May 24, 2018

GOD'S BLOODY ACRE

Harry Kerwin’s 1975 exercise in moonshine-tinged weirdness GOD’S BLOODY ACRE is some kind of film. I do mean some kind of film. Is it hicksploitation? At first glance, it certainly fits the bill, with its trio of redneck vagabonds clashing against ever-encroaching capitalist city folk out to turn their beloved woods into luxury camping grounds. Is it horror? It certainly turns into horror as the film goes along. Is it a drama all about disillusionment and unfulfilled emotional needs? Is it a comedy? Is it an art film? Truth is, it’s a little bit of all of that.

It begins with an unconvincing “this story is based on true events” placard before introducing, in descending order of mental acuity, Monroe, Ezra, and Benny, three good ol’ boys living in the forests of Florida. They watch as a group of construction workers level trees and destroy foliage in preparation for the building of camp grounds. When most of the group head off on break, Monroe and Sons attack a lone bulldozer operator, pelting him with stones before bifurcating the poor guy with his own bulldozer. That would appear to be the end of that.

We meet Richard and his wife Carol as they drive down a lonely stretch of road. They pass three black men and their car. Richard takes the opportunity to remark about how unlikely it is that three INSERT RACIAL EPITHET HERE came into possession of a Rolls Royce through hard work and proper finance. Carol, being more socially conscious (and less of an asshole) than her husband, wastes no time in chastising Richard for his less than politically correct observations. Their relationship on the rocks, the couple is on a long trip to God Knows Where in hopes that time away from the kids will help mend their marriage.

Next, we meet David, a straight laced dude on a motorcycle that's about to break down on the side of the road. As David wanders off looking for a garage, we’re treated to a flashback. David is standing in the office, everything is off-kilter with slightly askew handheld camera work and Echoplexed sound. It’s a stylistic choice that borders on self-important avant-garde wankery. Unable to muster another day working for a company which, in David’s words, creates “weapons of war”, David packs his bags, bids adieu to his lovely girlfriend, and hits the road.

We’re not done with the distractions yet, folks. We still need to meet Leslie, a free love kinda gal whose boyfriend isn’t having it when Leslie says no to sex. He smacks her around and threatens to rape her. The next time we meet Leslie, she’ll be sitting in a small town restaurant, again being threatened with rape by a group of hyper-masculine men. The guy running the place throws the men out, but wastes no time in criticizing Leslie’s apparent dislike for bras.

These disparate lines of story coalesce when all the characters converge on the unfinished camp grounds. Richard and Carol discuss their relationship issues, only to be interrupted by the arrival of David and Leslie. David has been robbed and beaten by the black men we saw earlier and Leslie has been caring for his wounds (and having impromptu sex with him in a nearby lake). In an odd act of kindness, Richard invites the couple to have dinner with him, much to Carol’s chagrin (“that’s the trouble with this country, we don’t help each other anymore”, says the racist Richard to his otherwise compassionate wife). But dinner will never come. After horsing around for damn near 60 minutes of this 86 minute movie, Monroe and Sons decide to get down to some unfortunate, bloody business.

It’s an odd and circuitous route for GOD’S BLOODY ACRE to take. From the 60 minute mark on, it’s an all-out bloodbath with our city folk heroes coming to blows with our redneck antagonists. Ezra, the lecherous virgin of the three, assaults Carol. Richard winds up with his neck in a noose. David and Leslie do their best to hide from Benny and his brother only to be dragged into a brutal battle royale. There is a bit of Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS here. Carol’s sexual assault begins as a rape, turns into a consensual bit of lovemaking, before turning back into a rape. David, whom the film views as effeminate, reclaims his masculinity through bloodshed (I mean, this cannot possibly be a coincidence, right?). It’s an effective and satisfying conclusion to an otherwise meandering film, at least on a visceral level.

If co-opting the gut punch finale of Peckinpah’s classic was really Kerwin’s goal, he largely succeeded. I just wish he paid more attention to the 70 or so minutes Peckinpah spent building up to that climax. GOD’S BLOODY ACRE doesn’t really have a solid through line, no real substantial subtext or underlying theme. Like STRAW DOGS, there is a strong current of territoriality at play here, with the three vagabonds defending what they view as their private territory, but that thread of subtextual richness gets tossed aside for gratuitous rape and wanton destruction. Also like STRAW DOGS, the issue of masculinity gets play time here, with the women all being victims of male chauvinism and the men all acting as pawns in some grand game of ‘my dick is bigger than yours’. The fact that both villain and hero end up as victims of female violence is wonderfully ironic, but it doesn’t really do much to address the issues dancing around the periphery of the film.

I can get what Kerwin was trying to say, but the need to turn in a feature length film meant the director had to up the running time. As a result, we spend far more time watching characters travel than we do seeing them usurp the so-called natural order of the vagabonds. We spend more time talking around the issues the film brings up than we do actually talking about them. So when the credits roll on GOD’S BLOODY ACRE, we’re left with a movie that was meant to be about something, but never got around to actually being about something.

Still, I don’t think the movie is a waste of time, just a waste of opportunity. I liked the louder than loud performances and I found the oddly shifting tone of the film quite interesting at times. The ending is a knock-out, filled with fights that don’t look choreographed (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone broke a rib or two during filming). It’s semi-charming, oftentimes brutal stuff, a nice schizophrenic mix of hicksploitation, backwoods horror and 1970s hippie melodrama. A weird, unstable mix, to be sure, but one with a certain charm and charisma to it.

May 15, 2018

BLOOD FRENZY

The set-up is pure THE HILLS HAVE EYES. A camper full of people gets waylaid in the desert by someone – or someones – out for blood. In execution, however, Hal Freeman’s 1987 slasher flick BLOOD FRENZY is little more than a workaday blood bath with no social conscience in sight. It’s the kind of film in which every character is potentially the killer, a choice which greatly undermines any emotional investment it might have been able to muster up.

The folks in the broken down camper in the middle of the Mojave desert (of all places) are there for a weekend “confrontational therapy session” led by Doctor Barbara Shelley. Shelley’s motley crew of clients include traumatized Vietnam vet Rick, conniving lesbian Dory, middle aged alcoholic Crawford, gorgeous nympho Cassie, irascible asshole Dave, and Jean, a woman terrified of being touched. Immediately, things go bad. Dave is nearly knifed by Rick when the obnoxious prick knowingly triggers Rick’s ever-worsening Nam flashbacks. Dory’s temper flares when Cassie turns down her offer of a little girl-on-girl action. Things seem to be building to a fever pitch. When the group wakes one morning to find Dave dead in his tent, you can feel the film bracing for a descent into fiery confrontation, paranoia and bloodshed.

But then BLOOD FRENZY does something a bit unexpected. It dials itself way down and stays way down for the rest of the film. Just when things should be picking up momentum, Freeman grinds the film to a halt, eschewing any possible character driven, murder mystery angle for slow paced slasher movie theatrics. And ‘slow paced’ is not this film’s cup of tea.

The first half hour of the film is a parade of histrionics, beginning with a flashback murder set piece detailing the death of an abusive, drunk father at the hands of his child. Arterial spray galore. Once we move into present day, the arguments begin. Characters shout at one another endlessly. Rick stares off into the distance, all but muttering “Charlie in the trees...” over and over again as he recounts his time at war. Dave’s hyper aggressive masculinity results in frequent shouting matches with the equally predatory Dory. Cassie seductively licks a spoon while flirting with every man in the camper. Crawford’s drunk ramblings begin to sound like beat poetry. Once they arrive in the desert, everyone is at everyone’s throat and punches are not being held.

This first act is loud and ridiculous, verging on comedy, with performances so broad you'd need a whaler to cross them. So the sudden shift in tone from cacophonous and hyperbolic to slow and measured doesn’t quite work, especially since the characters don’t shift with it. They remain every inch the easily triggered, over emotional train wrecks prone to making bizarre decisions. After one of the group commits suicide via stick of dynamite, a shell shocked Cassie wanders over to Dory with a disembodied hand. Without so much as missing a beat, Dory whisks her away to an abandoned mine and swiftly seduces her. It’s the kind of scene that would leave even the most hardened of bad movie aficionados to question just what the hell they’re watching.

This weird conflict between tone and presentation never sorts itself out. The film remains in this strange limbo between genuine horror film and off-kilter black comedy. It’s like listening to a song played at three-quarter speed. It just feels… off.

The odd concoction of serious tone and playfully inept execution might undermine the scare potential of many of the late game slasher set pieces, but BLOOD FRENZY most certainly isn't anemic. What it lacks in frights, it more than makes up for in viscera. Characters die and die bloody. Cassie’s long and torturous death scene is easily the highlight, a gratuitously violent bit of mutilation that might not be convincing, but sure as shit is effective. The final fight is a four way struggle for survival during which buckets of blood are spilled, characters scream unintelligible lines at one another, and someone tosses a mining pick through the air, embedding it in the killer’s back in a way that defies all known laws of physics.

Many times I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to be feeling. Am I supposed to be frightened? Worried? Thrilled? Amused? I simply couldn’t tell because the film had left the realm of reality for something approaching lunacy. The over the top violence of the final act certainly sent BLOOD FRENZY out on a high note, but for much of the film, I found myself rather nonplussed. I’m generally not a fan of the “just turn your brain off and enjoy” line of reasoning as I think actively watching a film is more enjoyable than merely passively swallowing whatever the film throws at you. But with BLOOD FRENZY, I think it might actually be best to just sit and drool through it.

May 5, 2018

I'M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY

*** Full disclosure: I received a screener for this film free of charge. I am friends with the writer/director. I feel compelled to disclose that. This blog is free of all ads. I don’t write reviews for money. Most bloggers I know don’t either. But I still think disclosure is important, especially when the film I’m reviewing was provided to me for free. I have an implicit distrust of blogs or websites that do not disclose when they’ve received a product free of charge for review. I know all too well that the allure of free shit can lead to writers being far too kind and far less critical. Free shit should not guarantee kind words and friendship should not be a shield for criticism. So I’m disclosing these facts to you, Dear Reader, right here at the start so you can make an informed decision to read the following review or not. ***

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS LIGHT SPOILERS.

There is Horror and there is horror. It sounds tautological, I know, but there is a distinction.

I’m tempted to rephrase that statement, to refine it. There is Horror and there is despair. That would probably make it roll easier off the tongue. When I say Horror, I mean the collection of tropes, iconography and narrative types that comprise the genre of Horror. By horror, I simply mean the feeling, that aching in the bones, that sense of hopelessness the existentialists sometimes refer to as despair.

Mike Lombardo’s I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY is not a Horror film, but it is a horror film. It’s a post-apocalypse tale centered on a mother and her young child living in what appears to be a small shelter beneath their home. The family patriarch has long since gone missing, his whereabouts unknown. What catastrophic fate has befallen the world? How many days has it been? We’re not told. Was the disaster nuclear? If so, the lightweight scavenging gear used by the family wouldn’t prevent their deaths. Was it chemical? If so, why do we see characters removing their gas masks outside of the shelter. The mother, driven to scavenging out of desperation, comes across a wounded young woman and an eviscerated body in the upstairs hallway of a neighborhood home. The injured woman tells the mother that ‘something’ attacked her brother and tore him to shreds. No further detail is given.

We spend most of our time in the shelter where the mother, Kelly, tends to her son, Riley. She cooks him beans and sleeps next to him on a cot on the floor. She marks the days on a makeshift calendar. The only other means of counting the days would be watching their short supply of canned food slowly run out. Kelly’s encounter with the injured woman ends with her stealing the young woman’s backpack. Inside she finds a few cookies. Resting on a shelf in the shelter is a bottle of weed killer. With Christmas only a day away, Kelly begins contemplating mercy killing her son, but not before throwing one last family Christmas celebration.

And all the while, a gas masked figure in full Santa Claus attire trudges through town, a man who may very well be the actual Santa Claus. He does, after all, have a list of names. Well, one name at least, and he’s about to pay Riley and his mother a terrible visit on Christmas day.

If there is one fatal flaw with I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY it’s that anyone looking for an explanation for the circumstances of the narrative will be left completely in the dark. There is no explication offered, no real reason why the world has gone to shit. No one utters a single line of world building exposition during the entire 71 minute running time. The first hour is largely spent within the shelter. The film appears to be taking place inside a comfortable, real world reality. Even the story recounted by the injured woman avoids anything explicitly otherworldly. “It” attacked her brother. “It” came out of nowhere. Well, what the hell was “it”? Up until the final ten minutes of the film, we would be justified in simply writing “it” off as an animal.

But once Jolly Old Saint Nicholas stumbles into the final ten minutes, the film undergoes a major tonal shift, one that I don’t think the film earns or ever really justifies. Genuine reality, the only reality the film displays up until this point, is casually tossed aside for a descent into supernaturalism. This shift in tone needed to happen much, much sooner. As it stands, this sudden addition of what might as well be considered magic all but derails the film. There is one very late attempt at justifying its inclusion in the narrative. The Santa figure is given a single line of dialogue which appears to frame the entire film as a kind of “no more kid’s stuff” parable all about leaving behind the comfortable confines of childhood for the harsh realities of grown up life, but this only works if Riley is the main character of the film, which he clearly is not.

So I’m still not entirely sure why Lombardo chose to drive his film down this particular route. There are ways to deliver that kind of message that don’t include the sudden addition of loopy metaphysics and supernatural shenanigans (though their inclusion could have been justified had the film taken the time to explain the rules and conditions of its world). At worst, the final scene is a clumsy attempt at paying tribute to TALES FROM THE CRYPT. At best, it’s a way for Lombardo to threaten to break one of cinema’s great taboos and send his tale of anguish out on a bleak, soul crushing note.

Either way, the film simply didn’t need those final ten minutes. It’s a nice subversion of expectations, I suppose. We’re given an early flashback/nightmare sequence of the happy family on Christmas Eve, leaving cookies for Santa. There’s a bit of dialogue that alludes to the possibility that the father often dresses like Santa Claus to surprise his child. I expected this to be final dramatic shock of the film. The father returns to the shelter on Christmas day dressed as Santa. He finds the poisoned cookies. Munch, munch, munch, cue shocked reactions. That would have sent the film out on a dour, depressing enough note without the narrative needing to succumb to supernatural nonsense.

It’s an ending that would have fit, as the first hour of the film is concerned with a more existential brand of horror that is firmly rooted in reality. A mother struggling to care for her son is strong enough of a premise to carry a film, especially a film with a built-in doomsday clock in the form of a dwindling supply of canned goods. Post-apocalyptic films often get themselves tied up in unnecessary diversions, like hordes of zombies or rampaging marauders. Very few face the real world threats of starvation, dehydration, disease and filth head on. AMC’s The Walking Dead is at its strongest in episodes like Them, the tenth episode of season five. There are relatively few zombies, no assholes with baseball bats, no poorly formed moral arguments. Just a slowly encroaching death from starvation. I suppose the unnecessary diversions suit a purpose. If The Terror, another AMC television series, didn’t feature a semi-magical killer bear with an unnervingly human face, the slow deaths of a hundred men might be too much to, pardon the pun, bear.

But I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY lives in that uncomfortable place for the first hour of its running time. That is when the film is at its strongest. There are no grand vistas of destroyed high rises, no roving bands of mutants or bloodthirsty savages. It’s a claustrophobic, intimate horror. The proximity to the suffering on display makes it difficult to ignore, let alone to write off as simple misery porn. Emotional investment (thanks in no small part to the Spielbergian inclusion of a small child) comes easily, practically unavoidable really. Kelly’s decision to spare her child from a short, miserable life of starvation and suffering hit hard. For most of the film, I felt as helpless as the characters. I felt bad and as the film progressed, I felt worse. And then worse and worse, especially as I came to agree that a brief, merciful death is better than the mere possibility of a slow and torturous one.

It’s a poisonous thought, a conclusion that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but that’s the beauty of the film. It paints the premeditation of murder as a kind of mercy and it does so with very few words and absolutely no moral grandstanding. It doesn’t expect you to agree, but it does expect you to understand. One of the great strengths of the writing on display here is that it never treats Kelly’s actions as purely emotional, thoughtless reactions to a terrible situation. In presenting the material honestly, it sidesteps simple disgust and anger. It begins to make sense. This is the best possible outcome. This is the most merciful conclusion. There is no room in the universe of this film for a Hollywood style, self sacrificing mother who will stave off death and beat the odds for the sake of her child. Here, death in an unavoidable inevitability and one must seriously consider whether or not Kelly’s actions really are justifiable and good given their circumstances.

I think I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY is a good film, despite having an ending I completely dislike. I think Lombardo found his perfect ending then overlooked it for a shock conclusion that does little but resolve its moral quandaries in a far more ludicrous fashion. As a meaty bit of existential horror, it works wonders with very little, proof that sometimes simpler is better, that we don’t always need spectacle and complication to make a film more interesting. All we really need is a shared human interest, a bit of a hook, and a recognition that not all stories will end with a happily ever after.

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I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY is currently doing the rounds at film festivals. For more information, please visit Reel Splatter Productions.