How to Raise Women from the Dead (2021)

Mutilation performance artist/musician Daniel Valient is back with another batch of twisted videos from his band White Gardenia. While Blood Tastes Like Perfume was more of a standard collection of the kind of videos fans of the band would expect to find (and may have already seen online) How to Raise Women from the Dead takes a big swing with some new content and goes in a very different direction. In art, taking risks is often necessary for growth but is also inherently a gamble, so lets discuss to what degree it did (or did not) pay off in this case.

The first disc in this two disc set is the Blu-ray featuring four separate videos on the main menu. The primary draw here is the short The Secret Perfume of Decay which marks Valient’s first foray into proper narrative storytelling as a director. This departure from the more abstract and experimental work that White Gardenia is known for is part of the risk I was referring too but ultimately was not nearly as significant a change as the other videos would end up being. These are experimental in a whole different way as all three of them are comprised of a series of static images with audio clips playing over them that discussed transhumanism and the singularity in depth with a particular focus on the scientist Frank J Tipler.

For the uninitiated, the concept of transhumanism ultimately boils down to a philosophical and intellectual movement based around the goal of conquering death through advanced technology. The singularity is the hypothetical point at which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, becomes self-aware, and creates an irreversible and uncontrollable change that permanently alters the course of humanity. If this is a subject that interests you then you may find these segments to be informative and enlightening but if not then watching them feels a lot like being cornered by a belligerent family member who is dead-set on converting you to their religion. This is certainly a rich topic to explore but it would have been better done through some kind of artistic interpretation rather than an information dump of raw audio interviews.

On the other hand, in The Secret Perfume of Decay Valient does a good job portraying the story of a nameless serial killer and his most recent victim, both played by uncredited actors. The short still features Gardenia’s trademark self-mutilation, off-kilter tone, and a very interesting appearance by Valient himself which was the highlight of the whole experience. I also enjoyed learning about the real-world practice of re-creating paper mâché busts of unknown victims in the 60’s and 70’s which lead to some incredibly uncanny and downright creepy results. While very different in form from the other shorts it is still tied to them thematically as transhumanist views of death and resurrection play heavily into the story. My only major complaint here is Valient’s over reliance on text cards when he would have been better served following the classic “show don’t tell” rule of filmmaking.

The other disc in pack is labeled as “Extras Disc” and in a bewildering formatting choice features another copy of TSPoD which has been unceremoniously dumped onto an auto-play DVD with no menu, rewind or chapter separation along with ten other Gardenia films. I’m very pleased at the inclusion of these films as this is the first time any of them have been released onto physical media but am confused why they weren’t featured prominently on the main disc with the long form audio interviews more fittingly relegated to the extras section.

While I did like TSPoD, the real gem of this collection is the inclusion of some classic WG shorts that I absolutely adore. Films like (m.i.p.a.m.h, Mobius Strip and Video for Teilhard de Chardin) exemplify White Gardenia at its best, showcasing the surreal, abstract and disturbing content they are known for. These are the kind of deeply unsettling, genuinely strange videos that feel like something you would wander into in the darker corners of the internet and help to make up for the inclusion of some overly tepid BDSM and the absolutely egregious inclusion of the censored version (!) of A Perfume Made from Blood and Tears. In short, the disc is a mix of highs and lows which is an apt description of the overall collection itself but in both cases there is enough great content to be found within to make it well worth having in your collection.

Availability: Limited

Limited copies of the two disc set are available https://www.abaroquehouse.com while supplies last.

Short Film Review: Mirror Mirror (2021) Duration 10 min 52 sec.

Mirror Mirror is a tight, 11 minute film that focuses on a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (David Brown-King) as his personalities Anthony and Tony wrestle for control of his body. Brown-King is a one man show and does an excellent job carrying the entire film on his own, no easy task considering that the bulk of the movie is confined to a single, claustrophobic bathroom. Even within this limited space, writer/director Harmeet Singh Grewal does an effective job keeping the tension and audience engagement up thanks to compelling camera work and an ominous, foreboding soundtrack.

When dealing with the subject of mental health it can be difficult to walk the line of creating a heightened situation while not coming across as exploitative. I’m no mental health expert but from my perspective, the film did a solid job presenting the condition in its most extreme and dangerous form without crossing over into parody territory. The text at the end re-enforces the fact that the short was made with the intention of bringing awareness to the situation and those afflicted by it rather than using it as a cheap tactic to elicit drama. That’s not to say it’s without entertainment value though, as Mirror Mirror delivers its message with a healthy dose of psychological horror and dread.

Availability: Moderately Available

Film can be viewed in its entirety for free on Vimeo https://vimeo.com/577752191.

Double Feature: The Girl with the Cutter/Golgota (2021)

Today I’ll be doing something a little bit different as I talk about the recently released double feature by underground Extreme Cinema director Mikel Balerdi (Vore Gore, Larva Mental). The release features both The Girl with the Cutter and Golgota whose combined running time only totals about 78 minutes and as they are packaged together, I will be discussing both within the same review. Things kick off with the more produced of the two,The Girl with the Cutter, which stars Cofi Valduvieux as a woman struggling with mental illness and the urge to self-harm with a boxcutter.

Information about both films is pretty sparse, but from what I understand TGwtC was inspired by a set of real pictures that gained notoriety within certain circles of the internet featuring an unknown young woman who had performed some of the most graphic and extreme self-mutilation ever seen. The film itself seems to be a creative reimagining of her life, the events that lead to her cutting, and where it may have ultimately taken her. Even though the untranslated (Italian?) text in the beginning seems to state that this was based on real events and some of the actual source photos are intercut throughout the film, her story is really more of a creative springboard to launch the fictional narrative than an account of what actually happened.

Golgota on the other hand is a different animal entirely and is about as down-n-dirty and to the point as Extreme Cinema gets. There is no plot to speak of just real footage of a Dark Web performer known only as Wendy putting on her debaucherous show while Balerdi films her in a forever tainted hotel room. Aside from minimal editing and some background noises put in to further enhance the unpleasantness of the experience, this is really just six segments (labeled as 1 hour, 2 hour, etc) that feature ever heightening acts of depravity. Think Two Girls, One Cup crossed with a White Gardenia video so, needles to say, those with weak stomachs need not apply.

TGwtC represents a significant step forward in terms of technique from what we saw from Balerdi in Larva Mental most notably in the editing department. The glitching effect he employs throughout the film really adds a level to the fragmenting reality and surreal aspects of the story as we see Valduvieux’s character spiral further down the rabbit hole. He is also able to create some effectively scary shots using relatively simple make-up effects and camera work. Credit also must be given to Valduvieux who delivers a committed and compelling performance through what I imagine must have been a physically taxing shoot. The graphic special effects are incredibly well made and the inclusion of the real pics adds a disturbing layer of reality to the whole experience.

While this segment is ultimately very successful and well made, there were still a few notes I had about the production. Chief among them is the footage of her everyday life as well as some idyllic memories that I know were meant to give depth and dimension to her character but ultimately succeeded in slowing the film down. The scenes were too disjointed and random to effectively add to the storyline and Balerdi would have been better served by either further expanding the whole segment into a proper narrative with a fleshed out story or excising them in favor of creating a more streamlined and purely surreal, fast-paced experience. Furthermore, opening text tells us the film takes place in 1990 which is a baffling choice as it adds nothing to the story and only succeeds in making the cars, smart phone and the Asus laptop feel incredibly anachronistic.

As for Golgota it’s hard to judge its merits as a film as it isn’t so much a movie as a shock video. Still, there is something compelling and intriguing in the presentation and as soon as the ambiguous title screen comes up you know you are about to journey into some very dark territory with imagery that can shock and repulse, even in this jaded age of easily accessible atrocities. I will say though, the fact that the shot of her actually shitting and everything that happens next is separated by an edit may undermine the credibility of the horror that follows for some. While I can’t say with unimpeachable certainty that what we see isn’t a well-crafted forgery as Pasolini did in Salo, given what I know of Balerdi’s work and the underground nature of the production, I find it extremely unlikely that this is anything but genuine.

So, while these two films may be different in some key ways, they do work together to create an effectively disturbing and truly extreme work of boundary-pushing art. It may not be perfect but in the end it manages to be a harrowing experience that any fan of truly provocative cinema owes it to themselves to partake in. Plus, Golgota has the unsavory distinction of being the only film I’ve ever seen that made me physically gag while watching it. So there’s that.

Availability: Limited

Limited copies of the DVD available on http://www.tetrovideo.com and http://www.goredrome.com while supplies last.

Short Film Review: Last Orders (2021) Duration 21 min

Regardless of the length, a good film should hook you right from the start, and what better way to do that than an intriguing premise that establishes a mystery that you can’t wait to get to the bottom of. Last Orders does just this with a bartender (Alastair Parker), a gunman, and a mysterious man named Samael (Steven Elder) who knows far more than he’s letting on. The story is brought to life by the excellent, realistic performances from the leads and exquisite, professional production values that make the world feel truly lived in. Throughout most of the runtime it seemed as though Last Orders was on track to hit it out of the park but film is akin to gymnastics in that the flourishes don’t mean much if you can’t stick the landing.

I’m not saying that the incredible amount of talent on display is fully negated by an unsatisfying ending, but it does diminish the overall experience. It’s unfortunate to see such a well made film fall into the same trap that so many other movies (and to a greater extent TV shows) fall into by setting up an amazing premise that it isn’t able to fully deliver on. The film puts forward some very interesting ideas and while I can see where writer/director Jon James Smith was trying to go with it, the pieces simply don’t fit together to get it there. What I’d really like to see is a re-cut version that connects the dots and lets this become the great film it was meant to be.

Availability: Unavailable

No release date as of review, visit http://www.jonjamessmith.com for updates and further information.

Short Film Review: L.U.N.A. (2021) Duration 10 min

Call me old-school but the idea of an A.I servant sitting idle and listening to your every word never sat well with me and I won’t have Alexa, Google Nest, or any of that weird, Big Brother shit in my house. While that no doubt sounds ridiculous to some, I’m clearly not the only one who has felt disquieted by the ubiquitous self-imposed surveillance of our modern world as films like L.U.N.A. deal with this very specific technological anxiety.

In the world of the film, the Alexa surrogate is called L.U.N.A and is a pyramid shaped device that technicians like Lilian (Fernanda Romero) spend a lot of time making house calls to repair. When she is summoned to the creepy old mansion that young couple Jamie and Sarah Cambell (Lauren Bair and Lauren Deshane) recently moved into she soon finds that this is far from an ordinary call.

Even more than the horror elements of this story the strangest thing about this reality is the reliability of the devices themselves. Apparently (according to the film) they break down so frequently and in such great quantity that technicians such as Lillian have to work from 6 in the morning till well after dark just to try and keep up with what must be an unfathomable amount of malfunctioning units. Given that the repair call itself seems to take less than five minutes, the surrounding community must be absolutely lousy with broken L.U.N.As that must be serviced in-person at all hours, from the break of dawn to the dead of night.

It’s just strange that a film that is so careful to logically justify so many aspects of the world would leave such an odd detail hanging. If the L.U.N.As themselves were built into the house or at least larger than a decorative paperweight, then there would have been more justification for Lillian’s job. Despite how much time I’m spending focusing on this particular aspect of the story, what’s most important is how well the overall components of the production work.

To that end, it’s an incredibly well-realized vision that wears its Giallo influences proudly on it’s sleeve (or in Sarah’s case, directly on her Inferno shirt). The creative camerawork, bold stylistic choices, pulsating synth score, and genuine tension all work in concert to deliver a very polished experience. In the end I was left wanting more, which was partly to the credit of the engaging story and partly because the abrupt ending was slightly unsatisfying. While the story did build effectively to its conclusion, it felt a bit more like the opening scene of a feature than a stand-alone short. Regardless, it’s a very well-made and entertaining piece of cinema and if it was to be expanded to a feature length production I’d happily line up to see it.

Availability: Unavailable

No release date as of review, visit http://www.blakevaz.com for updates and further information.

Xpiation (2017)

The term “expiation” refers to a kind of atonement, the act of making amends or the reparation for some kind of wrongdoing. By its title alone, Xpiation is already tipping its hand to show that this brutal, torture-focused film is about more than simply being a showcase for senseless brutality. How much more and how effectively it’s executed is the real question though and today we’ll peel back the layers like so much skin off the face of a terrified man in the bowels of a torture dungeon.

This 2017 entry from hardcore underground filmmaker Domiziano Cristopharo tells the story of an unnamed man, credited as “Latino Guy” (Emanuele D’Elia) who finds himself tied up in a decrepit room being tortured in a variety of ways by a giggling maniac known as (naturally) “Torturer” (Simone Tolu). The event itself is being dispassionately observed by a strange and mysterious woman known only as “Her” (Chiara Pavoni) who sits close by recording it all on her camcorder and occasionally joining in. The graphic and explicit torture scenes are interwoven with surreal moments, hallucinations, and flashbacks that eventually shed light on who these people are and why they are doing what they are doing.

First and foremost, Xpiation is Extreme Cinema and as such delivers on the gruesome violence with excellent practical effects that render the uncompromising brutality in exquisite detail. There’s plenty to satisfy the gorehounds here as the film viciously doles out cutting, burning, beating and even an exceptionally explicit ball smashing scene that’s sure to have every viewer with those parts cringing and crossing their legs. While extreme violence in a film is fun, it can also become repetitive on its own and as someone who has seen a LOT of dirty basement Torture Porn, I was glad to see the film at least attempt to expand on the spectacle of violent titillation through use of surreal imagery.

The attempt was not entirely successful though and the inclusion of these scenes (as well as the flashbacks) made it seem like the film was on track to deliver more of a creative mind-fuck twist on the story than what we ultimately got. I do like how it plays with the concept of perspective and audience expectation but in the end the story itself is quite thin and the success of the experience relies quite heavily on the graphic, shocking effects. I like the violence and the weirdness but I would challenge filmmakers like Cristopharo to bring more attention to character development and story arc to create art that is overall more affecting and ultimately more provocative. As an exercise I would recommend that part of the scriptwriting process should involve removing all the violence, shoring up the story that remains and then adding it back in.

Like the rest of the film, the acting is a bit of a mixed bag as Tolu gives off an energy that is a bit more goofy than convincingly deranged while Pavoni’s stoic presence exudes a more engaging depth of character helped in no small part by her exquisite and unconventional costume design. So while Xpiation may not hit every mark perfectly it’s still an interesting and visceral experience that showcases a level of free expression that you won’t find in mainstream cinema.

Availability: Limited

Limited copies of the DVD can be found at http://www.tetrovideo.com while supplies last.

Ouija Japan (2021)

It’s staggering to think about how many movies come out every single year, especially when you factor in the numerous straight-to-VOD releases that are being pumped into the home media system like so much sludge into a feeding trough. Yes, this can be a way for upstart artists to get their personal and groundbreaking work out to a larger audience but for every one of those films there’s at least a dozen more that are cynical cash-grabs whose only purpose is to make some money with as little financial (and creative) investment as possible. So the question here becomes ‘is Ouija Japan one of those rare exceptions of groundbreaking art made by an earnest and passionate filmmaker, or is it indistinguishable from the rest of the muck clogging up our on-demand queues?’

Ouija Japan tells the story of Karen (Ariel Sekiya) an American transplant living in Japan who has only been in the country with her husband for the last six months and is still struggling to fit in. When an interpretation misunderstanding results in her agreeing to join a group of her co-workers on a weekend getaway to a remote village she sees it as an opportunity to strengthen her connection to them and hopefully start to fit in. When the group decides to use a game of Kokkuri-san (essentially Japanese Ouija) to disrespect the fox deity that is worshiped in the village, they soon find themselves unwitting participants in a deadly game which can have only one winner.

Now, I know that movies take an incredible amount of work to make and I have no doubt that everyone involved is really trying but when the end result looks like a bunch of teenagers tried to remake Battle Royale on an iPhone it’s time to put away the participation trophy. To its credit, the fact that players in the survival game need to use their smartphones to fully participate and unlock real-world power-ups is a novel idea that modernizes the concept a bit but is nowhere near enough to counterbalance the flaws, of which there are many. Sure, the lighting is flat, the script is pedestrian, and every aspect of the film has an inherent cheapness to it, but nothing quite compares to the voice work on display here.

In what seems like a last-minute attempt to ingratiate the film with Western audiences the Japanese actors speak about half their lines in English. This would have been perfectly fine had they been fluent in both but their tenuous grasp on the language makes the stilted acting go from awkward to downright painful. While the dual languages do factor into the story, the filmmakers would have been far better served finding a script work-around instead and sparing the actors (and the audience) this unnecessary struggle. Additionally, some actors appear to have their dialogue fully recorded in ADR which is no better as it creates an almost cartoonish disconnect between the characters and the lines themselves.

At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is that modern viewers have a plethora of options for entertainment. For a horror title to stand out amongst the literally hundreds of other choices that are packed in with any given streaming service at no extra charge there really has to be something there that makes it worth the investment of our precious time. In the case of Ouija Japan it’s not even a question of a lack of resources since I have seen better filmmakers do far more with significantly less. Amateurish production values can be overlooked if there is a compelling soul to the film and brilliance from at least one aspect shining through. Here there is just a fundamental lack of creativity, originality, and technical ability but then again that does exemplify the difference between art and a product, between the gems…..and the muck.

Availability: Upcoming Release

Film will release on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime on 10/19/21.

Demigod (2021)

Imagine just how many lives could have been spared in horror movies had outsiders simply heeded the warnings of the Crazy Ralphs of the world and stayed the hell out of cursed areas. Although, that would be significantly less fun for the audience who has signed up for the twisted pleasure of watching at least most of the stubbornly disbelieving travelers be eviscerated in gruesome and (hopefully) creative ways. It really doesn’t need to be a case of either/or, though. I would like to see more characters take the threat seriously but still be unable to escape so that the inciting incident can occur and the fun can begin. Demigod opts to tread down the more well-worn trail to set up the conflict but we’ll see if it can rise above its conventional structure to bring a compelling and original story to light.

Upon receiving news of her estranged grandfather Karl’s passing, Robin (Rachel Nichols) heads to his now vacant home in the Black Forest of Germany to tend to his affairs, bringing her husband Leo (Yohance Myles) along for the ride. Once there, they encounter Arthur (director/co-writer Miles Doleac), an eccentric hunter and former friend of Karl’s who warns them about the supernatural presence that resides in the woods. Before long the three find themselves (along with several other unfortunate locals) embroiled in a desperate fight for survival against an ancient evil that lurks within the woods and the coven of witches that summoned him.

The lesson would seem to be “trust the locals and get the hell out while you can” but since Arthur finds himself in the exact same predicament as the outsider couple despite having intimate knowledge of the dangers that lurk in the woods, it turns out that it doesn’t matter after all. This feels less like an intentional choice by Doleac and more of an oversight, especially as it is far from the only inconsistency we witness in the film. That’s not to say that there isn’t still a lot to like about this movie and, despite the predictable set-up, there is a lot of tension to be had and a story that is compelling enough to grab your attention.

The experience of watching it is pretty much the definition of a mixed bag as the film will hit high points that are undone by low points which repeat the cycle to ultimately land somewhere in the middle. The visual style of the film itself is a good example of this as the overall quality falls within the flat look we’ve come to expect from low-budget digital only to be broken up by a strikingly creative shot or a very well executed special effect. The end result settles in the area of “good” but a more aggressively abstract filmmaking style, acting that is brilliant rather than fine, and a storyline whose tension didn’t peter out towards the end due to some unnecessarily long-winded speeches could have bumped it to the category of “great”.

The part that sticks out more than any other however is the look of the demigod himself. It’s hard to have a convincingly scary monster on an independent budget and Doleac wisely opts to shoot around the creature throughout most of the film offering glimpses rather than full-on shots. Unfortunately, he chooses to abandon this practice towards the end of the film letting the audience come face-to-face with the sheer terror of a sensibly-priced Halloween mask (and yes the red, laser eyes hurt more than they help). Still, the end result is a film with some effectively bloody kills and a few solid stretches of genuine tension so, while it may not be a masterpiece, it’s a decent enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Availability: Upcoming Release

Film is being released in select theaters and on VOD on 10/15/21.

Short Film Review: The Visitor (2021) Duration 6 min 40 sec

Coming in at a scant six minutes and forty seconds, The Visitor packs a lot into its short runtime. The story follows an unnamed writer who leaves behind his wife for the weekend to go to their country house and finish his book but encounters something very strange upon his arrival. One thing that immediately pops out about this film is director Mark Palgy’s choice to overlay a pulsating score over the entire runtime in place of any sound effects or audible dialogue. It’s a bold choice, especially since there is a significant amount of dialogue in the film which is instead conveyed through subtitles. This unconventional decision could have easily gone south, but in this case it works wonderfully and imbues the short with a life and energy that complements the visuals.

The 70s-style grain works well to contribute to the subtly surreal quality of the film which sometimes gives way to fully psychedelic imagery and bold color palettes reminiscent of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. The only minor gripe I have is that it briefly plays into a convention I see entirely too much where a character experiences something that would be utterly mind-shattering but regards it with little more than a mild incredulity. Still, this is an excellent film with high production values in every aspect from the aerial shots and the production company logos to the special effects and the camera work. It very much succeeds as a stand-alone short but could also definitely be expanded into a feature that brings the simple yet chilling story to a global scale.

Availability: Upcoming Release

Film is scheduled for release on 10/29/21 and you can visit https://www.thevisitorfilm.me/ for further information.

Short Film Review: Sleep Tight (2019) Duration 8 min

Horror and comedy so often go hand-in-hand but the key to executing the combination effectively is to ensure that its not just the jokes that land but the scares, too. Sleep Tight portrays a scenario that will no doubt strike a familiar chord with parents of adolescents as a father tries to get his teen son to turn off his video games and go to sleep. The tone is light but there is an inherent truth to the interaction as the father comes to grips with his maturing son, who in turn takes every opportunity to petulantly age-shame his father. When the horror does come, it’s the real deal and writer/director Lewis Taylor does a great job of not only building tension but also following through with well-crafted costume and effects.

There is a great sense of life and movement in the camerawork which is important, especially when confined to a single, small location. The humor isn’t exactly laugh out loud but it mostly works and I appreciated the subtler touches such as the posters in the background for films like Slenderman 2: The Slendering. The only part that really sticks out as a strange inconsistency is a particular shot involving the Necronomicon that feels bizarrely out of place in the world of the story and seems to be little more than a throw-away joke made at the expense of maintaining a cohesive reality. While it may not be perfect, Sleep Tight is still a fun, well-shot film that delivers on the horror and a damn fine way to spend eight minutes.

Availability: Upcoming Release

Film will be available to watch on YouTube on the Omeleto Horror channel starting 09/16/21.