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Monday, Oct 29, 2007


By its very nature, the short film has a hard time lending itself to horror. While the simple shock, the gross out gag, and the briefest of interludes between the supernatural and cinema can all find a home within the truncated format, creating macabre in such a tight logistical span seems almost impossible. Dread relies on mood, atmosphere, premise, follow through and other nebulous elements to be effective, and getting all that across in seven to twenty minutes is tricky at best. Those who’ve managed such cinematic slight of hand deserve praise for cracking one of the artform’s most complicated puzzles, said success translating into an equally deserving example of the medium.


In 2003, Other Cinema, an independent DVD distributor, collected several fine examples of these horrific mini-movies, including corrupt classics by such insane savants as Damon Packard and J. X. Williams, and released them in compilation form. Experiments in Terror proved that, though minimal in running time, the short film could be massive on imagination and meaning. Four years later, the company is back with Experiments in Terror 2. Expanding the selections while bringing back frightmare favorites (Packard and Williams both have new offerings), the expanded technological options provided by the digital revolution argue for a renewed viability. But there are specific pieces picked from four decades before that illustrate the necessity for artistry first, artifice second.


Viewed in one huge 95 minute hunk, or screened separately, this is avant-garde fear at its most mesmerizing. For anyone sick and tired of sloppy slice and dice or visually muted ghost stories, these optical wonders, bursting with retrospective revisionism and meticulous montages, creates a compelling overview of what people find frightening. There are very few examples of standard narrative story structure here. In face, aside from Angel Nieves 2001 effort The Fear and Bill Morrison’s borrowed plotline from the 1927 film The Bells (for his 2003 work The Mesmerist), everything else here is handled in an evocative, suggestive manner. The aforementioned shorts are sensational, Fear playing like a perfectly formed summary of late ‘70s/early ‘80s moviemaking. Morrison’s found footage, combining decay and remastering to offer up a disturbing sense of psychological parallelism, is a wonder to behold.

Thematically, there is a constant sense of backwards glancing here, a look at how dread past remains resonant in contemporary terror. Between 2 Deaths (2006) offers an intriguing look at San Francisco locations used by Alfred Hitchcock for his masterwork Vertigo. Director Wago Krieder does his best to line up shots exactly as the Master of Suspense did, and his morphing back and forth between the modern material and the Jim Stewart/Kim Novack gem stands as a stunning archival stunt. Similarly, Amor Peligrosa takes the age old symbol of death – the skeleton – and turns it on its frisky, fornicating head. Michelle Silva’s silly sexual congress remains compelling, if only because it seems so metaphysically apropos.


But it’s the actual works from the 1960s that help us understand the post-modern movement in Experiments. Opus 5 (1961) is a celluloid collage, a collection of unsettling images – fire, lights, religious iconography – that suggests a primer from hence all horror has originated. Lloyd Williams’ skilled juxtapositions give the presentation a creepy, unearthly aura. Similarly J. X. Williams’ Psych-Burn (1968) is the love generation unhinged, a compelling cock-up between go-go dancers and gory backdrops that even finds a way to turn the psychedelic acid rock of the era on its head. As the imagery bombards us with its death and debauchery subtext, the music is mindlessly interrupted, classic fear beats and shrieks inserted to remind us of the yin yang nature of man.


Oddly enough, when modern filmmakers attempt the same thing, the results can be less than impressive. Usama Alshaibi’s equally scattered Hold My Scissors tries for the Hellspawn head trip, and yet can’t quite pull off the impressionistic hat trick. It comes off as minor Shakespearean – full of sound and fury, and signifying very little. Similarly, Clifton Childree and Nikki Rollason’s She Sank on Shallow Bank wants to recall the early shorts of David Lynch (an auteur who truly understood the format) with their monochrome meandering. But for every provocative moment – a woman suggestively drowning on a sound stage seashore set – we get ghostly shoes shuffling around a boat. If there is sense to be made of such accidental imagery, it gets lost here.


The remaining masterpieces more than make up for any cinematic slack, however. Damon Packard, one of the undeniable masters of retro-revivalism, has utilized his entire catalog of Me Decade macabre to manufacture the dead-on dementia of The Early ‘70s Horror Trailer. A nine minute amalgamation of various damsels in all manner of ABC Movie of the Week distress, we keep waiting for Burt Bacharach’s “Nikki” to start up in the background. Luckily, Packard is one step ahead of us. He utilizes underscoring from such diverse sources as Escape from the Planet of the Apes and peppers the entire project with as many Super-8 stunts (prism lens, double exposure, slo-mo) as possible. Some may see it as nothing more than a massive gimmick given over to self indulgence. But when viewed through the eyes of someone who lived through the era, it’s absolute genius.


So is the aforementioned Fear. How a modern filmmaker like Angel Nieves managed to accurately recreate the look, feel, performances, and overall dread dynamic of an early ‘80s exploitation schlocker in 2001 is unnerving. From the sets to the storyline, you never once guess this is a post-millennial production. Instead, its old school scare tactics that feel fresh and innovative, carefully controlled pacing providing the right amount of suspense. It’s a very disturbing experience, one that leads to an instant reflection on the films it faithfully mimics. With The Mesmerist, the effect is different, but equally devastating. While The Bells is often dismissed as a well acted, half-formed morality play, director Morrison digs the meat out of it, using the original, racially insensitive title cards, to offer a comment on stereotypes and human sin. While it’s great to see Lionel Barrymore and a young Boris Karloff in full genre mode, it’s the underlying message about intolerance and redemption that’s far more effective.


As an added treat, Other Cinema includes a pair of compelling bonus features. The first is an interactive ‘Closet of Horrors’. By using your remote and clicking on the illuminated doorway, you are transported to one of a random collection of trailers, clips, and fright themed commercials. It’s an unfathomable delight. By contrast, the rant-oriented Warhol Beyond the Grave (from a longer piece known as Pleromadromadhetu) finds the long dead pop art phenom rising from the tomb to take on his legacy, as an anti-Andy screed plays in the background. It’s a weirdly compelling combination, both a declaration and denouncement of the 20th Century’s leading limelighter.


An appearance by the man - or the image of same – who once declared the disposability of fame is an excellent end note to this compelling collection. With its devotion to former frighteners, Experiments in Terror 2 appears to suggest that post-modern fear is too throwaway to warrant commemoration. For many in the creative community, the siren song of what came before is far more compelling than the simulated superficiality of current CGI creepshows. While these may be mere trials in the lexicon of fear, they are far more fully formed than much of today’s takes. As curator and compiler of this remarkable overview, Other Cinema deserves a lot of credit. While they won’t satisfy everyone, these short film scares deserve their moment in the sun. Experiments in Terror 2 gives it to them, and we couldn’t be happier.


 


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Saturday, Oct 27, 2007


Ask any writer and they will tell you – titles are perhaps the most difficult part of the literary process. A great moniker can really accent the themes and subtext of what you’ve created, while a bad one belittles everything you’ve tried to accomplish. It’s the same in cinema. A great marquee tag like A Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can completely enliven an audience’s interest, while full blown fumbles like Strip Nude for Your Killer evoke nothing but guffaws.  Cannibal Man is a perfect example of the mishandled name dynamic. Upon first glance, one would expect a standard bloodbath, main character lunching on human flesh as part of a pathological pastime. In truth, this is a subtle, slightly unhinged character study focusing on a lonely individual who uses murder, and the subsequent disposal of his victims, as a way of dealing with his disenfranchised lot in life.


You see, by day, Marcos is a butcher at the local slaughterhouse. The random killing of animals and the making of the company’s signature soup (in a large mechanical extruding device) doesn’t bother him. But living in a hovel in the shadow of some luxury apartments drives him crazy. He hates being poor, seeing it as the reason he can’t get ahead in life. It also keeps his possible paramour – Carmen – at arm length. When an argument with a taxi driver turns fatal, the resulting death has Marcos starting to slowly unravel. Before long, he is killing his friends and family and hiding the bodies in his bedroom. Then, late at night, he cuts up the corpses and transports pieces to his job. There, they find their way into the offal that makes up the patented processed broths. As he further loses his grip on reality, a fey neighbor named Nestor befriends Marcos. Together, they enjoy late night swims and intimate company. But our murderer is incredibly paranoid, and with his new pal’s apartment overlooking his home, there may be more to the companionship than mere camaraderie.


A couple of decades ahead of its time, and so era inappropriate that it threatens to logistically implode, Cannibal Man is not the movie you think it is. It has more in common with foreign fright epics like Nekromantik and Dellamorte Dellamore than your typical early ‘70s horror. Like most of the movies coming out of Franco’s Spain, this is an anti-fascist screed masquerading as macabre. The main theme of the movie is not flesh feasting. In fact, the cannibalism is implied and never actually shown. Instead, what director Eloy de la Iglesia wants to focus on is the rising gulf between the classes. On the one hand, you have Marcos. Living in a rundown hacienda and existing hand to mouth, he’s barely managing. While he puts on a good façade, poverty is destroying him from the inside. It makes him angry and defensive. On the other end of the spectrum is Nestor. The spoiled son of wealthy parents, he spends the summer spying on the locals from his luxury apartment balcony. There is more to his voyeurism than mere curiosity. As a repressed homosexual who can’t express his feelings, he uses his position as a means of endearing himself to men.


That their conflict and collusion comes late in the film highlights Cannibal Man’s multifaceted approach. At the beginning, we get actual animal slaughter (never a good thing), the bled cows symbolizing Spain’s gutting of its people. The argument that leads Marcos to his first murder is based solely in morality, the cabbie unwilling to let our hero and his honey make out in the back of his hack. In fact, all the crimes here are based in inherent social unease. Carmen can’t be with Marcos because of her father’s overbearing paternalism, while his brother’s lack of familial cooperation leads to his demise. Eventually, our antsy antihero stops killing, and it’s at this point where Cannibal Man goes a bit wonky. There are some incredibly evocative moments, as when we see the silhouette of our lead butchering his victims. But there are also sequences of forced lunacy, as when a rotund, effeminate drug store owner coos and minces over Marcos’ purchase of air freshener and perfume.


In fact, it’s fairly obvious that de la Iglesia was far more interested in the suppression of same sex sentiments than playing with fear. Before he befriends Marcos, Nestor is shown staring, longingly, at shirtless boys playing soccer. When he speaks, it’s in a soft whisper that seems to imply something sinister, or sad. Whenever he runs into his neighbor, the tension is so thick it practically stifles them both, and a late night swim at a local spa is all wet torsos and longing looks. As if to amplify this undercurrent, Marcos has several quiet moments where he flashes back to his night with Nestor. When the two get together at the end, playing possum while avoiding the obvious attraction, it’s meant as a instance of solidarity. For 1972 Spain, this was all subversion as high treason. Perhaps the random murders were necessary to remove the stigma of social commentary from the film. After all, had Cannibal Man been categorized as something other than scary, the government would have stepped in and shut it down.


Yet because of the title, and the concept of human flesh eating, many will come to this film expecting nonstop hack and slash. And while we get a gruesome collection of kills (including a nasty axe to the face that predates such F/X prosthetics by at least a decade) and a Sweeney Todd style manner of disposal, there is very little dread in Cannibal Man. Instead, it is more of a psychological study with political subtexts than a full blown fright flick. De la Iglesia really pours on the proposed suspense, constantly hinting that Marcos will eventually be found out. But some of his stunts are far too obvious. Dogs are seen sniffing around his front door, and coworkers play a game of ‘keep away’ with a gym bag loaded with body parts. Much better are the times when local barmaid Rosa constantly thrusts herself into Marcos’ life. All she wants is physical companionship. But we know loverboy’s bombshell secret, so their sexual back and forth really gets the anxiety flowing. While the last act ennui faced by our lead can feel overwhelming, dragging everything down with it, this is still a very inventive and intriguing film.


Like Delicatessen without Caro and Jeunet’s flair for the visual, or Tobe Hooper taken Continental, there is much more to Cannibal Man than death, dismemberment, and digestion. As a matter of fact, once you realize that this isn’t going to be your typical fright flick, the political and cultural agendas become painfully obvious. This makes Eloy de la Iglesia a very interesting filmmaker, one not afraid to mix genre, metaphors, and meaning to get to the heart of his obsessions. Those looking for a grue-laden, lunch loosening exercise in nausea will be sadly disappointed. Others who don’t mind a little message with their menace will find Cannibal Man a refreshing forgotten gem. It’s very good, in a very odd and insular way. It’s just too bad about that title, though.


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Saturday, Oct 27, 2007


When DVD began delivering exiled entertainment from the vaults of heretofore uninterested distributors, several forgotten names in the annals of exploitation prospered. Such noted grindhousers as Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, Andy Milligan, Radley Metzger and Joe Sarno saw their names go from footnotes to forefathers, especially in the minds of the uninitiated and the aesthetically open minded. Yet no name has become more shockingly celebrated than Jesus “Jess” Franco. The mad monk of the foreign quickie has a creative canon that’s as large – and as loopy - as the list of pseudonyms he’s used over the years. And now thanks to the new digital medium, he’s being distinguished as a groundbreaker. Sadly, he’s nothing but a soul stealer, if wretched works like Cannibals is any indication of his overall output.


Our silly story begins when Jeremy Taylor travels to the Amazon on a vague expedition. One night, his boat is seized by local cannibals. They kill the captain, eat Taylor’s wife, and kidnap his young daughter. Barely making it out alive (they cut off his arm as a souvenir), Taylor returns to New York and rapidly ages. About ten years go by, and our hero is still hankering for his offspring. He contacts a rich witch and her old man boyfriend, hoping she will fund a return trip. Through factual flip flops too pointless to mention, an entire party of possible entrees heads out into the bush. There, they discover that little Lana has grown up to become the White Goddess, topless Queen of the legendary long pig lovers. She’s also in love with the equally Caucasian chief’s son (no explanation for his WASPishness). A few people die. Some organs are consumed. Dad kicks his daughter’s boyfriend’s butt. Former human eating gal goes back to civilization where she belongs. The end.


So repetitive it feels like a rap hook and lacking anything remotely resembling the greatness of goona-goona movies past, Cannibals (original title: Mondo Cannibale) is Franco’s unflattering response to such brilliant jungle atrocities as Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox. As part of the new DVD release from Blue Underground, the director admits that this entire enterprise is nothing more than a reaction to the “repugnant” kind of taboo-busting title that made the subgenre famous. But instead of delivering something novel, Franco just farts around. Substituting cultural shortcuts and pasty faced hippies for actual native flesh fiends, and the standard softcore paradigm that has come to cloud all his films, this is skin snacking for dullards. We are never once scared by the boring travelogue feel of the film, and once mouths start munching on people, it’s all slow motion sickness and fake red rummaging.


The story also makes no sense. When we first meet Taylor (essayed by Italian horror staple Al Cliver) he goes on a long jag about how dangerous this part of the world is. He warns of marauding bands of baddies, and their proclivity towards people pâté. Within seconds, his shrewish wife shows up, and our hero explains her presence this way – “she wouldn’t take ‘NO’ for an answer”. Hey buddy – next time try using the facts of ancient headhunter practices on the little lady. Maybe that will dissuade her from using the South American jungles as a family outing. Then, after the Missus is munched on and Lana is lost, it takes Taylor several years before he can get funding to make a return expedition. Apparently, back in the early ‘80s, little girls grabbed by local tribesmen didn’t warrant a rescue mission. Even when he’s begging for help, rich folks scoff at him for such parental overreacting. Right.


When we move into the humid tropical rain forest setting, Franco’s failings as a filmmaker become even more apparent. We get endless scenes of hiking, monotonous dialogue involving “man, is it hot” declarations, and the single whiniest woman to ever trudge through the underbrush. She gives spoiled rotten divas a permanent black eye. Luckily, she doesn’t last long, and this allows Franco to revisit the same cannibalism footage he provided the first few times. While fairly gory, there is no menace to this mastication. The clown-faced fiends eat. People scream, then they die. Ta-da! It results in the kind of mindless moviemaking that makes the rest of the narrative pointless. We don’t care who lives or who dies. We aren’t interesting if Taylor saves his daughter. The last act fisticuffs are laughable, and the lack of anything remotely interesting renders any entertainment value inert. Sadly, it’s a similar sentiment that one can express about any Franco film.


Indeed, the man’s biggest crime is how horribly hackneyed everything he attempts turns out. Instead of hiring extras who resemble South American inhabitants, he finds a bunch of Woodstock rejects, smears on the grease paints, and let’s them boogie like Canned Heat has taken the main stage. When our natives break out the weaponry and start attacking, the arsenal appears forged out of random sticks and tree bark (bent shapes and ancillary twigs left intact), and while our heroes carry guns, they can’t be bothered to actually fire them. Franco is so disturbingly cheap that he can’t even come up with realistic local color. He believes, quite incorrectly, that filming in areas with lots of trees, and tossing in occasional shots of monkeys and alligators will render his backdrop believable. All it does is make us wonder why we never see these wildlife elements at any other time in the film – even when a character dies in a (supposedly) reptile infested swamp.


While diehard Franco-philes probably have a creative response to every one of the flaws mentioned before, only the certifiably insane would find Cannibals recommendable. Clearly the Big Blue U didn’t think it worthy of a full blown special edition. Aside from the director defending himself, the only other bonus feature is a goofy French trailer (stuff ported over from when Anchor Bay owned the rights). It’s not any more mindnumbing than the movie proper. DVD can be commended for a lot of things. But if there is one byproduct that they’re required to take to their eventual format change grave, it’s resurrecting the career of this cinematic incompetent. Jess Franco is, perhaps the worst moviemaking of all time. Uwe Boll and Ed Wood can rest now.


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Saturday, Oct 27, 2007


While it’s unfair to over-generalize them so, the Italians were once the kings of copycat genre films. From the Exorcist inspired Beyond the Door to the Zombi 2/Zombie/Dawn of the Dead entanglement, the routine ripping off of Hollywood horror was, at one time, the foreign fright flick’s sole reputation. Thankfully, home video came along and opened up the doors of motion picture perception. Soon, for every example of blatant bootlegging, we got dozens of delirious, original efforts. This doesn’t mean that the tendency toward mimicry totally left the industry. In fact, filmmakers like Lucio Fulci still traded on previously delivered dread to make their movies. A perfect example of this is 1987’s Ænigma. Nothing more than a 90 minute combination of better scare subject matter, there is still no denying this perplexing paisan’s way with a camera. As an artist, Fulci is admirable. As a macabre maestro, he’s downright aggravating.


Poor unattractive Kathy – she’s the butt of every cruel joke at the exclusive St. Mary’s College. When the in-crowd gets together and hooks her up with the resident lothario – muscled gym teacher Fred – it seems like the answer to her prayers. Of course, the whole date is nothing but a cruel joke, and the resulting embarrassment sends Kathy into a hasty retreat…and her personal collision with an oncoming car bumper. One coma later, and the school is back to snickering over the stunt. As she lies dying, Kathy prays to live on, and sure enough, her ‘spirit’ possesses the college’s new girl, a sly slut named Eva. The offspring of wealth and snobbery, the newbie is out to have any hunk she can manhandle. Yet, all of a sudden, wherever Eva goes, death follows. Students and faculty systematically suffer fatal accidents or previously unknown terminal physical conditions. Of course, it’s just Kathy, with the help of her slow-witted yet sinister mother. They’re getting revenge for the child’s persistent vegetative state. A middle aged sleazebag neurologist may be the only one able to stop the slaughter – that is, when he’s not scoping on the student body.


If you took the concept of Carrie, married it to the circumstances of Patrick, ladled in copious amounts of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and seasoned it all with a generous helping of fake Euro-trashing of iconic American locales (in this case, a badly rendered Boston), you’d have Ænigma in a nutty, infectious shell. Burdened by many of the subpar cinematic facets (lame scripts, bad cinematography, budgetary restraints) that came to exemplify his last years as a director, this plagiaristic potboiler is comatose nerd revenge at its most arcane. The aforementioned list of narrative references is really unfair to what Fulci creates here. While it’s true that he borrows liberally from the premises that preceded this descent into girl’s school schlock, his unique take on the material, filled with inappropriate doctor/patient canoodling, a green ghoul zombified heroine, and ultra-sloppy dubbing, remains an intriguing failure. We hope the man notorious for pushing lumber through ladies’ eyes, drilling holes through heads, and having the undead routinely show up in places they’re not welcome will continue his exploratory entertainment surgery. What we wind up with instead is peer pressure as paranormal surreality.


Let’s face it – you have to love a movie that has a character named Crazy Retard Mary as a major plot point. As the brain-addled maid for the snooty St. Mary’s College in Sicily…sorry, Massachusetts, this disheveled woman is picked on, scandalized, and metaphysically brow beaten. Seems anything that goes wrong in the institution – rooms are messy, grades are low, random undergrads are turning up dead – Crazy Retard Mary is to blame. It’s not grand enough that she is constantly referred to in such a non-PC manner, the prissy witches walking around campus treat her torment as a birthright. Fulci really does go overboard with the ‘cash equals cruelty’ routine (no matter how true it may be). From the opening prank that sets up the story to the last act showdown between our psycho student and her former roommate, Ænigma can best be described as trust fund tramps gone gonzo. Unlike fellow Mediterranean filmmaker Argento, who used the privileged skirts at his upper crust dance academy as mere murder fodder, Fulci clearly identifies with gender equity bullying.


Those looking for the director’s standard blood bathing will be highly disappointed, however. Aside from a headless torso that apparently turns up in every room in the dorm, and a cartoonish scar worn by the unconscious Cathy, the rest of the film is unfathomably clotless. In its place are deaths so deranged that only a master of mass murder could consider them clever. A beefy gym teacher is strangled by his mirror reflection while another student is smothered by…snails. That’s right, slimy, slow moving snails (and, naturally, our victim fails to struggle throughout the entire escargot ordeal). In other instances, a baroque painting comes to life before a marble statue slams a gal, while another takes a swan dive out of her third story dorm room window. Perhaps the best bit of supposedly scary nonsense has our possessed babe Eva beating her roommate with a yellow jacket. After trashing her closet, she grabs the coat and starts flailing. It’s like a male fantasy pillow fight without the jiggle jollies. Between this slicker slasher sequence, and the hilariously bad miniature work used to show Kathy’s spirit “floating” above her school, Ænigma is a glorious goof. 


Perhaps the most perplexing element of this film is its last act decision to drop the paranormal and go with perversion. American actor Jared Martin, who was 44 when the movie was made, is seen making out and fornicating with gals over half his age (this is college, so we’re dealing with 18 to 22 year olds here). There is a weird vibe of inappropriateness generated throughout his scenes. Even the movie references it a couple of times, which is oddly self-referential for a story selling sex and violence. Granted, his costars aren’t exactly jailbait in the looks department, but the notion of much older men manipulating younger women does come across as incredibly sleazy. Without the typical grue, minus the man’s ocular fixation and way with supernatural showboating, Ænigma feels like second tier Fulci. It is indeed indicative of much of the man’s latter career. Unlike other filmmakers of his ilk who seemed capable of generating nothing but novelty throughout their life, the patron of pus was a journeyman first, an auteur a decided second. Ænigma is actually pretty effective in a few instances. Sadly, it’s completely laughable most of the time.


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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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