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
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.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Review: The Girl in the Crawlspace

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

The Girl in the Crawlspace
Written and directed by John Oak Dalton
New Dynamic Pictures
76 minutes, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of centralized indie cinema is how a local scene forms and then spirals into growth for everyone, much like a music locale. In the Indiana area where this film takes place, there is a group of filmmakers whose work strongly overlaps. On the director side there is Henrique Couto (who produced this and was Director of Photography) and Dustin Mills (who, as far as I know, has nothing directly to do with this one); as for John Oak Dalton, he’s written a few of the films directed those I’ve just mentioned, and this is his own directorial debut. There is also an acting pool that tends to overlap as well, especially the centerpiece of The Girl in the Crawlspace [TGitC], Erin R. Ryan, whose fan base is growing.

John Hambrick, Erin R. Ryan, Joni Durian
When we approach the story for TGitC, the horrific events of Jill (Ryan) are in the past, and she has escaped from the Crawlspace Killer after 7 years of captivity. Now, to paraphrase the Dusty Springfield song, “She just don’t know what to do with herself” thanks to a heavy and understandable dose of PTSD This is the spine of the story, but actually, Jill isn’t even the central character.

More than a “horror film,” this is an intense, tight psychological drama focusing more on Kristin/Kitty (Joni Durian), a psychologist who had moved from this same small town to Hollywood, and has now come back after inheriting the family home. She has set up a therapy practice based on the families of the serial killer’s victims, who were mostly young boys and Jill.

Kristin has brought along the other main focus of the film, her husband Johnny (John Hambrick, who co-starred in Couto’s 2017 Devil’s Trail) who has quite the history on his own: he’s a semi-successful screenwriter with writer’s block since he’s joined Narcotics Anonymous, and is not exactly what one would call a reliable partner. Okay, he’s a douche nozzle that either can’t or won’t grasp what is socially acceptable living in a small town.

The last major character is the Sheriff, Woody (Tom Cherry, who also was Casting Director). He’s a bit slow and a good-hearted, and actually quite likeable. He’s also the guy who killed the Crawlspace Killer, so Kristin worries about his First Responder PTSD.

This is a sharply written and directed first feature, and it bodes well for possibilities of the shapes of things to come. Dalton plays with the experience for the viewer, keeping the viewer off balance with red herrings and working the psycho-trauma tropes that we fans are so used to, and adding something new all the time. At least four times I thought I figured out the ending, and three times I was wrong, but my errors were also addressed within the storyline. How cool.

There is also a bit of social commentary that doesn’t hit you over the head with self-righteousness, but rather keeps it in the public eye. For example, there is a slight focus on the fragility of Mexican migrant workers and how they can easily be exploited, as they have been; it’s ironic talking about taking kids from families and then the government starts to do it to reinforce the notion.

Working with an experienced filmmaker like Couto also brings out some really nice moments, such as Kristin and Johnny arguing in near yellow silhouette in a living room, in front of lamps and a curtained window as the camera rolls back and forth between them. There are little gem moments like that throughout.

The weak point to me in the film’s story is the fluidity of lack of patient/doctor (psychologist) confidentiality. For example, Kristen is too willing to share her own narrative with her patients, even if she grew up with them in her life; you talk about it in social gatherings, not during paying sessions, which is a serious breach of trust. She also talks way too much to Johnny about Jill, especially considering the couple’s relationship. I work in a not-for-profit, and I would never discuss my clients with anyone other than getting advice from my boss – and that’s without p/d legalities. However, in cinematic poetic license, I understand talking to someone onscreen is the equivalent to telling the audience what a character is thinking.

One of my favorite aspects of this film is that it delves into the Tarantino-esque trivia knowledge of a film fan (not just horror, though there is especially that), with different characters spouting actor’s roles in specific films. Note that if you are not one of these encyclopaedia-level nerds (like me), this aspect is not overwhelming and doesn’t take a single thing away from the story or events, but if you are… well, for me, my find was racing to answer my own list. The moments of RPG (role playing games) is similar in that while it’s somewhat key to the story, it actually does not matter if you’ve ever played one (I have no interest), it’s just a cool shade to the film.

Another commentary I want to discuss is a group rant about Hollywood’s somewhat “sucking at the dry teat” of horror sequels. Yes, that’s a direct quote from the film, and I agree wholeheartedly.

Ryan, photographed by Henrique Couto
The last thing I want to bring up is how much I was impressed by Ryan’s performance. I’ve seen her in a few indies now (and as usual, dressed in red), and I do believe this is one of the more nuanced acting I’ve seen from her, and I want to acknowledge that. Though not the not the main focus of the film, as I said, she’s its shadow, coming in at moments to change the direction of the story.

I love it when a film surprises me in its subtly among the mind games. There is no gore and very little blood, an implied body count, a generally attractive cast, and an ending that is quite satisfying.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review: The Electric Chair

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

The Electric Chair
Written, produced and directed by Mark Eisenstein
Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
105 minutes, 
1985 / 2010

Whether Mark (Marcus) Eisenstein’s work could be put into the transgressive film category is borderline, but he does have an aggressive style that has a large dose of religion (mostly Jewish), confrontation, and imagery.

His The Electric Chair, from 1985, has long (well, for 25 years) been considered a piece of “lost cinema,” directed by this film professor from Jersey City State College. Fortunately, Wild Eye Productions has not only seen fit to release this piece of unorthodox cinema, but has also added in a whole bunch of Eisenstein’s shorter pieces as extras, along with some trailers and a track commentary. But more of that later.

Written originally as a play that was mounted but once, Eisenstein (okay from now on I’m just referring to him as ME…deal with it) decided to make a film out of it, and offered the lead role to Harvey Keitel, who actually wanted to direct it as well. ME was all for it, but due to prior commitments, Keitel backed out and offered up his pal Victor Argo in the lead. Yes, the heavily Jewish role was handed to an actor of Puerto Rican heritage, who just nailed the part perfectly. There is a lot of dialog in long bursts, and being trained as a stage actor, Argo was more than up for it. After filming for no pay, it sat in the can in minimally edited form for years, even after Argo’s death in 2004.

Though filmed in the ‘80s, ME finally finished the black and white film by editing in some footage he took of decrepit buildings on Block Island in the Long Island Sound (or would that be considered the Atlantic?) in 1971, in splashes throughout the narrative, effectively adding a layer of mood to the zeitgeist of the story.

The basic premise of the plot is centered around a shoe salesman, Arnie Schwartz, a lonely man whose marriage has grown as tired as he is, and who spends nights doing a stand-up comedy and music show at a local bar in New Jersey (where most of ME’s films are located). An electric chair appears on the stage as he is bombing, and in front of an audience that represents his whole life, he is warned not to achieve several levels of intimacy with the object.

As the gig does on, the comedy act turns into a rant about the philosophy of comedy, and bit by bit focuses in on his life, God, and schtupping, which uses up most of the film. It takes a strong actor to be able to portray this level of anger and still remain somewhat sympathetic (though in the commentary, ME states that he was not going for sympathy, just the anger), if not pathetic. In front of his mother, himself as a young man dominated by her, his kid sister, a sax playing rabbi, a couple engaged in their own intimacy, and others, Arnie rails right to the climax, which comes as no surprise. However, it is the last shot of the film that I found the most effective and unnerving.

The time goes quickly, and Argo is more than up for the task of possibly his only starring role in his long career. Keitel would also have done well, but Argo brings some depth to his emotions, and can punch out the lengthy gunfire dialog, while in close-up, without ever making it redundant or boring. It’s hard to turn away as he gives his all, which is even more impressive considering, as I said, he wasn’t even paid for it. That’s dedication to a craft.

The images of the super 16mm film (except for the Block Island footage, which is a grainy 16mm) is exceptionally sharp, giving a near German Expressionist pastiche, with high contrasts and an occasional glow, with Argo’s white suit against a black background. It’s the facial close-ups where the shadows are the most effective. My only qualm is the editing, sometimes a bit too sharp and jarring, or perhaps that was the meaning (the other Eisenstein filmmaker, Sergei, was famously noted for proclaiming that “editing is motion”).

This is definitely not a date movie, nor is it a backdrop film. It needs special care and attention from the viewer to see the slow build-up to the finale, and all the subtlety in-between as the tone of the film changes.

The commentary was interesting all the way through, though I felt like I wanted a second one. ME is paired up with indie filmmaker Peter Crocker (I may have this name wrong) and Rob Hauschild of Wild Eye Productions; Crocker is an “expert” on the film, and runs off with the conversation a number of times; I just wanted to say “shut-up, this isn’t your film” more than once. A lot of technical questions are discussed about the film, the “hardware” as it were (pre-production, production, and post-production), but not enough, I feel, on the “software” (plot, meaning, intentions). I would have liked more insight on what ME was trying to “say,” and at key moments, such as the ending, I thought, “why are you talking about that instead of what’s on the screen?” Don’t get me wrong, the commentary is full of fascinating facts, it just left me wanting more than it offered.

The shorts by ME that are included, and there are several of them, run from the “mini-feature” of “The Roach,” which lasts more than 20 minutes, to a couple that are just a few minutes.

“The Roach” is an interesting set piece of a waterbug that suddenly becomes human, but still scuttles about, played well by 20-something hipster type Eric Mednis. He has no dialog, and flops around when he’s on his back. The Roach is as confused about the human world as it is about him. He keeps following a profane exterminator named Mr. Acme, played by Nick Taylor, and is nearly seduced by a lonely woman (Joan Moossy, who is in many of ME’s productions), before the film ends, Nero-and-Poppaea -style. The film is simple and smart, and obviously a reversal of Kafka’s infamous “The Metamorphosis,” and is one of his few works here in color.

Some of the shorts are extremely esoteric, such as “The Smog” (1967; 6.5 min.), where people are filmed talking in a smog while their voices are re-recorded; “Eight Tragedy Term Papers Plus Three by Maggie Murphy” (1967; 15 min.) in which a real-life poetic term paper by a student who passed away is read by ME as a typewriter types out newswire stories; and in “Mark Eisenstein: Inventor of the Frame” (1982, 1.5 min.), the director explains how he “invented” the frame for cinema (before, supposedly no one knew where to look). There are a couple of others of varying success, but interesting to help put The Electric Chair into a larger picture of Eisenstein’s process.

There are also some trailers put out by Wild Eye Productions, though there is also one for an unreleased Eisenstein film called “God Is On Their Side,” an (I am assuming) allegorical tale of trying to get God on one side or another during a war, while all he wants to do is sing, dance, and smoke cigars. Why am I so interested in this? Simply because God is played by (and credited to) Buster Poindexter, also known as New York Dolls’ vocalist and Staten Island’s own David Johansen.