Tag Archives: Low budget

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)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BIRDS WITHOUT FEATHERS (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alexander Stasko, Lenae Day, Cooper Oznowicz, William Gabriel Grier, Sara Estefanos

PLOT: The lives of six odd characters intersect in increasingly surreal ways.

Still from Birds Without Feathers (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Wendy McColm’s debut feature is a defiantly odd duck; a near-comedy about self-absorbed young people desperate to connect and perversely unable to get out of their own way. It seems like the kind of script you might write in the aftermath of a post-breakup acid trip.

COMMENTS: Each of the characters is alone, talking to themselves, when we first meet them. A depressed-sounding man (with an effeminate voice) recites bad advice into a tape recorder (“sometimes, you have to put others down to give yourself a boost in self-esteem”). A Russian immigrant practices saying “nice day” in front of a mirror, trying to erase his accent. A woman takes selfies in her underwear and uploads them to Instagram.  A stand-up comic recites his (not funny) routine and pumps himself up for a performance. A nurse practices saying the word “ow.” One other character pops up (or at least, is properly introduced) after the opening scenes: a chameleon-like woman who lives in the desert and is easily the strangest of them all. Even though these people will spend the rest of the movie bumping into each other, they remain, for the most part, alone; locked inside themselves by their own insecurities.

Social interactions in Birds Without Feathers often make little sense. In one scene, the stand-up is sucker punched by a passerby, then verbally abused by the passing nurse; he then asks for, and receives, her number. Several of the characters do “successfully” hook up together (never more memorably than in one scene that may change the way you think of Jeff Goldblum forever). But more commonly, social intercourse involves a coworker complaining that the dead look in your eyes is making him feel weird, or someone using “you know the awful thing about you?” as a first date conversation starter. A sense of lonely, uncomfortable melancholy pervades.

Writer/director Wendy McColm plays the Instagram model, and congrats to her on giving herself such an unflattering role: not only is Neil/Janet pathetic, she’s also the only character with (bizarre) nude scenes, and she gets her face spackled with white goop while making an uncomfortable confession. McColm’s character is probably the closest thing to a central presence, but the stories are fairly well-balanced between the six main players, with no one performer overly dominating the narrative. Although their lives all intersect at some point, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Birds Without Feathers is really about a cast of eccentric characters put into a series of sketches. Some are dramatic, and even touching; some are funny (or almost funny, in an awkward shaped-like-a-joke-but-lacking-a-punchline way); and some are just flat-out weird. They’re not all hits, but there are enough good moments and perspective switches to keep you interested. It should go without saying, however, that this one is not for normies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like ‘Mulholland Dr.’ and ‘Magnolia’ took a detour through Silver Lake, emerging worse for wear from the journey.”–Kimber Myers, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “DIVORCED DAD” (2018)

DIRECTED BY: , ,

FEATURING: Matthew Kennedy, Gilles Degagne

PLOT: A Divorced Dad and his even sadder-sack co-host, Gilles, produce a public access TV show that continually goes off the rails.

Still from Divorced Dad (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The format—cancelled web series repackaged as a home video release—rules it out from consideration as one of the weirdest movies of all time. It’s more of a supplemental oddity for weird movie fans (even more specifically, for fans).

COMMENTS: Served papers by YouTube after only five official episodes, Canadian comedy troupe Astron-6’s “Divorced Dad” (based, as the opening credits to each episode explain, “on a dream had by Divorced Dad”) never really got the chance to find its footing. Star Divorced Dad and co-host Gilles were developing a classic abusive, co-dependent comedy duo dynamic (if Divorced Dad was as passive-aggressively condescending to his wife and children as he is to the admittedly annoying Gilles, it might explain why he finds himself single). After Divorced Dad’s dreams were shattered for a second time when his mock public access webseries was yanked from the platform, Kino Lorber came to the rescue with this home video release of the show’s complete YouTube run, plus two completed but unaired episodes, and some odds and ends to pad out the disc.

The episode that got the show pulled—“My Sis,” in which Divorced Dad accidentally signs up the Islamic State as beneficiary of his charity bingo show—is hardly the hot stuff one might have predicted, given how quickly the heavy fingers at YouTube corporate pushed the ban button. Ironically, “My Sis” may also have been their most conventionally structured comedy, and could have been a breakout episode. The series’ other sources of mirth were more conceptual bits like Gilles demonstrating less-then-delicate bedroom techniques on fruit, Divorced Dad getting into it with a female “restler,” and the “Treasure Man” parody, a microbudget attempt to create an “Indiana Jones”-style adventure series. Most notably for us, in three episodes he suddenly finds himself lost in existential netherworlds: one where he’s driven mad by the show’s bad sound, one where he overdoses on blue slushies, and one where he zones out while Gilles is misbehaving in the supermarket. The sly surreal comedy in these segments would have been a bit abstruse for the average YouTube surfer.

The visual aesthetic is a drunken take on early 90s cable access TV shows, with vertical hold issues, wandering picture-in-picture effects, and strange lo-fi wipes. Divorced Dad’s video board operator doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the show, instead spending his time checking out what happens when he spins the various knobs and dials before him. The end result is a show that looks like something you might find on an tape, with the absurdist comic sensibilities of an  live-action one-off.

Kudos to Kino Lorber for preserving this chunk of pop-culture flotsam, but… content-wise, it’s a little thin, as the main attraction takes up less than an hour of running time. Commentary tracks for the five original episodes beef up the presentation a bit. Besides the two previously-unseen episodes, extras include unaired footage (most notably, a hilarious faux-promo for “Treasure Man.”) There are also two “Merry Christmas” dispatches from a very depressed Santa (no one wants to hear that jolly old elf pleading “pray for me”). The disc’s hidden treasure, however, is “Chowboys,” a 9-minute short about cowboys on the range who contemplate cannibalism while hallucinating from hunger one chilly Christmas Eve. It’s described (sad spoiler ahead) as “the final film from Astron-6.” This is obviously a must-have release for Astron-6 fans; casual viewers might want to see if they can borrow a copy before shelling out a double-sawbuck, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Astron-6’s material may not be for everyone, but for those who have come to appreciate their quirky output, this release comes highly recommended!”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: DRY BLOOD (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Kelton Jones

FEATURING: Clint Carney, Jaymie Valentine, Kelton Jones

PLOT: As Brian navigates his way through withdrawal from drugs and alcohol in a semi-secluded cabin, he may or may not be killing people.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would have taken a far worse script (as it stands, it hits “Competent Soap Opera” level) or far more inspired acting (see previous parentheses; where’s Nicolas Cage when you need him?) to turn this into something of interest for us. Dry Blood is either a missed opportunity for a serious allegory on substance abuse, or a missed opportunity for mad-jack violent ambiguity.

COMMENTS: I typically avoid doing research on new releases, preferring to make my remarks based solely on the film’s merits. Somehow, though, I discovered that Dry Blood garnered a lot of awards. A whole lot of them. Would I say that Dry Blood deserved those Best Writer/Picture/Director/ and Actor awards? Oh no. Ohhh deary me, no. Unfortunately this movie isn’t that good. More unfortunately, it isn’t quite bad enough, either.

Brian (Clint Carney, who is to Nicolas Cage what James Belushi is to John Belushi) wakes up hung-over in his car and leaves a message for his ex-girlfriend to come and help him to sober up in his mountain cabin. Strung out on pills—primarily; we also see problems with alcohol, cocaine, and references to more injectable varieties of distractors—he keeps seeing glimpses of corpses, standing and otherwise, around his cozy abode. A local sheriff (Kelton Jones) keeps popping into his life uninvited, typically delivering a line of non sequitur dialogue (“Do you know where I could score any dope?”) before stating, “I didn’t say anything”. Brian’s ex-girlfriend, Anna (Jaymie Valentine), finally shows up and the duo morphs into a trio as the plot builds toward its inevitable mental collapse where we lose all ability to judge what’s real and what isn’t.

That in mind, Dry Blood does two things well. First, there’s the unreliable narration. Everything is viewed from Brian’s perspective, and he is obviously a troubled man. He becomes increasingly aware of this, but his heightened grasp on whether or not something is real somehow works to our disadvantage. Dead woman in the shower? Probably not there. Strange hair ribbons around key props (drug baggy, rusted knife)? Probably put there by Brian—for reasons unexplored. The arrival of his ex-girlfriend (not to be confused with the fourth main character, his ex-wife) should give us a greater grip on the proceedings, but she just muddies the water with platitudes and stilted delivery.

As for the second thing, it’s this film’s only true saving grace. Kelton Jones should really think about pursuing a career specializing in creepy cop characters. The sheriff seems plucked straight from the nightmare version of Super Troopers (Broken Lizard, if you’re reading, get on that right now). Whether he’s fondling his revolver during a “friendly conversation” or pulling over poor Brian “just to say good morning,” he’s a hoot. But he’s the film’s only hoot.

Which is a shame, because this movie could have been a fascinating depiction of the addiction-recovery cycle. Dry Blood begins and ends with Brian leaving different messages for Anna about wanting to sober up. Unfortunately, it over-plays its horror-hand and hitches its wagon (to mix metaphors for a moment) fully to standard genre gore-play. Brian never learns from his mistakes; having watched this movie on the heels of Odissea della Morte, it would appear that I never learn from mine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As you’d expect, the nature of the ghosts becomes more ambiguous as the film progresses, but the results are less of a clever attempt to mess with the viewer’s head or convey a filmic portrait of drug-addled mania and more just bafflingly incomprehensible.”–Sol Harris, Starburst (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BLOODSUCKER’S HANDBOOK (2012)

AKA Enchiridion (B&W version)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: An unassuming campus priest is asked to help interrogate a prisoner who proclaims himself a vampire, then is forced to embark on a quest to hunt him down after he escapes.

Still from Bloodsucker's Handbook (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This seemingly simple shoestring-budget vampire tale takes a roundabout turn midway through, turning into an absurd neo-noir set in a world only vaguely similar to our own.

COMMENTS: In retrospect, I’m actually glad I watched Bloodsucker’s Planet before this one. Where Planet made me conscious of the issues that arise when a low budget film tries to tackle a concept outside its resources, Handbook left me appreciative of films that embrace their limited resources, using them to enhance the effectiveness—and, in this case, the weirdness—of the concept.

Clearly looking to spring its weird side on an unsuspecting audience, Bloodsucker’s Handbook starts out about as ordinary as a low budget tale of a modern vampire can get: Father Noah is approached by a group of sharp-suited G-men, who ask for his help questioning the film’s resident vampire overlord, Condu. The first half or so of the film is (primarily) concerned with this interrogation; and, simple as it is, it demonstrates ideal filmmaking sensibilities for a limited-resource indie production like this one. Working on a minimal scale, the film embraces its limitations, allowing a handful of actors and sets to carry the film.

And carry it they do. Or at the very least, one of them does. Despite his limited screentime, Jeremy Herrera, as Condu, really couldn’t be better cast. Whereas Planet’s villain had the air of a classic, an vampiric count, courteous and urbane, Condu has a more Orlok-like demeanor: leering, menacing, and blatantly evil, yet at the same time, strangely charming, in his shifty way. Condu takes charge of the interrogations right away, his delightfully evil presence dominating the screen. While Cory W Ahre’s performance as Father Noah is perhaps a little flat and understated, his passive bearing works well in these scenes as a counterpart to Herrera’s charisma. The two of them form a wonderful dynamic that genuinely sparks in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the interrogation room.

It’s around the film’s halfway point, however-–-when Condu escapes, kidnapping Father Noah’s illicit lover for leverage-–-that things take a turn for the extremely bizarre. Father Noah heads out in pursuit of Condu, and as we see more of Bloodsucker’s Handbook‘s world (which suddenly takes on a distinctively noirish tone), we learn that it is far less ordinary than it seemed at first glance. Dinosaurs and anthropomorphic animals mingle with humans in seedy bars, and sucking on toads is an epidemic addiction. At this point, it becomes clear that the film’s setting, which at first seemed quite ordinary, if somewhat retro, is in fact a bizarre alternate version of our own world.

This, of course, poses the danger of Handbook running into the same issues as Planet, undermining its coherence and effectiveness in an effort to tackle concepts bigger than its budget will allow for. However, much like the rest of the film, Handbook’s approach to its setting is self-aware; rather than attempting to delve deeply into the intricate workings of this bizarre world, it reveals its oddities in an almost incidental manner, showcasing them in casual shots. Like the protagonist, we only give them a brief glance before continuing on our journey. And like any good, weird indie ought to, Handbook embraces its limited resources and uses them to enhance the weirdness. The various non-human characters are represented by stop-motion figures, whose crude and janky motions lend them an unreal quality that fully immerses us in the feeling that this is a world unlike our own. (In one brilliantly self-aware sequence, the vampire’s historical origins are related in a stop-motion sequence that leaves the animator’s hands in the shots.)

That’s not to say that everything about the film’s second half is what I’d call precisely the right direction for the film to have taken. For one thing, it would have been nice if some of the weirdness of the setting had been at least vaguely hinted at earlier on. (In my opinion, rewatch value and post-viewing clarity are some of the most gratifying aspects of weird cinema.) More significantly, I regretted that showcasing the bizarre setting came at the cost of relegating Condu, easily the film’s strongest presence, to the background. Ahre’s performance simply isn’t strong enough to carry the narrative on its own; and while Valentine, the hard-boiled anthropomorphic dog P.I. that he hires to help him track down Condu, is an intriguing character, he simply isn’t enough to fill the void left by Herrera’s absence.

Still, Bloodsucker’s Handbook is an intriguing effort, and most assuredly the better sort of weird indie effort. I do think that the subsequent prequel grows a tad too ambitious and loses sight of what made the original film work; but nonetheless, I do hope that director Mark Beal continues this series and develops the unusual world it is set in… especially if he intends to continue the trend of including a token anthropomorphic animal who talks like a hardened noir character in every movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… despite the low quality Beal has shaped surrealistic tackiness into a thrilling dark horror film experience, probably most prudently undertaken with some absinthe on hand.”–Bradley Gibson, Film Threat (DVD)

CAPSULE: ODISSEA DELLA MORTE (2018)

AKA Valley of the Rats; Odyssey of Death

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Vince D’Amato

FEATURING: Jesse Onocalla, Momona Komagata, Lynne Lowry,  Tristan Risk

PLOT: A man has rented a limousine and travels around town talking with his associates as he tries to figure out who killed his girlfriend.

Still from Odissea Della Morte (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Amidst all the random shots of walking around, limo-bound conversations, and pseudo-BDSM, there is a quiet aura of nothingness going on. As there is virtually nothing doing in this movie, there is virtually nothing weird about it.

COMMENTS: With money, generally, comes a modicum of competence when it comes to filmmaking. The middle-to-big-budget movie you watch may not be particularly entertaining, but it’s at least technically well done. But low budget films are odd beasts. Some cost as much as a used economy car, and are unceasingly entertaining. Others, costing as much as a higher-end mid-budget sedan, are unceasingly tedious. To what end do I type all this garbled verbiage? My reason is twofold. First, I am somewhat frantically trying to think of what to write about Vince D’Amato’s Odissea Della Morte (translation probably not needed). Second, having begun the review in this stylistic manner, it occurs to me that it’s a fairly decent textual translation of Odissea‘s cinematic style.

Jesse (Jesse Onocalla) rides around in a limo, much to his friends’ bemusement, going on a bender while interviewing various people who saw his girlfriend (I don’t remember her name, it doesn’t matter) before she was murdered. While chewing over various evils of modern society in this mobile backdrop, various nonentities enter and exit the vehicle and make various unimportant observations. Intercutting these vignettes are shots of largely naked, occasionally gothed-out women doing ambiguously sexy things and photographing each other until the whole movie becomes this weird (!) and tedious dream thing that culminates in what is perhaps a twist.

I hope my record of reviews can attest to the fact that I am generally a very patient viewer who is eager to give every movie the fairest shake possible. The closest I’ve ever gotten to “cheating” for this website is with this movie. I did watch it, all of it, and even have some notes to prove I paid attention for portions of it. However, when your film’s two highlights are a brief conversation with an affable limo driver and some blandly cryptic remarks from an actress most famous for a small part in a movie known mostly for its theme song by David Bowie, your film is probably doomed, and no amount of T&A, canted angles, and color-to-black-and-white shifts can obscure that.

Forgive me, there was a third highlight: an aura of menace, a tied up woman threatened with a knife, and some beardo shouting, “I AM THE CITY!” in a way that made Jack Skellington‘s declaration of pumpkin-kingship seem altogether Shakespearean by comparison. That gave me a chuckle.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a love letter to the works of David Cronenberg and Jess Franco set to [D’Amato’s] unique take on the giallo film.”–Film Bizarro

CAPSULE: THE VELOCIPASTOR (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Brendan Steere

FEATURING: Greg Cohan, Alyssa Kempinski, Daniel Steere

PLOT: During a crisis of faith, Pastor Jones travels to China where he is cursed by an ancient dinosaur tooth; his newly found powers, and his crusade for righteousness, attract the attention of an international drug cartel with unlikely motives.

Still from The VelociPastor (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Steere’s campy intentions are clear throughout, and so it can’t fall into the “” category. The narrative is silly, the acting is silly, the effects are silly, and the priest is a were-velociraptor (which is silly). This movie feels like an audition video to join the production team.

COMMENTS: “Wild with fear, the Trachodon hurries toward the water. But its fat, hulking body can only move slowly. In two leaps, the King of Tyrants lands on its back. The giant’s head seems split apart as the great mouth opens and clamps shut on the Duckbill’s neck. The dagger-teeth crunch through bones and flesh like shears cutting paper. There is frantic thrashing for a time as the colossal beasts roll into the slippery muck. Then the Trachodon lies still. Its head hangs loosely, almost severed from the neck by six-inch teeth.” 1

There is a telling scene in The VelociPastor that distills the two things to bear in mind when (for whatever reason) you find yourself watching it. Attempting to learn about his condition, Pastor Doug Jones reads up on dinosaurs using Roy Chapman Andrew’s book, “All About Dinosaurs.” Originally published in 1953 (and read by yours truly in his more intellectual childhood days), this volume has absolutely nothing to say about velociraptors. When Doug’s mentor walks into the room to check on him, he covers the dinosaur book with the Bible, pretending to read that instead.

But as to those two things I mentioned: The VelociPastor is silly and pointless. I make no complaint that I’m out five bucks having rented this; at least its 70-minute runtime made it a quick bit of silliness. And, indeed, there were some funny lines. Coming to terms with his condition (through which, in case my oblique references and the title didn’t clue you in, he transforms into a velociraptor when angered), Pastor Jones talks to a hooker (who is, of course, working her way through law school), who encourages him to embrace his curse as a gift to help him rid the world of scum. She provides the caveat, “I know nothing about God.” He rejoins, “And I know nothing about dinosaurs.”.

The opening informational paragraph has been included to flesh out this review, as there isn’t much to say. VelociPastor is cute, but not great; it’s clever, but not very; and it’s good natured, but perhaps not worth $5 for 70-minutes. Some, I suspect, may have been hopeful (or fearful) that The VelociPastor might be nominated for Apocrypha status. Unfortunately, Brendan Steere has only proven that he can carry a premise most of the way through a minimal runtime. But I do feel I am on the hook for this franchise, I suppose: the promise of interminable, possible sequels concludes this ninja/samurai/drug-cartel/Catholic Church(?)/Methodist Church(?)/dinosaur saga. Frankly, I’m more curious as to whether the hooker finishes her degree.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…pure ridiculousness on every level…  a bonkers film that never stops entertaining.”–Bobby Lepire, Film Threat (contemporaneous)