Category Archives: 366 Underground

366 UNDERGROUND: ROAD TO THE WELL (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Jon Cvack

FEATURING: Laurence Fuller, Micah Parker, Marshall R. Teague, Rosalie McIntire

PLOT: To avoid being implicated in a murder, a browbeaten white-collar drone and his drifter friend take a trip to dispose of the body, only to find obstacles and growing suspicions at every turn.

Still from Road to the Well (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Road to the Well is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced neo-noir thriller. It falls firmly in the tradition of wronged men trying to get out from under a dangerous situation, and while a couple scenes are tinged with oddness, in every important respect the film is not at all weird.

COMMENTS: The deck is already stacked for this movie by throwing out the word “noir.” Noir is a handy label for a subset of a subset: the kind of thriller where morals are muddled and the protagonist gets what’s coming to him just as surely as the villain. In its classic form, black-and-white photography is augmented with an ominous soundtrack, hard-bitten dialogue, and high-contrast shadows, all contributing to a sense that our hero is trapped in a universe from which escape seems nigh impossible.

If there’s a more loaded phrase than “noir” in the annals of film criticism, it would probably be “neo-noir.” All genres mature, and the dismissal of the strictures of the Production Code changed the nature of noir. No longer could you be sure that characters would invariably pay for their mistakes. Color allowed filmmakers to add new signifiers of good and evil to their palette. Motivations became more complex, the lines between good and bad muddier, and the very concept of redemption was sometimes rejected outright. Neo-noir acknowledged the themes of its progenitor, but expanded their boundaries, to the point where critic Robert Arnett would lament, “Any film featuring a detective or a crime qualifies.”

Having said all that, writer/director Jon Cvack’s debut film checks all the boxes for neo-noir. When desk jockey Frank (Fuller) finds himself implicated in the brutal murder of a woman he just met, it’s a wrong-man scenario suitable for Hitchcock, and his questionable decision to try and cover up the crime sits comfortably in the pantheon of noir-hero bad ideas. The interesting variant here is the presence of a friend, itinerant goof-off Jack (Parker), who readily agrees to lend a hand by facilitating the disposal of the woman’s body. The result is a road movie in which truth and comeuppance always seem to be just a couple car-lengths behind.

There’s a feel of thrillers of a more recent vintage, such as Blood Simple or A Simple Plan. But Cvack has none of the ‘ absurdist view of life; even the ridiculous sight of Frank and Jack trying to haul the dead girl up the stairs in a suitcase is played completely straight. All the troublesome elements are explored: cleaning up blood, covering up the smell, finding a suitable burial site… they’re all here. Most significantly, of course, are the people you meet along the way, who seem to sense guilt coming from a mile away.

Those interesting people turn out to be part of the problem with the movie. Consider, for example, the film’s most potent scene, a tense encounter with a retired military chaplain whose intimidation has the force of morality, anger, and a secret agenda behind it. He’s in the movie for somewhere around 10 minutes, but his presence and impact dwarf that of the two leads. Compare that with Frank, ostensibly our hero but in actuality a complete cipher. Although he makes choices that lead down the story’s dangerous path, they are invariably so passive that it becomes far too easy to blame others, especially Jack. Frank is utterly lacking in agency, which is apt for his ultimate fate, but problematic when assessing the momentous choice he is called upon to make. Even under these most extreme circumstances, Frank struggles to establish a presence for himself , and ends up being a vacuum in his own story.

It doesn’t help that there’s a lack of suspense about the nature of Frank’s predicament. We are given critical information at the start of the film, and while we do not understand its meaning out of context, it creates an expectation that hangs over the proceedings. When we finally get the piece of information that ties it all together, it qualifies less as a twist than as validation of common sense.

Road to the Well looks spectacular, and the filmmakers know it; cinematographer Tim Davis is the first name credited after Cvack. Also contributing is the evocative, pizzicato-laced score of composer Conor Jones, who adds layers of foreboding and menace to scenes which don’t really go anywhere on their own. The production quality of the movie far exceeds its sub-six-figure budget, and Cvack and his collaborators deserve a look from big-time producers looking for great moviemaking talent. But his calling card is strangely uninvolving, mirroring Frank’s journey: a beautiful, tension-filled trip to another dead-end job.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cvack’s screenplay and direction is terrific in its ability to create mood, develop a sense of dread, and keep the performances and individual scenes consistently bizarre and uneasy. Even when all sense of logic sometimes abandons the film – certain sections feel disjointed or seem to be missing important pieces of information – the dedication to tone keeps the story from spinning out of control. …It works, and works well, again blending elements of the Coen Brothers with a Lynchian sense of off kilter madness.” — Larry Taylor, Monkeys Fighting Robots

366 UNDERGROUND: MARVELOUS MANDY (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Chase Dudley

FEATURING: Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Jonathan Stottmann, Keith Nicholson

PLOT: A lonely single father falls in love with the author of his daughter’s favorite books, only to discover that she may not be all she seems.

Still from Marvelous Mandy (2016)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marvelous Mandy is a straightforward Secret Sociopath thriller. Early misdirection helps create a certain confusion about the kind of movie we’re in for, but once the killing starts, it’s merely a race to each successive murder. Despite brief jaunts into the headspace of the two leads, there’s very little here that’s weird beyond the psychopathy of the killer.

COMMENTS: Before going any further, let’s be clear that this is absolutely loaded with SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. I’m giving away everything. With that in mind, let’s start with a fundamental question that Marvelous Mandy raises about horror-slasher-thriller movies.

Do you kill the kid?

The horror genre, perhaps more than any other, requires constant re-invention to maintain freshness in the eyes of its audience. How many ways can you find to yell “boo”? What happens when blood isn’t enough? Do you add in intestines? Where can you go after gore, other than more gore? Can you succeed entirely through twists and misdirections like M. Night Shyamalan, or do you pursue the nobody-gets-out-alive nihilism of an Eli Roth? Each movie must walk a delicate line, between restraint and wild abandon, between growing unease and sudden shock.

So, is killing the kid a step too far, signifying a plotter’s desperation, or possibly even an unsettled mind? Or is it a sign of the filmmaker’s purity of intent, preying on inherent fears, doing whatever is necessary to get a rise out of a jaded audience? The kind of movie you’re dealing with relies very heavily upon how the filmmaker has answered this question. (Speaking personally, I gave up on “CSI” after kids kept turning up on the slab too often, so my tolerance registers pretty low. But I understand the storytelling impulse.)

Marvelous Mandy attempts the difficult dance of being a little bit of both. Screenwriter (and Great Name Hall of Famer) Brentt Slabchuck introduces us to Harvey,  a dedicated dad and wannabe stand-up comic with no chops who is so desperate for love that he makes an embarrassing plea to a way-too-young barista in front of half of Louisville. He then pairs this lovable loser with Mandy, a woman who projects instability from the first frame, a children’s author mysteriously slumming as a bookstore clerk who spurs every man who crosses her path to make some very ill-informed decisions. The film tries to play with suspense by extending Harvey’s ignorance of his danger long past the point where we see his peril, but because we’ve seen Mandy in action (which is not her real name), the only mystery remaining is when he will finally catch up to us, and whether it will be in time to make a difference. Harvey turns out to be a lot sharper than other men, but the die is cast.

Although Marvelous Mandy is a semi-professional production, director Dudley has assembled a game and determined cast. As Harvey, Stottmann is convincing as a man who knows he’s in over his head but unbowed, while Solinger plays Mandy’s madness to the hilt. There are also nice turns in the supporting cast, including Ryley Nicole as Mandy’s delightfully pissy co-worker, and Kenna Hardin, natural as Harvey’s faithful daughter.  But the true standout is Keith Nicholson as a jovial, Stetson-wearing, tea-chugging private eye who does all the due diligence that nobody else manages to accomplish. Arriving in the third act to pursue Harvey’s spot-on suspicions about Mandy, he’s a breath of fresh air, wearing his enthusiasm and his character quirks loudly and proudly.

Dudley himself has some keen directorial instincts. He uses locations well, and he films Mandy’s violent attacks with skillful verisimilitude. Most impressive is a Hitchcockian tracking shot that begins with an attack and continues outside a house while the fight rages on, only catching up to the actors again at the end of the bloody assault.

Marvelous Mandy hints at certain ideas that might have taken the plot into unexplored territory. What would cause a children’s author’s mind to bisect into nurturing and violent halves? Would a man yearning for love still accept if it came with a dark side? What makes one man succumb to the lure of a femme fatale while another resists her deadly charms? Any of these might have lent shading or novelty to a subspecies of the genre—the Fatal Attraction trope—that threatens to become tired and boring. It never quite makes the turn on any of these, though, content instead to offer a woman with a messed-up brain and a drive for murder, and to turn her loose to do her thing.

Because, Mandy? She kills the kid. Turns out to be that kind of movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marvelous Mandy is a darkly enjoyable movie that really doesn’t let on what it’s about until you’re already sucked in to then twist and turn into directions not thought possible…. add to that the film’s colour chart that for the most part feels a bit off and unreal, a directorial effort that stays away from spectacle to give the story space to breathe, and a great cast, and you’ve got yourself a really cool movie!”–Mike Haberfelner, [re] Search My Trash

 

366 UNDERGROUND: THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joana Castro, Bruno Senune, Carina de Matos, Falvia Barabas, Daniel Pires

PLOT: Shuffling between the interior and exterior of a building (with guest appearances from some jagged cliffside rocks), various symbolic events occur because of the actions of various symbolic people.

Still from The Kingdom of Shadows (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This clutter of film scenes might be interpreted as “weird”, but I’m leery to describe the onscreen capering as a “movie”. Perhaps it’s just my staggering lack of interpretive skills, but when the characters are only somewhat explainable because you read the opening credits, I find the “movie” part a bit wanting. Not much is clear, and the lack of dialogue handily augments the altogether excessive incoherence of the narrative.

COMMENTS: I shall begin by saying that Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais may well have accomplished something impressive with their symbol-ridden film, The Kingdom of Shadows. Throughout the film there are little hiccups of inspired images that, in isolation, would make for compelling photographs to ponder. The lack of dialogue lends itself to a lack of explanation, but that allows for a mutuality of incomprehension across the globe. Unfortunately, it leaves the viewer grasping blindly for what it is the filmmakers are trying to say.

The story proper (I am guessing) begins weirdly enough with a pair of golden hands magically boiling up a pot of water. What ensues is a long-form mishmash of figurative images and sequences that vaguely intrigue, and certainly baffle, the viewer. A furtive young man appears during the bridging sequences, who may be acting as witness, along with us viewers. Inside a 19th-century (?) house, a clutch of people (indicated in the credits as “mother”, “daughter”, “uncle”, and so on) interact in strange ways with motives that are impossible to divine. An inspector comes along at some point (again, we know his vocation only from the credits) and twirls his mustache a lot. Eventually the gang inside the house takes up arms against the “daughter,” driving her outside. Interrupting the action is a pair of (usually naked) young people having quasi-dance-like interactions of joy, terror, and sundry other feelings.

As I’ve hinted in the preceding paragraphs, while there may be a lot going on in the movie, very little of it makes any sense. It would help if I knew what the directors were trying to say, and a commentary would no doubt be illuminating. That said, this presents a problem: any movie that cannot stand up to unsupervised viewing is of dubious merit. If there isn’t clarity, there needs to be a “vibe” of some sort, or at least an ambience. However, The Kingdom of Shadows is too scattered to have such a vibe, and any ambience is sabotaged by incoherent or careless touches. To support the latter, I give the example of a slow-moving “pursuit” scene through one of the house’s corridors. The turn-of-the-last-century feel is utterly destroyed by a very obvious smoke detector on the wall. Its square plastic frame and glowing electric light immediately crush whatever mood may have been built.

I have no doubt that all those involved poured their hearts and souls into making this movie, so it pains me a little to have to be so down on it. After the sturm und drang of various troubled moans from the young observer, after the not-quite balletic artiness of the “Adam and Eve” vignettes, and after the cranked up symbolism, we’re still left with something that’s a bit amateurish and more than a bit boring. If there were an unhealthy halfway point between How the Sky Will Melt and Begotten, this movie hits it, and hits it hard. ‘s piece—while perhaps incomprehensible—has that dream-like “thing” required for such an exercise in post-narrative film. That “thing” is never found by the directors of The Kingdom of Shadows, which is more the pity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film that does never try to make perfect sense, instead using impressive, often tableau-like imagery to get its point across… a film like this might not be for everybody, but those with open minds are up for a fascinating journey…”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]Search My Trash (contemoraneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: DELUSION (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Di Nunzio

FEATURING: David Graziano, Jami Tennille, Carlyne Fournier, Irina Peligrad

PLOT:  Frank, an aging widower still mourning the loss of his wife, follows a mysterious woman, ignoring the warnings of fortune tellers and his own intuition.

Still from Delusion (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It lacks extremeness in the weird department, with only some subtle spiritual themes to give the suspense an extra kick.

COMMENTS: Delusion is no ordinary suspense thriller; it’s got its fair share of dreamlike moments. The boldest aspects of its weirdness don’t come directly from the exploration of the supernatural, but rather from the quiet, introspective moments in between them. The contrast between light and dark, good and evil, is aggressive, and this effect gets multiplied up until the climax. Bouncing from polite conversations over the billiards table to moments of terror and shock, Delusion earns some weird-stripes for its tonal bipolarity. It fails to stretch its ideas of loyalty, loss, and redemption enough to exasperate and confound the mind, though. Instead, it snuggles warmly up into the mystery-thriller blanket, and then ends abruptly with some glorious goodies for weird movie lovers to chew on, but not swallow.

Playing wait-and-bait, everything starts off with silky politeness. Reflective death-related dialogue configures itself around lacquered settings in nature, and the sky is frequently grey, silvery and full of mourning. Frank (everyone’s got a depressed Uncle Frank, even McCauley Culkin from Home Alone) and his nephew Tommy drink brews and shoot pool, but Frank spends even more time standing alone next to swaying trees and thinking about his lost wife, Isabella. This period of reflection services the contrasting emotions at the film’s core by offering a portrait of a character’s earnest longing for closure. Frank is a lonely man. It raises the question: how could he resist the temptations of a succubus?

Before the succubus strikes, there comes a fortune teller who tries to convince Frank to think with the head on his shoulders, but that pesky human malady called grief gets in the way and he ignores her. Things get juicy when the lights go dim and Frank’s fortune is told. Amusing vibes come along with the “haunted” feel. There’s even a bit of James Wan-style pop-up house horror to keep the tension ratcheted up. Frank’s hallucinations get hairier; blood leaks out of sewer pipes, and strange apparitions follow him at home and abroad (some with face-paint straight from a flick).

Most fascinating are the peculiarly natural performances that weave through the staunch atmosphere. The actors have a smooth, organic style to their performances that give the movie a low-key vibe of sinister murmurs while it portrays internal rumination. The silences highlight Frank’s internal thoughts, and the white noise of nature (chirping birds, rustling leaves) offers a chance to process the feeling of aloneness that comes with being lost and vulnerable among soul-corrupting threats. Soothing as the warm pleasures of infatuation are, they aren’t enough to save Frank from himself.

Frank deals with, but does not resist, the temptation of the devil, who urges him to “trust your gut, not your head.” Life, he explains, is just moments and experiences, chaos. It’s hard to believe otherwise after watching Frank’s drastic transformation from a caring, reflective, sentimental man into an angry, womanizing, just-got-laid horndog. Sex can turn a man’s life completely around, and Frank is no exception; post-coitus, he does Baywatch-style beach runs and hits the bar for rounds with the boys. The dark side of his sexually-motivated metamorphosis comes during his reproachful trash talking at the end, which raises the question of whether he had a chance for redemption in the first place. There is one bizarrely violent moment in this movie, at the very end, but its cathartic edge can’t be found elsewhere in the picture. Delusion shows us that some men are doomed to die at the hands of what they desire, and the devil is always there to make the offer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s rather labyrinthine in character and takes all the time in the world to let the story unfold while intentionally blurring the line between this world and the next, the lead character’s warped perception and his genuine nightmares – and it plays with all these elements in a way probably most reminiscent of David Lynch without aping his style.”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]search My Trash (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: FIRST MAN ON MARS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Lyddon

FEATURING: Marcelle Shaneyfelt, Benjamin J. Wood, Gavin Ferrara, Kirk Jordan

PLOT: An eccentric billionaire flies to Mars, mutates into a monster, then returns to Earth to terrorize the silly citizens of Black Bayou, Louisiana.

Still from First Man on Mars (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ironically, this movie is only 9/10ths bad enough. Movies like The Room or Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny are low-budget and bad, but done with a sense of conviction, albeit mis-aimed. First Man on Mars is just bad on the boring, no-ideas level, not even interesting enough to make the so-bad-its-good category.

COMMENTS: First Man on Mars is an intentional parody of ’60s-’70s sci-fi horror drive-in B-movies. We open on a coroner in an office giving us a desktop lecture a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, a scene that ends with a chant of “Keep watching the stars!” Then we get to Cletus and his chum hunting in Louisiana. They run across an abandoned space capsule and a rubber-mask monster who disembowels Cletus’ hunting buddy with no foreplay, sending the terrified hick running for the cops. Flashback: the monster from the capsule was once astronaut Eli Cologne, a very obvious parody of real-life billionaire, philanthropist, and visionary Elon Musk. Eli came to Mars seeking shiny gold, despite already being rich enough to buy his own rocket to go there. Grabbing his first nugget, however, results in a tear in his glove, which soon leads to an infection which will transform him.

Mission Control argues that he’s not allowed to come back infected, but Eli is hearing none of it. He returns just in time to transform into a growling monster in the backwoods of Louisiana. The rest of the flick is pretty much people scrambling around in forest either chasing or being chased by said monster, with only the thinnest veneer of justification. That cast includes Cletus and two cops who don’t believe his story; a sleazy photographer and two models from “Bullets and Bimbos” magazine who hire Cletus as a guide to the dark swamps of Black Bayou for a woodsy photo shoot; a group of scientists from Eli’s project; an innocent girl going fishing and being fished; and a coroner who investigates Cletus’ mangled remains in between bites of lunch.

“Low budget” doesn’t begin to describe it, and cash isn’t the only thing this flick is short on. It is very stingy with the alleged classic sci-fi references. Unless you blink and miss it, you’ll catch one of the bumbling scientists being dismissed as a “red shirt” (Trekkie, check), a clumsy bit of banter with a “Bullets and Bimbos” model name-dropping (Elephant Man, check), a scene where two scientists pitch a tent just so they can play D&D (gamer nerds, am I right, ha ha?) before getting slaughtered, and so on. However, the film is generous with poop humor, boob humor, gross-out humor, insulting stereotypes of country bumpkins and geeks alike, Dollar Store props that are milked for all the lead-painted rubber they’re worth, and an extremely fuzzy understanding of the meaning of the word “humor.” At one point, one of the scientists screams over and over that he needs to defecate, before wandering off and accidentally dumping a steamer (rubber doggy doo, $0.99) on a  yet undiscovered body. Said pile of doggy doo is referenced again and again, traveling with the body even to the coroner’s office. And that, apparently, is the movie’s best foot forward.

Let it be known, being low budget does not disqualify a film from the list of 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made (see Robot Monster and After Last Season). And simply being bad is no barrier to entry, either. But there is low budget, and then there is being stingy beyond all reason. At least Robot Monster had the imagination to try to sell a bubble machine as alien technology. Imagination costs nothing. First Man on Mars seems to be done with no intention of being taken seriously, on any level, and nothing shows anybody seemed motivated to put in much effort, either.

Viewers who like sitting through every amateur production made by kids goofing around with mom’s camera on YouTube will find First Man on Mars right up their alley. It at least passes that standard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurd blast from low-budget director Mike Lyddon and his team of willing actor and crew participants, putting everything on the proverbial line to make this ambitious project first and put their seemingly absent shame second.”–Steven T. Lewis, It’s Blogging Evil

366 UNDERGROUND: SOLE PROPRIETOR (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Eberle

FEATURING:  Dan Eberle, Alexandra Hellquist, Nick Bixby, and Alexandra Chelaru

PLOT: In hopes of starting life anew, a man with a nebulous past agrees to take on a job from an organization that promises to provide him with a legit history; while waiting for “the call,” he takes up with a nearby prostitute and becomes embroiled in a plot involving Russian pimps, Honduran gangsters, French molls, and a missing bag stuffed with money.

Still from Sole Proprietor (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With smoothness, competence, and a fair degree of ambiguity, Sole Proprietor nicely fills a space in the “noir-esque thriller” gap for those willing to settle for direct-to-video fare. Described as an “elliptical crime story,” Dan Eberle’s latest feature does some shuffling of shot and sound, but decidedly hews close to gritty realism: a poor man’s The Limey, if you will.

COMMENTS: For reasons entirely nostalgic, a part of me is pleased to see that there are still filmmakers out there producing low-budget movies like Sole Proprietor. Out in the world of Hollywood Cinema, and to a lesser degree in the world of Underground Cinema, there are people filling all manner of genre gaps with either expensive or offbeat fare. Eberle’s picture reminded me of the nerdy misspent days of my youth when I used to visit the little video rental place daily to find a new movie to watch that evening. Perhaps I wasted a lot of time, but, as they say, it kept me off the streets. Sole Proprietor goes about its business without much fanfare, but it rewards the viewer with a pretty neat story and a derivative, but satisfying, style.

“I am the man with no name,” says the protagonist never. Becoming known to us (and listed in the credits) only as “Crowley from the Internet” (Dan Eberle), we slowly learn the nature of Sole Proprietor‘s hero. He’s your run-of-the-mill deadly but swell guy, possibly ex-CIA, who is keen on disappearing from the sordid world of crime and black-ops, hoping to “join the human race.” There is a major hitch, though, in that he has one last job to get done (of course) before unspecified powers will give him the new identity he craves. Killing time while waiting for a phone call, he decides he might better while away the hours by seeing a local prostitute (Alexandra Hellquist). Enter the hooker with the heart of fool’s gold, and a mountain of complications.

Those of you familiar with ‘s The Limey and, to an extent, s King of New York will immediately recognize the style Eberle hopes to, and more or less does, achieve. Beginning with a very unclear establishing scene involving a (probably) dead person and a French-speaking woman with a gun, the movie zips quickly back to the story’s start. From there, scenes move forward chronologically, but within them are oscillations where the timing becomes jumpy and perspectives can shift. This potentially confusing effect is greatly mitigated by the fact that each occurrence is self-contained, requiring no long-term memory to speak of. Other than that legerdemain, the audience has nothing to chew on but the grit of the characters as their lives circle closer and closer to each other during the hunt for a whole lot of money that slipped the hands of an Honduran bag-man who partied a little too hard.

Though the huge advantages provided to me these days by Vimeo and Netflix (the mail-delivery part, anyway), I was able to briefly relive my days of being a do-nothing high-schooler who would just as soon see a no-name film than socialize with my peers. Sole Proprietor brings nothing new to the table, but ultimately I wouldn’t want it to—and it made no promises it would do so. Yes, I may be ninety minutes closer to death than I was before watching it, but as with the sub-classics churned out in the ’90s starring the likes of Michael Madsen and (Chris) Penn, I found some entertainment, now spiked with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling of sentimentality. Not a bad thing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie sports more personality than most low-budget thrillers, yet sometimes devolves into the kind of ponderousness that a collaborator might have second-guessed.”–Noel Murray, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO (2013)

Destination: Planet Negro!

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Willmott

FEATURING: Kevin Willmott, Tosin Morohunfola, Danielle Cooper, Trai Byers

PLOT: In order to flee early-20th century racism and find a new home for African Americans, physicist Warrington Avery and a crack squad of Black adventurers attempt a trip to Mars, only to have their rocket ship sucked through a worm hole which transports them into the jarring reality of modern-day America.

Still from Destination Planet Negro (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “time-traveling fish-out-of-water” story is a cinematic trope with a long pedigree. That these time-travelers are Black luminaries from the 1930s is something a novelty, but Destination: Planet Negro plays by the rules in an expected, but not unpleasant, manner.

COMMENTS: Having another socially conscientious movie be next on my to-do list could be viewed as a punishment for me by those who may have taken issue with my diatribe about Arabian Nights. However, my dislike of that movie did not stem from its progressive agenda, but from its wanting for anything remotely approaching “entertainment.” It was no small relief that Kevin Willmott’s satirical piece, Destination: Planet Negro (DPN) proved to be quite amusing and watchable, in addition to proffering some salient observations about modern and historical race issues.

My lingering frustration put aside, let me dive into the movie at hand. DPN starts right off with a sense of place: crisp black and white film sets the tone, and after opening-credits over a cosmic montage, we jump to an assemblage of Black luminaries in 1939. These top African-Americans are gathered to discuss, as one describes it, “the Negro problem.” Not finding the United States welcoming, nor being keen on moving to Africa (too much poverty), Europe (risk of exotification), or the U.S.S.R. (these gents are no commies), Dr. Warrington Avery (Kevin Willmott) informs the august crowd that he has a plan to colonize the Red Planet for the Black Man. The skeptics are assuaged by none other than George Washington Carver. However, some of the attendees inform the local police, so Dr. Avery, his astronomer daughter Beneatha (Danielle Cooper), speed-demon Captain “Race” Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola), and a clumsy robot with a cracker personality are forced to take the trip on the fly.

At about the half-hour mark, the movie changes from black and white to color, as the space adventurers crash-land on a far off planet. The joke’s on them, though: it’s the same planet and same country, just 75 years later. And so DPN moves on from historical commentary to  contemporary commentary. A run-in with Hispanic laborers in the back of a van suggests to them that slavery exists here. Observing a young black man making a purchase at a convenience store convinces them he’s a slave: no eye contact, no words from the black man to the white cashier. DPN continues in this vein, ably expounding on the many similarities of treatment, though occasionally veering into the realm of the silly. In particular, the montage involving “Race” Johnson learning how to “walk like a Black guy” shouldn’t have been included, much less gone on for as long as it did.

All told, DPN is a fun diversion for those seeking some observations about race relations. It didn’t surprise me upon researching DPN that Kevin Willmott was the driving force behind 2004’s speculative “documentary” C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America. There, too, he used the powers of humor and satire to make his point, all the while maintaining an appreciably light touch. Willmott seems aware that hitting people over the head with a blunt cinematic object can be counter-productive when making one’s point. While some more pruning could have helped it better maintain its momentum (after the crash-landing scene, the movie itself nearly crashes), that criticism could be laid against most movies. In brief: not weird, but not bad.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…highly recommended, provided you’re in the mood for a campy, low-budget sci-fi whose cheesy special effects are more than offset by a profusion of insightful social statements.”–Kam Williams, Baret News Network (contemporaneous)

LATTIE (2016, KEVIN L. CHENAULT)

There is always the risk of sentimentality for a writer, actor, director in depicting a terminally ill, or potentially terminal ill, character. The risk is even greater if none of the above have experienced the process.

Picasso once listed nostalgia and sentimentality as enemies of art, and reportedly walked out on the premiere screening of ‘s valentine to himself, the embarrassingly saccharine Limelight (1952). The younger Chaplin, unfettered by dialogue, is one of the few artists who could actually get away with overt pathos. An older, talking Chaplin could not.

As written, directed by and starring , Lattie (2016) does not entirely escape or transcend that inherent risk. Like Chaplin, Lattie succeeds most when relying on visuals to interpret his narrative. Even then, the film is uneven. At times, Chenault is almost in an experimental mode, but there are just as many vignettes that hold back and play it safe. Striking a James-Dean-lying-alone-on-the-floor posture, contemplating his condition, Lattie smokes his cigarette down to the butt, accompanied by angsty indie alt music that sounds like it cut its teeth on post-Syd Barret Pink Floyd (AKA “lesser Floyd”). Lattie receives a voice message of concern, talks to family and shrink, gets hugged.  Here, it’s paint-by-numbers filmmaking, a rudimentary sketch hampered by arthritic acting, with the exception of Chenault himself as the title character.

Still from Lattie (2016)Once done with the obligatory disease-of-the-week bullet points, Chenault trusts himself, and us, venturing into quirkier, more refreshing terrain. Lattie is catapulted into an absurdist murder mystery combining offbeat humor and visual cues: a Christmas tree, a pre-adolescent drawing on a face, an ominous Bible as a facade for a cash-stashed phone book. When overly-serious family members prod him about his impending drama, Lattie is too preoccupied to invest much time in shoulder-patting. He has a mystery to solve. Damn right. And, of course, there are the little hassles, like an uncooperative truck and stooge-like adversaries who attempt to derail the murder investigation.

Lattie is episodic in the best way, its surreal qualities conveyed in under-the-breath pacing. When it gets right to the meat of it, Lattie confirms that, for death to be interesting, there has to be a bit of funny business. The unexpected finale is welcome and queerly memorable.

Chenault’s body of work is an interesting one, with his strengths being in sublime restraint (seen at its most effective in 2011’s The Strangers). As in Chenault’s previous efforts, Lattie is well-filmed and shows a filmmaker concerned about craftsmanship, commendably unhampered by budget restraints.

More information on Lattie is available at the official home page.

366 UNDERGROUND: WINNERS TAPE ALL: THE HENDERSON BROTHERS STORY (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin Channell

FEATURING: Zane Crosby, Joshua Lively, and Chris LaMartina

PLOT: The exploits of a hyper-low-budget ’80s horror duo are chronicled in the form of a public access television “documentary”.

Still from Winners Tape All (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Winners Tape All is a cheeky dissection of the various failings (and unlikely successes) of the straight-to-VHS horror phenomenon that gripped (?) the nation back in the 1980s. While some of the fake movies “discussed” in this mockumentary would easily be Certifiable contenders, Channell’s homage to one of the stranger pop-genres stands as a straightforward, well-made, and very funny bit of fare.

COMMENTS: Today’s big-name directors would do well to learn a lesson from some of the novices that have sprung up in recent years: your movie should only be as long as it has to be. Winners Tape All stands as a testament to the fact that a movie less than an hour and a half long isn’t less of a movie for its efforts, but can be much more. This breezy mockumentary clocks in at a sweet sixty-seven minutes. It is brief, but uses every moment well, exploring the fictional history of two crummy film-makers from West Virginia in a manner that is both hilarious and, somehow, a little touching.

Within the framework of an “Eye on the Cinema” public access TV episode, Channell tells us about the Henderson brothers. These step-brothers are a lens through which Channell explores the genre. With only two movies to their credit (Curse of Stabberman and Cannibal Swim Club), they represent what cinephiles regard as all that’s wrong with amateur auteurs. The narrative, however, makes clear that guys like these were instrumental in propping up a genre that, though lacking perhaps in quality, made up for it in mind-numbing quantity. That distributors can’t be bothered to transfer so many of those shot-on-video rental horror movies with titles like Scream Dream and Mad Mutilator to cheap-o DVDs suggests that those “50 Classics of Horror” compilations out there barely scratch the surface.

Zipping back and forth between interviews with Richard Henderson (Joshua Lively), a laid-back surfer of a movie maker, and Michael Henderson (Zane Crosby), a pony-tailed gore fan with a hick accent, we also get to see snippets of the two awful horror movies that made them “rich” (Curse of Stabberman‘s popularity on the rental circuit was unexpected) and then bankrupted their distribution label (Cannibal Swim Club was more of the same coming out a little too late). Scattered throughout are interludes with perhaps the most die-hard fan ever made, Henry Jacoby (Chris LaMartina). While part of me feels Jacoby’s awkward zeal compromises the movie somewhat, another part acknowledges that he is in all likelihood an accurate representative of militant bad-horror enthusiasts.

Little jokes and asides come and go, sometimes stacking on each other. Michael addresses the phenomenon of “walk time” for Curse of Stabberman (used to fill out a movie’s time clock when plot and dialogue are wanting); later, Richard echoes the idea with “swim time” when discussing Cannibal Swim Club, giving a “see what we did there?” kind of look to the camera. I’m no expert in the genre being ribbed here, but I’ve seen enough to know that Channell’s distilled all the very worst parts of it into these guys and the two movies they made. While I’d be loath to watch either of the films from the Henderson’s oeuvre, it was a very enjoyable experience to see those two brothers done justice (of sorts)—or, more accurately, to see justice done for all those amateur directors, writers, and actors who, despite the theme of their chosen genre, were never ones to say die.

Winners Tape All is available exclusively from IWC Films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s always fun to see straight-faced depictions of made-up things which are just plain ridiculous.”–Jesse Skeen, DVD Talk (DVD)

TORGO RISING: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ROY OF “MANOS: THE RISE OF TORGO”

David Roy is a film director who subscribes to the cult of ‘Manos.’ So fervent is his devotion he has created his own prequel to the original film. If you haven’t yet seen Manos: The Hands of Fate, considered to be one of the worst films ever made, this fondly regarded dismal classic is in the public domain[1].

Download ‘Manos’: The Hands of Fate from the Internet Archive

In 1966, insurance and fertilizer salesman Hal Warren had a dream: to make a horror film about a cult in Texas that would make him incredibly rich. Shooting on a camera that could only record thirty seconds at a time and with no sound, instead he delivered a barely coherent, badly dubbed—if admittedly iconic and strangely unsettling—train wreck featuring inexplicably action-free sequences, clapper boards in frame, and a staccato-voiced servant with bulging knees who may or may not be a satyr.

Premiering to a baffled and frankly embarrassed audience —including stars Tom Neyman and his young daughter Jackey—Manos was screened once, then drifted into obscurity until uncovered by the bad-movie-roasting TV show . The episode featuring Manos went on to be one of the most popular episodes of the series and led to a resurgence of interest in this forgotten rough diamond.

The growing popularity of Manos has inspired a successful Kickstarter-funded restoration of the film, a video game, documentaries, a full length puppet stage play (“Manos: The Hands of Felt“), and numerous attempts at a sequel, including Jackie “Debbie” Neyman-Jones’ own Manos Returns, to be released later this year. Roy’s film will be the first prequel to the original Manos.

366 Weird Movies’ Bryan Pike spoke to Roy about his prequel Manos: The Rise of Torgo via a series of international emails.

366: How did you first come across the Manos phenomenon?

Production still from Manos: The Rise of TorgoDavid Roy: My first exposure to Manos was through “Mystery Science Theater 3000” way back in ’93. I used to watch the show all the time, and when I saw the Manos episode, I don’t know, somehow it rang familiar. The movie is the worst ever made yet it’s striking, you never forget it.

366: Before we get onto your film, can you tell me more about the cult of Manos? What other activities does the fanbase indulge in? For example are there regular gatherings for screenings of the film a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show where the audience recites dialogue and performs actions to accompany the onscreen action?

Roy: I haven’t seen anything remotely like Rocky Horror. The most I’ve seen is some cosplay at a comic convention. People love to quote the film, mostly Torgo’s lines “the Master does not approve” and Continue reading TORGO RISING: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ROY OF “MANOS: THE RISE OF TORGO”

  1. Actually, the issue of who, if anyone, owns the copyright to Manos is still being contested. Hal Warren never put a copyright symbol on the original, film so it technically the film belongs to the public domain. In 2013 his son, Joe Warren, discovered that the screenplay had been copyrighted and believes this means the film itself is also copyrighted. However no precedent for this case exists, so the legal status of the film remains uncertain. []