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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007


With the arrival of DVD and its accompanying technology, a whole new underground filmmaking scene was created. Supported by conventions and Internetworking, fans looking for something outside the standard studio dreck discovered real talent and a creative tenacity long missing from cinema’s mainstream. Noted among these up and coming entities were companies like Tempe Entertainment (run by longtime direct to video pioneer J.R. Bookwalter), Splatter Rampage (one time home of the amazing Campbell Brothers), Low Budget Pictures (run by the endearing psycho savant, Chris Seaver), and Eric Stanze’s Wicked Pixel. Unlike the other production companies mentioned, this St. Louis based organization takes the making of terror very seriously. Over the course of nearly a decade, Stanze and his various artistic-minded associates have tried to legitimize low budget fare – and for the most part, they have done a bang up job.


Looking at the six titles released by the company since 1998 (and leaving out projects produced by Stanze including The Undertow, Insaniac, and Buzz Saw, among many others), we can see a collective growing in confidence and pursing sometimes impossible goals. While constantly stymied by less than sufficient budgets, time constraints, and the typical pitfalls that come with trying to produce big screen spectacle on a slivered shoestring, Wicked Pixel remains a standard bearer in homemade horror. They consistently deliver imaginatively viable experiences while never shying away from controversy, absurdity, and ambition. Their films are bloody and sexual, erotic and overreaching. They take the typical macabre makings – demons, serial killers, ghosts – and craft experiences so visceral they violate your personal space while remembering to remain firmly within film’s logistical language.


Specifically, here are the movies that have made the company an indie icon, beginning with Stanze’s first:


Savage Harvest [rating: 7]
When a family member asks for help cleaning up around his property, Karen calls together a few friends. They head out for a weekend of camping and foraging. When they arrive, they notice something bizarre - Aunt Linda is nowhere to be found. As they set up their tents, Uncle George suddenly shows up, telling a weird story about ancient Native American rituals, demonic forces, and possessed stones. He warns them not to touch these tainted rocks, as they contain the souls of demons determined to possess the living. Within hours, some of the party members have vanished. While looking for their lost pals, the gang comes across a disgusting monster with mayhem on its mind. It turns out that the ancient myth has become a reality, and as the stones slowly take over various victims, it is up to the survivors to figure out how to stop this menace.


Though it’s hampered by shortened running time and an ineffective plot stumble at the start of the second act, Savage Harvest is one of Stanze’s best. It is a gory, gruesome mix of the Evil Dead, ancient burial rites, and stellar directorial flare. Visually arresting, never erroneous or inappropriate, and always pushing the plot forward, you can’t help but feel you are in the capable hands of someone who knows what he’s doing. Scares are never telegraphed, suspense is built without reliance on formula or fraud, and while his actors are amateurs at best, there is a real attempt at creating characters that we care about. Stanze doesn’t settle for one-dimensional placeholders - he makes sure his victims are viable personalities. This means his movies have presence and a palpable sense of dread. When combined with the technical elements, this makes for a fine fright film.


Ice from the Sun [rating: 8]
The Presence - the intangible spirit of a sorcerer’s apprentice - regularly rounds up mortals from the world of reality and transports them into his deadly parallel domain. There, he plays on his victims’ most ferocious fears, using their wounded psyche for his own ubiquitous amusement. After centuries of this, the angels of Heaven and the demons of Hell get together and recruit a recent suicide victim, a young woman named Alison, to help them out. Via an ethereal messenger, they make her an unusual offer. If Alison can enter the ice-shrouded domain of the Presence, and defeat him, she will be given a second chance at life. She agrees, and as another group makes their way into the wicked underworld, Alison begins her mission. But it will take a lot more than desire to defeat an evil as powerful as the Presence.


Profound, pompous, and occasionally preposterous, Eric Stanze’s Ice from the Sun is a stunning work of near-auteur level genius. Like a Nine Inch Nails video channeled through the lens of David Lynch, or a music montage as envisioned by the Devil, this delightful, disturbing film is far from perfect. Yet for what this director accomplished on a shoestring budget, a ton of 8mm film, and a few enigmatic locations, Stanze should be given considerable praise. Homemade movies are never this inventive, challenging, or brave. What’s great here - and “great” is the word that needs to be used - is Stanze’s inherent cinematic skill. He understands the camera better than any of the other no-budget independent filmmakers in the game. He is not indulgent or obsessed with referencing scenes or sequences from the past. Instead, Stanze sets out to create his own innovative, original visions, and he succeeds royally.


Scrapbook [rating: 6]
Leonard has been killing people for over a decade. He kidnaps his victims, drags them to his deserted farmhouse, and tortures them before ending their life. He also asks them to do one last thing before they die. They must write in a section of his photo album, a tainted volume containing every individual he’s butchered (and their sad, sickening story). Leonard claims that his latest catch, a plain girl named Clara, will be his last. After she writes her tale in his journal, Leonard’s journey will be “over”. Thus it’s a harsh, monstrous battle of wits - and wills - between this innocent girl and a truly twisted madman. Who will win, and what will become of the scrapbook of these deeds, rests completely in the resolve of a deranged psychopath, and the damaged victim under his vile control.


Scrapbook is unrelenting. At the heart of this brutal character study are two very brave, quite excellent actors. Tommy Biondo’s killer is not the most frightening villain ever conceived. Instead, his is more of a bewildering presence, unpredictable and always keeping us wondering…and worried. Indeed, the true suspense of Scrapbook comes from imagining the perverted possibilities Leonard has up his blood-splattered sleeves. The far more effective acting comes at the exploited expense of actress Emily Haack. Naked to partially-clothed throughout most of the movie, this solid, sturdy female is forced into situations so horrid, so completely devoid of humanity that they almost become meaningless. The first 45 minutes of this movie is really nothing more than Leonard beating, raping, defiling, abusing and confusing Clara. And this is where the movie stumbles. By making everything so confrontational and craven, the film forces us to disconnect from the characters, leaving the action rather hollow. 


The Severed Head Network [rating: 6]
The eight efforts offered here - covering several years of output from both Wicked Pixel as a company, and as a group of talented artists - all use the term ‘macabre’ rather loosely. Sure, there is bloodshed, and lots of carefully controlled nightmare fodder. But there is also beauty, sadness, sexuality, humor, and experimentalism, elements not necessarily associated with the fear format. We are treated to actual animal slaughter as part of Chad Eiven’s Vomire, while Stanze delivers a tone poem about loss entitled Faith in Nothing. Jason Christ gives us a nominal music video (Curveball’s “Pile of Junk”) and a satiric slasher joke (Victim). Toss in Tom Tevlin’s Unwatched, the surreal story of an odd old man named Sedgewick, the kid vid gone grotesque Liontown and Tom Biondi’s proto-porn revenge tale Satisfaction, and you’ve got an intriguing if inconsistent collection. 


Overall, The Severed Head Network is engaging, if not completely successful. For every work of inspired artistry, we get slaughterhouse suffering and naked numbness. It’s hard to argue for Tom Biondo’s installment, which seems more like an experiment in inverse erotica than an ersatz thriller. The high minded posh poetic narrative doesn’t help matters much. Similarly, Stanze’s surreal fan dance strains at anything other than a way of explaining framing and composition. The real finds revolve around a fractured senior citizen, a slice and dice gone goofy, and a commercial for a real wildlife con job. Had this collection been more about the story and less about style, we’d have a real treat here. Instead, this well meaning Wicked Pixel release is only marginally masterful. It will definitely satisfy its target audience, but anyone who doesn’t appreciate outsider ambitions will be left feeling depressed and disgusted.


Savage Harvest 2: October Blood [rating: 7]
After a fatal on-set accident, director Tyge Murdock returns to his hometown until things cool down. There, he reconnects with best friend Deke and ex-girlfriend Ashley. Both have issues leading back to a massacre a decade before. Deke is also babysitting alienated loner Zack, who lost most of his family in the carnage. Desperate to discover the truth, our isolated man is slowly coming undone. Similarly, Ashley’s sister Mikki killed herself after what she saw that night, and her grieving sibling is also seeking closure. After retracing the events of that fateful night, a return trip to the property is warranted. Of course, the foursome finds themselves facing the same Native American demonic forces which caused the chaos before. Even worse, the Kerrigan family is now involved, and with so much potential possession fodder around, it appears the forces of evil will have a field day destroying their human hosts.


Like slamming two separate and somewhat independent ideas together into one two hour test of your terror tendencies, Jason Christ’s earnest Savage Harvest sequel feels bifurcated and slightly askew. Leaving the Evil Dead dimension of the excellent original (as created by writer/director Eric Stanze) for a more subtle, eerie J-Horror fear feel, this production protégé wants to make sure his aesthetic is represented on every fascinating, flawed frame. The first hour of the film is an intriguing four character drama, an attempt to use the bedlam of the initial storyline to argue about how death and destruction affects those left behind. The second half finds Ashley with an axe in one hand and a chainsaw in the other, slicing and dicing her way through torsos, cleavage, arms, legs, crotches, and heads. Such splatter spectacle will definitely delight gorehounds. You will love aspects of this movie. You will sigh over other segments. Such inconsistency makes this sequel good, but definitely not great.


Deadwood Park [rating: 9]
When Jake returns to the small town he grew up in, it drags up painful memories from the past. While still in grade school, his twin brother was abducted by a notorious child killer. His body was never found. Hoping to get some answers, he moves into his aging family home and begins to ask questions about the case, the suspect, and the dilapidated amusement park where several of the victims were eventually found. The sheriff, still sulking over his inability solve the crimes, warns Jake against interfering. But the lawman’s curious daughter Olivia, wants to help find the truth. She teams up with Jake, and together they piece together a surreal story involving a local priest, a buried trunk, and a similar series of murders back during World War II. And while all clues point toward Deadwood Park, some of the answers may actually be much closer to home.


For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Deadwood Park is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies, Stanze goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema. Stressing his amazing imagery, this director truly delivers. This haunting, harrowing effort is truly remarkable, a film one gets lost in. It’s not just the mystery that’s spellbinding (which resolves itself more than satisfactorily) or the problems hounding our hero. Stanze’s innate skill as a moviemaker drives us constantly forward, facing each moment of dark foreboding and chilling fear with solid sparks of suspense. In interviews, the director has said that this was a paean to ‘70s terror. Clearly, he was referring to pacing and pitch, not the sordid drive-in exploitation that substituted for scares in the Me Decade. This is outsider cinema at its best.


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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007

Crack seems like it’s in serious need of rebranding. As sociologist Craig Reinarman points out in this Washington Post op-ed, crack is just a pejorative term for freebase cocaine, which could have been glamorous as the snortable version of the drug if only so many celebrities didn’t set themselves on fire trying it. In the 1980s crack became a byword for ghetto blight, and the crack “epidemic” was a convenient way of depicting miserable inner city conditions as somehow the fault of those drug fiends who lived there. Now, crack is so firmly associated with poverty that getting caught using or dealing it is punished more harshly: “At the peak of the panic over crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, Congress passed a rash of laws requiring longer prison sentences. One such law created a 100-to-1 disparity between crack and cocaine offenses. You have to get caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine—but only five grams of crack cocaine—to get a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.” So the same substance brings upon people different punishments depending on what the police decide to call it.


Smoking crack has faded from the news (though as Reinarman notes, the practice is as prevalent as ever), so you’d expect it would take on a kind of nostalgic kitsch value; that self-consciously cool people would spot an opportunity to freebase coke ironically and be all retro. Ordinarily, I would argue that this kind of hipster appropriation runs the danger of deauthenticating crack smoking for everyone, making it impossible to smoke crack sincerely like a true devotee and enjoy the high for its own sake. Freebasing should be its own reward, damn it, not a posture! But in this case, I suspect that for aficionados, nothing can tarnish the pristine allure of the crack pipe.


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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007

A couple of vectors brought into quick confluence:


1. The San Diego wildfires rage.


While . . .


2. Perusing a back-issue of The New York Review, I come across this quote from Don DeLillo, on the occasion of publication of his 1991 novel, Mao II:


In a repressive society a writer can be deeply influential, but in a society that’s filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act…. People who are powerless make an open theater of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to.


 


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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007
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Monday, Oct 22, 2007


Movies made outside the mainstream still suffer from the same cinematic stumbling blocks that regularly bring down their Tinsel Town counterparts. Independence doesn’t always mean imaginative, and working within a set of basic budgetary restrictions doesn’t guarantee innovation or novelty. No, a homemade auteur, drunk on his own perceived importance, will rage against uninspired Hollywood ‘lacklusters’ while themselves falling into the same hack habits. They’ll repeat subjects, celebrate clichés, and add their own level of abject amateurity to the mix. The results are routine, dull, and lamentably lo-fi. Eric Stanze, however, is different. Over the course of a decade, he has lifted his personal production company, Wicked Pixel, from unknown quantity to top of the line indie equal. With such tantalizing titles as Ice from the Sun, China White Serpentine, and Savage Harvest, he has systematically shown that greatness can come from even the most fiscally restrained production process. His latest, the exceptional ghost story Deadwood Park, is no different.


When Jake returns to the small town he grew up in – and the family home he long abandoned – it drags up painful memories from the past. While still in grade school, his twin brother was abducted by a notorious child killer, and like many others in the community, the boy’s body was never found. Hoping to get some answers, he moves into the aging house and begins to ask questions about the case, the suspect, and the dilapidated amusement park where several of the victims were eventually found. The sheriff, still sulking over his inability to successfully solve the crimes, warns Jake against such actions. But the lawman’s curious daughter, a well-informed store clerk named Olivia, wants to help find the truth. She teams up with Jake, and together they piece together a surreal story involving a local priest, a buried trunk, and a similar series of murders back during World War II. And while all clues point toward Deadwood Park, some of the answers may actually be much closer to home.


For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Deadwood Park (new to DVD from Cinema Epoch) is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies where buckets of blood and a volley of body parts help measure a macabre’s supposed success, Stanze goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema in the process. As a director, this St. Louis based filmmaker has always stressed imagery. Previous efforts have actually relied on the optical to overcome some sloppy scriptwriting and narrative designs. But here, within the context of this genuinely intriguing tale, Stanze really lets his lens do the talking. There are moments so vivid in Deadwood Park that they stand separate from the story they are illustrating. When Jake visits a desolate drive-in, design straight out of the ‘I Like Ike’ era, the sense of Americana lost is legitimate. The decaying domicile used as our hero’s home also oozes misty memories and the inherent horror of a youth violated.


But the most astounding found location remains the title vista, a collection of creaky wooden coaster tracks (almost all of it rotten and in horrid disrepair), empty pavilions, rusted out attractions and precarious train trestles. Even better, very little spook showboating occurs here. Instead of laying on the supernatural, Stanze creates mood, tone, and expositional importance – all keys to successful dread. Not since Herk Harvey stumbled across the desolate Saltair Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City and utilized it as the backdrop for his classic Carnival of Souls has a former fun palace been used so efficiently. It illustrates Stanze’s commitment as an artist, as well as his eye for scope and his desire to go beyond the fright film basics.


He also does wonders with his semi-professional cast. While he usually works with a company of long time associates – Emily Haack, DJ Vivona, Jason Christ – the director employs some fresh new faces, and the infusion of talent really affects his narrative. It’s clear that Stanze trusts these actors - he gives them reams of important dialogue to sell, most of it mandatory to set up the horror properly. If we don’t believe the legends, comprehend the connection between Jake and his family, or recognize the out of control nature of the entire town, Deadwood Park won’t work. It’s just pretty pictures surrounded by amateur theatrics. But the one thing Stanze strives for in every film he makes is a high level of quality – in cinematography, in editing, in writing and in performing. In the commentary accompanying this DVD release, the director outlines what he expects from a project, and with minor qualms here and there, this movie more than fulfills them.


And it shows. Deadwood Park is remarkable, a film one gets lost in. It’s not just the mystery that’s spellbinding (which resolves itself more than satisfactorily) or the problems hounding our hero. Stanze’s innate skill as a moviemaker drives us constantly forward, facing each moment of dark foreboding and chilling fear with solid sparks of suspense. One of the main problems novice moviemakers face is delivering believable horror set-ups. Without copying directly from the masters of the genre, untried writers and wannabe directors simply dredge up the precedent and hope that it plays. Stanze can stray into that territory now and then (his Savage Harvest was nothing more than Evil Dead with Native Americans) but for Deadwood Park, he plays everything very close to the vest. The references are not as obvious, the homages kept personal and perfectly realized. In interviews, the director has said that this was a paean to ‘70s terror. Clearly, he was referring to pacing and pitch, not the sordid drive-in exploitation that substituted for scares in the Me Decade.


Not only that, but Deadwood Park returns to the days when ideas made audiences anxious, not free flowing grue and video violence. Beyond all the evocative backdrops and interpersonal turmoil, this is a filmmaker who can really tell a story. Even as he avoids the norm and spends inordinate amounts of time establishing setting and physical locale, we are inexplicably drawn to the narrative elements. We want to see Jake succeed, Olivia help him, and the entire town vindicated after decades of trials and terror. It’s indeed rare when a homemade movie, crafted with care but still carved out of one person’s financially restricted vision, can be as compelling as this one. It means that the voice behind the scenes is powerful, original, and continuously challenging itself. Eric Stanze is such an outsider auteur, and his latest opus cements such a status.


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