Tag Archives: Underground

366 UNDERGROUND: EMESIS BLUE (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Chad Payne

FEATURING: Voces of “Jazzyjoeyjr,” Chad Payne

PLOT: A soldier discovers a conspiracy involving respawning and a valium-esque drug that leads him to question the nature of his reality as he ventures through a series of violent encounters.

Still from Emesis Blue (2023)

COMMENTS: Several months back, we featured a Saturday Short based on characters from the combat-oriented “Team Fortress 2” video game universe. In 2012, the Team Fortress released a program called Source Filmmaker (SFM) that allowed users to create animations using game assets (characters, objects, environments, animations, maps, sound clips, physics rules) from their library, with the ability to adjust angles and lighting or add their own soundtracks. The gaming community responded by creating scads of short videos, usually absurd, featuring game characters like Heavy (a type) or the masked Spy turning invisible, going on missions to retrieve baby toys, or partying with Thomas the Tank engine. It was only a matter of time until someone sat down with the now decades-old (and reportedly clunky-to-use) software to grind out a feature-length film. What no one expected was that this trailblazing work would be a deeply weird psychological thriller—and passable entertainment for people (like your present reviewer) with no firsthand knowledge of the game.

Non-TMF2 players can orient themselves with this first-person-shooter-as-horror-movie-film-noir world through knowledge of the basic motifs of video games. We deduce that “Team Fortress” is played in combat between two teams, and that characters respawn when they die. Respawning is, in fact, a major plot point. The movie’s gaming-derived premise—what if the real world military-industrial complex developed a technology that could literally “respawn” soldiers on the battlefield?—suggests a truly hellish dystopia. After some introductory investigatory plot suggesting a wide-ranging conspiracy, Emesis Blue throws its main characters—the constantly and incongruously helmeted “Soldier” and the dour Teutonic “Medic”—through a dungeon crawl where they enter one infernal room after another to fight one infernal enemy after another, spiked with revelations about an elaborate ongoing plot involving, among other things, the kidnapping of a politician who may be partially responsible for the flawed respawning technology. The numerous fight scenes play quite well; this is, after all, a combat game. The characters lack expressiveness, but context can do a surprising job of turning an essentially blank expression into a look of uncomprehending fear. The video’s look is unceasingly dark, almost all shadowy interiors, with most of the outdoor scenes taking place during nocturnal downpours. On top of the sequential antagonists and masked torturers (led, perhaps, by a mysterious boss in a plague mask), there are zombies and other monsters, a briefcase MacGuffin (that kind of goes nowhere), and references to ‘s M and to The Shining, among other films. The unceasingly strange events all seem to result either from respawn errors, hallucinations caused by the title drug, or possibly a combination of the twain.

I understand that there are multiple Easter eggs to enjoy if your familiar with the Team Fortress and its characters. As for me, I was sometimes confused as to who was who, incorrectly assuming, for example, that “Spy” was a reskinned doppelganger of “Medic.” But Emesis Blue is by all accounts a non-canonical Team Fortress movie occurring in an independent alternate reality, and I am proof that it can be viewed and (reasonably) well understood by people with no background in the game (per Reddit, those thoroughly familiar with Fortress can be equally baffled by Emesis Blue‘s plot). The clues to unraveling Emesis‘ riddles, if they exist, are to be found within the story itself.

Obviously, this project was made with a particular audience in mind, and most of them eat it up. There are dozens of r/tf2 threads discussing the film (and fan theories as to what the hell the plot is all about), as well as an explanatory video on YouTube that’s longer than the feature itself. But to be honest, Emesis Blue is not that great as a movie. It’s dreary and repetitive, which can be blamed on the limited palette afforded by the SFM technology. Psychological thriller is perhaps too ambitious a genre to tackle in director Chad Payne’s first time out; the balance between ambiguity and explanation lists too far in the former hemisphere, and too many of the story’s rabbit holes end in cul-de-sacs. But what is unquestionably great about Emesis Blue is that it’s a movie at all: that’s right, it’s an honest-to-God, fully-plotted feature film made in video game editing software, and it’s more entertaining than a handful of movies released this year by major studios. Neither Red nor Blue may triumph in this phantasmagorical game of Capture the Flag, but Payne amasses a virtual shelf full of achievements.

Emesis Blue can be watched for free on YouTube.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you want a film that relishes in not just mystery but the macabre and horror of things you can’t or shouldn’t even begin to comprehend, there is one I can recommend… it gives off a ghastly mood, and you are drawn in by its clever use of cinematography and cryptic shots that can foreshadow or enhance the theme, and the weird, almost out-of-nowhere scenes that only raise more questions.”–Rasec Ventura, The Gothic Times (Newspaper of New Jersey City University) (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “anonymous,” who suggested it was a “Weird one to suggest…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

MIKE MCCARTHY/JMM – A (SOMEWHAT LENGTHY) PRIMER

Mike McCarthy – or JMM?

Twins?

Actually, both are one and the same. When John Michael McCarthy started in comics, he branded himself with the JMM logo. And if you’ve seen JMM’s work either in comics or movies, your impression is probably:

GIRLS! (Nudity!!)

GARAGE! (Rock and aesthetic)

GARISH! (look, plotting, dialog, attitude)

ELVISNESS!

Basically, what was/is considered to be the rudiments of American pop culture of the 20th Century. If you really want to get into subtopics, specifically Southern American Pop Culture, including the films of David Friedman, early , and lots of others I can’t begin to list…

JMM started in the late 80’s/early 90s, just ahead of the Nu Garage/Greaser/Glam Explosion* of the late 90s, which he and his work helped spread.

[* – NOT an official genre term]

McCarthy’s pinnacle (?) was possibly Superstarlet A.D., which was picked up for distribution by in 2000, making it the easiest of his films to find. After that… that Garage/Greaseball/Glam Boom slowed down and got overshadowed by Whatever New Thing was current. And although McCarthy got notice and acclaim overseas, back home he was just what was called a “cult figure”; an interesting but obscure branch of underground film. Meanwhile, others in the Memphis film scene broke through to studio interest, and money.

As McCarthy has stated himself, as a mantra: “My work is UNPOPULAR“.

I’ve long wondered why. Full disclosure: I was a crew-member on Superstarlet A.D. for the last half of shooting. But I was a fan of McCarthy’s before that, having seen The Sore Losers in Kansas City during the “Vice Parties” tour. My San Francisco roommate was a fan of Russ Meyer, which is how I started discovering that particular corner of film. So when an opportunity came to check out that type of filmmaking, I jumped right in—but that’s another story for another time…

Afterwards, I delved more into McCarthy’s work, and tried to keep an eye on what he was up to. If there’s a genre label for McCarthy/JMM, it’s “Redneck Art-house.” He remarks in the Blu-ray commentary for Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis that a reviewer once referred to him (and the film) as a “Pawnshop .” Both terms sound derisive, initially; but they’re both on-the-nose and correct, and not in a bad way.

McCarthy’s work follows two distinct paths:

JMM comix adaptations. McCarthy’s lo-fi versions of his own personal Cinematic Universe: Damselvis (1994), The Sore Losers (1997), and Superstarlet A.D. (2000) fit in here, along with his comix “Cadavera”, “SuperSexxx”, and “Bang Gang.”

Mike McCarthy graphic novel adaptations. These include features Continue reading MIKE MCCARTHY/JMM – A (SOMEWHAT LENGTHY) PRIMER

366 UNDERGROUND: TRIPLE TROUBLE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Homer Flynn, The Residents

FEATURING: Dustin York

PLOT: After a crisis of faith, a priest (and son of a deceased member of the Residents) becomes a plumber and goes insane as he is consumed by his theory about a fungus-led conspiracy.

Still from Triple Trouble (2022)

COMMENTS: “Junior” is an ex-ponytailed skateboarding priest who’s lost his faith and become a plumber. His mom just died. His only friend is a malfunctioning A.I. drone. He finds semen-like fungus clogging up every drain he services. He sometimes sees the ghost of his dead father, a former lead singer of the Residents. From his cell phone, the news blares about a Night of the Living Dead style plague striking white people in prisons and meat-packing plants. So his life is pretty full. His main hobby is theorizing about the omnipresent fungus and its possible lunar origins, but Junior obsesses over many things: a kidnapping from his past, a local radio tower, the nice Wiccan girl he has a crush on, the unusual number of white vans in his neighborhood, and the Residents’ unfinished movie “Vileness Fats.” And every now and then he finds himself drawn into short dream sequences featuring dancing eyeball-headed men.

Yes, the Residents’ Triple Trouble lays a strong claim to weirdness, as one would expect from a movie proffered by a band fronted by giant eyeballs. A lot of the experimental video work, featuring spinning backdrops and the mini video-art dream sequences, is cool. Scraggly Dustin York does fine enough, acting most of the time alongside disembodied voices (partly a function of the pandemic-era shooting schedule). But, unfortunately, the project as a whole never comes together, or goes sideways in a truly interesting manner. It’s inspired by a combination of lockdown paranoia and Residents nostalgia, but nothing coheres thematically; its 90 minutes don’t seem to be about anything much in particular. The plot eventually unwinds as a portrait of a delusional schizophrenic, an approach which feels lazy and almost anti-cathartic. (In another disappointment, there’s little actual Residents music on the soundtrack; no full-fledged songs, just snippets of the kind of incidental accompaniment you’d find in any similar indie project.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Triple Trouble is aimed at an audience who are already fans of the band—it’s obviously full of in-jokes and references your reviewer missed (along with a few he caught). Whether the resulting concoction intrigues the novice enough to hunt down more from the Residents in a vain quest to understand what it all means will vary from person to person.

To a large extent, the backstory behind the making of Triple Trouble is more interesting than the finished project (as well as helping to explain its air of, um, unevenness.) Director and Residents co-founder/current spokesman Homer Flynn embeds a lot of the band’s lore into this project, starting with both references to and actual footage from “Vileness Fats.” “Fats” was an elaborate unfinished avant-garde video project about one-armed dwarfs, conjoined twins, and dirty laundry, shot on sets aping The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which the band worked on for four years in the mid-1970s, shooting fourteen hours of footage before abandoning it to the dustbin. Triple Trouble also rests on the bones of Double Trouble, a planned Residents feature which began shooting in 2016, which shut down in 2019 after the death of Gerri Lawler (who plays Junior’s mother). The color flashback footage in Triple Trouble featuring Junior as a priest comes from that half-completed film. Perhaps sensing that working for years on unfinished projects was getting them nowhere, the Residents shot the remaining material that makes up Triple Trouble in ten days. So if Triple Trouble seems a little cobbled-together, Residents fans can at least rejoice that the stars finally aligned for long enough to bring a movie to completion.

The 2023 Blu-ray offers some interesting supplements. There are four deleted scenes (one of which should have been included in the film, as it outlines Junior’s conspiracy theory in relatively lucid detail) and a blooper. It also includes trailers for Triple Trouble, the original teaser for Double Trouble, and a promo for the Residents’ performance of “God in 3 Persons Live.” The disc sports a reel of unused stop-motion animated footage from “Vileness Fats” (I don’t know whether this has appeared elsewhere). The most significant extra is the 17-minute long “Vileness Fats Concentrate,” a short which gives you a good sense of the pretentious, unhinged wackiness that the unfinished project might have been. “Concentrate” had been released before, but presumably this 2022 “remaster” is higher quality. Residents completists will obviously be all over this like fungus on a drainpipe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If all this sounds profoundly weird – as well as weirdly profound – that’s because it is. The Residents wouldn’t have it any other way. Don’t miss it!”–Nicole V. Gagné, A Shaded View of Fashion

CAPSULE: DAMSELVIS, DAUGHTER OF HELVIS (1994)

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DIRECTED BY: John Michael McCarthy

FEATURING: Sherry Lynn Garris, Adimu Ajanaku

PLOT: Country girl Ilsa discovers she is actually the daughter of the dead god Helvis, and travels to the pyramid in Memphis to resurrect him, while Black Jesus races to stop her.

Still from Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis (1994)

COMMENTS: In the first few minutes, standing in a muddy Mississippi field, Black Jesus shoots one of his followers in the head and immediately resurrects him. And so begins Damselvis: a schizophrenic mix of Southern Gothic, grindhouse shocks, and rockabilly culture shot through a distinctively kitsch-surreal lens. It also begins the wild extended universe of John Michael McCarthy (or JMM, as he sometimes styles himself).

Damselvis is a simple hero’s journey (complete with a closing epigram from “Joseph Cambelvis”). Young Ilsa discovers her divine heritage as Damselvis and goes on a quest to fulfill her destiny. There is an unexpectedly serious theme about paganesque iconography (represented by Elvis, the chief deity of the pop culture pantheon) replacing the role of Christianity in American culture (a trend McCarthy celebrates); in other words, how rock n’ roll became bigger than Jesus. But it’s all done in a wacky, surreally comic sexploitation style: the journey is far more important than the destination. You keep watching for the abundant nudity (including a lesbian encounter in the woods), the campy biker violence, and the goofy supernaturalism, which climaxes with resurrected giant-eyeball Helvis emerging from his guitarcophagus to battle Black Jesus, who has transformed into a Rastafarian werewolf. You’re guaranteed never to have seen anything quite like this before (unless you’ve seen another JMM movie).

As a first outing, Damselvis‘ two-thousand dollar budget is painfully obvious. The camcorder photography gives it a Polaroid quality look. (Some cheap, lurid-yet-muted lighting and filters appear during the film’s more psychedelic moments to liven things up, but it still looks cheesy as hell.) The sound goes in and out (closed captions are recommended, though sometimes even they read “inaudible”). Locations are remote fields, back roads, junkyards, attics, cheap diners, and abandoned houses in Mississippi and/or Tennessee (there’s also one surreptitious shoot at a cool waterfall, and a brief stint inside the Egyptology display at the University of Memphis). Makeup is ridiculous. The actors are clearly amateurs winging it. The soundtrack is raucous lo-fi psychobilly from local Memphis bands (including JMM’s own Rockroaches). The highest production value goes into Damselvis’ costume: all angel-white, consisting of a vest with long fringes (reminiscence of a Vegas-era Elvis jumpsuit), thigh-high lace-up boots, and hot pants. This aesthetic is charming to some, and certainly fits the film’s redneck surrealist atmosphere, but I would argue JMM’s future shot-on-film efforts benefit enormously from the infusion of a few extra thousand bucks.

Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis was a surprise Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome (via shot-on-video specialist partner-label Saturn’s Core). Given its shot-on-video provenance, the movie’s audiovisual quality is awful, including occasional VHS tracking errors. That’s as it should be; it’s key to the movie’s DIY authenticity. Since it’s under the Vinegar imprint, the disc includes a ton of special features, including a commentary from and interview with the director, a reel of behind-the-scenes footage that’s almost twice as long as the movie itself, JMM reading from his own “adult” comix (including the original “Damselvis”), footage of a Helvis-themed punk concert in Memphis, and trailers for other sleazily weird Saturn’s Core releases. JMM recently self-released his third film, The Sore Losers (1997), on Blu-ray, but we’re praying to Helvis to see his second, the long-unavailable Teenage Tupelo (1996), resurrected soon.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an utterly bizarre but completely enjoyable sixty-three minutes of rock n roll craziness… an odd mix of parody, black comedy, exploitation and overall cult movie strangeness.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

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.)