Blood Punch (2014) DVD Review

rsz_bloodpunchBlood Punch (2014)
Starring: Milo Cawthorne, Olivia Tennet and Ari Boyland
Writer: Eddie Guzelian
Director: Madellaine Paxson

Out in the UK on Jan 16th – Blood Punch will be available for purchase from ASDA, HMV, Fopp, Amazon, The Hunt and Base. And available for streaming from iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Vubiquity, TalkTalk and Vimeo on Demand.

A young man is lured into a dangerous love triangle that begins to take a series of shocking and grisly supernatural turns.

Milton (Milo Cawthorne, Deathgasm, Mega Time Squad, ASH vs Evil Dead and When We Go to War) wakes up on Tuesday morning. He wakes to the annoying sound of wind chimes and the urgent need to puke. We can see he’s been sleeping on the couch at a hunting cabin. The walls are littered with brutal reminders of murder and mutilation (such as axes, crossbows, mantraps and mounted hunting trophies). And, once Milton has looked up from the toilet bowl he’s been worshipping, he finds himself staring at a tablet that bears a note saying ‘PLAY ME’.

The intrigue deepens when Milton presses play and finds the tablet contains footage of himself, explaining how the current situation has come about. His surprise at seeing himself on the screen is not because he was wasted the previous night, or because he’s endured some memory-eradicating substance. The reason turns out to be far more ingenious.

rsz_bp1The content of the tablet leads to a little bit of backstory and a proper introduction to the story’s hero.

Milton had been incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre. He’d been there because he was a chemistry student and he’d been caught using his knowledge of chemicals to cook crystal meth. Whilst appearing to repent for his sins, and maybe take a step toward atonement, he encounters a shed load of trouble in the shape of Skyler (Olivia Tennet, Lord of the Rings, Boogeyman and Shortland Street).

Skyler is a forthright character and conducts herself with a ruthless determination that is irresistible. She is looking for a meth cook and she uses her feminine wiles to tempt Milton to fill her vacancy. After showing him that crystal meth has a positive effect on her libido, it doesn’t take long before Skyler’s convinced Milton to join her. She’s even arranged to have her psychotic boyfriend Russell (Ari Boyland, The Tribe, Shortland Street, Power Rangers R.P.M.) organize a jail break. And, for Milton, this is where the troubles really begin.

As a story, Blood Punch has traces of Breaking Bad, Cabin in the Woods and Groundhog Day in its structure – but it is so much more than merely a homage to existing works. One of the clever things about this film is the way everything is made to look so effortless. The story, in less capable hands, could have been confusing and nonsensical. Instead, it’s compelling, quirky and intriguing. The characters, drug dealers, psychopaths and the criminally insensitive, could have been difficult to like. But, instead, they come across as relatable, likeable and even loveable.

rsz_bpIt’s easy to see why Blood Punch has won so many awards (Phoenix International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival: Best Horror Feature 2015; New Orleans Horror Film Festival: Best Feature Film 2014; Hoboken International Film Festival: Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Actor, Best Actress 2014). The film has a compelling story that comes from a well-crafted script. The acting is strong and confident from a cast who know what they’re doing. The direction is masterful and assured throughout.

I can’t recommend this one highly enough and would say it’s one of the best horror films I’ve watched in a long time: 10/10.

Never Open The Door (2014) Review

notd1Never Open the Door (2014)
Starring: Jessica Sonneborn, Deborah Venegas, Kristina Page
Writers: Christopher Maltauro & Vito Trabucco
Director: Vito Trabucco

Out Now – On Demand & DVD / BluRay in North America

Three happy couples enjoy the holidays in a cozy secluded cabin in the woods when they are suddenly interrupted by an unprecedented event that will forever change their lives.

I have to disagree with the synopsis above. The three couples are not happy. And they don’t appear to be enjoying their holiday. In the opening scenes they are presented as bitter and argumentative. They are the sort of people who you hope will suffer miserably before the end of the movie. Fortunately, something malicious is rushing toward the house and we keep our fingers crossed that its malevolent intentions will be wrought upon the aforementioned not-so-happy couples. We see the world from this entity’s feral perspective and we know, whatever it is, it means business.

So, we have the ‘cabin in the woods’ format of a horror story, with a cast of repellent disposables and a burgeoning (but as yet unidentified) threat. However, whilst this may sound like something that’s been done a million times before, Never Open the Door manages to throw out some wonderful surprises and it’s a movie that is well worth investigating.

notd4I’ll offer a couple of caveats before I continue. I didn’t think the dialogue was particularly strong. Verbal exchanges between main characters repeatedly fall into shouted and unimaginative repetition. However, whilst I think this is a valid criticism of the film, I should also add, if I was ever suffering through a real-life ‘cabin in the woods’ horror, I suspect my dialogue would likely be shouted, unimaginative and repetitive. I’m also tempted to say the acting was a little wooden but that interpretation could have been a knock-on effect caused by the previously mentioned script/dialogue issues.

The opening scene is dominated by Luke (Mike Wood, Chupacabra Territory, Bloody Bloody Bible Camp and Vamps in the City). Boorish Luke sits at the head of the table, shouting over other conversationalists and genuinely making things uncomfortable for his wife, Maria (Deborah Venegas, The Haunting of Alice D, Bloody Bloody Bible Camp and What Goes On). He also makes things uncomfortable for Angel (Kristina Page, The Haunting of Alice D, Piranha Sharks and Crack Whore) and Isaac (Matthew Aidan, Bloody Bloody Bible Camp, Pain is Beautiful and Dead Season). Meanwhile, at the same table, Terrance (George Troester, No Ordinary BJ, Crack Whore and Rock in a Hard Place) is making things uncomfortable for Tess (Jessica Sonneborn, One Night of Fear, Dog Eat Dog and The Haunting of Alice D). It’s all delightfully uncomfortable and a guilty part of me is gleefully hoping that some (or all) of these unlikeables are going to meet the nasty and grim conclusion they deserve.

notd3And so, when someone knocks at the door, and Tess goes to answer it, the story immediately goes into full-horror mode. Clearly Tess hasn’t read the title of the movie (Never Open the Door), because she opens the door. And, after the initial shock of a stranger arriving and inciting mayhem amongst the sextet, the story moves away from the predictable and begins to explore some new and very interesting territory. Never Open the Door is filmed in black and white and, at 64 minutes running time, it is longer than a short but shorter than a feature. And all of this works for the movie. The brevity allows it to have a swift pace and leave the audience breathless. The absence of colour allows for Vito Trabuco’s direction (Bloody Bloody Bible Camp, Slices and Watch the Pretty Girls Suffer) to play with light and darkness to profound and unsettling effect.

Because of its brevity, I won’t say anything more about the plot or the surprises that populate the narrative. What I will say is, Never Open the Door has some genuinely unsettling moments and a plot twist that I’m still trying to comprehend two days after watching. If you want to see something different from the ‘cabin in the woods’ format, you need to watch Never Open the Door: 8/10.

The Anatomy of Monsters (2014) Review

aom1The Anatomy of Monsters (2014)

Starring: Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx and Keiko Green
Writer/Director : Byron C Miller

Andrew lures a woman to a motel room with homicidal intentions. He quickly discovers that she may be more dangerous than he could ever imagine. What follows is a deadly game of wits, and a soul bearing confession.

The Anatomy of Monsters is an intelligent approach to the notion of serial killers as the big bad of a horror movie. The story starts where we’re introduced to Andrew, (Jesse Lee Keeter from Glitch, &@ and Semi-Secret). Andrew is a brooding individual who gives off an impression of being a sinister character. Consequently, when he enters a bar and strikes up a conversation with Sarah (Tabitha Bastien from Imagination Thief, Spook Me Baby One More Time and Run, Hide, Die) we feel that this isn’t going to end well.

And, even though the couple hit it off and head back to her motel room with the obvious intention of mutually satisfying shenanigans, there is still that notion that things are going to go badly for one or the other of them. It doesn’t help when Sarah finds a pair of handcuffs in her luggage and offers to model them for Andrew’s benefit. We watch her snap the cuffs behind her back and think clichéd phrases such as ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’. Except, Sarah is no meek lamb, and the organizer of the evening’s slaughter has not yet been decided.

aom2This is a stylish piece of misdirection because, whilst the audience are being led to believe that Sarah is putting her head in the lion’s metaphorical mouth, it transpires that she has the same nefarious appetites that have made Andrew such a dark and brooding character in the film’s opening scenes.

It would be easy to criticize parts of this film for falling foul of unwritten film-making law. There is a lot of narrative exposition in the motel room as the pair discuss motives. A lot of the story is told through flashbacks as Andrew and Sarah relive important episodes in their respective careers as homicidal murderers. To make matters more confusing, there are flashbacks within flashbacks, which seldom help to convey a cogent narrative. However, Byron C Miller’s direction is strong and confident and the story unfolds in a coherent fashion. There are twists and turns, all supported by a pleasant narrative tension throughout.

One of the predominant themes is Sarah’s memories of her relationship with Nick (Conner Marx from If There’s a Hell Below, Never and The Gamers: Hands of Fate). From the moment the pair connect we’re left worrying as to whether or not Sarah’s serial killer tendencies are going to intervene and bring the relationship to an abrupt end. And, throughout the whole of the film, we’re left wondering whether Andrew or Sarah will be the one to walk out of the motel room.

The Anatomy of Monsters is a lot of fun that manages to do an awful lot with a modest cast. Well worth checking out: 8/10.

Grave Walkers (2015) Review

gw1Grave Walkers (2015)

Starring: Charlene Amoia, Vladimir Kulich and Tony Todd
Writer: Ari Kirschenbaum
Director: Ari Kirschenbaum

Out NOW on DVD from Matchbox Films

Supernatural forces are locked into a college town police force’s basement jail. The sheriff and his deputies are subjected to psychic attacks, preying on the fears of the loyal officers and only those with the strongest wills can survive.

Grave Walkers begins in black and white on a Halloween night. We see Deputy Hancock (Charlotte Amoia from How I Met Your Mother, NCIS: New Orleans and Adrenaline) having to put an injured stag out of its misery. Hancock gets called to a nearby incident, because of the date it’s suspected to be a college prank, and in those first few minutes we’re subjected to some of the film’s most unsettling scenes.

Hancock comes face to face with a zombie/demon, complete with glowing eyes and malicious intent. In the monochrome lighting, this has the same sinister verismo quality that can be seen in found-footage horror, such as the night scenes in Blair Witch. Hancock has little resource available to her except to cuff the zombie/demon and take the creature back to the local sheriff’s jail.

gw3One of the most innovative ideas in this film is the demon’s malevolent influence on those nearby. Sheriff Pete (Vladimir Kulich from The 13th Warrior, The Equalizer, Vikings and Angel) doesn’t see the creature as a zombie/demon: he sees his hated late father. Deputy Eric (J, Richey Nash from Hitting the Cycle, Staying Alive and Bat $#*! Crazy) doesn’t see the creature as a zombie/demon: he sees the Bear Mountain Killer – the sadist whose reign of terror inspired Eric to join the police force. Others see the zombie/demon as specific menaces from their pasts and, each of them wants to kill this perceived nemesis.

Deputy Hancock, most strong-willed of the group, has to repeatedly threaten violent repercussions to anyone who attempts to take the law into their own hands.

I’ll admit here that this movie didn’t work for me. The film started off scary. There were flashes of colour between the black and white footage, disturbing images that were bloody and diabolical. But, halfway through, the film seemed to become a comedy and the serious themes were transformed into a comical pastiche. Don’t get me wrong: there is something vaguely absurd about the notion of zombies and humour can often work as a counterpoint to horror. This worked to good effect in Shaun of The Dead, Zombieland and Me and My Mates Vs the Zombie Apocalypse.
However, in Grave Walkers, the balance struck me as a little off.

gw2The film begins as a credible horror, and then seems to drift into comedy – as though the horror is no longer working. The black and white footage is atmospheric but the shifts into colour break the suspension of disbelief. When the film does shift fully into colour, similar to the shift Dorothy experiences when she lands at the foot of the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz, it’s another reminder of the artifice of the narrative.

There were some great ideas in Grave Walkers and, if the film had stuck to being either a horror or a comedy, it might have managed its aims far more successfully. The special effects were sophisticated and convincing. The notion of characters becoming undone by the exacerbation of their own private hatreds was ingenious. And, of course, Tony Todd (Candyman, House of Grimm and the Final Destination franchise) is a bankable addition to any horror film. His pot-smoking pastor, who faces a hoard of glowing-green-eyed zombie/demons, was one of the genuine highlights of the latter half of the film.

gw4In truth, I can see that this one would prove entertaining for many. The film was original, innovative and stylish in places. My only issue was, whilst it was stylish in places, sometimes the film seemed to sacrifice substance and story for the sake of style: 5/10.

The Curse of Sleeping Beauty (2016) Review

cotsb1The Curse of Sleeping Beauty (2016)

Starring: Ethan Peck, India Eisley, Natalie Hall

Writers: Josh Nadler and Pearry Reginald Teo, based on the comic book by Everette Hartsoe, inspired by the story ‘Little Briar Rose’, first anthologized in print form by Jacob and Wilhem Grimm.

Director: Pearry Reginald Teo

ON UK DVD NOW from Lionsgate

The fairy tale was only the beginning…

The Curse of Sleeping Beauty begins by introducing us to Thomas, played ably by Ethan Peck (Eden, Nothing Left to Fear, Mine Games). Thomas is plagued by a recurring dream where he finds himself kissing the sleeping beauty that is Briar Rose, played by the stunning India Eisley (Nanny Cam, Underworld: Awakening and The Secret Life of the American Teenager). I’ll be honest here and admit, if I had dreams about kissing India Eisley, I’d likely consider myself very fortunate.

However, Thomas does not perceive himself as being fortunate. He’s an artist – a tortured artist to be exact – and he’s very reclusive. He is so reclusive that Thomas’s psychotherapist is seen early on in the film, telling him that this inability to interact socially with people is the reason why he needs psychotherapy. Thomas doesn’t have much to say to the psychotherapist’s comments.

Things seem to get worse when he learns that a distant uncle has recently committed suicide, although there is a bright side: Thomas has been bequeathed the family’s ancestral mansion. However, on the downside, he’s also inherited a family curse.

The story is based loosely around the classic Grimm fairy tale Briar Rose, which we know today as Sleeping Beauty. It’s also easy to see the inspiration that’s come from Everette Hartsoe’s bold lines and his strong accentuation of Briar Rose’s sexual allure in the comic books of that name. India Esisley’s exotic costumes, and her representation of submissive desirability, share strong parallels with the content of Hartsoe’s comic book appropriation of this story.

cotsb2I quite liked Thomas as a character because he comes across as being wholly relatable. He’s given a chance to inspect the home he’s been bequeathed and, although it has a glamorous exterior, he finds the dusty interior, with rooms filled with naked mannequins, to be something of a disappointment. Or, as he puts it, “This place is a shithole.”

And it’s those mannequins that keep giving the film some of its strongest shock moments. There is something absurdly sinister about the plastic pretence of life .Thomas gets to meet the house’s realtor, Natalie Hall, (True Blood, Star Crossed, Pretty Little Liars) and the pair eventually develop a working relationship whilst trying to resolve some of the mansion’s many mysteries.

Alone in the mansion on his first night there, Thomas beds down and, once again, he dreams of kissing the beautiful, Briar Rose. This time, his kiss wakens her and the story begins to pick up pace. The other major character in the film is Richard, Brian Davison (X-Men, Knight Rider, Ghost Whisperer). Richard saves Linda and Thomas from a shocking twist of events in the mansion by turning up at the exact moment when he’s required. As he’s driving them away from the incident, Linda performs introductions.

“Richard is an expert in supernatural phenomenon, specifically demonic,” she tells Thomas. “Well, paranormal cleric,” Richard corrects modestly. “I perform rituals sanctified by the paranormal community and catholic church, to name a few.”

Thomas glances from Richard to Linda and gives a sceptical smile before saying, “Great.” Aware of the unspoken doubts being expressed, Richard genially asks, “So what were you running from?”

cotsb3It’s a strong script. The acting throughout this one is of a high standard with a quality cast demonstrating genuine ability. The cinematography is cleverly deceptive with ‘reality’ being filmed in the smoky blue-greys of a dreamy dusk, and the dream sequences being shot in the obscene brightness of wide awake equatorial noon. It’s also fair to say that the special effects are sufficiently striking to startle and unsettle.

Definitely worth checking out: 8/10.

Consumption (2016) Review

consumption1Consumption (2016)

Written & Directed by Brandon Scullion

Starring Sarah Greyson, Arielle Brachfield, David Lautman

UK DVD release October 10th from LEFT Films

“In the snowy Utah mountains, an ancient being terrorizes four friends as they try to survive.”

If movies have taught me one thing, it’s that you should never go on holiday in the woods to a remote cabin with friends. It never ends well. It usually ends badly. Very badly. This is information I’ve gleaned from a variety of informative films including The Cabin in the Woods, Cabin Fever, The Evil Dead, Dead Snow, Tucker and Dale Vs Evil, Zombeavers and many, many others. The latest film to put me off the idea of spending a weekend away in the not-so-great outdoors is Consumption.

The film introduces us to four friends, each of whom (we discover later) is harbouring a substantial secret. They’ve driven from LA up to the desolate snowy wilderness of the Utah mountains for a remote weekend getaway.
David Lautman (Broken Horses, Ru, Making the Rules) is playing Seth, the designated driver for the group. He looks tired and we later discover this is not just because of the arduous journey. Seth sets the tone for the movie when he asks his passengers, “Do you know any good ghost stories?”

consumption4When he gets no response, Seth shares the quirky story of the disappearing bride: a ghostly figure who is often seen standing at the side of the road by passing motorists and then mysteriously disappears from view. It’s also in this scene that Seth shares the secret that his mother has recently died.

In the car are Becca (Sarah Greyson: animation production assistant from The Simpsons and reality star from Road Rules and The Challenge), Mallory (Arielle Brachfield: The Haunting of Whaley House, Chemical Peel, Axeman) and Eric (Chris Dorman: 8.13, Halloween: The Bogeyman is Coming, Blood Bath and Beyond). It’s clear that tempers are a little frayed amongst the four of them when they arrive but, after a drive from LA to Utah I suspect any of us would be a little road-raw.

There are some scenes in this movie that we’ve all seen before. Seth is defensive with regards to the bags he has brought – and it transpires there is good reason for his defensiveness. The foursome are greeted at the door to their accommodation by ‘the Pats’, Patrick and Patricia Smith, played with a delightful blend of the frenetic and the friendly by Geoffrey Gould (Pride of Strathmoor, Careful What You Wish For, Everything) and Nancy Wolfe (Helter Skelter, Horror in the Attic, Mark of the Witch).

consumption3The Pats seem to have a strong religious agenda which doesn’t accommodate Mallory’s atheist views. Later we discover that their religious beliefs are very important to them. And then we have a brief appearance by a wood-chopping Myles Cranford (Hunter Gatherer, Interwoven, Erasing Eden) as Ferry, who gives the group the cryptic warning, “You’re not supposed to be here. That’s exactly what they want.” Ferry then spends the remainder of the film looking obscenely cool with a long-handled axe propped on his shoulder.

To some extent we have seen most of these horror tropes before but, if they weren’t included in a cabin-in-the-woods-type film, as viewers we’d be disappointed by their absence. I did enjoy the camerawork of this movie. There were some shifts in image that hastened the speed of the narrative but also leant something to the sense of the uncanny that was being presented. I also thought there were a couple of surprises that I hadn’t anticipated and they made the whole experience all the more entertaining. Maria Olsen (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Paranormal Activity 3, Starry Eyes) as always, takes on a disconcerting role and delivers a quality performance. I also thought there was some deliciously dark humour apparent in the background of this one.

consumption2The version of this film that I saw had a major issue with sound quality. Background noise repeatedly fought and won over dialogue, making it difficult to follow some of the narrative. However, that could be an issue that’s since been resolved. If not for those sound issues, I’d have marked this higher. The film does steer away from traditional narrative approaches – and that can always make for interesting viewing. If you’re inviting friends over to your remote cabin for the weekend, Consumption would be ideal viewing material and deserves a respectable 6/10.

Tales of Poe (2014) Review

poe1Tales of Poe (2014)

Directed by Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly.

Written by Alan Rowe Kelly, Bart Mastronardi and Michael Varrati

Starring Caroline Williams, Debbie Rochon and Adrienne King.

Out Oct 11th 2016 from Wild Eye!!

“Based on the classic works of Edgar Allan Poe – a unique spin on three of Poe’s popular stories (The Tell Tale Heart, Cask of Amontillado & Dreams). Directors Bart Mastronardi & Alan Rowe Kelly weave together a compelling and suspenseful anthology that will captivate Poe enthusiasts and horror fans alike!”

I will always hold my hand up and admit to being a fan of Poe. As a writer I’m indebted to the legacy he’s left behind with exemplary works from genres such as murder mystery, the emerging genre of science fiction and, of course, horror. And it’s because of this passion for Poe that I was so keen to look at this film. I love Poe and firmly believe his stories deserve to be reimagined for contemporary audiences.

And, in two thirds of the stories presented here, that reimagining is thoroughly enjoyable.

poe3The first story is based on Poe’s ‘Tell-Tale Heart’.

The original short story seems to be bereft of motivation in that we have no idea why the unnamed narrator wants to murder the old man. Of course, some critics argue that this lack of motive is an essential part of the story’s horror – what could be more chilling than a motiveless crime? However, in our cause-and-effect outlook of modern society, this explanation can sometimes seem a little like an excuse for the story’s shortcomings.

This appropriation of ‘Tell Tale Heart’ is clever in that it changes the genders of the central characters and provides a motive far stronger than Poe managed. It’s beautifully gory (as one would expect for a story that focuses on eyeballs and essential organs from the circulatory system) and it’s very well-presented. Debbie Rochon (Dollface, Bleed and Santa Claws) delivers a chilling performance as the narrator of this segment and Alan Rowe Kelly (Grindsploitation, She Wolf Rising, Gallery of Fear) is her unfortunate victim. The original is a story of chilling tension. This version is equally tense and is delightfully bloody.

All of which sets the tone neatly for ‘The Cask’ – a short film based on Poe’s ‘A Cask of Amontillado.’ Again, this was well-developed, dancing with the idea of the original and throwing in a couple of moves that weren’t expected, but still managed to add to the impact of Poe’s work. The gore was well done. The acting was entertaining and Alan Rowe Kelly was fun as Gogo Montressor. It was good to see Randy Jones (College Debts, Bleeding Hearts) in the role of Fortunato Montressor and the whole piece was conveyed with a sense of a melodramatic noir caper.
poe2The final tale in the collection is ‘Dreams’, based on Poe’s poem of the same title. It’s a poem that is typical of Poe bleak worldview with its internal tensions between hope for a better world and acceptance of our miserable and grim reality. Stylistically the short film ‘Dreams’ is a striking piece of cinematography. ‘Tales of Poe has won awards for its cinematography and it is likely this segment that most impressed the judges. ‘Dreams’ is presented with occasional voice-over narration from the poem as those onscreen perform an interpretation of the words in a fashion that has echoes of Japanese noh theatre. Cleverly. Kelly. Mastronadi and Varrati have chosen to frame the poem’s content with a deathbed drama that gives structure to the piece. Yet, I have to admit, this was my least favourite short in this collection.

There are surreal elements that allude to the horror of death’s uncertainty and cultural fascinations with this topic. There are stunning locations and intriguing concepts. But the whole piece seemed like such a drastic stylistic change from its two predecessors that the contrast, for me, was too distracting. After the OTT blood and gore of the two previous shorts, after the fun of the melodrama and the intrigue of the noir, the elegance and subtly of ‘Dreams’ (combined with its comparatively lengthy running time) left me bemused and dissatisfied.
poe4That said, there’s a lot of horror fun to be found in this compilation including horror stalwarts such as Adrienne King (Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th Part 2), Lesleh Donaldson (Happy Birthday to Me, Curtains and Cries in the Night), and Amy Steel (Friday the 13th Part 2 and April Fool’s Day).

For lovers of Poe it’s one to enjoy whilst safely savouring a freshly retrieved Amontillado.

7/10

Cowboy Zombies (2016) aka Walking Dead in the West

cowboyzombies1Cowboy Zombies (2016) aka Walking Dead in the West

Directed by Paul Winters.

Written by Gahan Wilson and Paul Winters

Starring Paul Winters, Greg Bronson and Jean Paul Turgeon.

Out now on UK DVD from Left Films

“A new frontier of fear.”

Crumpit, Arizona Territory, 1876. A meteor hits the earth and reanimates the dead.

Given that the pioneers who genuinely westernized the west had to rely on incredible survival skills, it seems apposite to present them here as characters with the challenge of surviving a zombie apocalypse. It also seems like an innovative way of remembering the achievements of the brave and resourceful frontiers-folk who shaped the America we know today because, as adversaries, zombies are seldom perceived as undeserving when it comes to frontier justice.

There’s some dark humour in this film, especially in an early scene where a pair of criminals, rustlers and murders, are being hanged just as the meteor strikes. One of them cries, “God, please, give these people a sign. Don’t kill the innocent.” As soon as he’s said the words there is the boom of a meteor striking earth and the criminal says, “See! I told you. A sign from God almighty.” And, whilst this might look like divine intervention to some, the criminal is still hanged. In the moment of their deaths the two criminals are transformed into zombies and then spend the remainder of the film, dangling from the ropes that killed them and growling hungrily whilst their legs tread air.

cowboyzombies2Paul Winters (Nate and the Colonel, The Homecoming of Jimmy Whitecloud), gives a convincing performance as the NRA-prototype Marshall Frank Wilcox. Wilcox gives expository voice-over narration throughout the film. He is a character who solemnly intones: “I learned early on in my life that the only thing that can stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.” By the end of the movie, Wilcox is leading a ragtag collection of survivors who seem to represent a broad spectrum of the west’s cultural diversity.

And, for me, I think this was one of the film’s major flaws. The Wild West, according to my understanding, was not known as an exemplar that embraced its rich cultural diversity. The Wild West was a brutal conflict between cultures of the indigenous native Americans and the invading pioneers. Whilst this film allows members from those cultures to band together and kill zombies, it seems like it’s glossing over some key issues on the bloody truth of the west’s westernisation.

And it is fair to say that this is a very diverse team. Calion Maston (Atomic Shark, The Coldest Kiss) plays the black US Army Sergeant Bale. Lee Whitestar (Nate and the Colonel, The Homecoming of Jimmy Whitecloud) plays the old Apache, warrior chief Datanta. Mark Trombino (The Dog Wedding, Men Cry Bullets) plays Jasper the barman. Although Jasper is a person of short stature, he’s a key character in the film and, in one of Winters’s gravel-voiced narrations, we are told, “He could shoot a pistol real good. Back in those days, that was the difference between you living and you dying.”

Together with a handful of others, including the excellent Greg Bronson (Western X, Hot Bath an’ a Stiff Drink, Coyote Requiem), the likeable Sam Keller (Mimi and Mo, A ‘K’night Lost in Translation) and the lovely Sandy Penny (Trial 2020, Re-Do), these characters form a cadre determined to get out of Crumpit’s Double Peach Saloon and find a safe haven away from the threat of zombies. It’s entertaining and fun for anyone who enjoys kicking back and watching cowboys and zombies with maximum hijinks and minimal gore. These are the sort of slow-moving zombies that we’d all like to encounter if/when the apocalypse happens – but only because they’d be easy to shoot and relatively easy to outrun.

A043_C025_0826I5I came away from this film thinking that it worked, less like a stand-alone movie, and more like the pilot for a proposed TV series. Given the success of Deadwood and The Walking Dead I could understand how this would be a zeitgeist idea to be pitched to the studio bosses behind the big box sets. Maybe it could even have been called The Walking Deadwood.

And, having said that all of that, who doesn’t love cowboys and zombies?

7/10

Dolly Deadly (2015) Review

Dolly Deadly (2015)

Starring Justin Moore, Kimberley West-Caroll, Jay Sosnicki and Dana Nelson.

Written by Heidi Moore and Cassandra Sechler.

Directed by Heidi Moore.

Out now on Vimeo Demand and on DVD/Blu combo in North America from LC Films

A young boy from the trailer park can’t take another moment of ridicule from his family and peers. With support from his beloved dollies, he sets out for blood.”

The word ‘sad’ used to be a buzzword insult in the UK that was so overused it lost its meaning. Back in the 80s, rather than meaning ‘unhappy’, ‘sad’ was used as a synonym for ‘pathetic’. And yet, without intending the word to be an insult here, ‘sad’ seems the right word to describe Dolly Deadly. Sadness seems to be the prevailing theme in the movie.

I say this because Benji’s home life in the opening credits is sad to the point of being bleak. Benji is a pre-toddler with a chain-smoking mother, Tina Lyn, played by the superb Dana Nelson (Soul Doubt). Benji and Tina Lyn live in a trailer home filled with grimly-loved dollies. They exist on a diet of nicotine and Doritos. When his mother’s head explodes due to an accident with a home hair-colour kit, (that is a sentence I never thought I would type) Benji is taken into the custody of an uncaring grandmother. The bleak prospects of his future become even bleaker.

dolly1All Benji has, as a reminder of his mother’s love, is her collection of tattered dolls. Grandma Mitzi, played by Kimberly West-Caroll, is neglectful. Grandma’s boyfriend, Donald, Jay Sosnicki (Ride the Lightning, Interior. Leather Bar and Slaves of Hollywood), is unpleasant and psychologically abusive. The children in the neighbourhood are brats. They are both psychologically and physically abusive. There are other people who have an influence on Benji but the influences are seldom positive. And all of this neglect and abuse is very grim and difficult to watch. The concept of Benji’s need for vengeance is painfully sad.

Despite some of the comedic notions that are mooted, such as exploding hair products and talking dollies with their murderous suggestions, the idea of neglect is disturbing because the presentation here is horribly real. Obviously, as is suggested by the teaser, Benji’s relationship with his late mother’s dolls becomes a motivation for him to go on a killing spree and acquire vengeance. However, the main question you have to ask when you come away from this film is: why did it take him so long? Given the horrible people he’s associating with in this movie, any sane serial killer (if that’s not an oxymoron) would have started on a vengeance spree much earlier.

dolly3There are some clever things going on in the background here. Benji’s mother dies because of faulty cosmetics. This motif of the treachery that comes from cosmetics recurs throughout the film. Grandma sells dodgy beauty products to parents in the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood children force Benji to wear cosmetics as part of their persecution of him. Benji then makes diabolical use of one of the dubiously strong anti-aging/acid peel products that Grandma sells.

All of which suggests the horror here could be seen as a reflection of the relationship between our aspirations for doll-like perfection and the grim realities of our unmade-up lives. Heidi Moore is a director with a strong history of producing respected short films (Mommy, Showgirl Style, Wurms, Soul Doubt, etc). Along with Cassandra Sechler, she is the co-writer of Dolly Deadly which is a story that is an original and entertaining example of indie horror.
The strength of this film is that the viewer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. There are no Hollywood plot constructions or cookie-cutter characters. This is innovative writing with unconventional approaches that might leave some cold but it will shock and horrify others.

dolly2That said, because of its bleak subject matter, this is not a movie I’m likely to revisit. The sadness was close to being a little too heartbreaking for my delicate sensibilities. However, for anyone who enjoys the thrill of a slasher, the inexplicable eeriness of dolls or the heady schadenfreude that comes from enjoying the sadness of others then Dolly Deadly is a film that needs to be experienced.

6/10

An Interview with Director Declan Shrubb by Ashley Lister

mmmvtza1An Interview with Director Declan Shrubb by Ashley Lister

Declan Shrubb is the writer and director behind the hilarious zom-com-romp Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse which stars the amazing talents of Jim Jefferies, Greg Fleet and Alex Williamson.

UKHS: You do a lot of work in the comedy genre (M.I.P.S.T., Risk, Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse, etc). What’s your fascination with humour?

DS: I’m just a big comedy nerd. Huge fan of sketches, stand up, improv, sitcoms and comedy films. The first DVD boxset I bought, when I was 13 and got my first job delivering junkmail was ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT season 1! That’s why getting to work with world-class comedians like Jim Jefferies and Greg Fleet – guys I’ve been a fan of for years – was such an incredible experience for me! Getting to riff jokes with them and see them perform my lines is something I’ll never forget.

mmmfleettoiletUKHS: Given that you’re trying to simultaneously amuse and shock audiences in Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse, how difficult was it to create a comedy horror?

DS: Getting the tone right is really hard. We decided early on that this was a comedy film first and a zombie film second, so we really focused on character over plot, knowing that the comedy would come from the interactions and responses to the situations that we put our characters through. I always knew that the movie would have basically no “scares” or true horror moments, and that was the concept from the beginning: how do blue-collar funny Aussie blokes react to being in a situation as horrific as a zombie apocalypse. The answer we came up with was that they sit around, talk shit, drink beer, play cricket and try to forget about their impending doom.

mmmSCREW_DRIVER_ZOMBIE_02_2-webUKHS: Aside from being a writer and director, you’re also a musician. How much influence do your musical tastes have on your film-making?

DS: I think it gives me a heightened sense of pace and rhythm, particularly with editing and joke timing. I wrote all the music to the film with my best friend (and band-mate) Morgan Quinn, and we got to use music in totally different ways to the way we do with our band Pleased to Jive You. Suddenly we’re writing pieces to help tension, or undercurrent emotional beats, or even to help jokes hit. It was really fun writing music which is different to our usual funk-rock-pop-hip-hop hybrid stuff.

UKHS: You had some highly respected comedians and comedy actors in the cast of Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse. What’s it like working with such a broad array of successful comedic talent?

DS: I really enjoyed it and would love to work with more comedians. They’re interesting people, because they spend most of their time analysing the world and communicating its odd intricacies, so they’re very introspective but they also tell the most hilarious and gripping stories. Because they come from a live performance background, they’re all great at understanding audiences, they have comedic timing down and they really get what you’re going for with a joke straight away. They can also really act their asses off. I was surprised at well they could all learn lines and add new bits as soon as I’d suggest them. But it makes sense when you know their history: Greg Fleet studied at NIDA, Australia’s premiere acting school. Jim Jefferies just came off starring in his own TV show LEGIT. And Alex Williamson has really perfected his comedic acting through making hundreds of great, short little YouTube, Facebook and Instagram videos.

mmmjimjefferiesUKHS: What makes a great film for you? What qualities do you look for in a movie? Which films would you cite as the ones that, for you, are outstanding classics?

DS: I really do like a bit of everything, but I primarily love seeing stuff I haven’t seen before. I love twists on conventions and flipping tropes on their head. And I also love filmmakers who take chances and even though they’re rich and successful and could easily keep making the same film over and over, or take paychecks doing studio films they don’t care about, they keep taking risks and generating their own work. I really admire people like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, James Wan and Kevin Smith. I’m sure their influences bled through me on the making of ME AND MY MATES VS THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE.

mmmwilliamsonshootingUKHS: You’ve worked as a writer, producer, director, editor, composer, cameraman, to name just a few of the roles you’ve taken. How has the broad scope of knowledge you’ve gained from these different roles impacted on the way you approach film-making?

DS: I think that it stems from the necessity of making your own stuff when you first get into film. As a kid, when you get a camera and a bunch of friends together, you don’t really think about the specific jobs, you just get out there and come up with ideas, shoot them, edit them, put music underneath.

After a while, you realise that each one of these is a specific job you can specialise in. On smaller projects, I’ll do a lot more of the jobs myself, but on a big project like this, I love working with people who I know are better than me at each job. I know Morgan’s a musical and production genius, so I liked to give him the music responsibility while I sit next to him and help come up with ideas, grabbing a guitar if I needed to.

Same as editing, I normally edit my own stuff, but I worked with an editor for the first time and it meant that I could focus on production while he logged all the footage and started assembling scenes, then after production I sat next to him and we cut the movie together for months. If I hadn’t edited my own things before, I wouldn’t have developed my taste of rhythm or pace and it also meant that I could jump on the avid and move frames to help illustrate my vision.

mmmADELE_VUKO_as_EMMA_beheads_ZOMBIE_1UKHS: What do audiences want?

DS: It really depends on the genre. I’ve learned a lot from ME AND MY MATES, especially about audience expectation. They want the promise of the premise. If you give them a genre film, you better show respect to the other great works of that genre, and give them what they expect. If it’s a zombie film, they want gore and creative kills. If you make a zombie film and don’t blow up some zombie heads, audiences will turn on you! If it’s a comedy, there has to be consistent laughs. It’s been very interesting to see the amount of horror blogs and reviewers that have watched the movie, because there just isn’t that same kind of fan out there for generic comedy films. We’ve been seen by many people who would never care about a low budget Aussie comedy, but because there’s zombies involved, fans are suddenly interested. If we ever did a sequel, I would work hard to satisfy the audiences expectations.

mmmgroupUKHS: What’s the next project we can expect to see from you?

DS: I’ve got some half hour comedy scripts I’d love to make and I’m developing a couple of new features at the moment, neither of which are comedies. One’s a suburban horror, in the same vein as THE BABADOOK. The other is an indie-sci-fi-thriller that I’m really excited to crack. Here’s the basic pitch: In a world where aging is cured and people can be regenerated from a baby, a tenacious man must traverse a dark societal underbelly with his 6 year old son-father to find his long-lost sister who could now be any age from 7-40.

I’m also working on are a new record with Pleased to Jive You and a collection of original radio sitcoms that I’ve been writing, directing and performing in. They’re these little 10 minute comedy anthology episodes that we’re probably going to put out on Soundcloud and iTunes for free. We’re still figuring it all out, but it will be under the name “Quippurb” and we’ll have the first five episodes out before the end of the year.

Thanks so much for the questions, it’s been great talking to you.

  • Huge Thanks to Declan for his time and for some amazing behind the scenes photos!