Tall Men (a.k.a Customer 152) (2016)

Tall Men 4-9Creating a world that is subtly surreal can be a very difficult task. Balancing elements of a disintegrating reality with a compelling storyline that progresses at the correct pace to guide the viewer along the journey with the protagonist is a challenging undertaking indeed. So how does Tall Men fare with a storyline that embodies this concept? Well, let’s discuss.

The film centers around Terrence (Dan Crisafulli), a man living with mental illness who has fallen on hard times and is filing for bankruptcy. An early scene eludes to a childhood trauma which seems to have played a big part in his current mental state. After his meeting with the bankruptcy attorney he begins to have strange visions and the feeling like he’s being watched. His life takes an even stranger turn after he applies for a mysterious credit card that seems too good to be true.

The first thing I will say about this movie is that it sucks you in. This is no doubt something that was made on a very modest budget but the sleek sound design and attention to detail give this film a professionalism that transcends its financial limitations. Director Jonathan Holbrook wisely chose to focus on a character-driven story in which he craftily builds tension and dread in a compelling and natural way. The world of the characters is well established and when the surreal and paranormal elements creep in you consistently find yourself questioning what is real and what isn’t.

The film has a lot of clever touches as well. For instance, the scene where Terrence is on a date with the weird, pretty girl he works with and the movie they go to see ends up unexpectedly being a horror film. As he comments “I don’t think this is a romance” there is a noticeable tonal shift in the overall movie itself and what had started to feel a bit like a quirky relationship movie the last few scenes takes on a darker feeling of dread and menace. It’s a meta moment that is far more effectively executed than in many films where I have seen similar things attempted.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few things that I feel could have been a bit more polished. While I feel like most of the actors were quite effective some of the supporting cast could have benefited from reining in their performances a bit. Some of this may have been a deliberate choice by the director to inject some humor into the film but I feel it would have been stronger with a consistently serious tone throughout. This would have sold the characters as real people a little more and helped the viewer feel more immersed in the film. There were also a few scenes in which fake teeth were used where the actors exposed too much and betrayed the items as props which took me out of the moment a little. Okay, so these may seem like quibbling points but the devil is in the details and it is the attention to the subtle details that often separates good films from great ones.

Bottom line here, this is a very watchable film with some genuinely frightening moments and an interesting, surreal story. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and would definitely see it again, which is certainly not something I would say about some of the other films I have reviewed. Without a doubt, recommended viewing.

3.5 Stars Red

Flesh of my Flesh (2015)

FOMF-Poster11x17-300dpiWhen viewing micro-budget films, you have to go into it with the understanding that you are not going to be seeing the same kind of slick production values that you get with Hollywood films that have budgets in the tens or hundreds of millions. Because of this, I try to be fair and cut a certain amount of slack in terms of production aspects that could not be helped due to the budget, like footage quality, set design, amateur actors, etc. I do however still hold filmmakers responsible for choices within their control such as the script, actors they chose, and production choices made.

Flesh of my Flesh starts with a zombie outbreak in a hospital and then moves forward in time eighteen months for the main storyline which takes place in an abandoned city overrun by zombies. A three person rescue team, lead by Major Erick Vaas (Matthew Martin), is tasked with finding survivors and becomes stranded in the city when their helicopter is shot down by a zombie with a rocket launcher (!). They are then taken in by a small group of survivors in a bunker and have to work together to figure out a way to escape the city before the whole thing is leveled by the military in an effort to control the outbreak.

If this sounds overly ambitious for a film with a small indie budget, it’s because it is. When your resources are very limited it’s wise to play to your strengths and focus on a character-driven story with limited locations and an innovative concept that will hold your audience’s attention so much that they are willing to overlook the rougher edges of the production. It’s less wise to have an elaborate high-concept story that involves blowing up multiple helicopters and buildings. These effects unfortunately draw a lot of attention to the budget of the film, or lack thereof, and the final result ends up being more like Birdemic than Black Hawk Down. This was definitely a case where the director would have been better off finding another way to get the protagonists trapped in the city rather than attempting effects he could not pull off.

Also, I understand and appreciate that it is hard to find actors willing to act in a low-budget film and I’m not trying to be mean or pick on one actor but I just could not get past Matthew Martin’s performance. Honestly, no one was knocking it out of the park here but I really feel that the leading man of the film especially needs to have the chops to really pull you into the story and there truly wasn’t a moment that I didn’t feel like I was watching someone who was, painfully, trying to act.

Now, in case you think I’m simply being excessively negative here, I do want to mention a few of the things I did enjoy about the movie: I liked the idea of the kid zombies playing a game where they stand in a circle shooting each other over and over again because they cannot die. I enjoyed seeing one zombie rip another one’s arm off and eat it in front of him. To that end, I also liked it when one zombie ripped the head off another one and smashed it on the ground like a watermelon. Probably the most interesting part though was the zombie head that one of the survivors was keeping alive by feeding parts of it’s own body. Since in this film the zombies actually regenerate lost body parts it kept trying to re-grow the rest of it’s body starting with a spine which would have to be clipped from the base of the neck every few days to stop the regrowth. Gross, and cool.

And that’s really the basis of this film, a few cool, interesting ideas scattered throughout a movie that unfortunately is mostly a cliched, standard zombie film with a very low-budget feel. Without anything really creative or innovative to set it apart, I can’t see the reason to invest time into watching a film like this when you could simply watch one of the many zombie flicks it’s trying to emulate and be far more entertained by higher production values. I also feel like if a film like Wyrmwood could be made for $160,000 and look amazing then no one really has an excuse for blaming poor production values on lack of resources.

The real tragedy of this film is the ending though. Now, I won’t give anything away but suddenly, in the last scene of the movie, it becomes cool, really fucking cool! I remember thinking “Fuck! Why couldn’t the whole movie have been like this!?” Let me tell you, if it had been, I would have given the film very high marks indeed and I assure you it would also find a cult following in no time. The final shot itself is also so amazing, not just from a conceptual point of view but even from a technical one that I can’t believe it’s part of the same movie. It does give me hope though that writer/director Edward Martin III could be capable of some really great, interesting work. He simply needs to branch out into a far more bizarre, abstract and creative direction and then I think he could be capable of contributing something raw, gruesome and significant to the horror genre.

1.5 Stars Red

The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2009)

Human CentipedeThere are few films that can cause disgust and revulsion simply from their basic concept alone and truly none that can stand at the level of The Human Centipede: First Sequence in terms of sheer gut-reaction to the plot itself. In the seven years since it’s release the film has inspired two sequels, a slew of controversy and become a prominent pop-culture reference. So I decided it was time to revisit the iconic film that started it all.

The plot centers around Lindsay (Ashley Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) two young American women traveling through Europe, currently stopped over in Germany. A flat tire and no cell reception send them wandering through the woods at night in search of help. Unfortunately for them, the first house they come across belongs to retired surgeon Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser) who just so happens to be looking for a couple of healthy, young victims to help him with his demented new experiment.

Horror movies have been around since the inception of cinema itself and after countless entries into the genre it is very rare that a genuinely original idea comes about. While the concept of innocent victims being held prisoner and tortured by a madman is not in and of itself new, the idea of surgically connecting them via the Gastric System (i.e ass-to-mouth) is an inspired stroke of demented genius. With this film writer/director Tom Six has created a movie that is not only incredibly creative and original but also a significant, landmark film in the genre itself.

So, clearly the concept is excellent but a solid concept is only worthwhile if executed properly. From a technical standpoint the footage quality indicates that this is clearly an indie film as it doesn’t have the rich, beautiful cinematography of say A Serbian Film. That being said, the film has everything it needs to tell it’s twisted story and Six wisely chooses to limit most of the action to a single location. It also delivers on the practical gore effects which are simple, realistic and very effective. I should also note that this isn’t a very gory movie by horror standards and Six allows the concept itself to do the heavy lifting, making the fact that many people are so shocked by it all the more impressive.

Now, there were a few minor issues that I feel could have been addressed to greatly strengthen the film. The primary being that there is a point where a character is trying to escape the house, pre-centipede, and walks by phones multiple times without even attempting to use them. I also felt like the female leads used each others’ names in conversation way too much so that it became distracting, which is kind of Screenwriting 101. Very minor complaints to be sure, they simply stand out more because the film is so tight otherwise. The story overall is very well paced and keeps the tension up without getting bogged down in filler scenes or unnecessary exposition.

Both Williams and Yennie do give solid performances and really sell the fear in what must have been a very physically uncomfortable shoot. Although, I did feel that their scenes prior to meeting Dr. Heiter didn’t really rise above average. Speaking of the mad doctor, Laser absolutely steals the fucking show as Heiter giving a stunning performance positively dripping with menace. I cannot imagine anyone else playing that role and he is a big part of what makes the movie so successful.

In conclusion, this is a film that every horror fan should see and a stunning example of creativity, originality and a filmmaker with the balls to go way beyond the comfort zone of typical movie goers. We need more directors like this who are willing to be daring, provocative and not give a fuck about acceptance from the mainstream, because that’s the kind mindset it takes to produce real, significant art.

4.5 Stars Red

The Blob (1958) vs The Blob (1988)

Blob Comparison

It’s hard to imagine a film that embraces the notion of a campy Creature Feature more than The Blob. Just by the title alone you know exactly what you’re in for. Despite being incredibly well known films, there actually is not a contemporary remake of this story, although there is rumored to be one in development that would star Samuel L Jackson (!). So, as of this time we have the 1958 and 1988 versions, each very emblematic of the time period in which it they were made.

The story in both centers around a meteor that crashes in the woods outside of a town and releases a gelatinous creature that absorbs and devours the residents. Both films also feature an old man as patient zero and center around teen protagonists who discover and bring him to the doctor, which is where the mayhem really begins. However, at that point the similarities pretty much end.

Now, I know the original was made in the era of campy drive-in horror and special effects knowledge was very limited at that time. That being said, there are still quite a few aspects that could have been greatly improved upon. For one thing, all of the “teens” in this film look like they’re about 35. This actually makes sense because in reality stars Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut were 28 and 25 respectively when the movie was filmed…..and it shows. There’s nothing that shatters even the vaguest illusion of realism like “man-child” McQueen blubbering to the cops to not tell his daddy that he was out hot-rodding. When you couple this with the painfully stagy ’50’s acting, you end up with characters that are distractingly unrealistic and completely unrelatable.

The remake on the other hand establishes characters that not only look age appropriate but are surprisingly well-developed with minimal exposition. There is a general feeling of ’80’s cheesiness of course but for the most part the characters are played straight and realistic enough to make you feel emotionally invested in the story. The remake also does a far better job at having a logical justification for why most people are initially skeptical and reluctant to accept what’s happening. This is in stark contrast to the irrational insistence by the cops in the original that those crazy “kids” are pulling one heck of an elaborate prank on old Johnny Law.

Since this is a Creature Feature the quality of the creature itself naturally plays a pivotal roll in selling the scares in the film. This is another area in which the remake out-classes the original with an amorphous creature that presents as a truly threatening monster rather than something that alternately looks like a giant piece of half-chewed candy and a sad bag of jello. The remake also makes great use of practical effects, delivering some truly amazing gooey, gory kills in all their wonderful ’80’s glory.

The original also could have tightened up some of the writing which was confounding even for the era. One of the best examples of this is when the fire chief notices the diner that people are trapped in the basement of is on fire and casually asks the sheriff if he has any ideas on how to put it out. (!) He then follows that up with pretty much “Ah, that fire will probably burn out in 10 minutes or so”. (Never mind that the people will most likely burn to death by then. How did he get this fucking job!?)

I mean, the bad writing is good for a few unintentional laughs of course. For instance, the scene when the nurse throws a bottle of acid on the blob, that of course does nothing, and then declares “Dr, nothing will stop it!” (you’ve tried exactly one thing, one.) Obviously he then he tells her to stay in the room she could easily escape (!) while he gets his gun and we’re then treated to one of the lamest deaths in film history.

All these kinds of issues could be overlooked however if the original provided an overall film that was an enjoyably campy, fun ride. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t. There simply isn’t enough to make it fun and the slow pace, shoddy ADR, poorly staged action, bad dialogue and lack of anything even remotely close to frightening make this a wholly unsatisfying experience. On the other hand the remake gives you exactly what you’d expect and want from a film like this which is a fun, gory monster flick that holds up surprisingly well after almost thirty years.

Winner The Blob 1988