Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review: Clownado

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

Written, directed and edited by Todd Sheets
Extreme Entertainment / FilmCore / Mem Ferda
100 minutes, 2019

A mash-up – given the right manic proportions – can be a fun ride. For example, the original Sharknado (2013) is a mash-up of disaster films like Twister (1996) and Jaws (1975). Well, now classic b-film director (truly meant in the most admirable way ) Todd Sheets has smashed-up the mash-up by combining Sharknado with the recent clown mania that has culminated in the remake of IT (2018; as of this writing, IT Part II has not been released yet).

John O'Hara (top), Bobby Westrick, Sierra Stodden,
Dilynn \"Fawn Harvey, Antwoine Steele
There are actually many film tropes used throughout Clownado that the aficionado of the genre are able to easily check off, but here is the thing: Sheets takes those – okay, let’s use the term clichés – and turns them on their heads by de-cliché-ing them and making them his own. Here is an example of what I mean: usually, when you get a group thrown together it’s usually overaged teenagers, such as the jock, the virgin, the whore, and the shy guy. Here, Sheets gives us the trucker, Hunter Fidelis (Bobby Westrick), the innocent Rachel (Sierra Stodden), the stripper with a good heart Bambi (Dilynn Fawn Harvey, a Sheets regular), and an African-American Elvis Impersonator (Antwoine Steele, also part of Sheets’ ensemble), roaming through Dixie Country. Why are they together and on the run? Well, that’s where the plot takes us.
Savanna (Rachel Lagen) is trying to rob and escape the evil clutches of her abusive husband, Big Ronnie (John O’Hara), who owns a run-down traveling circus. Of course this idea goes bad (as the bon mot states, “Make a plan, God laughs”), and she knows he is going to kill her. What else to do? Get the gypsy woman, Autumn Moonspell (infamous amputee ex-porn star Jeanne Silver) to place a curse. Through this action, Ronnie and his clown henchmen become demonized, able to use tornados to travel after her and our quadrant of heroes, who are eventually joined by tornado hunters Chris (Jeremy Todd) and Molly (Millie Milan, both also frequent Sheets flyers).

Rachel Lagen
Taking place all in one night, the story is one continuous chase and capture, filled with lots of blood and gore and a very nice body count when all is added up. Not only is the viscera not shied away from (i.e., off-camera), but it’s usually shown in close-up. Note that the kills are mostly SFX by Buckets of Blood Productions, which are not ”clinical” but are still rather quite juicy and filled with internal organs. Of course, with the inclusion of tornados and some of the splatter, there is a bit of digi-work added as well.
The acting is way over the top, as it should be in this kind of spectacle, but it should especially be noted about the performance of O’Hara, who plays Big Ronnie as a cross somewhere between James Cagney in White Heat (1949) and a shrill Margaret Hamilton in “I’ll get you my pretty!” mode, with lots (and lots) of teeth gnashing. He steals just about every scene he’s in.

The big cameo is from Scream Queen extraordinaire, Linnea Quigley, who plays the really nasty owner of the strip club that employs Bambi. In a geekizoid homage fashion, she is Spider, the same character from Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama (1988).

One of the things I really like about Sheets’ films is that he is not limited by a particular body type. Not everyone is a model who is size 0, or plastic surgery’d to the point where chests are practically immobile from overpacking. There is also lots of upper female nudity and cleavage to keep some viewers happy. As for the men, there are no Zac Efron wannabes who look like they fell out of a boy band catalog. Rather, Sheets’ cast is filled with people who look like those you might actually meet on line at the bank, eating at the table next to yours, or fighting a gaggle of giggling killer clowns from cyclone space.

This is actually a beautifully shot film overall, and Sheets gets some great angles and frame-work (especially when he combines the two), and the story never drags. There are some questionable actions taken by the characters to add time to the story, but these nasty clowns are entertaining as hell, and the fodder characters are fun as well and keep the viewer interested. When any main character is killed here, you may find yourself saying, “Oh, maaaaaan!” That’s a sign of viewer commitment, which is a positive squarely on the shoulders of the writer/director.

Right now, Clownado is playing on the Film Fest circuit; if you get the chance to check it out there, go for it. Distribution on a power label is bound to follow, and you could add this to your Todd Sheets collection. I will add it to mine.



Friday, February 15, 2019

Reviews: Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder; HP Lovecraft’s The Unnameable

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

These two reviews are together because both were based on the literature of master writers who are as vibrant today as they were in their own time around the turn of the 20 Century. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a must read, and HP Lovecraft’s tales of the Old Ones and Cthulhu resonate today. However, these films are based on lesser known works, which I believe make them compelling. Are they loyal to the source work? Of course not, much like depictions Dracula and the films about the octopus-headed evil god. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy, right?

Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder (aka Shadow Builder)
Directed by Jamie Dixon
Applecreek Communications / Hammerhead Productions /
Imperial Entertainment / Moonstone Entertainment / MVD Rewind Collection
101 minutes, 1998 / 2018

“The Shadow Builder,” on which this is kind-of-based, is from Under the Sunset, Bram Stoker’s first collection of short stories (HERE) that was published in 1881.  In the original, the titular character could be envisioned as a sorrowful “Death” (sans scythe), who comes for a family when it’s their time (yes, I’ve read it). Like many tales of its period, where authors were paid by the number of words, it’s filled with imagery and adjectives more than narrative story, e.g., “The lonely Man’s heart grows heavier and heavier as he waits and watches, whilst the weary time passes and the countless days and nights come and go.”

And then there is this film, in which nearly everything changes or is given a more structured plotline than the original. A coven led by an evil priest resurrects the Shadowbuilder [SB] through a sacrifice and blood ritual. Rather than morose, it/he is an malevolent being with no foreboding or sadness, but rather is a creature who is after a young boy, Chris (Kevin Zegers) who is pure of heart and may become a Saint one day (yes, you read that correctly).

Andrew Jackson
In some ways, the SB (Andrew Jackson) is a cross between a vampire and a platonic incubus, in that as it passes through a victim, it sucks the energy right out of the person, leaving what looks like a burned out husk, which sometimes comes back to life (reminiscent of 1985’s Lifeforce, sans Mathilda May, but I digress…) for nefarious reasons. Also, being more demon than Death Proper, he is harmed by light, and must remain in the darkness.
On the side of light is a warrior priest, Father Vassey (Michael Rooker, of Guardians of the Universe fame, though for us genre fans, he will always be the titular mass murderer of 1989’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Chris’ mom Jenny (Leslie Hope), and her boyfriend, Sherriff Sam (Shawn Thompson). Also in a quirky extended cameo role is the great Tony Todd as a nutzoid Rasta dude with an eyepatch named Covey who, of course, is an important lynchpin to the storyline.

Michael Rooker
As time goes on, the influence of the Demon on the town (filmed in Paris, Ontario) is one of violence and mayhem, and the folks go on rampages with axes and stripping on crosses for the gratuitous nudity. There is some nonsense of course, where the SB needs a certain amount of souls for a solar eclipse to gain full power, and he’s one shy… like he couldn’t just go over to anyone in the town who have gone nuts and just grabbed one, and the opportunities are ripe with fodder. To me that’s the big hole in the plot.
I really liked the religious aspects of the film, which both assures and questions religious fervour at the same time; whether God actually does intervene or is a “stand-back” kinda guy. On one hand is mentioned “an eye for an eye,” and then someone smarmily calls the end of the world “The Book of Rationalization.” It is smart to swing both ways like that, even though it’s pretty obvious they stand by God of Creation and certainly Jesus: while it does get only a little bit heavy handed in that way, it does not interfere with the story, so I’m okay with it, being the non-religious person that I am.

There’s lots of jump scares that work, some nice blood effects, a ton of digital effects that are reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and a large body count that help boost the payload of enjoyment.

The Blu-ray has many extras, most of which are new for this re-release: The first one up is the “Making of the Shadowbuilder” featurette (32:22), which presents the director, writer Michael Stokes and its actors Jackson and Todd. There is also a “Shadowbuilder: Visual Effects” featurette (13:26) and also a look at “Shadowbuilder: Kevin Zegers” piece (5:00); it is pretty obvious they were all recorded at the same time and then edited into different groups. Luckily, all three are entertaining, especially the effects one as the director describes how he helped create a digital layering technique that was used in a ton of mainstream features, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1990).

Tony Todd
Then of course, there’s the full-length audio commentary by the director, Jamie Dixon. This is actually a nicely paced talk that reflects and rebounds off what the viewer is seeing on the screen. Dixon doesn’t just ramble on about technical aspects, it’s directly tied to the images present on the screen. This style is very informative yet low pressure for the viewer.  

Some other cool odds and end extras include a reversible, two-sided cover artwork, the trailer for the original release as well as other coming attractions, a poster folded into the clamshell case, and some subtitles that didn’t really work well off my Blu-ray player.

Like I said, some of the plotline is questionable, and other than the barest of connection to the original short story, but it’s a fun ride.

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Unnamable (aka The Unnamable)
Directed by Jean-Paul Ouellette
Unearthed Films / Yankee Classic Pictures / Unleased Classics / MVD Visual
76 minutes, 1988 / 2018

The original short story on which this film is very loosely based was first published in Weird Tales in July 1925 (HERE). While both take the longer route to get to a point or anywhere near a plot, Stoker’s style was languid, while Lovecraft uses his writing editing the same way film does, with sharpness and snippets to express excitement, such as this nameable description of the unnameable: “It was everywhere — a gelatin — a slime; a vapor; — yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes — and a blemish. It was the pit — the maelstrom — the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnameable!” (Yes, I’ve read it, too.)

This is director Jean-Paul Ouellette’s first film, and he takes the initial tale and uses it as the starting point (after the obligatory prologue where we get some of the back story of Alyda Winthrop (Katrin Alexandre), aka the named Unnameable.

Mark Parra, Charles Klausmeyer, Mark Kinsey Stephenson
The focus of the story is two intertwining groups of overaged Miskatonic University (if it’s Lovecraft, it must be there; a guerilla-style UCLA stood in for the locale) students, mostly freshmen/-women, in New England. These are people who will wind up in the spooky house where the Unnamable lives. The first is the trio of snooty and egocentric hyper-intelligent (a Sherlock Holmes meets Sheldon Cooper type, though I supposed he’s symbolically an ersatz Lovecraft) Folklorist and writer Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson), always-in-a-suit-and-tie Howard (Charles King aka Charles Klausmeyer) and obnoxious show-off Joel (Mark Parra, who is now a noted Martial Arts expert).

Laura Albert
The second group is jocks Bruce (Eban Ham, who wears a sweater around his neck) and John (Blane Wheatley), who are creepy in trying to seduce Tanya (Alexandra Durrell) and Wendy (cult fave Laura Albert in her first film; she will become a top stunt women in film, but those in the know may always think of her as Mrs. Van Houten in 1989’s Dr. Caligari).  
Of course, as time rolls on, physical contact with the titular creature will be inevitable, leading to some really nice bloodwork effects and a decent body count. The creature also looks pretty good, and it takes quite a while before one gets to see it in whole (other than a quick flash that you’ll need to hit the pause button to catch.

The acting is a bit on the wooden side, but it’s somewhat forgivable as for most of the players, this is their first roles. As I stated near the top, it’s also the director’s first feature, so there is the learning curve of getting good performances from the cast. No, my big issue is something that is endemic in movies of this period, and that is the walking around the house (in this case; in others, it could be the woods) with a flashlight or candle for extended periods. Yes, I have discussed this before in other reviews, but in this film, if combined, it must take up a good third of the entire running time. Then there is door being locked in a house full of windows. Furniture goes out windows, breaking glass. This might be a good time to mention that there is a very dark, subtle humor that runs throughout.

An interesting aspect of the film that is totally dated is the whole subplot of jocks trying to get laid at all means possible, including trying to get the ladies drunk and forced embracing. Or, as is also true here and oft the case in horror cinema, the hot girl is all, “Hello, I just met you an hour ago: let’s fuck!” These two scenarios made my skin crawl more than the beastie, honestly. And yet, I liked the film, as ridiculous and full of holes as it may be, it is definitely a piece of its time.

Eban Ham
Among the extras are separate interviews done in split screens by Jay Kay of the Horror Happens Radio podcast with actors Charles Klausmeyer and Mark Kinsey Stephenson who are friends beyond the film (78:13), Eben Ham (30:55), Laura Albert (46:16), Mark Parra (33:36),and make-up artists R. Christopher Biggs and Camille Calvet (60:03); surprisingly though, none with the director. Kay does a great job in hitting the fine points of asking the right probing questions, and still manages to touch on the marketing buzzwords of the product (i.e., this Blu-ray and its sequel).
A full audio commentary with Albert, Ham, Klausmeyer, Stephenson, Biggs and Calvet in included. As you might guess by the sheer number of people contributing to this aural annotation, it’s kind of a mess with some information, and a lot of talking over each other, sadly.  Stick to the Jay Kay interviews for real info. To add to the extras, there’s a photo gallery and various trailers, including for this film.

There is a sequel by the same director, The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1992) that has two of the same main male leads, which I have not seen yet. Time will tell.




Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Wretch

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

Written and directed by Brian Cunningham
…ThoughtFly Films
89 minutes, 2018
Right from the start, this film hits a number of interesting buttons on many fronts, including psychological, paranormal, a creature feature, and a few hikes in the snowy woods around Louisville, KY.
Riker Hill, Megan Massie
At a party, we are introduced to the three leads, who have been friends for years. The couple is Abby (Megan Massie) and Caleb (Spencer Korcz), and the third wheel is Riker (Riker Hill), who also obviously has a thing for Abby. They are Millennials who like to drink and drug, and are spiritually holding out for something better, be it between each other or through mind-altering substances. One thing they don’t seem to feel assured of is their sense of self-being. This plays a sharp dynamic in the story.
With a slow burn and languid pace, we get to know these three and their conflicts between themselves and each other as they cling to the same old ruts and conflicts they seem to be drowning in, rather than to explore new avenues of change. This is where most of the tension of the film arises, but of course, there is so much more.
Spencer Korcz
Each of the three is flawed in their own way, as are we, I suppose. Riker is a “morose drunk” who has anger issues dealing with his unrequited passion for Abby, and living with his mom and sister. For Caleb, well, I don’t want to go into too many details because it would be a spoiler alert, but being faithful is not one of his strong suits. As for Abby, she’s lost and confused, and afraid to make big changes even though it’s pretty obvious the reasons she should.
The three spend a night in the woods imbibing on a hallucinogenic substance, and Abby claims to see something in the woods, which may have followed her home. Is it real? Is it in her mind? Is it the drugs? That is the direction the film takes, and brings the viewer along with it.
There is a lot of angst in the film, but not necessarily because of killing sprees or copious amounts of gore, but rather digs into the psychology of these three, while still hinting at something more, and if you haven’t been wrecked by the joy-ride pacing of most releases these days and still have the patience to take in what is happening, it’s actually quite well done. Don’t get me wrong, there is sex, blood and violence, but it’s kept somewhat in check by the story (and rightfully so).
The acting by the three leads is well done, with much of the strength being with Massie, who is essentially the lynchpin character of the action. This is especially interesting as the film is filled with local Louisville underground theater actors who are relatively unknown outside of their home turf… so far.
As for the creature feature aspect, real or not (and I’m not giving any spoilers), it looks pretty cool. We rarely get to see much of it, again for the better, but what we can glean makes on appreciate what makes it the “underground theater scene.”
Another stylistic tactic that works for well for the film is that the narrative is not straightforward, but jumps around in its timeline; under Cunningham’s choices and sharp editing, however, the viewer is never lost on where the characters are at any time, even though it seems some wear the same clothes most of it time (gotta love low budgets!).
One might consider this a found footage film, but it is quite modified in its approach, which I believe the experience of viewing it benefits. What I mean by that is, yes, there is a lot of handheld cameras by the cast filming the action, which is key to one of the sub-stories, but the single camera is also focused on the trio when they are by themselves, as if someone is filming who is not acknowledged within the story and essentially making the viewer the camera-holder, being in the scene, as it were. This style is way more interesting than just the usual found footage fare. Yes, there is the obligatory walking through the woods with flashlights, but Cunningham avoids the cliché tropes merely by walking in a steady gaze rather than running all akimbo with the damn image bouncing all around. He also keeps it to a few select shots, not to tire us out. Totally appreciated, dude.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Review: Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies

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

Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies
Written and directed by A.M. Frank (aka Jesus Franco)
Cheezy Flicks / MVD Video
82 minutes, 

Sometimes one can tell how bad a film is just by how many names it goes by, especially if it came out in Europe during the 1980s. Now, the director is Jesus Franco under the pseudonym A.M. Frank (I’m guessing as in “I Am Franc[o]), so the expectation should be low in the first place. While it’s original incarnation was as L'abîme des morts vivants, its English releases alone include The Treasure of the Living Dead, The Oasis of the Living Dead, Oasis of the Zombies, The Walking Nazi Dead, Nazi Zombies,, and this release of BNZ.

Here is the basic premise of the plot: Nazis were trucking gold through Northern Africa (Morocco?) during Dubbya Dubbya Dos, when they were attacked by the Allies at an oasis in the desert, and now they have returned from the dead to protect said gold in the form of flesh-eatin’ zombs. The college-age son of one of the sole Allied survivor decides to find the treasure after his dad is killed by a greedy turncoat. Along with a couple of buds, they run into the traitor, some hot women who come along for the ride, and, of course, some of those pesky, slow-moving meat chompers.

While the whole shebang is a bit of fun (after all, it is a Franco film), it’s also a lot of fluff (after all, it is a Franco film). There are more questions than answers by the end, and on so many different levels. For example:

If it is Nazi zombies protecting the gold, how come we never see any Nazis? Yes, there is a swastika on an overturned jeep, but all the zombies have (relatively) long hair and no uniforms. I’m guessing these are supposed to be the victims who have turned into zombies themselves, but there is not a single Nazi in sight, nor any of the post-dead over the age of, say, mid-20s.

I’m just guessing here that the original, foreign-language dialog was written by Franco, but the English translation I am assuming was not? There is almost a Firesign Theater-type disconnect from the action actually happening on screen and what the characters are saying. As an example, the night after a zombie attack where part of the son’s troupe is killed, this lighthearted dubbed interchange takes place:
Male: Shit!
Female: You say “shit” like you’re from Brooklyn.
Male: Yeah, a real native.

What the hell?

Another is a scientist, commenting on the zombie attack, who makes that old grade school joke, “They came out of the sand which is there.”

And as for that attack, I wonder, would these kids really be making out, joking around, etc., that soon after a violent run-in with the post-dead? For me, I would be out of there soooo fast. A part of Eddie Murphy’s routine from Delirious when he’s discussing the film The Amityville Horror comes to mind.

The zombies seemly attack at night during the main part of the story (they fade into the air when the sun hits them), but how come they came out during the day to attack two women tourists during the prolog? And if the victims come back to be zombies themselves, how come all the zombies are male? And why only when women are attacked, do the zombies rip off their clothes before eating… well, I can guess the answer to that: it’s the 1980s!

Despite the cheesy writing, amateurish special effects (including puppets), grainy and sometimes unfocused film (actually, this may be a transfer to DVD taken directly from a VHS), inconsistent tone of the characters, an over the top hammy death scene (play the trailer below), and some of the serious questions I’ve listed below, only one piece of dialog really bothered me (even more than the Brooklyn comment): After the only survivors of the attack come out alive, a rescuing Bedouin asks one of them, “Did you find what you were looking for?” The response is, “I mainly found myself.” Well, bully for you! What about the rest of your friends and others of your party who are toast? So glad he found himself at the expense of so many others. Yes, I talked back to the screen, possibly even insulting the character’s mother.

Oh, and I realize this is looking back to the 1980s through a post-9/11 rearview mirror, but watching long leggy beautiful actresses walk around Muslims praying made me just a little, well, self-conscious of Western imperialism.

This film is typical of many Euro-trash horror genre of the ‘80s, with a weak story and made on a low budget (some exceptions are those by Fulci and Argento), but also characteristic is the factor of enjoyment in their ineptitude, perhaps even more so because of it, and this is no exception. I’ve been watching some indie films that have been released in the last few years, such as Bill Zebub’s Worst Horror Movie Ever Made, Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein, and Matthew Kohnen's Ahhh! Zombies!!, and nearly all of them are usually equally entertaining (if not more so), have a stronger factor of creativity (well, Zebub’s work is usually borderline as much as I like some of it), and especially a robust sense of not taking themselves too seriously that most Euro releases from the period severely lack.

That being said, BNZ is the kind of film that is a lot more fun to watch with a crowd than in a lonely garret, so grab your food and beverage of choice (mine would be, of course, some White Castle and Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda), and hunker down to groan in delight. And feel free to yell at the screen.

This review was originally published on