Thursday, March 5, 2015

BUZZARD Takes Down The Modern Workplace With A Mentally Ill Character For The Ages

On the surface, Joel Potrykus' new film Buzzard looks like the latest in a long line of black comedies that offer a scathing taking down of capitalism and whatever malaise the white collar workforce is suffering at the time. For a generation millennials worn down by the fact that a college education that has left them six figures in debt no longer offers any assurance of gainful employment that is both satisfying and financially rewarding, the idea of just not giving a fuck is more and more commonplace. The myth of the American Dream where if one just puts their head down and works hard and they'll be rewarded with the house, the family and all the toys has been replaced with one where the best you can hope for is having enough scratch to buy a decent frozen pizza and beer at the end of the week. However, Buzzard also offers a devastating look at mental illness and just how easy it is for someone suffering all sorts of conditions to "pass" while they present real danger to both themselves and the people that surround them.

Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) works for a temp agency, but his true passion is finding ways to work the system to his advantage. His main problem, among many, is he tries to earn his pound of flesh while possessing an ounce of cleverness. Marty has no understanding about the value of his time, leading him to spend hours on hold to loge a complaint with frozen pizza companies in order to receive a $2 coupon towards his next purchase. If there's a loophole, Marty will look to exploit it. When we first meet Marty he's closing down his checking account in order to open a new one, at the same bank, in order to open a new one for the $50 new customer bonus. Oh, and he happens to work at that bank.

Buzzard isn't driven by plot so much as it is a fascinating, disturbing and often hilarious look at Marty's unravelling. Each small poor choice Marty makes compounds on the one that came before it, until his workplace scam forces him to hide in another worker's "party room" (a sad, wood panel basement complete with a 20" TV and old school Ninetendo) in order to evade his superiors from taking action on him. Even them Marty keeps biting the hand that feeds him as he continues to hassle and torment  of Derek (played by the director), the c-worker who takes hides him in a sad attempt to befriend him.  From there Marty continues his downward spiral, failing to learn from his previous mistakes, until you just can't see a way out for him.

 Burge is a revelation as Jackitansky, playing him as a Napoleon Dynamite like-savant with a psychotic streak. He's a character that possesses an ounce of cleverness who uses it to try and extract a pound of gold through petty larceny, schemes and mechanisms, all the while digging himself deeper into trouble. Burge plays Marty with a deadpan, slough eyed look that offer no hint of any empathy towards other people, nor any understanding of how the world around him operates. At times it's painful to watch him, especially the memorable spaghetti and meatballs scene, which extends far past the point of comfort and takes personal sloppiness to new heights.

While Buzzard isn't a horror film, director Joel Potrykus tosses more than enough nods to the genre to pique fan interest. The walls of his apartment are covered floor to ceiling with giant horror film posters including the Wicker Man, Elm Street 3 and Return of the Living Dead. He never leaves the home without rocking his black Demons tee-shirt. Also, Marty hand builds a replica working Freddy glove that factors heavily into the climax.

While there's no real journey with Buzzard, watching Marty travel in a destructive circle offers a compelling ride. Dark, disturbing and jaw droppingly funny at times, Buzzard gets under the skin in ways the best black comedies can.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Support the Boston Underground Film Festival!

Exactly three weeks from tonight, Boston Underground Film Festival will kick off at the Brattle Theatre. Can you believe it is nearly here? They are still looking to raise funds for the fest through Kickstarter. Might as well pre-purchase your pass or at least a couple tickets, right? Do it!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

EJECTA Delivers Sci-Fi Horror Chills

New from IFC Midnight, Ejecta plays like a conspiracy theorist's wet dream and calls to mind memories of the X-Files when that show was firing on all cylinders. The film mixes its alien invasion component with shadowy government conspiracies, coverups and torture while offering  a lead performance for the ages. All of these elements come together in such a way that allow Ejecta to offer up a fantastic slice of original sci-fi based horror.

Julian Richards stars as William Cassidy, a brilliant but reclusive astrologer who claims to still feel the repercussions from an extraterrestrial visit four decades ago. Wracked with never ending pain and unable to sleep for more than a few hours every couple of days, Cassidy has spent the intervening years blogging about his experience and publishing his theories. After  he reaches out to a young documentarian Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold), the young man shows up on his doorstep on the eve of a coronal mass ejection. What neither of the men know is how close a military operation is to zeroing on them. Led by the sadistic Dr. Tobin (Lisa Houle), the installation will stop at nothing to get its hands on both Cassidy and any evidence of other worldly visitors.

Tony Burgess' (Pontypool, Septic Man) screenplay shifts gears time and time again and sets up three different plot threads. It presents the interactions between Joe and Bill. at first they focus on the Bill's history and his coping mechanisms from his initial encounter. However, as the events play out the duo find themselves on the run from a potential alien threat. That story is coupled with a military unit hunting for both Bill and evidence of an alien crash site in the surrounding woods. Finally, we have the test of wills between a captured and restrained Cassidy and Dr. Tobin, who will stop at nothing in order to get the information she wants. Whether executing subordinates who fail to carry out her orders or submitting Cassidy to extreme torture through devices meant to suck out and reproduce the thoughts from his head, Houle has the opportunity to craft the kind of zealot that makes for the best kind of villain.

While Ejecta contains a small number of jump scares, directors Chad Archibald and Matt Wiele mostly rely on building atmosphere steeped in confusion and paranoia to create a looming sense of dread and terror. The three main plot threads weave in and out of one another seamlessly but with abrupt cuts, which keeps the viewer off balance. The real draw of the film is Richards' performance as the tortured Cassidy. His gaunt, bony features accentuate his appearance of a man driven to the point of madness and despair after forty years of being used as a communication receptacle for the aliens. There are times when the film threatens to teeter into chaos, yet Richards remains a focal point  to keep the audience grounded. The tension between he and Houle's Tobin payoff with a chilling exchange when he tells her that the aliens "liked" him yet he still bore unimaginable suffering, leaving her to contemplate what lies in wait for her once they breach the compound.

While it can be difficult to decipher meaning in the chaos, Ejecta provides enough thrills to satisfy the most ardent horror fan. Burgess remains one of the most enigmatic writers working in genre films today, as each of his works bear different tones, yet each call for repeated viewings in order to dissect everything going on within.

Friday, February 27, 2015

THE LAZARUS EFFECT fails to stimulate any genuine scares.

When the first line of a film is, ‘This pig smells like shit,’ you’re hoping it’s not an ironic bit of foreshadowing for the quality of what you’re about to endure. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the case for The Lazarus Effect, a bland sci-fi horror flick that reeks of crappy genre clich├ęs from the get-go. Rarely does my cat’s litter box have a more inspired visceral effect on me than what typically plays in multiplexes across the country, no matter how putrid it may be.

Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde star as Frank and Zoe, two lovey-dovey scientists who are dedicated to formulating a serum with the ability to bring the deceased back to life. Well, at least their test subject of a dead dog, although I’m sure you can already predict where everything will spiral downward for these dopey doctors later on. Their equally attractive team of models, I mean, scientists, consists of Sarah Bolger as their videographer, Donald Glover as the smartest guy in the room that nobody ever listens to, and Evan Peters as an obnoxious stoner who’d rather play World of Warcraft.

Once Zoe is electrocuted and pronounced dead following a fatal accident, Frank shoots her up with the serum that cured their beloved pooch and she’s miraculously revived. However, Zoe immediately goes cuckoo following her resurrection; black veins appear all over her body, she’s able to finish people’s sentences before they do, and suffers from vivid flashbacks that recall a childhood trauma. Before long, she’s in full Carrie mode, fueled with telekinetic rage and whacking off each of her buddies one by one in all of the movie’s hackneyed PG-13 carnage.

Jesus, I’m dozing off just writing about this snoozefest. For a film that clocks in at under an hour-and-a-half, I myself felt as if I’d come back from the dead once it’s excruciatingly dull 83-minutes were finally over. Several mainstream horror films over the past few years have been constructed in the most cheap, insultingly manipulative techniques possible. To be so mercilessly boring, though, is a much greater sin altogether.

Perhaps it’s the fact that there was so much talent assembled for this picture that made it so painful to slog through, as well as why I’m being so harsh towards its half-assed execution. Much to my amazement, David Gelb, who previously made the fascinating documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi nearly three years ago, is the director behind this dreary piece of cinema. Based on his previous work, it’s clear that Gelb has talent; nonetheless, his heart couldn’t be more distant from this material. His scenes lack any sense of impending dread, to the point that even his cheap ‘jump’ scares need reconciliation from his cast saying out-loud how someone, or something, ‘scared the shit out of them.’

Speaking of which, Gelb has assembled a talented array of actors, but their lack of commitment only makes the experience all the more depressing. I’m happy that they’ll most likely use whatever quick paychecks they’ve earned on this project to support their independent work in the future, however, that doesn’t nullify the flat performances that are on display. Sarah Bolger, Donald Glover and Olivia Wilde, in particular, have proven that they’re capable of giving tremendous performances, yet they seem as sad to be involved in the project as I was watching them in it. Not to mention that they inhabit one-dimensional archetypes that make the archeologist dumb-dumbs in Prometheus seem like Nobel Prize winners.

As a horror fanatic, films like The Lazarus Effect only add to my deep-seated frustration for critics and audiences looking down at the genre for being a ‘lower’ form of artistry. Contemporary masterworks such as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows prove that there are plenty of terrifying, brilliantly complex ideologies to cinematically expand upon; nevertheless, they’re still unfairly crippled by limited theatrical releases while turds like this expand nationwide. Here’s hoping that audiences will avoid this by-the-numbers dud and seek out motion pictures that actually deserve to unleash their wildest nightmares.

Monday, February 23, 2015

ZOMBIEWORLD Pulls In The Undead From All Over The Globe

When the world eventually goes to seed and zombies overrun all of mankind on their quest for a never ending all you can eat buffet of brains, one may as well strap themselves in for the inevitable and watch as the revolution is televised. The new anthology film from the horror news/reviews site Dread Central stitches together a number of shorts from around the globe centered on the great zombie apocalypse.

Zombieword is comprised of about an hour and a half worth of various short films all centered on the zombie theme. While there's a running vignette about a news team trying to broadcast while their studio is threatened to be overrun, by and large there's no unifying theme or plot device that unifies the shorts into a seamless story. The tone of the shorts vary, though there's an emphasis on silly, over the top lunacy. The opening segment, set in a POV style reminiscent of the Halo games, finds a group running for their lives through the woods lest they succumb to getting devoured by a zombie Santa Claus. There's an animated sequence that looks like it could actually be developed into a solid video game as well. There's also a few moving moments, including a segment where a bride to be must come to grips with her partner's infection. A comedy segment involving conflicting roommates sits alongside a cop that gets trapped tying to help a woman out of a domestic situation.

The highlight of the film is Fist of Jesus (pictured above).  It reimagines Christ raising Lazarus from the dead as the event that all other zombie lore stems from. Of course, the inclusion of Cowboy Zombies  throws the historical accuracy of the film into question, although there is a growing number of biblical scholars who think there may have been a few six shooters in Jerusalem at the time. The short is bloody and gory and over the top in true Dead Alive  fashion, and both splatter fanatics and fundamental Christians will find enough common ground to come together over.

There are approximately 956,307 zombie projects released every calendar year. Most of them are quite horrendous. A few are worth a watch. Zombieworld is a decent collection of short films with a true standout in Fist of Jesus that makes it worth a spin.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS shows that vampires can still be damn funny

A horror film it is not, but WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is the funniest vampire movie I have ever seen. Unlike FRIGHT NIGHT, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, or FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS completely eschews horror and instead delivers an honestly funny and fresh vampire comedy. 

Shot as a mockumentary, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is formatted as an MTV’s Real World series. Instead of the typical mindless 20 somethings, we instead get to see centuries old vampires try to cohabitate with one another. Written and directed by two of the starring vampires, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi smartly know what elements of these vampires’ day to day lives will get the biggest laughs. 

The film begins with Viago (Waititi) waking out of his coffin, just after sunset, and gathering his flat mates for a house meeting. The camera crews follow him from room to room as he wakes and introduces us to each vampire who lives there. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the bad boy of the house, sleeps in a small closet, hanging from the ceiling by his feet. True to his rock star attitude he just needs ten more minutes of sleep and wears leather pants everywhere. Vladislav (Clement) has his ceiling orgy with many beautiful naked women interrupted by Viago’s nighttime rounds, but eventually the whole group comes together to debate the biggest issue they are facing: household chores. Seeing these immortal bachelors argue about who will wash their pile of blood soaked goblets which are sitting next to an overflowing sink, turns out to be much funnier than I expected. The childishness and stubbornness you would expect on MTV, juxtaposed with these well-dressed demons of the night is perfectly timed and balanced for laughs.

As the film goes on it begins to feel a bit like this may be the only joke they are giving the audience. The first thirty minutes or so are really hilarious, but after the gag has been played multiple times it begins to seem like that will be the only joke for the rest of the film. Fortunately the filmmakers have a lot more up their sleeves in terms of comedy, and they do manage to keep the humor rolling for the rest of the running time. 

All of the actors are perfectly cast in WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. I would not be surprised to learn if each actor were able to develop their own character, or of the characters were created exclusively for them because it is obvious that each of them is playing with their strengths here. Deacon as the self-proclaimed rebel of the group looks like someone you may have known in high school who was anything but a rebel, and he hams up his role to the perfect degree. All of the actors have a tinge of campiness to their vampiric on-screen personas, but this makes sense in the context of the film. We expect vampires to have giant egos and to be larger than life, so these flamboyant monsters are what are to be expected and not at all distracting. 

Though there is not real horror in the film, it is clearly made for horror fans. The in-jokes from horror film and literature are sprinkled throughout the film, and it made it easy for me to pick out which other audience members was a fan like me. Seeing Nosferatu, here named Petyr (Ben Fransham), listening to music and having whacky flat mates, is funny by itself, but having previous experience with the 8000 year old before seeing this made his scenes even better. 

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is a categorically hilarious take on what can be seen as a cinematically tired monster. It is quotable and smart, and I hope that it has set the bar even higher for future horror comedies. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Of Monsters And Madness: Adam Green's DIGGING UP THE MARROW

After four years away from theaters, independent horror auteur Adam Green returns to the big screen with today's release of Digging Up The Marrow. The film plays a limited amount of theaters and is available nationwide via iTunes and other video on demand platforms. The picture marks a true collaboration with horror artist Alex Pardee as it was his creature designs along with the elaborate backstory he created for them which informed the film that Green subsequently wrote and directed. Upon receiving a packet of Pardee’s art at a fan convention green knew he wanted to tackle the marrow as his next picture.

Digging Up The Marrow finds Green and his cohorts at Ariescope Pictures playing themselves as they work on a documentary about horror conventions and fan obsession with monsters. It's during this time where a package falls into Green's lap by a man claiming to be former Boston Police Detective William Dekker (Ray Wise as the only character in the film not playing himself). Dekker claims that he can prove monsters are real, that there is a whole class of persons born as deformed children who disappear only to later emerge as “monsters” in a place Dekker calls “the marrow.” Intrigued, Green and his cinematographer Will Barrett meet with Dekker at his rundown bungalow in order to hear his wild stories, comb through his artist renditions of the monster’s he claims to have discovered and to eventually capture them on film. What follows are nights spent camped out in an old cemetery until the trio capture what just might be irrefutable proof of the existence of monsters.

It’s this hope that drives Green on even when everyone around him believes him to be nuts. In supporting appearances Kane Hodder and Josh Ethier take great pleasure in ribbing Green over his adamancy on continuing to work with Dekker. In brief cameos longtime horror directors Mick Garris and Tom Holland claim Dekker’s been pushing this bag of magic beans on any sucker that will listen for years on end. Despite the ridicule from his friends and peers along with increasing pressure from his producers to turn in work for the looming season of Holliston, Green remains convinced Dekker is onto something and he clings to any kernel of hope with a childlike tenacity of someone desperate to be proven right.  

While the concept sounds dark, Green injects a more humorous slant to the material. Wise and Green play off one one another in a manner that draws comparisons to The Odd Couple’s Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, with Dekker not even bothering to hide his disdain for Green throughout the film while Green smirks at the recluse detectives outlandish behavior. It’s impossible to heap too much praise on Wise, who continues to be the best part of any project he’s associated with. Marrow does not go overboard in giving you Dekker’s backstory which allows Wise to fill in the gaps and inform the audience with each bug eyed rant or quieter moment where Dekker seems to forget himself and where he is. Wise’s monster hunter character never comes across as a liar or explicit threat to Green and Barratt, yet there’s an undeniable edge to his character.

Of more interest is the stuff going on underneath the surface in Marrow. It’s fascinating to watch how Green takes the world he’s been handed by Pardee and uses it as a vehicle to air his grievances with the business aspect of the moviemaking process. Green has always been one of the more outspoken directors in independent horror and his frustrations after the bungled marketing and distribution of both Hatchet II and Frozen are well publicized. It’s easy to read into Dekker’s disjointed stories; his increasingly bizarre requests and behavior and the dangling, just out of reach hope that all of the hoops  he’s forced to jump through will result in tangible evidence that monsters are real as venting against the endless cycle of pitch meetings; backslapping that turns to back stabbing; greenlit projects getting put on the shelf indefinitely and the creeping sensation that at the end of the day one is just a cog getting grinded down in the maw that is the Hollywood machine. At a scene set at an outdoor cafe, it's not difficult to picture an evasive and distracted Dekker serving as a stand-in for any number of studio executives or producers willing to promise the world in theory before backpedalling when the etherial needed to become more concrete. In he subtext of Marrow, there’s a suggestion that hope could be the most dangerous emotion of all as it forces one to hold on to ideas or ambitions long past their expiration date or even past the point of sanity.

Not that fans need to worry about Marrow being an existential drama. Pardee deserves all the praise he has earned for creating some of the coolest, most bizarre looking monsters we have seen on film in quite some time. As a writer and filmmaker Green continues to evolve with Marrow being his best work to date. The pacing of the film is perfect, with Green knowing just the right moments to jolt his audience. Eagle eyed viewers will love searching for clues in the background. In short, Digging Up The Marrow is one of the smartest, most entertaining horror films to come out in a long time.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

CHASTITY BITES: Teenage abstinence never stood a chance

Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th century Hungarian countess, is regularly cited as one of the more prolific mass murderers in history. She reportedly bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youthful beauty, and killed up to 650 young girls to retain her looks. With her sordid history it just makes sense that she would be featured in horror films. CHASTITY BITES takes Bathory’s proclivity for virgin blood and makes takes it to another logical extension: Bathory surfaces in a modern-day high school and establishes an abstinence club. 

More of a comedy with some hints of horror than a classic horror film, CHASTITY BITES made me slap my forehead and exclaim “Why has this not been done before?” when I first heard about the film from Etheria Film Festival director Stacy Hammon. The idea for the film is especially clever and obvious, and thankfully director John V. Knowles and writer Lotti Pharriss Knowles do justice to the concept. 

The film stars Allison Scagliotti as Leah, a precocious and wordy high schooler who is quite happy to exist outside of the cool girl clique. Her nosey behavior is put to work as she prepares for a career as an investigative journalist, though her source material is greatly limited by her small town. When the beautiful and mysterious Liz Batho (Louise Griffiths, THE REVENANT) comes to her school and introduces the school’s first chastity club, Leah’s interest is piqued. Where did this woman come from, and why does she care so much about the sex lives of teenagers? Liz’s beauty and charm quickly wins over both the most popular girls in school and their vain mothers, which kicks Leah’s research into high gear. 

The tone of Chastity Bites is one of its major strengths. If you can picture a cross between MEAN GIRLS, JUNO, and ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE you can start to understand the dark, satirical, but quickly worded world that the film puts you in. Leah is smart and sarcastic in such a way that few people are in real life, but you still wish you had been friends with her in high school. Scagliotti’s performance brings a heart and playfulness to the verbose Leah that makes you really root for her as she faces the infamous killer. 

There are a few points in the film that the action lulls slightly, but this may be due to the fact that the plot’s path is not what the audience is expecting. High school stories, especially horror dark comedies, are somehow both common and also high performers. From HEATHERS to EXCISION we tend to know where these stories go and how dark they are willing to dive. CHASTITY BITES does not go dark, but it does keep the plot moving into unforeseen directions. When these turns occur the plot takes its steps carefully, and this slowing feels like a contrast to the quick wit of Leah. 

Even though female teenage abstinence is a major theme in the film, the film’s attitude toward sex is even-handed and not alarmist. Also, it is refreshing to see Leah strut down the hallway of her school wearing a shirt that says “This is what a feminist looks like” and have the feminism present in the plot and characters: CHASTITY BITES practices what is preaches. 

Overall the film is delightful. Its playful tone and energetic heroine give life to the incredible concept, and bring Bathory’s legacy to modern audiences. I had such fun watching it, and hope to see more from the Knowleses. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

CRAZY BITCHES: Mean Girls Meets Voorhees In This New Slasher

Seven former sorority sisters and their gay bestie get together for a weekend getaway and rustic adventure at a remote ranch spa. The years since college have not done much to bring the women closer together, as a set of revolving beefs and past indiscretions have them more at each others throats before too long. Meanwhile, the sordid history of the location begins to repeat itself as one by one the vacationers are picked off by an unknown killer in this new whodunit slasher from Jane Clark that's now out on DVD and video on demand.

Apparently Clark did not set out to make a horror film with Crazy Bitches but instead wanted to explore the relationship dynamics between a group of women as they grow apart with age. The slasher angle came into play later on down the road. Perhaps the development of the film leads to character development a step above what one normally sees in this subgenre. Instead of a singular character given the brunt of screen time while surrounded by one note stereotypes, each of the women are given a significant time to develop their history and various entangled relationships. It does take a while to get rolling. The first half of the film feels a bit like Mean Girls for grownups as the group seem to relish in pointing out one another's failures. However, their snippiness also leads to some genuinely funny bits, including an argument over who suffered the most persecution: the gay hindu male who grew up in Arizona post 9-11 or the young woman at any time in American history.

Crazy Bitches should also be commended for being one of the more sexually progressive slasher films. The women have no problems with taking what they want, especially if what they want comes in the form of a young but dumb ranch hand. They're not penalized or shamed for being the aggressors, with the only criticism stemming from their standards being too low. The “B” in LGBQT politics is also explored as the out and proud lesbian of the group has to maneuver around the closeted tendencies of her friends. There's a running gag how everyone, and I do mean everyone, has slept with the lead woman's husband at one point or another.

So how does the film fare as a slasher? After a slow start, Crazy Bitches acquits itself surprisingly well. The kills get creative and each of them hits the particular victim at their most vein point. The prim and proper virginal character is immobilized and force fed her pearls, a character auperficially worried about their dark complexion is done in in horrific fashion by tainted skin cream. The FX work is solid if not groundbreaking. The film plays a bit too loose with continuity, especially at the end where a character who is alive when we leave her winds up being pronounced dead without any confirmation of the screen. It's not clear if it's a reshoot issue or the actress left the set and could not return for the final scenes. 

Overall, Crazy Bitches is just different enough from the typical slasher film, without being a sendup of the subgenre, that it's well worth your times. Aside from a soundtrack that's a bit too filled with coffee house quality singer/songwriter acts, there's a lot to enjoy with the film. It has fun characterization, some truly biting humor and creative enough kills to satisfy and horror fan.