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

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

Murder-Set-Pieces (2004)

msp coverTo anyone who has taken so much as a cursory glance at my reviews it should be abundantly clear that I am an incredibly strong supporter of free speech. I’ve made it my mission to track down and review the darkest and most fucked up films ever made and I revel in witnessing cinema’s most disturbing creations. This is all to say that it’s extremely rare that I come across a film with parts that even I find problematic, but it does happen. A classic example would be the unsimulated animal killing in Cannibal Holocaust whose artistic value is superseded by the real world suffering caused by their creation. It had been a long time since I’d seen Murder Set Pieces, so I was surprised to find a similar moral predicament as I wondered to myself “Wait, is this a fucking pro-Nazi film?” More on that in a minute.

The film itself is very light on actual plot and essentially just follows around an unnamed professional photographer (Sven Garrett) as he brutally murders women in Las Vegas. Despite the fact that he’s racking up a substantial body count, the only person who is even remotely suspicious of this obvious sociopath is his girlfriend’s little sister, who is determined to find out what is really going on. MSP 3

Now, if you are going to have a villainous, evil character, a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer is certainly a good choice and as such have been used effectively in many other films. In the case of MSP though it feels very…..different and not just because the protagonist is openly supportive of Nazis and screams in German while he kills people. By themselves these traits could be passed off as simply being used to enhance the evil nature of the character, but when you also start your film with a strange quote about “the Jews” and use a production company named Third Reich Ventures (!) shit starts to add up.

To be fair, this film was made in a different time, years before a peaceful frog was co-opted into an official symbol of hate speech by armies of trolls seeking to make racism “great” again. If I was to play devil’s advocate I could say that it is possible that writer/director Nick Palumbo was perhaps using the imagery more in service of shock value than promoting an ideology. MSP 5However, this more generous read of the subject matter is a tough sell considering how the entire film feels like little more than a vicarious indulgence of Palumbo’s darkest fantasies.

In scene after scene the strong, good looking protagonist is able to effortlessly pick up beautiful women and viciously fuck and murder them in a seemingly consequence-free environment. In addition to this, this unnamed photographer uses nearly all his non-German dialogue on misogynistic rants or fawning praise for Nazis. This is of course when he isn’t busy working out while Triumph of the Will plays in the background. It’s really unfortunate that these things had to be so pervasive within the film because despite the numerous problematic elements there is actually a lot that MSP does very well.

MSP 6

From a visual standpoint this film is absolutely stunning and Palumbo makes excellent use of his two million dollar budget to create mesmerizing visuals on 35mm film stock. Side note, this film also has the bizarre distinction of allegedly containing the only known 35mm footage of the WTC towers going down on 9/11, for whatever that’s worth. Anyway, horror fans don’t just come for the pretty pictures though, we come for the gore and on that front MSP delivers incredibly well. So well in fact that the film was thrown out of three labs before finally being processed.

Thankfully, it was eventually processed because the director’s cut of this film has some of the most gorgeous and gruesome gore effects ever put to celluloid. Each murder scene is exquisitely crafted to showcase the raw, visceral bloodshed in all it’s glory. MSP 1The chainsaw to the head scene stands out as a particular highlight but whether it’s a brutal throat slitting, bathtub drowning or vicious beating each violent scene is filled with a raw, vicious energy that makes the kills much more realistic and disturbing. Throw in some corpse eating, severed head fucking and a brutal on-screen child murder (!) and what you get is a truly unfiltered example of Extreme Cinema that goes well beyond where conventional horror films dare to venture.

The glorious gore effects were courtesy of Fred Vogel’s Toetag Pictures production studio and Vogel himself even cameos in the film. He is also joined by horror legends Gunnar Hansen and Tony Todd, who’s disgruntled porn store clerk character is a highlight of the film. MSP 2So, in the end there is a lot to like about MSP and if it hadn’t been infested with Nazi propaganda it would be an easy film to recommend to fans of hardcore cinema. Overall I’m left feeling conflicted because as much of a fan as I am of the gorgeous, unhinged violence I just can’t fully endorse a film that seems like it would be a top pick for a neo-Nazi movie night.

2-stars-red

Parallel (2016)

Parallel alternativeThe idea that alternate realities could simultaneously exist in the universe is certainly an interesting one and a concept that has become ever more pervasive in the popular consciousness of late.

However, much like the concept of time travel, it can also become somewhat of a quagmire for writers seeking to apply logical explanations to a concept that defies conventional logic. Regardless of it’s setting though, good storytelling is always king and the films that maintain a compelling, character-driven core while exploring unusual concepts are the ones that are really worth your time. Conversely, films that don’t, will simply collapse under the weight of their facile ideas and today we’ll see where Parallel falls on that spectrum.

After formally meeting at a party, co-workers Heather (Faye Sewell) and Neil (David Magowan, also the screenwriter) begin their seemingly perfect relationship. After a chance meeting with a self-proclaimed psychic named Machlis (Brian Carter) the couple soon finds themselves voyeuristically peering into a parallel version of their lives, to see what much darker versions of themselves are up to.

The very concept of this film is based upon the idea of there being “light and dark” versions of each of our lives playing out in simultaneous timelines, which is exactly the kind of intellectual quagmire I was referring to earlier. The very idea that there could be a “good” reality and a “bad” one is the kind of thing that sounds cool at first and then completely unravels as soon as you start to think about it. Sure, you can show a few isolated characters with alternate versions of themselves engaging in more morally questionable behavior, but what about the world at large? The implication seems to be that the protagonists exist within our normal reality, not some kind Utopian version, so are we supposed to swallow the idea that we live in the good version!? At this point I would like to introduce Magowan to a little thing called the news….

Despite all the real world horrors that plague our planet, it makes just as little sense to say we are collectively an amalgamation of all the worst versions of all the people who have ever lived. The concept of infinitely branching parallel universes is interesting but the idea that they could be distilled down to two oversimplified versions is just ridiculous. Frankly, it takes a very privileged perspective to look around at the world we have and think “wow, what if there was a bad version of this….”

Now, concept is a big factor but so is execution and in the case of this film the results are varied. Overall, the most positive aspect of the production is the acting. Carter especially shines as the somewhat put-upon psychic who may have more up his sleeve than he initially reveals. Sewell also does a very solid job with the material she is given and handles her character’s emotional range skillfully. From a technical standpoint, the film is decently shot but does run into some the classic pitfalls that plague inexperienced filmmakers such as occasionally clumsy edits and some noticeably bad instances of sound design.

Those issues aside, the film as a whole does a decent job of holding your attention, especially as the more debaucherous elements start to come into play. It’s a creative concept with a decent execution that simply suffered from a series of rough edges through all aspects of production. A few tweaks to the central concept, some more natural dialogue, and a smoother edit and this could have been a very interesting film indeed. Too bad we don’t have that cut of the movie, maybe it exists on a separate timeline.

2-5-stars-red