Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: Alien 2: On Earth

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

Alien 2: On Earth
Directed by Ciro Ippolito (as Sam Cromwell)
Midnight Legacy
85 minutes, USD $19.95

Fulci. Argento. Deodato. These are names that will sound familiar to those who find joy in the Italian horror sub-genre generally referred to as giallo. The more current ultra-horror films such as Hostel, Saw, and Wolf Creek, may not have existed without these extreme and surgically efficient foreign bloodfests (then again, would the giallo have seen any light without the likes of American pioneer Hershell Gordon Lewis? But I digress…).

Perhaps the biggest promoter of these European films, especially in the New World, was the advent of the new videotape market. During the 1980s, the two largest renters were the extreme horror films and porn. Part of the reason was accessibility. Sure, one could have gone to any of the Times Square theaters and gotten their fill, but anyone away from these kinds of grindhouse theaters would probably be clueless. But then there was the VHS…

One of the problems of seeing these films via video in those heady days of the ‘80 is that the ever-hungry market would release just about anything that might sell, even if it was an incomplete copy; sometimes the story made no sense at all due to sections being removed by a specific European country’s moral codes. This may vary from country to country, so there were many different versions of these releases floating around.

Alien 2: On Earth (originally Alien 2 Sulla Terra) is a supposed sequel to the original Alien, from 1980. While never having an official theater showing stateside, like many of these foreign films, it was released under various names, including Alien Terror and Strangers. Another quirk of the early VHS days was the tendency of the production companies to call just about any film a sequel to anything that did well at the box office. This is a bit of an exception though, because director Ciro Ippolito (who also went by the pseudonym Sam Cromwell for this, his first directorial effort) meant this as an “unofficial” sequel, even though the bonds to the original James Cameron opus are negligible, at best (i.e., human hosts and snake-like creatures eventually popping out).

Alien 2 is, in hindsight, best described as having aspects of Alien, the underground spelunking death-trap of The Cave or The Depth, just a smidgen of The Night of the Living Dead, and the deserted streets scenarios of, well, so many others. The story is pretty simple: an American spacecraft returns to earth, and somehow, between starting its descent and the at-sea rescue (great Mercury-period stock footage is used during the opening shots), the astronauts have mysteriously disappeared. Around the same time, a strange sparkling rock is found by a group of friends (with big period hair, both female and male) in a small town near San Diego, before they head into a large cave system they plan to explore. For some reason, the main character, Thelma (Belinda Mayne), who is sometimes psychic and can tell that something is going to happen (unless it ruins a plot surprise moment, apparently), takes the football-sized rock, puts it in her backpack, and takes it with her from the surface into the cave (why not leave it in the car rather than schlepping it?). This shiny stone ends up actually being an egg for creatures brought back on the spaceship, and when it comes out of the rubbery-looking stone its destination is the host’s body.

From there, it’s a race to get to get out of the cave through alternative directions before becoming lunch. And once outside, will it be much better? Yes, there is gore, as a very puppet-looking creatures busts through a head with an eyeball hanging, or a head slides off a body (both seen in the trailer), for example. Despite the blood and guts, it is more really? than stomach-churning (unless you’re sensitive to these things). However, it is still a pleasure to see devices used rather than CGI.

Oh, and the inconsistent mistakes are wonderful. For example, while running through a supposedly empty city, as the camera follows the main character(s) while a street is crossed, the viewer can see a red light down the block and a car with its brake-light on. When the light turns green, the brake-light goes off and the car starts to move.

Just as with manga cinema, there are definite cues that this is giallo, almost like a checklist. There’s the close-up of the face with a light on it while a mysterious wind blows the flowing hair, the even closer shots of wide-eyes (though the “whites-only” eyes, usually a standard, is missing here), the shrill and two-tone electronic music (ooo-waaaa-oooo-waaaa), the shaky monster-cam view, and the very quick zoom in and out in Dr. Tongue’s House of Horror style. And like many Japanese films, the dubbed, over-enunciated voices are familiar to anyone who has watched a few of these films. In much of this release, while it is obvious that the actors are speaking English, the vocal track is recorded over back into English nevertheless.

Mayne’s character is the only one with any substance (relatively speaking), though there is no history given to her. Everyone else, including her (boyfriend?) (husband?), are inconsequential, or at least the equivalent of the members of the away crew of the Enterprise who were not in the main cast.

Okay, this is a silly film, granted, but as giallo goes, it is a fun flick that will fill an appetite for this genre. Yeah, if you’re a fan of these films as I am, leave your suspension of any disbelief before you slip this disc into your player, and you’re bound to have a fun time. Oh, here are some official things to note about this particular release: it’s in both DVD and Blu-Ray, it’s the first release by new company Midnight Legacy (let’s hope they let a lot more come our way), and it’s widescreen, taken from the original 35mm negative (rather than just copied from one of the myriad of VHS releases) They claim it is the most complete version available. All good news for giallo fans around the world.

So, grab some ‘corn, because it’s just what’s in order for watching this release.

This was originally published on

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Review: A Meowy Halloween

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

A Meowy Halloween
Directed and edited by Steve Rudzinski
Silver Spotlight Films
48 minutes, 2018
Yeah, I know, this isn’t really the kind of film you’d expect me to be covering. Well, it’s an indie, it has a horror topic, and it’s directed by the creator of the likes of CarousHELL, Everyone Must Die, and Captain Z and the Terror of Leviathan (all of which, and more, have been reviewed on this blog). The fact that it’s geared towards children (kinda sorta) is a positive thing, as it helps bring in the next generation of fans to keep genre films going. Besides, this is also a sequel to last year’s also holiday-themed A Meowy Christmas.

Most of Rudzinki’s stories revolve around a mysterious force that comes from the unknown, or in the case of Captain Z, conjured up, but even then the force behind it is a supernatural entity that originates from occult worlds.

Our main cast of characters in this live action comedy (who we hear think) are a cat named Whiskers (played by Gizmos and voiced by Amie Wrenn), a pet rat who goes by Chuck (Kida, d. 2018; voiced by Aaron Fletchersmith with a cartoonish Noo Yawwk axc’nt), and a human who is a New York City Police Detective called Wally Griswold (played and voiced by Rudzinski). As you may devise from Rudzinski’s character’s name, this film is a non-stop pun mobile. Oh, and Griswold’s police partner is Rick (Ben Dietels, who directed and starred in last year’s horror comedy, Slaughter Drive, also reviewed on this blog).

There are two plotlines going on at the same time, which is never confusing. On the job, Griswold is staking out a house where he believes a witch, Lisa (Cerra Atkins), is doing something nefarious, as kids go in normal and come out monsters. He is obsessed with this. Oh, and Griswold is not very bright, but generally cheerful, which is explained in the film’s prologue.

Meanwhile, the household animals are trying to figure out if the house is haunted, and will go to wild measures and expenses to figure out the mystery. While Whiskers is not exactly anywhere near a rocket scientist (after all, she’s a cat), she certainly more computer savvy than your average kitty; for example, she uses Griswold’s credit card to order a copy of the Nekkomeownicon. But she is also a bit obsessed in her own right with a television show hosted by a guy (Bill Murphy, co-writer of the story) who has his own mumbled and rambling fixation on conspiracy theories (an obvious smirk at InfoWars).

This is a silly film, and is intended to be, as nods of self-reference and word play abound. It’s a kids film the way Bugs Bunny was a kid’s cartoon, with humor that will obviously go over the head of wee ones.

Short and sweet, it’s worthy of a gander if you’re after a hoot, or you have some 10-ish kids around (it may be scary for younger than that, though with what’s available online these days, who knows). It is being made available on Prime Video, free with subscription, or as low as 99 cents to rent. You can get a physical copy from the company website.

Bonus Review:

A Meowy Halloween
Directed and edited by Steve Rudzinski
Silver Spotlight Films
55 minutes, 2017

As I said, although this came out first, I saw it second, so please accommodate some of my comments in that direction.

Underachieving and over-emphatic Wally Griswold (Rudzinski) lives in a neighborhood that is being besieged by robbers during the holidays who like to open the Christmas presents and they pick and choose what to take. Meanwhile, one of the victims, Irene (Renee DiAlisandro) has asked Wally to watch over her family heirloom, a huuuuge ruby worth… a lot.

The two burglars, Barb (Aleen Isley) and Larry (Blake O’Donnell), get wind of this, and decide to make the Griswold household the last stop down the chimney, as it were, and get the jewel as they head out of the country. However, they don’t realize what they are up against with Wally’s pets: Chuck the rat (voiced by Aaron Fletchersmith) and the kitty Whiskers (voiced by Amie Wrenn), who has a fear of Extra-terrestrials taking over the world thanks to the InfoData show she watches, misunderstanding the term “illegal aliens” (again, she’s a cat)

Steve Rudzinski
Both films are full of references to other ones, such as part of this nod to Home Alone (1990), but rather than a bratty little kid setting up snares and traps, it’s a cat and a rat. And they’re practically as successful without actually putting the burglars’ lives in danger (seriously, a paint can on a string, Kevin?; you’re lucky you weren’t sent away).

Also like HA, the burglars are bumbling, though not as nasty as Pesci and Stern, but rather are merely more incompetent. An amusing aspect is that Larry and Wally are probably equal on level of brain power, and both get glee out of little things such as opening presents or pets.

Are these two slices of short cinema a bit over-the-top saccharine? Oh, you bet, but because of the context of the film and the way it is written and acted – not to mention it’s short length – that’s more part of the charm than a hindrance.

Fun stuff.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review: Lost Child

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

Lost Child (aka Tatterdemalion)
Directed by Ramaa Mosley
Green Hummingbird Entertainment / Laundry Films /
Variant Pictures / Breaking Glass Pictures / Green Hummingbird Entertainment / Laundry Films
101 minutes, 2018

Have to say, I really like many of the local legend subgenre releases, whether the mythical beings are “real” (e.g., can be found on Wikipedia) or made up simply for a particular film. It seems many of them refer to backwoods areas like the Ozarks regions. This one, y’all, is one-a-‘em, about a life-draining spirit that comes in the form of a child called the Tatterdemalion (translated as a person in tattered clothing, or being dilapidated). This film actually began titled with the name of the creature, but they were wise enough to change it to its present, more accessible one.

Leven Rambin
Here, we meet redheaded Fern (a glamoured-down Leven Rambin, o the mainstream-level. The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, and “True Detective”), who has come home to said Ozarks after nearly a decade to look for her brother, bringing with her a strain of PTSD from multiple tours of combat. While ramblin’ about looking for her kin, she stumbles into a kid named Cecil (newcomer Landon Edwards) roaming around the woods by his own self, and takes him in.

Of course, everyone is nervous that the kinder is said tatten… you know what, I’m really glad they changed the name. Anyway, people keep giving Cecil different kinds of tests (like to see if he avoids salt). The response is left kind of open of course, not to show a hand one way or another.

That’s one of the things I like about the film, that you really don’t know what’s going on between suspicion, fear and reality. Meanwhile, Fern has been fading and weakening, having trouble sleeping and eating. While they take place, the viewer is left to try and guess if these tests prove if it’s the PTSD or perhaps the Tattythingie.

As a side note, one of the things that drives me a bit crazy and seems inconsistent in the storyline is that if Fern grew up in these here woods, why has she never heard of the Tattsrats if everyone else has? This seems like a bit of a plot hole. And let’s not talk about that Cecil wears the same clothes throughout most of the first half of the film, that are unstained while living in the woods, being tan cargo pants and a white tee.

Landon Edwards
Anyway, like most psychological or supernatural dramas, whatever this turns out of be, it has a pretty slow build, so the viewer gets some perspective about the people and the area, though a bit of patience is needed as an uneasy bond builds between Cecil and Fern. Luckily, it’s beautifully shot with hues that are of earth tones, nice angles, and the camera isn’t afraid to linger on a shot for more than five seconds, as with most modern releases; usually the bigger the budget, the less space between edits.

The film seems to take place in the early 1990s, considering the huge size of computer, lack of cell phones and internet, and I’m pretty sure Fern is coming back from the first Gulf War. It was a tipping point in history, just before different cultures would collide and then splinter even further thanks to the World Wide Web. But it also makes people to not be able to look things up and get instant answers (such as me looking up the Tattentinkle on Google).

There’s also three dudes that come acallin’ in one form or another. The first one is Mike (Jim Parrack), a relative Southern Gentlemen social worker type who isn’t afraid of a one night stand, another is Billy (Taylor John Smith) her estranged brother who is a patch of rough and violent southern gravel, and the third, Fig (Kip Duane Collins) is neck deep in the local mythology. Some extremes to choose from, but I’m willing to bet that not everyone is as they seem, even though I haven’t gotten that far (yes, I’m writing as I’m watching).

 One of the things I really like about this film is that it does not shy away from social commentary about the first Bush years. There is extreme poverty shown, a kids in custody problem (which currently still exists, even in the North, by the way), drug use, and essentially backwoods ignorance that one would hope has improved somewhat (though the occupant of present White House may show different).

Jim Parrack
A fanatical belief in creatures in the woods is similar to religious fervour, which brings fear, blame, and then anger in a misdirected way to adapt to what is going on around one; in logic it’s known as a fallacy from ignorance: my sheep died so there must be something evil out there as I don’t know why else.

As slow a start as the film kicks off on, it gradually builds, and the entire third act is an incredible thriller that comes as a surprise due to its step-by-step building of events and personae. If you’ve started the story, give it the time. There’s no jump scares, no viscera, but there is violence and hardship coming to a very satisfying conclusion.

This film has a lot to unpack. It’s more than just about some Untiddytang creature, it’s also about the overarching social and governmental routine as monster, which did not take care of veterans, was unsupportive of extreme poverty, and a social system of child custody, which is one scary mofo (I have loosely been involved with the latter, and see the results of government policy as it stands).

This is definitely from a female perspective, of a female character in a male society, but even with all the political and social standings it presents, it never takes away from the story nor does it hit the viewer over the head. It’s all subtle and emphasizes the points of the story rather than distracts from them.

Again, to be overly redundant, it’s good they changed the name of the film.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review: Double Feature of Don’t Look in the Basement; Don’t Open the Door

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

Both these films have been combined in a two-disk Blu-ray / DVD package “Grindhouse Double Feature” by VCI Entertainment and MVD Visual. Both were directed by Texas native S.F. Brownrigg (aka Brownie Brownrigg), who died in 1996 at age 58. Both of these were shot with local talent “deep in the heart of…”

Don’t Look in the Basement (aka The Forgotten)
Directed by S.F. Brownrigg
Camera 2 Productions
89 minutes, 1973 / 2018

First of all, not fer nuthin’, what can you say that about a film (or at least title) that inspired an early, great Ramones song, am I right?! 

I actually remember seeing this film when it came out, coincidently a few months after I first saw the Ramones, but I digress… While I don’t recollect the story very well, being over 40 years ago, I am surprised at how much I’m remembering of the images as I’m watching it. The fact that it’s made that much of an impression on me after all this time must stand for something, I guess.

Though I have to admit I thought it was silly at the time, I have a lot more film history under my belt and can look at it in a new perspective. And fortunately, I don’t recall the ending, so that’s a bonus.

Rosie Holotik
The film takes place at Stephens Sanatorium, a private retreat for the insane, where the cast of interesting and diverse characters include a woman who thinks her baby doll is real and threatens anyone she deems a threat (Camilla Carr), an African-American man who has the mind of a child (top-billed Bill McGhee; d. 2007), a judge who likes to reap his own justice in any manner he deems correct at the wide-eyed moment (Gene Ross), a nymphomaniac (again, remember the time period and genre) looking desperately for love (Harryette Warren), a guy who thinks he’s in the army called Sarge (Hugh Feagin), and a man who is a brat, acting like Dennis the Menace (Jessie Kirby). Meanwhile, the inmates truly are running the asylum, apparently, as the staff keeps getting killed off. Though one appropriately named Dr. Masters decides to do an Al Haig and puts herself in charge. It’s all sketchy. On top of all this, a new nurse is schedule to come at any moment. Oh, and this entire paragraph takes place before the opening credits. Yep.

Annabelle Weenick looking very Miss Togar
Looking like she just stepped out of a period Swedish Airlines Stewardess commercial, psychiatric nurse Charlotte Beale (statuesque Playboy centerfold model Rosie Holotik) has arrived on the eve of two staff deaths, and manages to talk Dr. Masters (Anne McAdams, aka Annabelle Weenick, d. 2003) into keeping her position. Of course, there’s more going on than meets the marquee.

As I watched the film, there was so much I remembered, even after so many years, including the last shot, and in particular one of the gruesome deaths, which in my memory was much more shocking than the actuality after decades of ever more detailed and close-up mayhem. There is a key point I figured out early on, though honestly I don’t really know if I remember the big shocker or I figured it out, but it is effective.

Gene Ross plays a judge in both flms
Don’t get me wrong, this is a nicely bloody film in the Grand Guignol style of Hershell Gordon Lewis (though not that graphic). The style of the film is very similar to a lot of the mid-1970s to early 1980s films that came back to light with VHS, such as Mother’s Day, Maniac, and even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, including the mostly bad acting (well, perhaps not bad as much as over-the-top theaaaahhhtrical emoting, often with the eyebrows and teeth), ridiculous storyline and a conclusion that is a bit up in the air.

But please, let me point out, because this is important for films of this period, that is why we like them, rather than in spite of it. They were goofy fun¸ and easily enjoyable without working the brain muscles too hard.

Don’t Open the Door (aka Don’t Hang Up)
Directed by S.F. Brownrigg
Camera 2 Productions / Jefferson Productions
85 minutes, 1974 / 1979 / 2018

While the Don’t Go to the Basement was Grand Guignol, this film’s style is closer aligned to the Giallo murder films from Italy, which started to show up at US theaters around the same time by the likes of Dario Argento. All one needs do is look at all the really creepy dolls to get that vibe.

There is a bit of overlap with the cast here from the former film, but that should be no surprise for an indie release. However, in the leading role is fetching Susan Bracken as Amanda, a woman with a strong personality who has left her doctor boyfriend, Nick (Hugh Feagin) after a fight, to take care of her ailing grandmother. Of course, something murderous happened in that house 13 years earlier in 1962 when she was a little girl, and you just know it’s going to come back to – well, haunt is the wrong word as there are no spirits, but you get my drift.

When she comes back, of course there are a bunch of men who want to control her decision to put her grannie in a hospital and offer to buy her house, including a judge (Gene Ross), a doctor (Jim Harrell, d. 2000), and Claude (Larry O’Dwyer), a curator of old houses. Luckily, she still has enough of Nick still wrapped around her cute finger to get him to come and sign grannie into the hospital… if she lasts that long.

Susan Bracken
As the second act begins, Amanda starts receiving phone calls harassing her. Remember, this is the period before you could see whose number was calling (barbarous!). All you see of the mystery caller is a close-up of his mouth, or some of his face in silhouette. A half hour in, it’s pretty obvious who is the mystery caller.

The old “he’s calling from inside the house” cliché was pretty young at the time, and they project that pretty fast, so I really don’t feel like I’m giving away much. There’s also a bit of misogyny (again, the period) where the caller asks Amanda to make “I’ll have what she’s having” noises on the phone. This is the creepiest thing in the film for me, and made me uncomfortable. Much of the story is kind of a comeuppance for Amanda, starting off brash and self-confinement, and ending up, well, less so. This is also a theme that is dated, but if I can theoretically accept the that-was-then of Katerina putting up with Petruchio, I guess I can think of this as part of the culture at the time (if this was released now, it would grind my gears).

Real, creepy dolls abound
As far as quality of film, this one is a vast improvement from the first, from the way it is shot using shadows and angles of the house to the benefit of the actions, the editing is pretty hot, and some of the dialogue enjoyably sounds a bit like the banter in those Spencer Tracey/Kathrine Hepburn films, giving a subtle sense of humor. The reason I say this is because, in part, Amanda kinda dresses the Girl Friday part, including the Bob ‘do and make-up.

Even with some of the same actors, the quality of the work is better, as well. The story is more filled out (though there are still some big holes, such as her not getting that the caller is seeing her, considering he is describing her actions and clothing, so to look for holes in the wall).

Sadly, the on-screen career of Susan Bracken (daughter of B-level movie star Eddie Bracken, whom I’ve always enjoyed watching) didn’t amount to much, this being her second and last film, but I would have been happy to follow her career. She does well going from one extreme emotional stance to the next.

* * *

Don't Open the Door's more artistic look
The collection’s commentary extra is for Don’t Look in the Basement, hosted by film historian David Del Valle and genre filmmaker David Decoteau. Along with interesting second hand yet knowledgeable stories about the making of the film, they also discuss the genre of the period and the effect of drive-ins on rural cinema culture. Normally I would not be very interested in so many personal stories that don’t directly relate to the making of the film, but in this case it really works because their connection to Texas independent cinema and being able to take something very local and give it a meaningful context. There is a bit of repetition, but overall it’s a good conversation that doesn’t sound smug or talks down to the listener. It is especially nice to have an explanation about the poem part relating to “little men.”

Other extras include the trailers for the two films, a collection of other grindhouse coming attractions put out by VCI Entertainment (I am a trailers fan, especially from that period, FYI), some deleted scenes from Don’t Open the Door of which about half were rightfully taken out and the others interesting in context of the story, and some handwritten production notes by the director.

What both these films have in common is that on some level they both deal with some insanity, and also its focus on what happens to a “normal” person pushed to the extremes dealing with that intensity. While …Basement is the more well-known of the two, I enjoyed both films; however …Hang Up was better overall for the reasons I have been mentioning. As a combo package, it’s all the more bettah to compare.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Review: Doll House (short)

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

Doll House
Produced and directed by Alan Dillingham
27 minutes, 2017

[To be heard in Rod Serling’s voice:] Imagine if you will a nice family: Jim (Christopher Pike) and Sarah (Elle Doucette Matarazzo) and their two cute girls (Isabella Cottrell and Gabrielle Mudgett) playing an innocent game of Life, when lunacy came to their door in the form of Doll Face (Sheri Collins Lee) and her knife. [Okay, exit Rod.]

When dealing with a slasher motif, or variations of it, many times directors feel they have to take a stab (sorry…) at blood and gore right off the bat to establish the seriousness of the situation, or being afraid of losing the audience. I believe this is underestimating most of those watching, or pandering to those who grew up on the major studios who only want to entice the dollars.

The director here makes a more wise choice and holds off… for a little bit, anyway… but still manages to clearly present the – err – clear and present danger to the family unit. Doll Face is evidently mad as she searches for a family to “join” in a more, well let’s just say rambunctious way (remember, time element of the film) than, say, The Stepfather (1987). Lee plays her with glee and holds nothing back, with a laugh that could chill ice cream.

But there are at least three surprises that I certainly did not see coming, and I will not give them away because it really is worth seeing. Doll Face’s character just keeps getting more interesting, even if it doesn’t get very deep (again, it’s a short). You just know you’re dealing with someone who is creepy, and the superb make-up job on her and the appliance SFX effects around the action are worth paying attention.

My one complaint is sound-related, in that the music that is used (actually, a perfect soundtrack for the action) tends to overshadow the dialog a bit, but not enough to drown it; it’s more a mild distraction.

The film has no compulsions to go hog wild bloody, without being overly clinical about it, which is something I like as it’s a fine line in a cinematic world that is filled with the dreaded “look what I can do!” mentality. Sometimes just presenting the violence as what it is, is all that is needed to get the mood set, and this release has just the right touch.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review: The Toybox

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

The Toybox
Directed by Tom Nagel
Skyline Entertainment / Steel House Productions /
Millman Productions / ETA Films / Ron Lee Productions
94 minutes, 2018

Wow, I haven’t seen Denise Richards or Micha Barton – who are getting the largest share of promotion for this film, and rightfully so – in quite a while. That’s not to say they haven’t been working, it’s more that they haven’t crossed my indie-focused radar.  Both Richards’ and Barton’s work has been falling under the category of horror more over the years , and I’m happy to see them there. Though I’ve never watched Baton’s launching breakthrough role on “The O.C.,” Richards has been in quite a few releases I’ve seen, from “Seinfeld” to Starship Troopers and Wild Things.

However, it was the poster that caught my eye. It kind of comes across as Amityville Horror meets The Hills Have Eyes with a titch of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s mysterious hitchers. Is it a human monster killer? Is it a deadly spirit? Is the bus itself or the people haunted? Lotsa questions to be answered, so let’s get on it!

The titular toybox in question is an old (it has a cassette player!) Recreational Vehicle (RV), or motorhome, that’s been purchased by family patriarch Charles (Greg Violand). He does not do his homework to find out who is the previous owner. He bought it o take his family out on a trip apparently to the middle of the desert to see some cave paintings, but more specifically to bring them together after the passing of the matriarch. There’s Steve (Jeff Denton, who also wrote the screenplay) and his wife Jennifer (Richards) and young daughter Olivia (Malika Michelle), and his other, acidic (i.e., black sheep) brother Jay (Brian Nagel; the director’s brother, if you are wondering); you can tell he’s trouble because he’s wears his baseball cap backwards, has a beard, and wears earbuds!).

Along the way, they find a dead car, and pick up s brother and sister named Mark (Matt Mercer) and Samantha (Barton). Early on, I’m not sure if they’re good, bad, or merely fodder for whatever is going to occur. Twenty minutes in, and there are some cool hints of mysterious things to come, such as the radio tuning itself to a version of the classic lamenting folk song, “In the Pines,” and a window with a mind of its own. Clearly there are elements here beyond the human and into supernatural otherness. I’m glad.

Denise Richards
Before any of that, while this is a killing spree flick, it seems most of the drama is within the main group: tension between husband and wife, between brothers, between the family and those who get picked up. I understand that stressful situations bring out the worst in us, and it certainly plays out here. Sort of like Thanksgiving, but instead of yams, it’s killer ghosts; instead of turkey or ham, it’s…killer ghosts. You get my drift, I’m sure. Sometimes the group inner fighting is distracting. To note, though, while the ne’er-do-well bro is a bit cliché, Nagel does well in not making him over-the-top obnoxious, which is usually the more obvious route, so again, gratitude.

One of the things about genre films, especially ghost stories, that tend to be noteworthy is the disconnect with how fast things are either dismissed or ignored right after a really creepy event. This is true of the majors as well as the indies. For example, in Poltergeist, some guy rips his face off in the mirror in an iconic scene, and then comes out of the bathroom to stop and marvel at a ghost coming down the stairs. If it was me, I would have said “fuck this shit” and walked right through the ghost and out the door. There are a few moments like that in this film, such as a sink full of blood and hair one moment and clean the next instant, in one case. Something like that would not get a response of “I have a bad feeling about this;” I would be freaking the hell out. There’s a similar event with a broken television that I won’t ruin, but honestly, I wouldn’t just “oh, there’s something wrong.” I would have set the freakin’ camper on fire and hope the smoke would bring someone.

Jeff Denton
The sensibilities of the film are more mainstream than most indies, and the high-power cast belies that. But there are also some questionable moments that made me cringe that had nothing to do with the story proper, such as Jennifer saying to Steve, “It’s your job to keep the family safe.” This is a bit heteronormative, and confusing to me. She’s trying to get him to fix the toybox to get it going again, and he says he’s no mechanic. But earlier on Mark describes Samantha as such, so shouldn’t Jennifer be confronting her rather than him? In my family, my spouse knows way more about automotives than do I, and we just accept that. Keeping families safe is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of the man. This isn’t 1980. Okay, so that rant is over, thank you for listening. And yes, for the sake of this conversation, Samantha does step up to the engine issue so that is addressed. Eventually.

There are definitely some serious issues with the behavior of some of the characters. Food and water goes bad overnight, but no one really seems to fret, even though they are in the middle of the desert. No water, but no one seems to be sweating and everyone’s hair stays shiny and luxurious (Richards keeps her iconic Farrah Fawcett curls just fine). That being said, there are some brave choice made here and there in the story you don't see very often.

Now, I’ve complained a bit about the story and writing, but let me get to both the nitty and gritty. There is a lot of blood and wounds, which look great, so thank you David Greathouse and crew.  The acting is quite good of course so no issues there, and the film looks beautiful as we look out over the golden desert terrain.

Overall, the film’s issue is more in the writing than presentation, such as no truly likeable character with whom to identify (everyone’s personality is a bit too flinty), plot questions, and choices made by the characters, such as the timing of a deep, emotional family discussion that seems oddly placed in the story and throwing off the pacing. On the other hand, as I said, it looks lovely and is certainly okay for a Saturday afternoon distraction, has some nicely disturbing otherworldly characters, more than expected blood and mayhem, and has a post-1980s feel to it that is after the VHS explosion of cheese, but before the overwhelming detail of the Hostel/Saw physical torture.

Micha Barton
In the long run, as I know I have been comparing this to other films, let me posit one other, which is a bit obscure but actually aligns pretty well: The Car, from 1977. So now, let’s talk about spooks. First of all, there is a very cool Ghost Girl (Katie Keene, who was great in Inoperable), but what was that about? There is no context in the story for her being there, and her appearance is way brief. As for the central serial killer, there is some kind of indication of possibly trying to make Robert Gunthry (David Greathouse) part of the Freddy-Jason-Michael-Pinhead pantheon, but that isn’t going to work for one simple reason: no teenagers were seen harmed or threatened during the film, as they were in the initial run of the other horror gods.

While some of the actions are telegraphed (windows shaking before closing violently), including some deaths, it’s the surprise ones that are the most fun.

Just to note, much of the crew and cast also worked together in Tom Nagel’s previous film in 2016, ClownTown, and it comes across in the quality of the way things flow between the actors, and how well the film is put together.

I caught a screener of this film, but the Blu-ray and DVD will include a feature-length commentary by the director, producer Jeff Miller, writer/actor Jeff Denton, and Brian Nagel, plus there is a behind the scenes featurette.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Review: The Song of Solomon

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

The Song of Solomon (aka American Guinea Pig: The Song of Solomon)
Directed by Stephen Biro
Oddtopussy Films / Unearthed Films / MVD Visual
91 minutes, 2015/2016

There are key phrases you come across that instantly gives you a lot more information on what is happening than is conveyed by the simple message. If you’re a genre fan, one of these is “Guinea Pig.” This may drive you away or draw you near, but you know it means extreme and transgressive cinema. Stephen Biro, who runs Unearthed Films and also directs features, has taken on the Guinea Pig moniker and concept from Japan and created his own branch series to continue the franchise, called American Guinea Pig [AGP].

This is the second of the AGP series that he directed, though he produced and/or wrote others. Happily, he’s starting to branch into more story-based tales of gore and mayhem. It seemed like the first films had limited narrative that was there to support the extremity, but finally it’s starting to feel like the story came first in importance, without losing any of the ultraviolence. Of course, that is not to say that the gooey stuff doesn’t ride shotgun.

Exorcism films (being possessed by demons, not to be confused with merely controlled by ghosts as in the haunted house genre, e.g., the Amityville franchise or The Black Room) seemed to be the rage just a few short years ago, and they have certainly ramped up the violence from, say, The Exorcist days, to where on occasion the host dies in the process; unfortunately in real life, during many deluded exorcisms, the religious figure gets overzealous, as told in 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

Jessica Cameron: The eyes have it
In our story, Mary (the lovely Jessica Cameron under a lot of well-done make-up) is hooked up by our demon before the film even starts, so we don’t get to really know much about her as a single entity. Now, she has a way of talking sarcastically out the side of a twisted mouth (such as, and this is not a direct quote, “so you think you can do something?…let’s see”).

In a parallel and overlapping story, a high-ranking Roman Catholic Bishop sends in a series of priests who have been drained and damaged by previous exorcisms (think of the action film trope where the hero is living on an island somewhere and is “damaged,” and then the boss comes and says, “I got one more job for ya.”). This all seems to take place over a single night, so there is an expectation of a sinister overarching purpose to it all.

Speaking of which, it’s easy to see the ending coming from early on – in fact it’s kind of telegraphed if you listen to the dialog (something I strongly recommend, as does Brio in more than one interview), a habit I tend to do – but it’s important to remember the genre, and the purpose is the very violent and extreme road to getting to reach the conclusion, not just to achieve being there.

There are a number of nods to other exorcism films, such as The Exorcist, with a younger priest accompanying the older, more experienced one. Of course, things don’t follow the same flight pattern, thankfully. I should point out that if you’re a devout Roman Catholic, well, first of all, what the hell are you doing watching a film like this? Lately, the RC Church has been getting a lot of (rightful) flack for behaviors of (most?) of its priests, so they have made themselves the prime targets of films like this, and again, I’m okay with it for that reason. It should also be noted that Biro is a devout Catholic and tried to make the story and dialogue as realistic as possible.

For a story this controlled, especially since a large portion of the action takes place in one beautiful wooden house (essentially the entranceway, staircase and the bedroom), there is a nice relative body count. And beyond the fatality number, the level of violence we witness is… heavenly?

For me, the big drawback of this genre of film is that often the violence goes beyond the function and it becomes almost fetishized, so the scenes tend to last longer than they need to, honestly. Stab someone in a body part and twirl it around, yeah; keep the close-up of the twisting for five minutes straight, well, it becomes tiresome and loses some of its power. While it doesn’t happen all that often here, there are a few bits that could have been – err – chopped down a bit. Please note that this is my own take on it, and I’m not being critical, actually, it’s just a personal choice of comfort/attention level.

Cameron, who is also a writer, producer and director in her own right, holds her own as her worsening character is the center hub of the story as the demon gets more control over her and her environment. Cameron seems to revel in the role and it shows. Most of the other cast is played a bit broadly, especially the priests, but considering all that happens, it’s kind of the wiser directorial choice.

In previous releases in the AGP collection, there is little dialog, minute character development and nothing to stand in the way of caring about the victims who are being tortured in the most gruesome manner by those in control. This film, I’m happy to say, takes another direction, but still manages to stay loyal to the premise. For example, while there is some mind control by the demon on those around it, most of the violence done to the human physicality is performed directly by the victim in response to past sins that come to the surface.

Need I add that the gore looks spectacular? Marcus Koch’s and Jerami Cruise’s practical / appliance SFX and make-up are central to what we watch, and both shoot for the top. There are also come really cool eye lenses used to great effect.

There are hours of extras on this Blu-ray, such as individual single-camera interviews with lead actor Jessica Cameron (20:52) who is almost unrecognizable as Mary (so kudos to Marcus and Jerami) giving great anecdotes about filming key scenes, writer/director Stephen Biro (26:37), SFX master Marcus Koch (28:07; one of the fuckin’ most fuckin’ interesting of the fuckin’ group), and Director of Photography Chris Hilleke (35:15; I lasted until 15 min) discusses how he approached the shoot and what it was like to shoot SFX.

Cameron cleans up nicely
On top of that there is an informal Behind the Scenes featurette (70:22) that is not organized but rather a collection of the shoot through set-ups that are interesting – albeit rather long – as its main focus is the SFX. For me especially, I was fascinated by the creation and workings of the magic bed. This is followed by Outtakes filled with both oopsies and practice (8:31), and a Photo Gallery containing 161 images of mostly behind the scenes stills. Oh, and did I mention there are a bunch of Unearthed trailers? Most of them have been reviewed on this blog.

Of course, the centerpieces are the two full-length commentaries. The first is with Brio and Cameron: Biro does most of the talking while Cameron sits a bit far from the microphone so she fades a bit in and out. About half of it is really good (i.e., better than most), with stories about not only the filming, but the research behind it. Being a history buff, this piqued my interest. The second is Brio, Koch (and his distinctive arm ring tats) and Cruise (who has since worked on a number of mainstream Marvel multi-million dollar extravaganzas), again filled with anecdotes about the filming; the guys go into detail about their work, though sometimes it’s a bit hard to tell who is talking. But in this case, the content is what matters, so that’s fine.

This may sound a bit strange, and I mean this in all respect to Biro and his work: as much as I like his American Guinea Pig franchise, I’m kinda hoping he’s got a comedy up in sleeve at some point soon. Hear me out. Biro co-wrote the hysterical 2014 Bubba the Redneck Werewolf, so I know he’s got it in him, and I truly believe it’s important to mix it up a bit in order to keep some sense of balance and freshness. Like, if all you eat is White Castle (mmmmmm…), you’d want to mix it up with some Asian or Tex-Mex occasionally to help you appreciate your next mini-cheeseburgers with pickles and ketchup.

Oh, and by the way, where I grew up the proper term for the first means of death in the film is a Sicilian necktie.