Bloody Ballet (2018)

unnamedBloody Ballet (aka Fantasma) certainly starts off promisingly enough. Snow falls heavily in the night sky as approaching police cars begin to illuminate the solitary figure of a young girl standing still, unmoved by the cold and completely unresponsive. The haunting score swells as the slow motion scene unfolds to reveal the bodies of her brutally murdered parents and I am officially hooked. Of course, it’s one thing to get the audience’s attention and quite another to actually hold it.

After the opening scene the movie flashes forward to follow a professional ballerina named Adriana (Kendra Carelli) who we soon learn is the girl from the beginning. Adriana’s initial excitement at being cast as the lead in the Nutcracker is quickly tempered by the fact that her fellow ballerinas startgetting murdered all around her and worst of all, the killer has the same eye-gouging m.o as whoever killed her parents.

Bloody Ballet was initially released in 2017 under the title Fantasma and the cynical part of me can’t help but notice that the new VOD re-release (under a more audience-friendly title) happens to coincide pretty closely with the theatrical release of the Suspiria remake. Of course, if there was ever a film to try and ride the coattails of into the spotlight that would be it because Bloody Ballet is more than just a little Giallo inspired.

As the masked, black-gloved killer slashes his way through synth-scored scenes drenched in red and blue light it’s clear that this film is wearing its Argento influence firmly on its sleeve. That’s actually not a bad thing in this case though because while it’s clearly not a high budget film, the production design (particularly in the more stylized scenes) is a highlight of the movie. The real star of the show however are the kills which are stylish, surprisingly brutal, and feature a significant amount of ocular trauma.

It’s always nice to see solid kills in a horror movie but in this case they are interspersed between a series of scenes featuring unconvincing acting and a plot that starts out wobbly and nose-dives into terrible toward the end of the film. The general concept is good but it doesn’t help that the character of the journalist feels completely superfluous and the supernatural elements of the story are awkwardly and clumsily shoehorned in. I’d be more willing to forgive these issues were they not coupled with the most egregious of filmmaking sins, the blatant and utterly gratuitous use of voice-over exposition.

Having the characters waste dialogue on multiple occasions explaining motivation and plot points that are already glaringly obvious is bad enough, but when the V.O kicks on at the end just to make sure it’s really, really clear I felt an overwhelming urge to throw my remote at the TV. Apparently, writer/director Brett Mullen hasn’t had the concept of “show, don’t tell” explained to him and I was somewhat surprised that he didn’t simply cut to a scene of himself reading the script out loud to the audience before climbing out of the TV to literally beat us over the head with it.

It’s really a shame that the quality visuals of this film have to be tainted by these ill-conceived and avoidable missteps, but this is definitely a case where an aggressive re-cut could greatly improve the end result. If Mullen simply removed all traces of V.O and trimmed off the scenes that didn’t move the central plot forwarded there would be a very decent film here, assuming there was enough footage left to still qualify as a feature.

2-5-stars-red

Luciferina (2018)

LuciferinaThe demonic possession sub-genre of horror is one that ebbs and flows in popular consciousness but never truly disappears. Perhaps this is because the idea of losing control to a powerful unseen force is something that can have the ability to instill a profound sense of dread within us, at least when it’s executed properly. Whether or not it factors in a heavy dose of religious anxiety, as they usually do, the general concept of demonic possession is a well that’s been dipped into many times and with the success of recent films like Hereditary, you can expect that trend to be on an upward swing. This means that for films on this topic to stand out, there needs to be more to their plot than a by-the-numbers rehashing of The Exorcist and today we’ll see if Luciferina has what it takes to stand out from the crowd.

The film centers around a young nun named Natalia (Sofía Del Tuffo) who must return home after a sudden “accident” leaves her mother dead and her father catatonic. Once home she is reunited with her troubled sister Angela (Malena Sánchez) who insists she join her and her friends on a trip to an isolated island where a shaman is going to perform an Ayahuasca based cleansing rite on them. Concerned about Angela’s safety in the presence of her abusive boyfriend, Natalia agrees to join them on the trip and, this being a horror film, it’s no surprise that things quickly take a turn for the worse.

At the heart of any film are the characters themselves and the fact that Luciferina really takes its time to effectively develop them into real people rather than stereotypes pays off, as it makes the story significantly more engaging. I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that the plot could essentially be described as a group of young, attractive people being terrorized in an isolated location the woods because it feels worlds away from schlock like Dark Forest and the myriad of others more typically associated with that general plotline.

Of course developed characters are only one piece of the puzzle but thankfully Luciferina is also able to deliver superb, realistic performances and some great, bloody, practical effects. The story is also unconventional and interesting and boasts some genuinely chilling moments and unpredictable turns. Still, there are some points where the story line itself can feel a little muddled and a few scenes that would have benefited from a bit more clarity, but not enough to significantly detract from the overall experience. As long as films of this kind are bringing this level of quality to the sub-genre, then demonic possession will remain a horror staple for years to come.

3-5-stars-red

 

Short Film Review: Not in My Mouth (2018) Duration: 4 min 54 sec

poison 5 jpgWhen you have a total runtime of under five minutes you have to pack a lot of content in to create a memorable experience. Fortunately Not in My Mouth does just that and is able to do a lot with it’s micro story in just a few short minutes. Set against a delightfully discordant and aggressive score by White Gardenia and Geimhreadh, the film is directed by (and stars) Poison Rouge, director of the newest American Guinea Pig film, Sacrifice.

It’s hard to talk much about the short plot without giving it all away but let’s just say it involves a bath, some torture, and even packs in a nice reveal at the end. The rest you’ll have to see for yourself and see it you should because NiMM is brutal, sexy, and just a great way to spend a few minutes. The gore is well done and the reverse shots from inside the mouth of the torture victim are especially innovative and fun. Really delivers everything you could want in a what’s essentially a music video and a bloody good one at that.

4-stars-red

Beloved Beast (2018)

Beloved BeastWriter/director Jonathan Holbrook’s new film Beloved Beast is his latest example of what has come to be known as ‘Holbrookian Horror’ following his excellent 2016 feature Tall Men. The term is apt because much like that film, Beloved Beast is imbued with the director’s signature style, one that successfully channels the surreal Americana of David Lynch, while maintaining it’s own unique flavor. In both cases, the viewer gets the feeling of slipping into a cozy nightmare, one that you want to envelop you as you willingly slide into the depths of its subtly surreal world.

After young Nina (Sanae Loutsis) is involved in a car accident that claims the lives of her parents, she is put into the care of her estranged ne’er-do-well aunt, Erma (Joy Yaholkovsky). At the same time a dangerous escaped mental patient named Milton (played by Holbrook) is carving a bloody swath through Slough Town, where Nina lives. Through a series of unusual circumstances, Nina befriends Milton who (after donning his signature rabbit mask and wooden mallet) becomes known by his new identity, Harvey, Nina’s violent and unstable protector.

Beloved Beast is presented in the style of a dark, gruesome fairy tale and absolutely captures that aesthetic. The characters themselves are grounded in enough realism to make the viewer invested, while at the same time the world itself is awash in a subtle dreamlike quality. The story is very engaging and I was thoroughly invested in seeing what would happen next as it dove deeper into the dark world hidden beneath the veneer of small town civility. While the actual style is a bit more of a horror-drama hybrid that defies easy categorization, it certainly has enough blood and menace to keep horror fans satiated as it twists and turns through it’s unpredictable plot.

In this case it is very fortunate that the story is so interesting because with a runtime that’s just shy of three hours (!) it really puts the goodwill of the audience to the test. In fact, my only real criticism of the film is that there is just a bit too much of it, and it would greatly benefit from an aggressive recut. While I did enjoy every scene I watched, I would have preferred if several of them had been relegated to a ‘deleted scenes’ section on the Blu-ray because the cumulative effect drags down the pacing a bit. With about forty-five or so minutes trimmed off, this could become a sleeker and more horror focused film with a greater amount of tension and suspense.

Still, even in it’s current form, it is an incredibly interesting and delightfully twisted film that’s well worth your time. The myriad of strange and off-kilter characters make the journey a unique experience you won’t soon forget. Hell, I would love to see a spin-off that focuses entirely on The Belgian and the dark underworld that he inhabits. So, do yourself a favor and block off an evening for this grim fairy tale with a style all it’s own.

3-5-stars-red

Unlisted Owner (2013)

Unlisted OwnerAhhh, the found footage sub-genre, staple of the independent filmmaker. Some entries are notable and utilize that technique for innovative storytelling, but many others are simply trying to cover up low production values and a lack of budget. Ever since The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the horror scene in 1999, and raked in a quarter of a billion dollars on a $60,000 budget, filmmakers have been trying to capture a piece of that low-cost, high-profit magic.

With Unlisted Owner writer/director Jed Brian puts a slight spin on the well-worn formula by revealing through on-screen text at the start of the film that the following footage was gathered from five separate cameras and edited together by the police. The footage itself reveals the series of events that took a group of friends from an ordinary camping trip to a harrowing fight for survival inside the house of a recently murdered family.

Initially, I thought that the concept of stating that the footage had been edited together by the cops was a novel way of justifying the fact that there was intercut footage that couldn’t possibly have come from one camera. However, this device creates as many problems as it solves since it leaves the viewer wondering why the police would re-cut evidence in a murder investigation in such a titillating and dramatic fashion. Also, I’m pretty sure that editing down raw footage of a crime into a feature length video isn’t a service that the police provide.

Ultimately, that’s a minor quibble though, because it’s really what’s on the footage that counts. To that end, I did appreciate that Brian made the characters feel as real as possible and realistically captured the shit talking and ball busting that occurs when guys hang out. I also liked that an effort was made to make the characters feel like a group of real people rather than having each of them embody a single cliched character trait.

I always appreciate it when indie directors know their own limitations and play to their strengths rather than trying to recreate a high concept Hollywood production on a fraction of the budget. In this case, Brian wisely sticks to minimal locations and uses tension and practical effects to pull off some solid, bloody kills toward the climax of the film. Once the blood starts being spilled it becomes quite entertaining but the lack of immediate danger throughout most of the lead up makes the pacing suffer a bit.

This brings me to the central issue with the film which is despite a seventy-four minute runtime, the lack of imminent threat to the central characters for much of the movie results in it feeling overly long at times. This is not helped by scenes where characters repeat exposition we’ve just heard, and makes a strong case that, ideally, this could be cut down to a tight thirty minute short. But regardless of the pacing issues, the final result manages to be an entertaining enough way to spend seventy-four minutes.

2-5-stars-red

Bus Party to Hell (2017)

BPtHWhen a movie is titled Bus Party to Hell and features a masterclass thespian such as Sharknado alum Tara Reid, you have a pretty good idea what you’re in for. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an over-the-top film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, provided it’s actually enjoyable to watch. There’s a surprisingly thin line between outrageously fun and irritatingly stupid and today we’ll see if BPtH falls more along the lines of the campy, gory fun of Father’s Day or the interminable slog that is Kudzu Zombie.

The film stars Tara Reid and by stars I mean she is in it for literally ten minutes before it shifts focus to follow a group of cliched caricatures of party-goers on a bus that’s en route to Burning Man. When the bus breaks down and the driver (Sadie Katz, whose raspy voice makes Tara Reid sound like a velvety seductress by comparison) is nowhere to be found, things quickly go bad for the passengers as their bus is descended upon by a group of cannibalistic maniacs.

When a film plays out like a softcore porn rip-off of The Hills Have Eyes, the one thing I would hope is that it’s at least fun. Unfortunately, what we have here is a series of tiresome scenes that serve no purpose other than to get you to the next cheap kill or an excuse to strip down the actresses. The script itself is treated with about as much respect as the female characters as the actors spew out cringe-inducing attempts at humor, regardless of the peril they are in. Given that each character’s entire personality can already be summed up by a single word (nerd, virgin, rich) it makes actually caring about anything that happens utterly impossible.

I’m not really sure who this is for, but my guess would be it’s aimed at 13-year-olds who want to see tits and haven’t realized that PornHub is a thing. Despite its desperate attempts to seem edgy by shoehorning in nudity and blood, the end result actually makes the film feel dated and irrelevant. The experience reminded me of watching cheap pay-per-view T&A flicks like The Bare Wench Project back in the dial-up internet days when porn was actually hard to come by.

The biggest problem here is that if you are going to eschew plot and story in service of showcasing sex and violence, then you need to bring it when it comes to those areas. This is why the American Guinea Pig films and Portraits of Andrea Palmer work so well despite having very little plot, they are willing to lean into the edgy content instead of just paying lip service to it.

Despite all this, the film is not without some positive attributes. The gorgeous establishing shots of the desert remind us that, had the filmmakers cared enough to include interesting and even somewhat grounded characters, they could have easily made a very watchable movie. In addition, even though many of the blood gags look generic or just plain silly, the scene where they cut a woman open and pull a live snake out of her belly actually worked quite well. Still, the end result feels like something that was conceived of and shot at Burning Man over a weekend and was (hopefully) a lot more fun to make than to it was to watch. This is certainly one bus ride that you are better off letting pass you by.

1-star-red

The God Inside My Ear (2017)

TGIMECreating a surreal film that really works is an incredibly difficult feat. In the hands of masters like Lynch and Jodorowsky the final product can be a multilayered work of art with symbolism and subtext that will have people in spirited debate for decades. On the other end of the spectrum are the myriad of films that bombard the viewer with “weird for the sake of weird” imagery, with no inherent meaning or intent, and no subtle clues to decipher what’s going on until we are simply told. Any surreal film is bound to fall somewhere along this line and today we’re going to see how close to the top (or bottom) The God Inside My Ear ends up.

The film opens with a montage of strange, seemingly unconnected images, underscored by sinister music that culminates in two people in hazmat suits working on a dusty control panel in an abandoned looking room. After this, the movie is segmented into chapters and follows the story of Elizia (Linnea Gregg) who’s life begins to become more unhinged and surreal after she is suddenly dumped by her boyfriend.

The opening minutes of a film can reveal a lot about what you’re in for and one thing that stands out immediately about TGIME is how incredibly well shot it is. The image quality is rich and beautiful, the shots are well framed and artistic, and the use of disorienting video effects and colored lighting does an excellent job in creating a surreal, unstable feeling when needed. Writer/director Joe Badon certainly has a keen visual sense and there’s no question that the cinematography of this film is beyond reproach.

Of course, the look of a film is only one piece of the puzzle, as we also have to take into account the quality of acting and the backbone of the movie itself, the script. The results for the former are a bit varied as some actors deliver solid performances and others belie the professionalism of the footage quality with stilted, unnatural delivery. Although, to be fair, at timesit can be hard to tell how much responsibility can be attributed to the actors when so much of the dialogue is awkwardly constructed and full of attempts at comedy that fall completely flat.

TGIME starts to become a bit more interesting as it progresses, shifting tone from awkward “comedy” into surreal, light-horror. The main problem here is that the first act, which was supposed to create a baseline for the characters and their reality, is instead spent doing tired shtick that ultimately made me less invested in the outcome. Even so, TGIME does become more watchable as Elizia’s reality becomes more warped and viewers can expect to be treated to some well-constructed and delightfully bizarre imagery.

It should also be noted that this film does in fact have underlying meaning to the images and the reveal at the end sheds light on the story that preceded it, as well as make you think about the clues that were given along the way. However, while the reveal does serve to better explain what was happening, it also raises some very important practical questions that it leaves unanswered, which I can’t go into further detail about without spoiling the twist. What this all adds up to is a visually stunning film with an interesting (although not wholly original) concept and a script that could have been compelling with another rewrite, or three.

 

2-5-stars-red

Portraits of Andrea Palmer (2017)

PoAPSome Extreme Cinema films creep up on you slowly, holding back their edgiest material to sucker punch you with later on. Other films announce themselves right from the fucking beginning and, with a sexually explicit scene in the first two minutes, Portraits of Andrea Palmer wastes no time earning its Extreme Cinema cred. That’s not to say that one approach is better than the other however, as a “less is more” approach adds more punch to the shocking scenes you do have.

The film follows the life of the titular Andrea Palmer (Katrina Zova) who eeks out an existence as a cam girl to support her drug habit. After experiencing a particularly enraging online encounter, she begins to branch out as she looks for more ways to make money with her body. This sets her off on a harrowing journey, far darker than she could have ever imagined.

Upon viewing, one thing becomes instantly apparent:PoAP is a film that goes all the way. Every one of the numerous sex scenes is completely unsimulated, some of which venture into territory only seen in deviant porn. I can honestly say that even I have never seen a narrative film that featured both genital clamping and a milk enema. While I’m sure there are many out there who would argue that these scenes are merely gratuitous titillation, they actually serve a much greater artistic purpose. This is a raw, gritty film and the real sex on display further punctuates the grimy realism that the filmmakers were going for.

Zova truly gives her all to this project with a performance that is physically demanding and requires a level of uninhibited commitment that most actors wouldn’t dare to undertake. In a world where the MPAA makes a full time job of neutering art for the sake of the public’s delicate sensibilities, it’s always incredibly refreshing to see a film that is an unfiltered, raw expression of ideas. It’s also worth mentioning that, in addition to all the sexuality on display, the film also features some well done violence with one scene in particular showcasing some excellent practical gore effects.

Now, shocking content is all well and good, but the quality of the story is ultimately what matters. To that end, the narrative itself in PoAP is a little on the sparse side and there was certainly some opportunity for character development and conflict that would have given more weight to the edgy visuals. Speaking of the visuals, although I do enjoy the dark, gritty look of the film, there were a few scenes that pushed that aesthetic a bit too far past moody and into “barely visible” territory.

In the end though, none of these issues prevented me from enjoying the film and I was thoroughly invested in Andrea’s grim, downward spiral. A great example of edgy, indie filmmaking, PoAP captures the rough, dangerous feel of Cinȇma vȇritȇ classics like Kids and Gummo. This one’s definitely worth a watch, provided you can find it.

3-5-stars-red

Darkness Comes (2018)

Darkness ComesThe incredible advances in digital technology over the last few decades have made it more possible than ever for aspiring and indie filmmakers to make their vision a reality, or at least attempt to. Freed from the burdens and excessive cost that goes along with shooting on film stock, many indie directors will attempt to replicate the lavish production values of multi-million dollar films with elaborate DIY sets and numerous on-screen characters. This almost always results in a disastrous final product but is still a far more common practice than the more sensible approach of using a small cast and a primary central location.

There are, of course, plenty of indies that do understand the importance of a more contained, focused approach and with only three characters and one main location, Darkness Comes is certainly one of them. However, a more intimate approach also amplifies the importance of the acting and storyline, so let’s see if this method ended up proving successful in this case.

The film starts with a young, attractive couple Eddie (Owen Whitelaw) and Suze (Kelly Wenham) well on their way to hooking up in a strange, abandoned looking room. However, things quickly take a turn and it becomes apparent that Eddie is in for a very different night than he had been hoping for.

When I first noticed that this film only had a runtime of 67 minutes (!) it did make me skeptical about what exactly was in store for me with a story that was going to fall awkwardly between the lengths of what can be considered a short and a feature. In this age of digital streaming though, films no longer need to adhere to the same kind of strict parameters that they once did and upon completion I realized that this was the perfect length for the story that was being told.

In fact, if it had been padded with another 20 or 30 minutes to simply achieve feature length, it would have spoiled the tight pacing and engaging plot of what turned out to be a very interesting movie. But it’s not just the pacing that makes this successful, the excellent acting, beautiful camerawork and simple yet brilliant special effects makes this a film that really fires on all cylinders. Director David Newbigging also makes excellent use of the single location and keeps the story feeling fresh and engaging within the confined space.

That’s not to say there aren’t still a few blemishes to be found. Between the thick accents of the cast and a background audio mix that threatens to drown out the dialogue at times, it may be a good idea to turn the subtitles on for this one. There were also some minor instances of inconsistent character motivation but neither of these issues loomed large enough to really take away from the overall experience.

It’s always refreshing to see a film that really knows how to play to its strengths and understands its limitations. Newbigging also uses the concept of an ominous, unseen horror to great effect and the FX that are used are simple and well executed. The film itself may be a bit more on the abstract side for those seeking a mainstream horror experience but for viewers want to indulge in an unusual and exceptionally well crafted film, this is an indie movie that gets it right.

4-stars-red

Audition (1999)

audition-cover-11If you’ve only seen one film by the brilliant Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, then it was probably Audition. Not only is it Miike’s most well known film outside of Japan but it is also his most accessible. That’s not to say of course that it’s something that’s easily digested by the mindless masses, it is still a Miike film after all, and if it didn’t have some incredibly violent, disturbing scenes I wouldn’t be reviewing it here. Although, it’s not the violence alone that makes this film interesting, what really sets it apart is the brutal sucker-punch it gives the audience.

After his wife dies of an illness, Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) must raise his son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) on his own. When Shigehiko becomes a teenager he begins to encourage his father to find a new wife and Shigeharu takes his advice to heart, in a rather unconventional way. By staging sham auditions for a movie that won’t be made, he is able to screen potential mates and quickly falls for one of the beautiful applicants, Asami (Eihi Shiina). But despite her sweet, meek demeanor, Asami is holding a very dark secret that threatens to unravel Shigeharu’s entire life.

Typically, when a film has a significant tonal shift, the end result is a story that feels unbalanced and poorly crafted. However, in this case, Miike uses that very concept to deliberately lull the viewer into a false sense of security before violently pulling the rug out from under them. The entire first half plays out as a well-acted relationship drama with no indication of the horrors that are in store. I can only hope that there are people out there who actually watched this expecting a drama and were scarred for life by what they witnessed in the final thirty minutes.

Audition sittingWhat really makes Audition work is that even with the tonal shift, the two halves of the film never feel like disparate ideas awkwardly stitched together but instead function as one cohesive story that is purposefully and methodically laid out. The dramatic, character-focused beginning fleshes out who these people are and makes the viewer truly invested in their fate. The fact that the violence is intense but used sparingly also gives it a far greater impact when it’s shown.

For the most part, the narrative of this film is quite straightforward and only really veers into surreal territory during a particular montage where a character seems to be aware of details he couldn’t have known without some kind of supernatural ability. It’s possible this may have been a slight oversight in terms of the perspective of the scene but it’s also possible that it was intended to be ambiguous and represent the character’s fears of what the potential truth might be. Either way, the scene plays out incredibly well with some gloriously grotesque imagery that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

As far as Miike films go, this one represents an essential entry into his canon and makes a great stepping stone for viewers into his more unhinged masterpieces such as Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q. It also serves as a cautionary tale that when relationships seem too good to be true, they usually are.

4-stars-red