly macho and overbearing. Perhaps there’s a bit of Lost, too, if The Vale is some kind of purgatory?

Thing is, by the end I had, in the words of a character from the TV show “Girls,” so many follow-up questions, even trivial ones that built up in their mere volume, such as (and I’m trying to pick some that won’t be spoilers) how does a light, tan backpack stay clean after years of use; who stocked the basement with that much food and tea candles; and how did they manage to get out when our protagonists are stuck there for years? And why would a ghost be scared of fire when it had nothing to do with her death? And why did Tom only run into that guy who gave him instructions once? And why would the footprints be seen walking towards the flour spread on the ground rather than from? And how could a walkie-talkie or mobile phone still be charged after an extended period? I could go on for a couple of more paragraphs.

Cara Middleton
Perhaps my post-graduate education has failed me, but I just don’t get so much of this. Maybe it’s artier that it appears and I’m getting lost in the zeitgeist of the whole enchilada? There are successes as I can see in that it is atmospheric and with rare exception, it’s pretty gray other than the occasionally sunny day, which stands out for that reason

As for the nitty gritty for those interested, there is almost no blood, a small body count, and no shots of naughty bits, which isn’t necessary to keep my attention, but for those who keep track, well, there ya go. Actually, considering the use of mood, having those elements may actually take away what they are going for in the long run, and I believe it was the right choice on all accounts.

Along with a whole bunch of trailers (including for this film) that have the general theme of people going to a building where there are malevolent ghosts, there are two other extras. One is a 28:17 “Making Of” which is essentially the setting up of shots, with any real interview with cast members (Randall and Clarke) starting at 13:00 and lasting the most interesting 3 minutes of the piece. It is, however, the only chance to get a decent view of what Clarke looks like, even if under the white pancake make-up and a veil.

Last up is the full length director’s commentary, including Randall and executive producer Martin Farmilo. It’s okay, nothing very earthshaking, but some good stories about the personalities, the shooting, some explaining what you’re looking at, and a bit of self-backslapping; though personally, I would have liked to hear more about motivations of actions onscreen.

The film looks good, and there are some smart moments, such as Leah walking around in the dark with a lantern where you can only see her and the light, and rather than popping in the ghost where you expect it, they hold off. That’s a wise choice, of which there are quite a few. This has gotten some really nice reviews, but overall I was hoping for a bit more, I guess. Not a bad film, but there are a few gaps in thought.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Review: The Litch

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

The Litch                                
Produced, photographed, directed and edited (among others) by James Balsamo
Acid Bath Productions
90 minutes, 2018

James Balsamo films are the manifestations of a Joke-of-the-Day desk calendar, mixed with a copy of a B-level People magazine, with a splash of Penthouse. All that’s missing is the Pez dispenser. In other words, his end result is a somewhat consistent hot mess of gooey fun.

James Balsamo
As always, Balsamo is the star of his own film, in this case playing a petty thief named Vinnie. But let’s be real, like any Abbott and Costello release (among many), he essentially plays the same character with different names and situations. In a previous one, he was a rich guy about to lose his money, and yet in another, a cop. But in each case, they are essentially the same guy: sloppy, snarky, and horny and often clad in shorts. So as the immortal question is paraphrased, “Why is this film different from any other film?” The easy answer is that it’s not. And I don’t have a problem with that.

As for the titular Litch (or the alternative spelling of Lich), it is “the Old English word for Corpse,” according to Wikipedia, and in literature refers to a magical being who controls others to do his bidding (this is my shorthand version). The Urban Legend website states it is a “spellcaster that has magically increased [its] lifespan to the point of becoming undead.” In other words, a soul eater who not a nice creature. And Vinnie is about to find out just how nasty it can be.

Before the film even starts, Vinnie has stolen a crystal from some mystical shoppe, and now the Litch is after his ass, taking over the bodies of those around him, including a friend (Mickey) and girlfriend’s (Mallory, I kid you not), mid-hump. Thankfully, there’s a flashback (narrated by Vinnie) of the origin of the creature in its present form (I’m guessing the 17th Century?), as well as the previous week leading up to Vinnie stealing the Litch’s crystal.

Dave Stein as the Litch
Along with the story, there is a lot of fun filler, and I really don’t know what other word to use to describe it: for example, while playing with his dog we see clips from commercials and television shows (including a couple featuring Balsamo’s real parents and brother, and others with cameos, which I’ll get to later), and stuff like that; another is shots of Balsamo doing whatever (such as standing in a park) while he waxes pun-etic on the narration.

I may have said this before, and odds are hopefully I’ll get to opportunity to say it again, there are certain approaches one must take when watching a Balsamo flick, such as not only one must have a suspension of disbelief, you really have to just say fuck it and strap yourself in for the ride. If you start asking questions, well, you’re watching the wrong film. Second, you really must bring out your teenage self, with all the belching, topless women, and bodily fluids that run amok and often fill the screen. The plots are held together with scotch tape and filler and those cameos (which I will still get to), but again, this isn’t trying to be Schindler’s List. Hell, he’s not even trying to be a second-rate director who is trying to be a serious artiste like Judd Aptow (showing my personal taste here a bit). Balsamo’s output is an indie genre all to itself that is almost ridiculous to the point of, “well, fuck reality, I’m going just on the ride and having fun.” That is why his films work so well.

But the thing is, you see, there is a smartness below the sur… well, I’m not sure I can even get away with that. This is Balsamo being Balsamo, and we’re all the lucky for it, because it’s stupid as Trump and thrice as fun. Unlike most films these days that actually seem to start being interesting 20 minutes after the prologue(s), this one keeps going right on through, even with the filler which contributes little to the story, but also adds to amusing time.

So poor small time thief Vinnie has the crystal and, like the red ruby slippers, the Litch can’t touch him directly, so he turns the Vinnster’s friends, family and acquaintances into ghoulish creatures that are hellbent to cover Vinnie in every possible kind of slimy upper-half bodily fluid. Think of a very gross Nickelodeon.

Speaking of which, the effects are a very, very nice mix of gross, cheesy and effective. Decapitations, brains pulled out of heads, and so much more, all guaranteed to give the viewer the glees, with the right mindset, aka the right mindset, in my opinion.

The Litch is dressed like a Vinnie Price in Witchfinder General (1968), and tells puns that make Freddie Kruger’s sound like Schopenhauer. There are some genuinely funny moments, such as Vinnie’s encounter with a mob enforcer named Sven (Eben McGarr), or the exchange between a magician, Adequate Levi, and his assistant. Melody Peng has a nice moment near the end, as well. These are just a trio of many examples.

Terra Strong, EG Daily, James Balsamo
As I was promising, let’s discuss cameos. Yeah, I know, I talk about this during every Balsamo review, but it’s worth revisiting. Most indie films have a couple of big cameos in their films, who get top billing for their couple of hours work. Amateurs, compared to Balsamo. The film can barely go 5 minutes without a cameo by an actor, death metal musician, or a comic magician; sometimes they play themselves, sometimes characters, but in most (but not all) cases, they’re on screen for about a minute on average. Many times it’s obvious that Balsamo shoots the footage and then figures out where to put them into the film later. What I especially find amusing is that one of Balsamo’s shticks is to have them really insult him and/or physically abuse him. Here – and this is only the tip of the list – we have the likes of Tom Sizemore, the Amazing Jonathan, still lovely and still diminutive Elizabeth Daily (aka EG Daily, e.g., 1984’s Streets of Fire), Dick Warlock (The Shape in Halloween II and III; and was also in Blazing Saddles), fire-eating Scream Queen Debra Lamb, more recent Scream Queen and budding director Genoveva Rossi, and of course the irrepressible Lloyd Kaufman.

My only real major complaint after all that? Not enough Frank Mullen, as he’s an East Coast guy and Balsamo (and bro) are relatively recent ex-pats to the West Coast. You’d have to see previous Balsamo films to get why, and you should.

The ending was certainly not what I was expecting, which is a good thing. Is it silly and ridiculous? Yeah, but it works in the story, and if you think you have it all figured out, you may be surprised. And stick around for after the credits,

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Review: Orlok, the Vampire

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

Orlok, the Vampire
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Quality Cheese, MVD Visual
Appx 90 minutes, 1922 / 2009 / 2010

It was a mix of cultures and styles, German Expressionist Cinema and British manners, and a legal battle that would be among the first in the burgeoning film business of Europe that resounded worldwide.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922, was more than loosely based on Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula, nine years before Bela Lugosi would portray the villainous vampire on film, and decades before the throat-biters would narrowly be seen meekly as sensitive heartthrobs and adversaries for werewolves (and other, less brooding bloodsuckers).

Stoker’s family sued over the copyright, and won. All known copies were ordered destroyed, and it joined Edison’s Frankenstein as one of the great “lost” early film prints. But as with cinematic dinosaurs, nature finds a way, and prints started turning up over the years. As an ironic note, it was no longer under copyright during the advent of the VCR, so copies of it were everywhere, usually on cheap brands at low rez speed (ELP). I had an 8mm Blackhawk Films 200’-reel (20 minutes) version, and one of the bad VHS dubs.

Thus we come to this new release, retitled Orlok, the Vampire… in 3D, yet! Being an old black & white film, it makes total sense this could use the older technology of green and red separation. Two paper glasses are included, I should add.

All copies I’ve seen of this film over the years are a bit scratchy, and it seems each have a different set of title cards; the character names vary among the original book and the film. For example, the real estate agent in Dracula was Jonathan Harker, and in Nosferatu it was Thomas Hutter, but in this new release, it is Jonathan Hutter, a mixture of both.

It is easy to identify who is who from book to film, and Stoker's estate was right to sue (in subsequent copies, Stoker is listed as writer). There is a bit of a stir-up here, though (as Akira Kurosawa also did with Shakespeare’s plays), such as Hutter’s boss, Knock, turning into a “Renfield,” bug-eating character.

There is no denying that this is a groundbreaking and thoroughly effective, creepy film. Max Schreck, as Graf [Count] Orlok, is even taller, stiff, hunched, and lanky than Phantasm’s “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm). Schreck presents a precedent-setting evil figure. Many elements of Murnau version have become iconic, such as Orlok’s raising out of his grave from horizontal to vertical while stiff as a board, used in Coppola’s Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992, and the 1979 remake by Werner Herzog; it’s been copied more than Potemkin’s baby carriage step-bounce (just imagine all the scenes that Brian De Palma could have – err – honored if he had made a remake).

There are so many other moments of brilliance in Mureau’s version, such as Orlok's face sticking through his busted wooden coffin lid, when he stalks Ellen (Mina) from the window across the courtyard, or when the shadow of Orlok’s hand “grabs” Ellen’s heart. Without the over-exaggeration common in German Expressionism such as Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari, this film still retains much of its eerie flavor nearly 90 years later.

The print here is decent, though I do dream of a “restored” version (but as far as I know one does not exist). As for the 3D effects, added by Chris Heuer, it should be pointed out that not all of it is in that format, reserved mainly for scenes with the vampire, the title cards, and the occasional bat used for separating acts (though it goes by so fast, it’s hard to tell if it actually is in 3D with the glasses). The new soundtrack is a bit too fluffy and not sinister enough though, and the grunts and noises the characters make are a bit distracting, so I recommend watching it with the sound off, or turned way down.

This film is a classic. It’s still a joy to watch for me, even after numerous viewings over the years. The camera work and editing is revolutionary, and the actors are still sharp – although they do the typical hands-flinging-about emoting that was common in silent films, a throwback from the non-amplified theater stages. Orlok – even in 3D – is worth a see, and re-viewing.

There are limited extras here, and in fact, there are strangely no chapter breaks, so if you stop and start again, you have to zoom to your last spot. However, there are two different versions on the DVD, one with the 3D and one in normal 2D. Also, there is a bizarre introduction by Troma master Lloyd Kaufman, who does what I’m pretty sure is an off-the-cuff spiel that is so ludicrous – and hysterically funny – that he even refers to this 1922 film as a remake of Schindler’s List! Can a 3D Toxie be far behind?

This review was originally published in

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Reviews: The Short Films of Andrea Ricca

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Italian director Andrea Ricca has been making short horror and Sci-Fi films since the late 1990s. All the 14 included here are without dialogue – though worth listening to for the amusingly and occasionally cheesy electronic music. Many are humorous, and are made on extremely low budgets, but with a lot of love; at least that’s the impression they give. These films are all mostly one-man projects, when it comes to the production (and sometimes the acting). Ricca does nearly all his own “scripting, shooting, acting, editing, special effects, 3D modellation and animation” (though occasionally he’s helped on the post-productions. That is extremely impressive considering the volume of output. Don’t believe me? All the films reviewed on this blog are free, which are presented in alphabetical order rather than chronological,  so watch so see them yourself HERE

Alien Worms
4 minutes, 2016
A member of the U.F.O.B.I. governmental agency follows the trail of a space craft that has crashed to Earth with a bunch of, well, alien worms onboard that are subsequently let loose. They look like smaller versions of the worms from either Tremors (1990) or Dune (1984). He fights them in a house, with the use of high-tech equipment and a handgun. The worms’ are definitely homemade digital, and sometimes they look great, and occasionally they look static, even when they move; think of a still picture being pulled across the screen. All in all, it’s actually a fun pic, and doesn’t last very long, with an obligatory ending style. It’s a drama with a nice style.

Aliens Night
7:40 minutes, 2014
A really fun and pleasing piece about a scientist (Sefani Autori) who is surprised at home by three Greys, who have dubious, yet unknown, ideas regarding her. The hunter and hunted switch roles back and forth, playing nicely. The aliens look good, though they move a bit like that digital dancing lizard that everyone seems to be imitating on Social Media. As a storyline, albeit short, this is actually quite satisfying, though lots of questions are left unanswered, hopefully done so by the 2016 sequel below.

Aliens Night 2: The Grey’s Return
4:00 minutes, 2016
The sequel is taken less seriously than the first, being more comedic, which I’m also okay with; this seem actually unrelated to the previous other than the same spaceship and aliens models are used. This time the Greys show up at a man’s house (Ricca), and he tries to razzle dazzle them, again with the hunter/hunted paradigms. In all, it was quite amusing and enjoyable, though quite not-what-would-happen; however, the ending is a bit of a snide commentary on UFO fandom that I believe to be quite accurate.

The Amulet of Fear
5:29 minutes, 2017
While taking a break from reading a horror novel, a woman (Ludovica Ferrara) finds a strange amulet in a small wicker basket, and before you know it, she must use her ingenuity (and yes, a hand gun) to fend off a mysterious digital demon creature in an it’s-you-or-me game of life or death. There is some subtle humor though it’s dark, but remains fun throughout its short run. I am definitely seeing a trend through the films, but it’s mashed up enough to keep it interesting. Though obviously digital, the creature looks pretty good.

The Furfangs
5:04 minutes, 2010
A man (Ricca) on the eve of getting engaged has a visit from a small, rag-tag group of space furballs with fangs that are about the size of softballs reminiscent of the tribbles, with eyes and teeth similar to the Zuni doll in the classic TV film, Trilogy of Terror (1975); there is even a nod to it with a toaster oven. Unlike the Karen Black release, this is an effective comedy that could have been longer, and still would have been worth the watch.

The Furfangs 2
2:12 minutes, 2011
While much shorter, this one is more ominous than its predecessor, with our intrepid hero (still no spouse) once again visited by a trio of these digital dustballs, and once again he uses various common household appliances to thwart them as best he can; perhaps a primer on how to deal with these creatures should they actually show up at the viewers’ door? As with the first, he keeps his calm, even though knocked about here and there, and fights for the right to… party? Anyway, I got distracted. There is a hint of a third in the series, and I’m ready.

The Giant Scorpion
4:05 minutes, 2016
While at home (I am really seeing a motif here), a young and agile woman (Ilaria Lamberti) is visited by a scorpion that is about the size of a large German Shephard, transformed from a normal one by the radiation from a meteorite that lands nearby (that nobody seems to have heard; I’m just sayin’). She resourcefully uses household items to fend off the creature, which seems to be a bit slow moving; that being said, the weight difference between the small insect and the larger one would probably make a difference as it tries to compensate. And the ending made me smile in a winking at millennials way.

The Guardian
4:11 minutes, 2008
As a chance of pace, a modern Indiana Jones (Michele Di Mauro), if you will, finds a treasure of a small and ancient clay bottle that is protected by a, yep, guardian. This OG looks a lot like the skeleton guards from Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and his murder in its eyes… well, its skull, anyway. It’s out to get back said ceramic, with his shield, helmet and vorpal sword in hand (the former leading to an extremely amusing moment that is acknowledged by the background music, and alone is worth seeing.

The Ouija Board Secret
2:00 minutes, 2018
This recent film follows a bit of the same formula of a guy (Ricca) in his house under attack by ghosts and demons, but there are some demonstrable differences from anything I’ve seen before, such as there being two human (I believe) characters, one of whom seems to be based on the Asian angry-dead-woman-in-white-with-long-hair genre (The Ring, the Grudge, etc.), but this one has a more sinister tone than previous Ricca works and takes in off in a bit of a different departure than the others I’ve seen up to now. The effects are getting better and there are definitely some script growth of which I approve (not that I’m telling Ricca how to do his films!).

Space Monster
3:35 minutes, 2015
Gloss-lipped and cute Ilaria Lamberti is home alone when an extraterrestrial container lands in her yard. The evil, nasty titular creature breaks out and chases her out to her car as she tries to make her escape, but not without the beastie hopping onto the roof of the car, as she valiantly tries to shake it off and/or kill it. It’s a well done chase scene where everything except Lamberti and the car are CGI, once she leaves the house. Though short and sweet, there is a nice level of suspense, but it’s hard to have a dull film with a speeding car and a monster, eh wot? This is a fun drive, but more for the viewer than the protagonist, I would assume.

Spider Danger
5:03 minutes, 2012
After the destruction of a spider planet, the debris from it lands in the yard of a man (Ricca) that has a pet sider (in a glass fish-tank kind of structure), who is of course totally unaware of this object crashing nearby. Suddenly his own spider grows huge and the eggs of a batch of spiders from the other plant (rather than Spiders from Mars, I guess) are on the prowl, with the guy defending himself, yes, with objects found around the house. It’s amusing with a nice turn at the end, with a bit of humor.

The Spirit Board
5:17 minutes, 2016
The bored new owner of a house (Ilaria Lamberti) finds a Ouija board with the smallest palette I’ve ever seen, at about the size of an American dollar coin. She holds a solo séance that unleashes a nasty spirit that has come to take her back to…wherever it came from. She has to outsmart it, or die trying. While not a comedy, there are some nice spooky moments that may still bring a smile in bemusement. The short is shot in a mixture of green-tinted black and white, and a wash-out color.

The Spooky Ghost
7:00 minutes, 2013
A young woman (Francesca Simonelli) in a tight tanktop’s car runs out of gas on a deserted road besides an old and spooky house that’s for sale. Of course, the house comes with a ghostly tenant that looks like it belongs in Disney’s Haunted Mansion: it’s green, chubby, and has both a bowtie and derby hat. In this comic turn, while the ghost is hardly scary (purposefully, I am assuming), there are other really nice FX moments that are bound to please those who like PG fare. It’s a battle of the wits between our heroine and the spooky ghost. This really was a hoot.

UFO Race
2:25 minutes, 2009
For an amusing end, we catch up (see what I did there?) with a solo driver (Ricca) who meets up with a UFO filled with a couple of bored ETs on a lonely road. So what do they do? They challenge the dude to a race, of course. A bit tortoise and hare premise, considering the flying machine can travel between solar systems, but the guy is up for it. It ends with a smile for everyone, especially the viewer. It’s damn silly, but sometimes that just what one needs in a landscape full of Xenomorphs and Predators.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Review: Habit

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

Directed by Simeon Halligan
Not a Number / Tin Hat Productions / Blue Diamond Pictures
96 minutes, 2017 / 2018

Manchester, England, England / Across the Atlantic Sea… It’s a town known for, among other things, melancholia, producing such music as the Smiths and Joy Division / New Order (none of whom show up in the soundtrack, thankfully). Not exactly a cheery lot. So it makes sense that it would be the locale for a somber film of blood, guts and… well, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Elliot James Langridge
Based on the novel by Stephen McGeagh, we are introduced to slacker Michael (Elliot James Langridge) who meets Lee (Jessica Barden, the big name in the cast due to her work on the 2017 Brit series “The End of the F***ing World”) on the way to an employment agency. Late at underdressed in a gray hoodie, he’s a bit seedy, and she’s excitable, in a way reminiscent of the Melanie Griffith character in Something Wild (1986), without the extreme and exaggerated danger level, though she seems more stable as time goes on. Before the scene is over and less than 10 minutes into the film, she’s talked her way into moving in with him and his toe-jam pickin’ roommate, Dig (Andrew Ellis); think of the Rhys Ifans character from Nodding Hill (1999), though without the charm. Personally, I would have asked for some ID to see her age; Barden is mid-‘20s, but can easily pass for close to underage, wildish or not. Why take the chance, eh? Anyway, I digress…

Jessica Barden
To thank him for the arrangement, Lee gets him a job at her Uncle Ian’s (William Ash) – err – massage parlour working the door security. It isn’t long before he discovers the big secret of the place, though it isn’t that hard to figure out, even if you just watch the trailer or see the attached publicity photos. It’s also not a new theme these days, with the likes of the “Santa Clarita Diet” (2017-ongoing) and especially Raw (2016).

The film builds nicely, one foot in front of the other, as we delve ever deeper into Michael’s old (through dreams and flashback) and new life. Lee hints early on that she knows that he’s ”different,” and being a genre film, you know something wicked this way comes in wrappings of a woman with a child-like face. A similar technique is used in real life to drag life stragglers into cults, and this one is a doozy.

Roxanne Pallett
There is a bit of competition hinted at between Lee and one of the women at the parlor, the very hot Alex (Roxanne Pallett, sporting a very ‘60s Carnaby Street vibe; think Julie Christie), who is somewhat the antithesis of Lee (cute-sexy vs. hooker-sexy). Also caught up in the whole thing is Michael’s confused and OCD sister with some PSTD issues, Mand (cute Sally Carman, currently on “Coronation Street”).

Nearly everything the audience learns about events is parallel to when Michael becomes aware. This is a nice touch, as is the predictability factor, which is a mixed bag. For example, there is one death that is expected, some unexpected, and honestly one I thought I saw coming that didn’t happen (no spoiler alerts).

The cast is certainly not acting newbies, all having long histories in British productions, especially telly series. Most have been in similar shows from time to time, and I’m going to assume that many of them know each other from this work, as the British market – especially up north in Manchester – is probably limited to some extent. What I’m trying to say, is that the cast is stellar, playing nuanced performances that give credibility to the characters, no matter how outlandish the activities involved.

Sally Carman
The film also looks stunning. Camera work, lighting, and cinematographic framing are offset by a somewhat languid editing that draws the viewer in, rather than lingering too long to the point of distraction. It also reminds me a bit of Long Night in a Dead City, which was filmed around the same time in New England. Know that the accents here are thick as fleas and twice as chewy.

On some level this can be considered an organized crime genre, but there is way too much of body parts and moistness for this to be just your average crime caper. Also, it’s too controlled to be considered a slasher film, either. But know there is a nice body count, and a lot of body jus.

The ending is left wide open, I suppose for the possibility of a sequel, which I will also gladly eat up. The average film viewer may not want to have a meal before watching this, but if you’re a genre junkie like me, you’ll relish this over some White Castle (what’s the British equivalent?) and a cuppa… red wine.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Review: Trophy Heads

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet, unless indicated

Trophy Heads                                           
Produced and directed by Charles Band
Full Moon / MVD Video
87 minutes / 2014

In general, I don’t believe that genre fan would really argue that the films from Full Moon Entertainment – and Charles Bands’ in particular – are as cheesy as they come. This has been true since the VCR revolution in the early 1980s. Silly scripts, sometimes questionable acting and amateurish effects not only dominated throughout the Full Moon catalog, but fuck, does Band know how to direct or produce films that make all of that work so well. The Puppet Master, Trancers and Subspecies series alone would be perfect examples, but then add in the likes of Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988), The Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989), and so many others; it’s not just a bunch of crazy films, but rather a canon of so-bad-it’s-good cinema that every horror aficionado should know.

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve seen most of the golden age Full Moon catalog from essentially the late ‘70s through the early ‘90s (yes, on VHS), renting them with glee as they came out. Not all of them were keen to me (e.g., Castle Freak [1995], by one of my fave directors, Stewart Gordon, who… sorry, I’m jumping the gun, so more on this later), but I would not miss out on my chances to experience them because they were so much fun. As I’m writing this, even more Full Moon films keep coming to mind, such as Meridian (1990).

Adam Noble Roberts
Anyway, I couldn’t help but smile and digress at this point, so let’s get back to the film at hand. Like the first Scream (1996), this is an incredibly self-referential a-nod’s-as-good-as-a-wink-to-a-blind-bat release, with a half-dozen of the ‘80s and ‘90s Scream Queens [SQ] playing some version of themselves in the present, being held captive by a basement-living nerd looney loser named Max (Adam Noble Roberts), and his over-indulgent, enabling, and equally crazy mom (the great Maria Olsen).

Max is concerned that the Queens of the movies he loves (Full Moon features are mentioned and shown, of course, such as Creepozoids; 1987) will be forgotten as they age, and insanely feels it’s his personal mission to capture them, and mount their heads so they will be forever remembered. Early on in the film, two of the SQ royalty get kidnapped: Linnea Quigley (here, Sister Quigley as she has bathed herself in the blood of Christ), and the seriously intelligent and deep voiced Brinke Stevens, as well as Lisa (Irena Murphy, who spends most of her time in the film topless). They are caged in Max and Mom’s basement, as the actresses’ own videos play, as well as the opening SQ’s death, Darcy DeMoss.

Michelle Bauer
Max and Mom have the SQs recreate a scene from one of their own films, no matter how poorly and inaccurate (a comment on the original films’ lack of aptitude?) and then uses that as a means to – err – immortalize them, in their own fashion. It’s actually weirdly and effectively creepy in that it’s not the characters that “die,” but these fictionalized versions of themselves. Some of the other SQs include the still lovely Michelle Bauer (always one of my faves in my own fanboy days), Denice Duff and later-SQ, Jacqueline Lovell.

These were the SQs of my youth, as it were, and Band is wise to find a way get them not only to have some new performances, but he also gets to promote his own Full Moon line, as most of these SQs were in his films, such as Head of the Family (1996) and some of the others mentioned above. Definitely a win-win situation for all involved, I would hope. Even the smaller roles are up and coming SQs in Full Moon flicks like the Evil Bong franchise (I’m not making that up).

Yes, there are also some stunning prerequisite cameos throughout the film. The one that will get a lot of notice is director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator [1985], From Beyond [1986]) who plays a particularly obnoxious Harvey Weinstein-ish creepy version of himself (well, I hope it’s a version…), Carel Struycken (Lurch in the 1990’s Addams Family reboot) and the still lovely Kristen DeBell (Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy from 1976; Meatballs in 1979). Another Full Moon director of cult classics, David DeCoteau, has a brief bit as well.

These versions of the cast come across as humorously vain and often self-centered, be it unapologetically self-motivated on one side of the spectrum, to overly religiously fanatical and trying to share Jeebus with the world on the other. Now, I’ve actually had the opportunity to meet some of them in my life (mostly at Chiller Theatre Cons; see pics below), and they came across as friendly to both their fans and each other. These cartoonish adaptations is more feeding to an audience who imagines that they are like their characters, than what these actresses have brought to the screen, not to mention a generation of teen boys.

Maria Olsen
Max and his mom are actually quite fun characters, and both actors fulfill their roles with glee, which transfers to the screen. Both actors have just the right amount of twitches and reactions that enhance the characters while both mocking them, and making them somewhat pitiable. Max is as much a cartoon stereotype of a fanboy as these SQs are to their on-screen personas as presented here. And it’s pretty obvious that Max is not playing with a full deck, as he has quite intense conversations with the post-decapitated and stuffed heads. And we hear not only them chide Max, but have conversations with each other.

Oh, did I happen to mention that this is a comedy? While I complained a bit about the writing of the earlier fare, this one is actually quite smart while still being just a bit goofy. It’s definitely a step up in that way, especially the dialogue. There are definitely some serious moments, but even those can be taken with a beer, if one is so inclined (I never drink…alcohol).
Each of the deaths is quite different and shot well. And what’s more this is extremely entertaining, whether you’ve seen the originals or not, or whether you’ve heard of the cast or not (though shame on you if you haven’t learned your horror history).

There are some weird moments that make no sense to me, such as Mom wearing white to drag a bloody body, or one SC actually pushing Max, and then rather than fighting and taking away the weapon, keeps on running. Yeah, this doesn’t make logic, but again, it’s a Full Moon feature, so yaz takez what yaz getz, and have fun with it.

Brinke Stevens
(pic by RBF)
One important thing that Full Moon brought to the home market video is that they were among the first to add “extras” to the ends of the VHS, usually in the form of a documentary called the “Videozone.” It should come as no surprise and a pleasant reward that they continue the trend with this film’s own “Videozone”; they even use the same opening graffix (but the digital noise cleaned up and it’s been updated a bit). For 10:16, this is an enjoyable Making Of featurette with most of the main characters discussing working on the set, talks with the director, and with each other. The 22-minute “Uncut Footage” is less interesting behind-the-shooting, including rehearsals, and conversations among Band and some of the SQs, among others.

Linnea Quigley(pic by RBF)
Next up is a “Submit Your Head” feature shows what I believe are some of the backers’ heads treated the same way as the SQs in the bloody, green frame for 2:52. Note that while they are shown one by one here, they are presented in groups at the end of the feature. Along with Audio Options (stereo and Dolby Surround), there are 8 trailers of classic Full Moon features, many among those mentioned in the film, as well as the one for this film.

Last up (though second on the list of extras options) is the full length commentary, consisting of the director Charles Band, and stars Brinke Stevens, Darcy DeMoss and Jacqueline Lowell. Between them actually just watching the film, they definitely tell some great anecdotes about their lives, the shoot, and little pieces of details that make the factoids fun (such as info about a particular mask Max wears).

Michelle Bauer(pic by RBF)
An argument could be made that the victims are all Scream Queens and not Kings, but let’s face it, yeah, it’s sexist as hell, but the these films in the ‘80s were geared towards horny teen boys who would obsess over the female rather than the male. I mean, during the “Videozone” and commentary, Band consistently refers to these actresses as “the girls,” which I found to be…uncomfortable. Good thing he made such an enjoyable movie.

If the film feels episodic, it should come as no surprise as this release started out as a 5-segment web series, but it folds together quite well, and the fact that here are distinct acts works for the film rather than against it, helping to keep the attention of the viewer without having that jump cut feeling. While I may have my issues with some of the gender aspects, as I said, the end result is an enjoyable and well-written piece.