In the world of completely independent filmmaking, there are only four legitimate auteurs. For those unaware of the noted French theory, André Bazin, co-founder of the Cahiers du cinema is often credited with establishing a clear criterion for such consideration. The influential writer argued that all film should reflect a director's personal vision, and in turn, should always be indicative of his or her own individual and recognizable style or approach. Examples in the mainstream are easily identifiable - Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, The Coen Brothers. But when it comes to those working way outside the frameworks of the typical Tinsel Town terrain, there's only a quartet of qualified candidates.
Brothers Luke and Andy Campbell are among that noted number. They sit on the revisionist Mount Rushmore along with the nostalgic non-sequitors of Damon Packard, the trailer trash triumphs of Giuseppe Andrews, and the '80s high conceptualization of Chris Seaver. Located in Ohio, and versed in the kind of videotape varieties that educated an entire generation of film geeks, the boys have carved out a creative canon meshing the gore fests of their formative years with the broader aspects of genre devotion. From sports to seasonal wistfulness, insular universes and old school exploitation, the Campbells have managed to make the most of limited budgets, incomplete capabilities, and unbridled narrative invention.
With a review of their latest, Corboda Nights, in preparation for tomorrow's blog post, SE&L has decided to look back on the previous five films made by these Midwestern mavericks. The first three efforts represent the standard growing pains - the uneasy balance between copycatting and creativity. Don't be mistaken - inside this talented triptych are a series of sunny surprises. But when they offered up their street gang revenge zombie flick The Red Skulls in 2005, the Campbells announced themselves as full blown filmmakers, legitimized by a far more focused contrast between homage and originality. With Poison Sweethearts and now Cordoba, the duo delivers the kind of cinematic specificity that argues for both their reverence and redefinition of the artform.
Let's begin our overview with the freak-out film that started it all:
For their first film, the Campbells collected a group of their friends, grabbed the singlets, and went gonzo for a surreal backyard wrestling experience. From Mullet Man and Philbert (a grappler who carries around a wooden rabbit named…Philbert) to the mighty Skulls, this collection of satiric superstars clearly illustrates the brothers' strongest cinematic attribute - imagination. Presented as an overview of the fictional World 'Rastling Coalition's famous feuds and most charismatic gladiators, host Sam the Dirty Bum gives us an agonizing blow-by-d'oh round up of the best falls, the fiercest rivalries, and the nastiest injuries ever to come out of a bunch of drop-outs drop kicking each other. It's dumb, deliberate, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Midnight Skater is a classic example of a "look beyond" film. If you can "look beyond" the amateur antics, unprofessional production values and overall neophyte nonsense exploding all around you and simply merge with this movie's mindset, you'll really enjoy yourself. Unfortunately, getting in the same Spock state of brain with the insane and inventive no-budget filmmakers here may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes and about a hundred trips to the video store (or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film). Sometimes, the brothers reach beyond the scope of their ability and come back with a hand full of failure. But more times than not, they create a unusual and unique motion picture experience, one that hints at being a believable, if bargain basement slice of slasher while always showing how the tongue is planted firmly in ass cheek.
In this follow-up production, a Slacker meets slasher, Dazed and Confused with Evil Dead-like demonology, the portrait of small town America is far more polished and professional. Indeed, while Skater was a celebration of the barf bag variety Summer strives to capture that lost and lonely feeling of being stuck in a one-horse hovel in the deadly dull middle of America's heartland, with nothing better to do on a warm weekend evening but cruise the strip mall parking lot and drink Near Beer. Yes, there is bloodletting and body carving in this well-crafted, crackerjack thriller, but unlike most of their independent brethren, the Campbells hope to flesh out both divergent elements of their title with strong narratives that satisfy both as cinema and as entertainment. And for the most part, they succeed.
You see it from the first few frames – something has definitely changed about the way Luke and Andy Campbell make movies. It used to be that they gathered up a group of their friends, fashioned a storyline out of horror movie odds and ends, then festoon it all with a gallon or ten of grue, pop on the ska-punk soundtrack. That the result was usually something quite special, an intriguing glimpse into what engages the mind of some Ohio cinematic wannabes, was the icing on the camcorder cake. But here things feel special. There is a concentration on the fringe elements of filmmaking, items like set design, costuming, character clarity and actual performances. With The Red Skulls, the boys have fashioned their first real attempt at a conventional motion picture. Even with all its ingratiating genre elements, and its last act lurch into some over the top fight clubbing, this film represents real, measurable growth from the duo.
With its exploitation derived framework and silly chauvinistic sheen, Poison Sweethearts truly marks the moment when Andy and Luke completely shed their homemade horror mantle and become real directors. This is not to say that their previous efforts represent lesser behind the lens mannerisms. But the truth is that movie macabre has a certain set of specs - cinematic formulas and prerequisites that keep vision hemmed in and innovation stifled. But with Sweethearts, the boys branch out into good old fashioned grindhouse territory, and inside such a conceit they find a wonderfully wicked, homage heavy masterpiece. Not every vignette works perfectly, and before we know it, the faux flesh peddler fun is over and done. But while it lasts, the boys deliver enough recognizable references to the forgotten genre that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino should be ashamed.