Tag Archives: Low budget

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRUMBS (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Miguel Llansó

FEATURING: , Selam Tesfayie, Mengistu Berhanu, Tsegaye Abegaz

PLOT: A long-dormant spaceship hovers over an apocalypse-blasted earth, so Candy goes on a quest to secure himself a seat on board.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Plenty of post-apocalyptic movies capture the dregs of civilization as well as Crumbs, but no others that I can think of have a “raised-hand” spaceship, Michael Jordan the god, or Santa Claus inside a bowling alley ball-return.

COMMENTS: Smirking absurdism and epic pathos are in constant tension in Miguel Llansó’s directorial debut. This friction is perfectly encapsulated during an encounter near the end of Crumbs, when we watch the protagonist, Candy, unbutton his shirt—in a display of machismo directed at a burnt-out Santa Claus—to reveal the iconic “Superman” garb. Only, Santa doesn’t recognize it, saying “it looks like a Nazi symbol.” This quip cuts right to the chase: the “superman” was a Nazi ideal, and it was such displays of toxic machismo that brought about the nuclear war.

“Crumbs” aptly describes of what civilization has been reduced to: scavenging and subsistence-level survival, all man’s machines crumbled to rust. Crumbs intersperses its quest narrative with history-laced interludes courtesy of a pawnbroker to whom various wanderers try to sell their findings. A cheap plastic “Max Steel” sword toy is not, as is commonly presumed, from the great artist “Carrefor“, but by “Mattelo“; a Samurai Turtle dated “third century” was “worn by Molegon warriors as a lucky amulet”; “Dangerous“, by Michael Jackson—a third-century farmer—is a gift worthy for a wedding. These items, and more, are crumbs left along Candy’s path as he travels to find Santa Claus in an abandoned pond in the old city.

The narrative is triggered by ominous signs at the bowling alley which Candy (Daniel Tadesse) and Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) have adopted as their home, untold numbers of years after a hinted-at world war. Birdy is convinced that the spaceship—which had hitherto been idling in the sky—has begun to start its engines, and the magnetic field being emitted has triggered the alley’s lights to flicker and the ball-return machine to reactivate. Candy goes off to find the one man who can secure their place on board, while Birdy stays home. She regularly prays at their shrine to Michael Jordan, but is haunted by the voice coming from the ball-return. Investigating it, she finds Santa Claus inside, pacing around a display of toys, asking what her Christmas wish is.

While Llansó’s sophomore feature tickled with its high energy and zany surrealism, Crumbs is a more contemplative work. Its tongue-in-cheek tone is couched within a soft, dreamy tone. The natural beauty of Ethiopia’s wildlands, alongside decayed industrial hulks of machinery, is on full display at the hands of an able and loving cinematographer. Candy is an unlikely hero, a deformed (though not un-handsome) fellow trying to do right by his lover. The weight of Crumbs‘ reality anchors the absurdity until the final moments of the credits. The spaceship sails peacefully toward the æther as two men inside talk about vintage music; then it explodes. Even if reduced to crumbs, Earth is all we’ll have.

Crumbs is available for separate purchase, but it was also released as a bonus feature on Arrow’s 2020 Limited Edition Blu-ray of Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s hard not to succumb at least somewhat to this sci-fi whatsit’s strange, whimsical spell.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD (1968)

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DIRECTED BY: Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt, Arthur Knight

FEATURING: , narrated by Carolyn De Fonseca

PLOT: Jayne Mansfield narrates her visit to Rome, Paris, New York City, and Hollywood.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: This brazen cash grab (and virtual grave-robbing) flits along with an airy-but-bizarre tone of narration and titillation, before a jarring interruption in the final minutes. Laughably odd becomes wrenchingly tragic at the drop of a hat.

COMMENTS: For almost an hour and a half, we go on a guided tour of a couple of European cities and a couple of coastal American ones, before a coup-de-grace deflates the whole affair. Jayne Mansfield, dead—and nearly decapitated—in a car accident. Before this movie was even completed. So who have we been listening to? Having begun this film with no knowledge of it (and only passing knowledge of the starlet), I have to tip my hat to Carolyn De Fonseca for her dead-on characterization (please pardon that accidental pun [that one, too]) of Jayne Mansfield. Simultaneously, I have to wag my finger and tut-tut at the trio of directors who went ahead with this project.

The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield claims to be a “documentary.” I took a semester about documentary film in my college days, with a focus on the reliability of documentaries and their makers. In this film, we witness Jayne Mansfield traveling around trendy European hot spots–that much can be gleaned from the footage. According to this “documentary,” Rome is (in 1968, anyway) teeming with handsome sexual harassers to a slightly greater degree than Paris is teaming with homosexuals, transvestites, and lesbians. New York City in 1968 had its share of convincing transvestites as well. And Hollywood? Like the rest of the world, it was going through a “topless women do various mundane things” craze. Everything, however, is undercut by the fact that we’re lied to from the beginning about who’s talking to us.

There was probably a respectful way to make this movie. The filmmakers sat on a pile of footage of Mansfield’s recent jaunts, and there must have been people she spoke with who could have fleshed out a real documentary. Instead, there’s a continuous rush of ditzy observations and a laser-keen focus on society’s fringe element—all set to a jaunty score at times reminiscent of Goodbye, Uncle Tom and at others, the James Bond theme.

Broun, Holt, and Knight show as much of Mansfield as they can, show as many other breasts as they can, and pepper it all with daydreams ostensibly from Mansfield (for example, her vision in the Colisseum of her dream-man gladiator). There was also a nigh-untenable degree of faux-modesty—“Mansfield” remarking in wonder at how shameless/fearless all these women/love-making couples/etc. were, and how she simply could not work up the nerve to go fully nude at a nudist colony.

But then it gets weird. There’s a crash-montage of photographs, accompanied by a rubber-burning/metal-crunching sound effects, and the tone slips into maudlin garishness. Suddenly all the mind-numbingly banal remarks (my favorite being, “Poor Caesar! Brutus was his friend!”) are brought into focus: this was a person. Who died horribly. Melodrama worthy of Guy Maddin, I’d say, coming out of the blue, and interrupting my dismissive chuckling.

Severin re-released The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield on DVD and Blu-ray in 2020, with your choice of two different, equally flawed transfers, and a host of extras including a short interview with Satanist and Jayne hanger-on Anton La Vey. The tame 1966 mondo feature Wild, Weird, Wonderful Italians is also tossed in to make the bottom half of a double feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once it gets to the car crash… the movie is surprisingly dark and serious in tone, clearly cashing in on the very real, and very tragic, event that took the life of its star (and, as the photos clearly document, her dog as well)…  Recommended for those with a taste for misguided vanity projects and bizarre documentary features.
” -Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

366 UNDERGROUND: MY NEIGHBOR WANTS ME DEAD (2019) WITH BONUS INTERVIEW

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DIRECTED BY: Nick Gatsby

FEATURING: Eric Willis, Scott Mitchell

PLOT: A hapless tenant finds himself dying at the hands of his neighbor over and over again.

Still from My Neighbor Wants Me Dead (2019)

COMMENTS: There’s a grandeur that kicks off Nick Gatsby’s first feature film that is both beautiful and disorienting. Haunting choral music, haunting wind sounds, and a haunting, burning moon (?) behind scraggly, leafless branches. The moon turns green, and there is a cut—appropriately—to psychedelically-lit puzzle pieces. This abstraction crops up throughout the rest of the film: interesting shots cut up by post-production static, over-exposure, jump cuts, and—my favorite—hilarious intertitles. With what seems like zero dollars on hand, but plenty of focus for fastidious editing and micro-effects, Gatsby has put together a creative anomaly; I wouldn’t describe it as a movie, per se, but it would hold its own among the video installations I’ve enjoyed at various modern art museums.

The story, such as it is, remains basic: a man mysteriously appears in a chair, slumped over. He awakens and is quickly menaced by a (largely) unseen neighbor. He’s about to be killed, and on a very short timer. Looming butterflies act as harbingers. Skulls appear, tiki bars are disregarded, and only in the fifth iteration do things seemingly fall into place.

Watching My Neighbor Wants Me Dead with a group was apt, as the chatter (pleasant though it was) acted as something of a distraction. And wouldn’t you know, the film’s tagline is “A film about distractions.” More than most (more straight-forward) narratives, My Neighbor lends itself to multiple interpretations. I saw it as a meditation on depression: the protagonist continually tries and fails to survive and get out of his door. Distractions subsume him: the promise of a “Tiki Bar,” threats from his neighbor, and even idly wandering through his barren apartment. Knowing a thing or two about depression myself, I know that one of the main challenges it presents the sufferer with is distraction: a simple, but driving distraction from being able to just face the day.

Gatsby earns plenty of bonus points for style, and several more for the oddball humor sprinkled throughout. There’s a cartoon intermission, plenty of ragtime music, and obscenely pictographed phrases during the intertitles. The ending did elicit a bit of, “Well, I should have seen that coming…”; but seeing as how I didn’t, I can’t complain. I am glad to say that I look forward to Gatsby’s next (great?) outing.

BONUS INTERVIEW: In the final minutes of the screening, filmmaker Nick Gatsby mysteriously appeared, telecommuting from his bunker in Colorado. The 366 crew all chipped in questions for him about his film. Continue reading 366 UNDERGROUND: MY NEIGHBOR WANTS ME DEAD (2019) WITH BONUS INTERVIEW

CAPSULE: DEAD DICKS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Chris Bavota, Lee Paula Springer

FEATURING: Jillian Harris, Heston Horwin, Matt Keyes

PLOT: Mentally ill and suicidal, Richard tries to off himself but is repeatedly reborn though an orifice that’s growing on his wall, leaving his apartment cluttered with corpses of his previous selves.

Still from Dead Dicks (2019)

COMMENTS: Richie and his sister Becca debate about the exact anatomical correspondence of the orifice that has suddenly appeared on his bedroom wall. He calls it a vagina; she replies “it looks more like an asshole to me.” He sees at as a possibility of rebirth, while she sees it as just the same shit over and over? (For the record, it’s obviously shaped like a vulva; trust me, I’ve seen one before.)

Whatever the hole in the wall is, it’s driving the plot. Well, not really. The real conflict in Dead Dicks is not the eternal struggle between death and rebirth, but the more down to earth sibling drama between Richie, a mentally ill artist who annoys his only neighbor by forgetting to turn down the music after midnight, and Becca, who’s always nurturing her brother instead of pursuing her own dreams to become a nurse. As a career enabler, cleaning up her brother’s many spare corpses comes naturally to her.

Sometimes, the bare sets, unimaginative staging, and uneven sound levels—especially in the few shots occurring outside Ritchie’s apartment—smack you in the face with the fact that Dead Dicks a low-budget affair.  But the main place where the budgetary limitations become intrusive is in the long middle act, where cheap conversation takes the place of more expensive action. It seems most of the available money went into a one big effect, a brief but nightmarish gore scene that does dazzle.

The acting is spotty, with Matt Keyes coming across the best (although there is little nuance required of his perpetually annoyed neighbor). Jillian Harris has a hard time of it; her character is often written so as to under-react to the insane events, and to comply with Ritchie’s odd requests too quickly. I’m not sure exactly how an actress should play a character asked, by her brother, to hack up her brother’s body; but there were many times where I expected Becca to object or freak out in a much higher register than she does. There are some attempts at black comedy—sis is more shocked by her brother’s full-frontal nudity than by the fact that he’s just come back from the dead—but on the whole the script eschews yuks in favor of a dramatic tone.

But, warts and all, Dead Dicks is worth a watch to those who find the premise or the mental illness theme compelling. It lags in the middle with a bit too much dialogue, but it starts the third act with two twists that come in quick succession, and ends on a strong note. The ultimate resolution is unexpected, and morally troubling—some may complain, but this is horror after all, and I’m glad they took this brave step rather than a more conventional feel-good ending. Dead Dicks is an ambitious and largely successful feature, though one that might have been scaled back to be an impressive short.

Plus, the body count is much higher than the total number of characters in the film, which is quite a trick to pull off.

The Artsploitation DVD/Blu-ray contains commentary from the two directors and video diaries of the production. These extras are valuable to anyone considering making their own movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Dead Dicks tackles taboos, blending trippy horror, irreverent humor, and shocking tenderness to create a film that’s both darkly challenging and wildly entertaining.”–Kirist Puchbo, Pajiba (festival screening)

CAPSULE: A SHIP OF HUMAN SKIN (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: Hilly Holsonback, Hannah Weir, Ike Duncan, Cameron McElyea

PLOT: Jeanie, an aimless young woman, is arrested after she murders a man with an axe; a cult of personality forms around her after a prison guard claims to see her levitating.

Still from A Ship of Human Skin (2019)

COMMENTS: I always appreciate it when an independent film is aware of the limitations of its budget, and opts to make use of those limitations to enhance its atmosphere and themes.

Such is, for the most part, the case with Richard Bailey’s A Ship of Human Skin. The film is very minimalist in its presentation; the cast is small, and the sets are limited (the film gets a great deal of mileage out of some gorgeous shots of the Texas landscape, and a fifteen-minute sequence that covers several months of Jeannie’s life is shot entirely in a single room). However, this minimalism lines up well with the narrative, which follows a pair of young women who feel isolated and frustrated by their monotonous lives in “the boonies.” By confining these characters to a sparse handful of backdrops and surrounding them with only a small group of people, the film directly evokes the protagonists’ sense of seclusion, and of having been “handed over from birth into emptiness.”

Of course, thanks to its constrained budget, there are also aspects of the film that feel underdeveloped. Ship suggests that Jeannie has amassed a cult-like following. However, its limited resources mean that it can only convey this mass fascination through a few scenes of a small number of secondary characters discussing her supposedly mystical nature. While we’re frequently told that Jeannie is as a messianic figure, it’s an element which doesn’t feel substantial. Instead, the central focus is on studying Jeannie as a character, as well as the environment in which the murder she commits takes place. We examine her dispassionate attitude to societal convention that ultimately leads her to an unhappy life of prostitution and dope-dealing; and we’re shown how, despite her lack of education, she is sharp-minded in her own way, with opinions on such matters as personal identity and the internalized significance of particular words. It’s an overall engaging look at a character who, neglected by society, is forced to channel her considerable intelligence into seeking meaning in abstract concepts and alternative belief systems, which leads her down a path of paranoia that ultimately drives her to violence.

Of course, a character-driven film depends upon a strong cast; but A Ship of Human Skin is middling in that regard. The cast consists mostly of unknowns, and a good number of them carry their roles well (Hannah Weir, in particular, does a largely excellent job of bringing out the meek and rather simple, yet fiercely loyal personality of Jeannie’s close friend Saribeth). However, Hilly Holsonback, who plays Jeannie—while not a bad actress by any means—does not quite exude the fierce charisma and conviction that Jeannie is treated as possessing. Nevertheless, she bears through the film’s emotional climaxes relatively well, and manages to convey the character in her more subdued moments.

The film plays fast and loose with its presentation, alternating between styles of a documentary and a theatrical narrative. All the way through, however, it maintains a deliberately slow pace and dreamlike atmosphere, further emphasizing the slow and monotonous existence that the main characters endure—which, in turn, inspires their drug-fueled search for significance in the abstract philosophies that they create for themselves. Much like the secondary characters who introduce us to Jeannie, we are made to feel very much like curious outsiders looking in on Jeannie’s life, knowing only vague details at first, and slowly piecing together the mindset and circumstances that drove her to violence. Truth be told, the ultimate explanation for Jeannie’s actions ends up anticlimactic and mundane in comparison with the strong air of mystery that the film builds around it; but nonetheless, it is set up well, lending the film an unusual combination of surrealism and logical progression.

A Ship of Human Skin is first and foremost a character study. It does an admirable job of balancing a haunting atmosphere of dreamlike minimalism with a refreshing look at the path that intelligent but disaffected young women like Jeannie can be forced down. There are aspects that could have been built up or ironed out; but overall, Richard Bailey’s feature-length directorial debut shows a resourcefulness and a talent for evoking a strong atmosphere that will surely serve him well in any future forays into weird cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Problem is, these girls cannot act and it comes off as unintended comedy… Before we get to them, the film starts off in cheesy poetry done by a weird G-Man impersonation…  if you are a fan of fun-bad movies like The Room, or more closely, Fateful Findings, you will have ‘Decent’ enjoyment with A Ship of Human Skin. For everyone who wants to watch a good thriller about drug abuse, there’s a million better options out there, trust me!”–Pond’s Press (festival screening)

THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

His name may not exactly be celebrated among cinephiles, but ‘s impact on the mid-20th century movie scene is undeniable. Growing up in an environment of circus performers and vaudevillians, Murray made a fortune in the 1950s and 1960s by importing low-budget family films (among other genres) from Mexico and Europe, dubbing them in English, and re-releasing them on the US market, showing them at cheap weekend screenings. Providing affordable afternoon film screenings aimed specifically at children (and at pre-digital age parents looking for a way to keep the kids occupied for a few hours) earned Murray the title “King of the Kiddie Matinee.”

Poster for K. Gordon Murray's Little Red Riding Hood and the MonstersBut besides revolutionizing the concept of the children’s matinee, Murray also inadvertently assisted in the creation of a certain subgenre of film that flourished in and around the 1960s —one which, though rarely discussed, is the source of some of cinema’s finest examples of unintentional weirdness.

This particular subgenre has never been given an official name, but the term “grindhouse children’s films”, coined by internet critic Brad “Cinema Snob” Jones, encompasses its nature quite well. With their grainy visuals and audio, hokey acting, and flimsy sets, these movies do indeed call to mind the grindhouse cinema aesthetic. The films’ content, meanwhile, are clearly crafted for a kid audience. This dissonance results in distinct examples of mid-century cinematic weirdness, some of which have made it into 366’s Canon.

While a many entries in this genre were the work of Murray himself, many more were made in his wake, churned out at minimal cost to take advantage of the easy profits of the matinees Murray had helped invent. Perhaps one of the most bizarre (and egregious) was 1965’s Fun In Balloon Land. Produced by Giant Balloon Parades Inc., and the sole directorial credit of Joseph M. Sonneborn Jr., this little absurdity pushes itself to 52 minutes by poorly slapping together two unrelated segments. One consists of a young boy wandering around a cavernous warehouse filled with assorted parade balloons (which, with their vast sizes, bulbous shapes, and poorly-painted features, are frankly the stuff of children’s nightmares) and holding awkward conversations with them; the other is a recording of a Thanksgiving-themed balloon parade with a narrator gushing over the (equally ugly) floats Continue reading THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jim Carroll

FEATURING: Morgan Roberts, Ilsa Levine, Geraldo Davila, Donny Boaz, Lamar Usher, Jason Castro

PLOT: Muslim extremists use a time machine to go back to 33 A.D. to try to assassinate Jesus; with the encouragement of his Christian girlfriend, an agnostic genius tries to fix the time stream.

Still from Assassin 33 A.D. (2020)

COMMENTS: I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie; would have nailed it. But I am pretty sure it is impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie that involves terrorist strike teams with assault weapons going back to 1st century Judea to assassinate Jesus. Assassin 33 AD is Donnie Darko meets The Passion of the Christ done on the kind of budget usually reserved for an episode of “The 700 Club.”

Assassin33ad.com boasts that the script has “won more International Screenplay Awards than any know [sic] script in history.” Starting straight off with the line “I’m just struggling. I went from saving an embassy and killing terrorists to being head of security at a research lab,” delivered casually by a rugged man to his wife on a Sunday drive, you can see why. That’s the kind of expository introductory dialogue slick Hollywood movies are too afraid to put in for fear it might sound “clumsy.”

The wife who needs filling in on what her husband has been doing with his life is Heidi Montag, a former Playboy model and current aspiring Christian pop singer who, like much of the cast and crew, was drawn from a cable TV show called “Marriage Boot Camp Reality Stars.” In another fine bit of screenwriting, Montag’s husband chuckles fondly, “That British accent!” This is necessary foreshadowing, because the accent will turn up as an important plot point late on, and without that bit of dialogue we’d have no way of knowing  that she spoke with a British accent. Assassin33ad.com reveals that a producer warned the director when he was planning to cast Montag that “Reality stars can’t act.”

Maybe all the praise for the screenplay comes from its nimble handling of the multiple timelines that infest the second half of the movie. I can’t opine on that, because I quickly lost track of how many time-clones there were running around, and which one were alive and which ones were dead, after the second or third time the hero (Ram Goldstein!) and/or villains leapt  backwards or forwards in time like chronological yo-yos. Personally, it seemed to me that they made up the rules of time travel on the fly:  somehow, even though he just invented time travel accidentally twenty four hours ago, Ram knows that there’s a lag between changing the past and overwriting the present that could take “minutes, possibly hours, maybe longer,” Continue reading CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)