Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 26, 2007

THE DARJEELING LIMITED (dir. Wes Anderson)


Wes Anderson makes cinematic novels—episodic, heavily reliant on subplot and subtext, and filled with quirky characters that seem to work best when fully plotted out on paper. Indeed, films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou have often been accused of being better in bits than as a sum of all their perculiar parts. Part of the problem is audience perception. They’re used to seeing people as pawns, cogs in a mainstream mechanism moving robotically from setpiece A to denouement B. Another is aesthetic inconsistency. Within Anderson’s brilliant flourishes are occasional moments of lax detail. While his work has been potent, and very provocative, few could call it perfect—until now. The Darjeeling Limited is an Anderson epiphany. Finally, within the context of a single storyline, the writer/director has found a flawless premise and three equally ideal characters to carry it across.


The Whitman Brothers have not seen each other since their wealthy father’s funeral one year ago. Hoping to bring them back together as a family, oldest sibling Francis (Owen Wilson) books a month long train trip across India. While the problem prone Peter (Adrien Brody) relishes the idea (he’s escaping from pressing commitments on the home front), writer/lothario Jack (Jason Schwartzman) just wants to get to Italy to reconnect with his demanding girlfriend. Once all three hop on the title express, their dad’s special made Louis Vitton baggage in tow, they find themselves immersed in several levels of intrigue. Some of it is personal (rivalries, onboard romance, personal problems) while others involve the spiritual, the cultural, and the karmic. In fact, it is clear that all three Whitmans could use some significant healing. Each carries their own steamer trunk full of unanswered questions and unresolved expectations. Maybe reconnecting with their mother, who left the brood to seek solace in a far off nunnery, will sooth their ongoing struggles?


Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest. Sure, there will be those who see Anderson’s trademark quirks, his moments of forced magic realism and out of the blue character shifts and claim the same old self indulgent designs. And within his previous settings—a private school, a New York apartment, an oceanic research vessel—such strategies did indeed appear downright excessive. But within the context of India, a mysterious nation with its own inherent eccentricities and extremes, Anderson finds a totally complementary venue. In a country where seemingly anything can happen, where faith folds itself neatly into the fabric of everyday life in a manner so seamless that it’s almost indecipherable, the idea of three wayward men seeking interpersonal salvation doesn’t seem quite so quixotic. The way Anderson portrays it, it’s standard operating procedure in such a pulsing, overpopulated locale.


Beginning with a short film backstory (the ITunes treat Hotel Chevalier, now attached to all theatrical prints) which provides insight into Jack’s plight, and ending on one of those cinematic notes that continue to resonate long after the movie is over, The Darjeeling Limited is not a complicated movie. It’s not out to use intricate character details and dense sibling rivalries and conflicts to create its meaning. Instead, Anderson embraces the road movie contrivance—characterization reflected in the reaction his players have to various individuals they meet along the way—to broaden the span of his implications. This results in a film that feels wistful and feathery at first, only to trick us halfway through into becoming part of the brothers’ inner journey. By the end, we understand the pain felt by Francis, the disconnect experienced by Peter, and Jack’s longing to simply get lost.


This is a film of faces, and Anderson outdoes himself here, projecting all of his actors in the best possible cinematic light. Wilson, forced to wear a ridiculous set of bandages throughout most of the movie, is the personification of theater’s bifurcated dramatics. When he’s donning his medical mask, he’s a clever comic contrivance. But the moment he removes the gauze, giving us a horrifying glimpse at what lies beneath, it’s so tragic as to take one’s breath away. While he plays the mensch, Francis is the foundation of his family—and this entire film. Peter, played expertly by Brody, is like Narcissis fixated on his outward appearance to others. Every action he takes, every emotion he expresses, seems purposefully offered to make him and his overreaching angst feel appreciated. Longtime Anderson accomplice Schwartzman, on the other hand, is instinct inferred. He sits back and lets the others mull the meaning of things, functioning on impulse and his sense of superiority when the muse strikes. 


Together, they’re like the Three Stooges on muscle relaxers, irony substituting for eye pokes and face slaps. While the vignette-oriented approach of the storytelling might turn some off, it really is necessary if Darjeeling is to achieve its aims. It’s not just an exterior travelogue. In fact, we see very little of India proper. Instead, it’s all controlled closed sets and vast open spaces. What Anderson wants to show us is that life is made up of tiny events, each one connecting to the other to form a pyramid of potential. Sometimes, the result is clarity. In other instances, it’s hurt. And then there are those unconscionably rare scenarios where you achieve balance—the pain finds its place and the closure brings peace. It’s what we hope the Whitman boys can achieve. Even when faced with temptation and tragedy, they tend to come off as spoiled brats. Yet through the course of the film, we actually watch them grow. They shed layer after layer of pent up animosity, and suddenly start acting like brothers again.


Naturally, Anderson saves the best for last. For Francis, finding their mother stands as a personal holy grail. It may explain his self-destructive streak (which may or may not have lead to his injuries). As the Earth mother matron with a seemingly selfish view of charity, Angelica Houston owns the screen. Wrinkles showing and hair cropped and graying, she’s like Mother Teresa’s oversexed twin. Her story is shrouded in shadows and hints, yet her actions belie everything we eventually learn. Her lack of altruism, especially when it comes to the boys she bore, becomes one of Darjeeling’s best moments. Even as the ending suggests a newfound bond and a freedom from the past, there are unanswered questions in abundance. For anyone wondering how this director constantly gets cast alongside those who play in prose, such open ended narrative dynamics illustrate the point perfectly. Anderson wants his audiences to absorb and then reflect on what they’ve seen. In many ways, his movies are like interactive journeys into human nature.


While Hotel Chevalier is stilted and purposefully static (and very necessary to our understanding of what will come next), The Darjeeling Limited is a classic curry covered confection. It seems superficially sublime, only to underscore its surface with deep, philosophical power. It’s about never wanting to grow up, and discovering that responsibility ain’t so bad. It’s like listening to a beautiful song and then realizing the lyrics describe a particularly disturbing issue. Anderson may be continuously labeled as strange and unconventional, but there is something most critics can’t deny. He is a master of the medium he is so frequently called out over, and The Darjeeling Limited is both a wonderful rebuttal, and recognizable explanation, for such fractured feelings.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 26, 2007

LUST, CAUTION (dir. Ang Lee)


Ang Lee has had an amazing career behind the camera. Seemingly unphased by sudden shifts in subject matter, he’s tackled everything from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), ‘70s relationships (The Ice Storm), Civil War strife (Ride with the Devil), mystical Chinese wire-fu mythos (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and full blown Hollywood popcorn fare (Hulk). He even owns an Oscar for bringing a solemn, sensitive touch to the gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. Yet aside from Tiger, and his first few films, Lee has seldom focused on his Asian heritage. Indeed, some have suggested that he purposely avoids it in order to not be stereotyped by the Hollywood studios. It really shouldn’t be a concern. Even when he decides to work in his native land, as with this year’s exceptional Se, jie (translation: Lust, Caution), his vision and attention to detail set him far above any limits wrongfully inferred from his nationality.


Dealing with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II, and a band of student resistance fighters hoping to assassinate a high profile collaborator, much has been made of the film’s current NC-17 MPAA rating. Yet reducing this epic drama to a series of purposefully graphic sexual moments undermines nearly two hours of pristine narrative. It takes everything Lee establishes between his leads, all the political and personal intrigue involved, the endless sequences of mindless Mahjong, and one incorrigible girl’s coming of age, and labels it lewd and lascivious, two words far removed from Lust, Caution’s motives. Dealing with the Eros up front, Lee is clearly using it as connection and escape, a means of having his ideologically opposite characters sync up and learn the power of sacrifice and the suffering inside the human heart.


It seems strange that a story which starts off within standard espionage paradigms would end up playing out this way. When first we meet the young and naïve Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei, absolutely amazing), she’s a wide eyed youth exploring the world for the first time. Taken in by a group of university radicals, she initially thinks making a stand means giving a good performance in a propaganda play. But when the gang targets Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chi Wai), a Chinese national working with the enemy as part of their police/prison system, she bites off more than she is capable of eschewing. The plan is simple—Jiazhi will pass herself off as a merchant’s wife, befriend Mrs. Yee (a radiant Joan Chen) and allow herself to be seduced by the notoriously adulterous adversary.


Naturally, this initial plan has its flaws, and years later, Jiazhi is recruited again, this time by better organized underground forces. With money behind her mission, and a strange inner desire to complete the cause this time around, our heroine falls into a highly erotic and physically brutal relationship with Yee. In the meanwhile, former student leader and current covert operative Kuang Yu Min waits for the proper moment to strike. His silent longing for Jiazhi is becoming a problem, though. In between, we learn about the day to day life of people under enemy rule, the complex class structures and idleness of ladies who lunch, and the blinding power of ideology, its egotistical draw, and friendless final consequence.


So clearly there is more to Lust, Caution than nudity and philosophical pillow talk. What Lee really wants to explore here is the notion of commitment, of how the fortunes (and fantasies) of many can land squarely on the shoulders of a single, easily swayed young woman. Wang Jiazhi will be our guide through all the subterfuge and strategizing, taking her role in stride while missing most of the big picture—at least, at first. The film is actually set up in two totally insular acts. Part one can best be described as misguided youthfulness exposed. Part two is maturity marred by personal/political obstacles. At the start, it is clear that Jiazhi is seduced by the implied power she carries—sexually as well as covertly. Her entire presence is the precept upon which the assassination’s success rests. Yet when plotted by individuals incapable of such calculated brutality, things turn sloppy and strained. The last scene of the film’s first hour is like a literal rite of passage. Everyone, including our heroine, must survive this surprise trial by fire—or find themselves at the business end of a bullet.


When we catch up with the characters later, life has taken some interesting twists. Jiazhi’s situation is so dire that we initially believe she’s returning to the Resistance to improve her impoverished lot. But then Lee tricks us, making the situation less about money and more about emotion. When they knew each other before, Yee and the pert object of his desire danced around their feelings in an ill-advised game of interpersonal defensiveness. By the time they meet again, desperation has become part of the ruse. Yee needs this young woman to feel alive again, and she is eager for his shelter, his power, and his control. Together, they become psychologically and physically bound, and the necessity of the relationship controls everything that happens. Clearly Lust, Caution will not end happily. Stories like these never do. But Lee leaves enough room in his narrative for lots of interpretation. We can see what happens to these characters as tragic, or we can view it as a necessary part of destiny—especially in the fragile existence of wartime.


There are some minor qualms here and there. Lee is a little too leisurely in getting to his points on several occasions. He is obviously pacing this film to magnify the scope. WWII is in the air constantly, but rarely shown. Period detail is prevalent, but aside from a random comment or two, we recognize that this story could be set in any era. It’s not merely indicative of Japan’s dominance of the Pacific in the 1940s. It could be a tale told within coming Communist rule, modern openness, or ancient feudal law. The key is the concept of oppression and treason tacked onto standard human needs like love and acceptance. Even the supporting characters do their duty as part of some perceived nationalistic need. It is only when they miscalculate and come up short that their efforts are recognized by those truly facing the enemy.


With acting that argues for the pure art of performance (both leads are exceptional) and a luxuriant visual drive, Lee has concocted a masterwork out of catty gossip, naked fury, and misplaced patriotism. While some will feel his previous works better illustrate his gift of cinema, Lust, Caution creates an unmatched statement of cinematic wisdom all its own. Clearly calculated to be both scandalous and soft, aggressive and astute, the director confirms his continued award-winning status. Recognition from his peers has done little to dull Lee’s need to explore and provoke. This slow, simmering drama may be the antithesis of a typical spy thriller, but it’s definitely this director’s aesthetic all the way.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 24, 2007


Okay – so you’ve read the rules to making successful independent horror. You’ve learned the revisionist ropes and no budget parameters. Still, as a legitimate ‘learn by example’ individual, you’d like a few more examples of the digitally driven genre before stepping behind the camcorder lens and exercising your aesthetic. Well, you’re in luck. There is a wealth of worthy motion picture models out there, each one capable of proving that originality, innovation, and cinema art can indeed be forged out of blood, sweat, and poor credit rating tears. While each suggestion does suffer from the inherent limits of absent cash and amateur apprenticeships, they still remain a significant step in that ongoing clash between mainstream moviemaking and a new, more adventurous breed. On the other hand, it will take a great deal for future projection to match these movies’ trendsetting facets. They truly represent the best in handmade cinema. 


Before the bellyaching starts, certain titles already championed by SE&L are being purposefully left off in order to make room for some fresh faces. These otherwise notable novelties include anything by Eric Stanze, Chris Seaver’s sensational Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker and Destruction Kings, Scott Phillips living dead deconstruction The Stink of Flesh, several crackerjack Campbell Brothers films including Demon Summer and The Red Skulls, and Justin Channell’s comic classics Raising the Stakes and Die and Let Live. A quick overview of the 15 months of content available here will reveal that, for the most part, we’ve sung the praises of these films before. No, it’s time to shed some light on those outsider gems that struggle to get recognized among the slew of Sci-Fi Channel level product tossed onto the market in the most haphazard of ways. Therefore, in no particular order, here are 10 titles you’re truly going to love, beginning with a recent jewel:


The Blood Shed


Imagine if David Lynch and Rob Zombie had a baby, gave said malformed infant to John Waters to wet nurse, and allowed Kenneth Anger and the Kuchar Brothers to come over and babysit. With Tobe Hooper and Jack Hill as godparents and Edith Massey as life coach, the results would begin to resemble something similar to the wonderfully weird brain damaged b-movie The Blood Shed. The conceptual offspring of couture auteur Alan Rowe Kelly, this tasty take on the entire Texas Chainmail Family Massacre strikes an intriguing balance between scares, surrealism, and satire. It’s an eager exploitation experiment that’s a joy to behold.


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, you’ll really enjoy yourself. Getting there 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. This is horror hilarity as channeled through a TV eye mentality, issues of Fangoria, and untold reams of fan fiction. Brothers Andy and Luke Campbell pepper their film with unforgettable characters, and great gore set pieces, creating a brilliant bargain basement slasher epic.


Bleak Future


Bleak Future is simultaneously smart and stupid, realistic and retarded, wholly original and a complete and utter rip off. It borrows liberally from such future shock spectacles as the Mad Max movies, A Boy and His Dog, and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, starting out as a solid spoof before becoming a frighteningly inventive take on humanity, horror, and the universal lack of Armageddon coping skills. Offering up a believable premise and a directing style that cribs from the likes of Kubrick and Lucas, Raimi and Tarantino, Brian O’Malley and his mates have made a true kitsch classic, a nerd’s nutzoid splatter fest.


Gory Gory Hallelujah


Sometimes, something so original comes along that it takes you aback for a moment, throwing off your usually sound and set criteria and aesthetic. Though it’s smartly realized narrative kind of falls apart toward the end, and its breakneck pacing means that much of the subtleties get lost in the chaos, Gory Gory Hallelujah is still one exciting, engaging film. Part religious rant (pro and con), part faith-based freak-out, this thoughtful provoking farce casts the keen, clear satirical eye of writer Angie Louise and director Sue Corcoran, to function as both Bible bashing and spiritual re-awakening. It’s a bloody, ballsy good time.



Jerkbeast


For a movie formulated out of a cable access program that’s premise basically consisted of brain dead pre-teens calling up the hosts to try their hand at swearing, Jerkbeast is brilliant. As an example of homemade cinema, with cast and crew working from little more than a dream and an extended credit line, it’s excellent. As a standard motion picture comedy, it’s a little wanting. Not everything works here. Some of the attempts at humor are obvious and lame. Still, as a genre joke starring a guy in an ogre suit and two tame slackers who want to start a band, it’s very endearing and engaging.


Buzz Saw


Serial slaughter…alien invasion…hopelessly inept handymen…you name it, Buzz Saw has found a way to add it into its mixed-up menagerie of the macabre. Imagine the Coen Brothers as the kings of carnage, or Wes Anderson exposing the true secrets behind Area 51 - that’s the visual vibe and narrative tone achieved by directors Robin Garrels and Dave Burnett. Beyond its bizarro world tendencies is a film that fully understands the requirements of a fictional realm. The filmmakers give their movie about murder and extraterrestrial menace untold dimensional details, making it as authentic and inviting as it is arcane and insane.


The Manson Family


Audacious, inspired and overdosing on the scurrilous and the sleazy, Jim VanBebber’s The Manson Family is one of the most remarkable films ever made about Charlie and his criminal clan. Its flaws are as obvious as the gore that flows from the victims’ bodies, and the moments of genuine revulsion are equally effusive. In his attempt to recreate the defining moment of the 1960s, VanBebber has struck upon a uniquely individualistic ideal. Instead of making that mad monk messiah the center of his story, the filmmaker strives to capture the essence of the Manson movement as filtered through a ‘70s exploitation recreationist’s approach. He manages magnificently.



Inbred Redneck Alien Abduction


The plotline couldn’t be more promising - invaders from outer space target a group of hopelessly hick hillbillies for their icky “experiments” and the government comes calling. Thankfully, writer/director Patrick Vos and his co-writer Adam Hackbarth do more than just flesh out this funny business. They create a comedy so novel and unusual that recent Hollywood horse-hockey just pales in comparison. Aside from the fact that bumpkins are basically humor gold, these devilishly deranged filmmakers find ways to give FBI agents and egregious E.T.s their own sense of silliness and savvy. The result is a misguided masterwork, an outsider opus you’ll revisit again and again.


Scarlet Moon


Dripping with ambition, dense with ideas and attempting the epic while maintaining the idiosyncratic, this attempt at a new modern mythology works, most of the time. Warren F. Disbrow is like a directorial encyclopedia of horror. We see sci-fi and fantasy elements merging with macabre to become a definitive statement of one man’s love for the scary and speculative. There are obvious nods to ‘60s drive in classics, ‘70s shockers, ‘80s teen slasher romps, the ‘90s kind of ironic eeriness – even a couple of non-horror classics get passed through the dissecting device. The final product is a mishmash of comedy and corpses, devil worship and dumbness.


Killer Nerd/Bride of the Killer Nerd


This is a certifiable classic, a perfectly executed premise of such outrageous originality that it’s amazing no one had thought of doing it before. After all, geeks are the original pecking-order punching bags, the bottom-of-the-esteem-food-chain freaks. What better way to celebrate an AV club member’s memories of how hellish high school really was than to turn a card-carrying corporal in the slide rule sect into a blood-and-guts slasher of the popular people? Bride does its predecessor one better. It takes the terror back to the hallways of senior year where it belongs, and makes the bullies of youth pay for all their verbal abuse.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.