Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review: Suicide Club

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

Suicide Club
Directed by Maximilian von Vier
Proportions Productions / Princ Films / Wild Eye Releasing
92 minutes, 2018

 “It hath often been said that it is not death, but dying, which is terrible.”
– Henry Fielding, in Amelia (1751)

When I teach people about computers at a beginner level, I talk about both the good and bad sides about the technology, such as with telecommuting. Sure, it’s great not to have to go out on a snowy, cold day, but it’s also isolating. For some that aspect alone has either its positives or negatives.

The relevance related to this film is because our protagonist, Liz (Klariza Clayton), who goes by the screen name Nightowl, is s self-shut in. She may be young, she may be cute, but she hasn’t set foot outside her apartment flat in months (her job deals with computers, making that possible). While satisfied with that, she is also depressed and desires to end it all, but doesn’t have the courage to do so. The messy apartment is bathed in dark, blue lighting and little else. She also keeps in touch with the world through her computer, cell phones and the television. She truly is a child of media, which inundates her life and makes it possible.

To make her existence manageable, she keeps tabs on what is going around in the neighborhood through her window and a few pairs of binoculars. Her neighbors all think she’s bonkers, but it is through this odd way she meets Josh (Adam Newington), who rocks a Zac Efron handsomeness.

Through her depression, Nightowl is a member of an online chat group that promotes suicide, but it seems anyone on there rarely does anything about it except whining about how miserable they are. Seems kind of adolescent to me, but there is definitely a punk vibe going on, with people having screen names like Deaddboy. It is through this group that Liz gets onto the dark web and onto the site of the titular Suicide Club. Once you join, you are asked to either give a name to have someone killed, or just wait around and they’ll kill you for not nominating someone. So, it’s more of a murder club than a suicide one. And, natch, whomever the masked murderers kill, gets recorded and the video is sent to the other members. In a very Tarantino way, the killers have “names” like Mr. Black, Mr. Brown, etc.

Even without the killers and this dark website, Liz’s neighbors are a bit on the creepy side, which we get to see in a Hitchcockian Rear Window (1954) kind of way. But instead of a broken leg, it’s a wounded soul that keeps Liz inbound. She’s constantly biting her nails and fidgeting about the place, with a pained look in her eyes, the source of which we learn later (won’t give it away).

Most of the images we get to see and hear are the darkness of Liz’s flat, and what she sees through her binoculars. There is some “technology” shown to the viewer in that messages she receives may be on the computer screen or floating in the air for our enlightenment. This is a nice touch. I also like that we are told how long it is between scenes by a title card that may read “+18 hours” or “+24 hours.” This is really smart and gives more of a timeframe for events that are happening as they unfold.

Despite the claustrophobic settings, it never felt oppressive to this viewer, and in fact, it reminds me of an octopus with the apartment as its body and what Liz espies as it’s tentacles, reaching beyond the boundaries of the confined space.

The philosophy of the Suicide Club, i.e., their reasoning, may sound familiar to fans of a certain horror franchise, but this is not just “we’ll torture the characters in set pieces and figure out the story later” kind of thing, but rather it’s the plot that drives the killings, which are secondary. There’s not a whole bunch of blood and guts (nor nudity), but the story holds up the actions, and in this  pump out yet another film in the chain and reel in the cash day-and-age, that’s refreshing.

The action and tension keeps going throughout, even in Liz’s bored and/or restless moments, and with modern technology as it is, it’s easy to identify with her emotions. We’ve all been so frustrated with working our computers that we probably want to throw the damn things out the window at least weekly, so when she hits a brick wall, though she’s a computer geek, even those of us who use the machines minimally can feel it palpably.

With a fetching cast, a good storyline and some powerful performances, this leads to a fun rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. Even the editing is worth nothing, as the time gets played with numerous times to set a mood and yet still zip things along. Worth a viewing.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Review: Is That You? (Eres Tu Papa?)

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

Is That You? (aka Eres Tu Papa?)
Directed by Rudy Riverón Sánchez
Breaking Glass Pictures
107 minutes, 2018

I have been trying to remember whether I have ever seen a film from out of modern Cuba before, let along a horror film. As an isolated island both physically and geopolitically, it kind of makes sense that someone from there might have a different perspective or use some older tropes from the pre-revolution days. Hell, so much of their equipment (cars, motorcycles, etc.) are from that early-to-mid-1960s period.

Gabriela Ramos
Actually, just calling this horror isn’t quite accurate as it falls more into the psychological subgenre range, such as Psycho (1960) or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). It’s a deep look at the goings on with a family living in a shack in rural Cuba, where baseball is still large, and men are kings of their castle, no matter how low many rungs down run the life ladder one is situated.

The family in question is a threesome. First, and foremost, there is Lili (Gabriela Ramos), a damaged, nearly 14-year-old who is has divided loyalties between her parents. The second is dead old dad, Eduardo (Osvaldo Doimeakdiós), who is self-unknowingly suffering from a series of negative traits, especially toxic masculinity and a foot fetish. As for mom, there’s Alina (Lynn Cruz), who has spent years under the yoke of her husband and is essentially a prisoner in her own home, be it ever so crumbly.

Osvaldo Doimeakdiós
Dad plays his daughter’s affection for his own gains, damaging her psyche and indirectly using her to control his wife when he’s not around. Lili’s dead eyes give away her own mantle of PTSD. Eduardo even tells Lili that she’s his favorite person, even over his wife. While Alina wants to get away, Lili in her own way is still trapped but can’t see the bars. Her dad has soaked up all her emotions, leaving her a flat line where her heart should be. One could argue that Lili represents Cuba’s isolation amid it’s Latino neighboring islands that shun her.

The film follows the family at a very slow and methodical pace for quite a long time. With hardly any incidental music other than a few snippets here and there, we are also left in a vacuum of time and space. But even at glacial speed and the lack of any real action for a significant amount of time, it’s hard to turn away from the story that is unfolding.

Lynn Cruz
There are two other characters in the story, one being a limping African descendant who works as a servant for Eduardo named Carlos (Jorge Enrique Caballero). He’s a gentle soul who gets caught up in Eduardo’s rage and jealousy. When Eduardo disappears (hence the name of the film), Lili goes to visit an elderly neighbor, Caridad (Cuba legend Eslinda Núñez in a cameo role), to try to bring her father back from wherever he has gone.

Until this point, it’s an intense family drama with some harrowing moments, but the deeper psychology that leans towards horror comes in after the introduction of the Latino religion (some may say superstition) of Santeria.

This family is definitely broken: abusive husband, shell-shocked and physically abused mom, and the hormone-surged teen daughter who is caught in the middle of it all, with her own issues. Of course, as the film goes on, everything gets magnified and more intense until the conclusion, which will definitely remind most of us of another film, but I’m not going to give any kind of reveal.

Eslinda Núñez 
What I also liked was that there was no pure evil character, but rather time is given to flesh out everyone into a more complex personality. Each has their flaws, and all some humanity within the anger and even the abuse.

The dialogue is sparse, and of course read through subtitles as I don’t speak Spanish. The acting is superb and nuanced. A lot gets said through body motion and expression. There is also a strong use of symbolizes throughout, some more obvious than others, be it the dropping of a rosary or Lily looking at herself in a cracked mirror. The film can be taken on a deep level or more surface glide, but either way, it’s hard to dismiss the story.

For some – arguable most – this will be a long sit-through because the action is subdued, and happens mostly toward the end of the film. But I would stand that the end only makes sense if one sits through the rest, and I found it to be a nice, tight, wire-walk of increasing tension.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Review: MOMO: The Missouri Monster

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

MOMO: The Missouri Monster
Directed by Seth Breedlove
Small Town Monsters
82 minutes, 2019

The Mothman of Point Pleasant; the Beast of Whitehall; the Flatwoods Monster; the Bray Road Beast; the Thunderbirds… These, among others, have two commonalities. First of all, they are local monsters like Bigfoot that have people talking about after sightings in regional woods or in the skies. The other is that each is represented in a film by Seth Breedlove.

His latest focus is the Missouri Monster known as Momo, a tall and hairy creature with glowing bug eyes. Oh, and three toes, did I mention that? Supposedly it was seen in the woods scaring the local populace of the riverfront town of Louisiana, MO at Marzolf Hill, in 1972. As the name of Breedlove’s film company states, they are interested in Small Town Monsters, and focus on that. I’m all in as cryptozoology is something akin to oral culture as film recordings tend to be rare of these beasties.

But Breedlove takes it a step further and gives the viewer not just a documentary, but a hybrid of documentary and a recently shot narrative that supposed to be from a 1975 cheesy film about the topic at hand. Y’know that film supposedly of Bigfoot walking through the forest that is obviously fake? It’s kinda like that, but with more fun and cheapness thrown in. It’s the kind of film you may have watched on VHS back in the day, with its grainy look and man-in-hairy-suit motif, but more on that later.

Lyle Blackburn
In other words, in it’s interesting style where there are three layers to this: first, we are presented with a “reality television show” called “Blackburn’s Cryptid Casefiles,” where a the host, Lyle Blackburn (playing himself, a real Bigfoot and other exotic creatures expert, writer and musician from Texas) is the wraparound story segueing into other layers as Lyle is shot from several angles though he mostly seems to be looking away from the camera while only looking at one of them. The second is the imaginary 1975 film, and the third is the documentary part where the “real” story lies. This is an appealing meta-look at the events at hand. It gives the director some freedom to “exaggerate” the narrative to make it less “talking heads” and overly dramatize the events.

Out of nowhere though, about halfway through, a new element is added, namely UFOs. Okay, maybe not flying saucers, but definitely lights in the skies that occurred the same time, which the filmmakers of the 1975 film and Blackburn’s show connect them into a creature that comes from the sky via these floating luminaries.

I’d like to break this down into two sections, namely the “1975 film” and the documentary parts. For the “previously unreleased film,” Breedlove takes his – err – love of exploitation cinema and presents us with a really cheesily amusing creature (aka the guy in the hairy suit, played by Ken Rose, who musta been sweating like crazy in that abominable thing… see what I did there?) and an absurd, over-the-top story with some really (purposefully I’m assuming) wooden acting that was quite common in those days in the indie film market (and quite often even today, and not just as an homage as is this one).

This fantastical film breaks up the talking heads of the documentary and keeps the story moving along and, as I said before, it especially works because of that. Also, anyone who lived through those early VHS days and are fans of these kinds of things will be joyous about it. For most of this part, the camera has a filter on it do give it that worn, speckled film look, though other parts don’t, and it looks a bit odd being that digital clear rather than cheap film fuzzy. But actually, I’m grateful too much attention wasn’t focused in that way because I remember how hard it was to see night scenes back in the day, and the viewer can make out what is happening here. For that, I’m grateful.

As for the documentary part, there are interviews with a half dozen or so residents of Louisiana at the time (senior citizens now), some of whom scoff at the story while still reliving it for the camera, and others who realize the importance in local history. Their stories are fun and interesting, and just the right touch of cynical in some cases. What was missing was a living member of the Harrison family that is the focus of much of the sightings to talk about what happened to them, or at least an explanation of why they were not on camera in the form of Blackburn’s retelling. Personally, if I was part of the government of the town, I would put up a monument or billboard, and use it as a tourist attraction because there are more people into cryptozoology than one might guess (Area 51, is an example).

Bigfoot stories, even those who may have come from the skies and have three toes, are fun. The fear of big hairy beasties living in the woods – even those who haven’t been seen in 40 years or so – is as palpable as, say, sharks or killer insects. This is true even though Momo never actually hurt anyone.

Breedlove has hit a different formula for his retelling of local legends, and the stories are improved by that. I’m not sure if this will become more standardized for him, or a one-off, but I certainly enjoy what I’ve seen of his series about creatures that may or may not exist in local legends. Hopefully, that will go on.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Review: HI-Death (Unrated)

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

HI-Death: Unrated
Directed by Anthony Catanese; Amanda Payton; Tim Ritter; Todd Sheet; Brad Sykes
Nightfall Pictures / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Entertainment
111 minutes, 2018

The anthology film HI-8: Horror Independent Eight (2013) was a bit of a success, so it’s not surprising that a sequel would be underway… And here it is!

With five different directors and shorts cobbled together, we are presented a collection with some of the better-known indie film directors, like Todd Sheets and Tim Ritter. The name of the film is a nice word play: the “HI” part is an acronym for “Horror Independent.” The first HI-8 was low-rez, shot on video shorts, but this one is in High Def(inition), so it ends up as HI-Death. Smart.

The wraparound story, directed by Brad Sykes, has two women (Kristen Adams and Kate Durocher) visiting Los Angeles who opt to take a film hop to a batch of horror short films playing around the city, and thereby seeing the locales along the way. One is more reluctant but goes along for the every increasingly disturbing views.

In the first short, “Death Has a Conscious,” we have an artsy, nearly psychedelic view of a young woman who is obviously a junkie, living life on the edge no matter what the circumstances. We follow her around as she does her thing, and when she goes too far, we meet the titular boneyard creature who after centuries of taking people to shuffle off their mortal coil, is despondent about his position and discusses it at length with the soul he takes and the viewing audience (i.e., us). Lots of masks and rumination abound. It’s a good story and director Anthony Catanese presents it in a palatable fashion with bright primary colors and close-ups in his 12 minutes.

Following this is cult low-key director Tim Ritter’s “Dealers of Death.” Ritter is kind of like the American Jesse Franco in that his work is filled with bizarreness, questionable acting and some decent effects. The story, however, I found quite interesting, focusing on a junkie (he even wears a shirt that proclaims the descriptor right on it) named Marty (Todd Martin) who is also a collector of serial killer memorabilia. He is obsessed with this as much as the drugs, for which he will do anything to obtain, including ripping off his own dealer, Rockoff (Thomas Kindler, playing a character that seems to be right out of a Dakota Ray film) to pay for it. There are some nice twists and turns it in as Rockoff confronts Marty and his girlfriend Pamela (Trish Erickson-Martin). I won’t give away the punchline, but it was a well-deserved comeuppance, even though the short felt a bit longer than needed at 25 minutes.

Next up is “Night Drop,” directed by Amanda Payton. It is short at 11 minutes, but sweet on tension. Trevor (Christopher Preyer), a new employee at a video store (wait…what?), is locking up for the first time when a mysterious DVD in a red case shows up. There is no doubt that there is an influence of Ringu/The Ring running through this (watch it and you die!), but Payton does a really decent job of keeping up the apprehension level all the way through, so kudos on that. Some of the characters that come in and out are a bit over the top, such as a nutzo homeless person (Dylan Thomas… no, not the poet!), but it’s easily forgivable filler and produces a nice jump scare. So far, it’s been my fave piece, but usually the best is held for last, so I reserve my judgement for now.

Taking place in Hollywood, it only makes sense that at least one of the stories deals with the film industry (not counting the end-user of the previous tale). For that we are given Sykes’ “Cold Read,” a 19-minute look at the audition process. Nervous Julianna (Fabiana Formica) is late for her read for a part. The director (Jay Sosnicki) and his assistant (Julia Vally, who reminds me of Abigail Hawk from “Blue Bloods”) are not sympathetic to the process. What was enjoyable for me was thinking that they show both sides of the audition process, namely what it is like to deal with a difficult director and crew, and what the director and crew must do to deal with difficult actors. Sykes’ manages to keep the creepiness going throughout with a good story with a nice twist ending.

The last and most esoteric story at 18 minutes is “The Muse,” which is hinted at in the wraparound story via marquees and the like. It is directed by cult classic director Todd Sheets, who brings along many of his regulars, who are always nice to see as they work so well together. By far the goriest and nudity-laden of the batch, Sheets presents to us a painter (Nick Randol) and his demon muse Darkness (Eve Smith), as well as bringing us into the HP Lovecraft universe. It’s a dark tale, for sure, but it satisfies.

For extras, there are a bunch of trailers: the Teaser, the Official, the Original, and the one for the first of this franchise, Hi-8. Next up is a 17-minute “Anatomy of a Scream: The Making of COLD READ.” It’s mostly watching the crew filming the scenes, and there is nothing gained or lost by watching it. It is interesting to see the volume of people they could put in a small room and still make an effective film.
There are two commentary tracks, one of which is with Brad Sykes and some of his crew discussing how the idea of the anthology came together, how they shot his segment and the wraparound, and the way the film was “gathered” from the other directors. There is also some discussion about each of the filmmakers. The other track are the directors and some crew of each individual short, who go through their tracks on the making of the film, anecdotes, etc. Todd Sheets, a master of this kind of thing, gives the most effective and fluid talk of the batch.

As an anthology film by multiple directors/writers, this is generally better than many others I’ve seen in that the consistency of the quality of the stories being pretty engrossing. Many are arty, but don’t fall into the oblique and cryptic. Nearly across the board, they tend to lean towards the use of primary colors for emotion (see Creepshow [1982] as an example). Also, in most of them, the acting is stronger than usual in shorts. HI-Death is a good way to continue – if not step up – with the franchise, and I look forward to it continuing.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Review: A Record of Sweet Murder

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

A Record of Sweet Murder (aka Aru yasashiki satsujinsha no kiroku)
Directed by Kôji Shiraish
Nikkatsu / Zoa Films / Unearthed Films / MVD Visual
86 minutes, 2014 / 2019

How far would you go for your career? Would you risk life and limb? Is your ego that strong?

These are some of the questions that are subtly asked in this film from South Korea (in Korean and Japanese, with subtitles). While less personal than the Irish release, Do You Recognise Me?” (2015) there is actually an overlap in asking those same questions.

The big difference is there is a possible supernatural element in this film. An escapee from an asylum, Park Sanjoon (Je-wook Yeon), is on a killing spree because he is desperate to raise someone from the dead. He claims the voices in his head from God tells him he needs 27 victims, and so far, he’s up to 25; at that point, even those he killed will be resurrected, though he is not sure how. So, a news reporter, Kim Soyeon (Klobbi Kim) and her camera dude, Tashiro (Kôji Shiraish, the film’s director) accept his invitation for an interview and to make – err – a record of sweet murder. Personally, I’m not sure I’d accept the invitation, no matter how much possible glory there might be at the end. But they’re hoping for the best as Soyeon and Sanjoon share a childhood friendship.

When the three meet, no doubt it’s fraught and tense with Sanjoon holding a knife and other assorted weapons. He is waiting on a Japanese couple to show up, and once he’s done away with them, it’s showtime. But – and it’s a big one – things are not as simple as they appear. This couple have their own excitable violent issues (and one of them, Ryôtarô Yonemura, seems to have an issue with overacting), which continues to keep the viewer guessing what will happen next.

The tension constantly builds and by the half-way point the ferocity never lets up. Most of the action takes place in a single room of an abandoned apartment building, which gives you the feeling you and they can not escape without some damage being done. I won’t go into detail about that, but it’s definitely brutal with so many twists and turns, there is little burnout for those of us who enjoy this kind of thing.

All the action we see is through the single lens of the camera held by Tashiro. Normally, found footage films bore me, but this takes a different angle in that the entire film is one continuous shot; not like Hitchcock’s Rope which had to have subtle breaks because of how much film a canister could hold, but in a digital world, this is possible. Needless to say, everything is in real time.

Because it’s all in one shot, I wonder about the pragmatics of the film, such as rehearsal and script. Was it mostly adlibbed or strictly written? These are the kinds of thoughts films like this bring to mind to those of us who study cinema rather than as a casual viewer.

Most of the acting is quite good, but Je-wook Yeon is the standout by far (Tsukasa Aoi does a pretty good job of it in a very physical and primordial role). While it’s clear he’s quite nuts and will do whatever it takes to achieve his deadly goal, he is also pitiable because it’s not a method he’s comfortable with and it pains him to take lives. At one point he wails, “I can’t do it by myself anymore.”

As for the violence itself, it’s not on the level of something like Audition where it’s more torture porn than story; here it’s the very real process of stabbing, clubbing, choking, etc., and the camera doesn’t lovingly swarm around it, but rather keeps it shocking and uncomfortable (though I’m betting there are those who might wish it was the other way around).

This is being put out by Stephen Biro’s company, Unearthed, that has been releasing some interesting Asian films such as the Guinea Pig Series and others like Brutal (2018) from Japan. Their catalog has been consistently fierce and yet with quality. A Record of Sweet Murder is a great addition to their canon.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Review: A Serbian Film (Srpski Film)

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

A Serbian Film: Unrated Version
Produced and directed by Srdjan Spasojevic
Invincible Pictures / MVD Visual
103 minutes, 2010

”It’s dangerous, Max…it’s more – how can I say – more political than that… It has something you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it dangerous.”
– Marsha, in Videodrome

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome should almost be a prerequisite for watching this film from the former Yugoslavia. They both deal with the issue of violence through media with a political bent. But Videodrome only brushes where Srpski Film takes off.

We are introduced to retired porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), whose specialties were having a bit of a violent streak and being fatigueless. But now he has a (understanding) wife, Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic) and a six-year-old son. He is struggling to not only survive financially, but part of him misses the action, though he won’t admit it to himself.

Asked to come back for just one film by an ex-co-star, Lejla (Katarina Zutic), he is hesitant, but the promise of a big paycheck and “the itch” calls him. With Marija’s blessing, he meets with the director, Vulkmir (Sergei Trifunovic), who states that he wants Milos to just be himself, and so refuses to let him know what the film is about. Reluctantly, Milos agrees. And you just know it’s not going to end well.

Now, the North American audience has spent years watching graphically violent and disturbing films like Wolf Creek, and the Hostel and Saw franchises. This genre has come to been labeled by the term “torture porn.” Well, A Serbian Film pushes the scale ever further toward the latter. The most graphically and disturbing scene that comes to mind in previous films I have seen is the fire extinguisher incident from Irreversible, but parts of this one if not beat it, come thisclose.

Slowly but surely, through his own dark nature and a bit of an injected “sex drug” (a comment on Viagra or Calais?), Milos doesn’t just lose whatever is left of his moral compass, he becomes the pawn in a game that is completely out of his control as he suffers blackouts, only to find out later through videos and flashbacks just what kind of sick actions he’s been in the middle of performing.

No, I won’t go into detail, but there is a point to it all. Truthfully, I’m not aware of much Serbian history or politics, so a great deal of the context is stripped away leaving mostly the violence and sex (sometimes graphic, landing somewhere between softcore and hardcore in various degrees, including an erect penis, though I’m assuming it is a prosthetic, considering the length), without the point of a good deal of it.

I do get some of it, though, such as when Milos is wandering around Belgrade in a sex-drug-induced fog, and seeing all different forms of acceptable sexually suggestiveness, such as lingerie billboards, and magazines at a deli.

But it is pretty obvious that the film has, as posited at the beginning, a philosophy. It’s not simply violence for violence sake, especially when viewed in the Serbian historical perspective, but as I said, the message is hazy to one (e.g., me) unfamiliar with the background.

On YouTube, you can find lots of videos of people watchg the film, the most I've seen since the infamous two women and the cup reactions.

How far can one man go into the depths of his own depravity? And who is there to push him over that line? And to what purpose? The answer lay at the end of the film, but it’s not a pretty picture, both figuratively and literally, and as I said and which is pretty obvious, it does not end well for many. Does art imitate life/politics?

Does politics/life imitate art? Where does art begin and politics end, and vice versa? These are chicken-and-egg questions that the film addresses. Whether they answer it or not seems unimportant since, as one philosophy states, the question is as – if not more – important than the question.

This review was originally published HERE