Friday, January 31, 2020

Review: Famine

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

Famine (aka Detention Night and Stupid Teens Must Die!)
Directed by Ryan Nicholson (d. 2019)
Gruesome Twosome Studios / New Image Entertainment / Unearthed Films / MVD Entertainment
77 minutes, 2011 / 2019

Boy, I haven’t seen a good slasher comedy in… well, too long. If you have any doubts about this one, it’s original title is “Stupid Teens Must Die!” (as opposed to Kids Go to the Woods…Kids Get Dead, 2009; reviewed elsewhere in this blog, or another film called Stupid Teenagers Must Die, 2006; this one I have not yet seen). I’m not quite sure why it was briefly changed to Detention Night at some point as that is so not accurate to the story.

Christine Wallace, Michelle Sabiene
If you have any doubts that this Canadian release is a comedy, it takes place in the Sloppy Secondary School. And what exactly is a “Famine?” Many institutions, especially religious ones) have charities for the poor, where the students do not eat for a day, and much like marathons, they get donations if they last the whole time (or as we used to call it, Yom Kippur). This is supposed to help the students empathize with the poor by helping them understand what it is like to be hungry. Of course, odds are they will never really know starvation, and there is a difference. Anyway, I’m on a soapbox, so let’s get back to the film.

Five years after a tragic accident during a Famine – shown in a flashback, rather than a prologue, go figure! – the students at this high school are once again setting foot on a slippery slope, and are paying the price for it.

Christopher Lomas
Our central character (don’t quite know if I would call her or anyone else here a heroine/hero), is cute Jenny (Christine Wallace), who is runway model tall and thin, and throwin’ a lot of cleavage (thank you). She’s the one non-stereotypical character in that she’s obviously the sweet girl, but man he gets hyper-angry at the drop of a corn dog, and then is sweet again a second later. Definitely in need of some mood stabilizers. All the others who attend the school are either women dressed in high heels and ripped “Famine” tee shirts to expose – or give hints of – body parts, or men who are annoyingly macho without looking at all machismo (irony noted, mister director). For example, the main male lead, Nick (Christopher Lomas), looks a bit like a scrawny Matthew McConaughey, but with big and crooked teeth.

The Famine has been revived by sexy new volunteer teacher Miss Vickers (Michelle Sabiene), who looks about 5 years older than the actors playing the students. This is all under the supervision of the literal German Nazi principal (Glenn Hoffmann), riffing off Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (etc., 1964) and others that I’m blanking on at the moment.

The Nailer
As the night wears on, someone is killing the participating students while wearing the oversized team mascot costume known as… wait for it… The Nailer. As you can tell, the humor in this comedy is quite broad, being closer to the outlandish style of National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982) than the homage-centric Scary Movie franchise (started in 2000). This film is definitely crass and brassy, and especially overly profane. An example of an insult is Jenny angrily throwing, “Why don’t you remove the dildo so all the stupid can run out?!” The F-word, the B-word and/or C-word are in nearly every sentence, and loses its shock value pretty fast.

Now, when it comes to the gore, well, that’s amazing. It looks good, it’s gooey as all get out, and over the top; the blood is way more than there would be in reality, which made me smile. In fact, we are introduced to lots of different bodily fluids, especially those from below the waist, making themselves known throughout. Everything is bigly and in excess here, with nearly all the people being overly sexualized, with men who have obviously never heard of MeToo and women in their clothing and movements (e.g., it seems like Jenny is always bending over, giving a downblouse shot for the camera).

The question is, of course, is this good cinema? the answer for me was mixed. I mean, as it was filmed in Canada, when Jenny very naturally says “aboot” in a sentence, well, that definitely made me laugh, even though unintentional. My biggest problem with it is it fights between being trying hard to be subtly amusing while at the same time being big and broad. Sometimes it works really well, others not as much. It’s going to be hit and miss, depending on your sense of humor style. If you liked the National Lampoon oeuvre, you may like this. If you’re interested in a higher level of it, such as Shaun of the Dead (2004), you may be more like me and find it a mixed bag. Perhaps you just need to be stoned to really enjoy it.

For me, the weakest point was the acting. And that is not to say these are bad actors, in any kind of way. What I’m saying is that rather than playing it straight and let the humor shine through in juxtaposition, which is the way I believe it should be to be most effective, they use what I call the John Lithgow sitcom acting style: Lithgow is an amazing actor, but I could barely watch him on Third Rock from the Sun (no matter how many Emmy’s he won for the role), where everything was too exaggerated.

The extras are a half-dozen trailers (including this one) – all of films I’ve now reviewed – chapters, and stills. For the latter, they are nearly all behind the scenes shots for 4:05 with a change every 3 seconds, and no soundtrack.

I am hoping you are not getting the impression this is a bad film, because it’s not. What I am trying to say is that it may depend on your sense of humor to determine how much you like it. I say watch it twice: one stoned and once… not. Make up your own opinion. Me, I’m straight-edge, and accept it for what it is.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Review: Virus of the Dead

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

Virus of the Dead
Complied by Tony Newton; directed by Matthew Joseph Adams; Gordon Bressack; James Cullen Bressack; Dan Brownlie; Jarrett Furst; Keiron Hollett; Matt Twinski; Benjamin James; Hunter Johnson; Christopher Jolley; Jason Lorah; John T. Mickevich; Mark Alan Miller; Kiko Morah; Tony Newton; John Penney; Shawn C. Phillips; Nick Principe; Timo Rose; Shane Ryan; Emir Skalonia; Steven S. Voorman
Vestra Pictures / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Entertainment
102 minutes, 2018 / 2019

Tony Newton is a Brit who loves to keep his hands in the horror field, including books, poetry, documentaries, fiction films, and so on. For this anthology, he came up with a great idea: he had people involved in the genre create their own little films ranging from short, solo bits, to longer ones with some narrative to them. Then he strung them together to create a worldwide epidemic, and generate the ultimate found footage zombie collection.

The film starts with the “headline” act, “American Virus,” starring and co-written by Katheryn Eastwood. Rather than talking to an empty chair like her dad, she converses with the camera with a snide “fuck you” attitude as she and her cronies are the ones to start the outbreak via injections for… revolution? Disruption of the status quo? I’m not sure, but whatever the reason, it’s bloody, quickly edited, and with lots of motion of the camera. In fact, in some of the clips, there is a risk of motion sickness worse than Cloverfield (2008) or The Blair Witch Project (1999), other times completely steady, sometimes including digital “noise.”

Most of the pieces are filmed on cell phones and laptops, with the files uploaded to Newton. These clips are international, so occasionally there’s another language (with translation), which makes the varied perspectives additionally interesting. More often than not the person on the other end is talking directly to the camera with swings around to show what’s going on near by them, expressing different levels of desperation. Which brings me to my next point.

Some of the pieces are stand-alone, and others are serial. What I mean by that is there are sections that come and go with a single filming. Some of the more interesting ones are those that come back at different times as situations worsen. For example, there is a series of segments with horror actor/vlogger Shawn C. Phillips: in the first, he’s taking the whole thing pretty casually, locked down in his basement with his film collection, figuring he’ll just wait it out. But each time we come back, food and water is running low and eventually there’s no electricity; it gets more and more dire. Another, “Face to Face,” has a couple who are Skyping (FaceTime? We Chat?) while he is in the States and she is in Myanmar (“I panicked,” for those who get the reference). Each time we come back to them – and this really is one of my fave pieces, – the situation goes from “what the hell” to sheer terror, bit by bit.

What comes out in the long run is people trying to adjust into a “new normal” as the world eats itself up, and trying desperately and literally not to be on the menu. This new reality is actually what television shows like “The Walking Dead” and films like ZOO (2019) are about, as much as the zombie apocalypse. Different people react to the situation in various ways, the oddest one being a couple of horror wannabe filmmakers who gleefully film killing zombies for their “epic.” But who is going to watch it “with the world in a grave” as the P.F. Sloan song “Eve of Destruction” posits?

At least the film occasionally deals with camera batteries dying as electricity starts to begin waning, as would happen. It’s a pet peeve of mine in found footage when people film for days on one battery. I have to recharge my phone daily, and I don’t usually use the movie features. And don’t get me started about the energy it takes to upload all these videos that the dying world is posting to a server no one is watching over.

There’s a couple of things that I find interesting, one directly and one larger than the film itself. First, even with a multitude (legion?) of different filmmakers and styles, there generally is a similar pattern, either the characters running around with the camera/cell phone, or with the camera mounted and pointing directly at the person of focus. I’m sure with some, it’s actually taken directly from the laptop camera on the top of the monitor, but no matter what the source, there is a consistency in the pattern of how the film is done. Found footage has become as much a staple of the horror genre as selfies, in general. This is a mixture of both.

What I find most fascinating, though, is the thought behind the need to film oneself, even as the world is dying. As a culture, we have become so inundated by not just the selfie, but the mentality behind it that has us believing we all matter and the world is going to care what we have to say, even if it endangers oneself or those we love (case in point the father who keeps filming his wife and his new spankin’ kid even as the undead are metaphorically breathing down their necks).

If the world is actually in the middle of the Z-Apoc, it’s just a very short matter of time before society as we know it ends, and the means for anyone else to see what you have filmed will be gone with it. That we would feel the need to keep on shooting the video selfie to show everyone / anyone / no one we ever existed is futile. Even if the footage remained beyond your body’s existence, who would have the means to see it? As much as this is a fictional film about zombies, it is also an exercise in just how vain and egocentric we are.

Just go to YouTube and check out videos people make of themselves in confrontations with others in parking lots, stores, fast food restaurants, etc., shouting, “I’m putting this on YouTube!,” hoping for it to go viral. Well, when the Z-Apoc goes literally viral, you and what happens to you is like dust in the wind. As I said, it is this mentality that I find really fascinating about this film, whether purposeful as a sociological study or just an exercise in anthology.

The gore is plentiful throughout, with some pieces being more so than others, most of it looking quite spectacular – my fave was a zombie ripping the skin off someone’s back. Most anthologies are kind of hit and miss, but this one is actually quite good throughout, with very few submissions that didn’t work, such as one where a guy is talking very slowly with the camera just inches from his face; luckily, it’s pretty short.

This is a fine effort that deserves to be added to the zombie canon, and I recommend it as everyone on this film is obviously a fan of the genre, and have contributed their love for it as a bigger body of work.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Review: Before the Night is Over

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

Before the Night is Over
Directed by Richard Griffin
Scorpio Film Releasing / The Reasonable Moving Picture Company
74 minutes, 2020

When I talk to fellow genre reviewers, one name consistently comes up on the top of the directors’ list, and that’s Richard Griffin. His large body of work covers a large swath of styles and genre categories, which seem to come in waves. There was a horror phase followed by one of broad sexual/sensual comedies. After a couple of years, he has headed back into making a thriller, and I find it hard to control myself getting ready to watch it.

Samatha Acampora, Victoria Paradis, Bruce Church
If I were to break this film down into its most primal descriptors, they would have to be “languid” and “gothic.” Remember when Southern-focused releases like Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and, well, Frogs (1972) were more common, with big mansions, accents that make y’all wanna hush yo mouth, sugah, and evil doings were hidden by “the scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh” (quote from Abel Meeropol’s 1939 song, “Strange Fruit”).

Like a Bob Fosse dance number, every shot and move made by the cast seems nearly choreographed, with hands and faces in the forefront. This is quite effective for the “languid” part. It also makes for fascinating watching of the actors as they move around the screen, or even if they are sitting still, there is still the precise motion that is almost hypnotic, which works for the “gothic” intonation.

As for the basic set-up of the story, listen here chile: when we are introduced to petite Samantha Pearl (Samantha Acampora, who is also known as a spirited Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactor), her parents have recently passed on, and she’s been taken in by her aunt, Blanche DeWolfe (Lee Rush), who owns this here bordello that is filled with men, and also caters to men. Similarly in charge is the “prickly” Ms. Olivia (Victoria Paradis, reminding me of the Miss Hardbroom character from the British “The Worst Witch” programme). These are the only three women in the film. Also helping to run the bordello is the intense and towering Ambrose (Bruce Church, who just keeps getting better every time I see him).

Samantha also is having visions that are silent, fuzzy and in slow-mo (again, “languid”), where she can see violent events that have occurred in the house recently. Oh, and did I mention that there is also someone in a cloak and cowl running around hitting customers on the noggin’ with various instruments until they’re on the rainbow bridge with Jeebus? And what’s in her mother’s diary that the aunt is keeping from her, and what’s with the mysterious locked room she’s not allowed to enter? It’s a mystery that’s bound to get ramped up and involve Samantha (again, “gothic”). Well that’s why y’all are here, ain’ it?

Much like Cinderella, Samantha’s role in the “house” is to be the maid. Of course, this gives her access to everything and everyone there, so like the nanny in The Innocents (1961), as we follow her around, we get to learn as she does just what is going on up in here.

Like Griffin’s earlier film, Long Night in a Dead City (2017), the atmosphere and structures around the story are part of it, even the incredibly accurate, stylized and yet ugly wallpaper. There is a persistent mood that runs throughout, giving the actions of the characters more gravitas. There also deserves a nod to John Mosetich’s excellent cinematography and Margaret Wolf production design for the way this is all displayed to us.

This film is a fine summation of a few of Griffin’s earlier works, combining the supernatural (though technically he is not a “horror” director), homages to some of the Masters (see below), and the abundance of the male form in various shapes and sizes. There is a lot of nudity in here in a coin flip of the usual all-women-and-no-men. Penii abound, and yet the story warrants it. If you’re a Neanderthal who is indoctrinated in not being used to this, get the fuck over it. This film is too beautiful to miss.

There is a bit of violence here, but relatively mild with little blood; however, the tension is definitely there as murders are committed and a mysterious presence overhangs the bordello that Samantha tries to get to the source.

It’s easy to see the influences and reflections of earlier classics that I could list, but I don't want to give too much of the story away.

My only complaint is that it’s a relatively short feature. There is much more I would have liked to be flushed out a bit, though I don’t feel cheated at all. Honestly, this is true of most Griffin films; I just want them to keep going. That says a lot about this release, as well.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Review: The Barn

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

The Barn
Directed by Justin M. Seaman
Nevermore Productions / Scream Team Releasing / MVD Entertainment
98 minutes, 2016 / 2019

If you’re a horror fan, especially of a certain age, you remember how cool the 1980s were for the genre, and appreciate it for what it added to the canon. Special effects (SFX) were mostly appliances rather than digitally added, the latter of which looked really cheesy back then and tended to be reserved for electricity, lasers and supernaturally excites atoms; the paranormal digi appears here as well. The stories didn’t really need to always make sense, the acting wasn’t necessarily of “prime-time” level, and they were just freakin’ fun.

Nostalgia for these kinds of films are becoming more common, almost in response to the high level expected on the theater, television or computer screen: over the years, the gore and body horror have become ever more extreme, clinical and cynical. These can be interesting, but are not “fun” in the same way the ‘80s releases often tended to be, even when they were very bloody.

Lexi Dripps, Will Stout, Mitchell Musolino
Many indie filmmakers today are trying to bring back some of that excitement, such as with this one. The “throwback” aspect of The Barn is in many reviews and especially in the press releases I have read about it. But this one uses a trope that I really enjoy as an indicator of what they are trying to project: after the flashback scene that introduces the story (here taking place in 1959), rather than a title card saying something like “now,” it refers to the era it is trying to posit, in this case, 1989. That’s a cool thing which I appreciate, and the fact that there are no cell phones is also one less thing to worry about as far as being “realistic.” Every film that takes place in the now seems to rely on “we’re out of range” to explain away the phone.

On the Halloween Eve and night when this film mainly takes place, we are introduced to two smart asses who are seniors in a fundamentalist high school, Sam (Mitchell Musolino) and Josh (Will Stout). They butt heads with a conformist parent and especially the ultra-conservative church leader, Ms. Barnhart (get it?), who is played by the Cameo Scream Queen herself, Linnea Quigley.

Candycorn Scarecrow, The Boogeyman, Hallowed Jack
Together with some friends and possible love interests, such as Michelle (Lexi Dripps), who work at the roller rink (did they still exist in 1989?; they didn’t in disco-laden Brooklyn where I grew up), they sneak off for a concert on Halloween night, stopping at a town to get some trick-or-treat sweets for the church to shut them the hell up (oxymoron intended). The audience will know by the (sometimes literal) signs that they are not stopping in a good place, as this is the home of the titular barn.

Sam has rules for Halloween, similarly to Matthew Lillard’s character about horror films in Scream (1996). We get to hear some of them before the end of Act I, when we get to… (dum-dum-dah-dum) the barn. We learn early on that there are three demons who appear when the barn door is knocked, and you say “Trick or Treat” on Halloween. One demon is a scarecrow who eats eyes, another that carves out your skull that has a jack o’lantern head with a really cool flame inside his noggin, and the third is the miner, aka the Boogeyman (played by the film’s director), who uses his sharp nails and pickaxe to do some physical damage.

By letting loose the demons from hell – who seem more human than anything else in their reactions, albeit non-verbally – our intrepid gang have put themselves and a large number of the local town in danger. Luckily this means a high kill kount [sic], mostly via SFX, so there’s some great bloodletting that is fun to watch and cheer. Since we don’t know most of them, and thereby have no emotional attachment, it’s killed-for-kill-sake and lots of “woo-hoo” for the viewer.

For the extras section, there is a full length commentary track with the director and the lead actor, Musolino. It’s quite good as far as telling anecdotes of filming, digging a bit deeper on the meaning, and the epistemology of the story: apparently, this started out as a comic created by Seaman when he was just 8 years old, and this film is his lifelong dream (up to now). This kept it interesting from beginning to end. This is what a commentary track is supposed to be, in the cinematic home release world. Seaman backs up his history with this story by including “All Hallows Eve,” a 5:30-minute student film he made in 2002 that introduced the Boogeyman/miner character (placing himself as the victim).

Linnea Quigley
There are lots of other extras, too, including the film’s two trailers, a commercial for the video game, a music video by Rebel Flesh, four deleted scenes that were both fun to watch and rightfully excised, the Indiegogo Film Pitch (with the first Jason and Cameo Scream King, Ari Lehman, who also briefly appears in the feature), and more.

One of the comments Seaman makes in the commentary is that the acting is quite extraordinary for an indie feature. And you know what, he’s right. Musolino easily carries the picture without losing his boyish, devil-make-care air, and the supporting cast does quite well as – err – well.

From what I understand, the The Barn II sequel is in the works, starting some time this year. I look forward to it. This was an enjoyable film straight through, with few and min lags and just the right length. If you like films like The Gate (1987) and Night of the Creeps (1986), this may be right on your sights.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Review: Lifeform

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

Directed by Max Dementor (aka Brian Schiavo)
Strangewerks Films / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Entertainment
105 minutes, 2019

People being inadvertently changed into monsters through nature or science is hardly new. It isn’t difficult to go even further back than, say, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958) to find this subgenre. A big difference, though, is that in earlier versions, it was usually men that were transformed, but as time passed on, it focused more on women, usually the sexier the better. The obvious notation that will be associated with this release is the Species franchise (beginning in 1995) or its lesser cousin Splice (2009), but it has continued, even as recently as Bite (2015).

As for trying to bring back the dead through science hoping with a result of normalcy has also been present for years; again, the obvious touchstone is the Re-Animator films (starting in 1985). These sub-genres tend to be films I enjoy, so when I saw the trailer for Lifeform, I definitely was hoping to get the chance to see it… And, Ta da!

Social worker Sam(antha) (Virginia Logan) is married to stem cell research scientist Hadrian (Peter Alexandrou). Hadrian and his assistant, Chloe (Kate Britton) are working on a project to help heal by replacing cells. They also have the working-close-together-for-a-long-time hots for each other, and Hadrian (man, that’s a clumsy name; perhaps it is to explain indirectly the actor’s accent) is torn between his love for his wife and his attraction for his assistant. While I don’t respect that as I’ve happily been loyal for over a quarter of a century, this really is quite the fetching cast. But I digress…

When Sam catches the two scientists neckin’, she runs out into the New York City street where she promptly has a brain embolism and collapses on the sidewalk (this is all in the trailer, by-the-by). Natch, Hadrian is in remorse, but is still working with Chloe, and they inject her with some test fluids taken from a jellyfish, of all things. Of course, this leads to transformations, brain eating, and lots of tentacles, but more on that later.

 As time passes, Sam mutates more, sexual tensions rise all the way around, and people drop like flies (yes, there is a decent body count).

The film is beautifully shot in widescreen, and while many of the images are dimly lit, it looks really good; many apply a Sergio Leoni-level close-up so at least parts of the face or forehead are out of camera range. Again, good looking cast, so it’s not a problem, other than on occasion (but not often) it’s a bit hard to define exactly what is going on.

As for the logistics, this is a decent story with some interesting subplots regarding the scientist’s boss and family, even with some holes here and there, but the dialogue is bland and could use some punching up. The same can be said for the fetching participants’ not so fetching wooden acting.

The effects run from looking decent (appliances) to pretty cheesy (digital). One of the creatures even looks like pre-Ray Harryhausen stop motion. Actually, considering the obvious budget constraints this film must have been under, this is some decent work (remember how near the end of the first Evil Dead how fake the clay body looked as things goo’d out of it?). And for those who are into this sort of thing, there is a lot of female nudity, especially from the navel and up. Again, not complaining!

Speaking of the carnal phases of it, there are a lot of subtle fetishes thrown in here along with the bare skin. For example, even though the original cells were from a jellyfish, there is a lot of inspiration from tentacle hentai, and also some B&D thrown in, with various women tied to chairs or chained up. Now one of the reasons for the various monstrous varieties that appear is that the creature (Sam) is a shapeshifter (says the publicity), and as an example, one of the more interesting ones is a cross between a preying mantis and scorpion (and a nod to 1956’s The She Creature).

I do have a few quite silly questions here and there that took me out of the story. For example, there is a monster running loose killing people in Park Slope, Brooklyn; have you even been to Park Slope? Even in the middle of the night, it’s a pretty hopping place, even by the warehouses between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Also, some shots were obviously filmed on a main Avenue, but it’s like they all appear to be from the same block, if one goes by the scaffolding that seems to nearly always be there. What’s up with that, asks this Brooklyn born and bred boy?

For me, the biggest fault is its length, as it could have easily been edited down to under 90 minutes. But this is only the director’s second feature, and he’s got some learning to do. His first full lengther from 2010, The Shriven, also has similar themes, such as a murderous shapeshifting woman and tentacles (I have only seen the trailer), I say give him a chance. With its flaws, this was still a fun flick.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Review: A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images: Lenka Rayn H. / Forward Motion Pictures
Video from the Internet

A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life
Directed by Staten Cousins Roe
Forward Motion Pictures; Arrow Films
81 minutes, 2020

During the whole New Age craze in the 1980s, I dated someone who was really into self-help and personal mysticism (crystals, tarot, etc.). As a cynical punk rocker, I didn’t buy into any of that, which led to a relatively quick break-up. But in that time, I got to be immersed in that type of thinking and came to realize just how much of it is manipulation and stage magic (check out J.Z. Knight channelling Ramtha; hysterical in rear-view mirror looking).

Today, that same mentality has remained, this time with “life coaches” who claim – for an entrance fee or buying a copy of their latest tome of psychobabble – to be able to improve your life. Go to the Self-Help section of the bookstore to find out just what I mean. Personally, I know someone who used to be a punker but is now a self-styled life coach, hiding within himself an Ayn Rand-style right wing narcissism. At this point, this is a good lead-in to this film’s story.

Katie Brayben
We meet Lou (Katie Brayben, made to look a bit frumpy here), who feels spiritually lost. She clings to self-help material to aid her in her day-to-day life, where she works in a shop in Brighton, UK, and lives with a very demanding, demeaning and self-centered mother (Sarah Ball). Very early on it starts to be clear why Lou is so self-deprecating.

At a talk by a mercenary writer/guru in the field, she meets a self-styled self-help coach, Val (Poppy Roe, who is also the director’s muse, who oozes self-confidence and wears bold, bright red lipstick. She is instantly everything Lou wants to be. When Lou gets invited by Val to go on a road trip to visit a self-help icon, Chuck (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), Lou find the courage to leave her home and mom, and jump into the car for the ride along. We are shown in little snatches that this road trip is going to be interesting and a bit bloody.

Poppy Roe
Essentially, this is a twisted dramedy buddy road trip film. Nearly all of this genre tends to be male oriented, so there is obviously going to be some Thelma and Louise (1991) notations in reviews along the way (such as this one just now), but there’s also some Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), along with others that would reveal too much.

It’s easy to see through Val as the story does not try to hide her compulsions, but we are also along for the ride, and that’s the fun. Poe’s almost stoic and assured reading of her is part of the enjoyment for the viewer. She is not smug, she’s just persistent. The slow growth of Lou as she comes out of her shell is also fun to watch, as she starts – well, for lack of a better term – to be woke, both to Val and herself.

The purpose for the road trip becomes clearer as we go along, positing that self-help gurus are no better than televangelists that prey on the weak who are looking for some kind of spiritual cohesiveness, whether it supposedly comes from within or an invisible man-in-the-sky higher power. Val admits she wants to be the best self-help person and is determined to get to the top of the field, with oblivious Lou as her sidekick.

This is a very dark comedy, that’s more “ohhhhh” than jokes, and again, all the better for it. The dead-pan timing of Roe and the spaced-out and abused character worn by Brayben make them suitable as both companions in the story, and working off each other as actors.

Part of what is amusing is that the film mixes showing some self-help tropes (e.g., “be yourself,” “an end is only a new beginning”) and what some may see as some sound advice, and also mixing it with a dose of cinematic reality (there is an oxymoron for ya) to expose just what BS it actually is in the real world. This could have come out as kind of preachy, but it doesn’t thanks to some good writing by Cousins Roe. In some ways he expresses everything I felt when I was dating that person all those years ago, though I never thought of picking up a weapon other than my words.

The film itself is put together in a way that hides the fact that this is the director’s first full length feature. There are subtle, almost subliminal clips thrown in of what’s to come (yes, I frame-by-framed some of it), and there are a few styles of editing thrown in. The blood isn’t overflowing as this is more character driven, and sometimes looks too chocolate-syrup brown, but again, for this release it’s the content of the story that pulls the viewer through, rather than merely acts of violence (though there’s a bit of that, too).

I am so wanting to discuss the truly interesting ending, but I won’t. The good thing about that is that the film makes me want to dissect it, meaning it is making me think. Not many films today do that, especially the mainstream ones that are there mainly for the cash grab (sequel number 18; remake number 6). Sure, there are some ideas here that can be applied to other films (damn, that ending), as I mentioned with Thelma and…the Other Person, but that doesn’t mean the viewer can’t be engaged. Yes, this film is entertaining. I laughed out loud a few times and smirked more than usual.