Phoenix FearCon 2014

Berkshire County (2014)

Rating: B+

Dir: Audrey Cummings
Star: Alysa King, Samora Smallwood, Bart Rochon, Madison Ferguson
a.k.a. Tormented

Kylie Winters (King) is already having a very bad day, after a video of her giving a boy a blow-job is making the rounds at school. Just another case, according to her mother, of Kylie not being willing to stand her ground, and letting herself get pushed around by others instead. She now has to spend Halloween night babysitting two young kids, in a remote mansion. But what’s going to happen there, will make being the laughing-stock at school seem like a picnic, as the house comes under siege by a trio of psychopaths, two adults and a child, in pig masks, who have opted to ignore the “treat” part of proceedings, and are hell-bent on adding Kylie and her charges to the collection of babysitters and the baby-sat, in the back of their van. If our heroine is going to get through the night, she’s going to have to dig down for some previously undiscovered strength of character and courage.

In terms of storyline, it’s fairly lean, drawing its main protagonists in quick yet effective strokes: once there’s the knock at the door, perhaps 25 minutes in, the movie largely doesn’t let up, with the heroine in varying degrees of peril over the next hour. However, what’s particularly impressive is the way Kylie still gets a genuine character arc, even as she’s running around the house, trying to hide, trapped in the back of the piggies’ van, etc. At the start she is, to be frank, a tad annoying – certainly the kind of easily manipulated person who, as my mother used to say, would jump off a cliff if other people did it. But, by the end, horrendously traumatic though the experience has been, she has become a much stronger character, capable of fending for herself to an extraordinary degree. The overall effect is somewhere between the original Halloween and Aliens; the latter is seen in the relationship between Kylie and the little girl, and in particular with a conversation about whether or not there are real monsters. “Not until high-school,” says the baby-sitter.

A couple of other aspects stood out: the film looks very, very luscious: it was shot using the Red digital cinema system, and is basically indistinguishable from a top of the line blockbuster, with very fluid camerawork, and is immensely assured for a debut feature. The house in which the first half takes part is amazing; if this is what homes in Canada (where this was filmed) are like, we’re moving there! To borrow a line from elsewhere, it’s a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, offering such a rabbit-warren of hiding place possibilities, that it’s almost a shame to leave behind for the second half. Not that it gets much less intense, and in total, you’ll find yourself frequently holding your breath, for close to an hour after things kick off. So you’ll get a good cardio workout, as well as everything else.

Blood Runs Black (2014)

Rating: B+

Dir: Andrew Muto
Star: Heather Muto, Kathy diStefano, Amanda Staggs, Abra Moore

“Pretty Penny” is an online celebrity, with a highly-popular series of videos in which she dispenses lifestyle tips to other wives and wannabe wives. Except, Penny in reality is Megan Butler (Muto), who is not married and, indeed, is trapped in a fairly dysfunctional relationship with her boyfriend. When he leaves on a business trip, the cracks in Megan’s sanity begin to spread: she starts hearing and seeing things, and becomes increasingly convinced that someone else is entering her apartment for an unknown purpose, but one that is not going to be positive. Yhings rapidly degenerate from there, as the tension of holding both Megan and her virtual persona together continues to increase. Research online indicates one possible explanation: a demonic entity is intent on possessing her, and she reaches out to an occult expert for help. However, the true explanation may be closer to home. Or it might not. Maybe.

Yep, this is me in severe spoiler avoidance mode, because it’s only in the final few minutes that the truth is revealed, and it’s a generally solid and satisfactory explanation: I can’t say much more than that. It’s set almost exclusively in Megan’s apartment, likely as much for reasons of spartan economy as anything [seems the director was, to all intents and purposes, the entire crew – seriously, his is the only name listed in the IMDb], but that helps generate a great sense of claustrophobia. That’s enhanced by the perpetual sense of something about to snap, best demonstrated when you watch an imploding Megan as she is trying to film a new Pretty Penny video: you just know something is going to happen, but have no idea exactly what it might be, or where it’s going to come from. There are a number of other scenes which stick in the mind due to their undeniably creepy nature: a shower scene which may be the best in a horror film since Psycho [I expect to see that quote on the DVD sleeve!], and another involving Megan’s discovery of another recording on her camera.

The lead actress gives an interesting performance. Initially, she comes off as more than a bit whiny – Chris rolled her eyes a couple of times in the early going – but this aspect soon disappears. You can’t help but sympathize with her as everything in her life falls apart, in a welter of paranoia and despite her desperate attempts to hold it together. The film drags you down with her, until the revelation of what, exactly, has been going on here, and it’s a textbook example of how a limited budget can be made to work for a film, rather than against it. Muto knows his limitations, but shows that you don’t need a huge budget or cast of thousands dozens, to put together a well-crafted scary story that crawls into the back of your brain, and stays there.

Circus of the Dead (2014)

Rating: B

Dir: Billy ‘Bloody Bill’ Pon
Star: Bill Oberst Jr., Parrish Randall, Ryan Clapp, Rusty Edwards

This starts with a quote: “Clowns can get away with murder.” This is then revealed to have been said by infamous clown (and serial killer) John Wayne Gacy, and much of what follows is apparently intended to demonstrate the truth of that. Papa Corn (Oberst) and his merry band of psychopaths are part of a travelling circus, which roams Texas: the clowns punish those they perceive as “sinning” in brutal fashion, which includes bringing them into the show and beating them mercilessly, while the crowd laughs and laughs… Papa takes a fancy to Donald Johnson (Randall) and his picture-perfect family, after they attend a performance, but following them home, he discovers things aren’t quite what they seem. Johnson’s wife is having an affair; that’s rapidly taken care of, and their two daughters abducted by the insane clown posse. Donald is also kidnapped, and with the fate of his children now entirely in Papa’s hands, has no option but to follow along with the resultant roaring rampage of rape and… a synonym for “murder” that begins with R. Work with me here, dammit!

Really, this film revolves around Oberst, and it’s fortunate that he hits it out of the park, performance-wise. Papa Corn is one of the great movie psychos of recent years, who can switch from being charming to barking insane in the blink of an eye: charming and yet utterly without any kind of moral compass or governor. It’s quite hypnotic to watch, and feels like being trapped in a box with a rattlesnake: you cannot let your guard drop for even a minute. It reminded me more than a little of The Hitcher: there’s no particular reason for Papa to take such an interest in pushing Donald over the edge, but the process is inexorable. Certainly, Johnson’s early complaints about life being mundane and boring take on a sick irony, as things take a turn which certainly could not be described in that way, yet is far from an improvement. Sometimes, mundane and boring are much more a blessing than we perhaps appreciate.

There are times when the film does go over the edge, in terms of apparently being shocking for the mere sake of it – a scene involving a baby is the most obvious slip into that category. It’s a shame, because that isn’t when the film is most effective: it’s much better, for example, when the completely deranged villain and his crew are interacting with the public, and as the quote mentioned says, getting away with murder. It’s this contrast which packs the greatest wallop, and for anyone who doesn’t suffer from coulrophobia – that’s the fear of clowns (never say we aren’t educational!) – you may well want to review your opinion after seeing this one.

Dorchester’s Revenge: The Return of Crinoline Head (2014)

Rating: C+

Dir: Tommy Faircloth
Star: Jason Vail, Christian James, Debbie Rochon, Kirsten Ray

The usage of the words “revenge” and “return” will clue you in to the fact that this is a sequel, to Faircloth’s 1995 film, Crinoline Head. Don’t feel bad if you missed it. I did too – and going by the 54 IMDb votes accumulated in almost two decades, so did most of Western civilization. Wisely, the film assumes absolutely no pre-knowledge and explains that Dorchester Stewar was a child who lived in a remote cabin with his mother, who died of heart failure. By the time he was found, the boy had been reduced to cannibalizing his dead Mom to survive, then spent the rest of his youth in a lunatic asylum before escaping, leading to the horrific murders of the original as his alter ego, Crinoline Head. Now, the sole survivor, Paul Donner (Vail) is a college teacher, and when his students are told to do a project on a local urban legend, David (James) opts to take on the topic of Crinoline Head, much against Donner’s wishes, and heads off to the site of the previous incident with a few classmates. Needless to say, it’s not long before the young, attractive cast are cashing in their chips.

I’m not sure hope much this should be taken as horror, and how much as comedy. The aspects that work best are probably those when the film isn’t taking itself seriously, such as the party of drag queens, who get lost on their way to a show, and end up falling into the clutches of Dorchester. But the movie’s biggest asset is Rochon, in her role as the trashiest piece of white trash you have ever seen. She chews up not just the scenery, but her dialogue as well, along with any other actors in the scene, and then spits them back out: it’s quite wonderful, a great change from the usual femme fatales she usually plays, and it’s a genuine shame when her character exits the movie. In contrast, the bits where the film is played more or less straight aren’t anywhere as effectuve. While the kills have some nice ideas, e.g. strangled with someone else’s intestines, the execution (as it were) generally comes off as flat and uninspired.

Technically, it’s a bit of a mixed bag: the images are nice and crisp, but there seemed to be some issues with the audio, which occasionally sounded muffled in places, such as during some of the early classroom scenes. Perhaps this is something which can be tweaked during the subsequent polish? Overall, it would probably have been better if Faircloth had decided whether he was making a parody or not, and gone full-bore in the appropriate direction. What you have here comes over as wanting to have a foot in both camps, and probably ends up being weaker in each department as a result. However, Rochon’s performance alone is worth your while, and any other entertainment you might get here, will just be icing on the cake.

House of Forbidden Secrets (2013)

Rating: C

Dir: Todd Sheets
Star: Antwoine Steele, Nicole Santorella, Lew Temple, Dyanne Thorne

There are some elements of this that work extremely well, not least seeing Thorne back on the big screen after a very long time away. Most famous – okay, probably entirely famous – for her depiction of Ilsa in She-Wolf of the SS and its sequels, she had not appeared in a film since 1987’s Real Men. Here, she plays a brothel madam, the evocatively-named Greta Gristina, whose house of ill-repute was the site of a massacre after she pissed off a local do-gooder, Elias Solomon (Temple). Decades later, it has become the Shadowview Manor, an office/retail complex, whose inhabitans include a psychic, Cassie Traxler (Santorella) and a new security guard, Jacob Hunt (Steele). After one of Cassie’s seances goes awry, a portal through time is opened, allowing malevolent forces to enter the modern era, while Cassie and Jacob get to travel back and witness the massacre in person.

Sheets has been churning out video horror films for decades, IMDb listing almost forty features going back to 1985’s Blood of the Undead. Looking through the list, I just realized that, I had actually seen one of his earlier works, Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City, a few weeks ago, but hadn’t made the connection to this until now. Certainly, on a technical level, he has come a long way, but to be honest, that isn’t saying much, since PBiAC was strictly amateur-hour. This starts off particularly shaky, and there seems to be an awful lot of scene-setting until the seance that kicks off the meaningful part of the plot. The gap between experienced actors like Temple and Thorne, and the two leads is also painfully obvious, with Steels in particular, woefully overmatched for most of his scenes.

It’s clear that the aim is a homage to the Italian horror films made the likes of Lucio Fulci – most obviously, in the soundtrack composed by Fabio Frizzi, who was also responsible for the scores to City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, etc. As such, it’s probably quite successful, even if the “intestines” here never even faintly resemble the real thing. However, the problem is that I was never much of a fan of Fulci and his colleagues at the time, and so watching a low-rent (if well-intentioned) knock-off of their genre isn’t exactly my cup of tea. That said, seeing Thorne – who still looks amazing, considering she’s now in her seventies – strut her stuff made this one worthwhile, and it’s a shame the film didn’t focus more on her than the two, generally uninteresting, younger leads.

Mar Negro (2013)

Rating: B+

Dir: Rodrigo Aragão
Star: Walderrama Dos Santos, Kika de Oliveira, Cristian Verardi, Mayra Alarcon
a.k.a. Dark Sea

There are films where you reach the end and go, “What did I just watch?” This would be one of them. While that’s not necessarily a good thing, in this case, the insanity on view is not just epic, it’s also highly entertaining. Two fishermen off the coast of Brazil pull… let’s just say, “something” up in their net. Before it scrabbles its way back overboard, it takes a chunk out of one’s arm. This sets in a train of events which includes zombies, black magic, an albino busboy, the transvestite madam of the local whorehouse letting rip with her chain gun – oh, and a beached whale – and is probably the goriest movie I’ve seen since Braindead, I kid you not.

It does take a while to reach that point, with the first hour being mostly setting things up, with steadily increasing unease and weirdness, such as the stingray that just won’t die. But the rural Brazillian setting is an entirely novel one, so interest is easily sustained, and when it kicks off… Boy, does it kick off. The rest of the plot, outside the extreme bloodletting, has the busboy (Dos Santos), known for obvious reasons as Whitet, fascinated with local beauty Indiara (de Oliveira), whose husband, Snapper, was the one who got bitten. Whitey has acquired a book of arcane magical lore, which he intends to use to draw her affections: however, another magician shows up in the village, intend on getting his hands on the book.

Meanwhile, Madam Ursula (Veradi) is preparing for the opening of her new “club,” and has brought in a special guest to entertain patrons. Unfortunately, the fish served at the event is also contaminated, and those who eat it, end up going down with something a great deal worse than a dose of Brazillian belly. Between these victims on the inside, and Snapper on the outside, club security is in for a busy night. There are occasionally moments where the effects don’t quite live up to the imagination, and if you asked me to explain the last five minutes, I wouldn’t even know where to start.

But there is just so much energy and enthusiasm on view here, that it’s impossible not to be swept along in the torrent of excess, when the dam breaks in the second half. The characters are memorable and nicely-portrayed, and the film looks nice too, though Aragão (who has made several previous movies with similar themes that I’m now on a mission to locate) could perhaps reign back on his use of Dutch angles a bit. Dammit though, if that’s the chief criticism I can find about the film, you know its a winner, and I’m prepared to bet you won’t have seen anything quite like this ever before.