Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pop Skull (2009)

Everyone remembers their first heartbreak. To some, the memory might be hazy and distant, but to others the pain is all too fresh and real. I’ve had my own experiences with having my heart broken and dealing with rocky break-ups, some even leaving me feeling like I lost everything, even myself.

Director/co-writer Adam Wingard and co-writer/actor Lane Hughes are no strangers to heartbreak either, and were so upset by past breakups that they decided to make a film gleaned from their experiences. With writer E.L. Katz, they crafted an idea for a film and this idea eventually became Pop Skull, a trippy, hallucinatory movie about the unhinging of the lead character’s mind after his first break-up.

Daniel (Lane Hughes) is depressed and addicted to over-the-counter pills after his girlfriend breaks up with him for another guy. In his mind altered state he begins to see all sorts of things – until he can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy. Is something really haunting to him or is it just his mind on the verge of collapse?

The synopsis might not make Pop Skull seem like much, but as soon as you begin watching it envelopes you in its madness. The film shows Daniel’s unraveling in an artistic and inventive way…and you feel like you are right beside him. It makes you darkly dream, drifting further and further into yourself until you feel as hopeless and shut out of the world as Daniel does. A story that sweeps you up like that is a rarity, especially in a low-budget film, but that is precisely what Pop Skull does.

Pop Skull’s story wouldn’t be nearly as successful if the filmmakers hadn’t tapped into their own personal tales of woe and heartbreak, but thanks to those experiences we get a fantastic story as well as a truly mesmerizing performance by Lane Hughes as the quickly deteriorating Daniel. From Daniel’s heartfelt voiceovers with a tone that just oozes vulnerability and brokenness to his hypnotizing performance, Hughes completely owns the role. Don’t get me wrong, the other actors do a fine job as well, but Hughes completely steals the show and kept my eyes glued to the screen. He was just so darn believable and I could wholeheartedly relate to his feelings of desperation and hopelessness!

In regards to visuals, Pop Skull is beautifully filmed, though there are some scenes featuring flickering, pulsating or flashing images that just might induce seizures (a disclaimer in the beginning of the film urges epileptics to skip the film). The entire film was made for $3,000, and many shots were captured by director Adam Wingard and actor Lane Hughes just wandering around in the dead of night or at the crack of dawn. Sun-drenched exterior shots of Daniel and his ex-girlfriend kissing in an open field are juxtaposed with dark and gritty interior scenes in Daniel’s threadbare bedroom or his friend’s small house. I loved this contrast and thought it added a lot of depth to the film. The editing is also very creative, giving the film an artsy feel that elevates it above most low-budget horror films. Sure, some of the sequences of rapidly-flashing scenes were a bit hard to look at, but they effectively showed how disoriented Daniel’s mind was becoming.

Though Pop Skull is definitely not your typical horror film, there are quite a few effective scares peppered throughout the film. The jarring shots of the “things” Daniel sees in his home, imagined or not, are pretty freaky and caused me to jump more than once. The sound design also helped set the foreboding feeling. Though the music featured throughout was ambient most of the time, at key moments it distorted into awful noises to disturb the viewer with a double-whammy of jarring noise and frightening visuals.

Pop Skull is a disorienting, hallucinogenic and dream-like horror film unlike anything I’ve seen lately. It’s mesmerizing to watch the damaged lead character being pushed to the breaking point and experiencing just what he experiences, not knowing if its reality or fantasy. Plus, the ending is just riveting and probably the creepiest scene in the movie!

This low-budget film is not for everyone, but if you have an appreciation for slow-burning, artsy, independent films I highly urge you to take a dark journey with Pop Skull.

Order it on Amazon!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Frayed (2009)

Frayed is an independent production from Washington State made by three lifelong friends with a dream of making a movie together. Though the film’s premise might sound like a typical slasher (and the film’s DVD cover certainly does it no justice), as the story progresses it offer much more than the typical stalk and slash movie. Frayed manages to transcend and discard genre conventions and delivers a film with an unexpected, shocking ending. It also manages to overcome the obstacle of a low budget and delivers a polished, professional-looking film that is sure to get tongues a-waggin’ in the horror community.

The film opens on a home video of young Sara’s fifth birthday party, complete with balloons, presents, cake and even a clown. Sarah couldn’t be happier, until her eight-year-old brother Kurt ruins her big day by being overly aggressive. Kurt is sent upstairs to his room and Mom comes in after the party, still toting the video camera, to see if he is ready to apologize to Sara. Suddenly, the video camera drops to the ground and we see Mom also violently fall…and then she is brutally beaten to a pulp by a baseball bat.

Kurt is sent to a mental institution for killing his mother, but enters into a catatonic state and won’t speak to anyone. The doctors say he has a disassociate personality disorder and can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. His father, Pat (Tony Doupe), who also happens to be the small town’s sheriff, checks in on him regularly but after several years the doctors tell him they can do no more for Kurt and suggest he is moved to another facility. Meanwhile, sister Sara (Alena Dashiell) and step-mother Jolene (Kellee Bradley) have moved on and rarely talk about Kurt or the past.

On the night Kurt is scheduled to be transferred to a more secure institution, he escapes and starts brutally killing people again. As Pat and a lone security guard named Gary (Aaron Blakely) try to track down Kurt, it becomes clear that no one can stop him from reuniting with the family that has forsaken him while facing some very dark family demons.

When I first sat down to watch Frayed, I really wasn’t expecting much. It looked like your typical slasher so I prepared to turn my brain off and just let the mayhem ensue. It started with a bang (the mom’s death scene definitely lives up to the hype of “one of the most brutally graphic scenes ever depicted on film”, especially considering this in an indie effort), but soon I found myself thinking that the storyline was too similar to Halloween. A child killer that grows up in a mental institution but escapes to wreak havoc on his estranged family was a bit too reminiscent of the iconic Michael Myers for me. As the film progressed, though, it became more its own film, with plenty of inventive twists and turns that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Despite the initial shocking bludgeoning death of the mother in the film’s opening scenes, Frayed is a lot less gory and bloody than most modern slashers. Instead, it focuses on the psychological terror of a killer that’s hot on the victim’s heels, much like the “old school” slashers back in the day. I really loved the crazy clown costume Kurt wears as he stalks his victims and how it ties back to the tragedy he experienced as a child. There is a lot of suspense and tension throughout Frayed, something you don’t usually see a lot of in the “modern slasher”. I liked how it relied more on dread and really built up the story and characters instead of just focusing on blood and guts.

The actors all did a surprisingly good job with each of their characters. The real star was Aaron Blakely as Gary the security guard. We keep cheering him on as he escapes time and time again from Kurt. I also liked Tony Doupe’s multi-layered performance as Sheriff Pat and Tasha Smith-Floe plays Sara’s sassy friend Veronica vivaciously! The rest of the cast were great as well, which is surprising considering this was a low budget film. Despite the low budget, impressive performances were found in both the leads as well as supporting actors!

Another amazing aspect of the film is that despite its low budget it looks like it belongs up on the big screen! The film was shot digitally, but looks like it was filmed in 35mm, the sound is crisp and never muffled and even though the majority of the film is set at night, you can always tell what is going on. Frayed is the first feature film for lifelong friends Rob Portmann (co-writer/co-director), Kurt Svennungsen (co-writer) and Norbert Caoili (co-writer/co-director) and together they have truly created a film that raises the bar for all independent productions to come.

Not only does the film look like a big budget production (excellent makeup effects, seamless special effects using CGI, and even an impressive car crash scene), but the story also goes far and beyond what most horror films strive for. Though it starts off a bit shaky and feels like another “reimaging” of Halloween, the story actually builds as the film progresses and gets more and more complex, a rarity in horror films today. You might be able to guess the twist ending if you pay close enough attention, but nothing will prepare you for the second twist that will completely blindside you and leave you shocked! The tragic ending just goes to show that in real life there is no tidy wrap-up and the innocent victims aren’t always avenged.

Frayed is an impressive independent film that offers much more than it first suggests. Though it looks polished and professional like a big budget film, the filmmakers took time to make sure Frayed had a well-developed and intriguing story, one whose horror will stick with you long after watching. With this as their big splash in the blood-filled horror pool, I can’t see what Portmann, Svennungsen and Caoili do next!

Order on Amazon!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Magazine Review: Shock Totem Issue 1

Shock Totem is a new print publication that is packed full of “curious tales of the macabre and twisted”. This richly bound magazine, with glossy, full color front and back covers beautifully illustrated by Robert Hoyem, looks like a novel, but is a periodical that not only boasts terrifying tales but also contains dark poetry, reviews and interviews. I had the exquisite opportunity to check out the first issue of the periodical and the expansive contents inside stunned me with their high quality.

The publication opens with an editorial by publisher and editor K. Allen Wood explaining the genesis of the magazine and how the title “Shock Totem” was conceived. The editorial is a perfect introduction to the publication and perfectly captures the excitement and challenges of an independent dark horror magazine. It really gives the reader insight on the complexities of undergoing such an endeavor, especially in these turbulent economic times.

From there, we move into the first short story, the imaginative and whimsical, but no less violent, The Music Box by T.L. Morganfield. The Music Box is about a child’s cherished toys that have a life of their own…and are fighting each other for the love of their owner. This tale brings back warm and fuzzy memories of childhood, when you believed that your stuffed animals came to life every time you left the room or turned your back. Of course, this story has a bit more violence and bloodshed than most childhood memories, but its fanciful tone remains!

Next, we have Murder for Beginners by Mercedes M. Yardley, about two first-time murderesses taking their first kill in stride. I love the wickedly dark humor of this piece as the two killers joke back and forth about their unfortunate victim! First Light by Les Berkley is a story steeped in the pagan and Celtic beliefs of All Hallow’s Eve and is a beautifully written ghost story. I will definitely be pulling this stunning story down from the bookshelf as the cherished month of October creeps closer!

All of the stories contained within Shock Totem are amazing, but Complexity by Don D’Ammassa is probably my favorite, and is a bit more complicated spin on the “ghost in the machine” story. The main character has noticed a certain intelligent design to technology and inorganic products, almost as if technology had a mind of its own and is evolving. Now that he has noticed this underlying force it has noticed HIM and he feels his life is in danger. I absolutely loved this story, and felt that it is especially relevant nowadays when technology basically rules our lives.

I loved the palatial oasis of an Arabic queen where Below the Surface, by Pam L. Wallace, is set. Jealousy, treachery, betrayal and a mother’s undying love for her son all play large roles in this sumptuous tale. Slider by David Niall Wilson is about an infamous baseball that killed a pitcher back in the day and is about to be auctioned off…but carries a deadly curse. The characterization of the two lead characters, the auctioneer and a mysterious old man, is what makes this tale so intriguing to read. Plus, it has one killer ending…

The second-to-last tale is Brian Rappatta’s The Dead March, about a lonely kid who has a special ability to raise the dead. It goes much deeper than a standard zombie tale, though, and has the ability to really make your skin crawl. This is my second favorite story in this issue and really makes me eager to see what Rappatta does next.

Thirty-Two Scenes from a Dead Hooker’s Mouth by Kurt Newton wins hands down for the best title in the magazine! It starts with a prostitute’s death and moves backward through select scenes in her life to show just how her life deteriorated. I really loved the concept of this story and especially loved its unique narrative structure.

Besides the high quality short stories, the first issue of Shock Totem offers readers interviews with legendary splatterpunk author John Skipp, musician and horror comic creator Alan Robert, and horror author William Ollie. In their review section, Shock Totem covers books, films and music. There are also a few dark poems scattered throughout the publication. The end of the magazine offers a very informative section in which the authors of the short stories talk about their inspirations for their respective stories. I loved reading about the back stories behind all the stories I had just read!

Overall, Shock Totem is an impressive small press publication that is impeccably edited and compiled. There is not one section of the magazine that I didn’t like and all of the stories contained within its pages truly impressed and entertained me. You can tell that it is made by horror fans for horror fans! Shock Totem definitely lives up to its tagline of “curious tales of the macabre and twisted” and I cannot wait to see what future issues bring us!

Order Shock Totem on Amazon!

Visit Shock Totem’s Official Site!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Interview with Director Mark Steensland

Many may not know this, but indie filmmaker Mark Steensland is the one person that really inspired me to start writing about horror and start this site. You see, back in college Mark taught a film class whose emphasis was horror films. Each class we would sit in the dark and watch horror movies. It was in this class where I was introduced to Italian gialli, Asian horrors and many other influential horror films. After watching the films we discussed them and wrote about our reactions to them. I had always loved horror movies, but this class gave me a way to express that love on paper and in words and was definitely a gateway for me to start this site. So, as you see, I am eternally grateful to Mark for introducing me to the academic study of horror!

I was lucky to take Mark’s class when I did, because soon after he accepted another teaching position and moved away. A few years later, I learned that he was pursuing filmmaking more and was making his own horror shorts, a few of which I was privy to see.

This year, Mark really impressed with with his two latest horror shorts, Peekers and The Ugly File, so I thought it was high time that chat with Mr. Steensland about his remarkable films and what the future holds for this talented filmmaker.

Fatally Yours: Hi Mark and thanks for taking the time to talk! Your latest project is The Ugly File Can you tell us how the project came about and why you chose this particular short story to adapt to film?

Mark Steensland: After I finished my last short film (Peekers), I saw a long short movie called Bugcrush, made by the guy who directed The Ruins [Carter Smith]. And I was really fascinated by the emotional quality of it and I realized that while Peekers was good, it wasn’t really very deep emotionally. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, per se, but I felt like I wanted to make something very different. I wanted to make something that had a much deeper emotional quality to it. So I started looking for a story that had that quality, as well as all the others I look for in material. Ed Gorman’s name came up from a couple of people and I asked them which of his short stories I should read. Two were mentioned. One was The Ugly File. As soon as I read it, I said: “This is it.” I didn’t even read the other story and to be perfectly honest, I can’t even remember the name of it now.

Fatally Yours: Will The Ugly File or any of your other films be screening at any upcoming festivals?

Mark Steensland: The Ugly File is on the festival circuit right now. We’ve already played in a handful of festivals – including opening for Paul Solet’s Grace at Fantasia in Montreal – and we’ve won one award (first place in the horror shorts category at The Indie Gathering in Cleveland, Ohio). We’ve been accepted to a bunch more and I’m waiting to hear from even more. It’s a very expensive process to submit to film festivals, so I usually submit to somewhere between 40 and 50 fests.

Fatally Yours: Your 2008 short film, Peekers, did extremely well and now you’ve made it available to watch for free on your website, Do you plan to release all your films online?

Mark Steensland: There were plans at one point to release a DVD compiling all the short films. You got to see a sort of early version of that, which was called Beyond the Pale. But that didn’t really get much momentum, unfortunately. So I decided that maybe Peekers could generate more traffic by being on its own site. As for the other stuff, we’ll have to see.

Fatally Yours: I loved your short film Dead@17, based on Josh Howard’s graphic novel! What made you want to adapt that film for screen and how did you organize that project?

Mark Steensland: Our original hope was to get the feature film rights to the comic book and to use the short film to generate interest in our making the feature version. The bad news – for us, anyway – was that the rights were already sold. They’ve been doing the Hollywood shuffle for years now, literally. And maybe you’ve heard that they’ve attached Vanessa Hudgens to star and Michael Dougherty to write. Who knows. The good news is that we did generate quite a bit of attention for ourselves. Especially now as the interest in the feature version has been growing, the mention of our little fan film has been growing along with it.

Fatally Yours: A lot of your films have been inspired by or are based on short stories. Why do you choose these as the basis for your films? 

Mark Steensland: Stanley Kubrick had a very interesting bit of wisdom about this subject. He believed that you could never have the same objective reaction to someone else’s writing as you could to something you wrote yourself. I think he’s mostly right. I’m certainly not opposed to making films based on my own ideas, but I do think the stories I’ve chosen to adapt have an undeniable strength. Also, there’s a lot to be said for the reputation of the story raising interest in the film. I’ve heard from a number of people who loved The Ugly File as a short story and they are very pleased with what we did in the film version.

Fatally Yours: Is it difficult or expensive to get authors’ permissions to use their stories and adapt them for the screen? 

Mark Steensland: Yes and no. It really depends on the author. We’ve gone after some stories from authors who simply would never even talk to us. We’ve gone after a few stories that we made deals for but that fell apart at some stage before actually being made. Now, I’m happy to say, we actually have authors soliciting us to make films out of their stories because they’ve seen the quality of our work and what kind of exposure it’s been getting.

Fatally Yours: Short films are usually seen as a means to an end for most directors, but your shorts are impeccably filmed and stand on their own artistic merit. What draws you to focus on short films as opposed to features?

Mark Steensland: Well, I’ve made two feature films already. The first one, called The Last Way Out, was made back in 1997 and is available from Troma. It’s a crime drama, not a horror film. The second was made in 2001. It’s a documentary called The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick. We’re gearing up for a feature right now that will be a horror film. Hopefully that will happen this year. But I’ve learned not to hold my breath. What I hadn’t done with the features, however, was go on the film festival circuit. And that’s what I’ve really been doing with the short films. And it’s really been an amazing experience. I think we’ve been building a really good reputation and I’m hoping that it will help when we have a feature to screen.

Fatally Yours: Your films have an artistic, sophisticated look and feel to them. How do you feel about indie horror films that don’t have the same polish as your films do? Do you think the easy access to technology has made some filmmakers skip the actual craft of filmmaking? 

Mark Steensland: That’s a loaded question! I don’t really think about my own films as they compare to what other people do. In other words, I’m not trying to imitate some particular look or feel. In fact, someone recently commented that the thing about my films is how bright they all are – they seem to take place during the day and in brightly lit spaces. Not the usual dark and stormy night kind of thing. And this isn’t really something I was even aware of until they mentioned it. I don’t like a lot of shaky camera work. And I don’t like a lot of fast editing. And so my films reflect that. I don’t really like to be flashy in that way. I like a more thoughtful approach. And that’s just me. I know plenty of people prefer a completely different style. And that’s fine with me. I’d just like to have enough fans to support a career.

Fatally Yours: How do you feel about the current state of horror films?

Mark Steensland: I think it’s the same as it always has been. There are good ones and there are bad ones. And I think a good film will always manage to find an audience. I wish there were more good films, but I wish a lot of things that don’t come true. I’m sorry that the business has become so business oriented. I think that’s why we’re seeing so many remakes. They know there’s an audience out there and if they can make it for X amount of dollars, they can open it on Y amount of screens and ultimately make Z amount in total revenue. It’s too bad the production side has gotten so bloated. I think good movies can be made with very limited resources and I think that they could return their investment. But everything these days is about making a billion dollars at the box office and that takes a lot.

Fatally Yours: When did you become attracted to the horror genre?

Mark Steensland: I was really young. I remember being probably four years old and my older brother (who was eleven) was into monster movies. He had the old Aurora monster models in our bedroom and they had glow-in-the-dark pieces and I had to have them covered up at night so I could sleep. My brother and I shared bunk beds. He had the top bunk and I had the bottom bunk. And he had a giant poster of Bela Lugosi as Dracula at the head of his bed. And one night I went to bed and fell asleep and the poster came off the wall and slid down so that it was at the head of my bed. And I woke up because of the sound and when I turned around, here was Dracula reaching out for me. I screamed bloody murder, I can tell you. So I think that all had its influence on me. And I used to watch monster movies on TV and when I started getting into filmmaking, it just so happened that I gravitated towards horror more than anything else.

Fatally Yours: How did you get your start in filmmaking?

Mark Steensland: I can remember reading about John Carpenter’s Halloween in Fangoria magazine. And then going to see it at the movie theater. And when I came back home, I was so inspired because I knew that he had made it with a very limited budget and a very limited crew and so on. So I got out the old family movie camera – a Super 8 cartridge camera – and I made a film with my friends called Darkness is Always Black. And I basically wrote it while we were filming and I edited it in camera. So when I sent the film to the lab and it came back, it was ready to watch. It’s pretty bad, as it should be. But it really gave me a sense of what it would take to make a movie.

Fatally Yours: I still remember taking a horror film class from you that inspired me to write about horror movies and take them more seriously. Do you still teach?

Mark Steensland: Yes. It’s my secret day job. But it’s great because I have time to make my own films and I’m teaching what I’m doing.

Fatally Yours: Do you use your students in your films as part of either the cast or crew?

Mark Steensland: As a matter of fact, I do. Students have worked with me on several of the short films. And they really like it because it’s a big step up from what most of them are doing on their own. Frankly, I wish that I would have had a similar opportunity when I went to film school.

Fatally Yours: What are you working on next?

Mark Steensland: As I said earlier, we’re putting together a feature now. We’ve got a lot of other irons in the fire, as well, but the way things go, you just never know.

Fatally Yours: Mark, thanks so much for answering my questions. It is always a pleasure and I wish you all the best with your film career! 

Mark Steensland: Thanks!

Visit Mark Steensland’s Official Site!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book of Blood (2009)

You’ve either read Clive Barker’s collection of short stories Book of Blood or you haven’t. The film Clive Barker’s Book of Blood, written and directed by John Harrison, is faithfully based on two of Barker’s tales from the book, Book of Blood and On Jerusalem Street, the wrap-around stories of the collection. The good news is that you don’t have necessarily have read the stories to enjoy the grim and ultimately grisly atmosphere of Book of Blood…but you may need some patience to watch the slowly unfolding, yet unique, film. That patience will definitely pay off in the end, though.

The film opens with a bang as a girl is gruesomely murdered by unseen spirits in a large, forebodingly dark house. We then meet paranormal expert Mary Florescu (Sophie Ward) as she is teaching a class on the paranormal, where she meets college student and medium Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong). Mary is investigating the very house where the girl was brutally murdered and, since she feels a special connection to her student, invites Simon to assist her.

Mary and her assistant, Reg (Paul Blair), set up cameras and other equipment to record any strange occurrences in the house, and sure enough Simon begins to have violent contact with the spirits. As the sexual tension between Mary and Simon grows and as Simon experiences more and more paranormal activity, they discover that the house is a crossroads for the dead and that the dead want their stories told…

Book of Blood was a tense, enjoyable story, but one that may require some patience to watch. The pacing is pretty slow and scenes can feel repetitive at times. The pacing didn’t bother me too much, because I was too caught up in its unique story and dark atmosphere. I liked that Book of Blood isn’t your typical horror film and tries something different. It’s not every day that the spirits carve their stories into the flesh of a human!

Being a Clive Barker adaptation, I was surprised that this film doesn’t have much gore but plays more like a haunted house/ghost movie. The introduction scene is sufficiently shocking (a very surprising and gruesome “face peel”) and the subsequent scenes featuring spirits writing on their living “Book of Blood” were squirm-inducing. Yet the meat of the film doesn’t offer much blood-letting, instead choosing to focus on the characters and their actions.

I’m not complaining here, though, and really enjoyed seeing the characters develop and reveal their hidden natures. Mary’s obsession with Simon definitely feels a bit taboo in the Electra/Oedipus sense, and there are plenty of steamy sex scenes that titillate and torment both characters and audience. I also liked the unexpected surprises in some of the characters…not is all what it seems!

The movie is ominously wrapped in dark shadows. From the menacing house they are investigating, filled with dark corners, to the gray, overcast skies shown the few instances where the characters are outside, the film’s bleak palette visually conveys its spooky subject matter. The black shadows made me uneasy and really made me wonder about what was lurking within them.

The film’s visual highlight comes toward the end when the veils between our world and the dead’s world are lifted and what we’ve expected to see emerge from the shadows finally come forth. We see the wispy ghosts, eyes as black as the darkest pits in Hell, trudging up from their grim Purgatory to scrawl their stories in blood on Simon. The spirits’ design is both beautiful and frightening, so many props to the film’s visual effects department! I really loved the look of both the ghosts and of their hellish home.

Book of Blood is a highly enjoyable Clive Barker adaptation, but for some horror fans its proceedings might be a bit slow. Nonetheless, if you enjoy a chilling, slow-building ghost story, Book of Blood may be just for you. It doesn’t compromise its values to become a PG-13 horror flick filled with screaming teeny-bopper actors, but sticks to Clive Barker’s original story and high standards to deliver a unique vision of pain. For that alone it definitely deserves the attention of serious horror fans.

Order it on Amazon!

Book Review: Season of Rot by Eric S. Brown

Season of Rot is a book from Permuted Press that contains five zombie novellas from Eric S. Brown. I hadn’t experienced any of Brown’s stories before this collection, so I didn’t know quite to expect with Season of Rot. Apparently, Brown is the go-to guy for zombie advice. He’s written five novels: Cobble, Madmen’s Dreams, Unabridged, Unabashed and Undead: The Best of Eric S. Brown and the upcoming World War of the Dead and Barren Earth. Jonathan Maberry even turned to Brown for expert advice for his book Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead. Still, even though I am a big fan of Permuted Press I was a bit apprehensive about yet another zombie novel. Luckily, Season of Rot is a fantastic collection of novellas and Brown blew me away with his fast-paced and action-packed stories!

The first novella is entitled Season of Rot, and tells of a group of survivors holed up in the top floors of an abandoned hospital in a high rise building while hoards of the undead crowd around outside. They are running out of supplies and desperately need help…and one day their prayers are answered by a military soldier who promises to come get them and offers them shelter in a military bunker. Yet, this stranger is hiding an awful secret…something that threatens the survivors’ safety.

This was a really gripping, tense story that helped kick off the collection. I really enjoyed the development of the characters (even though most of them have short life spans in the story) and just from this one story I could tell I was in for a treat with Brown’s tales. It immediately threw me into the action and I got all caught up in the ensuing chaos. Plus, I really enjoyed the story of the stranger who suddenly appears and the frightening “transformation” of the undead.

The next short is titled The Queen, and it is my favorite of the novellas. To escape the zombies that have overtaken the world, a group of survivors live aboard a ship called The Queen. When they are low on supplies, they must risk heading to shore and facing the undead…but now it appears that the zombies are getting smarter and are learning to operate machinery…like boats and guns…

The Queen has it all – well-developed characters, a frightening concept (smart zombies?! Lord help us!) and lots of bloody action. I really liked how Brown started with three different stories of survivors, all horrific in their own right (one of them involves the zombies breeding humans for meat!), and then meshed them all together with the survivors meeting at The Queen. The ship setting definitely made it stand out from the standard post-apocalyptic tale and made it much more unique and exciting. Also, the fact that the zombies were smart made it all that more terrifying.

The Wave was next, which features a mysterious wave of energy covering the Earth and disrupting all electronic devices…oh, and turning most of the population into bloodthirsty animals. All forms of communication are down, there is no power and cars, flashlights, etc. don’t work. A small band of survivors head to an isolated military bunker, but with the infected closing in they must make one final stand for humanity…even with the chance that the mysterious wave of energy may have adversely affected the Earth’s sun.

With an unexpected, devastating ending, The Wave definitely had a strong impact. I love how Brown focused on several different survivors in several different locations (with some of them coming together for the finale). The infected are also smart in this one, tricking the survivors and making them give away their location. The infected can also move very fast, a situation that actually makes sense considering the radiation they were exposed to. Overall, The Wave is a very well-done, edge-of-your-seat story with a seriously downbeat, bleakly realistic ending.

Next is Dead West, where the undead have overtaken the Wild West and are eating their way to the eastern part of the United States. Only the Mississippi River stands in their way of eating through the East. A reporter is dispatched to ride into the front-lines of the war to find out just what is happening, but will he be able to make it back at all?

I really enjoyed the Wild West feel of Dead West, but I wish it had felt a little more historical. Take out the horses and it could have just been another zombie story. I just don’t feel that Brown captured that Wild West feel adequately enough. Besides that, though, there is plenty of zombie action to satisfy most undead fans. One particular scene involving undead orphans attacking the cavalry is priceless!

The last story of the collection is Rats. Rats have overtaken the country and command the undead to do their bidding. A group of survivors fights to get to safety, but will the rats be able to reach anywhere they try to hide?

I really loved this story, though I feel the awkward intro could have been left out as it is never mentioned again in the rest of the novella. The rats in question are scary, and there is an underlying theme of demons that gives this end of the world story even more oomph!

Season of Rot on the whole is an exciting, fast-paced read that handles various post-apocalyptic scenarios with gritty realism. The grim outlook feels far more realistic than any false hope survivors would experience in a real-life scenario. Season of Rot is an intense read that really makes me look forward to future novels from Eric S. Brown. This is post-apocalyptic fiction at its breakneck best!

Order it on Amazon!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Manitou (1978)

We all bitch and moan about the state of horror and the death of originality in Hollywood, but looking back on older flicks perhaps they had a bit too much creativity! Take, for example, the zany 1978 film The Manitou, which features, among other things, a midget medicine man, ghostly lizards (well, actually, someone dressed in a lizard costume), Tony Curtis dressed as a psychic, a levitating granny, Native American demons that look like a giant eye and lots of colorful, bright lasers!

The film starts with Karen (Susan Strasberg) visiting her doctor after discovering a fast-growing tumor on her neck. The doctors aren’t sure what to make of it, but it definitely looks like a fetus, so they schedule her for surgery. Concerned that the doctors aren’t telling her everything, Karen contacts her old flame Harry (Tony Curtis) for help. Harry is a psychic who scams little old ladies out of their money, one of the reasons why Karen left him. Nonetheless, Harry agrees to stand by her as she goes through the surgery…only it doesn’t go as planned. The doctors are unable to remove the growth because their scalpels are turned against them. Karen is moved to another room and monitored and Harry contacts some his psychic friends to hold a séance and find out if an evil spirit is behind Karen’s affliction. It turns out the evil spirit is none other than Misquamacas, a 400-year-old medicine man who plans on raising hell as soon as he’s reborn.

Harry visits an old professor (Burgess Meredith), who wrote something in a book about reincarnated medicine men, and he suggests that Harry hunt down his own medicine man to “fight fire with fire”. Harry tracks down John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), who agrees to help him fight the evil medicine man.
When Misquamacas finally “hatches” from Karen, the real showdown begins…can Singing Rock and Harry save Karen and the world before it’s too late?

The Manitou is one crazy, over-the-top flick! The first half of the film starts off pretty solidly (who doesn’t love to watch Tony Curtis prance around pretending to be a psychic or watch a little old granny become possessed, speak in a Native American language and levitate before being tossed down a flight of stairs?) but the last half of the film, where the midget-sized medicine man is born, just devolves into pure schlock. I seriously question how any of the actors could take their roles so seriously when there were rogue lasers and ghostly lizards to deal with. How many takes did it take for them to act with a straight face?

The director behind the film, William Girdler (who also co-wrote the film), is behind such schlocky fare like Grizzly and Day of the Animals, but The Manitou is beyond bizarre. It takes a special kind of horror fan to really appreciate this odd and “out there” horror flick, but purveyors of the peculiar will no doubt enjoy The Manitou for its sheer strangeness.

Buy it on Amazon!

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Bloodhound balloon dogs. Cotton candy cadavers. Popcorn guns. Killer pies. Circus tent UFO’s. And clowns from outer space with a taste for human blood! These are some of the wacky gags you’ll find throughout Killer Klowns from Outer Space, but despite the film’s zany feel and Z-movie reputation it has many clever moments.

If the film’s title doesn’t give it all away, the movie is about killer clown’s from outer space that land on Earth and start killing any people they come across, wrapping the corpses in cotton candy! Two college students, Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Suzanne Snyder), stumble across the clown’s spaceship, disguised as a colorful circus tent. After discovering some cadavers wrapped in cotton candy, they run back into their small town to get the cops. Of course, the older, distrusting cop, Mooney (John Vernon), thinks the two are playing some sort of prank at his expense and blows them off. Only Officer Dave (John Allen Nelson), who is Debbie’s ex, believes them and sets off to investigate. Mike’s friends the Terenzi brothers, who own an ice cream truck, also join the fight against the clowns.

Soon, the killer clowns reach town and begin offing people in creative ways…with carnivorous shadow puppets, entombing them in big balloons and cotton candy, shooting them with popcorn that turns into slithering mini-clowns, hitting them over the head with giant mallets or melting them with deadly cream pies! Can Mike, Debbie, Dave and the Terenzi brothers save the town before they all end up in the funhouse or is it already too late?

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is arguably one of the silliest yet fun B-movies you’ll come across! Brought to corny horror lovers by the Chiodo Brothers – Charles, Edward and Stephen – Killer Klowns is more fun than a barrel full of drunken monkeys! The film’s premise is decidedly lowbrow, but despite its B-movie tendencies it has a comical charm to it that raises it a bit higher (at least in my book) in comparison to other ‘80s schlock.

What also makes it so great is its colorful set design. The Chiodo Brothers obviously had a ton of fun with the bright colors and carnival-like atmosphere of the film. Everything, from the red and yellow circus tent to the labyrinth of striped and polka-dotted halls of the clowns’ spaceship, screamed demented fun! And the design of the killer clowns was equally impressive. Instead of just featuring actors in clown makeup, the killer clowns wear larger-than-life, bizarre clown masks. While some might find the costumes more corny than creepy, there was just something unsettling about the clowns and their outrageous outfits.

Despite the menacing villains, there isn’t too much to be scared of in Killer Klowns. It is rated PG-13, so it’s light on blood and gore. Still, there are some entertaining kills throughout the film. There were decapitations, puppet and shadow puppet massacres, child endangerment, a Godzilla-like “boss” clown and so on. The real star of the show, though, was the creative use of circus props used throughout the film. For example, the clowns made a balloon animal dog, which they used as a bloodhound to track down people. And the use of killer pies, cotton candy and popcorn were all very entertaining as well. The circus/carnival theme was definitely used to its max!

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is one of the most outlandish and fun of the ‘80s B-movies. It’s got a crazy energy and a madcap imagination that makes it a cult classic in the annals of horror comedies. The Chiodos brothers definitely brought us horror fans a tasty treat with Killer Klowns!

Buy it on Amazon!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Killer Shorts (2009)

It’s no secret that indie films have it tough. Not only are the odds stacked against them because of lack of budget, but also they usually have an inexperienced crew and cast. For an indie film to really set itself apart, its story must be unique and offer a new perspective on the horror genre.

Still, most low-budget indie films fall into the trap of committing just any old story to film or, even worse, sacrificing story for gory special FX that the filmmakers couldn’t afford in the first place.

Unfortunately, the indie horror anthology Killer Shorts falls into this trap and fails to deliver anything new or interesting with its three short films. Without interesting stories to propel the shorts forward, Killer Shorts poor production values are glaringly evident and make the anthology painful to sit through.

A collection of three films, Killer Shorts begins with a horribly unnecessary horror host awkwardly introducing each of the stories amidst a Halloween prop filled cemetery. The first short is Puncture, which tells the tale of a couple that decide to meet the woman’s sister at a party…only when they get there they discover that all the guests have been killed by a vampire. After poking around a bit, they flee back home, where they gather up crosses, garlic and even have a priest bless a bucket of water before returning to the dead party to slay a vampire. This short doesn’t have much of a plot and the characters just meander about for most of the short. The only commendable thing about the film is a fun performance by Misty Simmons-Poteet (the only decent performance in the entire anthology).

The next short is called The Last Rendezvous, where after many boring, unnecessary scenes we learn that two people are having an affair behind the backs of their significant others. The two cheaters meet up at an abandoned house, but are discovered…and a mysterious killer shows up to dispatch them. This whole short just feels dragged out and anti-climactic. There are lots of random scenes that are poorly constructed and don’t make any sense within the larger context of the story (like the scene of some guy skipping then spinning in a circle down the sidewalk…really?? WTF??). Plus, you can see the “twist” coming from a mile away.

The short with the most potential is the last one, called Navstar. The short is about a GPS system that directs people to an isolated area so a strange alien-like creature can kill them. The idea of technology turning malignant and luring people to their deaths may not be very original, but it is still interesting and feels relevant. Unfortunately, the execution of the story is just horrible, suffering from the same problems as the other shorts: poor acting, slow pacing, shaky direction and silly special FX, including a man in a rubber suit playing the creature.

Killer Shorts was made for less than $1,000, a fact that is glaringly evident by its poor quality. I’ve seen many indie horror flicks, both good and bad, but Killer Shorts is quite possibly one of the worst I’ve seen. Its production values, from the acting to the editing to the directing and beyond, are atrocious. Even the score is grating. If it had focused a bit more on developing its storyline, perhaps it would have been bearable, but as it stands Killer Shorts is downright deadly to watch.

Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9 (2009)

Years ago, when an alien spaceship arrived to Earth and hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa, people rejoiced, but as the weeks dragged by without sign of life, the government stepped in to force their way into the alien spacecraft. Inside, they found a race of aliens that were malnourished and injured. In a rare show of humanity the government decided to care for these refugee aliens.

Though no one knew what brought the aliens to Earth, their ship was inoperable, so they were stuck here. After a period of alien acceptance, there was soon a backlash against the none-too-intelligent “prawns” as the aliens were derogatorily nicknamed. The public wanted them off the streets, so MNU (Multi-National United, a company put in charge of the visitors) segregated them in District 9, which soon devolved into a slum, complete with Nigerian gangsters running a racket of prostitution, illegal weaponry and cat food (pretty much the only thing the aliens like to eat).

Neither the government nor the public was interested in what went on in District 9 as long as the “prawns” stayed separated from the humans. The government and MNU (who also happened to be one of the largest weaponry manufacturers) were more interested in the aliens’ weaponry capabilities than for their well-being. The aliens’ weapons only worked for aliens and not for humans, so MNU went to great lengths to learn the secrets of their weapons. In fact, deep within the bowels of MNU, experiments were conducted  where aliens were dissected to try and find out just how their weapons worked.

In the outside world, there was still a public outcry to get the aliens out of the city, but with the government still keenly interested in the alien’s weapon technology, MNU decides to “relocate” the aliens to an area far outside the city. MNU worker Wikus Van De Werwe (Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the relocation process, and a camera crew follows the twitchy man around as he serves eviction notices to the aliens in District 9. As Wikus delivers the eviction papers and treats the aliens like an inferior race, even gleefully torching one shack where their young are being hatched, the film cuts back and forth between this footage to interviews with people Wikus knew, all hinting at something unthinkable and treacherous that Wikus did.
I won’t say much more than that for fear of giving too much away, but let’s just say that Wikus finds himself feeling sympathetic towards the aliens in the end.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in the world of District 9. First, let me address the socio-political undertones of the film, all are which pretty heavy but don’t weigh the film down. Of course, there is the obvious location of South Africa with its history of apartheid, which was “a political system in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s that separated the different peoples living there and gave privileges to those of European origin.” It also brings to mind the segregation of blacks in the United States after the Civil War and up until the Civil Right’s movement, especially if you’ve seen the marketing materials designating certain areas as “human only”. Not only that, but it echoes more recent issues, like some people’s contempt for illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. or the mass of migration of refugees and immigrants into other countries. The treatment of the aliens in the film is akin to many of these past and present circumstances – the aliens are abused, called derogatory names, exploited, used, and people want them out of their cities and to go back home. The aliens might not be the smartest or prettiest creatures, but as the film progresses you begin to feel sorrier and sorrier for them, not to mention ashamed of the human race.

On the flip side, you have the bumbling human “hero”, Wikus Van De Werwe, who only does what he does to save himself. Though at the end of the film you see him become truly heroic (though most humans in the film would beg otherwise) and actually do the right thing, most of the time he is selfish and cowardly. He is quite a contrast the main alien in the film, who is just trying to get himself and his son home safe. Again, you feel much more sympathetic to the aliens in the film than you do the humans. You can’t help but root for “Christopher” (the name MNU assigned this alien) throughout the film! Writers Neill Blomkamp (who also directed) and Terri Tatchell have really given us some food for thought with District 9 and touched on some very important and relevant issues.

The direction by Blomkamp is inventive as well. The earlier parts of the film play like a documentary, with a camera crew following Wikus around MNU headquarters and in District 9. There are also well-used security camera shots that fit quite well into the overall proceedings. The last part of the film loses the reality TV feel, but the naturalistic camera movements (yes, there is some shaky-cam) keep the audience in the moment!

Of course, this being a Peter Jackson production and a sci-fi action film, there is plenty of splatterific fun! Now, this isn’t anything like Starship Troopers, so don’t expect a bunch of aliens attacking humans being blow up into smithereens, but District 9 has its fair share of gory scenes. When the aliens’ weapons are utilized, plenty of “prawns” and humans get vaporized, leaving behind only chunks of bloody grue. The last part of the film is edge-of-your-seat action, with very cool use of the large robot weapon that is controlled by an alien on the inside! I also must mention the amazing looking aliens, who are mostly all CGI. They look entirely realistic and fit seamlessly into their environment, whether they are foraging for food, being interrogated, fighting back or scheming how to go back home.

District 9 is a unique sci-fi classic in the making. Its relevant and original story, conflicted characters and its harsh look at the human race, not to mention stunning special FX and moments of over-the-top gore, make it a must-see film! If you are looking for a summer movie that offers a lot of heart, depth and social awareness along with its frenetic action, head to District 9!

Available from Amazon!

Bad Habits (2009)

Bad Habits is a stylishly filmed Australian flick that harbors a much more complex, surreal storyline than its nunsploitation roots would lead you to believe. It is a film that is elevated far above the usually trashy, exploitative films that it pays homage to.

The synopsis of the film, from the official site, is as follows:

Sister Marie Fenche (Sandra Casa) is a woman on the verge of collapse. Barely able to distinguish reality from fantasy, Marie’s life is thrown into turmoil when she awakens one morning, alone in a room with a corpse in the bathtub. Is she being set up or did she kill the man herself? The truth is not even Marie knows for sure.

Bad Habits is a journey straight into the subconscious of its protagonist; a place where reality and fantasy intermingle so completely as to be entirely indistinguishable. Marie’s only grounding in this confused world is Jamie (London Gabrielle), an innocent young nun who is both equally enamored and repulsed by her.

Jamie can only help so much, however, and Marie’s world comes crashing down when she encounters a mysterious stranger who triggers dark and dangerous memories.

Unable to sleep and addled by pills Marie releases her final grip on reality as her dementia leads her deeper and deeper into a world of violence, sex and drugs.

Bad Habits’ story, written by Dominic Deacon (who also directed), is a mysterious, surreal and nightmarish trip through the fractured mind of the lead character, Sister Marie Fenche. The film isn’t just a crude, perverse exploitation flick, but goes deeper to examine the confused mind of Marie. Sure, there are lesbian nuns, nudity, drug use, sex scenes and bloody murders, but the flick is far less exploitative than it touts itself to be.

The character of Sister Marie Fenche is so interesting because she has no moral compass. As a nun, she is supposed to be holy, but she is anything but! She drinks, fights and fucks her way through each night without a single care for the consequences. She is addicted to heroine, pills and Lord knows what else. She can’t tell the difference between right and wrong or reality and fantasy. She kills indiscriminately, but does it all while looking damn good!

Speaking of looking good, Bad Habits has a very stylish noir/pulp thriller look to it despite its low budget. The film has an amazingly polished and professional look to it as well. The film’s grim tone is set by the gritty atmosphere of the film. Each scene is bathed in shadows and shades of gray and blue. The only breaks in the bleak atmosphere are the jarring splashes of red as blood flows from the multiple murders that occur in the film. It’s not that the film’s focus is on gore, but we do see our fair share of slit wrists and throats, stabbings, shootings and so on.

For a low budget film, I was mostly impressed with Bad Habits. Even the acting by everyone involved was top-notch, something usually unheard of in no-budget film. Despite this high praise, the film did have its problems. The biggest problem was the pacing. The film is broken up into three segments, the first called “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (a nod to the Fulci film), the second “So Sweet…So Perverse”, and the last and final part “Crazy Hot”. I felt that breaking the film up into segments was pretty unnecessary, especially since most of the film is surreal anyway and the audience never knows if what they are seeing is real or just a figment of Marie’s fractured mind. They also break the film up and slow down its already languid pace.

Overall, Bad Habits is a much more sophisticated film than it gives itself credit for. Despite some pacing problems, the film is beautifully filmed, expertly acted and contains a mysterious, interesting story. The surreal quality of the story reminded me a lot of David Lynch’s experimental films, quite an accomplishment for an independent film!

Visit Bad Habits’ Official Site!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Big Man Japan (2007)

We all know and probably love Japanese Kaiju flicks. Giant monster films like Godzilla, which feature men in suits stomping cardboard cities, have a special place in many a horror fan’s heart. So when I heard about Big Man Japan, a Japanese film that promised to both pay homage and spoof Kaiju films, I knew I had to see it. Surprisingly, Big Man Japan has a lot more heart than I expected, but definitely doesn’t hesitate to also include some odd-looking monsters and preposterous situations.

A camera crew follows around and interviews the seemingly ordinary Masaru Daisatô (Hitoshi Matsumoto), an unkempt man scorned by the populace who lives in a dirty bachelor pad with only his cat for company. He has his quirks, like having a penchant for both dehydrated seaweed and pocket umbrellas, but what really warrants a camera crew documenting his every move is that he is Big Man Japan, the only superhero left to fight the ginormous monsters that attack the country from time to time. When Masaru gets a call, he rushes to the nearest power plant where he is zapped with electricity and transforms into the humongous big man himself.

Even though Masaru or “Big Man” protects the country against monsters, most people hate him for all the disruption and damage he causes. He has a TV show, but his ratings are horrible and not even his agent can help boost his popularity. People make fun of him and his fights with the monsters.

Besides dealing with being unappreciated and battling strange creatures, Masaru also must deal with family issues, including his senile grandfather, who used to be one of the more famous superheroes, who periodically escapes from his nursing home to wander the streets after zapping himself into a Big Man. He also must deal with an ex-wife that hardly ever lets him see his daughter, whom he hopes to hand down the family tradition to.

No matter his problems, Masaru must protect the country and defeat the monsters that threaten his homeland.

Told in faux documentary style, Big Man Japan’s focus on Masaru’s life as a normal, yet scorned, man surprised me. That’s not to say that there weren’t many monster-fighting scenes, but I found myself enjoying the scenes with Masaru as an everyday man more. The humanity he exhibited and his perseverance to keep doing his job even when everyone hated him for it, kept my eyes glued to the screen.

The story, written by Hitoshi Matsumoto and Mitsuyoshi Takasu, is both hilarious and somber. There are many winks and nods toward Japanese Kaiju films, but the real enjoyment of the story came from seeing Masaru’s struggles in everyday life, whether they were with his deteriorating family, greedy agent or general public. The monster battles were fun and the monsters themselves inventive, but the action got repetitive pretty fast. I will probably be the only one who actually liked the documentary aspects more than the monster battles, which I found a bit too silly and out of place (even for this film). And the nonsensical finale just didn’t make a lick of sense!!

The CGI fight scenes were, for lack of a better word, colorful, with numerous zany monsters for Big Man to fight against. Among them was a zebra-striped monster with elastic arms that picked up skyscrapers, flipped them over its back and deposited them upside down before adjusting its comb-over. Other monsters included a giant Hellboy look-alike, a one-eyed monster (no joke), a stink monster in the middle of mating season, a one-legged monster and even a baby monster. The weirdest thing about the monsters was that no matter how otherworldly their bodies looked, most of them had human-like faces, making them awkwardly creepy! Plus, everytime one of them dies they get beamed up to “monster heaven”. The live-action finale, which was more faithful to traditional Kaiju as it had people dressed up in monster/superhero suits smashing up a cut-out city, was just weird and wacky.

I was expecting Big Man Japan to be just another homage to Japanese Kaiju flicks, but while it has its fun spoofing them, it also has a lot more heart than I first gave it credit for. Truth be told, though the monster battles were amusing, I wasn’t too into their style and they got repetitive pretty fast. I was much more interested in the documentary aspect of the film where we learn about the lead character more as a human being than as a superhero.

Big Man Japan certainly isn’t a film for everyone, but those with an appreciation for giant monster films will probably get a kick out of it!

Buy it on Amazon!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fever Night aka Band of Satanic Outsiders (2009)

Have you ever been so blown away by a film that it left you at a loss for words? That the film was just so rad that to try to describe it in words would do it a disservice? For a reviewer like myself, this can be quite problematic. On one hand, I got to see an amazing film that melted my face off with its awesomeness, but on the other hand its hard to describe to others just how good it was, leaving me with a bit of writer’s block.

Well, Fever Night definitely leaves me feeling inadequate in the face of its genius.

Fever Night (or Static Age aka Band of Satanic Outsiders) is an acid-trip, psychotomimetic horror film about three Satanists who are faced with serious repercussions after going into the woods one night and worshipping the Devil. The trouble starts when Terry (Melanie Rose Wilson) is accidentally run over as the three try to get their car out of some mud. This leaves Elliot (Peter Tullio) and Warren (Philip Nolan Marlatt) to traipse through the dark woods towards a bright light hoping to find help…

As their desperation to get out of the forest increases, they come across foreboding signs like dead birds, animal skulls, anthropomorphic foliage…and Satan himself. Will they be able to survive their descent into Hell or are their fates already sealed?

Fever Night is an independent, low-budget production that took over two years to make. As filmmakers, writers and directors Jordan Harris and Andrew Schrader say themselves on the film’s Myspace page:

“This truly independent production – lit primarily with portable work lamps and shot by a crew of three [Jordan Harris, Andrew Schrader, Steven Getz] – launched pre-production from a parent’s floor with stolen grant money from the filmmakers’ alma mater.

The shoestring budget increased gradually over the two-year production; as the two directors pooled every dollar they could from odd jobs like writing final exam papers for lazy college students.”

Considering this is the filmmakers’ first film (not to mention their meager budget), I am absolutely blown away by the high quality of the film in everything from the directing to the writing to the acting to the cinematography to the score! Absolutely every single piece of the film fits beautifully into the overall picture and everything comes together to form a top-notch film. This is the kind of film most first-time filmmakers (or hell, even experienced filmmakers) WISH they could make!

The film’s look is very retro, right down to the opening titles and the trippy music by the band Thee Oh Sees. The film itself is slightly grainy, giving it that grindhouse grit of films from the ‘70s. Though the film is set at night, there is an impressive use of psychedelic colors used throughout that just adds to the retro atmosphere and makes you feel as if you are running through a Dario Argento color palette (think Suspiria psychedelics). Though the primary lighting equipment was merely work lights, I loved the lighting in Fever Night. It adds to the dizzyingly disorienting atmosphere of the film and really makes it feel like you are alongside Elliot and Warren, trying to find your way through the hellish forest with just a pair of flashlights.

Besides the hallucinatory look of the film, the special FX are also top notch. We are treated to many freaky instances, including bloody bird carcasses, a goat skull that bleeds and floats on its own before morphing into Baphomet, bloody wounds, someone that comes back from the dead to haunt the remaining friends (with some killer makeup effects to match) and so on. All of the effects used were believable and looked real, a feat that most independent productions have a problem pulling off. This may not be a gore-drenched picture, and it doesn’t need to be. The effects used throughout are enough to jar the viewer.

Now, one thing that indie productions usually lack is good acting…but again, Fever Night succeeds where most others fail! The three lead actors, Melanie Rose Wilson (“Terry”), Philip Nolan Marlatt (“Warren”) and Peter Tullio (“Elliot”) do an amazing job of bringing their characters to life and making them believable, especially after encountering all the crazy satanic stuff they see. Some actors may have been tempted to play their characters as over-the-top, but these three “keep it real” and rein it in to give credible, strong performances. I especially liked Marlatt’s portrayal of the meek Warren, who slowly but surely loses his innocence as the night progresses.

Fever Night is a mind-blowing acid trip of a film that takes you through themes of life and death, good and evil with a healthy dose of disorientation and debauchery. This is one of the best independent films I’ve seen this year and I definitely see it making my “top 10” list at the end of the year. I could try to sing its praises all day long, but in the end it truly must be seen to be believed…

Visit Fever Night’s Official Site!

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Book Review: The Estuary by Derek Gunn

Permuted Press’ latest post-apocalyptic book is Irish author Derek Gunn’s zombie tale The Estuary. I haven’t read any of Gunn’s previous works (he is perhaps best known for his Vampire Apocalypse series), but my interest was piqued by The Estuary’s premise. I am usually a big fan of Permuted Press’ release, but I think they really dropped the ball with The Estuary…not to say that it is a bad novel by any means.

The Estuary begins with a covert Nazi mission where canisters filled with a secret weapon are being transported via mini-submarines to the front lines…but a storm takes the mini-subs perilously off course.

Fast forward to the present in the idyllic Irish hamlet of Whiteshead, where John Pender has relocated his family to try and rekindle his marriage and spend more time with his three kids. The idyllic setting is soon shattered when an old mini-sub is unearthed in the dried-up estuary and a mysterious gas leaks out of the long-dormant canisters.

The gas turns out to be a contagion that quickly infects all those that came into close contact with it. The infected turn into the walking dead who crave the flesh and blood of the living. Soon, the sleepy town is overrun with zombies and the survivors must find a way to safety!

Yet, when the remaining townspeople try to leave town, they find themselves quarantined by the army, who are prepared to use lethal force to contain the virus. The townspeople’s only hope for survival is reaching an old keep that juts up from the sea and is at the end of the estuary. But to get there they must traverse an ocean of the undead…

The Estuary had a very promising premise, but it suffers from a large number of problems that took away from my overall enjoyment of the book. The number one most annoying problem was the amount of typos in the book, which included everything from spelling, punctuation and grammar. For a published novel, the amount of typos in the book is unacceptable. Permuted Press really disappointed me with their severe lack of editing and/or proofreading. The typos are so bad that it doesn’t even appear that the book was proofread at all!

Secondly, I never felt any real connection to any of the characters and had a hard time keeping them apart. The repetition of the characters’ full first and last names every time they are mentioned was also distracting and led me to believe a new character was being introduced. Again, this could have been avoided if a good editor was used, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case.

As for the positives, there were some great action sequences, particularly towards the end of the novel. Gunn is able to write tension-filled scenes that kept me turning the pages. I really enjoyed the dwindling survivors making a run for it to get to the keep and their suspenseful last stand. Gunn’s descriptions of the infected are also excellent. These zombies don’t moan, grunt or make any kind of noise, but just silently stumble around. Their vacant, slack-jawed expressions are pretty darn frightening, especially coupled with the fact that they are so silent. They also aren’t exactly the slow, shambling type of zombies (nor are they fast sprinters), but instead can get to where they want to go pretty quickly. Gunn has created some very frightening monsters, especially since most of the survivors knew them as their former neighbors and friends.

Another enjoyable aspect of the story was the Nazi backdrop. I could have used a bit more on the Nazi’s and the background of the contagion, but the prologue did a good job of giving us a taste of the backstory.

The Estuary could have been a humdinger of a zombie novel, but unfortunately it is brought down by its many typos and lack of editing. Shame on Permuted Press for allowing a book with such potential to be released without proofreading and editing it first!! I really hope they get around to releasing a corrected version of The Estuary…because it really does deserve to be checked out typo-free!

Buy it on Amazon!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Premature Burial (1962)

The Premature Burial is the only Roger Corman film based on an Edgar Allen Poe story that does not feature Vincent Price in the lead role. Before principal photography started, Corman had a spat with American International Pictures, the studios responsible for the rest of Corman’s Poe pictures. Corman decided to take The Premature Burial to another studio, but because Price was in an exclusive contract with AIP, the lead went instead to Ray Milland. Before filming began, though, AIP re-acquired the production.

The Premature Burial is certainly not the best film from Corman’s Poe period, but that is definitely not due to Milland replacing Price. The story itself seems stuffy and dragged out, and not even the stunning gothic visuals can save it.

The film tells the tale of wealthy Guy Carrell (Ray Milland), a man obsessed with his fear of being buried alive. He is convinced that his father suffered from catalepsy (a catatonic-like state where one appears dead and has no reaction to stimuli, but in actuality is still alive) and was buried alive. Furthermore, he believes catalepsy runs in the family and that he will end up just like his father. His sweetheart, Emily Gault (Hazel Court), convinces Guy to marry her even though he suffers from these peculiarities and his sister, Kate (Heather Angel), disapproves of Emily.

For a while, Guy appears okay until strange circumstances surrounding his mansion force him to face his old phobia. He then constructs an elaborate mausoleum with enough bells and whistles to allow him to escape and alert people should he be interned while still alive. Emily and her doctor friend, Miles Archer (Richard Ney) convince Guy that his behavior isn’t healthy and make him destroy the tricked-out mausoleum. Soon after, Guy suffers a heart attack after a distressing discovery…is he really dead or will he be buried alive?

As stated above, The Premature Burial is definitely not the best Roger Corman had to offer during his Poe period of filmmaking. Overall, it’s a bit drab and boring compared with his other films like The Masque of the Red Death. The story doesn’t capture the terror of Poe’s original story and even devolves into silliness most of the time.

The best part of the film certainly involved the unveiling of Guy’s fool-proof mausoleum. Should he be buried alive, the crypt featured a collapsible coffin, a way to unlock the front door, a rope ladder up to the roof, a large bell to alert others of his presence, food, alcohol and even poison as a last resort! This was definitely a pimped out palace of the dead! The rest of the film just dragged, though, and the “reveal” ending really made no sense, especially since there was absolutely no mention or even suggestion of it throughout the rest of the film. The last few minutes felt very tacked on and unnecessary.

As for the actors, they did a commendable job moving through the stiff story. Ray Milland is certainly no Vincent Price, but he played a wonderful Guy and really made his phobia believable. Hazel Court, a regular in Corman’s flicks, also did a good job as the concerned wife Emily, even if the script gave her little to do but run after her husband and nag at him all the time.

The atmosphere of fog-shrouded cemeteries, eerie woods and a stuffy mansion was wonderful, but just wasn’t enough to support the entire film. Though I loved the scenes in the graveyard, in the woods and in the crypt, the gothic visuals just weren’t enough to make The Premature Burial a film worth watching again.
The Premature Burial certainly isn’t a horrible film, but it doesn’t have the same heart and spirit that many other Corman flicks from his Poe heyday have. You’ll find yourself wishing that the movie would prematurely end if you find yourself watching it!

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Monday, August 10, 2009

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The 1960’s brought us a plethora of Edgar Allen Poe stories that were adapted for the screen. Behind these was the “King of the B’s” Roger Corman, who brought audiences Poe titles like The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963) and, of course, The Masque of the Red Death. The Masque of the Red Death is arguable the best of Corman’s Poe adaptations. It is an ambitions film, featuring lavish sets, period costumes, Bacchanalian indulgences and a strong performance by the prince of horror himself, Vincent Price. Though the film takes a few liberties with Poe’s original story, namely adding some Satanism to the mix, it remains fairly faithful to the short story and certainly stands heads above other Corman films.

Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is a wicked ruler, leaving the peasants to die from a strange plague called the Red Death that is sweeping the land while he and his noble friends wall themselves up in his castle. They ignore the outside world and indulge in every kind of debauchery available while breaking all the seven deadly sins of greed, gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, pride and even wrath. Prince Prospero is a Satan worshipper, though, and enjoys watching the corruption of his guests. He is baffled by peasant Francesca’s (Jane Asher) steadfast faith, and is determined to corrupt her pure spirit. Meanwhile, the Red Death creeps closer and closer to the castle, and no amount of brick and mortar or weapons can keep Death away.

The Masque of the Red Death is one of my favorite Poe stories, and Corman’s film is like watching it come alive. The stunning visuals and vibrant colors are all captured in the film. I especially liked the set design and how the different colored rooms in Prospero’s castle were presented. The contrast of light and dark is well represented within the visuals of the film; even the order of the rooms goes from bright to dark to bright to dark again. The good vs. evil theme was supported by the color schemes, including the fact that Francesca wore white in her first appearance of the castle and Prospero’s garb was always dark.

Besides the obvious color symbolism, the medieval and gothic visuals are striking. This is one of Corman’s most colorful films, and the large palette used seems decadent and sinful in itself! The bright, bold interiors of the castle are quite a contrast to the bleak peasant village and fog-shrouded countryside. The theme of class struggle within the film can be seen not only in the actions of the nobles, but also in the gaudy colors they parade around in. Of course, all, both peasant and noble, are made equal by the Red Death! This is another theme the film explores. It doesn’t matter what you believe or how much money you have because no one escapes death.

Moving on from the abundant themes found within the film, I must say that Vincent Price’s performance as the cruel Prince Prospero is a joy to watch! He is absolutely perfect as the villain, even forcing his guests to behave like animals at one point!! He does everything for his own amusement and entertainment and his lavish, non-stop ball is just a means for him to further corrupt his guests. His cold, detached demeanor makes you shiver in anticipation, but his maliciousness makes you want to keep watching what he’ll do next! On the contrary (because the film is all about contrasts), the peasant Francesca, played marvelously by Jane Asher, does things for others instead of herself. She basically sacrifices herself to save her father and the man she loves from Prince Prospero, all the while infuriating and fascinating Prospero with her acts of love and kindness.

In a film all about juxtaposing good vs. evil, it’s odd to note that though Prospero is obviously evil, Price gives him a charming subtext that is almost irresistible. No matter how evil we see him as, we can’t help but want to know more about him. It’s hard to say if this is because of how the character is written or because of how Price played him, but this temptation to follow Prospero remains.

Overall, The Masque of the Red Death is probably the best adaptation to date of the Edgar Allen Poe story. It stays faithful enough to the story but holds the audience’s interest by adding a satanic subplot to the proceedings. It also explores the sharp contrasts between good and evil through use of symbolic use of colors, costumes, sets and other visuals. The Masque of the Red Death is Corman at the top of his game during his “Poe” period, and I encourage anyone who is a fan of the “King of the B’s” or Vincent Price to check out this lavish production!

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Book Review: Vile Things - Extreme Deviations of Horror edited by Cheryl Mullenax

Horror anthologies are the perfect bite-sized treats to discover new authors as well as appreciate established ones. Though it’s always nice to see a story by a “master of horror” I much rather like discovering new talent within a good horror anthology. Much to my delight, there was plenty of “fresh blood” to be found within the pages of the horror anthology Vile Things – Extreme Deviations of Horror.

Unlike some horror anthologies, there is no clear theme of zombies or vampires in Vile Things – just solid short stories from the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, C.J. Henderson and many other horror authors, including some new names I’m now glad to be acquainted with. All of the stories are not for the faint of heart, as many times I found myself squirming and cringing at the disturbing and disgusting tales of horror held between the anthology’s pages. The title of Vile Things definitely says it all! In this fast-paced collection of 15 stories, I thought all were horrific, but a few stood out more than the rest.

My favorite short story was Maggots by Tim Curran. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, both on the killing fields as well as the main character’s hometown of Paris, Maggots is a grotesque tale of cannibalism and possession. Except that instead of a demon taking possession of the main character’s body, the host’s body is invaded and taken over by maggots that force him to eat the putrefied remains of humans. There is a lot of gore within this particular story, all made all the more disturbing in the detailed descriptions the author gives of the main character feasting on the bloated and rotting remains of corpses, all the while all too fully aware of the atrocities he is committing.

Another one of my favorites was Z.F. Kilgore’s tale, The Devil Lives in Jersey. I love Jersey Devil stories and this one definitely doesn’t disappoint. An ex-police detective moves to the Pine Barrens after inheriting a house from his deceased grandparents hoping to give himself and his son a fresh start. Soon, though, the town’s dark secrets involving a witch burning, mysterious disappearances and grisly murders come to the surface, and the ex-detective discovers his family is inexplicably linked to the town’s bloody past…and now it seems that something is killing again. This short story was extremely well-written, with heaps of disturbing imagery (characters eating baby corpses and a witch having sex with something otherworldly, among other graphic scenes) and felt like it had so much to offer that it would be better suited as its own book. I hear that Kilgore, a retired police detective himself, has more short stories planned around the main character, and I eagerly await them!

Other favorites included the cheeky Tenant’s Rights by Sean Logan, in which an off-kilter, nerdy tenant gets revenge on his playboy roommate/landlord, but with disastrous results. I loved seeing the arrogant landlord get his comeuppance, but it was also satisfying to watch the creepy roommate get his at the end of the story! I also enjoyed Coquettrice, by Angel Leigh McCoy, a disturbing look at a satanic cult hatching their very own cockatrice…and watching the main character change from innocent to deviant was pretty jarring as well! What You Wish For by Garry Bushell was an extremely satisfying tale as well, and much like Tenant’s Rights, we get to watch a vile character meet her bloody end.

I’ve only mentioned a few outstanding stories, but with few exceptions all the tales within Vile Things are marvelously macabre! They will make you feel nauseous (Fungoid by Randy Chandler), give you the creeps (The Worm by John Bruni) or just plain scare you (Again by Ramsey Campbell). The anthology’s stories contain incest, rape, deformities, abnormalities, the disabled, infestations, demons, monsters and plenty of graphic gore, blood and other bodily fluids that will have you wishing you read it on an empty stomach! The book definitely lives up to its title of Vile Things – Extreme Deviations of Horror so prepare to be disturbed and make sure you have a barf bag handy before reading!

Buy it on Amazon!
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