Thursday, March 28, 2013

LOT 66 Puts a New Spin on Home Invasion

Lot 66 (2010)
Director: Robert W. Filion
Seen via: Nevermore Film Fest
Length: 15 min

SC filmmaker Robert Filion has been a mainstay of Nevermore's short film lineup for past several years, and his work just keeps getting better. This year he showcased his short Lot 66, which although filmed several years ago was new to the fest.

Lot 66 focuses on a man named David (Michael Melendez) who's spending the night alone in his new home while his wife is away on business. During an otherwise mundane internet chat session, he receives a threatening message from a cryptic stranger. The username suggests the person behind it may be nearby - even as close as the vacant lot next door. Is this all a prank, or should David fear for his life?

Switching up the old "alone in the house" trope by replacing the typical female lead with a man was a great idea that undermines a lot of expectations about how the story will unfold. Melendez is a big, tough-looking guy and it'd be natural to assume that he's going to face his stalker head-on. It's not until we begin to learn about the mental issues he's facing that it becomes clear that mindgames will be the focus of this battle.

Lot 66 is a suspenseful, tightly shot short. Every film I've seen from Filion has shown that he's willing to put a creative spin on old horror plots, and this is no exception. It's not clear if or when Lot 66 (or any of Filion's work) will be widely available, but you can find out more at: http://www.imageimpactgroup.com/

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

HEADSOME: Do-It-Yourself Decapitation, I Mean, Filmmaking

Headsome (2013)
Dir. Pavel Nikolajev
Seen via: Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 5.5 / 10

NOTE: The version of Headsome reviewed below was an early cut of the film screened at the Nevermore Film Fest. The final version has since been re-edited.

Underground research labs, evil twins, robots, and even head transplants - Headsome is a film that harkens back to the days before science caught up with science fiction, when all it took to have a major scientific breakthrough was an isolated basement room, some mail-ordered medical equipment, and an unwilling test subject. You can tell from their website that Nova Automatics, the team responsible for Headsome, treats filmmaking the same way - as something that's done best when it's assembled out of sweat, mail-order parts, and all the elbow grease they can muster.

The plot of Headsome is straightforward enough: a successful scientist named Mark is visited by his estranged twin brother Arthur (both played by William Haze) who's also a scientist, but of a slightly shadier variety. Just days after Arthur shows up in town, Mark falls prey to a horrible accident that threatens his life. Thankfully Arthur is there to save him, but has to sacrifice Mark's body in the process. Mark wakes up realizing he's now a decapitated head attached to a mobile robotic framework that's keeping him alive. What's worse, Arthur's jealousy of Mark's successful career tempts him to simply usurp Mark's identity... along with his wife. Mark struggles to fight back while trying to trick Arthur into reattaching his body - or at the very least, someone's body.


Headsome is a film grounded in DIY special effects, much of which are excellent. What's most impressive is the robotic rig upon which Mark's head rides for the majority of the film. Director/producer Pavel Nikolajev was responsible for the construction of the rig, whose robot arms were able to be controlled by joysticks from off camera. To avoid having to resort to actual decaptiation and the subsequent lawsuits that inevitably would have followed, Mark's head was attached to the rig via split-screen when it was stationary and replaced with a model head (complete with remote-controlled robotic features) when it needed to become mobile. The switch between the two is sometimes glaringly obvious, but for home-made effects they're great. After the first few times the fake head shows up, it doesn't even interrupt the flow of the film.

What does occasionally detract from the story is the script. Even at a brisk 81 minutes, Headsome feels a little long. Once Mark loses his head, he remains captive in the basement lab of his house, where the scenery doesn't change much. Arthur brings in various test subjects throughout this portion to keep things interesting, but some ruthless editing might have tightened up the experiments a little bit. This would have had to happen at the expense of shaving the runtime down to that unmarketable limbo between longform shorts and feature films, so I can understand why Nikolajev opted to go for a feature-length production. The use of professional actors gives the film the solid acting that so many indie features lack, and saves it from going under completely when it occasionally drags. Still, the highlight of the film is the mad science, and there's usually enough of that happening to keep things moving along. (To be fair, Headsome was the last film I saw after a long day of moviegoing at Nevermore, so this may be a complaint that's largely subjective.)

I also feel obligated to mention a couple of slightly problematic elements that may or may not affect how you view the film. A scene in which Arthur experiments on and kills a man that he picks up from a gay bar introduces some traces of homophobia that the film just doesn't need. Also, there are multiple references to evil "Asians" pursuing Arthur to obtain his work - I kept wondering why the generalization wasn't clarified...


On the whole, Headsome is an entertaining indie feature that slowly ramps up toward the madcap attitude that over-the-top material like this seems to demand. The film really takes off in the end, as can be seen in the teaser (don't watch if you're concerned about spoilers). If the focus and dedication devoted to the technical aspects of the film had also been applied to the writing, this would have been a ridiculously enjoyable movie. As it stands, it's a fun film with some good ideas that it aren't always followed through. I look forward to seeing future projects from Nova Automatics. Headsome shows that they have the drive, technical skill, and professionalism to really excel as independent filmmakers. And how can I not support a North Carolina-based filmmaking group that shows this much promise?

You can learn more about Headsome and Nova Automatics via their official site: novaautomatics.com. In addition to the effects I've discussed, they film all of their productions in 3D using a homemade steroscopic rig. Some demo videos are posted on their site - but you'll need your own 3D glasses.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

You're All Invited to a Creepy Birthday Party in 8


8
Director: Raúl Cerezo
Seen via: Nevermore Film Fest
Runtime: 15 min

This might just be the most depressing birthday party you'll ever see. The extended family of the young birthday boy shuffles morosely into the house as the cake is prepared just so, candles are lit, and some sort of arcane amulets are passed out. It feels sinister and completely devoid of joy. But why? The whole family is there to celebrate - well, almost everyone. Who's the man urgently driving home through the nighttime fog?

8 is an innovative short film by Spanish director Raúl Cerezo. The less I say about it, the better, since most of the fun is figuring out the motives of those involved. The most clever thing about it is that it's almost entirely free of dialogue. Even so, it's not free of exposition, and there are a number of visual clues that fill in the backstory if you're watching carefully. In addition, it's beautifully shot and assembled, with a smokey, sepia-toned setting that gives it the look of an old photograph. Cerezo is certainly a director to keep your eye on.


8 isn't available to watch online at the moment, but you can find out more and watch a trailer (while simultaneously brushing up on your Spanish) by visiting the film's official site: http://www.8elcortometraje.com/. This was one of my favorite shorts at Nevermore this year, where along with We Will Call Him Bobby, Spain really knocked it out of the park.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

This DEAD WEIGHT is Worth Hanging On To


Dead Weight (2012)
Directors: Adam Bartlett, Joe Pata
Seen via: Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 7.5 / 10

I'm getting tired of zombies. I'm not saying this as someone who thinks he's too cool for what's now a pretty mainstream horror trend, but as a genuine zombie fan who's just tired of the current laziness within the subgenre. I also like my zombies undiluted, without any cross-genre mashups or other gimmickry. All of these tricks are pretty clearly desperate attempts to try and distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. So what makes a small-budget film like Dead Weight stand out in such a crowded arena? The same things that have always distinguished the films with staying power from the cheap moneymakers - good storytelling. By stripping the zombie formula down to its bare essentials and focusing on a series of well-drawn and likable characters, it succeeds where most modern zombie films fail.

When it comes down to it, zombies themselves aren't that interesting. Some might disagree, but I've always found that when zombies work well, they do so because they play on the same root fears as more general post-apocalyptic stories. Sure, there's the added element of gore that comes along with the rotting undead eating the living, and also the terror of being overwhelmed by hundreds of mindless humanoids. But those factors alone can't carry a film. The reason zombies stay interesting is because they provide a reason to strip away the large-scale societal structure of the modern world and add the imminent threat of complete annihilation. It's humanity put under the ultimate stress test, and seeing morals disintegrate, sane people driven to their limits, and society crumble drives a story better than any walking corpse.


This is something that Dead Weight realizes. It's a zombie film that remains almost completely free of zombies. Not only does this serve as a smart way to work around budgetary restrictions (because nothing kills the vibe of a zombie flick faster than realizing the director just recruited a pack of friends in bad makeup to shamble around), it focuses the film on what's really important: the relationships between the various survivors we encounter and the choices they have to make in order to survive.

We're first introduced to our "hero", an ordinary guy named Charlie, as he eats cereal and reads comics at home. That's essentially the high point of his day now that his girlfriend has taken a long-term internship several states away in the Twin Cities. Their relationship is under serious stress, but they've both committed to sticking with it. When a large-scale disaster begins sweeping across the country and both are forced to leave their respective cities, they agree to meet up halfway, in Wisconsin - no matter how long it takes.

Charlie hits the road with a band of fellow survivors, and as is typical after the apocalypse, he finds that his companions pose as much of a threat as the undead. What's most intriguing about Charlie is the way his character evolves throughout the film. He's put into situations where he has to make a series of choices and sacrifices that threaten not only his own safety, but the whole goal of his journey - his relationship. Is it worth saving, even months after he last talked to Samantha, or is he carrying around emotional baggage that's just going to result in his demise? How realistic is it to expect your long-distance relationship to persist after the world has ended, and what might it cost to do so?

Despite the post-apocalyptic trappings, Charlie's relationship with Samantha is the central focus of the film. Their pre-disaster interactions are shown to us through a series of flashbacks. Alone, these scenes aren't anything special, but intercut with the post-apocalyptic storyline, they serve to remind us of how far Charlie has fallen from the happy-go-lucky goofball he once was. They're also a sharp contrast to the bleak world that occupies most of the film. A huge plus is the top-notch acting, which elevates Dead Weight above most other small-budget films. While I wasn't immediately sold on Joe Belknap's portrayal of Charlie, he does a great job overall, especially when his character is faced with some extreme choices toward the end of the film.

Comparing Dead Weight to the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead might seem unfair - one's a big-budget series with a massive production team behind it, and the other's a small-time labor of love. But both seek to be primarily character-driven stories, and in my opinion, Dead Weight manages to beat The Walking Dead at its own game. It builds a character-driven zombie story populated with interesting people whose motivations and choices always seem organic, regardless of whether we agree with them. Where The Walking Dead thinks conflict originates with characters bickering, whining, or acting illogically, Dead Weight doesn't rely on overblown drama to stay suspenseful. I'm continually tempted to write off zombies as overplayed and take an extended break from the genre. Films like Dead Weight  restore my faith and keep me coming back. The end of the world might be familiar territory these days, but that doesn't mean that it's worth giving up on just yet.

You can find out more about how and where to see Dead Weight via the official website: http://www.carryingdeadweight.com.

Friday, March 15, 2013

This Lady Will Do Whatever It Takes to Save Your Soul


The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012)
Director: Rodrigo Gudiño
Seen via: Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 5 / 10

It's a reality that most of us will have to face at some point: having a parent die and leave you with an entire house-full of stuff. All the things they've collected, stored, and valued over the years will be junk for you to sell or donate. More overwhelming than the task of moving an entire life of possessions is sorting memories from trash, and choosing the items which will be your last few reminders of the person you've lost. This is the dilemma that Leon (Aaron Poole) faces at the beginning of The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, when his estranged mother passes away. Thankfully he's an antiques dealer, and selling old stuff is what he enjoys. But his childhood was not a happy one. He dreads unearthing memories of abuse and facing the residual guilt he still harbors for deserting his mother and his religion many years ago. To complicate things, his mother isn't quite finished with him either, despite the fact that she's dead.

Things take a turn toward the supernatural when it appears that Leon's mom is trying to come back to the grave to rekindle his faith . Is it actually Leon's dead mother, or is it all in his head? While by now this sort of ambiguity is a well-worn ghost story trope, it's handled pretty well here and doesn't often feel obtrusive. I'm always wary of preachiness when a film throws a nonreligious character into a scenario involving malevolent spirits from heaven (or hell). This one deftly avoids becoming didactic by calling into question the reality of its supernatural elements. Also, kudos to the filmmakers for picking one outcome in the end and sticking to it. I'm tired of movies trying to have it both ways by ending once, then changing their mind with one final twist just before the credits roll.

If there is one aspect that shines above all others in The Last Will..., it's the sinister atmosphere. The entire film takes place within Leon's mother's house, which is filled to the brim with creepy old religious detritus. From cracked angel statues to ancient potted plants to weird needlepoint stitchings of eerie religous proverbs, everything in the house gives off a miasma of unease that echoes Leon's own feelings as he sorts through the junk.

It's a shame that the entire film rests on the shoulders of Aaron Poole in his role as Leon. He does a fine job, but he's essentially the only person we see throughout the entire film (unless you count Ghost Mom). Other than his leftover angst toward his mother, there aren't a lot of defining character traits to make him endearing. The only interactions he has with anyone else are through phone calls, which don't do much for the already plodding pace of the film. Even at a mere 82 minutes, there is frequent plot drag. Even the most intriguing sets can't carry a film on their own. When the action does flare up, it's undermined by the fact that there's nothing keeping Leon from just leaving the house. (Other than that we need him there for the story to continue, of course.)

The Last Will... isn't by any measure a bad film. It's a slow tale of religious horror that takes its time brooding over the question of how good intent can lead to evil deeds. Unfortunately, it fails to give us a character we can really empathize with once things begin to go bad. To make a comparison with another recent film, picture The Innkeepers with a more sophisticated message, and its characters' quirkiness replaced by brooding and navel gazing. I'm interested to see what writer/director Rodriguo Gudiño (who's also the editor of Rue Morgue magazine) does next. He's clearly put a lot of thought into the inner workings of his story, and has a solid grasp of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Hopefully in the future he'll be able to integrate these into a narrative that doesn't feel so cold and distant.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Trapped in the Purgatory of Childhood: BOYS VILLAGE


Boys Village (2011)
Director: Till Kleinert
Seen via: Nevermore Film Fest
Duration: 22 min

Boys Village opens peacefully amidst a block of crumbling buildings  slowly giving way to a field of wildflowers and weeds. It's among these buildings that we see a young boy named Kevin wandering, playing, and talking to a series of tattered homemade ragdolls. On the surface, it might seem idyllic, but there's a definite tinge of unease present. Kevin's clothes are just a little too anachronistic, and his elaborate rituals seem more like some ancient magic than a child's games. There's also that looming black doorway that gives off an air of inexplicable evil... When a group of teenagers decides to use Kevin's buildings for an evening of drinking and making out, he watches with interest and more than a little fear. Just how long has Kevin been living here anyway, and what will happen when he confronts these reckless intruders?

The village shown in the film is an actual location in Wales that was once a home for the sons of coalminers, but has since fallen into ruin and disrepair. The rich setting is one of the most appealing aspects of Boys Village. It's a beautifully haunting location for a slow-burning ghost story. Director Till Kleinert made a great decision to shoot his film in super 16. The film stock gives the atmosphere a slightly worn and weathered look that fits nicely with the film's tone. As an extra layer of icing on the cake, there's a small twist that pushes the tale into coming-of-age territory. It suggests the village is a space that's equally metaphorical and physical - one that we all inhabit early in life.

Boys Village has been screening primarily at LGBT film fests over the past couple of years, and was funded by the Iris Prize, a cash award for LGBT-oriented films that funds its recipients' future filmmaking efforts. While it's currently unavailable online, you can watch an interview with director Till Kleinert here, or visit the film's official page at: http://www.irisprize.org/boys-village/. I'd recommend watching for this one and seeing it if you have the chance.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Can We Keep Him, Dad?


We Will Call Him Bobby
(aka Le Llamaremos Bobby)
Director: Paco Cavero
Seen via: Nevermore Film Festival
Runtime: 13 min

A father and his adult son go on an annual fishing trip together to celebrate their birthday. How sweet. But the two can't stop bickering. Dad doesn't approve of the son's fiancée (she's divorced, gasp!), and thinks his son is sort of an asshole. Pretty much the only thing they can agree on is how Mom's going to screw up the cooking when they get home. So when they accidentally run over a wild beast on their drive back, it's just the icing on the cake. The last thing they need is another problem, but could this monster in fact be a solution? He's just so cute...

We Will Call Him Bobby is a clever little short from Spain. It appears to be director/writer Paco Cavero's first effort. This was another one of my favorites from this year's Nevermore Film Fest, where it picked up both the jury and audience awards for Best International Short. There's not a lot of information online about Cavero or this film, but the good news is that it's available to watch online. Check it out below.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

FOUND: Small Budget, Big Scares

Found (2012)
Director: Scott Schirmer
Seen via: Nevermore Film Festival
Rating: 8.5 / 10

One of the best things about watching indie films is finding that hidden gem - the one that manages to emerge with its creative vision intact despite the constraints facing its filmmakers. Found is a perfect example of such a film. It was filmed in the Bloomington, Indiana area for approximately $8,000 (most of which was spent on effects) with a local cast and crew who were willing to work unpaid and dedicate months of work to see the film to completion. Despite its humble origins, it never feels like an amateur production. Director Scott Schirmer has been honing his craft for over ten years, and with Found, his dedication has paid off. This is flat-out one of the most thought-provoking and disturbing horror films I've seen in a long time.

Found throws you immediately into its story, opening with a middle-schooler named Marty looking through his teenage brother Steve's closet and pulling out a decapitated human head in a bowling ball bag. This isn't the first head Marty has found, as his voice-over narration tells us, but he's been reluctant to expose his brother's secret for fear it may tear apart his already troubled family. Besides, he loves his brother and he can't reconcile the Steve he knows with the kind of murderous monsters that populate his favorite horror films. Adding to Marty's anxiety is the fact that he's being bullied at school. Marty would be happy to keep to his few close friends and his hobbies: drawing violent comic books and watching horror movies. But middle-school logic dictates that someone must be picked on, and that person happens to be Marty. With violence becoming increasingly prevalent in his life and his ability to shelter himself from being subjected to daily cruelties seemingly dwindling by the day, is he destined to follow in his brother's footsteps?


Found's biggest strength is its willingness to confront a plethora of difficult issues without ever settling for truisms or easy answers. In the course of addressing the central question (Why is my big brother killing people?), the film deals with a veritable laundry-list of hot-button issues that include bullying, notions of masculinity, homophobia, and even racism. At the center of it all is the question of the nature and origin of violence, never more relevant than in our post-Sandy Hook world. Engaging with such issues is difficult, and doing it well is even harder. It would have been easy to fall into Lifetime Original Movie territory and construct characters that fall neatly into opposing perspectives on each issue. That's never the case here. There's a healthy dose of ambiguity that arises as a result of framing the story through the eyes of a middle schooler who hasn't quite figured everything out for himself. The only parts that feel as if they're sold short are those involving racism. While these issues are resolved in a way at the end, the film could have functioned just as well without them.

By making Marty a young horror fan, Found is also able to address a number of issues within the genre. These arise mainly in the context of a fictional film-within-the-film called Headless - a plotless exercise in splatter where a skull-faced killer murders buxom women and violates their decapitated heads. The sexualized violence would be disturbing enough on its own, but enveloping it in a scene where Marty and his young friend watch and comment on it elevates it above a simple bone thrown to the gorehounds in the audience. While many horror fans are quick to shrug off the violence in most films as "fake" or "lame" (as Headless is by Marty's friend), everyone has something that resonates, particularly if they've entered into the world of horror at a young age. Headless hits a nerve for Marty, who's wondering if this might be the trigger that inspired his brother's acts. The scene turns into a game of one-upmanship between Marty and his friend, begging the question: are gore-fests like this really just a way to assuage residual middle school insecurities about masculinity? Is becoming desensitized to violence an integral part of growing up? Why do we watch this stuff, anyway? The sexualization of violence as viewed through (quasi-)innocent eyes also raises questions about the consequences of making such material available to impressionable viewers. It's unusual for a horror film to be this critical of the genre, but Found treats the questions fairly. While it does dissect the some of the sleazier corners of the horror world, it spends an equal amount of time exploring how violence arises elsewhere within families and society. The meta-commentary is never preachy or condescending, and ultimately its cognizance of how the horror genre works only makes it more effective as a horror film.

A leading role that so frequently intersects with such difficult subject matter would be difficult for any actor, let alone one as young as Found's main character. Gavin Brown does a superb job as Marty, and his performance brings a level of honesty that never belies his lack of formal training. Ethan Philbeck is also very good as Steve. He manages to be frightening and imposing while simultaneously letting the kindness that Marty wishes to see in him occasionally shine through. The supporting cast doesn't always give performances that are quite at the level of the leads, but all are adequate, and none are jarring. For a self-financed independent film, a few minor blips in the acting can be easily overlooked.


Found is a film that has been rolling around in the back of my mind since I saw it a week and a half ago. It opens strongly and slowly stokes the fires of dread throughout its entire runtime. Since Steve's horrible secret is revealed in literally minute one, we have the entire length of the film to mull it over, dwell on it, and wonder if there's any way this story can possibly end well. Every scene of innocuous family life is underlined by an anticipation of something awful that only increases as things spiral out of control. Since we see the story through Marty's eyes, the sense of the stifling powerlessness unique to childhood is captured perfectly and harnessed against the viewer in a truly chilling fashion. The film crescendoes in a finale that had me squirming in my seat, wondering how long it could possibly be before the credits rolled. Even if I saw the general direction the film was going, I was unprepared for exactly how horrifying its ultimate realization would be. Few films provoke such a visceral reaction in me, but Found is one of them. It's challenging, exhausting, and provocative, all in the best way possible. The fact that Schirmer and his cast and crew have done so much with so little is remarkable.

I saw Found at the Nevermore Film Festival, where it won both the jury and audience awards for best feature. Found is currently being screened in and around the festival circuit. The window for purchasing limited edition DVDs has recently closed, but watch the film's official site for more information on how and where to see Found: http://www.foundmovie.net

Friday, March 1, 2013

SANDWICH CRAZY Gives You a Reason Not to Eat Your Vegetables

Sandwich Crazy (2011)
Director: Michael Doucette
Seen via: Nevermore Film Festival
Runtime: 5 min

I can say from experience that working in food service sucks, and it only gets worse the higher up on the totem pole you are. Nobody knows this better than the hero of Sandwich Crazy, a sandwich shop owner named Gary who's struggling to sell enough food just to pay his rent. So when a mysterious stranger comes along and offers him a microwave oven that'll revolutionize his sandwich making, it seems too good to be true... and it is.

The magic microwave makes sandwiches that local patrons crave, but it also begins to affect Gary's mind. He starts hearing voices as he's making his sandwiches - tiny little vegetable voices. The veggies have come to life (embodied by puppets in the movie), and plead not to be chopped up. "I'm just filler!" cries a head of lettuce, as it bleeds all over the cutting board. The little puppets are equally cute and foul-mouthed, and harass Gary endlessly as the bloodthirsty patrons storm his shop to satiate their manic hunger. Gary faces a choice: how many sentient vegetables is he willing to kill to turn a profit? How many can he kill before he loses his mind?

Sandwich Crazy is a short produced as part of the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative Film 5 program, which offers fledgling directors, writers, and crew the training and resources necessary to produce high-quality 5-minute shorts. There were a handful of Film 5 productions that screened at Nevermore (I think I counted three), and all stood out among the shorts I saw. Sandwich Crazy was by far my favorite. It has an insanely dark sense of humor, magnified greatly by the superb use of puppets. As Gary loses his mind, the color scheme also goes off the rails into a supersaturated palette reminiscent of Jason Eisener's work. (I swear I saw him credited, but IMDB doesn't list him.) This is clearly the product of filmmakers having fun, and it's a blast to watch.

While Sandwich Crazy isn't currently available to watch online, you can keep tabs on it via the film's Facebook page or tumblr (which seems to be idle as of late). In the meantime, you can watch the team's previous short-short film, Dead Body below: