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Fear and Laughing in Tromaville: ‘Pep Squad’ and ‘A Nocturne’

At this point in their respective runs, the “high school as Hell” genre and the “morose vampire” film are bordering on self-parody. One could easily argue that they’ve long since crossed over into spoof, unable to sustain themselves outside an ironic, tongue-in-cheek take on the material. Others will always cotton to their possibilities. Therefore, finding anything new to say about either entry (or the Romantic Comedy, or the zombie epic, for that matter) is a tough creative assignment. Such a Herculean task would require a sense of style – as well as one of humor – and a desire to trade on stereotypes as well as a willingness to reinvent a few of the aging archetypes along the way. Of course, if you can’t do it in an inventive or artistic way, why bother.

Leave it to Troma, the premier company championing true independent film, to find a relevant example of each in its treasure trove of distribution titles. Often accused of being a hit or miss opportunist, head honcho Lloyd Kaufman has done more to keep the spirit of outsider innovation alive than any dozen pretenders to the throne. In the last couple of months, they have release Pep Squad, a Heathers riff that takes the notion of competitive cliques and “the popular crowd” to darkly comic (and often deadly) ends. Even though the film is more than a decade old, it feels fresh and new. Then there is A Nocturne: Night of the Vampire. An excellent example of underground Australian chutzpah, this enigmatic undead romance is both troubling in its subject matter and ambiguous in its interpretation.

Together, both movies strive to reinvent the category that spawned several hundred similarly styled pseudo-semi-successful entries. In the case of Pep Squad, you’ll be laughing as much as wincing. With A Nocturne, you’ll be drawn into the weird, wired world of the vampire protagonists and marvel at how so much meaning can be derived from so little narrative drive. As usual, Troma tricks out the DVDs with plentiful added content, giving filmmakers and those familiar with the efforts a chance to speak for themselves. But it will be fans who feel most satisfied by these otherwise unknown quantities. As is typical with discovering something novel and unconventional, the initial thrill is always matched by the lingering effect.

PEP SQUAD

Plot: When the supposedly popular high school gal Cherry fails to get a nomination for prom queen, she decides to take matters into her own, soon to be blood-spattered hands. As she leaves a trail of dead contestants in her path, she must deal with Beth and her buddies Julie and Scott. The trio has kidnapped and accidentally killed the principal, and aside from putting off the blackmail advances of fellow nominee Terra, they have to contend with one discontent, deadly rival.

You’ve got to love what filmmaker Steve Balderson tries to accomplish here. Taking two unusual adolescent fantasies – the destruction of authority and the countermanding of the competition – and tying them together into one refreshing farce, he creates something that’s both familiar and wholly his own. It’s hard to say if Pep Squad is as clever as it thinks it is. Sometimes, the divided narrative threads compete with each other for prominence and Balderson could have done a better job of combining the ideas into a single, coherent vision. We love the revenge-oriented aspect of Cherry’s choices and sympathize with Beth and her particular plight. But there seems to be an element missing, something that would effortlessly merge both tales into something terrific. Instead, we have a consistently watchable movie that often feels like its fighting against itself for the audience’s attention.

Still, you do have to hand it to Balderson. With his limited budget, middle of nowhere location, and above-average cast, he crafts something imminently watchable and a whole lot of fun. The positives clearly outweigh the minor negatives, including terrific performances, a splash or two of directorial flare, and just enough crazed cartoon violence to keep the horror buff happy. Balderson does show a deft hand at delivering both bellylaughs and bile. Even better, he “gets” his intended target, filling his movie with the kind of knowing details that allow those in the know to shake their heads in identifiable disbelief. If you’re looking for something that is solidly entertaining, if often at odds with itself, Pep Squad will satisfy your cravings nicely. It may not be perfect, but what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in purpose.

A NOCTURNE: NIGHT OF THE VAMPIRE

Plot: X and Y are two lonely neckbiters living in an empty warehouse in the heart of the city. They spend their time tracking down prey, converting the occasional victim, and lamenting this life of “Hell”. They also help a crazy cannibal reconnect with his dead lover while looking for a way out of their misery. An unexpected event from a surprisingly non-supernatural source will test their feelings as well as their continuing desire to be part of such a dismal, dark existence.

Don’t go into A Nocturne looking for clear cut answers and easy explanations. This is a movie that requires as much work from the viewer as it does the cast and crew. If you want characters who explain themselves clearly, who highlight every event with a forced bit of follow-up exposition, you need to focus your fear factors elsewhere. This is a film that’s more unsettling than scary, creating an atmosphere of desperation and dread that is so palpable it washes over you like a wave. We don’t learn much about X and Y, get far too much information from the rambling, almost incoherent flesh eater, and often wonder what the Asian family and its confused teen daughter have to do with the proceedings. But co-writer/director Bill Mousoulis is not interested in defining his terms. Instead, he is out to forge an unforgettable mood, and he does so magnificently.

Utilizing the back streets and alleys of his urban Australian setting, he invents another world, a place where paranormal predators view the population prey with a combination of sadness and disgust. He paints with images more than words, sometimes working entire sequences without a single line of dialogue. For the most part, A Nocturne is a work of inference. We can see how disgruntled our vampires are, especially when matched against those who’ve newly “turned” and there is a last act stand-off with an old master that seems to suggest high aspirations gone astray. But Mousoulis keeps injecting oddball elements like the cannibal and the long-haired mystery woman into the mix. Before long, we give up on logic and simply go with the finessed filmmaking flow. Luckily, this gorgeous, evocative effort leave us more spellbound than disastified. While not typical by any standard, A Nocturne is a cut above the otherwise tepid Twilight take on the material.

RATING 7 / 10
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