Short Film Review: Heir (2015) Duration: 13 mins 58 sec

HeirI see the format of short films in general as an opportunity for truly unbridled filmmaking. Even though the filmmakers themselves almost never see much in the way of financial gains from the actual shorts, they are also not beholden to the kinds of artistic compromises so often required to make a feature film marketable. This allows the most daring and talented directors to create short films that delve into dark subject matter and employ experimental techniques to create a vision untarnished by the meddling of outside forces who seek to make it more “palatable” for a wider audience. Directors who take advantage of that freedom are sometimes able to create films that are uninhibited, brilliant art pieces and Heir is one such film.

It is difficult to discuss the plot without giving too much away but I will say that it deals with subject matter that makes most people profoundly uncomfortable. The story centers around Gordon (Robert Nolan) who takes his teenage son Paul (Mateo D’Avino) on a trip to meet up with a mysterious man named Denis, played by Bill Oberst Jr. Tension and dread mount as the film builds towards it’s climax and the disturbing truth about the characters’ true motivations are revealed.

Writer/director Richard Powell takes a surreal approach to the story, clearly influenced by the kind of body-horror featured in Cronenberg’s most seminal work. This proves to be a smart gamble and the special effects are not only exquisitely crafted but give the film a nightmarish quality that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll. In the hands of a lesser director these effects may have undermined what is a very serious and upsetting topic but in this case Powell perfectly incorporates them into the story in a way that does justice to his influences. In fact, rarely outside of Cronenberg’s films have I seen body-horror so effectively used to symbolically portray the horror and darkness that can lurk in human sexuality.

Credit also must be given to the cast whose all around strong performances are a key part of the film’s success. Bill Oberst Jr especially shines with his subtle, menacing portrayal that is bold, daring and absolutely fucking flawless. Nolan also delivers in a big way expertly portraying his tortured character’s emotional roller coaster with subtly and realism. This is all captured in a tightly paced, professionally shot film that completely nails the tone, look and feel of the strange, disturbing story it is telling.

Even beyond the technical proficiency of the film the story itself is what really makes it daring and vital. Regardless of how well a film is shot there must be a deeper meaning to the story for it to cross the line from entertainment to significant art. By discussing a subject that is horrible but undeniably real, Powell elevates his film beyond the myriad of shorts that seek to merely shock and disgust to the all-too-infrequent group that truly have something to say. My hope is that this film becomes available in some way for people to watch outside of the festival circuit because it is without a doubt a trip into darkness well worth taking.

5 Stars Red

Short Film Review: Stained (2016) Duration: 9 min 57 sec

Stained picWhen your film has a running time of under ten minutes there isn’t a lot of room to flesh out an elaborate story and the entirety of the film is generally focused on the resolution of one central conflict. Stained is no exception to this rule, and the plot can easily be summed up as (sigh)…..a man takes a shit and has to try and find some toilet paper to wipe his ass. Yes, that’s really the plot.

Said man goes by Harris (Mike Shephard) and in addition to being fresh out of TP, he is also plagued by the the incessant harassment of one Fecal George (Chris Spyrides), a human manifestation of shit itself that only he can see. Okay, so it goes without saying that the plot is crass and sophomoric, so the question really becomes “did the filmmakers execute the story they had properly?” Well, let’s break this thing down.

First and foremost, this is a small cast of three actors so the quality of the acting is essential to selling this weird little story. Not surprisingly, there isn’t much subtly to be had in their performances which consist of the kind of broad, cheesy acting you’d find on your typical short-lived sitcom. I recognize that an over-the-top style was warranted in this outlandish story but I still feel that more skilled actors could have delivered a level of subtle menace that would have added complexity to the characters. Though, I can certainly appreciate that having anthropomorphized human excrement shouting at you about shit stains in your underwear probably doesn’t inspire your best performance.

What baffles me the most about this film is why director Phil Haine and writer Mark A. C. Brown felt that, of all the possible stories in the world, this was the one that they would put all their resources into telling. Now, if this had come off as a film that looked like it was shot over a weekend by a couple of drunken college kids, it would actually make more sense. What’s confounding here is the fact that there’s clearly a lot of talent behind the camera.

There are some attempts at very broad comedy that fall completely flat but purely from a technical standpoint the film is very well crafted. The quality of the image is perfect, the sound design is excellent, and the entire experience flows together with the kind of professionalism you’d expect from a multi-million dollar film.

Now, I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it does redeem the rest of the plot a bit as well as provide justification to some points of the film that seemed like simple oversights at first. In addition, it finally tied in the Horror aspect that had seemed to be conspicuously absent from this “Horror Comedy”. All in all, a strange, gross little story but one brought forth by talented people who are certainly worth keeping an eye on in the future.

2.5 Stars Red

The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984) vs The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007)

The Hills Have Eyes 2

For this review I go back into the desert to compare the 1984 sequel for The Hills Have Eyes to the modern remake of the same name. Unlike the original and it’s remake however, the storylines in the sequels are vastly different from each other but do both tie back in to the originals that they follow. Was it worth taking the trip into the bloody, radioactive sand again or should the sequels be avoided like a sketchy, unmarked dirt-road in the desert? Well, let’s discuss.

The 1984 version, The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, starts with one of the survivors from the original, Bobby (Robert Houston), talking to a psychiatrist about his experience. When a group of his friends want him to join them at a race in the desert so they can pass out samples of a new dirt-bike fuel he invented (!) he declines and warns them not to go either. Of course they go anyway bringing along his dog Beast and the now civilized Ruby, who is also part of the crew but lives under a new identity. After an ill-advised shortcut and a predictable break-down, the gang finds themselves on the receiving end of the same kind of desert hospitality that Bobby and his family got in the first film.

By contrast, the 2007 version, The Hills Have Eyes 2, takes place after the events of the 2006 Hills film but does not connect directly to it with any of the characters. Instead, it centers around a group of young National Guard recruits that are halfway through training. On their way to another training location, they are tasked with dropping off equipment to a group of military scientists that are working on a mysterious project in the desert. Once there, they find the camp is deserted……or so they thought!

Ok, so as you can imagine, neither one of these sequels has been particularly well received by critics or fans. This isn’t especially surprising considering that both the original 1977 film as well as it’s 2006 remake were such good films that they made for tough acts to follow. Additionally, neither sequel exactly brought it’s A-game and both cases feel like a cash-in rather than a thought out expansion on the story. Even so, there were still some striking differences between the two versions.

Perhaps the most glaring of these is the fact that the 1984 version shamelessly recycles footage from the first film. It does so under the guise of “flashbacks” but what you really have is a highlight reel of scenes from the first film that simply play again, in their entirety, in the sequel. Honestly, I can’t think of any other sequel that so blatantly uses a device as cheap as cut ‘n paste to this extent simply to make their lackluster film more interesting.

If this was the only issue with this version it may have been forgivable (maybe) but the fact is this one is rancid all the way through. Right from the group of annoying twenty-something protagonists who you instantly want to die, to the repetitive fake-out scares, to the shoddy (and sparse) gore, there really is nothing to recommend about this film. It utilizes the most cliched and over-used plot in the Horror genre (group of young people in middle of nowhere picked off by villain) and even when Craven wasn’t recycling actual footage from the first film, he still recycled ideas for plot points and kills. Even the character of The Reaper (one of only two hill-people in this one) makes no sense because if you paid attention to the plot in the first film you’ realize there’s no fucking way that Jupiter could have possibly had a brother that was simply absent during that film.

The most baffling part of this is the fact that these are the kinds of things you would expect to find in a sequel that’s made by a different director and rushed out the next year but in this case the sequel was written and directed by Wes Craven himself seven fucking years later! In other words, plenty of time for the original creator to craft a brilliant follow-up to his own film.

The 2007 version on the other hand was made by a different director and rushed out the next year but against all logic it’s actually, well, good. Now, to be fair it’s nothing earth-shattering and the 2006 version definitely leaves it in the dust but in this case director Martin Weisz does deliver a solid, gory film that is very watchable and will keep your attention to the end. This may have to do with the fact that the 2007 sequel was written by….wait for it….Wes Craven!

That’s right, after wisely stepping into the Producer’s chair for the 2006 remake so writer/director Alexandre Aja could flex his creative muscle, Craven got back into the game for the 2007 sequel and wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonathan Craven. I feel like this must have at least partially motivated by a desire to make amends for the immensely disappointing 1984 sequel and show that he could deliver fans a proper, if long overdue, sequel to one of his most iconic films. After taking the bloody, entertaining ride myself I can certainly say I’m glad he did.

Winner The Hills Have Eyes 2007

The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence (2015)

The_Human_Centipede_3_PosterWhen you’ve already created one of the most original and disturbing horror movies of all time and a sequel that takes it to the next level, the natural question must be “where do you go from there?” With The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence writer/director Tom Six closes out his infamous horror trilogy with one final entry, a last trip into the sick, twisted world he created. So, does the final entry live up to high expectations set by the first two? Well, let’s discuss…

Using the same plot device that he did in the second film Six posits that this film is in fact the true reality and the other two are fictional movies in this world. Dieter Laser returns as prison warden Bill Boss and Laurence Harvey comes back as his accountant, Dwight Butler. When other forms of draconian punishment prove ineffective they decide to take inspiration from the notorious films and put the entire prison population into a massive, 500 person centipede.

The most noticeable change in this film is the drastic tonal shift from the last two, especially the second entry. Now, it should be noted that Six has always maintained that he sees the films as dark comedies, which is a strange claim indeed. At least that’s what I thought when I saw the first two, which are some of the most grim, brutal and disturbing cinematic trips you will ever take. The third however, is played for laughs…..

The general rule of thumb with movie sequels and TV shows is that once they start making fun of themselves they’ve run out of ideas and this film drives that point home, drives it home hard. Right from the onset where the central idea is recycled, to the constant self-referential nature of the film and the fact that Tom Six makes an awkward appearance as himself, the running theme is clearly ‘no one in this movie is taking this shit seriously’. And truly, they are not.

Laser is without a doubt the worst offender in this regard as he ditches the subtle, genuine menace of Dr. Heiter in favor of prancing around like a maniac and screaming all his lines. In addition, Bill Boss is less like a prison warden, more like Caligula as he snacks on dried clitorises, rapes his secretary and castrates, mutilates and murders prisoners with absolutely no legal repercussions. Basically, the film is played as a broad comedy punctuated by scenes of graphic violence. This idea may have been more effective if the film had at least been remotely funny.

This brings me to the fundamental problem with the movie. If you are going to jettison your previous format, you need to bring in something solid to replace it with. Since the world and the characters of this film aren’t grounded in any kind of tangible reality the situations they are in become far less engaging as you can’t take anything seriously. This results in irritation for the viewer as they simply wait for the next violent scene to alleviate the boredom that occurs when there is no solid plot to follow or well-developed characters to engage with.

In conclusion, it’s unfortunate that Tom Six didn’t try to push himself creatively to finish the trilogy strong and instead elected to smugly rest on his laurels and assume we would all be impressed merely by the fact that he fucking showed up. Even the violence, while graphic and generally creative, doesn’t really feel boundary-pushing or dangerous as it did in the second entry and wasn’t pushed nearly as far as it should have been. Overall, a tremendous opportunity wasted and while I found the film enjoyable enough to watch once, that doesn’t change the fact that the series would have been so much better off had this one never been made.

2 Stars Red

Uncle Sam (1996)

220px-UncleSamSlasherAs any horror fan knows, there is no shortage of holiday-themed horror films out there. However, while holidays like Halloween and Christmas boast a multitude of titles, less represented holidays like say, 4th of July have far fewer movies modeled after them. That being said, it’s hard to imagine a movie ever being made that could more enthusiastically embrace the patriotic American holiday than Uncle Sam.

The plot centers around Master Sergeant Sam Harper (David ‘Shark’ Fralick), a helicopter gunner who is killed by friendly fire during the Gulf War. When his body is shipped back to the states for burial his young nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden) becomes obsessed with him and following in his footsteps. But it isn’t long before Harper’s restless corpse awakens, steals an Uncle Sam outfit and goes on a bloody rampage against draft-dodgers, flag burners, corrupt politicians and anyone else who dares defile the honor of his beloved country. Will Jody have the courage to defend the town and stand up to his….(sigh) uncle, Sam?

While the idea of a murderous reanimated corpse in an Uncle Sam costume is indeed strange, what’s even more bizarre is that this weird throw-away film from the 90’s wasn’t directed by a first timer nobody, it was directed by fucking William Lustig! In fact, despite consistently working as a producer up till present day, Uncle Sam actually represents the final feature film the director of the seminal slasher Maniac has directed to date.

When you go into a movie like Uncle Sam you have a good idea what to expect. Clearly you’re not going to get brilliance but if the film can keep you entertained with a cheesy story and plenty of gruesome kills then it’s done it’s job. Unfortunately, this is where the film ultimately fails as it commits the only truly unforgivable sin of the cheesy slasher sub-genre… bores the audience. Aside from the opening scene there aren’t any kills until forty-two minutes in!

Evidently, a lot of padding was needed to stretch out the paper-thin story and even though the second half does pick up a bit, it’s too little too late. Some of the kills are creative and decently bloody but without the kind of glorious, gooey over-the-top madness we saw in 80’s films or the sleek, realistic gore of modern day horror this is a classic example of why the 90’s were considered an overall low point in the history of the Horror genre.

There are some things I did appreciate about this film, though. Primarily how it so fully embraced the underrepresented holiday with such gleeful abandon making this a film that doesn’t just take place on the 4th of July but is, without a doubt, a 4th of July themed horror movie, and all holidays should have at least one horror film that fully represents them. I also have to give props to the credit sequence which not only establishes the iconic Uncle Sam outfit for the viewer through real archival footage but also shows how genuinely bizarre and creepy it could be at times.

If this doesn’t sound like enough to recommend the film, it’s because it’s not. The movie is not even remotely scary which is largely due to the fact that the titular villain spends most of the time standing in plain view so there is never even a chance of tension or dread building before a kill. Even with the cheesy concept and low budget this film could have succeeded if it had jumped right into the action and assaulted the viewer with a series of brutal kills that didn’t let up. At least then it would have made for a fun movie to watch with a few friends and more than a few drinks. As it is, watching this is about as exciting as celebrating the holiday with a damp sparkler and a non-alcoholic beer.

1 Star Red