Sunday, January 20, 2019

Web-series Review: Under the Flowers: Season 1 and Season 2

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Under the Flowers: Season 1
Written and directed by Richard T. Wilson   
Mad Shelley Films / RTW Productions
17 minutes, 2016

Starting out as a ghost-themed short film called “The Halloween Girl,” it has been expanded into a Web series.

Jackie (Katie Stahl), who is about to drop out of college, is searching for a boy who seems to be in trouble. She’s been having visions and sees dead people, and it seems like everyone she meets knows more about this strange boy than her, including, Nick (Scott A. Evans) a guy by a campfire who appears when she passes out, or Poe (Lauren LaVera), who looks like she fell into a vat of goth.

Katie Stahl, Gabrielle Huggins
Helping her as she can is Jackie’s bestie, Ella (Gabrielle Huggins), who has a whiff on the situation, and seems to know more than she’s letting on. Meanwhile, Jackie keeps passing out and having these odd and scary visions.
 Broken up into four chapters (averaging 4+ minutes each), we enter Jackie’s world in Southern New Jersey (near Philly), and see things from her perspective, learning at the same time she does. This is an unusual take on a ghost story whose ending I didn’t see coming.

There is little blood and minimal onscreen violence, but rather it focuses more on the characters and the story, and thereby drawing the viewer in. With its short span, it manages to cover quite a lot of ground. There’s a bit of an artistic flair, with some quick editing, but none of that gets in the way of the most important part, which is the tale itself.

The cast is attractive, and happily for this rare moment seems age appropriate (i.e., they look college age, rather than about to go into their Middle Age).

There is one question I have about the ending, which I won’t posit here and give anything away, but I am assuming it will be resolved in Season 2. I’m looking forward to that. 

 Under the Flowers: Season 2: Circle of Hell
18 minutes, 2018

The second season focuses more on Poe (Lauren LaVera), who transforms into Rose (Amanda Kay Livezey), thanks to her Virgil-like guide, Nerissa (Kirsten Lee Hess), who is taking her through her paces as they are fleeing from evil forces trying to get Rose/Poe’s soul.  

Lauren LaVera
Along the way, they meet other travelers, some innocent, others not as much. With additional digital effects that are actually quite effective and striking, we flip locales, between the forest and elsewhere. In the latter, we once again meet Charlotte (Catherine Kustra), the character from the original “The Halloween Girl,” who had more of a cameo in Season 1.
The first season won some awards, and thanks in part to that, the second is a bit more grand in style and form, having a more solid looking foundation with better editing, effects as I mentioned, and is even more engaging than the first (and both kept my interest throughout its run, albeit short).

This second season kind of answers the question I had from the previous one, though of course there are questions raised about the ending here, which I’m sure will come to light in Season 3, which is now in development.


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review: House of Purgatory

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

House of Purgatory
Written and directed Tyler Christensen
Watching Eye Productions / Terror Films / MVD Entertainment
75 minutes, 2016 / 2018 

As I’ve oft said, tangle up enough well-worn tropes and you may find yourself with something unusual. This one has a blast of ‘em, from structures that appear out of nowhere and are (of course) evil, to malevolent forces that know your secrets and fears, all based around a couple of couples of overaged actors playing high school teens on a road trip. This I get from the trailer, alone.

Halloween “haunted house” attractions are becoming increasingly popular. A truly haunted one is almost too good an opportunity to miss. Location? Unknown. That’s where the road trip comes in, of course. It sounds like a supernatural Talon Falls, but we shall see.

After a nice jump start, we are introduced to a group of high school (have to stop here to giggle) students who are partying on Halloween. Four of them decide to find the urban legend Halloween house that pays you back if you make it all the way through.

Brad Fry, Laura Coover, Anne Leighton, Aaron Galvin
The first couple is Amber (Laura Coover) and Ryan (Brad Fry). He’s the instigator and a bit of a macho dick who pressures everyone to keep on a-goin’. Amber comes from a religious family and we actually don’t learn too much about her, but more on that later.

The second couple is “nice guy” Nate (Aaron Galvin) and the unofficial star of this short feature, Anne Leighton. I guess she could be considered the level-headed one, but she’s in the same sitch as the rest of the kids [giggle].

When they do find the House of Purgatory, whether it’s the place of the urban legend or not is unclear, which is a wise choice on the part of the filmmakers, we learn that it is being run by a guy with a skull loosely painted on his face (Brian Krause, who in an extended cameo, is the biggest name in the cast, having been a “Whitelighter” on the television show “Charmed” for years) a la Captain Spaulding of Night of a 1000 Corpses (2003).

Brian Krause
The House also knows your deepest, darkest secrets; says that right on the entrance. However, we know little about this band of fodder for evil purposes, so while we learn their secrets eventually, fortunately we are given a miniscule portion of what their life is/was like, and what brought them to that moment at that point. What bothered me, though, is that in two cases, their “secret” is/was not a choice, but something that is/was put on them. No spoilers promise.
Which makes me wonder about the backers of this film. One could actually see it as a “Christian” fear theme sub-genre, with punishments that go beyond the deeds. In some cases, it seems like the parents are the ones who should be there, rather than these teens [giggle].

I’m also a bit annoyed at the throwing around of words like “gay (as in “that’s so gay”) and “retarded.” In the right context I don’t have a problem with the use of the words or not, but in this case it took me out of the moment, which is what you don’t want to do when watching a film, especially a genre one. For example, wondering if a particular character is gay because he’s nice is, well, whatever. But the “that’s so gay” is tiresome and passé.

Okay, so I’ve whined a bit upfront, but that’s not to say there aren’t some really fine touches throughout. For example, when our foursome finally do get into the Shed of Purgatory (you’ll see what I mean when you watch the film), there are different floors leading downward. Wisely, it starts slow and then continues to build tension as different floors are reached, escalating to a couple of perfectly pitched lulls in the bam! excitement level, letting the tension build again. No constant clobbering over the head, this is more like riding the waves. And yet, the angst remains in both the confusion of the characters and for us as everyone tries to figure out the characters’ next step (both figuratively and literally).
Note that there is practically no blood, but the sets look great and the cast is attractive.

A fun game when watching films like this is to “guess the references” to other genre films whose tropes are present. For example, there is one key element here from I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), and a bit from the Sarah Hyland horror (read that as you wish), Satanic (2016).

The film is short at 75 minutes, and it could have been beefed up just a little with some expository info about the background of the characters, rather than just at the point of the secret revelation. That being said, there are also other parts that could have been cut down a bit, such as much of the pumpkin carving scene.

The extras are sound choices, chapters, captions (for which I am always grateful), and three trailers (one non-genre, and one for this film).

This is what I call a serviceable story. What I mean by that is that it’s not rocket science, but it does its job of being entertaining. Sometimes that just what a viewer needs when dealing with characters that are teens [giggle].


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: Welcome to Hell

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Welcome to Hell
Directed by Tony Newton (bookends and collection), Michael Agular,
James Cullen Bressack, Brad Bruce, Colin Clarke, Henrik Bjerregaard Clausen,
Jeff Kacmarynski, Sam Mason-Bell
Vestra Pictures / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Entertainment
92 minutes, 2018

Sure, anthology films can be hit and/or miss, but that’s part of their charm. Don’t like this story? Next! Usually, there’s a thread or bookends that ties them all together, sometimes loosely, others not at all. In some cases, the collection is designed to be created for the thread, and in some of those situations, the stories may even overlap. Other sets are put together independently, with the director of the thread being the one to gather them, much like a collection of short stories with an annotated prologue. This particular one from the UK is the latter, taking films from the international level and assembling them.

The bookends here are of a couple who receive a mysterious VHS tape through the mail slot, and watch these tales of hopefully terror. Yeah, it’s a well-worn trope, especially after Ringu (and its various sequels and versions made in other countries – and they are lots), but it’s fine because it’s just the bits tying things together, usually with a “surprise” at the end. In this case these bookends are inconsequential and probably could have been left out, honestly. The meat is in the shorts (get yer mind outta da gutter), which are separated only by VHS “noise.” All the better for it.

The first story is Michael Agular’s “After Hours” from 2016, starring the great Bill Oberst, Jr., one of the most naturalistic genre actors around. He never disappoints. Here is plays a police detective out to solve a late-night (hence the title) mysterious murder in a religious charity thrift store. Of course, the religious (Christian) theme ties in with the title of this collection. The ending is quick, so pay attention. Personally, I don’t think the short achieved its goal to scare because not enough information is given about what (a) happened to the employee, (b) the guy in the hoodie, and (c) well, the ending (not going to give it or any other spoilers).

Next up is Colin Clarke’s 2015 “Slit,” from Ecuador, though the extremely minimal dialog is dubbed into English. We meet two women who, apparently, have just met each other, and decided to continue their – err – conversation at home undressed. The film is beautifully shot with Dario Argento-ish bright primary colors, and for a long time we see mostly partial faces (lips kissing, close-up of eyes), but not the whole cara at once. With some quick editing (but not dizzying) the hot pulse of the moment is cinematically translated. Into their life comes someone with some sharpies (hence the title), as well as coming into our view is some (primary?) red herrings. This short was nicely done.

Following is James Cullen Bressack’s 2013 “Family Time.” In shades of To Die For (1995) with a special and sick twist, Susan (Calico Cooper, daughter of Alice) welcomes us to her nightmare mentality as she manipulates her teenage son to do something terrible. So far, this is the most uncomfortable piece, and just the idea alone of it as than anything that happens onscreen. The question is, as we see, how far she will go to manipulate those that she professes to love to destroy those she hates. And the ending is quite satisfying in a really creepy, organic way that’s bound to make you say eww. Nice blood SFX along the way.

So, it makes sense that next up continues the family theme of sorts with Jeff Kacmarynski’s 2014 “Dead Therapy.” While it’s easy to pick up the clues of what is going to happen, this is still a pretty fun and original story about a 12-step style support group of the survivors of a two-week Zombie outbreak. A new member joins and we get to hear the horrific stories of all these stalwart and damaged people who had to do soul-crushing deeds of survival and are now all PTSD-laden. While predictable in some ways, it is worth the watch.

Following is the brief 8:21 Danish short (in English) by Henrik Bjerregaard Clausen, 2016’s “Lucid.” Shown as a dream sequence, this is a really interesting nugget of deep psychological schizophrenia of a depressed man. It felt like under 5 minutes because it was so absorbing. The visual image look is like VHS warm and fuzzy, but the story is anything but those two things.

Many times the best of the group either leads to entice the viewer until the end, or it is put at the end as a showcase. In this case, Brad Bruce’s 2015 “Maternal Instincts” ends the series with a bang. Scream Queen Felissa Rose (if you don’t know who she is, look her up) plays a mysterious woman who is picked up in a bar by some tall-but-not-too-smart egocentric gangster lout, and gets over-drugged by this asshole in a subtle commentary about date rape culture. But, of course, you know things aren’t what they appear, and there will be hell to pay. It’s a smart piece, and again, on some level you can see what will come, though the method is held to the end in a very satisfying way. Some of the acting is a bit clunky here and there, but the story holds well.

As a set, this is a nice combination of various genres, from the psychological to the slasher to a couple of creature features. It’s well rounded, the stories are all intriguing in one form or another, and with the exception of the bookends, they are just the right amount of attention grabbers. I didn’t skip over anything, which I rarely do anyway, but with a short, it’s actually more tempting than a feature. Not here: it’s watchable straight through.

Extras are a bunch of fun Wild Eye Releasing trailers, including this one.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Review: Worst Horror Movie Ever Made

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

Worst Horror Movie Ever Made
Directed by Bill Zebub
Bill Zebub Productions / MVD Visual
110 minutes, 2008

If a viewer is seeking Spielberg-Lucas-Scorsese-type mastery of cinema and suspense, well, you’re questing in the wrong direction. However, if one is more into the likes of Craven, Carpenter and Hooper, well, you’re still aiming a bit too high. What you have here is, simply, a film directed by Bill Zebub.

And if one is willing to suspend disbelief (via will power, or other substances), his guaranteed-to-offend-everyone style is a laugh-a-minute joy ride that will not make any sense, not leave you better for the viewing, but may satisfy something deep inside that speaks to the DIY-punk ethics and may remain with you past the end, even if it’s a “what the hell was that?”. This is sloppy fun that may actual make you think, “Hey, I can make something as good, if not better, myself!” Bill, I get the feeling, and would encourage that. As he warns on the back of the box: “Contains nudity, creativity, and a complex plot.”

This entire film probably cost less than a coffee. Well, perhaps more because it was filmed once before in 2005, but scrapped and redone. Officially, the name of this is actually The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made: The Re-Make. Unfortunately, I never did get to see the original.

There are two main protagonists: Bill (played by Zebub) and his girlfriend, Danish Jeanne (portrayed by Andrea Szel; she’s not listed in the credit on IMDB, so I’m wondering if this was her choice – which would be understandable – or if she didn’t get along with Bill, and he snubbed her.

The film is fired off in the first of a number of set pieces, during a card game of strip poker. While some guests are being murdered in the kitchen by an ax murder who maniacally states lines like “Ax-acty,” and “I’ll bet you’re ax-periencing ax-crusiating pain,” Bill and Jeanne are arguing, and during a game of 52-card pick-up, Bill ax-cidentially – now he’s got me doing it! – kills one of the guests (see the DVD cover above), all by the six of diamonds. Bill and Jeanne take off to escape, only to fall into every (intentional) horror cliché one can possibly think up.

I won’t give up all the jokes or nods, but here’s a few, both interesting and cheesy. Well, it’s all cheesy, but you know…

Bill pulls down his pants in the woods of New Jersey (all of Zebub’s films are done in Jersey, and a large portion take place in the woods for some reason). A woman sees his bare butt and claims, “Oh, no, a full moon,” turning into a werewolf. Well, a rubber wolf jowl that fits over her face that they probably picked up in a Halloween shop. Jeanne is attacked by a monster made of Bill’s poop (though you never see her or it in the same shot), and at the end she has what looks like chocolate pudding on her face. Of course, Bill states when he sees her, “You look like shit.”

From here Zebub mocks Catholics (Jesus, with a southern accent, is a villain), Muslim jihadists, the military, gays, and mostly himself. When Jeanne becomes the 50’ woman, the army shoots Bill into her, and her comment is, “As usual, I can't feel Bill when he’s in my vagina.” Yes, that’s a quote, folks.

Then there are zom-bees (yes, undead insects), spider puppets, ravaging trees (Evil Dead), and marauding rednecks. Oh, speaking of that, here is where the largest piece of suspension of everything comes into play: After being in the woods, Bill and Jeanne come out of a basement into a house. Jeanne, now mysteriously a blonde for only this segment, verbalizes how a flood came and took them from the forest and deposited them here, and she thinks it’s the deep south. Whaaaa?! I’m telling you, I replayed this comment three times because I was laughing so hard. While in that southern house, they get attacked by a mad scientist who wants to experiment on them, I should add, this is before the cretinous rednecks make their presence known.

That stretch of credulity though is just one of a series of head-scratching moments. Another is when members of the army are looking at a 50’ Jeanne through their hands shaped like binoculars, with nothing in them.

At one point, Bill ends up overmedicated at an asylum, filmed at what is obviously a food establishment (the Clash Bar in Clifton, NJ), and Jeanne manages to get him out by offering her body. They escape, and Bill then kicks her out of the car because she packed Monopoly money. While she is then attacked by Zombie Jesus (obviously a Zebub theme), Bill is picked up by two lesbian vampires. He threatens them with his own “wood” which brings derisive laughter at his “splinter.” There is a lesbian sex scene obviously here just so there could be a lesbian sex scene.

A lot happens in this film, so much more than I described, all of it of questionable taste and certainly nothing socially redeeming in any stretch of the imagination. But what it does have it a ton of fun if you like this kind of out-there filmmaking.

Shot on a digital, handheld camera, this truly is DIY. The acting is stiff (especially Szel), the writing is non-existent, the effects are – what part of chocolate pudding don’t you get? – though there are some digital effects that were interesting, like Jeanne’s 50’ treatment, and Jesus flying through the air while nailed to a cross. The music, mostly death metal, is supplied by Sophia, Leaves Eyes, Septic Flesh, Korova, Beau Hunks, Hollenthon, Parzival, and the Jethros. There is also the incidental music from The Little Rascals and Laurel and Hardy thrown in (along with an evil Hardy puppet a la a sexual Chucky.

Watching the 15-minute outtakes and bloopers, Zebub comes across as either the fun guy at a party, or a complete jerk (suddenly screaming in the face of his costar without notice to scare her, is one example), I’m not sure. I do bet that his shoots are memorable.

Two shorts are included, both of which are extended scenes: Elyse Cheri does bikini strip in the wood for 3 minutes (feels longer), and Kathy Rice leads the lesbian vampire scene for a lengthy 8 minutes.

All 10 of the coming attractions are Zebub’s releases, such as Bad Acid, Dirtbags: Evil Never Felt So Good, Revenge of the Scream Queens, ZombieChrist (reviewed in this column earlier), and the metal documentary Metal Retardation.

The real bonus, however, is the inclusion of one of Bill’s earlier releases, Assmonster: The Making of a Horror Film (2006), about a trio of friends who find the DIY spirit when they realize that someone is selling bad DVR films at conventions for $30 apiece, and they sell because they include nudity and – and I use this word loosely – horror. This film is also fun, and actually is probably closer to autobiographically how Zebub began his career, such as it is.

So, bad film, bad acting, bad writing, no talent to speak of, but from beginning to end, it will hold your attention, make you laugh, raise your ire on many levels, and if you’re like me, lead to you wanting to see more of Zebub’s work.

This review was originally published in