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by Bill Gibron

21 Sep 2008

In the world of completely independent filmmaking, there are only four legitimate auteurs. For those unaware of the noted French theory, André Bazin, co-founder of the Cahiers du cinema is often credited with establishing a clear criterion for such consideration. The influential writer argued that all film should reflect a director’s personal vision, and in turn, should always be indicative of his or her own individual and recognizable style or approach. Examples in the mainstream are easily identifiable - Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, The Coen Brothers. But when it comes to those working way outside the frameworks of the typical Tinsel Town terrain, there’s only a quartet of qualified candidates.

Brothers Luke and Andy Campbell are among that noted number. They sit on the revisionist Mount Rushmore along with the nostalgic non-sequitors of Damon Packard, the trailer trash triumphs of Giuseppe Andrews, and the ‘80s high conceptualization of Chris Seaver. Located in Ohio, and versed in the kind of videotape varieties that educated an entire generation of film geeks, the boys have carved out a creative canon meshing the gore fests of their formative years with the broader aspects of genre devotion. From sports to seasonal wistfulness, insular universes and old school exploitation, the Campbells have managed to make the most of limited budgets, incomplete capabilities, and unbridled narrative invention.

With a review of their latest, Corboda Nights, in preparation for tomorrow’s blog post, SE&L has decided to look back on the previous five films made by these Midwestern mavericks. The first three efforts represent the standard growing pains - the uneasy balance between copycatting and creativity. Don’t be mistaken - inside this talented triptych are a series of sunny surprises. But when they offered up their street gang revenge zombie flick The Red Skulls in 2005, the Campbells announced themselves as full blown filmmakers, legitimized by a far more focused contrast between homage and originality. With Poison Sweethearts and now Cordoba, the duo delivers the kind of cinematic specificity that argues for both their reverence and redefinition of the artform.

Let’s begin our overview with the freak-out film that started it all:

Splatter Rampage Wrestling
For their first film, the Campbells collected a group of their friends, grabbed the singlets, and went gonzo for a surreal backyard wrestling experience. From Mullet Man and Philbert (a grappler who carries around a wooden rabbit named…Philbert) to the mighty Skulls, this collection of satiric superstars clearly illustrates the brothers’ strongest cinematic attribute - imagination. Presented as an overview of the fictional World ‘Rastling Coalition’s famous feuds and most charismatic gladiators, host Sam the Dirty Bum gives us an agonizing blow-by-d’oh round up of the best falls, the fiercest rivalries, and the nastiest injuries ever to come out of a bunch of drop-outs drop kicking each other. It’s dumb, deliberate, and a heck of a lot of fun.

Midnight Skater
Midnight Skater is a classic example of a “look beyond” film. If you can “look beyond” the amateur antics, unprofessional production values and overall neophyte nonsense exploding all around you and simply merge with this movie’s mindset, you’ll really enjoy yourself. Unfortunately, getting in the same Spock state of brain with the insane and inventive no-budget filmmakers here may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes and about a hundred trips to the video store (or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film). Sometimes, the brothers reach beyond the scope of their ability and come back with a hand full of failure. But more times than not, they create a unusual and unique motion picture experience, one that hints at being a believable, if bargain basement slice of slasher while always showing how the tongue is planted firmly in ass cheek.

Demon Summer
In this follow-up production, a Slacker meets slasher, Dazed and Confused with Evil Dead-like demonology, the portrait of small town America is far more polished and professional. Indeed, while Skater was a celebration of the barf bag variety Summer strives to capture that lost and lonely feeling of being stuck in a one-horse hovel in the deadly dull middle of America’s heartland, with nothing better to do on a warm weekend evening but cruise the strip mall parking lot and drink Near Beer. Yes, there is bloodletting and body carving in this well-crafted, crackerjack thriller, but unlike most of their independent brethren, the Campbells hope to flesh out both divergent elements of their title with strong narratives that satisfy both as cinema and as entertainment. And for the most part, they succeed.

The Red Skulls
You see it from the first few frames – something has definitely changed about the way Luke and Andy Campbell make movies. It used to be that they gathered up a group of their friends, fashioned a storyline out of horror movie odds and ends, then festoon it all with a gallon or ten of grue, pop on the ska-punk soundtrack. That the result was usually something quite special, an intriguing glimpse into what engages the mind of some Ohio cinematic wannabes, was the icing on the camcorder cake. But here things feel special. There is a concentration on the fringe elements of filmmaking, items like set design, costuming, character clarity and actual performances. With The Red Skulls, the boys have fashioned their first real attempt at a conventional motion picture. Even with all its ingratiating genre elements, and its last act lurch into some over the top fight clubbing, this film represents real, measurable growth from the duo.

Poison Sweethearts
With its exploitation derived framework and silly chauvinistic sheen, Poison Sweethearts truly marks the moment when Andy and Luke completely shed their homemade horror mantle and become real directors. This is not to say that their previous efforts represent lesser behind the lens mannerisms. But the truth is that movie macabre has a certain set of specs - cinematic formulas and prerequisites that keep vision hemmed in and innovation stifled. But with Sweethearts, the boys branch out into good old fashioned grindhouse territory, and inside such a conceit they find a wonderfully wicked, homage heavy masterpiece. Not every vignette works perfectly, and before we know it, the faux flesh peddler fun is over and done. But while it lasts, the boys deliver enough recognizable references to the forgotten genre that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino should be ashamed.

by Barry Lenser

21 Sep 2008

Here’s the Arthur Alexander-performed version of “Anna (Go to Him)”.

The slinky piano line, the slightly brisker tempo, and Alexander’s soulful but still a touch inhibited vocal all give the original a distinctive feel. I prefer the Beatles’ take on it but both recommend themselves in different ways.

by Rob Horning

21 Sep 2008

For a designated national monument, Risiera San Sabba, in Italy, is not an easy place to find. While road signs in Trieste routinely point you toward restaurants, hotels, roman ruins, the town center, Castle Miramare, and so on, we saw only one sign for San Sabba, at the bottom of a long list of arrows pointing to other cultural destinations. This is not a surprise. The citizens of the city are probably not all that eager to be reminded of the former Nazi concentration camp in their midst.

In the end, we had to ask at the bureau how to get there, and even with her explicit directions it was hard to find. It’s a nearly entirely unmarked building down a small street that’s a difficult turn to see coming off the autostrada. The humdrum brick structure stands innocuously enough in a somewhat rundown part of town, down the street from a soccer stadium and next to a Lidl discount supermarket. A circus was set up around the corner. I happened to park our rental car next to the bricked over windows of a chamber now called “the death room,” where new inmates were processed by the Nazis amid corpses waiting to be cremated. Only a small plaque by the long gray corridor into the complex marks the site’s significance now, unless you count the swastika someone painted on the highway riser back by the autostrada. The fact that the site is a national monument but all but invisible suggests strongly the tension between remembering and forgetting that seems to characterize attitudes toward World War II atrocities and the methods by which the Holocaust was carried out within view of the ordinary life of civilians. Apartment buildings still stand in the blocks that surround San Sabba; they probably stood when the horrors were being carried out. 

San Sabba’s ordinary exterior is a large part of what is awful about it now. It seems a perfect representation of the matter of fact way the Nazis assimilated killing into industrial organization. The building was originally a rice-husking factory; when the Nazis occupied the city they simply converted it into a different, horrific kind of factory, retrofitting in prison cells (some of which still remain) and installing a crematorium (which they dynamited as they fled when the city was liberated in 1945). At the site now, there are commemorative inscriptions, sculptures meant to evoke the crematorium smoke rising, an exhibition detailing the history of the Nazi occupation of the region, and a grim collection of inmate uniforms, confiscated property, a replica of a truncheon used to beat inmates to death, grainy photographs of the perpetrators. It wasn’t a lot to see, but it was enough. I started to understand why the place was so hard to find. Though we made a special effort to tour the place, I wanted nothing to do nothing but forget what I had seen after we left; I stayed up late that night watching whatever bad shows I could find on Slovenian television to keep my mind off it all. I never expected to be so grateful for old episodes of The X Files.

by Bill Gibron

20 Sep 2008

Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the prospect of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.

When an ancient urn is unearthed in an old Italian cemetery, it brings with it the standard portents of evil. The death of an innocent art historian marks just the first of many unspeakable acts. Soon, Sarah Mandy is caught up in a sinister situation that she barely understands. Chased by forces bent on destroying her, and unsure of the admonishing voice in her head, she seeks the help of fellow museum employee Michael Pierce. When he proves ineffectual, she searches out the counsel of the Vatican’s last official Exorcist, as well as one of Rome’s leading alchemists. Through her connection to her late mother, and the previous incarnations of Maters Suspiriorum and Tenebrarum, Sarah soon learns that Mother Lachrimarum has risen, and plans on orchestrating the second fall of Rome - unless our heroine can find a way to stop her.

Hitting the ground running and never giving up for 90 nasty minutes, The Mother of Tears (new to DVD from Genius Products, Dimension Extreme, and the Weinstein Company) is Dario Argento’s final statement on his precedent as the definitive Delacroix of dread. Avoiding most of the slow burn visual splendor that made Suspiria a classic, and shunning all of Inferno‘s incomprehensible tone poetry, the 68 year old director has finally finished this long gestating journey - for better and for worse. There will be complaints that this film feels nothing like its predecessors, that there’s an obvious scary movie overkill methodology at play. Indeed, the first film used witchcraft as an afterthought, the denouement in a plotline that had numerous other elements going for it. Similarly, the notion that pagans ruled a decadent New York apartment building was but a single facet in a film overloaded with optical - and occult - wonders.

Here, Argento seems to be saying ‘enough is enough’. Instead of painting the screen with memorable imagery, or provocative pictures, he just antes up the arterial spray and hopes for the horrific. Luckily, he delivers some delightfully disgusting set pieces. Throats are slit, bodies carved open, and various torture devices remove eyes, mouths, and other organs from their biological owners. This is also one of the few films that put kids directly in harms way. A baby is tossed off the side of a bridge, while another toddler is vivisected into several disturbing parts. The F/X work is wonderful, unsettling in its power and putrescence. Sure, there are some moments of mindless CGI that get in the way of the wickedness, but overall, The Mother of Tears provides an open grave full of gruesomeness.

The director also has a capable cast on hand to sell the sluice. Though she’s reduced to ‘last girl’ role quite often in this splatter rampage, daughter Asia Argento is an agreeable lead. She may act whiny and weak a great deal of the time, but she has a presence that the camera can’t deny. And though she’s hidden in smoke and mirrors for her part here, it’s great to see Daria Nicolodi back in the genre camp. As Detective Enzio Marchi, Christian Solimeno may come across as nothing more than plot fodder, but he makes good use of his screen time, and Adam James does a decent job as Mike, the art historian with an interest in the supernatural. Elsewhere, moments with the legendary Udo Kier and Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni remind us of why Argento is the master. No one kills a character like Dario.

As for the DVD itself, the added content is underwhelming in its quantity, wonderful in its quality. Argento is present for both an onscreen interview and various backstage sequences. The Q&A even drops a delicious bombshell - he may revisit the Three Mothers again. Having enjoyed himself immensely while making this film, a suggestion regarding a prequel has inspired the spirited 68 year old. An origins picture would be right up his alley, especially considering his love of making movies. During the Behind the Scenes featurette, we see Argento in his favorite position - implement of death in hand, camera over his shoulder ready to capture another senseless bit of slaughter. No matter his recent track record, this is an artist who clearly gets a thrill out of bringing his bravura vision to the big screen.

Yet what most fans are probably wondering is where Mother of Tears fits in the entire Mater mythology. It is clear that, when he came to this fabled finale, Argento knew his narrative would have to do some rather basic back peddling. He ties to Suspiria and it’s dance school setting and makes reference to the Manhattan mayhem section of his set-up. There are call backs to the original Three Mothers book (which we see in Inferno) and lots of exposition regarding architecture, cults, history, and death. Again, this is the first of these films to feature the Mother plotline almost exclusively. We aren’t dealing with a character discovering the witch and her secret, underlying purpose. Here, everything’s out in the open and a part of it.

The observant obsessive will see references to other Argento works as well. The obvious bow is to his mostly forgotten effort Phenomena. With the use of a monkey familiar, and a last act flood of maggot-filled offal, the director clearly delights in reminding us of his legacy. Similarly, he seems to be channeling the entire post-modern creepshow canon, tossing in a homage to Clive Barker here, a direct reference to Peter Jackson and The Frighteners there.

Mother of Tears works best when it avoids conversation and simply brings on the carnage. It may not satisfy every fan of Argento’s prosaic past, nor is it the realistic return to form everyone has been hoping for. Still, for anyone who doubts his power behind the lens, one look at this luxuriant, ludicrous exercise in excess will convince you - Dario Argento is a master, and Mother of Tears is an effective, engaging statement of same.

by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker

20 Sep 2008

We snagged the best table at the 3rd & Lindsley. This is a really good venue when you’ve got a table up close to the stage—that is, under the speakers that will, if aimed right at you, blast you to a pulp by the end of the evening. The lighting is harsh, but you’ll only notice that if you’re trying to photo shoot.

Jim White started us off this evening rather sweet and mellow. Or rather, a bit bitter and mellow (the tangy bite of his satirical lyrics are balanced with a mix of musical sugar). A master of the pedal last night, up there all by himself, he interspersed his songs with amusing storytelling. Intimate and comfortable.

A swift setup and in no time the Red Stick Ramblers dragged us kickin’ and hollering down to the Louisiana bayous. Consummate musicians, those of us stuck in our seats were doing the butt cheek dance while the women in the back grabbed one another and twirled. Just when your soul feels it might burst from all that Cajun-sustaining food, they bring it to a rousing end. Damn, that’s right—it’s a showcase, it ended about four hours too soon.

Time is a funny thing though, ain’t it? Jim White takes his 45-50 minutes with you and it’s like you were sitting on the porch all summer evening, enjoying the song of the crickets and the company of a good friend, while sharing a bottle. The Red Stick Ramblers made time go by faster than a speeding semi barreling down I-65 between Chicago and Nashville. And then Peter Bradley Adams and his band came on…

Set up takes a while, and we’re wary. Signifiers indicate this might be a… mellow set. Really mellow. A guitar case is opened and a Soviet-era looking poster is taped to the case for all to see. “HOPE”, it demands. Oh, yeah, that’s the latest Obama poster. 

Ironically, we spent more time writing over this set than any other, this evening—that is, passing notes back and forth to one another. “This is the sort of polite, mopey, singer-songwriter lite that sounds at home in a Starbucks line. Very sincere, slightly dazed-looking female back-up singer; even more seemingly sincere, deep lead singer. There are other musicians on the stage, but their sound is so muddy, one only knows from sight that they’re working… Rather depressing, really.” (That was a long note.) “I could help out that back-up singer, a few notches or 20.” “I could give the lead a decent haircut”, “Well, the bass player is cute” and so on. That’s a 45 minutes of our lives we want back.

Mike Farris and his amazing band answered our prayers and gave us more soulful sound in their all-too-short set than mere physical boundaries such as time and earthly bodies can contain. Lord, they resonate. If you see this man and his band once in your life, it will be music you’ll hear in your head when you’re clinging to the last vestiges of this mortal world—it is truly a joyful sound. It’s gospel, yes, but it’s that universal gospel that moves even the most cynical soul. Farris and the McCrary Sisters are singing their salvation—and yours—and you will be moved, no matter how firmly you keep to your convictions, wherever they’re grounded. Their Deep South sound heavily steeped in the sounds of New Orleans and Memphis will take you to Heaven and you won’t be able to sit down. Rarely do we, considered outsiders by many in this country, feel so welcome—and so damned happy to be human—than in the company of these highly talented people.

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