Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


TWIN PEAKS is happening again; Agent Cooper has returned in different places as different selves; DANGER 5 is no longer on Netflix, but THE LOVE WITCH is. Things from the past come back yet nothing from the moment leaves--the selection is so vast picking something is impossible. So we go back in time to when--if we wanted to see weird shit, sex or gore--we had to go the R-rated movie, or... in the 80s, we had to rent it, and were limited by what wasn't checked out, and by circumstance. Now we miss that simplicity, the narrowness of options. So we make movies that evoke those golden years. If you want to make a movie that looks and feels like it was made 20 years ago then you might be a retro-metatextual, but I won't judge you. I'd have to pick a version of me to do that anyway, and I'll leave that to the professionals serenely rooted in space and time. Just know STRANGER THINGS and IT FOLLOWS helped kickstart a batch of young or semi-young filmmakers seizing the opportune landscape to make a film they wanted to see back in the days of standing in front of shelves filled with empty clamshell boxes, the perfect 80s or late 70s rental to watch after trick-or-treating as a 12 year-old in the 70s - early 80s, the idealized film forms in your horror-lovin' mind. From the recently discussed SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL to as far back as GRINDHOUSE, a kind of borderline nostalgia future-past melancholy washes over things to free us all from the terrible burden of the overslick CGI present --wherein STAR WARS films look like video games and video games look like neo-realist crime dramas.

Neither feature film discussed below is specifically great (which is why I added a short at the end that is). In fact I'd love to sit them down with each other and have them grasp each others' faults and learn: for THE VOID, patience, tick-tocaklity and focus; BEYOND THE GATES action and surprise, the strength of convictions --willingness to crank it to eleven rather than constantly dialing back like a repressed schoolmarm resisting temptation.

(2017) Dir. Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski

The bashed-in brainchild of an art director and make-up artist in their directorial co-debut, VOID heralds a nice showcase for analog/latex effects as they depict a magical night at a closing-down hospital deep in the meth belt, wherein people start to give birth to or change into tentacled Lovecraftian behemoths. Aaron Poole stars as the shaky sheriff who lets you know how rattled he is when he shoots a patient in the head after bringing in a twitchy, wounded freak from the woods, who was shot by some guys. The guys chasing him arrive, chased themselves by a cadre of cultists in white robes with black triangles on the hoods. Hell breaks loose literally everyone shouting and waving guns, and about four different Clive Barker and John Carpenter movies come crashing together as the cult surrounding the cut-off hospital echoes an ASSAULT PRECINCT 13, the icky transformations evoke THE THING, the philosophy evokes the New England town beyond the shuttered bridge in IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, the church in Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the attics of Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, and Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND and the Solaris-from-Hell space ship in EVENT HORIZON, there's probably others.

That may sound great, I know it did to me. But this Gillespie and Kostanski clearly have a lot to learn about the rest of what makes a good film, like when to use dialogue and when not to, where to put the camera, and how to set up an ominous mood. They go for a Carpenter vibe but don't have the patience for Hawksian cool or the slow-building relentless dread that are amongst Carpenter's best auteur traits. Instead there are way too many balls in the air at once. Screaming "c-c-calm down!" over and over doesn't count as plot development. And when it focuses on just one or two and allows itself to get quiet, the film has a fightin' chance. But the more is less approach eludes them, as if all the elaborate monster tableaux are lined up offstage like a fashion show and, if they don't keep slithering out, they'll get so congested the film will burst.

That's not to say it's all that bad. As one of the nurses--Kathleen Munroe (above right) is a real stand-out, a gorgeous blue-cat-eyed creature in the Famke Janssen x Franka Poetente mold who stole a lot of hearts as a wild Irish lassie equestrian zombie in Romero's unjustly ignored SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (see my comparison of with PET SEMETERY + the RNC National Conveniton); here --all coy in her green scrubs--she reminded me of the cute nurses who gave me Ativan and Librium when I was flipping out in Feb. She exudes actorly grace and sultry depth and strength and indeed might have saved the movie had the writers allowed her to be a cool Hawksian heroine in the vein of Laurie Zimmer in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. But that would perhaps take cigarettes and balls instead of yelling and hamming. After the first chunk she's whisked down the rabbit hole to become just another imperiled Pauline and our trusty rattled sheriff's rescue attempt proves way less engaging than the sight of Munroe prowling the hall in search of drugs (They also shoehorn a kind of tired 'dead child' subplot [the grief broke her marriage with the sheriff], i.e. the kind of lazy screenwriter's shorthand for 'character development' that Carpenter studiously avoids).

Another thing missing that would have helped here is a source drug for all the craziness: meth is name-checked but there's no evidence of it. The source of all this strangeness turns out to be bizarre rituals carried out in this lonesome meth lab cabin. But where is the meth, damn it? Seems to me the meth is the key to Lovecraftian horror evocation and \Gillespie and Kostanski would be better prepared to explore this aspect if they'd done meth --write what you know, bro. (sniffle) I bet that cult leader doctor could get his hands on some wonderful drugs. I would have loved to see all sorts of directions it could have gone - fostering the connection between drugs and this hell dimension, for example. The high of meth opening their pineal glands the way FROM BEYOND's tuning forks do or my own Salvia Divinorum + Robitussin + light-sound machine + Mingus "Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" journey to Balloon machine elf time-space mandible-weaving adventures.

Gillespie and Kostanski have interesting imagination, there's some superb sequences near the climax and it's inspiring that they demonstrate the chops to create their tentacled visions in real analog time but the problem is perhaps real life experience. The blurry frenzy of action in THE VOID has the air of fear and doubt, so they just throw it all on the screen at once and run. A huge tentacled thing erupting out of a dead man's stomach would be plenty on its own, but here it's got to go down with a flickering overhead light gone to strobe, crazy camera movements, cross-cuts to a screaming pregnant woman about to get a C-section with no anesthesia and a hysterical pre-med intern whining and crying, and around ten people yelling at the top of their lungs as people shoot and swing axes at it. The camera seems half in the way of the action instead of chronicling it, like a nervous spectator with one eye on the door, not helping, making Carpenter's genius all the more remarkable and precious. Like Hawks, Carpenter took his time to make sure we got properly creeped out by the slow evolution of the THE THING. It was creepy because it was legitimately fucked-up movie trying to pass as 'everything's cool' normal. At the end of, say, the intense autopsy arm-chomping scene, for example, there's a kind of a joke (the king crab head of the dead man) and Kurt's exclamation 'Jesus Fucking Christ." It's funny and all the more terrifying for keeping it 'real' like that. Carpenter knows horror takes time to react. It's like making out with someone the first time, the going in for more kissing, and coming back out, the teasing and languor of leaning in and teasing vs. tongue; if you just lunge at the person with tongue extended and don't give them a second to breathe, well, honey, it's called 'suffocation.'

That's the deal here, with so much going on, nothing ever has time to happen. Carpenter's movies seduce you into bed, VOID just runs up and starts humping your leg. ASSAULT gained suspense from the camaraderie between the cops and outlaws in the face of a common enemy and the cool Hawksian focus of Zimmer; the quiet omnipresence of the nonspeaking gang members. Instead of the eerie silence of the gangs we're forced to listen to the head bad guys' rambling overly theatrical 'stage-voiced' dissertation on the new flesh through what sounds like the PA system for way too many minutes. The bulk of the characters are all annoyingly one-note, between the screaming pre-med intern who panics and lets the pregnant woman almost die while she hams it up like a little brat and the two rough townies (the good one's mute, the bad one never shuts up), there's so much negative energy that well, I had to go back to ASSAULT afterwards and be reminded Hawksian cool exists. It got a bad rap, but SUICIDE SQUAD knew how to pace itself (that great bar interlude) and create some genuine rapport. David Ayers (FURY) writes some great pre-battle bonding/drinking scenes.

As for the score, a good deep droning retro-analog synth score (as in STRANGER THINGS or IT FOLLOWS) would have helped immeasurably. Another missed opportunity. There's four different composers used and none can hold a candle to Disasterpiece or Umberto. Next time, boys, instead of watching just emulating JC movies, watch the movies he emulates. Watch RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO and THE 1951 THING. Soak 'em up, buttercup. Stumpy, don't make me tell you again. Give Kathleen Munroe a cigarette and a match and punch the first pisher who squawks about the ban.

(2016) Dir. Jackson Stewart

BEYOND THE GATES' musical score on the other hand is an effective melange of Goblin-esqe synths by retro-analog heavyweight Wojciech Golczewski. Like VOID, it's not set in the 80s so much as set within a universe clearly indebted to, haunted by and styled after Videos The Director/s Rented as Impressionable Kid/s. Here however, it's not the movies but a video board game, NIGHTMARE,
 which I'd never heard of it before this film. The story has a pair of semi-estranged "adult" brothers reuniting after their video rental store owner father vanishes, to mull through his old shit. The 'dead' video store is a great location for a horror film (as in SOUTH PARK, where Stan's dad buys a Blockbuster and goes all Jack Torrance Colorado snowed-in cabin fever Jack Torrance) but it's not utilized, really, at all. Seen only in the first reel and even then only to put the brothers in contact with the last thing dad was watching, the videotape in the 'video board game' (the title) hosted by Barbara Crampton in new wave hair and eye liner, easily stealing the show.

Problems aside, at least--unlike THE VOID, Stewart's film has a compulsive watchability due to taking time with its characters and always making us think some dreadful thing is waiting around the next corner. That said, the pair of brothers don't make too much sense. I can understand that they're opposites in style and temperament but they seem to share no memories in common and though they both supposedly worked for him, at the store, and despite of all the time they must have spent in and around this video store, they never mention a single film. Also, though one brother is coded as kind of cool, it's a bit odd that they're both such pussies that they have to stop playing the game every two seconds, and when Crampton mentions they need to find their father, the first thing they do is call their cop friend, like there's anything he can do about an old 80s board game coincidence. Fucking narcs, man. Would they call the cops if they found a stash of weed back in dad's office too?

Also, if any movie seemed to invite some SCREAM-style meta commentary it would be this one, dealing with two brothers working at a video store, where one would presume they've seen a few films. They haven't. Nary a single reference or reverie doth pass between them. Similarly, one is supposed to be sober, but there's ne'er a discussion of their past drinking binges. Son, that's all my brother and I ever talk about. It's a way to connect across our gravitation reverse polarity, but there's no connection or even a shared joke with these two, nor is there family resemblance and there's no real understanding why for some reason one brother seems to have inherited the house and store with the other a kind of stumble bum (Chase Williamson, so good in JOHN DIES AT THE END).

You da man, Chase

My main issue though lies with the dour lack of any sort of pulse on behalf of the square brother (Graham Skipper -intentionally unpictured), an actor-character combination so intrinsically unlikeable it makes it impossible to tell why anyone would want anything to do with him (imagining being his girlfriend is a singularly unsavory). I wanted to smack the glasses off his head and make him do whiskey shots to pick this picture up a smidgeon, but instead he's supposed to be sober and that's another thing, man, I didn't like about this film. There's always dorks in AA who, it's clear, are just tourists and morons, not drunks. They go on one binge or get busted by their parents and sent to rehab boarding school after they find a bag of weed in his room OR they're really supposed to be in Al-Alon since they're kind of going because their parent won't, a kind of semi-reverse projection. And that becomes their whole identity. Good lord but they're annoying - because they're always the type who are only interesting and fun to be around when they're a little drunk, and so are you, of course. But being in AA - but you really ARE fun, Erich. It was never the booze. While they were NEVER fun and never will be UNLESS you're a bit drunk or they are. So while it was heartening to see this square finally get around to killing and stabbing alongside his cooler brother, there needed to be more of a character change to believably get there -- a kind of change a slug of whiskey would have brought out like Popeye's spinach or like Nick Frost in THE WORLD'S END.

Instead, what does this pisher do? He pours his dad's liquor down the sink, to make sure his brother or a guest or his girlfriend can't have any--and there's still a whole film to go. I may be back to being sober, but my thought was still to kill him! KILL! In AA we hate hearing about people who commit to that kind of drink wasting just to feel smug in judgment of their drunken fathers. Give it away to some needy friend off the wagon, like that tweaker at the local pub (go-to dirtbag Justin Welborn), who--incidentally--is right to want to deck you and steal your horny girlfriend (Bea Grant). Urgh.

I wish these girls (from the NIGHTMARE-esque viral trailer
actually were in the movie, they'd have made it a lot better
Still, much more so than THE VOID, GATES managed to hold my and my co-viewer's attention all the way through, helped no end by Barbara Cramtpon as the master of" the game." She looks terrific and seems to be having a pretty good time --more so than anyone else, in fact. Luckily, Brian Sowell's elegant low-budget video cinematography finds new roads within GATES' suburban 70s track house milieu and purple/red/blue video game weird color scheme (it's like an Easter SUSPIRIA), Golczewski's groovy score keeps burbling and buzzing, seeing the brothers bonding by hacking away and stabbing undead demon versions of their slain parents and foes is heartening, and Chase has a fucking beer once in awhile, thank fucking god for fucking that.

(2014) Dir. L. Gabriel Gonda

If you want to see something really funny after these self-serious retro yarns, check out DARK DUNGEONS a 40 minute straight-faced adaptation of Jack Chick's infamous Christian tract denouncing role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons as well as books like  Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings gateways to Satanic/witchcraft cult-joining. Here two cute young freshmen girls are lured to the darkside during a LARP (Live Action Role Play) rush; Debbie (Alyssa Kay) turns out to be a natural spellcaster (with real magic?) rising under Mistress Frost's (Tracy Hyland) dark red tutelage to a level eight sorceress, while her budding bestie/possibly experimental lesbian crush Marcie (Anastassia Higham) hangs herself because she's left behind at level seven (she can't seem to take it seriously enough). But the suicide, and being sent on a mission into the tunnels to other dimensions, makes Debbie realize her soul is in jeopardy. Will God's love find her in time?

Shot on the cuff, DD has a great zero budget courage of its convictions gonzo spirit, a deadpan reverence for the Chick source material and a rich mostly-female and very cute cast and a great "Embrace Jesus" ending. If you've even been out on a deep limb end and prayed the 'no atheists in a foxhole' prayer (ala AA) then you'll relate. I don't know the extent to which the whole Christian pamphlet ending is meant satirically or not, and I don't ever want to know, it's funnier not knowing; and I respect that the spiritual solution is at least treated with some modicum of decorum and real love. Jesus wouldn't be offended either way, methinks - but I bet he can handle it. The filmmaking team behind the crowdfunded (but which crowd?) little miracle are perhaps the Ron and Suzy Ormond of their time! Know what else can now be found on Prime? MESA OF LOST WOMEN.  (On Amazon Prime):

See original tract here

PS: Let me also point you towards the following retro-nouveau gems, all of whom get Acidemic's highest recommendations:


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