Tag Archives: Microbudget

366 UNDERGROUND: THE SUDBURY DEVIL (2023)

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The Sudbury Devil can be rented or purchased on-demand.

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Rakich

FEATURING: Benton Guinness, , Josh Popa, Matthew Van Gessell, Kendra Unique

PLOT: In 1678, 2 years after King Philip’s War, two Puritan witch hunters from Boston, John Fletcher (Guinness) and Josiah Cutting (Popa), are sent to a town in the Massachusetts sticks to investigate allegations of witchcraft and deviltry in the nearby woods by Isaac Goodenow (Van Guessel), where they encounter Patience Gavett (Gregg) and her companion Flora (Unique).

Still from "The Sudbury Devil" (2023)

COMMENTS: American folk horror is an established genre in literature, but it hasn’t quite made the jump to movies or television to the extent that its British cousins have. Outside of adaptations of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works (“The House of the Seven Gables”, “Young Goodman Brown” to name a couple), ‘s Eyes of Fire is probably the film people would point to, along with Ravenous and The Witch.1

The Sudbury Devil is a good addition to that slim lineup, and even more impressive for accomplishing what it does on its budget; of the films mentioned, it’s certainly the one that qualifies as microbudgeted, and it makes the most of its available resources.

If you mashed up A Field in England with Ravenous and The Witch,  you’d get The Sudbury Devil. It’s more than apparent that director/writer Rakich is a hardcore fan of the aforementioned films, and it’s to his and his cast and crew’s credit to have produced a film which goes further than its predecessors, as proper Hellspawn should.

Director/writer/actor Andrew Rakich is known for his Atun-Shei YouTube page, where he utilizes his knowledge and interest in history—he was a ‘living historian’ at Gettysburg National Military Park and a New Orleans tour guide—to produce work that amuses and informs. Starting from highlighting sites and events in New Orleans, he progressed to a Civil War series, “Checkmate, Lincolnites!”, which takes on the mythology of the South’s “Lost Cause” propaganda in entertaining fashion. Entertaining here means comedic, which makes sense; hard and unflattering truths tend to be accepted easier if there’s a laugh or joke involved, and once hooked, thinking can begin (ask filmmaker .) The same effect can be obtained by replacing laughs and jokes with dread and horror in Sudbury (although there is a touch of black humor in what the filmmakers describe as a “mischievous indictment of America’s foundational rot”).

As Sudbury lays it out, hypocrisy is at the heart of that rot. The justification of King Phillip’s War, which eradicated much of the indigenous population of New England, still weighs heavily on Fletcher in his nightmares. The “piety” of Cutting and Reverend Russell allows their disdain of women (specifically Patience). Russell supports  Mosley’s Company and the war, despite actively avoiding any involvement in it. Cutting dsiplays racism towards the original inhabitants of the land and towards Flora, despite his attraction.

While sex has always been a part of folk horror, it’s usually presented obliquely rather than directly. Sudbury puts it upfront: polyamory, homoeroticism, masturbation, gender-shifting, and even a climatic double penetration (although not in the way that you might expect.) Sex and sexual freedom is usually presented as aligned with devilry in folk horror, though Sudbury subverts that expectation.

In that sense, Sudbury is not only folk horror, but also a subset of what could be termed ‘Woke Horror’ (Get Out, Us, Harvest Lake, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster). This vein of film includes the works of , ‘s The People Under the Stairs (1991), and others; a long established tradition, so ‘Woke Horror’ isn’t such a new thing after all.

The Sudbury Devil will be available on VOD today, December 21—in time for Xmas!— on Rakich’s website, Atun-Shei Films. Other related work that may help in understanding the nuances of the film (King Phillip’ War, Sudbury area history, and specifics in the film) can be viewed there and on YouTube, as well as the webseries Checkmate, Lincolnites and The Witchfinder General, a lighter look at Puritanism. A physical media release may also happen sometime in 2024.

A note of interest for those literary horror aficionados who notice the name Tabitha King as an executive producer: yes, it is that Tabitha King (novelist and wife of an obscure writer named Stephen King). As Rakich explained in the Pod 366 interview, she is also a noted genealogist and had heard about the production and contributed to it.

Listen to our interview with Andrew Rakich and producer Veronika Payton about The Sudbury Devil.

  1. I’m certain there will be “That Guy” who pops in with some titles not named. That’s a protracted discussion for another time, after Vol. 2 of “All the Haunts Be Ours” is released… ↩︎

CAPSULE: COSMIC DISCO DETECTIVE RENE (2023)

AKA Cosmic Disco Detective Rene: The Mystery of the Immortal Time Travelers; Cosmic Disco Detective Rene: The Secret Society for Slow Romance 2

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Cosmic Disco Detective Rene can be rented on Vimeo until 9/14.

DIRECTED BY: Sujewa Ekanayake

FEATURING: Sujewa Ekanayake, Alia Lorae, Natalie Osborne, Genoveva Rossi

PLOT: Cosmic Disco Detective Rene is hired to investigate the light bridges cutting through the Brooklyn skyline while his lady friend Allyson considers various potential film projects.

Still from Cosmic Disco Detective Rene: The Mystery of the Immortal Time Travelers (2023)

COMMENTS: Sujewa Ekanayake’s film tackles three topics simultaneously:

  • The current state and future prospects of independent and underground cinema, particularly in the context of New York City
  • Cosmic Detective work, focusing on a case involving immortal time travelers
  • Allyson’s butt, which is “looking really good right now.”

The particulars of the final item I will hold off on for the time being to allow more thorough discussion of the first two items which are the primary focus of Cosmic Disco Detective Rene (though considering the tone of this film, it would not surprise me if Ekanayake & Co. opted for a further analysis of the third topic). Join me now as I attempt the inadvisable and review the case results from the titular Cosmic Detective.

Ekanayake hangs his cinematic musings on a delightfully flimsy pretext: a government agent asks that he determine the motives of “immortal time travelers” who are passing through contemporary Brooklyn, hopefully so as to stave off the possibility of the US government sanctioning a nuclear attack on the “light bridges” used by these entities. That’s enough plot. Possibly, even, enough review. There are two disarming sequences in Cosmic Disco Detective Rene which make me question this exercise. First, I am presumably viewing this film through my “imperialist” lens, and as such, I will be bringing my own pre-existing biases and hang-ups to this process. (I will politely disagree with the accusation, and suggest I’d be happy to discuss the issue with the filmmaker.) This ties in with the second point: that each movie should be judged on its intentions.

Sujewa (if I may), that’s how I roll. While definitions of “entertainment” can, and should, vary, every film should divert the mind in some manner. This can be for motives as basic as simple amusement, or more ambitiously, to trigger entirely new chains of thought and reaction in the mind of the beholder. As Rene absorbs his surroundings, occasionally tuning in to the “Cosmic Disco” beneath it all—a simple process: place your left hand near your left ear, with that hand’s pointer and index fingers raised upwards—potential motives for the travelers emerge. (One of my favorites concerns dangerous future-bears.) Every now and again, socio-political asides spike the easy-breezy atmosphere, which prompted me to consider some of my notions. I have no doubt that is Ekanayake’s intention.

Cosmic Disco Detective Rene is akin to a train ride of semi-focused discussion while watching dozens of potential plot-lines and stories passing by the window. I give nothing away when I tell you that Rene solves the case; New York City is not leveled by nuclear weapons. And while that’s partially the point—otherwise this movie would not have its (primary) title—the real Cosmic Disco detective work is the ideas triggered whilst traveling along this nonsensical plot structure. If you want a linear narrative, think twice before popping this on-screen; but if you want some affably catalyzed food for thought about storytelling, breaking through preconceptions, and the nature of cinema—as well as plenty of shots of Allyson’s butt—then you should consider tapping into the Cosmic Disco and giving this film a look.

See also our Pod 366 interview with the director.

Addendum: audio review for film enthusiasts who prefer audio reviews.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS (2022)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Olivia Graves, Wes Tank, Doug Mancheski, Luis Rico

PLOT: Somewhere in the Frozen Northland, successful Applejack salesman and functioning alcoholic Jean Kayak loses his business in a tragic disaster and rebuilds his life to become legendary fur-trapper Jean Kayak, ultimate foe to… hundreds of beavers!

Still from Hundreds of Beavers (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Like its predecessor Lake Michigan Monster (2019), Hundreds of Beavers is wildly inventive visually. But Beavers surpasses Monster storywise, layering multiple influences and keeping the gags flowing, all supporting the plot while remaining funny from start to end credits.

COMMENTS: When Hundreds of Beavers screened at the Kansas City FilmFest International, my initial reaction, posted to my Facebook page just after watching, was basically three words. I’ll only put in initials here. They won’t be too hard to figure out:

H. F. S. !!

Since it won the honor of Best Narrative Feature at KCFF, it appears there were at least several others who agreed with that assessment.

The new film from the drunks who brought us Lake Michigan Monster, Beavers is 10x better than it’s predecessor—and that was already pretty damn good. It utilizes the same basic aesthetic, but leans hard into silent film (though there are sound effects, and a rousing musical number that kicks things off at the start).

After that musical number (written by Chris Ryan & Wayne Tews) protagonist Jean Kayak loses everything, and starts over. He learns (the hard way, of course) to hunt local critters for food, and to trade with “the Merchant” (Doug Mancheski), who has a lovely daughter (“the Furrier,” Olivia Graves). But the Merchant will not be satisfied with poor white trash taking his daughter’s hand; he prefers the successful “Trapper” (Wes Tank). But the Furrier has eyes for Jean, of course. The Trapper takes Jean under his wing and teaches him the skills to pay the bills; but then the Merchant sets a price for his daughter’s hand…

Three guesses as to what it is.

Guy Maddin gets mentioned quite a lot when discussing this crew, since his work also utilizes most of the conventions of silent film, and describing the movie(s) as “Guy Maddin on a serious bender” is cute shorthand. But the influences here are numerous: not only Maddin, but The American Astronaut, 30s and 40s animation (Fleischer Brothers and Looney Tunes, especially the Roadrunner cartoons), Abbott and Costello, and Matt Stone (though not as smutty as “South Park”; more in line with Cannibal: The Musical), Czech artists like and (also heavily influenced by silents), and old school video games. But the defining touch is having every animal depicted in the film played by costumed actors in oversized heads, adding a mascot/furry vibe to the action.

Ryland Brickson Cole Tews as Jean Kayak gives a performance that’s equal parts and , with esque elements (a short sequence of Jean and a box falling down a snowy hill with Jean occasionally falling in and out of the box amidst a lot of snow). The rest of the cast is equally game. The unsung heroes are the animal performers.

It’s a goofy, endless amount of silliness, backed by hi-tech with a low-fi feel that feels fresher than any other comedy seen since… well, since Lake Michigan Monster. Just when you think it couldn’t get more absurd and entertaining, it adds another layer. Not to spoil the surprises here, but amidst a 19th century winter survival tale, I would have never expected a gag based on Bond movies, or for it to work as well as it does.

I laughed my ass off loudly throughout the run of the film. You can ask the filmmakers.

As I stated earlier: H. F. S. !!

Hundreds of Beavers is currently on the festival circuit (the next screenings are July 28 and 31 at Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal). Plans for a Blu-ray release are already underway.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…further proof that Wisconsin produces the strangest independent movies in the country. Cheslik has created an unexpected visionary work that will rip you a new perspective on classic cinematic art. It is exciting in ways you cannot imagine and must be seen to be believed.”–Michael Talbot-Haynes, Film Threat (festival screening)

Hundreds of Beavers Facebook page

Mike Cheslik, Luis Rico, Wayne Tews @Kansas City FilmFest International, March 2023.

 

CAPSULE: THE DREAMS OF RENE SENDAM (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Joshua Zev Nathan

FEATURING: Jake Smith, Sophia Savage, Darwin Luján, Becca Huerter

PLOT: A socially awkward poetry student pursues relationships with classmates which mix up in his mind with his dreams.

Still from The Dreams of Rene Sendam (2022)

COMMENTS: Microbudget features require a different set of expectations from the viewer. Watching and appreciating them is a learned skill, not something that comes naturally to modern filmgoers accustomed to plots which are advanced by CGI as much as dialogue. Movies like The Dreams of Rene Sendam, therefore, aim at a niche audience. You need to be able to handle a minimalist presentation and develop an appreciation for what filmmakers can accomplish with little means. These films offer their audiences not spectacle and diversion, but authenticity and passion. Even when they don’t entirely succeed, I often develop a soft spot for them simply because they have more personality than big budget, focus-grouped features developed with corporate blandness. Such is the case with The Dreams of Rene Sendam.

Rene Sendam is a character study/romance infused with the spirit of poetry—in the wispy, hazy, undergraduate free verse mode. The main character is a poetry student, trying to pick up other poetry students in poetry class while we hear lectures and verses from a poetry professor. Unfortunately Rene, while quietly handsome and a sensitive soul, is so shy and awkward that he gives off creepy stalker vibes. His only friend is religious zealot Jim (Darwin Luján, who gives the film’s best performance, taking a word association game to apocalyptic lengths). As Rene wanders through the film writing poetry, he searches for what he really wants—love—as occasional surprising bouts of nudity and sex interrupt the proceedings.

Despite featuring in the title, Rene’s dreams aren’t much integrated into the film’s artistic framework. The fact that he sometimes (rarely) has vivid dreams that we are privy to is just a character trait, like bushy eyebrows or a love of houseplants. Although the logline brags that Rene’s “dream world threatens to rupture reality and put his friend’s life in danger,” the unruptured reality is that the simple love story that the script wants to tell could easily be rewritten to omit the brief flights of fantasy without changing anything. Unlike a low-budget feature like Strawberry Mansion, the microbudgeted Rene Sendam has no money to create dream sequences, so we get simple hallucinations like dinner served on a beach. This movie’s dreams are so like its realities that there’s little ambiguity to the proceedings.

Like its protagonist, Rene Sendam always has good intentions, even if it doesn’t always deliver on them. To its credit, its dramatic scenarios have enough variation to keep you reasonably engaged. Ultimately, however, the film lacks the budget to realize its purposelessness.

Trivia/disclosure: a 366 Weird Movies writer worked as crew on this movie and appears as an extra. I was not aware of this fact until after it had been selected for review. It is available for purchase, or try it for free on Tubi.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While it doesn’t all work and is a bit too ambiguous for its own good, the extremely adult unrated drama ‘The Dreams of Rene Sendam’ gets points for sheer ambition.”–Russ Simmons, KKFI (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ZAPPER! (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Christoper James Taylor, Skye Armenta, Nick Gatsby

PLOT: Godlike beings direct banana-wielding “zappers” in a game to recover pieces of a puzzle in order to access a mystical skateboard.

Scene from ZAPPER! (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It’s low, low budget makes it a long shot, but ZAPPER! is a movie best represented by a scene where a hippie in a ski mask fires a banana laser at a flying moose head. That’s enough to keep it in the game.

COMMENTS: Let’s be upfront here: ZAPPER! was inspired by, sponsored by, and endorsed by LSD. It includes characters named “Lucy” and “Tabs.” The movie’s only bar only serves “electric kool aid.” The opening titles warn “The trip you are about to embark on contains sequences of flashing lights.” And at one point a guy (played by director Gatsby) takes a dropper full of blue liquid and drips it onto the perforated squares of a Grateful Dead dancing bear blotter, then drops it on his tongue. So ZAPPER! is not exactly subtle about its lysergic origins.

Of course, even without those nods to acid culture, you might have detected some psychedelic influence from the constant colored kaleidoscopic filters covering everything on the screen. While ZAPPER!  incorporates actors and a rather wild script, all the other cinematic elements take a back seat to the visuals. Nearly every frame of film has some sort of color filter applied to it, cycling through every shade of the rainbow, sometimes within a couple seconds. Layered on top of that obsessive chromatic fiddling you’ll see digital snow, superimposed images, snatches of animation, animated figures painted on live action (at one point “Persistence of Memory” melted clocks drift across the screen), lavish green screen backdrops, actual lava lamps and black lights, and local psychedelic graffiti incorporated into the imagery. The “game master” scenes, shot in simple black and white, provide short breaks for your tired eyes. The visual twists are constant: wearisome for some, exhilarating for others, but in either case offered with tremendous love and dedication.

All of this trickery is desperately needed, because otherwise the film is just a glorified home movie. At times, the lack of production value peeks through the psychedelic overlay: you can become painfully aware of the bananas, lunchboxes and toy gun props, the public spaces and apartment locations. Acting is amateur, and Gatsby doesn’t turn the actors’ lack of glamour into an asset the way a would. The script is full of crazy ideas, which naturally don’t always work: in particular, a couple of times Gatsby deliberately shows the crew shooting the scene, which breaks the spell without adding anything thematically. Still, there is just barely enough structure to the story to keep it from totally floating off into a purple haze. ZAPPER! sells itself as a trip movie, and it is that, but it’s also a demo reel for Gatsby’s advanced design sensibilities, which have grown more lavish and assured since his microbudget debut My Neighbor Wants Me Dead. I could see him finding work as a visual effects specialist or credits sequence designer on bigger budget projects. If you’re dropping acid tonight, give ZAPPER! a spin; even if you’re not, if you’ve got a craving for cinematic adventures beyond the bounds of reality, this is a drug you might want to just say “yes” to.

ZAPPER! currently exists on Tubi and other free streaming platforms.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…exist[s] in the liminal space between needing psychedelic drugs to enjoy it and feeling like you are already half a carton of magic mushrooms on a wild trip… This may be just the wild hunt through acid-drenched technicolor weirdness you need.”–Benjamin Franz, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Thomas.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)