Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS (2018)

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AKA Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

DIRECTED BY: Vivieno Caldinelli

FEATURING: Kate Micucci, Sam Huntington, Dan Harmon, Taika Waititi

PLOT: Claire and Phil move to a spacious L.A. apartment with suspiciously low rent and discover it’s not a lucky find.

COMMENTS: Liberate yourself from the shackles of your thought.

Or so goes the opening tract from the Book of Storsh. An absurdist comedy that explores the space where “self-help” and “suicide cult” intersect, Seven Stages is another strange baby from the SpectreVision production company. They seem intent on bringing weirdness to the wider world of film, no matter how off-the-wall or bleak its progeny may prove to be. This movie’s relentless energy is to its credit; by the end, though, Seven Stages descends into a nihilistic abyss that papers over human despair with a folksy, up-tempo delivery.

For reasons explained during a bathtub vision, Paul (Sam Huntington) and Claire (Kate Micucci) find themselves in a suspiciously large apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Claire is doing her damnedest to get ahead in the advertising business; Paul is doing his damnedest to loaf around their new home and avoid reality. On their first night in their new home, a fanatic sporting a red spiral mark on his forehead breaks in and engages Paul in a bizarre quotation challenge (somehow involving esoteric civil infraction statutes from Iowa), then tap-dances to the bathroom and slices his own throat with a cake knife. When the police are summoned, Detective Cartwright (Dan Harmon, coming across to me as strangely familiar) explains that it’s just another case of a Storsh disciple knocking himself off (“Didn’t you read the lease?”) Slowly at first, and then dramatically, Claire and Paul embrace their circumstances, eventually becoming followers of Storsh’s teachings.

Seven Stages has the feel of an “Upright Citizen’s Brigade” sketch stretched out a bit too long and never quite hitting top gear. There were a number of laughs (often involving the detective who is hell-bent on pitching his screenplay to Wesley Snipes). And the moment when Paul and Claire decide to follow only the “good” parts of Storsh’s religion was a clear and succinct indictment of the whole self-improvement media complex. But when the final sections—Let the Tub Runneth Over and Change Your Story—begin to unravel, the often-silly, occasionally-funny tone plummets into something far more sinister.

I may be overreacting here, perhaps having mentally shifted into a wholly unintended direction, but the feeling I was left with afterwards was not one of comedic satisfaction (or disappointment, for that matter), but of emptiness. I have more of a fatalistic joie-de-vivre than many, but the lesson hammered home here–delivered glibly in the opening scene by Storsh himself, “That’s what death is: eating that ice-cream on your own terms”–suggest that this movie’s screwball antics merely mask a dark mind. But, I did see Elijah Wood‘s name in the credits, and I know from recent experience that SpectreVision will get up to whatever it wants to. I cannot recommend this movie, but I’ll admit I’m impressed that something so comedically hit-and-miss about something so staggeringly bleak got a green light from anyone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The comedy flickers between playful and obscene, and the story bounces back and forth between strange and absolutely screwed up… if you like your humor with a side of WTF, then this is your film.”–Kristy Strouse, Film Inquiry (festival screening)

CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: John D. Hancock

FEATURING: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Mariclare Costello

PLOT: Jessica is fresh out of the psych ward after a mental illness when her husband moves her out to the New England countryside, but the house they have purchased and the surrounding town have a Dark Secret™️.

Still from Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

COMMENTS: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) is the directorial debut of John Hancock; nothing in his career would resemble anything like this movie ever again. Reportedly the script was originally written as a satire of horror movies, but Hancock wanted it reworked as a serious horror movie inspired by psychological thrillers like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. Horror veterans may groan at this point, because movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) taught us that converting a horror satire into straight horror is a precarious proposition. Amazingly, this movie outshines these modest expectations as well as its low budget—though not by much. It’s a dubious mix of giallo and Gothic set in a Connecticut location just south of Lovecraft country. True to Hancock’s aim, the tone does land somewhere between Shirley Jackson and Howie P. Right from the opening monologue, we have the title character adrift in a rowboat raving madly to herself while Atlantic seagulls fuss off-screen, followed by our opening theme in somber piano notes. You’ll be double-checking to see if Aaron Spelling produced this for TV.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is a bubbly gal recently released from the mental hospital, whose hobby is riding around in the back of a hearse touring cemeteries so she can do charcoal rubbings of headstones—but don’t worry, she’s going to be right as rain! Her concerned husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) has bought a home out in the country for her, based on the old “fresh air and simple living” cure for the mentally twitchy. Duncan’s buddy Woody (Kevin O’Connor), along to help them move in, ends up staying on. Despite the fact that Jessica hears voices in her head every two seconds and sees phantoms that disappear in the space of a jump cut, she’s optimistic for her recovery. The strawberry blonde vagrant they discover squatting at this home when they move in (you better believe she’s revealed with a jump scare) isn’t helping matters any. Emily (Mariclare Costello) offers to pack her things and hit the road, but Jessica begs her to stay for dinner, then indefinitely. No sooner does Emily play her guitar over after-dinner wine (Duncan is a retired Philaharmonic orchestra player, so he brings out his double-bass for accompaniment) than Woody puts the moves on her. You see, this clan is set up to be hippies, or at least part of the counterculture, although the usual Hollywood portrayal of Flower Children is muted Continue reading CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

CAPSULE: STAR LEAF (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Cranor

FEATURING: Julian Gavilanes, Tyler Trerise, Shelby Trerise, Russell Hodgkinson

PLOT: Ex-Marine James Hunter is stricken with PTSD after a tour of duty in Afghanistan; back home, he finds a trek to discover the legendary “star leaf” strain of marijuana to be less relaxing than he’d prefer.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aliens, drugs, and psychedelia do not a weird movie make. But in the case of Star Leaf, they do somehow make a rather enjoyable exploration of redemption.

COMMENTS: I’ve watched a great many films over the years, both professionally and otherwise, deserving of their IMDb ratings in the low single digits. Some are gloriously inept; others, just straight-up inept. Despite this, it was without trepidation that I sat down to watch Richard Cranor’s stoner/horror/sci-fi outing, Star Leaf. Despite having attended one of those herb-laced, East Coast liberal arts colleges, I’ve never quite understood the allure of marijuana. Fortunately, while Star Leaf is heavy on the cannabis, the weed merely serves as the leafy wrapping over a heart-felt, and fairly funny, musing on PTSD.

James (Julian Gavilanes) is a Marine sniper in the Hindu Kush, stationed with his friend Tim (Tyler Trerise). During a hillside stake-out, Tim encourages James to embrace the “pink mist” and take a shot at a boy whom they witness being fitted with a suicide vest. Fast-forward two years to civilian life in the Pacific Northwest, James, still haunted by this event, joins Tim and his girl Martha (Shelby Trerise) on a different mission: to find, and smoke, the fabled “Star Leaf,” a powerful strain of marijuana allegedly left on earth by extra-terrestrials. Things get crazy and then a little sinister when a strange Park Ranger appears mid-buzz.

There is a lot that Star Leaf doesn’t get right. The extra-terrestrial angle is underdeveloped (or should have been ignored); grey alien-types appear from behind trees every now and again and hassle the drug seekers without much purpose and zero scares. A time-loop/stacked realities “thing” doesn’t stack up logically, even allowing for the speculative physics. And then there’s the final problem that I often have with horror films: having made some fairly interesting characters, the director seems happy enough to kill them off. Or does he?

That final ambiguity is also problematic, but I know I’m giving you the wrong impression. Star Leaf actually hits a lot of right notes: witty banter, a good message, and yet another of those great nightmare-vision police officers (or, as he repeatedly corrects the trio while tapping his shoulder insignia, “Park Ranger”). This sinisterly-stilted entity is played by none-other than director Richard Cranor, and his Ranger Dave goes a long way to making Star Leaf into an odd-ball mix of hipster/stoner “Twilight Zone.” Russell Hodgkinson even appears as the ex-biker, still-Jewish stoner guru (if that name isn’t familiar, he plays a doctor in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle). And then there’s the underlying message: forgiveness of one’s self and others. Star Leaf has all the makings of a “throw-away” movie (as well as a “throw-away” review), but it’s one those gems that makes the trash heap worth sifting through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the biggest qualm is in the form of the film’s second half… It’s unclear whether this is all just a part of the bad trip from the weed (judging from their weird trips after first smoking), or if it’s really happening. As such, there’s a question of whether the situation is a dangerous one or just head games. There’s just never a concrete feeling of real fear for the characters’ wellbeing, which is off-putting when there are aliens and terrorists after you.”–Mike Wilson, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TONE-DEAF (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.

FEATURING: Amanda Crew, Robert Patrick, Kim Delaney

PLOT: After losing her boyfriend and her job, young adult Olive takes a vacation by herself at an airbnb rental in the country; unfortunately, her landlord is a millennial-hating boomer with murder on his mind.

Still from Tone-Deaf (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A horror-comedy that’s allegedly a satire of generational conflict, Tone-Deaf is neither scary nor funny—and although it does get a little weird, it doesn’t get weird enough to overcome its other handicaps.

COMMENTS: For the record (and I don’t consider this a spoiler) the title refers to protagonist Olive’s literal tone-deafness, the source of a running joke about how she’s a terrible piano player. Since her parents and friends all tell her she’s a whiz on the ivories, she never figures out that she can’t play, despite the fact that her renditions sound only slightly better than a drunk cat crawling across the keyboard.

See the satire? Or is it too subtle?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that, as opposed to deep-seated prejudices about race and sex, the present (and perennial) generational conflict is relatively genial and jokey: “you kids get off my lawn!,” “in my day we walked to school uphill—both ways.”1 Although there was a brief “participation trophy” furor a few years back, in general, the ribbings oldsters give youngsters, and vice-versa, aren’t taken too seriously by either side. After all, the Boomers were the “Me Generation” that the “Greatest Generation” accused of being soft; for them to turn around and make the same claims about millennials is an absurd (if inevitable) example of history repeating itself. The Boomer-millennial clash just isn’t that serious or rancorous, so satirizing it isn’t bold or dangerous; in fact, it seems like a deflection to avoid addressing the real destructive partisan divide in today’s America. And, in the end, Tone-Deaf‘s screenplay refuses to firmly commit to either side, making us wonder what the point of the entire exercise was.

That lack of focus wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the jokes were funny. I think I chuckled once, during an unexpected deadpan cultural appropriation joke. But for the most part you see the jabs coming; they’re all telegraphed, far too obvious to catch you off guard. Heck, Harvey even breaks the fourth wall to rant about kids today, so you couldn’t accuse the script of trusting the audience to be smart enough to get the point. And yet, Tone-Deaf isn’t a complete misfire. Although the high concept misses the mark, there’s enough going on that the movie becomes watchable. Since a feature length film has a lot of time to fill between the time Olive checks in and Harvey tries to forcibly check her out, the script has to find something else for the slasher and victim to do while waiting for the final showdown. That means some unexpected plot turns, including a Tinder date in a cowboy bar and a car wash that sells drugs. Demented killer Robert Patrick’s performance can be fun, in a crusty old fart swinging a tire iron kind of way. The best parts of the film are the left-field ian touches. Harvey has a series of psycho-sexual nightmares featuring art-installation models in blue latex body paint that are funnier parodies than anything else in the script. And a cameo by —looking a bit like the Amazing Criswell lit by a multicolored strobe light during an acid trip—is a highlight (the man’s a real pro). These bits suggest a better, wilder B-movie hiding somewhere inside this misfire.

The filmmakers had to know from the outset that reviewers were going to dub this a “Tone-Deaf satire.” (It’s probably a good thing they didn’t name it Ham-Fist, although that title would have lent itself to even more accurate critical quips).

Richard Bates, Jr. made a minor splash in the indie horror world with his 2012 debut, Excision, but has since failed to follow up on that success. Tone-Deaf won’t revive his fading reputation, but there are enough shiny baubles buried under the dross to make us not want to give up on him just yet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Tone-Deaf’ is devilishly hilarious for the first two acts, diving into murky psychological waters to trigger some spooky and surreal stuff for genre fans, but also retaining a defined sense of humor, with amusing amplification of common generational issues, having a good time poking a stick at people of all ages.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: BLOODSUCKER’S PLANET (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Beal

FEATURING: , , Adrienne Dobson, Joe Grisaffi,

PLOT: Responding to a distress signal, the crew of a cargo spaceship find themselves on a remote mud-harvesting planet inhabited by the charming Bartlett, who harbors a dark secret.

Still from Bloodsucker's Planet (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While it’s difficult to tell the deliberate weirdness from simple budgetary limitations, there’s no denying that this film’s minimalistic approach to its seemingly simple tale of vampires in space gives rise to some creepy and trippy visuals.

COMMENTS: The idea of vampires in a science fiction setting has a great deal of promise, but it’s been largely restricted to B-movies. It’s hardly a more ridiculous conceit than that of many films that break box office records. Yet personally, my sole encounters with the genre have been 1985’s Lifeforce, a film whose genuinely intriguing concepts were hard to take seriously thanks to the film’s needless sexualization, and Dracula 3000, an embarrassing bore from South African Darrell Roodt.

Point is, Bloodsucker’s Planet—which, really, spells out its whole concept right there in the title—has a promising premise right off the bat. It’s true that there are parts of it that, through no fault of the filmmakers, I probably didn’t fully understand (I unfortunately never saw Bloodsucker’s Handbook, the film that this is a prequel to; and I’m not especially familiar with 60s-era sci fi, from which Planet draws many cues); but still, I can recognize a solid and underutilized concept when I see one.

Bloodsucker’s Planet evokes the classics right from the opening, with the crew of a small cargo ship responding to a distress signal that leads them to the isolated planet of Mara, home to an abandoned mud harvesting operation now occupied only by the charming Bartlett and his gynoid assistant Adrianna. The sci fi parallels to the classic vampire tale are evident almost at once. The solitary Bartlett has that gentlemanly charm and likeability befitting the more romantic sort of vampire overlord (though he himself doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the condition); Adrianna brings to mind one of Dracula’s concubines; the somber graveyard on the planet’s surface evokes traditional horror imagery; and the vampiric disease, it seems, is spread by a native species closely resembling (and, indeed, explicitly referred to as) bats.

Unfortunately, this intriguing setup, which promises a sci-fied take on a classically Gothic setup, ends up feeling underexploited. A big reason is clearly the limitations of the budget.

I don’t look down upon a film for having a low budget. I don’t think any fan of arthouse or independent cinema could ever justify such an attitude. But I do think that, to execute certain concepts, a certain level of resources is required. Low budget charm is all well and good; but sometimes, a film’s resources can be so limited that a great portion of its central concept gets lost. And in this case, the plain sets and scenery don’t evoke a far-distant future to any significant degree. And while this might be forgivable in a film where the  setting was more incidental, it becomes noticeable in a movie that is centered on the novelty of “vampires in space.”

There are moments of brilliance, to be sure, where the limited budget evokes the setting in a creative, surrealistic manner (most prominently in several brief shots of uncanny, slightly-off miniature models of characters wandering the planet’s surface or hurtling through space). Moreover, there’s a classic subplot centered on Adrianna struggling to reconcile her emotions with her artificial nature, and all that. I get the sense that it’s there to reinforce the connection to classic science fiction; but despite taking up a good portion of the film’s midsection, it doesn’t go anywhere or relate to the plot in any significant manner (though, not being an expert in classic vampire lore, I’m more than ready to admit I might be missing a reference). If nothing else, I’d have appreciated a few more scenes of the wisecracking space roach; sure, he also had little bearing on the central plot, but he was far and away the most entertaining character.

As much as I genuinely hate saying this about any indie effort, I do feel that Bloodsucker’s Planet attempts to tackle a concept a bit beyond the reach of its resources. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad effort by any means—there are moments where that surreal shoestring charm does its job, and Joe Grisaffi, at the very least, takes to his role with an elegant charisma. But all in all, Bloodsucker’s Planet has more promising potential than solid execution.

Either way, Planet made me more than a little curious to check out Bloodsucker’s Handbook—a film which, allegedly, was far weirder than this one. It struck me that embracing the inherent weirdness of the premise could have spiced up Bloodsucker’s Planet and helped it overcome its limitations. After all, weirdness is one of the few things that, personally, I don’t believe can be held back by budgetary constraints.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewers who love such recent mind-bending indie retro outings as Joe Badon’s The God Inside My Ear (2017) and Drew Bolduc’s Assassinaut (2019) are bound to have a blast with Bloodsucker’s Planet, which is an absolute delight from before its ultracool animated opening credits to its postcredits cracker jack.”–Joseph Perry, Horror Fuel (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SHE’S JUST A SHADOW (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Sherman

FEATURING: Tao Okamoto, Kihiro, Kentez Asaka, Marcus Johnson

PLOT: The matriarch of a prostitution empire, married to a violent pimp, leads her gang against a rival band of yakuza while a serial killer preys on her girls and one of her lackeys is caught in a love triangle.

Still from She's Just a Shadow (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This super-stylized, candy colored exploitationer with a couple of precognitive hallucination scenes feels like a budget version of Kill Bill insistent on earning an NC-17 rating. It’s well off the beaten path, but still only on the outskirts of the truly weird.

COMMENTS: A movie that opens with a serial killer binding and tying his nude victim to train tracks and then pleasuring himself as the locomotive approaches is a movie that knows the audience it’s after. She’s Just a Shadow gives you all the perverted thrills you could ask for—sushi served off naked hookers, constant coke-sniffing, an infirmary full of shot-up whores —all wrapped up in a slick, arty package with professional lighting, elaborate costuming, and acres of nudes.

Shot mostly in the neon-lit night or carefully controlled interiors, Shadow is a great-looking film, but unfortunately loses points due to acting that is not up to the professionalism of the cinematography. Former Ralph Lauren model Tao Okamoto has had major roles in Hollywood superhero movies I haven’t seen, so I can’t say she’s an amateur, but she could have fooled me with her performance here. Her line deliveries are almost completely drab and inflectionless; the lack of emoting reminds me of nothing more than Madeleine Reynal’s deliberately blank performance in Dr. Caligari. She smokes a lot, so her long drags off her thin black cigarette help explain the frequent pauses in her delivery. Making his acting debut as a flunky whose main duty in the syndicate seems to be drinking and sleeping with a pair of the girls 24/7, J-pop musician Kihiro is a little better, but not quite ready to be a leading man; his role requires him to be strung-out and exhausted most of the time, partly compensating for his lack of passion. With the two leads being so laid back, it’s left to a bodyguard named “Knockout” (Marcus Johnson) to bring the most energy, though only in a small role. Main bad guy Kentez Asaka can act, but not without a distracting accent sported by none of the rest of the cast (some of whom speak the Queen’s English despite playing Japanese gangsters).

The screenplay, too, is not up to the standard set by the visuals. Shadow‘s characters can be insultingly dumb when it advances the plot. The dialogue treads a line between cliched and risible. Trite ideas are rendered in eyebrow-raising prose: “Both Jesus and the garbageman wanted a little more time when they were carrying their loads up their separate hills,” muses one character. Later he gives us the even cringier observation, “Women… no matter how human they seem, they’re not. They’re just shadows. But on the other hand, aren’t we all?” Lines like these give Shadow an extra layer of unintentional (?) camp, something that doesn’t work entirely against the film—and will likely be overlooked, anyway, by those looking for cheap thrills.

Despite its handicaps, Shadow will slay many with its over-the-top grindhouse audacity. Director Adam Sherman has clearly absorbed a and flick or two, and while the acting is bland and the dialogue may elicit some chuckles, the wild and colorful visuals are up to his influences, and he goes all out to give the audience what they crave, with little filter on the stylish sleaze and depravity. If you’re a fan of modern yakuza exploitation flicks, you’ll probably dig this.

She’s Just a Shadow opens in New York City (and possibly elsewhere) this Friday, July 19; it will probably find a more natural home on VOD soon after.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…exploitation bliss; unfiltered and pure and injected straight into your putrid pupils via a dirty needle.”–DanXIII, Horror Fuel (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RONDO (2019) (DVD RELEASE)

DIRECTED BYDrew Barnhardt

FEATURING: Luke Sorge, Brenna Otts, Reggie De Morton, Gena Shaw, Steve Van Beckum

PLOT: Paul has been dishonorably discharged from the military and relies on his sister’s hospitality for a couch to crash on; when she recommends a therapist to help him with PTSD and alcohol addiction, he encounters a sordid world where revenge and unhealthy fantasy experiences can be bought for the right price.

Lobby card from Rondo (2018)

COMMENTS: As I gear up for my third trip to the Fantasia Film Festival, I am unfortunately reminded that most of what I’ll be seeing up North won’t be available again for months (and months), if it’s released at all. With that in mind, I look back at my original gob-smacked review and consider whether or not Rondo lives up to the hype I expressed directly after my original “live” experience. In brief: it does.

My earlier review covers most of the bases, but I wanted to expand on how well Barnhardt manages Rondo‘s singular atmosphere. Its edge-of-realistic set-pieces present a grisly and tragic tale that are undercut by a narrator that borders on intrusive. Much to my shame, I hadn’t seen ‘s Barry Lyndon until some months ago, well after I nodded in understanding at Barnhardt’s remarks on it during my interview with him. Like the Kubrick epic, Rondo involves a string of events that, though much more in the vein of “thriller”, have a tone that’s on the unsettling side of banal—until, in both films, an impressively indifferent narrator articulates his views on the action. As I have no doubt that Barnhardt would quickly dispel any suggestion he’s at Kubrick’s level, I’ll merely say that Rondo has the feel of a whomping dubstep echo of Barry Lyndon‘s awkwardly laid-back narrative meanderings.

Without dispersing too much insider knowledge (I spoke with both Barnhardt and Guy Clark, the producer, for close to an hour after the interview proper was finished), I can tell you that Rondo was made for substantially less than its shiny veneer and honed camerawork suggest. Indeed, a large part of its modest budget went to the… expressive use of squibs in a pivotal scene. But like a sculptor given a slim brick of marble, Barnhardt (who also wrote the script, scouted locations, and was heavily involved in the casting of largely unknown actors) manages to chisel a tiny objet d’art: it’s charmingly crafted, bloodily lighthearted, impressively detailed, and the whole thing fits conveniently on your desk (or perhaps your knife-filled kitchen sink).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a tour de force of highly assured genre filmmaking, and the mark of a real talent emerging from cinema’s more perverse, less salubrious end. ‘Ordinary’s not the thing that I want,’ as one character puts it. ‘I want the other thing.’ Rondo delivers just that, very satisfyingly.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (DVD)