Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review: One Night in October

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

One Night in October
Directed by Christopher M. Carter
Carter Ink Films / Laughing Dog Productions / Come About Productions / 
Cyfuno Ventures / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Entertainment
104 minutes, 2017 / 2019

While this film does not take place on Halloween, it is about the Halloween season, so this is the appropriate time for this review. This is also fitting because the consistency within this story is masks, both literal and figurative. But more on that later.

There are actually three stories here, but unlike a compilation, they all take place on the same night in the same town, and there is even a small amount of overlap. This is a clever feature not often employed in anthology films. Also, rather than giving three complete stories one at a time, they are edited together nicely over the night, breaking up the suspense in a way that is effective as it keeps rebuilding. It also successfully works as a jump scare.

Kaitlan Renee and Casehy Norman
In no particular order, the first story I’ll discuss focuses on two couples, including a lesbian one (Casey Norman and Kaitlan Renee; the other pair is attractive Sara Jackson and Andrew Kincaid) that I’m happy to say actually looks like they could be a pair rather than a stereotype or a male fantasy (I’m not one of those guys who gets off on that, if you’re wondering). This foursome is playing around in a cornfield on private property, but of course it’s the wrong one to be muckin’ around in, as the title “The Witch and the Scarecrow” will tell you. They are warned to get off the land by the woman (Erin Colleen Marshall) who runs the place, but with a classic dead car and no phone service trope, you know things are going to go into the red as the scarecrow comes a-callin’. Happily, his first victim is the most annoying character.

Rachel Netherton
In another tale, Emma (Rachel Netherton) is permitted to see the man she loves for five minutes every three months. I kept thinking, “Is he a ghost?” “Is she the ghost?” Well, I’m not going to tell you the reason, of course, but there is a man in a mask on their trail. This is the slowest of the three stories, but when it gets to its “Oh, that’s-what-it’s-about moment, it’s easy to be absorbed into the goings on.

The third story – and my favorite of the three – is about Michelle (Jessica Morgan), a woman on her own who has just moved into the neighborhood and is really into Halloween. She meets some locals who are not what they appear to be presenting (again, figurative masks that turn literal); and there are powers around her trying to take advantage of that, It’s reminiscent of one of the stories from television’s “Trilogy of Terror” (1975), also with three tales.

The film takes a while to rev up, but the slow build benefits the storylines because it gives us a chance to be curious about the characters. The first, with the two couples, starts off running a bit faster than the others with the one with Emma taking the longest.

Jessica Morgan
All three stories were pretty satisfying, which is rare for an anthology. But the one I would like to see in a sequel is easily the one with Michelle, which is also the most action-packed. In all the stories there is lots of blood, but very little gore (though the occasional separated body part), and most of the action occurs onscreen (one of which seeming to be a nice nod to a prominent death in the original Night of the Living Dead, that is also playing on Michelle’s television in some shots… gotta love public domain).

The stories are quite well done, the action is strong, the dialogue definitely has its moments (though here and there a bit too much time is spent on explanations, such as the witch giving the back story of the scarecrow), and the acting is occasionally newbie-style (first IMDB credit for many here), but it all works together when you factor in the indie level. In other words, it works, and I would enjoy watching a sequel, say, A Second Night in October?

As I write this, Halloween is just around the corner. This is good fare to be watching on that night. It’s violent (much of it just off-screen) and bloody, but not very gory. There’s a bit of human and inhuman, demons and a witch, and natural and supernatural.

The DVD has extras, giving up chapters, Wild Eye trailers, English captions, and the coming attraction for this film. My one complaint is that while the titles of the three stories are listed at the end credits, it does not identify which is which (though one is quite obvious).

This is a good mid-range horror film with just enough going on to keep the blood-hound at bay, but mild enough that it may be deem playable for those with limited tolerance for this kind of action. That’s a good thing.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Review: Loon Lake

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

Loon Lake
Directed by Ansel Faraj
Round Town Productions / Hollinsworth Productions / Three Knots Entertainment / Indie Rights
95 minutes, 2019

As Kelly Erin Decker, one of the producers of this film explained in an email to me, “My friend Nate [Nathan Wilson, who also is the main protagonist of the story – RG] wrote the script based on a legend in the town [in Minnesota] where he grew up, and we returned to that same town to film...”

Nathan  Wilson and David Selby v.1
The basic premise is that Lewis (Wilson) had recently suffered a tragic loss, and to get away from his pain, he picks up from Minneapolis and takes a respite in Round Lake, a real and little community in the middle of nowhere whose two claims to fame are the story of the witch, which I will get into in a moment, and an actor that came from there (yep, I mean Wilson). But as Harry Chapin sang, “You can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are.” (“WOLD”).

He rents a house and a few denizens at the bar tell him the story about a local woman, Mary Jane (Decker, who uses the name credit as Kelly Kitko here) who was beheaded as a witch in 1880 because she turned down the advances of the local pastor (David Selby… wait she refuted Quentin Collins?!?!).

Anyway, a local woman, Gracie (Brittany Benjamin), has her eyes on Louis but he is too distracted by his memories (Sierra Schermerhorn) … and the witch, who’s grave he possibly crossed too many times. Y’see, the legend goes – in Candyman and Bloody Mary fashion – if you walk over Mary Jane’s grave three times, she will come back to kill you in three days. But how much of it is “reality” and how much of the events that follow are in Louis’s head? This delves from possible supernatural to possible psychological, as we probe into Louis’s thoughts through dreams, and his own anger. This kind of gives a possible double meaning to the title of the film with Loon being both literal and figurative.

Kelly Kitko aka Kelly Erin Decker
This is smartly put together by director Faraj in the way that it plays with the two natural and supernatural elements, putting it on us to try to figure out which is which. Not a new premise, but when it’s handled well, as it is here, it keeps the tension going.

Another nice element to the story after the opening prologue, is that we keep returning to the 1880s throughout the story, to fill in the legend and possible history of events.

Religion plays a strong part in the story, and occasionally comes off as a bit preachy as certain characters question their own faith (e.g., what if there is no afterlife? Is there a God? Is there a Satan?) and those of others. While not a central theme, it certain is prevalent in various parts of the story. As someone who is non-religious, I was not bothered by it, but I was conscious of it.

 From what I understand, the director is a big fan of the original “Dark Shadows” television series (as was I), and he often casts members of the show into his films. Here, as I mentioned, he has not only David Selby playing dual roles as the Pastor and his great-grandson, but the Pastor’s spouse is an enjoyable cameo by Kathryn Leigh Scott (wait, Quentin Collins is reunited with Maggie Evans?!?!).

David Selby v2 and Kathryn Leigh Scott
It’s pretty easy to tell that this is shot on a budget somewhere between little and none, but it also is a perfect example of how much can be done with so little. Under the right circumstances, filmmaking is a collaborative art form (e.g., without one member, such as directors like Kubrick, who demands exactitude and subservience from his crew and cast; where would they be with a huge budget?). With everyone involved giving their all for something that means something to them,

This film was shot with a limited budget and crew. As Decker put it, “We had a total crew of 5 people (including me and Nate, who did double duty as actors and various crew functions). Everything in the film comes from our hearts and our hands, down to the loon models which I made myself.”

The acting here is quite solid, as Wilson and Decker dance around each other. Selby does the most work as two divergently difference characters (even if from the same gene pool). Everyone else in the cast is consistent, and that’s a good thing. Benjamin also does well as a strong woman who is smitten but not desperate (as so many female characters are written to be). Time wise, Scott is briefly there in her cameo role, so while she is fun to watch as always, especially ringing the nostalgia bell, she shines and her intensity level is set on high (I smiled through her performance).

As I’ve said before, it’s important to look at small budget indie films like this one through different eyes than blockbusters, or even those independents with some cash flow like the Annabelle or even the Freddy/Jason/Michael franchises. There is a lot of ingenuity and heart that goes into smaller films, and they usually deserve the love that is put into it. Yes, a bad film is a bad film, but this one is quite impressive. It’s worth turning your brain on, and giving it a thoughtful viewing.

PS: Please note that I did not have to look up any of the names of the “Dark Shadows” characters.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review: The New York Ripper (3-Disc Limited Edition)

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

The New York Ripper (aka Lo squartatore di New York)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Fulvia Films / Silent Warrior Productions / Blue Underground / MVD Entertainment
93 minutes, 1982 / 2019

I’m grateful for the VHS revolution of the 1980s because it introduced me to the world of Italian horror cinema that most likely would have escaped my radar. As I have stated before, most people refer to Dario Argento, and while I know his work is brilliant, I see him as more form than content as his films are beautiful, but the stories are mostly lacking and confusing. The first time I saw a film by Lucio Fulci (d. 1996), The Beyond, it was jaw-dropping in both story and level of horror and blood.

Jack Hedley and \Paolo Malco
Blue Underground has restored this film into 4K Blu-ray, which was taken from the uncensored original camera negative, and it is startling. The clarity of the blood and gore is a thing of beauty in it’s grotesqueness. It had been re-released in Blu-ray in 2009, and some of the extras here are from that, but the new 2019 restoration of the work from the grumpy Maestro is noteworthy.

This film is striking in particular for several reasons. First, unlike some of Fulci’s other known works in North America, this isn’t really a horror film, though it could pass as a slasher; it’s more classic giallo, with cops and murders rather than zombies and demons. There is a deeper psychological aspect to this release, as I will get to eventually.

Almanta Suska
Second, even for Fulci, this is quite the brutal film. Like the similarly murderer-in-New York Maniac (1980; also recently re-released by Blue Underground), this is a psychological study of the killer, who in this case is not revealed until much later rather than being the central character right off the bat, remaining as a who-done-it, as well. While I’m at it, there is a subway station chase scene that is very reminiscent of the two-year earlier Maniac; I’m not sure if it is coincidence or an homage.

While it’s true that the victims are pretty and female – something that may raise an eyebrow now but was common back then – it’s the way they are dispatched that raises the bar and makes it almost uncomfortable in an additional way in this modern and woke metoo world. The gore is close-up (though not clinical like torture porn) and of course all done with appliances rather than digital. With the new 4K processing, the – err – death comes more alive to the eye.

Andrea Occhipinti
The third is something quite extraordinary as becoming iconic, and that is the “Quack Quack” sound made by the killer; while spoken in not quite a Donald Duck way, it is in a high-pitched, forced voice. This weird speech and sound have resonated through the decades of when this first was first released, most likely for the oddity of it (much in the same weird way Angela stands frozen with mouth agape at the end of 1983’s Sleepaway Camp).

The plotline is pretty basic: a slasher is going around New York killing beautiful women while taunting Fred Williams (Jack Hedley; not Hedy), the grizzled police Lieutenant on the case, with quacked-up phone calls. Williams brings in Columbia University professor Dr. Paul Davis (Paolo Malco) to help him do a psychological profile on the killer. While this is happening, one woman named Fay survives an attack (Almanta Suska), and now she and her professor husband, Peter (Andrew Painter, aka Andrea Occhipinti) are living in fear of the killer returning.

The thing about this film is that everyone has their own vices, be it prostitutes, sex addition, being gay (again, it’s the ‘80s), so the killer is not the only one with sexual deviances and dalliances (in the story’s perspective, not mine). In many cases, these proclivities result in the ending of life.

Alexandra Delli Colli
The film is beautiful to look at, even as it scans New York at one of it’s physically low moments, with subways that are graffiti-laden, live sex shows on the Deuce (42 Street), litter everywhere, and shuttered stores and darkened streets that are now better lit). Hell, the opening pan of lower Manhattan from Brooklyn (my turf) includes the Twin Towers (RIP).

In this Blue Underground series, which includes the aforementioned Maniac and Fulci’s Zombi (1979), there are lots of extras, the main one being the three discs, namely a High Definition Blu-ray (1080p), a Standard Definition DVD Widescreen 2.40:1 feature presentation, and the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD by Francesco De Masi. Some “quick and easy” ones are the Theatrical Trailer, and Poster and Still Gallery, audio in 7.1 DTS-HD (English); 1.0 DTS-HD (English, Italian); 1.0 Dolby Digital (French, Spanish), and subtitles in English SDH, Francais, Espanol, and English for Italian Audio.

There are a whole series of featurettes, as well. To start, there’s “The Art of Killing - Interview with Co-Writer Dardano Sacchetti” (29 min), who discusses the genesis of the screenplay, his love/hate relationship with Fulci, and what the film means to him; it’s all quite interesting. Next is “Three Fingers of Violence - Interview with Star Howard Ross” (15 min), who played the key missing digits suspect, Mickey Scellenda. While he talks a bit in circles about mundane things such as weightlifting, he also has some nice film anecdotes, especially about his female co-stars. For “The Second Victim - Interview with Co-Star Cinzia de Ponti,” (12 min) we meet “Rosie,” who bikes down from Central Park to Park Avenue, to the Staten Island Ferry (that’s quite the in-town distance), only to get slaughtered by the Quacker; it’s also the first murder we actually see. A former Miss Italy (1979), Cinzia discusses – what else – working with Fulci in this and a further film, Manhattan Baby (also 1982). Her stories are interesting and a bit self-focused. The next two are both about the same actress, “The Broken Bottle Murder - Interview with Co-Star Zora Kerova” (9 min) and “'I'm an Actress!' - 2009 Interview with Co-Star Zora Kerova” (10 min). Obviously, the stories overlap a bit here, but enough new information is given in both that it’s worth watching

Daniela Doria
The next discussion is “The Beauty Killer - Interview with Stephen Thrower, Author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci” (23 min). The first in English, Thrower describes a deeper beginning for the film, and paints a picture of both what it means in an analytic way (especially the mystic of misogyny), and how it was received by critics, fans and government at the time. “Paint Me Blood Red - Interview with Poster Artist Enzo Sciotti” (17 min) was a bit less than I was interested in, so I truthfully skipped it (though probably would have watched it if it were shorter). Last of the featurettes (but not extras) is “NYC Locations Then and Now” (4 min) from 2009. Already 10 years outdated, it’s still a fascinating B-roll (with music behind it) as we see very particular places compared in 1982 and 2009. I really enjoyed this, and in many ways, it made me nostalgic for the old Deuce.

The big extra, of course, is the audio commentary with Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films. Howarth has a lot to say, and he tends to talk really fast, which works both for and against him. Let’s get to the “against” part first to get it over with. There is a lot – and I mean a lot – of data thrown at us for each actor, both onscreen and voiceovers. While this information is important, certainly, much of it can be found on IMDB. It starts to sound like someone reading off a bunch of sports scores or multiple weather reports, where it kinda all blends together. Where the commentary shines, however, is when Howarth discusses anecdotes of the backstory of the film, and especially when he waxes poetic about the reaction to its release and his social/cinematic critique of it, a little of which of my own I will add in the last paragraph of this review. He does get one fact amusingly wrong when he ponders whether a certain subway El staircase is the same one used in The French Connection (1971). As I lived a few blocks away from the 79 St Station in Brooklyn where TFC was filmed, I can confirm that this was indeed not the same location.

On the physical side, two other extras are the lovely 3D slipcase cover and a collectable booklet inside with new essay by Travis Crawford.

One of the aspects of this film that I enjoyed the most was the successful use of red herrings. The who is the killer is questionable until the reveal. The possibilities bounce around a bit and is a head scratcher. I picked who I believed it to be, to be proved wrong, which is always better.

This film is notorious for its violence and its misogyny, and yet the female characters are the most interesting, with the strongest personalities, instincts and intellect. They shine more than the anti-hero copper, Williams, who is an angry, burned out shell of a person (as I would argue is the character of Danny in Blue Bloods, but I digress…). Also, this work has one of the bleakest endings, right up there with the likes of The Day of the Locust (1975). But for this particular story and the timeframe in which it was released, it all makes sense and also still makes it stand out. This is Fulci at his fiercest and his finest.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: Scarecrow County

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

Scarecrow County
Directed by John Oak Dalton
Midwest Film Venture
75 minutes, 2019

I firmly believe that one day, when we are looking back at John Oak Dalton’s film career at a retrospective, people will comment that either his early films were better, or this was just the start of his career and he’s grown so much. Directors like David Cronenberg and George A. Romero go through this all the time. No, I’m not comparing this film to theirs, but the philosophy is the same.

Andrew Britt
Oaks started off strong with directing his first feature, The Girl in the Crawlspace (2018). I also believe, in part, that this strength comes from three places: the first is that he has written a number of scripts before and has had the chance to initially grow in that way; second, he has been involved with the filmmaking process for a while with various directors so he’s had the opportunity to learn the craft; and third, he is under the mentorship of his producer, Henrique Couto, who has been making films in the Midwest for at least a decade (much as Gene Wilder did with Mel Brooks). This release was mostly shot in and around Farmland, Indiana, though filming was done as far as Dayton, Ohio.

It’s easy to tell that Dalton’s strength, at this early part of his directorial career, is in the screenwriting more than the helming of it, but that will take some time and practice to catch up the two together. What I particularly like about the script is that the characters are more fully developed than most indie films, the dialog doesn’t talk down to the audience, and the plot is both simple and nuanced at the same time.

Small town librarian Winnie (Chelsi Kern, coincidentally a perfect last name for a character dealing with text, may I add) gets ahold of a diary of a gay teen who had died, which of course leads to a series of events related to that occurrence. Meanwhile, there is the mysterious titular scarecrow that is going around killing people. While you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know these events are related, it’s how it all works out that is the focus of the film.

Tom Cherry, Chelsi Kern, Rachel Redolfi
Scarecrows are certainly not new to the horror audience, but Dalton has taken a common trope and played with it enough to make it interesting with the story’s own psychological drama.

The film is populated by a large and complex cast, including Winnie’s schizophrenic and agoraphobic cartoonist sister Zoe (Rachael Redolfi) whose drawings speak to her (using the very identifiable voice of Erin R. Ryan), Zoe’s promoter with the multicolored hair (Manic Panic?) Marlys (Erin Hoodlebrink), the pent-up angry Prentiss (John Hambrick) who has recently returned to town after a two-year service in Afghanistan, and lots of the character’s dads and friends (few moms involved that are living, apparently, despite the female-heavy cast).

Erin Hoodlebrink
Being an independent film director, Dalton wisely uses his budget in many ways, such as going to where the particular actor is rather than bringing them necessarily together in a room, and much of the interactive dialog is done over the phone: Zoe talks to Marlys and Winnie often using the device; most of the dads connect that way, including one to his girlfriend / sponsor (up-and-comer Joni Durian who stars in Couto’s latest, Ouija Room). 

Another way he wisely saves some money on the production is holding off on prosthetics and digital SFX. In other words, as this film is strongly story-oriented, all of the killings are done off-screen. I commend this, even as I like some blood in my meat, but again, if the story holds up as this one does, it becomes almost unnecessary (even if noticeable).

That being said, the scarecrow looks kind of cool. It’s mostly in the background, and often when a kill is about to happen, it and the area around it are filled with blue smoke and lights. It telegraphs what is going to happen, but honestly, it’s pretty obvious, even with a few good jump scares.

If there is anything I would to complain about, it’s the cheesy and stereotypical electronic music. Just does not work for me, as it was a bit of a distraction from what’s on the screen.

Much of the cast of The Girl in the Crawlspace has returned for this new release. The acting is mostly decent, especially among the female leads and the occasional male ones, but most of the wooden portrayals are from those with the Y chromosomes. Again, this is still in Dayton’s early stages. Have you seen some of the performances in early Cronenberg’s work? Makes this look like Best in Show in comparison.

Henrique Couto and John Oak Dalton
What compels this film especially to be worth watching – beyond the editing, which is quite good – is the writing. Sure, there are some really cool nuggets, such as the mention of the band the Dead Milkmen (saw them play at Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, NJ, opening for Salem 66; but I digress…), and even some dark humor thrown in here and there.

For a second feature, it’s pretty obvious that Dayton can have a solid future in both writing and directing. Let’s support that, and check out his films as I’m sure they are bound to be floating around the festival circuit. I know The Girl in the Crawlspace is about to get a wide circulation on various media, and it probably won’t be long before this one will, as well.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Shorts Reviews: October 2019

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

Directed by Timothy Troy
Crazy Little Monster Productions / P3 Mediaworks
9:43 minutes, 2019
Viruses, be it physical or digital, are hard to terminate. Vaccines don’t always work, and for the computer trodden, sometimes it means erasing everything and starting from scratch. The former is the focus of this film, which uses a clever acronym that I won’t give away. The titular Abi (Clare Cooney, who reminds me of Brinke Stevens) is a computer scientist who is trying to fix a virus in a computer system created by head researcher Vincent (Rom Barkhordar) and his assistant, Julie (Emily Berman). Julie wants to reboot, Abi does not even though the virus is at 98 percent, and Vincent is torn between the two. In an interesting plot point in this sci-fi horror is the possibility of the virus jumping from computer to human. With some sharp objects and a bit of blood, it becomes a battle of what is to be the next step. The sets are stunning (filmed at a high school in Chicago), and there’s just enough blood to keep the gorehounds happy, but not a whole splash-dash of it. It’s a smartly written and direct piece that is just long enough to keep your attention throughout. Part of me wanted to shout out at the end, “All hail the new flesh,” but that’s more video than computer. Technology is a Faustian Bargain, and these people have figuratively signed away their souls. But haven’t we all?
Trailer HERE

From Hell, She Rises
Directed by Ama Lea
Cackling Witches Production
7:58 minutes, 2017
There are a few different levels to unwrap this film, but the best is to take it from the Feminist perspective. Strong women vs. toxic masculinity equals a lot of fun. Go beyond the cleavage-fest and that it was written by a man (the amazing Michael Varatti, who has a literally veiled cameo), and we have a beautifully shot and directed short that kind of sparkles in its light. After her brother basically tells her what she is good for (or not, actually), Elizabeth (Zena Grey) is visited by two vampires, Marguerite (scream queen extraordinaire Sarah Nicklin) and Alessandra (super buxom Emma Julia Jacobs). Together they form a bond to stand up to even the Avis (he tries harder) of the Christian god world. It’s filled with some nice humor and gets its point across in its short length.   
Film HERE.

Directed by Ross Williams
XRATS Productions
10:02 minutes, 2019
I believe it may have started with the original Ringu (1998) and, as a trope, caught on fire. What I’m talking about is the Japanese (and then worldwide) icon of the ghostly girl in white with the long stringy hair and a scary face that haunts people. Well, director Ross Williams has taken this now cliché and re-envisioned it in this tense and effective short. A family is discussing a loss of someone close, and the youngest daughter, the titular Luna (Zoe Williams, daughter of the director) shows up in the form of this ghostly apparition to bring fear and torment her young brother (Harlan Cox). The parents (Kirk McKenzie and Twanissa Cox – mother of Harlan?) don’t acknowledge Luna’s appearances as she creaks up the stairs, peaks into bedrooms, and generally makes her mark in the house. It is shot really well, and is quite creepy, but please note that the ending punchline is worth the wait. The film doesn’t waste a minute of its length, and keeps the viewer interested, while being short and edited to it’s maximum strength.
Full film can be seen free HERE

Occurrence at Mills Creek
Directed by Don Swanson
Spruce Films
19:45 minutes, 2020
What is the shape of things to come? Well, this short is an example and it is just an introduction to what will eventually be a longer, full-length feature. You want a taste? Well, here it is. The film opens on a prologue of the passing of the mother of two teens, the main protagonist Clara (Ava Psoras,) and her younger sister, Cassandra (Alexa Mechling). There is also a nice performance by Betsy Lynn George (she was in Petticoat Planet in 1998, one of the first DVDs I owned), who plays their mother. The story picks up on the funeral of Cass. Or is it? Weird things are happening around Clara (hence the title), and the presence of her estranged father, Victor (Joe Fishel), isn’t helping. Clara walks around like she’s in shock, in a mostly muted state even while these events are happening. And the ending? Well, it’s easy to see how this is both a starting and tipping point. The film is beautifully shot, and the music is eerily ethereal, fitting the mood perfectly. How much of this is real, and how much is left to the mind of Clara is all swirled together, leaving it open to the viewer in a way that will grab your attention right from the start. I look forward to the bigger picture.
Trailer HERE

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review: Devil Music

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

Devil Music (aka 61: Highway to Hell)
Directed by Luke Jackson and Jeremy Jackson
Tomcat Films / Unanimous Pictures / Prankster Film Co./ Godfrey Entertainment /
Three Weeks in a Helicopter / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Entertainment
97 minutes, 2017 / 2019

When it comes to Faustian tales of selling one’s soul to the devil, it seems many of the stories revolve around musicians who want either talent, or to make it in the music industry. Here’s another one, originally released in 2017 as 61: Highway to Hell (I can see so many trademark infringement possibilities in that old title, I’m not surprise they changed it). The reference, of course, is related to the place where Blues musician Robert Johnson (d. 1938) supposedly signed on the dotted line with the devil, before becoming a founding member of the 27 Club.

Reed Amos
For this tale, we meet the Los Angeles-based rock band Richter Scale, who may be awful, but we don’t hear them play for quite a while; we just learn they can’t get a local gig.  And they’re getting up there in age, over the 30 zone. But worse, they’re clichés. What I mean by that is kind of what singer-songwriter Christine Lavin was talking about when she sang, “Prisoner of Her Hairdo.” For example: Rondo (Reed Amos), the lead singer, songwriter and key ego (thinks he’s equal to the likes of Jim Morrison), wears sleeveless white tees, an oversized head bandana like Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies, and is addicted to Monster energy drinks. The guitarist, The Hunted (Nick Thune), wears eyeliner, punk hair, weird and tight clothes such as silver lame shorts, and is a deadpan Cliff Clavin-type know it all. The bassist, Rick (Gavin Astle), has dyed blond hair, seems to be nearly always shirtless, and is desperately into high school girls. The drummer, Jeff (Travis Wilson) is the most normal and straight of them all, and hardly seems to fit in with these guys. The “fifth Beatle” here is their long-suffering manager, Wroblewski (Rob Neason).

The original poster
The adventure begins when Wroblewski suggests the band head down to Mississippi to sell their souls to the devil, a la Robert Johnson (the film hints at Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, among others, doing the same). And while the whole central theme of this release is the road trip down from LA to the infamous crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, that’s not what the movie is about. Instead, it’s actually focused on the odyssey itself and this is more of a buddy travel comedy as we see the relationship between the band members and their personalities clash, while being crammed into a borrowed RV while they drive, drive, drive.

As any touring band will tell you, life on the road is tedious, and this film plays on that, with sort of a Henry Rollins’ Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag (1994) kind of travelogue. People who come to this film expecting a horror bloodfest like The 27 Club (2019) are in for a disappointment, but I actually found the film kind of funny in the sheer banality of it all. I mean, these guys all work at boring day jobs such as fast food and a Home Depot kind of hardware box store, and are going nowhere fast. A subtle feature I like is how modern culture is framed through the eyes of people at this level of the social strata. If you think about a film like American Psycho (2000) where the main character is fixated on high-end gear, clothing and food, these guys actually have the same fascination, but with gas station food, chain stores, and the like. It’s actually quite amusing. There is almost a Tarantino-esque mystique to the dialogues about bland culture that I’m willing to bet most of us can associate with more than hearing Patrick Bateman (of American Psycho) discussing Gucci and Huey Lewis and the News.

Tobin Bell
Along the way, not only do we get to see just what kind of people this band is composed of, but also part of why they are a failure on many levels. A cop who pulls them over refers to them as “Circle Jerks,” more as reference to it’s original meaning (in a non-literal way; a relative used that term the same day in the same way to a certain politician) than the California hardcore band, but the name drop still implies the writers are handing us a reference nugget. Another gem is a response upon the mention of Roger Waters, that is quite subtle. I had to rewind and then pause the film to laugh. Along the way they do manage to pick up a couple of teenage girls (Erin Axtel and Mandi Kreisher) to bring along on the tour bus, but they are losers even with that.

Other than Wild Eye Releasing trailers, there aren’t any extras, but there is a decent soundtrack that is a mix of traditional Americana and Blues, and a more modern rock beat sound.

Now, normally I would not mention the ending, and I won’t reveal too much, but since the star cameo is met at the crossroads – namely Saw himself, Tobin Bell, I will very briefly say that this was an excellent touch to complete the road trip, and worth the wait. This probably won’t warrant a sequel, despite some of the acting power, but I’d love to know the next chapter.