“Queen of the Desert” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.

Writer-director Werner Herzog’s long shelved Queen of the Desert (2015) is a stunning and beautiful portrait of writer, archeologist and cartographer Gertrude Bell’s journey through the middle east in the early 1900’s. These qualities are most readily reflected in Peter Zeitlinger’s striking cinematography. The same can be said for Klaus Badelt’s sweeping, exciting and spectacularly dramatic music. Likewise, Nicole Kidman’s lead performance, alongside James Franco’s turn as Henry Cadogan, are spectacular. They highlight the top-notch enacrments of this A-list cast. The notable exception to this rule would be Robert Pattinson’s robotic depiction of the legendary “Lawrence of Arabia” himself, T.E. Lawrence.

Yet, the film has an old-fashioned demeanor that is consistently endearing. This is glimpsed in Herzog’s hopelessly sentimental treatment of the various romantic sub-plots Kidman, often unwittingly, finds herself entangled within throughout the affair. This is even if the assorted characters she falls for often visibly lack genuine on-screen chemistry with our heroine. They are also generally unlikable. The major exception being the first act fling involving Franco. These early scenes showcasing the aforesaid duo are among the most visually alluring and captivating sequences herein. Still, there is a palpable stiffness to these arrangements. It is also apparent in the often sluggish, calculated pace. These traits give the presentation an impression of being admirable but, never fully encapsulating. This feeling is generated through every frame of its one hundred and twenty-eight-minute runtime. Such results in an effort that errs by always reminding audience members that they are bystanders. It does this by never becoming warm or inviting enough to kindly welcome and pull them completely into the world on-screen.

This coldness is especially interesting given the fact that Herzog’s production frequently revels in its wonderful esteem for poetry. It is a fondness shared by a large portion of those Kidman meets along the way. There is also an incredible ability in the feature, articulated outright in a second act line of dialogue from Kidman, to find the elegiac in both the memorable and mundane moments of Kidman’s travels. These instances are most prevalent in the second half of the exertion. This is more than welcome. I state this because the last hour often comes across as if it is crawling to its conclusion. Such is increasingly disappointing given the grand, highly cinematic promise of what came beforehand.

But, it is this gentle eloquence and maturity which saves the exertion. Such is echoed in Herzog’s masterful behind the lens contribution. It is also overseen in his proficient, if formulaically structured, scripting. The outcome is undeniably stalwart. Even if the labor isn’t as detailed as it could be, the picture is a triumphant marriage of effects, sound, breathtaking landscapes and Michele Clapton’s astonishing costume design. In turn, there is almost always something in the imagery or speech bystanders can appreciate. Best of all, we leave Herzog’s latest with a sense that we have trekked alongside Bell. Consequently, we have grown to understand her, and maybe ourselves, a bit better. That is why Queen of the Desert is, despite its previously stated flaws, an adventure well-worth taking. It’s not as meticulous and brilliant as Herzog’s 16th century set Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). There also isn’t any of the oddly enlightening observations or obsessive viewpoints into the creation of art that made Fitzcarraldo (1982) so invigorating. The attempt is deliberately restrained and surprisingly straight-forward. Regardless, it does what all worthwhile movies should do: give us an experience we can reflect on and ponder long after the end credits have scrawled past our gaze. For that alone, I have no problem giving Herzog’s current opus my recommendation.

(PG-13). Contains adult themes and some profanity.

On video on demand and in select theaters today.

“Beacon Point” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: **** out of *****.

Beacon Point (2016), the debut feature from co-writer and director Eric Blue, is a subtle, intelligent and enigmatic alien invasion tale. Yet, there is a human center, reflected in the familial motivations ultimately unveiled in the late stretches, which becomes the most masterful element in the cinematic arsenal of this eighty-two-and a half minute long production. Such a component draws an undeniable comparison to Robert Zemeckis’ brilliant adaptation of Carl Sagan’s same said 1985 novel, Contact (1997). There is also an undeniable alignment to be found in these aforesaid traits with Denis Villeneuve’s exceptional big-screen treatment of Ted Chiang’s fantastic short literary piece, “Story of Your Life” (1988), Arrival (2016). Additionally, the calculated, slow-burn method in which the events unfold, as well as the general setting itself, calls to mind Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s ground-breaking found footage exertion, The Blair Witch Project (1999). Adding to this varied pot of movie-going ingredients is the inclusion of a brief opening, that runs approximately two minutes, which appears to mimic the beefed up, action-oriented nature of John McTiernan’s Predator (1987). Though this commencing bit feels out of place with the cerebral and dramatic turns that take place throughout the rest of the attempt, it is an intriguing, if all too familiar, way to lure audiences into the narrative at hand. The next few arrangements afterward, oddly enough, seem as if they are lifted from another entirely different category of chronicle: the buoyant comedy. Such creates a strange confection of genre beats. Yet, Blue, blends them into the arc seamlessly and sharply. This makes the overall result of the affair additionally admirable and unique.

Blue tells the account of a realtor, Zoe (in an unflinching, well-rounded and always captivating portrayal from Rae Oliver a.k.a. Rachel Marie Lewis). In the previously addressed early comic stages of the photoplay, we see her deliberately trying to get her potential buyers out of the house as quick as possible. This, we learn, is so that she can start a ten-day hiking trip through the Appalachian Trail. Yet, almost as soon as she departs on this journey, which promises an escape from the tribulations and stresses of the laboring world, she finds herself plagued by surreal nightmares. These are horrific visions she silently believes to be true. As those around her start to get sick and act strange, and sights lapse unexpectedly into her brain from her childhood, she soon learns that there is an extraterrestrial menace that has chosen the group. From herein, viewers are treated to a perfectly symmetrical balance of finely tuned and staged horror arrangements and personal drama. This is as we follow Zoe in her attempts to reveal why she has been  targeted in this fashion.

The plot is both bold and amusing. It is made increasingly gripping via Blue’s taut, visceral direction. The highlights of the fabrication, a terrifying flashback segment spied at the midway mark and the appropriately cryptic and beautifully made climax, are definitive proof of Blue’s abilities in this arena. Yet, the script Blue penned with Traci Carroll is just as solid. It is smartly, meticulously paced. Correspondingly, it is filled with credibly authored and delivered dialogue. Even if the twists are a mixed bag, with about half being expected and the rest a genuine surprise, this respective item is another pleasant component of the photoplay. It starts early on and is administered frequently throughout the runtime. The constant character focus is just as admirable. Likewise, the spectacular performances all around only augment this factor. Jon Briddell is excellent in his turn as the often-hostile group spearhead, Drake Jacobs. Eric Goins’ enactment of the overworked, but still frequently comical, Dan, is magnificent. Jason Burkey gives a stellar depiction of Brian. He quickly summons a flirtatious rapport with Zoe. RJ Shearer as Cheese is also wonderful in his particular representation. Furthermore, Jason MacDonald as Zoe’s Dad, Paisley Scott as Young Zoe, Jayson Warner Smith as Hunter and Randall Taylor as Phil are immensely proficient in their secondary roles.

Also, assisting matters is Kevin Riepl’s gently melodic, and ear-pleasing, musical score. Such punctuates every movement of the picture splendidly. The cinematography from Jim McKinney is illustrious and always striking. Scott Salamon’s editing is fluent. The make-up, costume, camera and sound department institute a terrific contribution. Deron Hoffmeyer’s visual effects are similarly impressive. Best of all, Blue’s flick mechanizes them in a manner that has proven most successful and effective with anecdotes of this ilk: only sparingly. Such makes this Georgia and North Carolina recorded endeavor refreshing and noteworthy. It even adds a welcome, old-fashioned touch to the proceedings. Bystanders only get the briefest glimpses of the creatively designed otherworldly entities that dominate the title area. This is with our fullest view transpires at the thirty-four minute mark to great consequence. But, what we see is certainly enough to enduringly haunt and intrigue us.

In this category, as well as many others, Blue succeeds at getting our psyches to ponder what we have seen. Yet, he doesn’t use the creature from outer space scenario purely for fear (as is the case of far too many similar efforts nowadays). There is a sense of awe; a yearning to understand what is occurring that is ever-present. This decision immerses us in Zoe’s attempts to unravel this ancient secret that has been thrust her way even more. Consequently, it makes us care. This is while giving us something to think about. Such makes Beacon Point, which will be released on video on demand and DVD through Uncork’d Entertainment on May 2nd , 2017, tower above its predecessors. In turn, Blue has crafted an illuminating and electrifying experience. This is a must-see for fanatics of thought-provoking science-fiction and horror alike.

(Unrated) Contains violence, adult themes and language.

The Facebook page for the project can be found here.

“Devil’s Domain” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

New York born Writer-director Jared Cohn delivers a beautifully made, splendidly acted and engrossing take on an oft utilized concept in Devil’s Domain (2016). Cohn’s invention concerns a cyber-bullied teenager, Lisa (in a compelling performance from Madi Vodane that immediately and continuously draws sympathy from audience patrons). Frustrated by the torment that she undergoes daily, and a video of our central figure that only makes our central figure more of a target for harassment, Lisa meets an appealing stranger online. She initially states that her name is Destiny (in a hypnotic and superb enactment from Linda Bella). Almost immediately Destiny reveals herself to be The Devil. Drawn into the powerful and seductive promise of having her desires fulfilled, Lisa makes a deal with Destiny. The promise soon turns to tragedy. This is as Lisa’s peers find themselves the unwilling victim of this unholy pact.

Despite the familiarity inherent in the general plot, Cohn’s feature never feels predictable or overdone. Such is a courtesy of Cohn’s competent pace. It is also the consequence of his terrific balance of characterization and story. The horror sequences, especially a third act arrangement involving Lisa watching someone who recently confessed her feelings to our protagonist being hit by a car, are all effectively staged and tremendously executed. Cohn also implements a finale that shares the generally tried and true sensation of the tale itself. Yet, still it arises as a potent punctuation point to this memorable thrill ride. It also serves as a necessary extension of where the narrative appears to be naturally headed.

Such an ability to turn tropes into triumphs is the result of Cohn’s masterful, ever-taunt guidance of the project. His script, which is immersed in realistic dialogue and motivations, provides a consistently solid backbone to this celluloid exhibition. The photoplay is also made increasingly stalwart by Josh Maas’ atmospheric and striking cinematography. Additionally, Rob Pallatina’s editing is seamless and sharp. Correspondingly, the special effects are so credible that they greatly enhance the believability of what we are watching on-screen. Furthermore, unlike many similar genre efforts of the day, there isn’t an overreliance on these filmmaking illusions to mount intensity or culminate dread. This is another indicator of the sheer craftsmanship at hand.

Also, assisting matters are the top-notch depictions. Michael Madsen is especially good as Lisa’s compassionate and understanding stepfather, Bill. The music from Iggy & The Stooges, DMX and Onyx, reiterates both the tone and the overall beats of the affair uniquely and spectacularly. Likewise, the piece casually ebbs and flows eye-catching style. This is evident instantly in an opening credits sequence that is filled with comic book-like renderings of the leads. This is paired with Satanic symbols and images. The section is capped off by excellent animation work from Devin J. Dilmore. In turn, this bit calls to mind the bravura cinematic flash of a Gallo feature from legendary Italian moviemaker Dario Argento. This visceral flare, and alignment to the aforesaid maestro, is recaptured in the variety of imaginative and grisly kill scenes found throughout the labor. The outcome of these elements is a gripping and ever-immersive example of all-around talent; a brilliant tour de force. See Devil’s Domain when it is released in limited theaters and on video on demand on May 30th, 2017.

Runtime: 92 minutes and 48 seconds.

Distribution Company: The Orchard.

Production Company: Cleopatra Films, Cleopatra Records.

“Peelers” – (Movie Review)

peelers-pic-1

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

Two of the most celebrated ingredients in cinematic horror are flesh and blood. Peelers (2016), a wildly entertaining ninety-five-minute feature from director Seve Schelenz and writer Lisa DeVita (who also did the casting), submits this in gleeful excess. Such is most notable in the all-embracing structure. Schelenz and DeVita set the affair up in a semi-traditional manner. This transpires within the initial forty-minutes. These flashes operate as a collage of sumptuously staged and captivatingly shot strip show sequences. This is mixed in with an equal dose of slyly delivered character and story development.

Utilizing nearly the initial half of the film to revel in the formerly stated attribute could’ve easily become monotonous. It could’ve also slowed down the fluent, meticulous pace of the effort immeasurably. But, there is a range of certainly unique themes that accompanies these segments. Never once are any of these notions repeated. Such a decision helps save the undertaking from such a fate. These sections fuse with the aforesaid exposition seamlessly.

The consequence of such an action paints a more thorough portrait of the occupational lives of our leads. For many related entries in the field, this would be enough to sell the flick. Yet, Schelenz’s project has a consistently successful wit. There is also an abundance of creative ideas coursing throughout the exertion. Not to mention, the progressive build-up of terror events unveiled in this section are just as effectively and organically administered as those stated above. For example, there is a memorable third act happenstance which incorporates these components. It involves our central figure, Blue Jean Douglas (in a charismatic and ever-watchable performance from Wren Walker), taking out an infected antagonist with a baseball. The brilliance of this bit, besides being a nod to her former profession, is that it is modeled after the conventional slow-motion sports-associated pitch commonly elucidated in movies. Much of the last fifty-five-minutes function just as well in this fashion. This is as the proceedings are crafted into an all-out parade of gore, grandiose fright and brilliantly honed humor. This is even if the configuration proves somewhat more engaging early on. Such is because of the method in with relationships bud and circumstances unveil in predictable fashion in the latter portion. Yet, the work never fails to be anything less than raunchy, low-budget fun. Best of all, it rarely resorts to artificial jump scares to punctuate its various episodes of intensity.

The narrative commences with an ominous and certainly attention-garnering scene. It transpires in a hospital. Over the course of its two-and-a-half minutes, the macabre allure of this piece establishes a jolting, though quietly eerie and foreboding, tone. Such becomes an early highlight of the venture. This is as it suggests the variety of great things to come. Simultaneously, it immediately begins to form questions in our mind as to what exactly we are seeing and why. It is a masterful foundation. Schelenz follows this up with a visually stunning arrangement that mechanizes just as triumphantly. There is a smooth marriage of music and sensual imagery augmented in this composition. Such particulars make the configuration play like a bravura inaugural extract of cast and crew recognition from an X-rated installment in the James Bond franchise. Moreover, LaLaa Love’s body language expressive presentation as the dancer viewed in this unit compliments the sheer artistry at hand. Such creates the ingenious rhythm of alternating fear and sensuality upon which the design stands.

As the tale unfolds, we find manager Blue Jean quietly pining. It is her last day as owner of The Happy Hour. Such is the erotically charged club where the narrative solely takes place. A nefarious businessman known as Chromagnum (in an exhibition from Al Dales that spectacularly personifies the efficiently sinister rich man archetype), has bought her out. He intends on using the building to his own whims officially at the stroke of midnight. When a group of miners arrive at the area, it is soon noted that these individuals seem to be covered in a strange ooze. Striking up conversation with one of the laborers, it is discovered that this group believes to have struck oil. They also state that they are planning to go back tomorrow. This is to see if they can uncover more of the presumed liquid. Such explains their festival-like spirit. It is also cause for their reasoning for stopping at Blue Jean’s venue. Yet, this scheme is abruptly halted. This is as the substance morphs these toilers, and everyone else in the building, into infected, zombie-like monsters who hurl black and green fluids. Such erupts moments prior to transformation.

peelers-pic-3

Such is a simple, but surely intriguing, impetus for a chronicle such as the one Schelenz conveys. It is a fiction that garners supplementary points by drawing a definitive parallel to John Gulager’s stupendous Feast (2005). This is in its general setting and zany, go-for-the-jugular demeanor. Furthermore, our protagonists are all likable and diverse in personality. Best of all, they are undeniably outstandingly etched. The antagonists are also exceptional. This is especially true when considering them as a masterful illustration of the collaborative contribution of the thirty-eight people who make up the effects team. Though the look of the undead is a bit conventional, a mixture of the dark eyes uncovered so habitually in modern cinema and the writhing ick of a similar opus from the 1980’s, they are still an enjoyable departure. This is from the stiff and unimaginative veneer of so many mutants perceived in today’s full-length provisions. Correspondingly, the method devised to slaughter these entities is both convenient and clever. But, what shines the most is the endlessly confident and stylish direction from Schelenz. DeVita’s screenplay continues to assist and augment the quality of the attempt. This is primarily with credible, yet often hilarious dialogue. There is also a smart balance of the serious and the comic, the bold and the interesting inherent in the penned material. Such makes the predictably wicked intentions Chromagnum has with Blu Jean’s edifice, which are exposed in the final twenty-minutes, quickly forgivable.

The doggedly skillful on-screen portrayals only boost these sensibilities. Kirsty Peters as Licorice/ Carla, Nikki Wallin as Baby/ Elaine and Victoria Gomez as Tina are excellent in their principal roles. Caz Odin Darko as Remy, Madison J. Loos as Logan, Cameron Dent as Tony and Momona Komagota are also fantastic. Rafael Mateo as Pablo, David Torres as Mario, Edwin Perez as Jesus and Andrea Rosolia as Panuche are just as phenomenal in their respective enactments. The same can be said for Manny Jacinto as Travis, Emma Docker as Aja, Rob Scattergood as Officer Karl Robinson and Katherine Blaylock as Officer Simone Lacey. Lauren Martin as Nurse and Megan Duquette as Nasty Nanda are also impressive in their brief turns. The secondary cast of bar patrons, cooks (Jason Mullen, Chadderton W. Thornton and Mike Hurley in slight, but transcendent, parts), a deejay (voiced by Tim Chisholm) and a waitress (in a magnificent demonstration from Tatyanna Prior) enrich this already layered endeavor. Additionally, Schelenz is scene-stealing in his representation of Officer Carter.

peelers-pic-4

Schelenz also provides sharp and remarkable editing. The cinematography from Lindsay George is gorgeous and ever-immersive. Nikki Blais’ costume as well as Todd Giroux and Schelenz’s production design is authentic and inventive. The seven-person make-up squad offers terrific input. Vincent Mai’s music, though evidently modeled after the conventional mechanisms of the genre score, is moody and unnerving. The art, electrical and camera, animation and sound department all afford an influence that is startlingly good.

Recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, this Uncork’d Entertainment distribution and Pound (LBS) Pictures co-fabrication, is interminably delightful, amusing and relentless. It is everything audiences seek when searching for escape via celluloid. There are instances of intentional camp. But, it is not so much that it weighs down the wallop Schelenz packs when he yearns to subject bystanders to genuine shocks. This poise makes the sum increasingly well-rounded and easy to admire. The open to interpretation shot which arises before the concluding acknowledgments only adds to this category. Such is only a warm-up round for the astonishing mid-credits passage that is glimpsed later. When these become mutual with the last second jolt which finishes the photoplay, we smirk all the wider. This is as Schelenz appears to culminate the climax of his brainchild with another wholly new one. Such a radically over the top decision suits the overall attitude of the depiction beautifully. The title, an analogy that applies to the heroines as well as the overtaken, is just as perfect. When integrated, the outcome is an assuredly crowd-pleasing tour de force; a blood-soaked and ceaselessly engrossing reminder of why I originally fell in love with the genus of tongue-in-cheek revulsion. For those with similar affinities, this will prove to be one of the best movies of the year. I highly recommend seeking this out. You can do so when Peelers arrives on Video on Demand March 28th, 2017.

peelers-pic-2

“Split” – (Capsule Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.

Split (2017), a tale of three young women who find themselves kidnapped and imprisoned by a man who has twenty-three diverse personalities within him (though we only encounter nine of them), and is on the verge of unveiling his monstrous twenty-forth, is tense, tough and terrific. Though it incorporates several bits in its last act that come off as too convenient to get our heroine from point A to point B, betraying the organically built nature of the narrative, M. Night Shyamalan otherwise delivers. Much of this is courtesy of his superbly constructed, meditative, breakneck paced and character-oriented screenplay. It is one that grips us with Shyamalan’s seemingly effortless ability to generate suspense. This is even when issuing the most tried and true of thriller elements into this arrangement. Such is evident in a certainly attention-garnering, and beautifully executed, commencing sequence. This oversees the abduction of our female protagonists, who are waiting on the return of their adult driver, from the back and passenger seats of a car. Rarely in its one hundred and seventeen-minutes does this factor of unproblematic amusement waver.

To its further credit, the script is also undeniably clever. It is filled with believably authored dialogue. All of which is just as credibly administered by the players. Likewise, the penned piece is unafraid to go into a variety of surprisingly dark and genuinely shocking places. This is most noteworthy in its routinely dispensed back story. Such is especially praise-worthy when considering that this is a PG-13 rated venture.

Helping matters further is that Shyamalan incorporates into this Blinding Edge Pictures and Blumhouse Productions release a clearly Hitchcockian sensibility to his brilliantly tuned direction. It often stylistically and thematically holds a mirror to Alfred Hitchcock’s timeless adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho (1960). The impressively designed and imaginative opening and closing credits sequence is potent evidence of this trait. But, the exertion is much its own entity. It doesn’t rely solely on this imitative attribute to elucidate both quality and audience appeal. Such makes the film, along with the high intrigue of the deceptively straightforward sounding plot, increasingly more triumphant. It also makes the composition easier to admire. West Dylan Thordson’s sparse, but unnerving, score along with Mike Gioulakis’ handsome, brooding cinematography only augment this detail.Relatedly, Luke Franco Ciarrocchi’s editing and Kurt Wunder’s special effects are seamless and sharp. Such also proves the technical mastery clearly visible within the presentation.

Complimenting these attributes are the magnificent lead performances. This comes foremost from James McAvoy, as the dissociative identity disorder (DID) suffering antagonist, Kevin. McAvoy shows that he is phenomenal at balancing the many successfully comedic moments his on-screen persona frequently conveys. This is without ever ignoring his ominous and menacing disposition. Such makes for a certainly rounded, oddly likable and watchable villain. Correspondingly, Anya Taylor-Joy is unflinching in her portrayal of Casey. She is our introverted, but anything but vulnerable, central figure. Moreover, Betty Buckley (2008’s The Happening) as Kevin’s psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, steals every scene she is in. Haley Lu Richardson as Claire Benoit, Brad William Henke as Uncle John, Sebastain Arcelus as Casey’s Father and Jessica Sula as Marcia are also excellent.

Yet, as undeniably entertaining as the effort is for most of the runtime, it gives way to a rather disappointing, disjointed final act. The sum of which is improved by a smirk-inducing alignment, which is more a sly reference than an all out twist, in its concluding section. Such will assuredly delight avid followers of Shyamalan’s prior work. This is while leaving casual viewers in the cold (much as it did with the theatregoers I saw it with). Shyamalan’s brief turn as the charismatic Jai is similarly enjoyable. The result is an excellent, highly recommended motion picture. It is one that, because of the previously stated shortcomings, falls just before the mark of greatness. Still, it is a journey that is well worth undergoing. With the rollercoaster ride that is Split, Shyamalan has proven that his cinematic capabilities are as stalwart and wildly unpredictable as ever.

“Hunting Grounds” – (Movie Review)

hunting-grounds-pic-1

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.

Hunting Grounds (2015), the ninety-one-minute full-length debut feature from writer-director John Portanova, proves that there is still much cinematic life to be derived from the ever-audience alluring legend of Bigfoot. Originally titled Valley of the Sasquatch, Portanova has implemented a rugged, character-oriented thriller. It is one that seamlessly blends both modern and old-fashioned narrative ingredients. Such is crafted into a purely entertaining and largely credible blend. Best of all, it looks to its enigmatic antagonist with equal doses of awe and fear. The tribe of Northwest America based organisms at the core of Portanova’s labor do not merely function as the primal animals in which they are far too often portrayed. Instead they are demonstrated as noticably human. This is visible in both their general gestures and attitude. Such benefits the configuration spectacularly. To its continued credit, Portanova’s classically designed and meticulously paced screenplay is well-researched. It incorporates an obvious knowledge and affinity for its potentially truth based villain. This is slyly sprinkled into the dialogue. All of which is as cut from the everyday, unforced and operative as its rounded and smartly developed central figures.

Such distinctly separates Portanova’s installment from the hefty volume of thematically related tales. More specifically, the low-budget photoplays that have been curiously spiking in cinema over the last decade. Outside of the beasts which torment our protagonists, Portanova yearns to showcase the violent monster in mankind. This he brilliantly ties around the argumentative and money woe infused relationship between widower Roger Crew (in a highly effective performance from Jason Vail) and his introverted son, Michael (in a quietly poignant enactment from Miles Joris-Peyrafitte). Such adds an increasingly taunt level of emotional intensity to the enduring suspense already at hand. Moreover, the discussions of the relationship between Roger and his deceased wife that transpire early in the work form a wrenchingly sentimental angle. This splendidly showcases Portanova’s penchant for solidly delivered, engaging exposition. Simultaneously, it illuminates the damaged, father and child rapport between Roger and Michael.

Authentically administered arrangements such as these keep the heart of the undertaking much in check. Such makes the sum of the endeavor more well-rounded and harrowing. This is as it gets us to root for and understand our everyday heroes, which is pivotal. Especially before the tense life or death scenarios, which Portanova orchestrates just as masterfully as these establishing episodes, that befall them in the second and third acts. The best evidence of this rests in the last twenty-minutes. This section is especially well-made and unnerving. It oversees both the affectionate and more generally electrifying rudiments of the account simultaneously reaching a zenith. Such is made increasingly imposing as several truly unexpected twists take flight.

hunting-grounds-pic-5

Among such evidently wise decisions, is that the beasts herein are only partially glimpsed or, as is frequently the case, left in the shadows for nearly an hour into the runtime. Such calls to mind the tactic brought forth in films such as Ridley Scott’s groundbreaker Alien (1979) and Steven Spielberg’s same said Jaws (1975). Despite how often a device such as this has been issued, its effectiveness is again confirmed by Portanova as timeless. A slow reveal such as we see here, as well as the earlier stated masterpieces, is a proven path to success. It also makes the initial sight of the fiend in full even more astounding. Such is also established as triumphant in Portanova’s motion picture. For when it inevitably occurs, in a section which sees Mike waking up to a Sasquatch that is practically face to face with him, bystanders are given one of the most unforgettable and pulse-pounding segments in the movie.

Portanova sets these events up just as smartly. Such is incorporated with a five-minute opening sequence that is as ominous as it is perfectly mood-setting. After this memorably striking instant, Portanova sets up an engaging, if familiarly rooted, plot. In the fiction, Roger and Mike go to a secluded, family owned cabin in the woods. This is after their prior home was tragically destroyed. Two pals, Sergio Guerrero (in a stalwart depiction from David Saucedo) and Will Marx (in a riveting and sincere portrayal by D’Angelo Midili), soon arrive. They carry on alongside the duo. Shooting local game is the shared focus. This is until the group inexplicably arouses the sights of a community of ape-like brutes. All of which eerily resemble the indigenous Yeti. Soon those who went into the woods expecting to showcase their proposed dominance over nature find themselves symbolically on the other side of the rifle. This is as the gathering of simian-like brutes demonstrate that they will gladly kill to protect their homeland.

hunting-grounds-pic-4

Recorded in Snoqualmie Pass and Roslyn, Washington, this Uncork’d Entertainment distribution release boasts seamless and remarkable visual effects from David Phillips. This October People and Votiv Films production also benefits from John Bash’s haunting music. Furthermore, Jeremy Berg’s cinematography is as organic and darkly beautiful as the material demands. Phillips’ editing is skillful and deft. The make-up team, concocted of Doug Hudson and Sarah Prevo, offer terrific input. Correspondingly, the sound from Jens Larsen and the costumes and wardrobes from Audrey Frances Abeyta are sharp and impressive. The seven- person camera and electrical crew, as well as Jerry L. Buxbaum and Vail’s incredible stunts, enhance Portanova’s confident guidance of the project splendidly. Tim Keaty, Regan MacStravic, Madeline Sadowski and Montana Tippett form a powerhouse art department.

The secondary cast is just as strong. Connor Conrad exhibits that he is an undoubtedly imposing force. This is unveiled in his ruthless depiction of The Beast. Additionally, Jordan Neslund is phenomenal in her brief turn as Town Girl. Bill Oberst Jr. augments the plausible edge of all we encounter with his ever-watchable representation of Bauman.

The consequence of these wondrous technical aspects and smart storytelling moves is certainly deserving of acclaim. Having won the Best Feature Film Award at Boise’s 2015 Idaho Horror Film Festival, the narrative, which was also graced with myriad nominations in similar commemorations, is guaranteed to also be a knockout with general spectators. This is because Portanova is unafraid to present flawed, yet richly settled, on-screen personas. All of them will prove, in one way or another, to be relatable to onlookers. Even when triumphantly issued action bits are the focus of the piece, as is largely the case with the second half of the exertion, the effort never forgets the motivations and plight of the protagonists. Such makes for a bit of celluloid that soars as stalwartly as a drama as it does a survival yarn. Portanova has evoked a genre entry that is unflinching and gripping; a must-see. You can do so yourself when Hunting Grounds becomes available via video on demand February 7th, 2017.

hunting-6

 

“Night Job” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

The strength of writer-director J. Antonio’s eighty-five-minute debut feature, Night Job (2017), is built on the unpredictable. More specifically, the various encounters with a wide assortment of individuals our ever-likeable hero, James (in a charismatic and always watchable personification of a fictional persona by Jason Torres), encounters. For example, he faces, in one of the most unexpected and amusing flashes in the invention, a priest (in a terrific depiction from Robert Youngren). The man of God has been summoned to James’ building to perform an exorcism. Likewise, one of the climactic passages, which involves an accusatory homeless man (in a smirk-inducing and wonderfully eccentric performance from Brignel Camilien), works just as well in this respect. Along the way, James meets a psychic by the name of Josephine (in an excellent representation from Shanane Christine Harris), a con man (Adam P. Murphy, who is terrific) and an adult DVD Vendor (in an extraordinary presentation from Lester Greene). There is even a woman that incites in James a flirtatious rapport. Her moniker is Catherine (in an endearing and proficient turn from Stacey Weckstein). Such transpires late in the endeavor.

These sections are all beautifully done. Moreover, they make the demonstration layered, rich and full of life. Adding to the mix are equally well-timed and successfully uproarious sequences involving various partygoers, cops and relationship related spats. Yet, each accruing happenstance is so apparently random that it makes the sum of the picture consistently entertaining. It also mirrors a certain reality. This is one that folks in twenty-three-year old James’ situation, whose first night shift as a temporary doorman in a Manhattan high-rise apartment building is the unique focus of the composition, must constantly undergo. This is as one of the various unwritten demands of his current employer.

night-job-pic-1

But, what is just as pleasantly erratic is the tender sequences of heartfelt depth. These are seamlessly peppered among the many effectively humorous instances that run through the bulk of the composition. The most noteworthy of these items is a discussion with our central figure and a near blind woman, Stella (in a quietly powerful, consistently credible and charismatic performance from Bettina Skye). In this exceptionally harrowing bit, which comes right before the hour mark, we learn of James’ literary dreams. Stella makes this portion increasingly enchanting. This is with her shared life learned lessons and positive reinforcement of James’ ambitions. The segments involving Stella and James are the cornerstone of the movie. They tap into an emotional honesty that is natural, graceful and transcendent. These qualities enhance the variety. They also touch upon themes that will assuredly prove relatable to a widespread audience. The sole color configuration in the photoplay, which comes immediately after the portion involving James and Stella, is both smirk-inducing, eye-popping and heart-stirringly ambitious. Here James sees himself as the poised individual he could be. Such an image is conjured by Stella’s optimistic words. In this sense, Antonio seems to be balancing out the oddness of those James meets with an underlying message concerning the kindness and unexpectedly hope instilling measures of strangers. Such only adds to the sly profundity at hand.

Such a stalwart attribute is also a courtesy of Antonio’s smart, honest, confidently paced and surprisingly bold screenplay. His dialogue is perfect for the material. It elucidates the small talk and other commonplace discussions strangers engage in among one another splendidly. His characterizations are proudly born from this existence mirroring trait. Such details make it easy to understand the motivations and the frequent confusion James alternately embodies throughout the construction. The deliberate, meticulous pace of the script augments these physiognomies masterfully. The result, when combined with Antonio’s luminous and assured guidance of the project, is an endeavor that promotes a great new cinematic craftsman. Simultaneously, it summons the soaring charming inherent in the greatest independent films.

night-job-pic-2

Also, building upon this magnificent foundation is the herculean impact of the enactments. Besides those mentioned above, Timothy J. Cox is brilliant in his fleeting role of Mr. Jones. Brandon J. Shaw, credited here as “Apartment 718”, fares just as well. Greg Kritikos as Romeo, Una Petrovic as Charlene and Carmen Borla as Olivia are also remarkable. The same can be said for Laeticia De Valer as Kelly, Steven L. Coard as Mark and Jose Espinal as Eddie. It is a distinctively large cast for an exertion that feels so intimate. Everyone involved delivers spectacularly. In turn, the labor is amended another of its many superior charms.

The crew is just as indispensable in creating the high-quality art that proudly radiates through every frame on-screen. T.J. Wilkins’ jazzy music is tone-setting and undoubtedly appropriate for the material. We notice this in the opening moments, which when combined with Valentin Farkasch’s immersive black and white cinematography, is guaranteed to generate nostalgia in fellow cinephiles. This is as an undeniable alignment to an old-fashioned noir from the 1930’s or 1940’s becomes evident. Such an impression is lifted throughout this comedy-drama. This is even when modern components which seem to dictate otherwise meet the bystanders’ gaze. Such an atmosphere is riveting and endlessly admirable. The seamless and sharp editing from Sam Druckerman makes this allusion complete. Correspondingly, Magda Suriel’s make-up is top-notch. Jennifer Humala and Luis Inestroza offer a crisp issuance of sound. Kyle Brown’s visual effects are a marvel. Unlike many modern mainstream undertakings, they do not take you out of what is occurring. Instead they vastly enhance the viewer absorption. Jonathan Alvarez’s camera department contribution is just as deft, capable and exciting.

Antonio has crafted a memorable masterpiece of movement and interaction. It calls to mind Kevin Smith’s ground-breaking debut, Clerks (1994). Not only is this noteworthy in its general focus on the inner-workings of a young man (or men as in Smith’s case), but it is true in the way it effortlessly develops its protagonists. This is while simultaneously diverting spectators via purportedly routine occupational dealings. Enhancing this comparison, is that in neither venture do any of the happenstances feel forced or inorganic. There is a low-key beauty to both, especially in its clever banter-oriented emphasis, that will keep cinema patrons repeatedly returning to the narrative. Such makes Antonio a promising talent. He has arranged an affair that is victoriously witty, graceful, funny and inspiring; a tour de force that onlookers will delight in seeing. Night Job, a Sacred 9 Films production, is scheduled to be released in November of 2017.

The Facebook page for the flick can be found here.

The Twitter page for Sacred 9 Films can be found here.

night-job-pic-3

“The Covenant” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.

The Covenant (2017), an eighty-seven-minute full-length film from co-writer and director Robert Conway (2016’s Krampus Unleashed), is a moody and effective take on the frequently utilized demonic possession tale. It establishes its captivating grip on its audience as well as its impeccably honed atmosphere of ever accruing dread instantaneously. This is with a handsomely fashioned and somber opening bit. Such is as devastatingly emotive and haunting as it is surprising and well-made. From herein, Conway and fellow scripters Owen Conway and Christopher L. Smith relentlessly build on this palpable sense of mounting dread spectacularly. This is with a deft balance of the familial slant between our two leads. As is expected with narratives such as these, it is also demonstrated with an ongoing theme of personal religious faith. All of which propel and richly convey an incredible impression of meditation and genuine concern for our central figures. This is while, as is most obviously illustrated in the last thirty-five-minutes, fascinatingly enlightening us about informatory details of prior cases of diabolical control. These formerly stated attributes endure stalwartly in the duration of the fiction. This is without ever ignoring the imaginatively issued and taunt string of supernatural events that unravel throughout the exertion. This makes for a fun, petrifying and incredibly well-rounded genre composition. The FunHouse Features production and Uncork’d Entertainment distribution proudly towers over most entries of its ilk. This is through its victorious poise of account driven elements alone.

Yet, this is far from the sole selling point of the endeavor. The screenplay is intelligent, luminously erected and confidently paced. Correspondingly, it is filled with credible dialogue that is just as believably delivered. Moreover, the material often breaks out of the general arc of related horror items. Such transpires with groundbreaking results. This factor presents to bystanders a work of celluloid that proves to go into courageous, yet genuinely chilling and disturbing, avenues on its own accord. A wonderfully unexpected and terrifyingly conceived twist early in the second half, which drastically changes the stakes and potential outcome of the chronicle, more than prove the victoriously operative nature of this distinguishing factor. Such leads to a nail-biting, potent resolution. The final twenty-minutes, though generally rooted in the situations we have come to expect from such an affair, are more than satisfying. This is from a character-oriented perspective. It is also true of its victorious execution of the various happenstances of unholy phenomena that are brought to life herein. The last sequence is especially unnerving and brilliant. Such is most evident when considering how it turns what would be an otherwise wholesome situation quietly into a shudder-inducing nightmare.

The plot is equally intriguing. Conway focuses on our lead, Sarah Doyle (in a terrific, harrowing enactment by Monica Engesser). Suffering and vulnerable from the drowning death of her Leukemia afflicted daughter, Elizabeth (in a turn by Amelia Habberman that showcases a range far beyond her young years), as well as her husband, Adam (in a riveting interpretation by Chris Mascarelli), Sarah moves into the home of her youth. Accompanying her is Sarah’s brother, Richard (in an absorbing and marvelously wrought depiction from Owen Conway). Almost immediately upon her arrival, she begins to hear voices. Most menacing of all, she repeatedly sees her deceased child swinging and singing the traditional kid’s tune “London Bridge is Falling Down” before her incredulous gaze. A segment in the first act, where Sarah looks out her window onto such an ethereal view, is gorgeously crafted. It makes unsettling use of such a happenstance. As the runtime endures, odd acting townspeople seem drawn to Sarah. They also feel the need to warn her brother of impending danger. These proceedings become increasingly more bizarre and violent. This is as the “hellish creature”, as it is described late in the photoplay, takes hold. Upon doing so, it incites within Sarah an outlandish fixation with her own death. It is a dark obsession that could well give way to the demise of those around her.

The Globe, Arizona recorded venture also boasts exceptional representations from the entire cast. Clint James is stellar as Father Francis Campbell. His persona often calls to mind Jason Miller’s iconic treatment of Father Karras in William Friedkin’s immortal adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, The Exorcist (1973). Likewise, Sanford Gibbons is just as sensational in his unflinching illustration of Father James Burk. Maria Olsen as Holly Manning, Shawn Saavedra as Gerry and Richard Lippert as Man in Black are equally enthralling. The same can be said for Greg Lutz’s embodiment of Detective. Sedona Feretto as Lilith and Josh Schultz as Nurse are memorably transformative in their brief secondary roles.

The technical details are just as masterful. Gian Marco Castro’s music is perfect for the material. Travis Amery’s cinematography is illustrious and foreboding. It reiterates the often hopeless tone of the labor splendidly. Justin L. Anderson and Robert and Owen Conway issue editing that is sharp and proficient. The make-up department, formed by Cat Bernier and Cory VanDenBos, is exceptional. This trait is most obvious in the conclusion. In this stage, our heroine is at her most overtaken by the savage monstrosity inside her. Jessica MBah enhances the potency at hand during these sections as well. This is with visual effects that are seamless and spellbinding. Furthermore, Benson Farris and Kenny Mitchell deliver an amazing issuance of sound. The costume and wardrobe design from Lore Haberman augments the everyday authenticity we encounter spectacularly.

More than anything, the effort is reimbursed in quality by the noteworthy chemistry between those who portray Sarah and Richard. Consequently, there is not a second we are not engrossed. There is a conviction that pulsates through the arrangement. It stems from the magnitude of concern we invest in this aforesaid duo. It is just as unmistakable in Conway’s remarkable and stylish, without ever being distractingly so, guidance of the project. The plentiful set-pieces of trepidation are also cleverly administered. Best of all, Conway keeps them coming within the first few minutes. From this point on, he sustains such a dispersal of ghoulish measures at a fervent clip. Yet, it never feels as if he is sacrificing storytelling for such plentiful pulse-pounding manifestations. Instead they are organically taken from the circumstances Conway conceives in the yarn itself. Even the more tried and true scares, such as an instance within the first half hour where a door moves by itself, come off as vigorous and fresh. This is without the undertaking ever resorting to cheap jolts or unnecessary red herrings to heighten the impact of the presentation. Such is a true testament to Conway’s storytelling skills. It is also an unspoken testimony to the high-value of this alluringly built exercise in apprehension. The Covenant is an instant classic. You can experience the terror for yourself when the movie hits video on demand on February 7th, 2017.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016)” – Movie Review

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ***** out of *****.

Writer-director Richard Griffin’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s circa 1590-1597 penned romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016), pulsates with magic, splendor and eloquence. It is a passion project the Providence, Rhode Island born craftsmen has been attempting to bring to fruition since 2000. This is highly visible in the final product, which burns with the ardor of a long spent wish finally realized. The Scorpio Film Releasing distribution is both a beauty of sight and of sound; a searing triumph of frisky, smoothly paced entertainment. This is as much a courtesy of Jill Poisson’s rich, hypnotic cinematography and Griffin’s lively, astonishing handling of the production as it is the unmistakable, Early Modern English language of The Bard himself. Such an element Griffin takes directly from the original work. Even though Griffin has moved the central action from Ancient Greece, in an unspecified year, to Athens, Massachusetts in 1754: the rhythm, and amusing nuance (which is often innuendo based), of Shakespeare’s opus remains intact. All of this combines to create an affectionate, faithful homage to the source material. Yet, it distinctly resonates with the core of a Griffin construction. It is both radiant, sidesplitting, cutting edge, a bit old fashioned and affecting. Regardless, there is an innocence to the labor that showcases the sheer variety Griffin, who has toiled largely in the cinematic horror genre, is more than capable of conducting. Griffin, whose first celluloid tour de force was a modernized version of Shakespeare’s roughly 1588-1593 scribed tragedy Titus Andronicus (2000), is obviously well-versed in the narrative. This knowledge accentuates the sum of the vehicle. It makes its humor even more affective. This evident wisdom makes its message all the clearer. Moreover, its dramatic intervals are increasingly stalwart and wrenching. In turn, we are amended what is a highlight in Griffin’s multi-faceted career. This is undoubtedly one of the best pictures of the year.

Heightened by a few sly modern touches, such as a quick midway gag involving our obviously enthralled characters passing along a bowl of popcorn to one another, the sum of the effort is a wholly fresh and unique experience. It is as much a testament to Shakespeare’s sustained relevance as it is a display of Griffin’s endearing charms. Moreover, the theatrical roots of the exertion are more than perceptible. It is seen in the larger than life, yet still delightfully intimate, representations from everyone involved. This is as notable in Anna Rizzo’s riveting portrayal of the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, as it is with Johnny Sederquist’s punk rock take on the English mythology based elf, Puck (who is also known by the moniker of Robin Goodfellow). The more straight-forward presentations, such as Steven O’ Broin’s terrific and mature depiction of Theseus, balance out pleasantly the plethora of more light-hearted entities which dominate the affair.

midsummer pic 1

There is a wide range of categorical beats and themes, with the reversal of gender roles, transformation, the supernatural and the pursuit and nature of amour being at the forefront, that must be successfully orchestrated. Yet, the entire cast pulls it all off as if it as natural as breathing. Jamie Dufault as Demetrius, Laura Pepper as Robin Starveling, Aaron Andrade as the comical Snout and Elizabeth Loranth as Helena are especially good. The same can be said for Alexander Platt as Oberon, Josh Fontaine as the man turned donkey, Nick Bottom, Lee Rush as Hippolyta, Lydea Irwin as Mustardseed, Bruce Church as Egeus, Christin Goff as Rita Quince and Ashley Harmon as Hermia. She is the conflicted admirer of both Lysander (in an entrancing turn from Charlie Ferguson) and Demetrius. These stretches mechanize terrifically due, in part, to the fact that the chemistry between Harmon and Ferguson is palpable. This makes the numerous sequences revolving around their relationship even more hypnotic, wrenching and stunning.

What is just as incredible is that the 105-minute feature, despite its $25,000 price tag, remarkably comes off as if its budget is as gargantuan as its upbeat, often seductive, spirit. This manifests immediately in an impressively showcased, 65 second opening credits arrangement. With its cheery palette and blue lettering, it quickly captures the mystical disposition at the center of the narrative. Everything in this section seems bathed in moonlight. This integral ingredient is a mood-setting fixture in the initial literature itself. The plentiful shots of this aforesaid nighttime glimmer hovering above the forest in the presentation are equally intoxicating throughout. This commencing scene also comes across as strikingly retro. Such a visage could easily fit within the confines of a 1980’s style photographic opus. Given Griffin’s penchant for mirroring the look and feel of silver screen marvels from past decades, this similarity could be intentional.

midsummer pic 2

Advancing the overall appeal is the extraordinary effects from Torey Haas and John Dusek. They backup these prior addressed, bygone qualities spectacularly. Simultaneously, Griffin’s editing is top notch. Chad Kaplan’s Cupid animation is sensational. Margaret Wolf provides stellar, era appropriate costume design. Furthermore, the makeup from Jaquelyn Fabian, Scott C. Miller and Sissy O’ Hara is phenomenal. The Shakespeare writ “Lullaby”, wonderfully composed by Mark Cutler and captivatingly performed by Rizzo, Irwin and Harmon, is elegantly designed and delivered. Likewise, both the gentle and emotive Cutler authored, put together and sung “In My Dreams” as well as Daniel Hildreth’s ambient music augments perpetual lavishness to the project.

Griffin, whose script for this crowd-funded undertaking is both robust and brilliant, handles the various interconnected plotlines of this complex affair splendidly. The first of these are Hermia’s refusal to marry Demetrius. Such transpires due to her strong affinity for Lysander. Additionally, there is the creation of the play Nick Bottom, Snug (in a bravura role from Christian Masters), Tom Snout, Robin Starverling and Francis Flute (in a terrific enactment by Ryan Hanley) plan to act in for the Duke and Queen’s wedding. Many of the early guffaws triumphantly derive from this account. King of the Fairies, Oberon, and his  summoning of Puck to concoct a love potion, which gradually goes out of control, is spectacularly issued. Some of the most visually and sentimentally dazzling bits in the fabrication stem from these segments. Hermia and Lysander’s escape into the same area where Titania resides becomes a focal point. This is for the assembly of all these previously stated anecdotes into one setting. It is all punctuated by a final monologue by Puck that is assuredly smirk-inducing. Such also offers a grand climactic point. This instant reiterates the enchanted atmosphere of the undertaking masterfully.

In a filmography that ranges from fun, 1950’s modeled alien invasion illustrations (2010’s nostalgia fueled Atomic Brain Invasion), John Waters Reminiscent comedies (2014’s ingenious Accidental Incest) and 1970’s grindhouse brand B-movies (2011’s The Disco Exorcist), Griffin’s vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fits comfortably in the inarguably varied body of his career. His stamp is on every achingly alluring frame of his latest endeavor. There is also a delicate gentleness to the proceedings, an attention to detail and an admiration and pride for the centuries old text which pulsates proudly through the duration. Such helps bring the composition to life in a way unseen in preceding interpretations of the fiction. This is as much a thanks to his cast of frequent collaborators, all of whom continue to prove their flexibility and variability with the diversity of roles Griffin has handed them throughout the years, as it is solid proof of Griffin’s own multi-faceted talents. With his latest contribution, Griffin soars and astounds. All the while, he also makes us laugh, contemplate and reflect. Though the words and events may be that of Shakespeare, the voice we hear radiating through the entirety is distinctly that of Griffin. What Griffin provides here, besides another example of his absolute command of form, is a masterclass in how to take an oft told tale and make it solely your own.

midsummer-pic-3

 

“31” – (Movie Review)

31-pic-1

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: *** out of *****.

The tenth full-length feature from heavy metal rocker turned writer-director Rob Zombie, 31 (2016), plays it too safely to be anywhere near as effective as the 102 minute undertaking clearly desires to be. Coming recently off of the subtle, restrained and daring The Lords of Salem (2012), Zombie’s latest seems like a jumbled montage; a collection of greatest cinematic hits. Regardless, the grainy, brazen approach of uncountable films from the 70’s is utilized beautifully throughout the presentation. Such is present in nearly all of Zombie’s big screen thrillers. Even though this particular focus has become a familiar staple of his photographic vision, it is a consistently strong point of the production. The gorgeously gritty cinematography from David Daniel makes this aforementioned attribute all the clearer. With some classic tunes fueling the soundtrack, courtesy of Chris Harris, John 5, Bob Marlette and Zombie himself, the illusion of stepping backwards four decades becomes all the more immersive. But, there is a reinstatement of such Zombie tropes as maniacal clowns, road trips, a simple set-up and a Halloween setting. Such restrains the imagination, and overall enjoyment, greatly. We are even awarded the obligatory first act gas station stop, another Zombie and general fear narrative practice, before the terror commences.

What also hurts the labor, and endures as another Zombie custom, is the frequently trite dialogue. The speech hits all the expected expository topics. But, it does it without a shred of thoughtfulness or insight. Such is especially suspect given that the endeavor opens with an appropriate, haunting quote from the German-language auteur, Franz Kafka. Such gives way to what is undoubtedly the highlight of the movie. This is a disarmingly twisted, attention-grabbing address to the audience. Such is via the most fascinating antagonist we uncover, Doom-Head (in an arrestingly berserk portrayal by Richard Brake which gives us one of many glimpses into what this endeavor could’ve been). The sequence is also artistically gripping. Shot in stark black and white, it promises much more than what Zombie ultimately delivers. Though the guttural energy evident herein is fairly unwavering throughout, we can’t help but feel disappointed. This is as the rest of the affair gives us nothing else that garners our interest so ruthlessly.

Yet, the biggest obstacle here is not so much these elements. It is Zombie’s refusal to give his protagonists any dimension. Such is all the more perplexing when he goes out of his way to infuse an extraordinary amount of invention into every one of the myriad villains which dominate his latest project. Moreover, the central characters are treated, in another manner frequently found in the grindhouse fashion Zombie is going for, as no more than possible victims. Though such completes his B-grade, antiquated prospect, it makes it impossible to become fully engaged in what is occurring. Adding to this distraction is Zombie’s difficulty in building and sustaining a continual wall of suspense. The most we get is an incredible idea, image or quick, sadistically gratifying moment of slaughter before the story goes back on itself. From this point it plods along. This is until Zombie’s next stab at trepidation fills the screen.

Zombie chronicles Charly (in a depiction by Sheri Moon Zombie that is watchable but, never harrowing or unique). Alongside four other carnival folk, she is, in an arrangement so quick and vague that it successfully captures the confusion the team five entities must be feeling, kidnapped during the early hours of October 31st, 1976. True to the custom of photoplays like James Wan’s brilliant Saw (2004) and Paul Michael Glaser’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Running Man (1987), those who have been abducted are made to take part in a wicked game. The name of such, which we learn little more about than the fact that it signifies “war”, grips the title. What else we unveil about 31 is that the five unwilling players must survive twelve hours. This is in a desolate building, the ins and outs of which they know nothing about, against an endless landscape of fiends with masks and painted faces. All of which are out to kill them.

31-pic-3

The story is routine. Yet, it has a likelihood to be worthwhile. Zombie’s fairly resourceful, yet never bold enough, screenplay has its impressive morsels. But, the arc holds to the basic structure of so many horror exertions beforehand. This can be seen as another of the genre customs Zombie appears so intent on respecting. But, such creates an equally standard pace. This is evident as much of the first half hour rolls by with our leads driving along in a white van. During this era, we cover the essential informal bits, and playful subject matter, noteworthy in far too many slasher efforts of the past. The esteem Zombie parades in such an arena is appreciated at times. Yet, there is too much of an over-reliance on it here. Such is unsatisfactory given the sheer creativity we know Zombie is capable of evoking. His striking, frequently lavish, direction only proves the flare he contains in this area. To its credit, the ending is solid. This is as much in what it tells us as what it leaves unsaid.

All of the actors and actresses we encounter are obviously enjoying their turns. Malcolm McDowell as the eccentric Father Murder, who acts like one of the privileged and powerful French aristocrats in a novel by the Marquis de Sade, is the most proficient and intriguing in this category. Jane Carr as Sister Serpent and Judy Geeson as Sister Dragon follow suit in somewhat similar roles. The more blatantly unhinged representations, such as Pancho Moler as Sick-Head and David Ury as Schizo-Head, fare nearly as well. The victimized Jeff Daniel Phillips as Roscoe Pepper, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs as Panda Thomas, Meg Foster as Venus Virgo and Kevin Jackson as Levon Wally bring remarkable life to their one-note classifications.

Likewise, the editing by Glenn Garland is spectacular. The art contribution from Kevin Houlihan is certainly eye-catching. Siobhan O’ Brien’s set decoration and Carrie Grace’s costume design are equally stunning. The make-up department, composed of a dozen individuals, is undoubtedly a highpoint. Zombie leans on them throughout, expressly with his antiheros, and they deliver delightfully well. Zak Knight’s special effects are seamless and credible. The optical component of this group, the collective contribution from eleven people, is just as authentic. In terms of sound, stunts and camera usage: the piece is just as operative.

Though this is a mid-level opus, I enjoyed it as a whole. This is despite the fact that it is oddly timid. Such is in the liberal use of gore one would expect from Zombie. Much of this, I presume, would have to do with the several cuts made to the flick. This was done to avoid the NC-17 rating. Maybe if a version with everything intact was offered it would make the endeavor feel more singular, comprehensive and courageous. But, I don’t know if it could completely take away from the commonplace sense which hangs over the proceedings. Being among those who can say they helped crowdfund some of the $1.5 million dollar budgeted epic, I am still full of pride for my involvement in this construction. But, there is also a part of me that cannot deny that this is a stylistic regression for Zombie. He stays unwaveringly in the comfort zone. This is where he provides solely what he believes fans want from his moving tales. It may be pleasing, but it feels like compromise. It is this silent pandering which keeps this merely good exercise from living up to its potential as a great one.

31-pic-2