Published on January 21st, 2020 | by Richard Gary0
Richard Gary’s Favorites and (Not Favorite) DIY Films for 2019
The Feedback Society’s resident expert on DIY movies (especially horror films), Richard Gary, walks us through his favourite (and not so favourite) films of 2019.
I have an issue with “Best of” and “Worst of” year-end lists for the following reasons: most are chosen from either those that play in theaters. For me, I like to watch the DIY ones, for these tend to have more heart. My list consists of independent films that I saw, not necessarily ones that were released in that year.
As for Best and Worst, I never liked those terms; art is just way too subjective, which is why I called them Favorites and Not Favorites. That being said, even the “Not” ones have redeeming qualities, and the fact that they don’t touch me means nothing. I have hated films that have won tons of awards, and liked some that other find abhorrent, so don’t take anything I say, good or bad, as the definitive. It’s just opinion, and I welcome you to agree or disagree. It’s all good.
These lists are alphabetical, rather than ranked (another thing I don’t believe in).
The Blood Hunter
Vampire films are a dime a dozen, and yet even with a low budget, sometimes you get to find one that is not only a decent story, but stretches the boundaries in new ways that add to the legend rather than taking away from it. For our tale here, we meet our pitiful (to start) hero Deckard, a survivor of being in the armed services in the Middle East. Since returning home, his wife left him, his teaching job is gone, his daughter died, and his son is in a wheelchair. It’s no surprise that he is deep into his own cups, i.e., he’s an alcoholic, and dealing with depression He’s even lost his faith (more on that later). But is when the story takes off into a blood and gore-soaked extravaganza. He manages to join a small group of vampire slayers called the Blood Hunters, who seem to shoot up a bunch of vampires but have trouble killing them, or at least this particularly robust, young-looking trio who are reminiscent of The Lost Boys (1987). The Blood Hunters pull the teeth of the vamps and sell them to the highest bidder for their powers which are achieved if the teeth are ground up and ingested. There are some parts of the story that are predictable, but even within those tropes, the story takes some incredibly interesting turns that you just don’t see coming. There was a lot to enjoy; one reason was the take-no-prisoners approach in that you really never know who is going to die in many cases, both good and bad guys, old and young. Also, the gore is way plentiful and most of it looked great, even with the blood being a bit too brownish (much of the film seems to be shot with a yellow- or brown-tined filter). There is an undercurrent of Christianity and faith that runs through the film both in literal and symbolic ways and even though it permeates the entire film in both subtle and explicit ways, it also never deflects or overruns the story. What I also want to point out is that the film is shot beautifully. The area around Billings, MT, is used with nice brushstrokes, especially those around farms. The pacing of the editing is well done, with the action scenes a bit quicker, but not to the music video speed where you can’t make out what the hell just happened. It’s actually used the way many Westerns are, with long, lingering scenes that let the viewer absorb not only the action, but the surroundings, which I always enjoy. Sunlight and shadows, dusk and dawn, all are played out in tones that are warm and lush, without being overly romantic. Just enjoyable handiwork. The co-directors, Trevor Styles and Chas Llewellyn, certainly left the story in a way that it can continue, which leaves me encouraged.
Director Todd Sheets has smashed-up the mash-up by combining Sharknado with the recent clown mania that has culminated in the remake of IT. There are actually many film tropes used throughout Clownado that the aficionado of the genre is able to easily check off, but here is the thing: Sheets takes those and turns them on their heads by de-cliché-ing them and making them his own. Savanna is trying to rob and escape the evil clutches of her abusive husband, Big Ronnie, who owns a run-down traveling circus. Of course this idea goes bad and she knows he is going to kill her. What else to do? Get a gypsy woman to place a curse. Through this action, Ronnie and his clown henchmen become demonized, able to use tornados to travel after her and our quadrant of overaged teenage heroes, who are eventually joined by a couple of tornado hunters. Taking place all in one night, the story is one continuous chase and capture, filled with lots of blood and gore and a very nice body count when all is added up. Not only is the viscera not shied away from (i.e., off-camera), but it’s usually shown in close-up. One of the things I really like about Sheets’ films is that he is not limited by a particular body type. Not everyone is a model who is size 0, or plastic surgery’d to the point where chests are practically immobile from overpacking. Sheets’ cast is filled with people who look like those you might actually meet on line at the bank, eating at the table next to yours, or fighting a gaggle of giggling killer clowns from cyclone space. This is actually a beautifully shot film overall, and Sheets gets some great angles and frame-work, and the story never drags. These nasty clowns are entertaining as hell, and the fodder characters are fun as well and keep the viewer interested.
The Dark Days of Demetrius
This is the sixth film by Dakota Ray. His specialty is life at the lowest strata of crime in the street. He focuses in on his fictional city of Sunnydale, which is actually a stand-in for his home turf of Denver. This Demetrius (Dakota Ray) is also known as the Live Stream Killer (aka LSK), as we learn from the narration in the first 10 seconds of the film past the prologue and credits. He kills random people and live streams it to millions of his fans who revel in the death and destruction in his wake. Anyone who is familiar with Ray’s work knows it is immediately identifiable as his, as Ray has his own style of filmmaking, which is unique, something you don’t often see these days. While he manages to keep his “auteur” title, this film is actually way different (and similar) as his others. First of all, his editing is tighter, and more importantly, his storytelling has grown. Here, Ray takes a single story that runs throughout its length, though it is still broken up into chapters. His iconic look of using colored filters remains, but mostly he uses a dark blue one here (and occasionally red), almost giving the film an India Ink manga feel, full of close-ups mixed into the action, and a voice-over to let you know what Demetrius is thinking. You rarely hear him speak, but you hear his thoughts in Ray’s unique, deep rumble of a voice. The characters we meet tend to be creepy at best, and scary human monsters at their nastiest. Ray bring out the worst traits of people, and that’s kind of what makes his stories so interesting. Demetrius, like many serial killers, is a self-professed sado-masochistic narcissist. He revels in the power of self, through the killings and his website, often looking at his own reflection through a mirror or his cell phone camera lens. These kinds of murderers are “hungry” for attention, and Demetrius is no different, as his crimes become more violent, and his need for notice grows. He starts to contact the victim’s families to taunt them, and even gets the press involved. A news reporter, Clive becomes involved and begins to lose what’s left of his objectivity. Clive is not beyond trying to save what’s left of his reputation by leading with blood and guts. This used to be called yellow journalism, but now it’s just common news commentary. But Clive’s a bit of a nutcase narcissist himself, and is actually closer aligned to Demetrius’s mindset. As one dips into the reality of situations, there are a couple of questionable actions such as someone peeing on a body. No one would do this, because it would easily give the police a DNA sample. In theory it makes a point of motivation of a character, but the detective story watcher/reader in me saw this as a red flag. There are some funny moments here, such as Clive writing about the intersection of “6th and Vagina,” which amuses me for two reasons: the first is obvious, and the second is that it doesn’t say what 6th (Avenue? Street?). A couple of more things is that the SFX are practical (as opposed to digital) and pretty good, and most of the music is by death metal band Emperor ov Larvae [sic]. You just know there is a comeuppance coming for some characters, but which ones is not assured until the end, which is a strong point for the film. This is definitely among my faves of his films to date.
In a new world of who can top whom with gross violence and vivisections, sometimes someone has to step up and say, “Hey, here’s some good entertainment that’s based on the story, rather than being gory.” Director Thomas Smith introduces the viewer to Nick Moon, a hard-hitting PI (Paranormal Investigator) modeled in the Sam Spade mode of the Noir detective stories. He’s got a smirk a mile long, an odd hat, and can throw an incantation or two for the viewers entertainment and his prey’s detriment. His assistant/Girl Friday is empath Daisy O’Reilly, who gets to see as much action as does Nick – and rightfully so, as she’s an interesting character in her own right. Into their squalid office comes vivacious femme fatale Lilah Fontaine, a rich man’s daughter who hires Moon to find her missing dad. Of course, if you read mystery novels, you know there’s more than meets the eye-candy with Lilah. The world our three main characters inhabit is a normalized mixture of human and demon, though most of the time it’s easy to tell who is which (which is who?) by the make-up. While searching for Lilah’s dad, Moon and company get involved in the search for a mystical power source for a knife of unimaginable power in the right/wrong hands. Of course, every demon and religious order is trying to get a hold of it for whatever means, be it to use it to evil ends or to nullify that from happening. Naturally, all plots merge into a single point in the story. The visuals as quite nice, without there being jump cuts. Brown tones seem to prevail, and a bit of steam punk paraphernalia is certainly present in Moon’s arsenal. Fulmer and Liley have been shown to have a nice platonic chemistry together in earlier Smith films, and continue to do so here. What’s also enjoyable is the level of a-wink-and-a-nod humor that runs throughout the story. For me a large part of what makes this film so much fun is that it’s story based rather than the plot revolving around wounds. While viscera are all well and good, it’s nice to follow a plot that is interesting in its own self.
The indie filming scene around Dayton, Ohio, is not to be ignored. There is a core of directors and actors that overlap into a powerful and quite interesting clique of artists, such as Henrique Couto and Erin R. Ryan, among others. For this release, director Couto has assembled some of his regulars and also new talent to release a demonic tale involving a Ouija board and the requisite evil spirits. The center of the film is troubled Sylvia (Joni Durian), who has several mental ailings, such as ADHD, agoraphobia, OCD and seems to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Durian does a strong job playing a wide range of emotions right from the first scene, which is off-putting until the viewer realizes pretty quickly that she’s not just quirky, but rather disturbed. Her guardianship is in the hands of her brother Sammy, who obviously cares for her, but is on the brink. He buys board games that she likes to play solo. He also does his best to stop her from self-destructive behavior and tries to help her focus on a task. He’s getting to the point of burning out and drinking too much. Among the stack of games Sammy misguidedly brings home is said Ouija board and malevolent forces are not far behind; especially when the dissonant note music starts on the soundtrack when the board is introduced. Sylvia is obsessed with a desire to make friends (she feels like those she watches on television are “friends”). And it is this that Sylvia’s trio of spirits of the Ouija board manipulate for their own purposes. It’s understandable that Sylvia is attracted to these spirits: they appear caring, tell her truthful dark secrets about others in a blunt manner, and keep reminding her that they are all in the middle of playing “a game.” The purpose of said game is the question the audience will be asking, though it comes across as obvious very soon (hey, it’s a relatively short – but perfect length – film). Dorian’s acting style can be quite jarring here, as she shows the audience Sylvia’s brain trying to process the information of what is happening around her. It took a couple of minutes to get into the vibe of it until her situation is understood, so it works well. Her moments of lucidity under the guidance of the spirits becomes the oddity, which works really well. Most of the rest of the cast is pretty good in their performances; the spirits can be a bit over the top in the acting department here and there, but in the long run it all works together. These spirits, wisely, are very different from not only the principal characters, but among themselves. Also, they are different from most other demons (I’m assuming) you would expect from this sub-genre. They are a little girl obviously played by an adult, a wise-acre wiseguy gambler who also helps Sylvia with recipes in the kitchen, and a punk rocker who wears her hair in a distracting Misfits’ front rattail style. As I said, Couto does not usually dwell in the house of cliché. There are some beautifully shot sequences that are effectively unnerving, such as Sammy’s recurring dreams about Sylvia’s future. This is story- and character-based, and I say it’s all the better for it.
These days there are a lot of strange readings of the Bible’s contents, including an “every word is truth” fanatical factiono. Well the main character of this tale makes them look like wusses when it comes to raining God’s punishment on mere mortals. The main focus for this story is Father Vincent. who believes in the literal word and work of punishment as described in the Old Testament. Calling himself a Roman Catholic priest, in fact he has been defrocked by the Church for his fanatical beliefs, fostered by a tragic series of events from his youth. In other words, Vinnie is a psychotic serial killer feeling justified in his ways, like Dexter, as he delivers what he believes to be God’s punishment on the wicked: salvation through death, via gun, knife, whatever. Helping him reluctantly on his path is his younger brother Michael. He is relentlessly picked on by Vincent as not being as supportive as he would like, even as he aids in chopping up the multitude of bodies. The two travel around a region of Mississippi in a beat up old camper, which has been turned into a traveling “confessional”; and if the Padre does not believe you are repentant, it becomes a bit of an abattoir. Of course, Vincent does not recognize his own foibles, including that of lust. Meanwhile, a sweet and squeaky voiced young thang named Mary Francis is on a murder streak as she is also a psychotic serial killer in her own right. She picks up on the brothers’ vibe and manages to widdle her way into their lives and livelihood by joining the band of blood. She has no hesitation in ending life. She and Vincent couldn’t be more similar, not counting the religious differences. And you know at some point this trio is going to explode into violence among itself through viciousness and double dealings. In that way, it does not disappoint. The moral compass of nearly all the characters is askew, as they make their way through the mire of sin, truth and forgiveness, and lack thereof. With wicked good lighting and angles, this is solidly atmospheric and full of gothic horrors. There is no shying away from the violent nature of the characters, nor their actions. There are some both physical and emotionally squeamish moments throughout, all handled beautifully. The film is sheer brutality from beginning to end, but the story keeps up with it. Never having been a fan of violence for violence sake, I like the story to bring the intensity, rather than the other way around. This one never lets up. Mark Savage gives us a top notch film that is full of thrills and terror that is palpable by the characters. The acting is solid, as is the writing and cinematography. It’s a perfect storm in a positive direction.
A Record of Sweet Murder (aka Aru yasashiki satsujinsha no kiroku)
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 (with subtitles) by Kôji Shiraish. There is a possible supernatural element in this film: an escapee from an asylum, Park, 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, and her camera dude, Tashiro (the film’s director) accept his invitation for an interview and to make – err – a record of sweet murder. 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 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, 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. It’s brutal with so many twists and turns, so 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. 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? While it’s clear Park is 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 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.
John Oak Dalton started off strong with directing his first feature, The Girl in the Crawlspace (2018). This release was mostly shot in and around Farmland, Indiana, though filming was done as far as Dayton, Ohio. 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 gets ahold of a diary of a gay teen who had died, which 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. 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, whose drawings literally speak to her, Zoe’s promoter with the multicolored hair (Manic Panic?) Marlys, the pent-up angry Prentiss 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). A 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). 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. 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. 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, 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.
What some cult films often have in common is that they can be silly, but they have a charm, engaging characters, and quotable dialogue. I was surprised to find that this film has all those same qualities. In the prologue we are introduced to the titular cyborg as she escapes from an alien prison ship. Back on earth in a small city in Australia, punk rockers Dylan and bestie Eddie are also in a pickle with authority. Joining up with a wanna be rocker, Rik and scientist/genius/nerd Velma, our intrepid heroes head out to the local puppy farm for various reasons, and come in contact with the SheBorg and those she has “turned” into her cyborgish followers. Needless to say, mayhem is the order of the day. This Daniel Armstrong film has it all: extreme blood, extreme fisticuffs, and some dialog that will make you howl, such as the one for which this film has been getting noticed, “This isn’t a map! It’s a blueprint for a Romulan space vagina!” If you have any trouble understanding the accent, the film comes with captions which I found very helpful at times. Even though they are bitter enemies, there is a personality similarity between the SheBorg and Dylan in that they are both into interrupting culture, though on different levels. The ‘Borg is all about Chaos and its destructiveness, while Dylan is into rich girl pseudo-punk Anarchy. Mainly, though, it’s just goofy sci-fi and horror fun. As I said, I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this film. It was funny, bloody and so over the top that it was entertaining from one end to another. There’s a lot of fighting, and gore. People are covered with blood though nearly the whole thing. The main point is that this is a silly and enormously enjoyable exercise in lunacy and extremity. Aussies are known for that with the likes of Road Warrior and the early films of Peter Jackson. This has been one of my favorite films, as nonsensical as it was. I can’t really explain it other than to note that after some serious exercisers in horror, it’s nice to see some humorous fun that works, even when it doesn’t always make sense.
A priest who turns into a velociraptor? I’m all in, dude!
It’s important to note that this is not just a version of a werewolf film, it’s actually more. In no particular order, it’s an homage to the amazing bad horror films of the mid-VHS period of the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, before there was CGI (most of the effects are practical, but there is one key digital moment during a flashback sequence in the middle); also it’s as played-straight comedy filled with deliberate errors to emulate the micro-budget VHS features; it is brilliant in its own goofy way. There are so many genres thrown in and mixed in a bowl here it’s bound to get your attention, a multitude of styles of movie mayhem from that period you liked. After a tragedy, Father Doug travels to Asia where he comes in possession of an artifact that lets him turn into the titular creature: a very rubberized man-in-a-suit that looks more like a mini-T-Rex. Meanwhile he comes to the acquaintance of forbidden love object and hooker Carol, while gangsters and a Chinese warlord priest with Japanese Ninja guards who speak Korean come sniffin’ around with various agendas. Who will win the battle for Doug’s soul, as it were? This isn’t the first one of use deliberate measures to show low budget and incompetence, but it’s still a hoot. Here, there are action shots missing with a notice for the CGI to be added later, and when a head is ripped off, it’s pretty intentionally obvious that it’s a store mannequin’s topper. The fight scenes are straight out of the Dolemite school of martial arts. There are other fine moments that had me laughing out loud. The acting, again, is a mix of purposefully hammy and dead serious, and the two leads especially not only excel in this, but really seem to be having a blast playing these roles. Meanwhile there’s lots of blood and cheesy-type gore, enough to make a splatterfest fiend smile, but not necessarily turn off a neophyte fan of the red stuff. One of the strong points of the film is the look and editing. There is a lot of split-screen action that is incredibly well done for a group that is this novice, i.e., haven’t made that many features yet. Brendan Steere gave us something beautiful to look at and kept the pace moving along.
Right from the start, Brian Cunningham’s film hits a number of interesting buttons on many fronts, including psychological, paranormal, a creature feature, and a few hikes in the snowy woods around Louisville, KY. At a party, we are introduced to the three leads, who have been friends for years. The couple is Abby and Caleb, and the third wheel is Riker, who also obviously has a thing for Abby. They are Millennials who like to drink and drug, and are spiritually holding out for something better, be it between each other or through mind-altering substances. One thing they don’t seem to feel assured of is their sense of self-being. This plays a sharp dynamic in the story. With a slow burn and languid pace, we get to know these three and their conflicts between themselves and each other as they cling to the same old ruts and struggles they seem to be drowning in, rather than to explore new avenues of change. This is where most of the tension of the film arises, but of course, there is so much more. Each of the three is flawed in their own way. Riker is a “morose drunk” who has anger issues dealing with his unrequited passion for Abby as well as living with his mom and sister. For Caleb, I don’t want to go into too many details, but being faithful is not one of his strong suits. As for Abby, she’s lost and confused, and afraid to make big changes even though it’s obvious the reasons she should. The three spend a night in the woods imbibing on a hallucinogenic substance, and Abby claims to see something in the woods, which may have followed her home. Is it real? Is it in her mind? Is it the drugs? That is the direction the film takes. There is a lot of angst in the film, as it digs into the psychology of these three, while still hinting at something more, and it’s actually quite well done. Don’t get me wrong, there is sex, blood and violence, but it’s kept somewhat in check by the story (and rightfully so). The acting by the three leads is well done. This is especially interesting as the film is filled with local Louisville underground theater actors who are relatively unknown outside of their home turf… so far. As for the creature feature aspect, real or not (and I’m not giving any spoilers), it looks pretty cool. We rarely get to see much of it, again for the better. Another stylistic tactic that works for well for the film is that the narrative is not straightforward, but jumps around in its timeline; under Cunningham’s choices and sharp editing, however, the viewer is never lost on where the characters are at any time, even though it seems some wear the same clothes most of it time (gotta love low budgets!). One might consider this a found footage film, but it is quite modified in its approach; yes, there is a lot of handheld cameras by the cast filming the action, which is key to one of the sub-stories, but the single camera is also focused on the trio when they are by themselves, as if someone is filming who is not acknowledged within the story and essentially making the viewer the camera-holder. This style is way more interesting than just the usual found footage fare.
Directed by Antonio Tublin
This zombie apocalypse dramady takes place in London. The world is infected with a virus which turns people into wild flesh eaters (“fast zombies”), but the debate can be later discussed on whether these are technical zombies because we’re not really sure if they are still alive. We are introduced to very attractive couple John (Ed Speleers, best known for Eragon in 2006 and “Downtown Abby”) and Karen (Zoë Tapper, who has appeared in several British programs such as “Mr. Selfridge” and “Demons,” where she played Mina Harker). When the infection shebang hits the fan, they are in a strained relationship due to not being able to reproduce their beauty to children, so they are stuck in their high-rise apartment waiting for rescue while the world explodes around them. They hunker down with food they’ve stolen from other apartments, and apparently a vast amount of wine and various hard drugs. These tight quarters, of course, force them to refocus their relationship and rebuild their bodies to fight whatever may come through the door, and relearn about each other. The dialogue is witty and there is a strong, dark sense of humor about it all. But while the world turns dark, strangeness also is rising in John and Karen’s haven when a couple from the building that they don’t know (but whose apartment they pillaged) show up at their door asking for help. Reluctantly, they let that other variance of evil in. This second couple see what our heroes have, and plan to do whatever it takes to make it their own, in their version of murder and pillage…but who’s the stronger and willing to risk the most? But this is only one set piece that includes roving gangs, intimate dialogue, and yes, those pesky zombies that are only present in the storyline on occasion, though they are the spine to the entire tale. This is personal and claustrophobic as nearly all scenes are shot in their apartment, and as other characters may come and go, John and Karen and their travails and swirling relationship are the focus of the story. There is definitely some violence and blood, but no more than you would see in a gritty crime drama, but because it is so sparse, it also makes it even more effective in a little-is-more way. Sometimes the violence comes as absolutely shocking, other times you’re cheering it on, as this couple delve ever further into a symbiotic unit that focuses on what must be done, while the mayhem also robs them of their social humanity piece by piece. That’s what makes this a smart film, in that the presence of zombies are always felt, but rarely seen, and the story focuses on the cultural breakdown while waiting for that rescue. This is a strong film that wisely refuses to take any one direction of thriller or romance, but manages to have extended periods of both, and they make it work. Of course, the quality of the actors and a strong direction by Antonio Tublin also help. If you want a bloodfest, this is not the zombie film you are looking for; if you want a deeper story with some human emotion, well, it’s worth checking out.
Usually, I’ll talk about the cameos towards the end of a review, but to mix it up a bit, here are just some of the people involved: Adrienne Barbeau, Michael Berryman, Barbara Crampton, Sid Haig), Kane Hodder, Lloyd Kaufman, Tony Todd, Dee Wallace Stone, Danny Trejo, and supreme-o Scream Queens Debbie Rochon, Brinke Stevens¸ and Tiffany Shepis. Agents Trina Boon and Joe Novak are given a tour into a secret prison where only the most heinous and insane murderers are stored by the government. Employing a Dante reference, it goes down nine levels until it reaches the worst of the worst, and possibly supernatural beings associated with Hell itself. After an incident, all the prisoners are let out to roam. The skels and the agents are working their way down to the lowest level for their own reasons. The results are gruesome at best, walking down long dark tunnels with flashlights at worst. There is a fine mixture of social and religious commentary, and a philosophical bent, rather than merely relying on blood and gore – of which there is plenty. This both works for and against the story, as it tries to be too many things at the same time. The film jumbles around and focuses more on dark hallways and flashlights, basically skipping most floors. One could argue that it might be seen as derivative to do the floor-by-floor bit. As I suspected, most of the cast appears in cameo form, but some are extended, and others are main characters. Honestly, it’s fun picking them out of the crowd, but it also is kind of a waste of talent. Having people like Brinke and Tiffany just standing in the background of a group shot made me sad. There were times I had no idea what was going on, between the dark and the philosophical. Am I sorry to have watched this B. Harrison Smith release? No, I don’t think that would be an accurate statement. There are things to like about the film, but honestly, considering the firepower of its cast and crew, there are definitely moments that dragged that could have been excised, and replaced with acting rather than standing in the background for some of those onscreen.
In this Jared Cohn film, we meet John (Jason Brooks) as he and a couple of buddies go digging around looking for an ancient Aztec relic. In Kentucky, I’m just sayin’. He is happy to risk his and the others’ lives looking for this thing thanks to brow beating from his dad (Will Shatner), despite the negative affect it has on his wife (Jeri Ryan). The story behind the relic search is a bit convoluted, having something to do with an ancient curse on John’s family back from the days when his family were Spanish conquistadors (what?). It seems John’s little expedition may have deadly effects on some of his crew, but even worse than that it has “woken” something evil. John wisely (sarcasm) takes his family back to the cave, to get the relic and destroy the curse on his family that seems to have never manifested before he went spelunking in the first place. Along with his suddenly supportive wife after years of demanding he give up the search, John takes her along with his teenage kids. The special effects vary widely in their effectiveness. The creatures look cool; however, the explosions and blood look digital and not very well done; when things get blowed up real good, it looks like the original Battlestar Galactica-era FX. I didn’t mind that too much, but it was a bit distracting from the story. There are definitely some issues I have with the film, one being that it seriously needs some deeper editing. There are just too many shots of people walking through the woods. Also. there are certain scenes that are repeated numerous times, especially flashbacks to the Aztec days. But to me, the weakest point is the writing. For example, there is Shatner showing up near the cave in a golf cart, of all things. Another is the questionable use of a large number of explosive devices inside the cave, without any damage to the cave itself. Besides, would these devices have any effect on Aztec demons who have returned from the grave for so-called revenge? And what’s with the use of the word “Devil” in the title when none of these creatures are actually Satan-related. With Shatner’s character, it seems like the script can’t make up if he’s a good or bad person. He certainly browbeats his son to the point of taking enormous risks, and yet at other times he’s made to look like a loving father.
Oh, Jeez. I have oft touted that when a film takes a group of different tropes or clichés and mixes them all together, something new and interesting can be sired. But other times, if it doesn’t go deep enough, it becomes plebeian and ho-hum. It also depends on what the tropes are and of what interests they include whether it is on the side of interesting or blasé. In this Dallas King epoch. you have a military conspiracy to create a better soldier through chemistry. This is hardly anything new. Another here is women-on-women violence and love/sex, from lesbianism to Mixed Martial Arts. In bikinis of course. In the beginning 20 minutes, we meet four friends who are exotic dancers… excuse me, “ladies” (as one character insists), since we see sensual movements, but no nudity. They get an invite to a wine tasting, which turns into wine drinking, that turns into a cocaine frenzy, and to no one’s surprise, a drug-fueled kidnapping by the military. Y’see, the US military is trying to make stronger and controllable soldiers, so of course they use barely dressed women dancers as their sample group. Say what? Under the control of this drug, they fight other women and, to no surprise, each other, to the death. Here is a reason why I found this annoying: there is no antagonist for nearly any of the actual fights. The women are just punching up each other. If there were an enemy, such as Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, whatever, it would be easy to take sides and the fighting might be fun and give you someone to boo or cheer for; here, it’s just our four friends and a few random women with no backstory – this fantasy was obviously written by men. The writing is quite basic with no great lines or witty plot points; even the double-crosses can be seen coming due to lazy scripting. The filmmaking tries to be arty but looks more like a softcore porn shoot thanks to the lighting and the editing, and the acting basically consists of anger – even before the drugs are administered – and growling. Also, all the fighting and the sex scenes are filmed the same way, with colorful lights and slo-mo. All the women have silly names, like Kiss, Treasure, Kurious, Fortune, Dream and Promise aka Tia (Aunt?). The bad guy/head of the army program is called Gibson, but at least he is given real dialogue, relatively speaking, other than, “No! Please!” and “Grrrrrrrr” (note that a lion’s growl is added over the sound of the participant’s scream). I came away from the film feeling annoyed more than being filled with ennui (it’s certainly not boring). And I happen to like both a good story and to think – even with a cheesy film – while the action is going on.