Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review: The Devil’s Carnival

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

The Devil’s Carnival
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
Cleopatra Records / Blah Shank Productions / Empire Film & Entertainment Group / Execution Style Entertainment / MVD Visual
56 minutes, 2012 / 2018 

Don’t let this film’s short runtime fool ya, there is a lot to unpack in this Blu-ray and DVD twin package, including that it’s a horror musical, which I’ll be getting to, but let’s start with the plot proper.

There’s three interlocking tales based on greed/ego, blind trust (via lust is my interpretation) and grief/suicide, mixed with the telling of Aesop’s Fables. That’s the basic premise, but there is just so much going on at the same time. The carnival is the entranceway to hell, and each person coming through is tested to get to the next step, making sure not to break any of the “666 Rules” (a song reminiscent to a twisted version of “Seasons of Love” from Rent; yeah, I went there).

Shot on a set in the open California desert (i.e., outdoors) in the middle of winter (Jan), this plays out more like a garish – err – play than just a movie, though it’s obviously not just a filmed performance. It’s deeper than it looks at first glance. And in that glance there is garish red and green lights, harlequins, clowns, a little person, and a ticket master (as opposed to the actually evil Ticketmaster service) who reminds me of a twisted Fagin (Dayton Callie; he was a regular on both “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy”).

Dayton Callie
One of the stories involves a man named John (Sean Patrick Flanery, who played Indiana Jones on the 1990s television version) who is fitfully depressed, thereby taking the step to end his life. Another is about a woman, Ms. Merrywood (Briana Evigan, the lead from 2008’s Step Up 2: The Streets), who is an unrepentant thief and narcissist, leading her to meet the cops with a weapon, sending her on her way south; the last is a married woman, Tamara (Jessica Lowndes, from the “90210” reboot, and a professional singer/songwriter) who is guilty of having really bad taste in men, such as her abusive husband, who takes matters into his own hands when she won’t obey. All three end up with tickets to the carnival and have to work their way through it. The problem they faced in life is also those they need to work on in the post-living.

Terrance Zdunich, by the writer of the film and its music and plays a very interesting looking Devil, does not take the obvious road when it comes to the songs. Yeah, “666 Rules” is kinda catchy, but most of the music is dense, off-beat and dissonant, and sometimes lyrically hard to make out; thankfully there are captions.

Jessica Lowndes
Everyone in the film seems to be having fun doing it, and there are some “names” in the cast, such as Alexa PenaVega (from the Spy Kid series), musician Emilie Autumn, and Bill Moseley (from House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects). The film is definitely dark in tone – though not overwhelmingly so – but that’s not surprising considering Darren Lynn Bousman also directed the likes of Saw II through Saw IV.

Not only are the songs odd, but so is the whole production, and again, that’s meant complimentary. For example, rather than filling out the film to the usual 90 minutes, Bousman kept it where it was supposed to be, even if it fell to under an hour. I wish more filmmakers could figure out that shorter may work better than a forcefully filled-out longer release.

This is a smart and brave film. It goes in a direction that one usually would imagine any piece of cinema with money behind it doing (this cost under $200K) but not only does it work, but it obviously was geared for the cult audience that followed Bousman and Zdunich with their earlier film, Repo: The Genetic Opera (2008). They took a live version of that show on the road, and it was quite successful with people dressing like the characters. They did the same with this film, with equal success. What it made me think of in style (though not spiritually the same) is the cult and extremely hard to find (but worth it) Dr. Caligari (1989).
Alexa PenaVega
Being a Blu-ray and DVD combo, you just know there are going to be hours and hours of extras. For example there are three full commentaries. The first is with Bousman and Zdunich and is worth the listen to hear about the background behind not only the actual filming, but all the stuff that went on around it from creation and on. The second is with Evigan, Autumn, and a very loud Flanery. For this one, egos reign, so everyone talks at the same time and it’s hard to get much out of it, other than Flanery’s mind is in his pants. I couldn’t make it through this one, giving up pretty early on at 10 minutes. The third and final one is a Repo reunion, with Bousman, Zdunich, Paul Sorvino, Moseley, ohGr (aka Ogre; also a musician, who was in Skinny Puppy), and PenaVega. It’s a bit noisy and chaotic with that many people at once, usually a mistake in my opinion, because with the exception of Sorvino and PenaVega who have distinctive voices, it’s hard to tell who is talking, and again, lots of overlap.

The next extras section is the documentaries. First up is the 49:41 “The Devil Made Me Do It: The Making of The Devil’s Carnival.” It’s mostly interesting interviews with cast and crew, with some footage from the film and even more behind the scenes shots. While it could easily have been half the length, it still wasn’t boring, just that parts were redundant from the commentary.

Terrance Zdunich
Next is “A Devil of a Time: The Devil’s Carnival Road Tour” at 31:17, which explores two “tours” the film did around the US with members of the crew and cast going to each show and doing talks and signings of shirts, CDs and posters. Many of these members are interviewed and discussed being on the road. These tours were held in 2012, and helped pay for the next film in what is probably going to be a series (see the last paragraph below). And as a sidenote, it was great seeing a brief interview with Miss Hannah Jinx/Minx (konichi wa!), who has since retired from acting and her YouTube channel.

The last documentary is “The Devil’s in the Details: The Special Make-up and Prosthetic Effects of The Devil’s Carnival,” which lasts 13:45. This one focuses on Vincent Caustini, who handled the special make-up F/X.

Another group of extras is five different forms of trailers from the film, including two for the live show and an extended dance sequence with Emilie Autumn fluttering around what appears to be a dressing room.
There was a sequel in 2016, Alleluia! The Devi’s Carnival, which I have not yet seen, that picks up where this one left off, but with a more mainstream cast, such as Paul Sorvino again, Barry Bostwick, David Hasselhoff, and Jesus…I mean, Ted Neely. Most of the cast of this film also returned. If this did become a series, that would be cool as hell.

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