Undergods (2021)

Is it necessary to fully understand a film to enjoy and appreciate it? I would argue that it is not, for if that were the case surrealist masters like Jodorowsky and Lynch would never have ascended to their exalted levels within the film world. We still watch, discuss and are sometimes confounded by films like Holy Mountain and Eraserhead more than four decades later because there is far more beneath the strange visuals that bares fruit if we are patient enough to peel back the layers. Surreal films benefit from re-watching and further examination, the trick is to make your films good enough that its worth an audience’s time to do so.

Writer/director Chino Moya’s first feature is certainly a film that requires additional scrutiny to fully comprehend. While it’s not as overtly surreal as the previously mentioned films the slippery narrative thread and dream-like quality give it a viewing experience akin to Holy Motors with a healthy dose of High Rise mixed in. There aren’t exactly main characters nor is there a clear narrative through-line as segments seem to flow into each other, sometimes in the guise of stories told between characters, and occasionally intersect.

The structure in fact is more on par with a collection of short films taking place in a shared universe where the edges are muddied enough for them to meld into each other rather than all serving a common storyline. We see body collectors nonchalantly tossing corpses into their truck like they are common trash, a middle aged couple who’s frosty relationship threatens to become upended by an unexpected guest, a father telling his daughter a bedtime story of an unscrupulous merchant, a post-apocalyptic prison and an ordinary business man whose life becomes incalculably more complicated with the arrival of someone from the past.

Some of these segments flow very cleanly into each other, whereas at other times the connection is a bit more abstract. Regardless of their storyline similarities it’s really the emotional thread of dysfunctional relationships in a bleak and hopeless world that connects and links the stories. More importantly, the purpose of this film is not to provide a by-the-numbers plotline but to create an evocative experience where well-realized characters flow into each other’s worlds with a dream-like quality and in that regard it is better served by the unconventional structure. The result makes for an incredibly engaging experience whose shifting narrative works well to simulate the feeling of watching an unnerving dream (or more aptly a nightmare) unfold and giving the audience plenty to mull over between viewings.

Fortunately the beautifully bleak cinematography that deftly captures the quiet horror of a ruined city and the across the boards flawless acting make this a trip that’s worth taking multiple times. If you are looking for a straightforward, easily digestible story that neatly resolves then this is not going to be for you. On the other hand, those interested in taking on a cinematic experience that provides depth and layers of meaning to be gradually unraveled would do well to give this a try.

A Record of Sweet Murder (2019)

When The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the scene in 1999 it forever changed the world of horror cinema. In its wake, the once novel concept of a “found footage” film established by Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 quickly became ubiquitous within the market to the point of oversaturation. In the intervening years many filmmakers have used the audience’s willingness to embrace the rougher, naturalistic aesthetic of the style as an excuse for low production value as they churn out countless versions of the same basic story.

Thankfully, innovative filmmakers have also made their mark on the subgenre and films like Rec, Creep, and more recently Host (to name just a few) have elevated the style by taking it in new and creative directions. Innovation within the subgenre is rare enough but A Record of Sweet Murder is wholly unique as it dares to combine the found footage aesthetic with the rarest of cinema tropes, the single take film. By all conventional wisdom, an idea this ambitious could never work, but writer/director Kôji Shiraishi (Grotesque) pulls it off with results that are nothing short of mind-blowing!

The story centers around investigative reporter Kim Soyeon (Kim Kkobbi) who receives a call from Park Sangjoon (Je-wook Yeon), an escaped fugitive wanted for numerous murders. Park offers her an exclusive interview if she will meet him in a secluded location and bring along a Japanese cameraman. Since Kim and Park share a childhood connection, she believes that they will not be in any danger, but once they arrive it becomes clear that Park has a much larger plan in which they are to play an integral role.

To be clear, this film isn’t a true one-shot film like Russian Ark, but since everything but a few quick scenes at the end was done in a single take it’s still an incredible feat of filmmaking. It isn’t just the fact of doing it in a single take that is impressive, it’s what they are able to accomplish within the massive shot that is truly mind-blowing. Brutal fight scenes, multiple locations, numerous characters, realistic special effects, and an engaging storyline all work in concert to produce a thoroughly unique, mesmerizing experience. Even without the novelty of the single take this would be an incredible, well acted, and engaging film but the fact that Shiraishi goes the extra mile with a ground-breaking concept really puts it over the top.

It’s truly a cinematic travesty that such an innovative, brilliant film has gotten such little attention since its release yet Hitchcock’s faux one-shot film Rope is still talked about with such reverence after more than seven decades. I know that the cameras of the time limited the production to shooting it in a series of ten minute takes but Hitchcock’s blatant cutaways do absolutely nothing to preserve the illusion of an unbroken shot in that overrated “classic”. Despite this (and the fact that it felt more like watching a one-act play than a one-shot film) Rope was still innovative for its time and innovation should always be appreciated. To that end I’m hard pressed to think of many films in recent memory that have innovated more than ARoSM and here’s hoping that someday its style-blending brilliance will be appreciated for the unique achievement that it is.

A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio (2019)

Nightmare RadioI love horror anthology films and while we may not be getting as many these days as we did during the resurgence of their popularity in the early to mid 2010s, it’s good to see that they are still popping up occasionally. Typically these films will feature the collaboration of multiple directors and are a great way to showcase various talents within a single project. The structure allows the audience to be a little more forgiving of the overall film as stronger entries can sometimes redeem the goodwill lost by weaker ones. Ultimately though, the finished film is still a sum of its parts and today we’ll see if A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio serves as a suitable distraction during these troubled times.

Every good anthology film needs a solid framing device to tie things together and in this case it comes in the form of a radio DJ named Rod (James Wright) telling scary stories during his show. There’s a good variety within the stories themselves as Rod spins tales of murder, revenge, and the supernatural. The cold open of the film shows a story of a vengeful ghost while the next deals with the very real and very creepy Victorian era practice of photographing the dead. Subsequent stories involve a sinister stylist, cruel and unusual prison punishment, a Spanish dancer with strange stomach pains, and a child who makes a frightening discovery in the kitchen. The final two stories involve a hunter with very unusual prey and a woman hearing odd noises while she is home alone. Rod’s story also follows its own arc and builds towards a satisfying and interesting twist that nicely caps off the preceding tales.

Nightmare Radio Pic

Fortunately there aren’t any entries that are simply bad but there are definitely some that are more successful than others. One of the standouts was the entry about the prisoner which managed to be morally complex and the degree to which viewers find it cathartic or disturbing is sure to vary depending on the person. Another highlight was the postmortem photography entry which had excellent structure and pacing, delivering a very complete, concise, and chilling story in just a few short minutes. I also want to give credit to the final story (and arguably scariest entry in the anthology) which does an incredible job expanding upon the unnerving sense of foreboding one can get while alone in their own house at night.

The only parts that don’t work here are a couple of times where the story didn’t quite come together as well as it should have. Unfortunately, the opening vignette suffers from this the most as the engaging visuals are undercut by a muddled story that fails to make any fucking sense whatsoever and seems more like a disparate collection of ideas than an actual narrative. Similarly, the hunter segment works well on its own but its introduction throws an unnecessary layer of confusion into the character motivations and inherent logic within the story itself.

These are ultimately minor quibbles though, because as a whole, Nightmare Radio is incredibly successful and every segment is exquisitely shot, well acted, and showcases brilliant special effects. This is definitely one to keep an eye out for and something that fans of horror anthologies will certainly want to tune into.

4-stars-red

The Dinner Party (2020)

unnamed (3)Sometimes just the fact that a film is in the horror genre tips you off that the plot is going to go in a certain direction. I mean, if a movie called The Dinner Party had everything go completely well for the characters the entire time you’d probably end up with a drama (and a damn boring one at that). So, while there is a certain amount of predictability and expectation within the basic structure itself, the real test of artistry is found in how well the filmmakers can finesse the details and create something original. Sometimes this means artists will take big swings with unusual concepts and plot twists, the end result of which is invariably a brilliant hit….or a spectacular miss.

Small-time playwright Jeff (Mike Mayhall) seems to have gotten the opportunity of a lifetime when he is invited to a secret dinner party by a group of wealthy elites with enough pull to get his work onto Broadway. His wife Haley (Alli Hart) gets dragged along for the ride and before long the couple is bearing witness to the increasingly strange behavior of their wealthy hosts.

I always appreciate it when independent filmmakers are able to work well within their financial limitations and play to their strengths. Co-writer/director Miles Doleac (who also plays Vincent in the film) clearly understands this concept as he wisely keeps the action limited to one central location and utilizes a talented cast to bring life to the characters. Sawandi Wilson especially deserves to be recognized for his portrayal of the flamboyant and unhinged Sebastian which he imbues with a significant amount of subtly and depth.R4_1.61.1

The most welcome surprise for me however was just how depraved the film got at times, diving headlong into dark territory with cannibalism, necrophilia, and some scenes of gruesome violence. Doleac does an excellent job lulling the viewer into a false sense of security with warm, comfortable lighting and high-brow conversation right before violently yanking the rug out from under them. It’s a clever and subtle touch that mirrors the experience the characters are having and the solid acting across the board sells it perfectly.

A less successful gamble comes in the form of a third act twist (the details of which I won’t spoil) that severely erodes much of the good will the film had earned up until that point. It’s really unfortunate too because up until then I had really been enjoying the film. I mean sure there were lengthy discussions about opera that were as gratuitous as they were pretentious but this was still right on track for a four star rating. Not so once the “big revelation” slaps the audience across the face with a ridiculous concept that would be utterly eye-rolling in any film and feels exceptionally out of place here. You won’t have much time to dwell on it though because after that the film barrels toward the end credits, leaving in its wake a series of carelessly unanswered questions that put a nonsensical bow on an otherwise well made film.

Had this film simply carried along on the track it was already on for most of the runtime it would have ended up being a very solid horror experience punctuated with some great details and wry social commentary. Unfortunately, in its attempt to be entirely too clever for its own good, a mostly satisfying experience ultimately left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

3-stars-red

M.O.M. Mother of Monsters (2020)

M.O.MEver since The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the horror scene in 1999 and crushed the box office to the tune of a quarter billion dollars, countless filmmakers have tried their hand at tapping into that low cost Cinéma vérité style magic. Now that it’s 21 years later any filmmaker looking to utilize that format needs to bring something more to the table than abandoned footage found in the woods. Fortunately, M.O.M (Mother of Monsters) does bring an innovative twist to the standard formula as all the footage comes directly from cameras that characters use within the world of the film.

This approach alone isn’t unique but the justification and execution make it work better than most. Old home movie footage is spliced with straight to camera testimonials and consumer grade home surveillance as Abbey (Melinda Page Hamilton) obsessively documents the actions of her teenage son Jacob (Bailey Edwards). The more we see, the more it seems that this strung out single mother has good cause to worry as Jacob kills animals, has violent outbursts, and makes troubling maps of his school. Is Abbey uncovering the genesis of a dangerous criminal in the making…or is something else entirely going on?

Since the film devotes so much run-time to trying to make the viewer wonder about Jacob’s true motivations, it’s unfortunate that an early scene on an overpass heavily tips the scales, clearly showing which character is capable of committing unrepentant acts of violence. While the scene itself is well done, the film would be far stronger without it and would allow for some actual ambiguity throughout the story. It’s a shame too since the novel approach actually does effectively make use of the found footage conceit in a way that is modern, innovative and justified (mostly) within the world of the film. It also maintains a storyline that does drag a bit in places but overall manages to be engaging and at times all too real.

M.O.M’s true strength however is with its actors, which is fortunate as this is pretty much a two-hander between mother and son. The acting (and I cannot overstate this) is fucking incredible! Hamilton and Edwards truly live inside their characters and their pitch-perfect depiction is what makes the film work. The nuance and subtlety that they bring to their roles make this prescient story about a young man potentially going down a violent path feel even more dangerous and real. In a world where senseless acts of violence are commonplace, a film that reflects the anxiety that the true monsters can be found within the people we are closest to is a very scary concept indeed.

3-5-stars-red

29 Needles (2019)

29 NeedlesAs anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, it’s my mission to track down and review the most fucked up films ever made. Because of this, my idea of what truly constitutes Extreme Cinema may be a bit …..different than many people’s so I’m always at least a little skeptical when filmmakers contact me out of the blue and claim that their film is shocking and edgy. Still, I went into 29 Needles deliberately knowing nothing about it and keeping an open mind. Within the first few minutes one thing became perfectly clear, this is one film that DEFINITELY belongs in the Extreme Cinema category!

The story follows Francis Bacon (Brooke Berry), a troubled man who uses alcohol and pain to help abate the symptoms of his inner turmoil. He is beginning to lose hope as his self-destructive coping mechanisms are becoming less effective and his strange hallucinations more prevalent. When a mysterious young man named Hans (Jamee Nicholson) offers him an invitation to secret society where there are no sexual limits it may be the cure he’s looking for….or the beginning of a whole new nightmare.

One thing viewers should know going into this is that it’s the very definition of “not for everyone” and if copious amounts of unsimulated gay sex is too much for you to handle then this is probably not going to be your particular brand of vodka. However, for Extreme Cinema fans without such hangups this proves to be an interesting and unique ride into some very dark and depraved territory.

My favorite thing about this film and something that is unequivocally true is that it does NOT hold back. 29 Needles is a great example of raw, unfiltered cinematic expression that gives zero fucks about appealing to a mainstream crowd or worrying about who’s 29 Needles Bathoffended in the process. Rape, mutilation, watersports and bloodplay are all on full display here as well as fetishistic acts that even I had never seen before (I have two words for you, eyeball tube). Writer/director Scott Philip Goergens clearly has a vision and takes a punk rock, no holds barred approach to executing it.

So, clearly the film has balls, ones that it’s not afraid to literally skewer with needles, but there’s still the question of how well it’s made. On that front it’s a little bit of a mixed bag as it does fall pray to some of the common shortcomings of indie films such as a flat, digital image quality and some supporting actors whose performances fall well short of convincing. However Berry more than makes up for this with his fully committed, method performance that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. There is also some great practical effects work in the form of a giant sentient cock that looks straight out of Cronenberg’s golden era.

Ultimately this film is an endurance test of shock and depravity and one that real fans of genuinely edgy cinema won’t want to miss. An interesting and engaging plunge into darkness that’s completely fucked up, in the best possible way.4-stars-red

 

Short Film Review: Duérmete Niño (2019) Duration 9 min 38 sec

DNShortifilm_PosterClocking in at under ten minutes total (only about seven of which is the actual film) Duérmete Niño (Rock-a-bye Baby) is an interesting little slice of horror. Inspired by a real, sleep deprived nightmare that director Freddy Chávez experienced after the birth of his daughter, this short captures the horror and anxiety of being a new parent in a very creative and unusual way.

In the film Piercey Dalton plays a single mother of twins (a terrifying enough prospect in and of itself) who begins to hear strange noises through the baby monitor that connects to her children’s room. Text in the beginning lets us know that the use of baby monitors can actually be traced back to 1937, an interesting fact that also properly justifies the 1940’s setting. The retro feel adds an extra layer of creepiness to the film as technology from that era was so inherently clunky and prone to dangerous malfunctions. It also allows for the inclusion of an animated faux commercial for the monitor that serves as a fun bonus during the credits.

When viewing this film it is clear that a lot of care and effort went into crafting not just the atmospheric setting but also the tense, well paced story that leads to a horrific and immensely satisfying conclusion. Dalton is essentially a one woman show and does an excellent job in conveying real pathos and emotion through a dialogue-free performance. The skillful use of special effects really seals the deal and makes this one short that is well worth your modest time investment. A must-see film that was inspired by nightmares and will certainly go on to inspire quite a few more.

4-5-stars-red

Empathy Inc (2019)

Empathy1As new forms of media consumption are released so too are new cultural anxieties born, along with the films that reflect them. Whether it’s VHS in Videodrome or cell phones in One Missed Call, films have always been a way of expressing the inherent discomfort that is an inevitable part of adjusting to ever more rapidly changing technology. With VR becoming an increasingly prevalent part of our society, it’s only natural that films like Empathy Inc would come about to explore the darker side of the technology. Of course, the idea itself is nothing new and classic films from Total Recall to The Matrix and many in between have delved into the potential consequences of experiencing a virtual world that is indistinguishable from our own. However, while this was an abstract concept in the ‘90s, ever advancing technology is bringing us closer to this becoming a reality, making the subject far more prescient today.

The story centers around Joel (Zack Robidas) who has to move with his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) from Silicon Valley to her parent’s house on the east coast following a public scandal and the closure of his company. When an opportunity comes along to get in on the ground floor of a new company that promises a unique VR experience, Joel sees it as his way to get back in the game and convinces his father-in-law (Fenton Lawless) to invest his family’s entire nest egg in the venture. As you can imagine, it’s not long before things start to go horribly wrong.

Of all the VR themed films, Empathy Inc draws the most influence from Strange Days as its invented technology also allows users to enter a fully immersive world where they can live out experiences that are completely foreign to their own in a supposedly consequence-free environment. It does put its own unique spin on the concept (which I won’t spoil here) that makes it feel like a fresh take on the subject rather than a rehash. Unfortunately, this unique take also brings up some important questions that are not resolved like “given all that’s involved, would people really pay for this experience?” Even if they would, the logistics of actually pulling it off seem highly impractical and regardless of how far out your concept is, it needs to be grounded within the logic of the world it creates.

Empathy pic

Despite some glaring inconsistencies with how it’s used, the technology itself is actually an easier sell than some minor but significant plot points that could have been easily addressed in a rewrite. I mean, I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief for the idea of world where fully immersive VR is possible but a world where you can easily sneak a gun onto a cross-country flight (twice) is just far too ridiculous to accept. This is also apparently the same world where you can wander around a city and accidentally run into the exact person you are looking for by pure coincidence.

It’s really a shame that these entirely script-based issues exist because they take away from a film that is otherwise executed incredibly well. The camerawork is beautiful and the black and white aesthetic works very well, especially for the high-contrast shots. Director Yedidya Gorsetman also wisely chooses to keep the effects simple and execute them well which adds much more production value than attempting to overreach far beyond what the budget allows. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting which is simply flawless across the board and especially impressive given the events of the third act.

All in all Empathy Inc is an interesting film with a unique perspective that is worth the watch but certainly won’t be supplanting VR classics like eXistenZ or Strange Days anytime soon.

 

2-5-stars-red

Madness of Many (2013)

Madness CoverIf you like your torture porn with a hefty helping of pseudo-philosophy, then Madness of Many might just be the film for you. At least, that’s what Danish filmmaker Kasper Juhl is hoping you’re into because his 2013 feature packs a surprising amount of both into its scant 73 minute run-time. Is this an effective combination? Should voice over be used in more than 90% of a film? Who the fuck are all these people being tortured and what exactly is going on here? Read on, for the answers to some of these questions in the review below!

The plot (such as it is) centers around Victoria (Ellen Abrahamson) who we first see walking in the woods in the beginning of the film. We are told through VO that she is 23 and has grown up in the most horrifically abusive home possible. After years of rape and starvation she has recently escaped and now we see her make friends with someone off-screen who brings her back to their home. Things seem to be going well until she is bludgeoned unconscious and spends the next year being held captive and tortured. The bulk of the rest of the film depicts seemingly random other women being tortured who (I think) are meant to represent her inner anguish through depictions of physical torment…..and puking up blood every five minutes.

I’m only pretty sure that’s what’s going on because despite the fact that nearly the entire film contains VO, it seems less concerned with illuminating the details of the plot and more concerned with incessantly repeating its theory that suffering is a transcendent experience that leads to enlightenment. This concept worked in Martyrs several years earlier but that was because it was bolstered up by an excellent plot and a sparing but intense use of violence. The brutality here is certainly the best part but the overuse of it without a solid foundation to stand on makes for diminishing returns. I mean, once you’ve watched someone puke up blood for the fifth time in an hour it’s kind of lost it’s effect.

The fundamental problem here is a real lack of prioritization of the story elements. Sometimes the information is maddeningly sparse, such as how did she get from spending her whole life in tortured squalor to just kind of strolling around in a nice outfit, looking normal and put together? Other times it feels like it’s compulsively berating you with the same information, prattling on about enlightenment and suffering like stoned freshman around a bonfire. This all results in a lack of emotional investment with the events of the film and an attempt at a profound ending that falls flat because it’s not even remotely earned. Madness blind.jpg

This is unfortunate because despite its flaws there are definitely some things that the film does very well. First and foremost, I have to commend the numerous actresses who fully commit to their roles as torture victims and all deliver genuinely great performances. This, coupled with the well crafted gore, makes for some glorious and authentic depictions of violence that are well worth the watch. Additionally, Juhl brings a visual artistry to many of the shots that elevate them from mere set pieces to visually arresting works of macabre beauty.

If only he had spent as much time crafting the story then the end result may have felt more like a provocative art film and less like something made by a film student who took took SFX and intro to philosophy in the same semester.

 

2-5-stars-red

Short Film Review: Aftermath (1994) Duration 30 min

AftermathAhhh corpse fucking, a taboo subject that even the most hardcore of Extreme Cinema films rarely delve into. Sure, directors are willing to mutilate teenagers with chainsaws and machetes all day but once you add in a touch of deviant sexuality it goes to a whole different level for most people. Obviously you’ve got your underground classics like the Nekromantik films or even a bizarre romantic drama like Kissed, but all in all it’s a pretty short list of films that make necrophilia the central focus. Of course, an essential entry to that list is Nacho Cerdá’s ultra twisted mini-masterpiece, Aftermath.

There really isn’t that much to say about the story beyond the fact that it centers around a deviant forensic surgeon (Pep Tosar) who has his way with the corpse of a young woman in one of the more shocking and disturbing sequences ever put on film. The fact that it’s light on story really doesn’t matter much in this case since it’s the incredible visual style that does the heavy lifting in this dialogue-free film. Much like A Serbian Film, the thing that makes this so effectively shocking isn’t just its subject matter, but also that it’s just so goddamn well made.aftermath cameraEvery detail inside the surgeon’s lab is so meticulously created that it gives an incredible level of authenticity to the overall film. This is helped greatly by the fact that it was filmed within a real forensic institute in Barcelona and that Cerdá had the chance to witness an actual autopsy prior to filming.  While the little details are great, the real showstoppers are the corpses themselves, masterfully crafted by special effects studio DDT. Each cadaver has such brilliant attention to detail that they come across as genuine characters right down to the tracks in one man’s arm that were probably the cause of his death.

Speaking of genuine characters, Tosar does more with his incredible eyebrows and menacing stare than many actors are able to accomplish with two hours of dialogue. Added to this is the fact that every shot is expertly crafted and the whole thing is scored to Mozart’s hauntingly beautiful Requiem in D Minor. It’s these small but significant touches that really elevate Aftermath beyond just a shocking video into the visually arresting and provocative art that it is.

5-stars-red