Tag Archives: Ryan Marshall

CAT SICK BLUES (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

 

There’s an audience out there (make that far out there) for contemporary exploitation cinema of the most unadulterated variety – I like to believe I fit in there somewhere and somehow – and it’s easy to imagine that there are those who go for this kind of stuff based purely on unorthodox spectacle. This is the market that Dave Jackson’s demented CAT SICK BLUES seems to be best suited for, and while it’s certainly not devoid of merit for merely curious parties, it can be inferred that for most, it bumps up against established limits a bit close for comfort.

That’s of course by design, as this bizarre cinematic concoction concerns a sleazy serial killer who runs around wearing a black cat mask as well as a grotesquely long strap-on dildo while suffering from frequent seizures; you see, he’s attempting to collect the blood of nine female victims so that he may resurrect his recently deceased feline friend. It’s an inspired and often amusing premise, and though Jackson seems to embrace the humor inherent in its dark heart, it nevertheless walks a fine line between fluff and ferocity.

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Take, for instance, the case of Claire (Shian Donavan), a young woman who the psychotic anti-hero Ted (Matthew Vaughan) takes a shine to after learning that they share similar grief over an absent pet in their respective lives. Soon after she’s introduced, the poor woman is subjected to a particularly fateful afternoon when an unstable fanatic intrudes on Claire’s privacy; killing, an internet sensation, by twisting its neck on accident before raping her on camera.

Much like the majority of the more affecting sequences, this is mostly just exceedingly uncomfortable, and then Jackson dares to show the animal being thrown out of the apartment window and hitting the pavement; initially bordering on unbelievable, and it more or less stays that way, but the sight of the corpse/doll rebounding off the bike racks on its way down brings to mind fond (and hilarious) memories of the infamous suicide from Euro-trash classic ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, in which some sorry son of a bitch flings himself out a hospital window and loses his arm in the end, only to have it reattached in the next shot.

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The experience on a whole wears this kind of conflicted emotional pallet proudly, inspiring almost as many uneasy laughs as prolonged cringes. There are attempts at blatant social commentary (regarding the relationship between technology and the people) which remain almost remarkably one-note throughout and Claire’s potentially poignant sub-plot is unfortunately undercooked at best and genuinely tasteless at worst, with Jackson’s script failing to explore her trauma in any sort of subtle or satisfactory way. Sure, one could argue that the sleaze aficionados of old were hardly any more enlightened (in the traditional sense), but they certainly had more going on, and acknowledged that some semblance of humanism has to be brought with them into such transgressive terrain. The world the film envisions is neither condensed nor elaborate enough to support this kind of weight, and so it simply collapses under it; reveling in its own ugliness until it achieves only tedium.

The narrative essentially moves full speed ahead until it hits the home stretch. Jackson, a native Aussie, delivers the icky goods in spectacularly over-the-top fashion, generously rewarding viewers for their patience, and to his credit it’s impressive what unsavory horrors the writer/director and company are able to achieve on a low budget. This applies to the rest of the film as well; it looks nice most of the time and Jackson is able to get decent performances from his main cast. Nevertheless, it’s a film of several severe tonal and moral miscalculations, most of which are clearly intentional but no less debilitating. The brutal murders committed at the hands of Ted become increasingly more visceral as his spree goes on, resembling music videos at a certain point (what with slow-motion and insane amounts of hyper-stylized bloodshed) and let’s not even get into the synth score, which seems to imply heavily nostalgic undertones.

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It’s just not a good look for a film that constantly prides itself on how utterly distinctive it is, though mileage may vary based on one’s tolerance for this specific brand of pandering – which, to be fair, doesn’t necessarily define the experience, but it would be better off without it. It’s all a bit exhausting in the end, though not necessarily in the way(s) that its makers intended. There’s enough ambition here to garner interest in whatever Jackson has in store for the foreseeable future – in hopes that perception and perversion balance each-other out in the next outing and that the brain need not be checked at the door.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

The finest films tend to engage fervently with their specific time and place; entertaining the bigger picture as well as those more effectively intimate spaces. For Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the solitary sad sack at the heart of Kenneth Lonergan’s devastatingly beautiful MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, the coastal Massachusetts town of the film’s namesake – which he is summoned to upon the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) – represents the abode of old bones, a wretched abyss from which he never truly escaped.

This painfully resonant examination of grief has the tendency to feel almost operatic – due in no small part to Lesley Barber’s unforgettably somber score – but it is perhaps even more indebted to the director’s history as a successful playwright. With this being his third feature at the helm, it would appear Lonergan has established a comfortable middle ground between naturalism and artifice; conversations and evocatively-lit interiors evoking the essence of a hang-out flick at times, but without the same redemptive tranquility, and the most ample truths are recouped from awkward silence.

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Lee seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders from the moment he’s introduced, serving the unappreciative tenants of the apartment complex where he works as a janitor. On top of that, his relationship with the bottle proves somewhat detrimental, and agonizing flashbacks bleed into everyday reality so seamlessly, and constantly, that the transitions tend to appear rather subtle at first. It’s only when Lee returns to his home town and discovers that he is to become the legal guardian of his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) that the most painful memories of all permeate his psyche once again.

This extended flashback is as close to a revelatory moment as the viewer is going to get, but granted a better understanding of Lee’s history, it’s much easier to empathize with his plight. He’s simply a man attempting to subvert his sins, stuck in his own moderately self-imposed limbo. For him, Manchester signifies suspicious stares, possibly seeing Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s ex-wife who shares in his suffering, on the streets, and having to confront several decades worth of honest failures; it’s no longer just a picturesque setting.

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One look into Affleck’s cold, inconsolable eyes inspires immediate compassion; everyone here is marvelous, but he’s never been better, and in less capable hands the character could have been a one trick pony. His world is a deeply disturbed one, and though there’s plenty of comic relief on the road to redemption, it remains a carefully crafted crescendo of melancholy. If it’s even there to begin with, the happy ending is well out of reach, but what Lonergan provides in its place is even more enduring. As a celebration of the little moments that can either make or break who we are – like, for instance, a panic attack brought on by frozen meat – and who we’re meant to be, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is an invaluable testament to inordinate darkness giving way to understated wisdom as well as progress in its many, obscured forms.

ZEDER (1983) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

Circa 1956, young Gabriella is brought to the estate of Dr. Meyer, who believes that the girl harnesses supernatural powers and intends to put them to good use during one fateful night. After accompanying her to the basement, where she begins writhing about on the dirt-covered ground and is then attacked by something unseen when left alone, Meyer deduces that the area they’ve stumbled upon is what is known as a “K Zone” upon realizing that the man who infamously studied them, Paolo Zeder, was buried underneath the house some years ago.

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Favoring petrifying ambiance over surface-level schlock, though impartial to entertaining the latter when apt, Pupi Avati’s horror films are characteristically infused with a kind of sinister, otherworldly energy; as if the man responsible for them always has one foot in reality and the other in the spirit world. In this sense, ZEDER (aka REVENGE OF THE DEAD) is straight from the heart of its maker, being (among other things) a film that deals directly with those disconcerting voices from beyond and why they are necessary to a superior understanding of our surroundings.

Following such a uniquely enigmatic opening, we are introduced to Stefano (Gabriele Lavia), a young novelist living in present day (1983) Bologna. He comes home one day to a surprise anniversary gift from his wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas) in the form of an old typewriter which he can’t help but test drive that same evening. Upon closer inspection of the ribbon housed inside the apparatus, he discovers an essay written by the aforementioned Zeder and becomes increasingly obsessed with the man’s studies.

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Similarly to Avati’s masterful giallo THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS, the unlikely hero often feels alone in the world. Whenever Stefano attempts to inquire about Zeder and his finds, even the most reputable members of society turn him away; and when he decides to take matters into his own hands, they tend to get a bit dirty. He must be careful who he talks to, for their lives may be endangered if he does so.

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Without showing too much, Avati manages to get deep under your skin; take the K-Zones, for instance, which have something to do with reanimation, and yet that specific “something” is never explored in explicit detail. However, it’s undoubtedly better off this way. The horrors of ZEDER, beautifully rendered as they are, seem rooted in paranoia and guilt on a profoundly national scale; the film is like an exorcism for all of Italy, albeit one where the cleansing of body and soul is secondary to the painful possession of Avati’s fellow countrymen and how they attempt to evade it. While Stefano pursues the mystery at hand, Gabriella (now an adult) and Meyer scheme – it would be unwise to trust that anyone, even those closest to you, are not in on it in some way. It’s an angry, poignant, and indeed genuinely frightening state of affairs – assuming one is enticed by implication.

European horror films tend to wear their imperfections on their sleeve, and ZEDER is no exception. Franco Delli Colli’s (RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, MACABRE, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER) cinematography is luscious, Riz Ortolani’s score is typically fierce, the make-up effects – particularly for the undead – are refreshingly subtle, and yet there are flaws to be found in Amedeo Salfa’s editing. On a whole, the film flows exquisitely – but once in a while there’s an abrupt transition which threatens to soil an otherwise divine experience; and although this is easily redeemed, it can’t help but pale, if only slightly, in comparison to its aforementioned cinematic brethren as a result.

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But oh, what sights Avati has to show you. From the abandoned soon-to-be-hotel which marks the high point of Stefano’s journey and the dusty tunnels running underneath to the young couple’s sleek, secure apartment, it’s remarkable how distinctive each location feels and how well the director utilizes them throughout. One feels alienated regardless of where they find themselves; the world is wired by phantoms. As is the case with some of the best, this is a film about man’s relationship with time and place in unison with his personal affairs; while the romance at the center of the story gives it a much-needed emotional backbone, it’s ultimately a vision of our ever-changing landscape and how we choose to confront those sudden transitions.

Admittedly, this could potentially disappoint viewers expecting a gorier, more straight-forward zombie yarn, but what a thing to behold. Avati has contributed something that goes far deeper than exceptional genre cinema, knowing all too well that mystery and tragedy alike account for many of the things in life which are most difficult to swallow. Some questions cannot be answered, or so the director seems to conclude at the end of this macabre tale. We can only seek so much truth before we bump up against our own limits.

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CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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There are more than a few sleazy stocking stuffers out there for those who prefer to take their holiday-themed cinema with a dash or two of unadulterated dementia, but few are as distinctive and genuinely unnerving as Lewis Jackson’s CHRISTMAS EVIL aka YOU BETTER WATCH OUT. Often (understandably) mistaken for a slasher pic and perhaps even better known for being championed by John Waters as the infamous trash connoisseur’s favorite Christmas movie, one might innocently stumble upon this gem and be pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be equally perceptive and perverted rather than simply the latter.

Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) saw mommy kissing Santa Claus once as a young boy and hasn’t been the same since; understandable, seeing as immediately following the incident, Harry runs up to the attic and cuts his hand on the glass from a broken snow globe. This fateful night gives way to an adulthood that could be described as unconventional at best and utterly unmanageable at worst. Harry finds it difficult to balance his public and private lives, working an often demoralizing position at a local toy factory by day and counting down the days until Christmas whenever he’s at home.

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This is soon proven to be far, far more than merely a vice for the deeply disturbed introvert. Harry seems to envision himself as Santa Claus in the flesh, and as such, he not only works hard to perfect his costume before the big night but also keeps detailed records of the good and bad kids on the block. It all gets to be more than a bit creepy real quick, and when Christmas Eve comes around, Harry has slipped out of reality and into the deepest depths of decline, completing his transformation into Saint Nick in order to spread holiday spirit far and wide. What begins as an odyssey built on good cheer soon descends into a bloodbath as Harry finds himself unable to cope with the general (adult) public’s apathy toward his favorite holiday, culminating in an intense closing act straight out of FRANKENSTEIN.

Jackson’s film is a decidedly peculiar one; imperfect, for sure, especially when indulging in the kind of grotesque theatrics that have led viewers to label it as a “slasher” film over the years. But when one considers genre trappings, it is perhaps the film’s ability to transcend them which makes it so genuinely bewildering. Above all else, this is a character study – a sad and scary one at that – and we’re trapped inside of Harry’s sick, delusional head for the entire duration. It’s so close to our waking reality (or at least up until the bat-shit insane finale), that there’s no shame in squirming when Jackson wants us to.

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Exploitation films – and even better, intimate studies of the fractured human psyche disguised as exploitation films – are undeniably at their best when supported by a great deal of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and this is where CHRISTMAS EVIL is at an advantage. The weight of Harry’s off-kilter world is one of intricate pleasures thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Ricardo Avonovich (Murmur of the Heart, That Most Important Thing: Love, Missing), which renders the character’s madcap gift-giving and murder spree as previously internalized phantasmagoria and provides all that came before with the distinct savor of morbid normality. There’s also some clever editing on display throughout, and Jackson’s direction is both efficient and composed; only in a few brief moments do we get a glimpse of a film from a man who isn’t completely in control of his vision.

This mostly refers to the more visually horrific sequences, which include but are not limited to a toy soldier’s sword skewering a human eyeball (enough to make Lucio Fulci blush) and throat slashing by way of the golden star at the top of a Christmas tree. It could certainly be argued that these moments succeed in enhancing the film’s “weird” factor, which is already way off the charts to begin with, but in context they are not only abrupt but over-the-top in a way that would suggest they were hardly the first thing on Jackson’s mind. The conclusion to this macabre tale, in which Harry burdens his poor brother Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his family while on the run from an angry mob, also feels slightly rushed. Luckily, the director’s heart is in the redemption of his dysfunctional misfit, and he finds the perfect way to cap it all off.

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While CHRISTMAS EVIL will hardly be everyone’s cup of spiked eggnog, it comes equipped with more than enough heart, humor, horror, and genuine pathos to hold its own even against the inevitable naysayers. It is a fine film with an ambitious concept, one that it does not always execute tastefully, but one that is nevertheless explored in a consistent, satisfactory manner. Maggart is so good here that you find yourself surrendering to his solitary psycho; as ugly as his actions may be, we know Harry only has the best intentions deep down, which in itself inspires quite the palatable moral dilemma. Jackson’s film may unabashedly deal heavily in steaming coal, and its exterior may at first appear to be a needlessly nasty one, but through its own unique cocktail of extremism and empathy it achieves a kind of strange humanity, one that allows it to thrive beyond the realm of mere curio. For all the talk of it being an anti-Christmas picture, it certainly does its best to keep the spirit alive in its own wacked-out way. Quite the exquisite feast of discomposure, and a terrifically twisted treat for all sorts of adventurous parties.

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MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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Surely a seasoned connoisseur of the silver screen can relate the experience of watching a film to emotional responses which seem to transcend the medium all-together. For instance, certain films may have a distinctive smell; others might even allow one to taste something either delectable or truly putrid on the tip of their tongue. Robert Altman’s MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, a whiskey-soaked indictment of American idealism filtered through the abstracted gaze of a hazy opium den, truly has the best of both worlds – the film smells strongly of musk and is bitter to the taste but nonetheless warm once it’s in you. It has the benefit of seamlessly evoking homeliness and absolute desolation in equal measures; not once is one allowed to truly sit back and take in the spectacle on a base level, but if that’s not somehow oddly ingenious in its own right, then I’ll be damned.

John McCabe (Warren Beaty) arrives in Presbyterian Church, Washington as a stranger, but soon establishes himself as a legend of his own distinct variety. A gambling man with a detrimental love affair with the bottle, McCabe is immediately met with suspicion on the part of the townspeople, who suspect he’s really a gunslinger that shot one of their own over a card game some time ago. Nevertheless, it’s his reputation – coupled with his intense personality – that allows McCabe to be seen as a leader among loners and losers in this quiet little Northwest town. It is here that he aspires to establish a brothel, the first step in doing so being the acquisition of three women from one of the neighboring towns.

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This, of course, will hardly be substantial in the long run. Along comes another stranger, Constance Miller (Julie Christie), who proposes that the two become business partners. It’s an offer that McCabe simply can’t refuse, and they’re all the better for it; it’s not long before three girls turns into about a dozen and the establishment is doubling as a bathhouse. As rewarding as this venture appears to be, the attempted intervention on the part of a nearby mining company indicates there may be trouble ahead for both business and personal pleasure alike.

Only a select few films have a kind of palpable density that the viewer feels right in the gut, and as it turns out Altman has made quite a few of them. Throughout the course of just two hours, man himself is challenged (the tragedy of masculinity suppressing all which stands in its path), and everything – land and life alike – has a dollar value. For instance, when McCabe continually refuses the offers from the mining company’s shady representatives, they send over a trio of bounty hunters to seal the deal. Afraid for his life but unwilling to leave the town and business he helped start, McCabe turns to his lawyer for advice, but is instead treated to a spiel that basically amounts to the company’s safety being favored over McCabe’s. The poor bastard’s response is genuinely haunting: “Well I just, uh…didn’t want to get killed.”

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This is a film that soars, perhaps even more-so than the average Western (MCCABE is revisionist). Altman’s uncanny genius can be traced back to his modesty, quite an appealing quality in any artist, though given the sense of scale and impeccable attention to detail present in his work it’s almost a bit amusing. And yet, even though there are moments of genuine humor, no doubt provided by McCabe himself, the character remains a tragic one; one whose deepest flaws would appear to be almost entirely of his own making. The man is an enigma and a half to the naked eye. And Mrs. Miller, who as it turns out has a bit of an opium habit, is essentially the product of an unnecessarily harsh world dominated by the opposite sex, a world in which her expertise doesn’t seem welcome. And thus, the romanticism of the genre is stripped from Altman’s warped worldview, and in its place a new kind of grandeur emerges.

It goes without saying at this point, forty-something years after the fact, that Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is absolutely note-perfect. The world in which the tortured, titular souls occupy is one largely confined to dark rooms and dusty bars; and the town’s exteriors couldn’t possibly be any rougher. There’s an inherent bleakness to it, and yet when there is any semblance of light shining bright at the end of the tunnel, it does not go unnoticed. Not only does this feel absolutely distinctive in terms of its genre, Altman and Zsigmond go the extra mile to find beauty in even the most deliberately obscured of images. Form is no longer so well-defined and the rules no longer apply in the same way that they used to.

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Altman’s films tend to have rich, multi-dimensional soundscapes in which the abstraction of sonic perception gives way to a new language of its own. Here, no spoken word is free of the director’s unique grasp. Conversations are always overlapping to the point where the subject becomes more important to the viewer than the content, which is ultimately an effective method of conjuring up such an off-kilter atmosphere. Lou Lombardo’s editing is equally as inventive – time feels almost nonexistent in this town after we’ve spent a considerable amount of time there. The focus shifts between characters both integral to the central relationship and generally insignificant, adding to their collective mystique. Altman challenges us to embrace this very quality head-on, to return to a sort of exhilarating ambiguity that audiences of today have all but shunned.

The frontier unveils new angles from which to exquisitely immortalize it and the frontiersmen themselves remain largely the same. The cinema of transcendence is alive and well, drinking bourbon by the fireside, mumbling incoherently under its bearded breath. The lovely, brooding songs of Leonard Cohen allow it – and us – to drift off into a state of near unconsciousness; a state from which we’d hardly like to return. MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is a subtly colossal achievement, especially in the positively brilliant final twenty minutes, a film of dreamy, universal resonance. It’s a world you could settle into for twice – perhaps even triple – the length we’re provided with. “I know that kind of man, it’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky just to surrender. And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind, you find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter.”

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BLOOD FREAK (1972) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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Brad Grinter’s BLOOD FREAK is a consistently bewildering acidheaded cinematic turkey; in theory, it’s a real piece of shit, but in practice, its many moralistic contradictions and aesthetic misjudgments give it a flavor that is somehow anything but dry. A select few films are permitted to get by on their boundless imaginations alone, and this is one of them – a steaming pile of 70’s counterculture and pent up anxieties, to which Grinter’s film is hardly the solution, but you can’t help but commend him for trying.

On a sunny day, Vietnam vet Herschell (Steve Hawkes) spots a pretty young thing named Angel (Heather Hues) whose car has broken down on the highway, and promptly whisks her away on his motorbike. Angel takes him back to her house, which she shares with her promiscuous sister, who offers Hershell some pot upon his arrival. At first, he refuses, but eventually gives into temptation after the sister seduces him one day by the pool. Herschell finds himself with an immediate addiction (!).

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Herschell takes a job at a local turkey farm, where a couple of bumbling scientists are testing experimental chemicals on the livestock. They require a human guinea pig for this operation, and bribe Herschell into participating by promising to replenish his stash little-by-little. However, the effects of devouring the chemically altered meat prove to be nightmarish after Herschell suffers a seizure and enters a violent, hallucinatory state.

Without spoiling too much in regards to this bold new narrative direction, the film’s most memorable sequences reside after this point – any research on the film will surely lead to inspiring images of a horrible life-size papier-Mache turkey head. So that’s where this film goes; that is to say, way off the deep end. The entire last act is a hysterical collage of grotesque regurgitated sound effects and aimless animalism as Herschell carves his way through a series of sexual deviants and junkies.

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This can be most obviously read as an anti-drug PSA disguised as a cheapo psych-out horror picture, which is particularly amusing when one takes note of the director’s frequent appearances throughout the film in which he chain-smokes as he comments on the action. To think that Grinter’s tongue might be planted firmly in his cheek might be giving the director the benefit of the doubt, as the way in which he handles this material is almost characteristically incompetent. For instance, it is heavily implied throughout – and later confirmed – that Herschell suffers from PTSD and is self-medicating as a result. The film ignores the poignancy of the subject and goes straight for shock value; and let’s not even begin to discuss its puerile vision of rampant drug culture.

It’s an outsider view of just about everything it claims to stand for, which proves to be quite problematic – but it is precisely these kinds of seemingly innocent miscalculations that make it so consistently entertaining. The opening scene assumes a strange kind of schizophrenic rhythm that Jess Franco might have admired and then never follows up on it, the writing is a special kind of awful, its treatment of women is even more pedestrian now than it was back in the day – and yet there is so much enjoyment to be derived from the experience, in spite of patches which veer dangerously into Dullsville. The filmmakers can’t even seem to pull focus most of the time and yet they’ve emerged with a work of exceptional amateurism that would put most professionals to shame. Most seasoned viewers won’t appreciate it, but the sleaziest among us will continue to rejoice.

 

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

 

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2016 has certainly shaped up to be a productive year for Mike Flanagan, whose 2011 Lovecraftian indie ABSENTIA effectively thrust the director into the spotlight, with a couple of his most recent releases being the Netflix-distributed home invasion thriller HUSH, about a deaf woman defending her cabin in the woods from a sadistic stranger, and the fantasy-horror yarn BEFORE I WAKE, which after being delayed for nearly two years enjoyed a limited theatrical run earlier in September.  One could say the filmmaker – born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts – is at the height of his powers at the moment. There is, however, a third and final film in this sequence, and it might just be the best of the bunch.

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is billed as a sequel to the supposed stinker of similar namesake from 2014, and months prior to its release, Flanagan was already quite open as to how he felt about that film. It was a career move that was sure to turn a couple heads, but anyone who knows anything of the director’s past work knows that he goes all in or not at all, and his commitment to the project left little room to doubt that it was one which allowed his creativity to flourish.

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Los Angeles, 1967; a family of three – Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters, teenage Lina (Annalisa Basso) and Doris Zander (a truly superb Lulu Wilson) – runs an in-house fortune telling business which involves scamming customers through séance. Alice would be the first to admit that it’s all a hoax, but she enjoys feeling that they’ve providing clients with some closure in regards to their personal grief.  One day, she decides to add an Ouija board to the family’s professional repertoire, which immediately piques young Doris’s curiosity. Unfortunately her sporadic use of the device unearths more than few skeletons in the family’s collective closet, one being the absent father figure, who Doris claims she speaks to through the board.

His spirit is hardly the last or the most malicious to enter through the doors which lie between our world and the one(s) beyond. Mother and eldest daughter go through their own separate arcs – with a local priest and much younger romantic interest from school, respectively – though Doris undergoes a transformation of a far more sinister nature, one which is tragically beyond her control.

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ORIGIN OF EVIL opts for a slow-burn approach, which surely benefits the film’s more dramatic aspirations. The number of jump scares could barely be counted on one hand, and while there’s some obvious CGI employed whenever Doris looks into the mirror world of the dead, this too is done rather tastefully; these brief shots feeling much like the invasive spirits which haunt the narrative rather than studio-imposed diversions. Besides, they exist in such an exquisitely crafted portal. Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is simply outstanding, with most of the film showered in foreboding, ethereal light and the rest adorned with meticulous sleaze and grime. There’s beautiful, phantasmagorical imagery here fit for a Bava or a Fulci, which can never be a bad thing, and the film is perhaps best approached as a cinematic fairy tale of the variety which those filmmakers often dabbled in. Ultimately, a stronger ending could have been applied, but every good/great film should be allowed a fault or two.

Once again, Flanagan is deeply fascinated with the deconstruction of the American family, though his point of view doesn’t seem to be one rooted in cynicism. His latest, much like the earlier OCULUS (2013), is more about what keeps us together as opposed to what tears us apart; which secrets should remain unheard of and which ones we should more openly discuss amongst ourselves. The way in which Flanagan relates paranormal experiences to emotional discharge is subtly moving, and there’s also an understated feminist streak which runs throughout his work thus far. Here is a genre director who understands all too well that horror films should inspire tears before fits of laughter, and that most simply do not work without some semblance of resonance. While he’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, the director’s intrinsic technique and empathy is so consistently impeccable that one can believe – at least in the moment – that he might as well be doing so.

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THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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The forest has always been an essential breeding ground for cinematic insanity, and it’s not hard to imagine why; after all, the things closest to us but which we have really have only begun to understand are among the most terrifying. Writer/Director Joel Potrykus uses the woodlands to summon a consistent air of dread in his latest genre-defying curio, THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK, though it’s hardly the sole location herein whose deep-seeded hallucinatory horrors are so cleverly uprooted throughout the film’s tight, disconcerting narrative.

Ty Hickson, a relative newcomer with only a few credits to his name, stars as Sean, a mentally unstable young man who lives in a trailer somewhere in the woods where he can be alone with only himself and his cat Kaspar to practice alchemy as a means of acquiring a fortune. It’s clear that Sean’s pill-popping may be the source of his wild ambition, but at the very least he’s committed, and his friend Cortez (a hilarious Amari Cheatom) visits often to ensure that he’s got plenty of food, tools, and has his prescription refilled to boot. As good of a friend as Cortez is, he is far from perfect, and one day he forgets to bring the meds.

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Before we can even begin to settle down within the pitch-perfect representation of Sean’s unbalanced psyche, he’s dabbling in black magic as a means of speeding up his process; which of course could potentially be the final nail in the coffin for our tragically delusional friend. It’s at this point that the mood shifts from that of a breezy and often hilarious hang-out pic (in which one of the two people involved only sometimes shows up) with subtle macabre flourishes to a genuinely disturbing body horror film, and it’s the seemingly effortless way in which the narrative alternates between the two – and others as well – that makes it so unforgettable.

The Michigan-based Potrykus prefers to work with restrained budgets and unhinged characters, challenges and limitations which seem to have worked in his favor thus far (this is his third feature, after 2012’s APE and 2014’s BUZZARD). The simplicity of the build-up benefits the lasting ambience of the truly haunting payoff; it’s ultimately more effectively horrifying than the majority of straight genre efforts. In Sean’s phantasmagorical fantasy world, the forest is very much alive with beastly bellowing, low growls, and big splashes (in the wetland areas). No animal, not even a seemingly innocent possum, can be trusted other than the faithful feline, who should be commended for the magnitude of the madness he puts up with here. Everything with any semblance of purity is reduced to savage animalism in the end, and perhaps that is what the film is really about – going backwards through forced progress. Sometimes, we must let nature take its course, for it works in mysterious ways.

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Potrykus dares to find beauty in Sean’s plight, and the fact that he does so in spades is no easy feat. The character’s misery is entirely of his own making, though the implication seems to be that there’s still time for Sean to redeem himself. There’s also a great deal of humor to be wrought from Sean and Cortez’s interactions, with one scene in particular involving the consumption of cat food being a prime example of pure, thoroughly awkward observational comedy. Absurdism runs through this whole strange exercise, though there’s an honest sadness in Sean’s eventual transformation. We’ve been so up close and personal with the unlikely protagonist leading up to this point that there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be made to witness his ultimate decline on a similarly intimate scale. We grow to like the guy – a lot – in spite of his flaws, though luckily this feels more like fate than outright punishment.

Empathy is the key and love is the spirit. THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK is certainly a strange one by any conventional standards, but it’s just not that simple. There is real humanity here, both in its passionate ode to the benefits of solitude itself and its singular tale of a man running out of nature and losing himself to what’s left of it. Its commitment to staying well within the boundaries of its protagonist’s headspace brings to mind the similar triumphs of John Hancock’s LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, the effects of which are genuinely devastating. Potrykus is more than just one of the most singular minds in contemporary American independent cinema; here, he’s solidified himself even further as one of the most important voices for the outcasts of the silver screen and the damned spaces they occupy. His latest is akin to a waking nightmare – of a similar essence to the abandoned dinghy in the middle of the pond that just begs to be investigated further – and yet it brings such profound joy.

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MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

The true poetry of the macabre requires the thorough perusing of a far out cosmic language, a séance to effectively make contact with the phantasms inherent in our reality that have over time inspired the ones we see in literature or on the screen. Horror films often make for the most compelling alchemic excursions because they dance so closely with such demons, unafraid to create friction in order to exorcise them. These are our nightmares. They don’t always make sense, and they don’t only come at night. Yet, they are undoubtedly a significant part of what makes up our very being. A man devoid of fear – especially that which he does not openly discuss in some fashion – is not one worth trusting.

Some of the most subtextually rich and socially redemptive genre cinema can be exhumed from the 1970’s – a time when the aftermath of the Vietnam War left our world at large, and more specifically America, with spectacularly apocalyptic imagery – and one of the most coveted gems to rise from that particular pile of ashes is MESSIAH OF EVIL, a truly terrifying take on the undead from the scribes behind INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and AMERICAN GRAFFITI (among others), Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. This is the kind of stuff you might put on for “easy late night viewing” but will soon regret doing so as there’s nothing “easy” about the film’s approach to otherworldly dread.

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Beautiful, young Arletty (Marianna Hill) arrives at the coastal resort town of Point Dune in search of her father Joseph Lang (Royal Dano), an artist with whom she has lost contact over the years. Although he is nowhere to be found when she arrives, his house – its walls adorned with paintings of strange shadow people – is open and Arletty decides to continue her search the next morning. This leads her to a trio of drifters shacking up in one of the local motels who are listening intently to an old boozer (Elisha Cook Jr.) babbling on about some mad local tale when she finds them, and who appear to be dysfunctional company to say the least.

The three nevertheless follow Arletty back to her father’s estate and make themselves at home, with their suave male leader Thom (Michael Greer) seducing her soon after, to the disapproval of his female companions. Only when Laura (Anitra Ford) splits and heads into town – where she is picked up by a creepy albino man in a red truck with a penchant for eating live beach rats – is the sinister nature of Point Dune made somewhat clear. Without spoiling too much, lack of hospitality is hardly scratching the surface. It would be in one’s best interest to not wait around too long for all of the answers; some simply don’t come.

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What follows after a spectacular sequence set in a mostly desolate supermarket is a series of individually compelling moments, such as a clever riff on Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS involving Thom’s other companion Toni (Joy Bang) in a movie theater and another where Arletty’s father returns only to attack her. The townspeople are seen gathering at the beach during the witching hour to stand by campfire, staring up at the moon, and the first sign of warning when Arletty first arrives in town is an attendant at a gas station shooting off into the night at some unseen entity(his response is truly spine-chilling: “Dogs…stray dogs. Has to be. Has to be dogs.”); from the get-go, there’s something not quite right about Point Dune, and everyone seems to be harboring some kind of secret. How else would one sustain such a sparse – though in this context, rather convenient – narrative?

Huyck and Katz took more than few pages from a certain Howard Philips Lovecraft’s book for their very own cinematic creation, which comes off kind of like the late author’s THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH on acid. Joseph Lang’s bizarre diaries, in which he speaks of a strange affliction that has befallen him as of late, and will soon begin to affect Arletty as well, may explain what’s going on along the coast; it’s an effective device that is unfortunately posited alongside by Arletty’s own voiceovers, which for the most part don’t benefit the storytelling. Nevertheless, the soundscape is consistently intriguing – for the most part, this feels like it was scored and lensed in another dimension entirely. Then there’s the cinematography from Gloria’s brother, Stephen Katz, who went on to lens a little movie called THE BLUES BROTHERS; absolutely spellbinding stuff, and arguably what makes the film. Both scribes were fresh out of film school when they made their demented debut, and as such, they were more inspired by European art-house than anything else; and it shows. The colorful widescreen compositions bring to mind the likes of Mario Bava, and even Hammer’s own Terence Fisher, with touches of Godard and Antonioni.

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The filmmakers utilize the disturbing paintings inside Joseph Long’s house well, with the silhouettes always hanging over the various characters as they occupy its many hallways and bedrooms, giving off the impression that nowhere is truly safe.  It may be one of the most visually ravishing of all American horror films. Willard, interviewed in Stephen Thrower’s great book NIGHTMARE USA, has gone on record saying that MESSIAH OF EVIL was intended to be his vision of Los Angeles as he saw it after hours. In this case, it’s a rather bleak but no less phantasmagorical one; not a land of opportunity but one that carries with it the putrid stench of death, one that is (for lack of better word) haunted. Many of the undead extras were unemployed aerospace workers at the time and as members of a tightly-knit community they seem to wander around tragically, aimless – but no less capable of acting on their carnal, cannibalistic urges.

Ultimately, this is genuinely exquisite, though imperfect; there’s room for improvement in the casting department, with some dialogue coming off as rather stilted and less than subtle, the edges are overall kind of rough in spite of the sheer grandeur which they contain, and the electronic score – while mostly in service of the weird atmosphere – is often distracting during key scenes which could have benefited from a little more silence. Still, this is one of the most consistently creepy, thoroughly intoxicating and rewarding genre outings of its time; Lovecraft adaptations are admittedly a mixed bag, but by evoking shades rather than drawing directly from the author, Huyck and Katz have made (somewhat unintentionally) one of the best in the lot. It’s like entering another world entirely. Surrender is essential, adoration is an option; they’re coming here, they’re waiting at the edge of the city, they’re peering into windows at night, and they’re waiting. No one will hear you scream.

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I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

One look at David E. Durston and one might guess that he would be the least likely person to have directed one of the most genuinely shocking horror films of the 1970’s, and one brief glance at the truly ridiculous synopsis for his crowning cinematic achievement, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD, might cause one to anticipate that the sum will not indeed be greater than its parts. Billed during its time alongside I EAT YOUR SKIN, a voodoo cheapie straight out of the 60’s, this is the sort of film that we only think we know going in, although most viewers will soon discover that this is not the case. This is a curio and a half, an invigorating subversion of genre filmmaking that is as delightfully demented as it is thoroughly engaging. It wears its sleaze on its sleeves, devoid of any real pretentions; all thrills and chills with little time for filler.

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We open on a naked fireside ritual being held somewhere in the woods amongst a group of hippies with a penchant for the dark arts, led by the exotic Horace Bones (Bhaskar, an Indian performance artist). They kill a chicken and drain its blood into a goblet before spotting a local girl (Iris Brooks) sneaking a peek at the action from between some trees, who is then chased down and raped by a couple of their men. Devastated, she drags herself back into the sleepy town of Sally Hills the next morning, where she’s taken into the care of her kid brother Pete (Riley Mills) and the owner of the town bakery, Mildred (Elizabeth Marner-Brooks).  Her grandfather comes over to check on the poor girl and decides that these rowdy characters must be dealt with immediately.

Meanwhile, the Manson-esque cult makes themselves at home in one of the town’s many abandoned hotels, where they run rampant hunting rats and destroying what’s left of the furniture. The grandfather grabs his shotgun and heads out the door in search of the group, but when he finds them, they take him down and he is force-fed LSD before returning home. Unable to stand by whilst his grandpa is in the throes of a bad trip, Pete takes the gun and goes out into the woods to do some snooping of his own. While exploring the woodland, Pete spots a rabid dog that charges at him, but he’s quick to shoot and after killing the wild animal, he takes some of its blood in a syringe. And what, do you imagine, he does with it? Why, what any other reasonable young fellow would – meaning that he injects the blood into some meat pies back at the bakery, which are then sold to the hippies.

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Everyone but Andy (Tyde Kierney), the suspicious and insecure local kid who somehow got mixed up in the group’s nasty business, digs in to the pies and you can probably – emphasis on PROBABLY – imagine where it’s going from there. What ensues is nothing short of sheer lunacy. Psychopathic – not to mention hydrophobic – hippies running rabid around a US ghost town, foaming at the mouth and spreading their disease far and wide. Durston goes all the way, trying his damned hardest to offend as many parties as he possibly can – religious folks, animal lovers, anyone with the tiniest glimmer of hope in the Good Old American Way – and he gets the job done with a more genuine style and class than one might expect.

Jacques Demarecaux’s work here (as cinematographer) should be commended, certainly more than it has been in the past, with his ethereal and startlingly naturalistic compositions complementing the film’s shamelessly nasty contents. Sometimes, filthy movies are shot beautifully, and this is one of them. However, it’s Durston’s willingness to manipulate tone and audience expectations that makes this a significant cut above the rest and it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t immediately register as a dark comedy for most viewers. This nevertheless appears to be the intention, or so the unforgettably over-the-top dialogue (“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid head!”) and performances, totally psyched-out self-aware soundtrack (credited to Clay Pitts, who has yet to be found), blatant disregard for scientific fact and frequently amusing editing would suggest.

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Sure, it all seems quite mean-spirited, but deep down it is the work of a man whose roots and interests were not necessarily in the macabre, and whose sole desire is to entertain. The tonal shifts may prove to be a bit much for some, alternating between hysterical hippie hangout and sad, disturbing body horror once the pies have been consumed, but they are undoubtedly what make up the film’s distinctive identity. For all their inherent crassness, one feels something akin to sympathy for the deadly deadbeats by the end of their separate ordeals, although it’s understood that they’ve made their own problems up to this point. As hard as it is to watch them destroy one-another, it does make for some spectacular set pieces, such as a sequence which has a mute Lynn Lowry wielding an electric meat carver, and another where Horace squares off against a fellow rabid Satanist, Rollo (George Patterson) in an axe-sword fight. There are many others, but one should embrace all the secrets and ask questions later.

The residents of Sally Hills are like lost souls occupying a space where time does not apply. Mildred looks as if she’s just walked off the set of a porno film, Pete’s an overly moralistic little shit who is most likely based on Durston himself, and the construction workers are an ugly bunch who show their true colors once the epidemic is well underway. A kind of hazy ambience hangs over the film, infusing it with a surreal sense of danger which in turn ensures that it never feels too relaxed. There is authentic tension here, and the pacing could not be more perfect; as mentioned before, there’s little time left for wandering around aimlessly. This is a spectacular entertainment as well as a surprisingly transcendent one and there even seems to be a running commentary about the deconstruction of the American Dream, but perhaps that’s all just as a result of context. It’s nothing that is explored in great detail, but these are the kinds of themes that can make or break a movie like this just by showing up (or not).

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We feel as if we’re seeing something we shouldn’t, and the emotions that such an experience arouses from deep within are conflicting to say the least, but healthy nevertheless. The grime oozes consistently from this one – reach out and touch it and you might just learn something. I DRINK YOUR BLOOD revels in its absurdism and artifice, playing more like a perverted piece of performance art than a silver screen serenade, and also works well as an invaluable time capsule. Some films skate by on that alone, but luckily Durston’s opus has plenty more going for it. This is quintessential viewing for the insane, the unstable, and the amoral; it may be the closest some come to sheer filth without actually involving themselves directly. The title may be misleading, as there is no drinking of the liquid red at any point and this is certainly no vampire tale, but make no mistake – this is a groovy good time, an important entry in the unofficial “psych” horror sub-genre that is less about mind-melting visuals and more about the essence of psychedelia.  Exploitation cinema doesn’t get much better. “Drink from his cup, pledge yourselves. And together we’ll all freak out!”