Monthly Archives: April 2012

Crash Analysis: CRYPTZ (2002)

A no good hood

Like VAMP but without the bite 

Danny Draven’s Book of the Dead, about independent horror filmmaking, is an excellent must-have reference. The DVD of his film CRYPTZ, however, isn’t worthy of being used as a coaster for drinks.

Like VAMP (1986), a comedy/horror favorite for many, the story takes place in a vampire “sponsored” nightclub, which is simply a web to catch flies. And that’s about all one needs to know. VAMP, however, with the ever wild Grace Jones, is full of laughs and jolts within the confines of a solid narrative, but CRYPTZ, thanks to its characters, just stands there. In fact, if you watch the movie, see how often characters stand around and do absolutely nothing from scene to scene. Quite often, we go from talking head spot to another. This alone made the production look like a dispassionate high school play after the funding had been stripped away. And to slow things down a whole lot more, slow motion camera work plagues this feature on a grand scale – and the mind-numbingly weak motion brings what little story there is to a screeching halt.

Choice Skinner, as protagonist Tymez Skwair, never came off as a young man. However, Rick Irvin (Fuzzy Down) and Denis Waller (Likrish) did have their moments, though their over-the-top comedy business at the club was way, way too much. I only wish Fylicia Renee King (Skwair’s mom) had much more screen time.

One of the worst moments: Tymez Skwair gets his tattooed carved out of his chest, but the flaying takes place on his left breast, though the wound appears on his right breast throughout the picture. Yikes.

Something this bad might be a fun romp for laughs, but with the characters being extremely inactive, CRYPTZ sits like a pile of rotting meat.

The half-star goes to Ms. King.

0.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: XTRO (1983)

Extraterrestrial trip of guilty pleasure proportions

Once scooped up by aliens, a father returns for his son 

Hmm… Not easy to begin this review because it’s hard to talk about a movie that is so disjointed in narrative while unnerving in some of its special effects. Regardless, a family is torn asunder when a father goes missing one day. Three years later, his young son dreams of his father’s abduction and only wishes for him to return. Well, daddy (Philip Sayer) does just that – and the movie goes off the hinges in its surreality.

What makes XTRO work is that it maintains a non-sterile atmosphere. And regardless of what you’ve heard regarding the movie’s bizarre nature, the acting is solid. Even if Director Harry Bromley-Davenport may have been a bit whacky, due to a script that had been written “400 times” (according to him from the phenomenal featurette, which is a must see on the DVD), the actors went all out. And don’t get me wrong, after watching Davenport’s interview, I have nothing but respect for him. After all, he was honest as hell about the three XTRO films and their productions. Nonetheless, though the production may have been tongue in cheek (and I wonder what substances the crew was on), the actors played it straight, which adds to the wild feel.

Though some of the visual effects are sorely lacking, the make-up effects are often fabulous and worthwhile.

However, the most enticing element to this crazy trip of a sci-fi/horror is to try to find a thread of logic. With this, I’m referring to the birthing of the alien, or copy, or clone, or whatever. I don’t know what’s going on, but I liked it because I see the production team laughing at the notion of maintaining a linear thread. As the amazing Ian Curtis once sang, “People change for no reason at all/It’s happening all of the time” – well, it’s happening with the aliens and their reproductive process throughout the movie. And I love that craziness.

XTRO colored outside the lines and didn’t tell a story with blinders on. What the story is or what it means is clearly up to the viewer. For me, I just enjoyed the ride – though I wish Davenport would dump his synthesizer soundtrack (as I wish John Carpenter would have done quite often) for something stronger.

However, if you want to watch a freaky horror and have a blast doing so, this will not disappoint.

4 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)

The SCREAM of the decade – or were Whedon and Goddard inspired by something else? 

Five co-eds enter a cabin in the woods…Cabin in the Woods

After the phenomenal “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” series came to sorrowful ends, Joss Whedon went on hiatus. Then he came back with the ultra-ridiculous “Dollhouse”. With that ill-fated move, I feared he had gone the way of George Lucas, M. Night Shyamalan and Chris Carter – undone by the ego-based trappings of creative character.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

CABIN is a fun and bloody romp akin to Wes Craven’s well-crafted SCREAM (1996), where he had poked a bit of fun at the genre and manipulated its hackneyed clichés. Whedon, who co-wrote the work with first time director Drew Goddard, of CLOVERFIELD fame, takes a similar track.

However, going into story details would be a grand misadventure. In lieu of not giving anything away, you’ll only get the basics: Five co-eds take a break from school and visit a cabin in the woods. But these aren’t the stock stereotypes we’ve come to hate due to extensive overuse. The jock has a brain, the other jock has an even bigger brain, the goody-two-shoes isn’t all that good, the shaggy pothead is a philosopher and may hope to become the next Mark Twain, and the dumb blonde isn’t dumb at all.

As I watched the movie, and fell in love with Fran Kranz and his exceptional character portrayal of Marty the court jester pothead – while thrilled to see the ever yummy Amy Acker on the big screen – a thought struck me. I had seen this movie before – sort of.

Many critics and fans alike have over-hyped their love for this “unique” horror film because it’s supposedly new, fresh and turns horror upside down. After all, the movie is damn good, and as horror fans know, finding a great horror in a sea of mediocrity mixed with utter garbage is a rare thing indeed. And although many facets of the movie are intriguing, though not as surprising as you may have been told, the premise for the movie – the foundation for this cabin in the woods – has been done before.

In 2002, a low budget indie horror about a reality show featuring five twenty-somethings sequestered in a cabin made it to theatres in Europe and Brazil. MY LITTLE EYE (UK/USA/France/Canada) didn’t have the witty edge of CABIN or the slick look, but the reality show thread certainly may have proved inspiration for Whedon and Goddard. No, this does not mean they copied the film or even stole the idea, but similarities are clearly evident. After all, the old adage rings true: There’s no such thing as a new idea. So, even if neither had seen MY LITTLE EYE, why wouldn’t someone eventually come up with a similar angle at some point? Happens all the time.

As for the comedic elements, fans of “Buffy” and “Angel” should certainly recognize Whedon’s handiwork. But this is different from the Sam Raimi infusion of extreme silliness that often undermines his horrors, especially DRAG ME TO HELL (2009) where a cool story was completely waylaid by ridiculous amounts of stupidity (though groovy Bruce Campbell made it all work in the first two EVIL DEAD outings). Whedon, however, keeps the comedy to what we might actually experience in our daily lives, which makes this “human humor” of wit and smarminess relatable, especially when these moments usually reveal as much about character as the more dramatic based instances.

But there is something wrong with CABIN. Goddard did a great job directing, the acting is solid (veterans Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford should definitely take their show on the road), and Peter Derning’s cinematography is first rate. The problem rests with the editing and some cartoonish CGI.

Editor Lisa Lassek did a fantastic job and her work is seamless, but in her meetings with the director (and most likely Whedon), she should have recommended moving the story along a bit quicker in the third act to keep up with the pace of the beginning and middle of the film. At times, scenes near the end are longer than they need to be. Furthermore, Special Effects Supervisor Paul Benjamin lacked a bit in quality control. The best CGI are the ones you never notice – like the water on the roof in DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (1997) and just about every background in CLOVERFIELD. Just a bit more work to tighten up some of those visuals in the third act would have proved amazing in the end. And knowing that the film was shot in 2009 with a delayed release as Whedon and Goddard fought the studio against turning this into a 3-D piece of garbage, you think some of those artists would have tweaked their creations at least for personal prided.

(I would love to discuss a red herring character and a major goof, but that will have to wait until half the planet has seen this thing.)

Regardless, the ending to this film is key, and the story could have easily gone in two pertinent directions. The path Whedon and Goddard took was fabulous and tied the film together nicely. However, they hinted at that other probable choice, and they didn’t just do it for kicks. Theatergoers should leave not necessarily ranting about how fantastic this movie is because of its twists, but should focus on that final choice that cuts through the story like the heaviest of axes. This horror needs to be discussed beyond its cool factor and freshness, and the spotlight should shine on its philosophical underpinnings. In fact, I’m still debating what the hell I’d do in that situation…

Though I heard one moviegoer state: “Horror of the year! Hands down!” I should have pointed out that its only April, dude. With PROMETHEUS, CHERNOBYL DIARIES, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 and more on the way for 2012, let’s hope we’ll indulge in a multitude of grand works that add a jolt to a genre often overloaded with overworn themes, characters and storylines – and just plain non-sensical bullshit.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS will certainly find a home in horror movie hierarchy regardless of its minimal shortcomings. And it’s definitely worth indulging on the big screen. I can’t wait to buy the DVD, which should come with a ton of extras.

Crash Analysis: NEEDLE (Australia, 2010)

The killer is a prick

A voodoo box unleashes vengeance  

Part of what makes us indulge in horror movies is to see death presented to us in a different manner, through a story that compels us. NEEDLE had a wonderful premise with a wonderful little mystery that screenwriters Anthony Egan and John V. Soto (who also directed) could not bring to light.

And that really bothers the hell out of me.

If the pair had really invested in a riveting narrative, this could have comprised the mystery element of the United States based version of THE RING with Clive Barkers HELLRAISER for one potent and unforgettable horror. Instead, after coming up with a wild idea, Egan and Soto clearly didn’t know what to do with it. Instead, it became hack-and-slice cinema that offered little stimulation to the senses. By movie’s end, the tale had become so old and lame, the climax was abysmal and unsatisfactory. In fact, it cheats the audience and sets up a sequel, though I doubt they’ll ever have the chance – unless an intelligent producer with deep pockets comes along and shows them how to do it the right way.

At first, when the lame commercial-hard rock commenced as Ben (Michael Dorman) ran across a college campus, I thought this was going to be typical teen fair. Then the premise was revealed and intrigue set in – only to collapse into typical teen fair. Worst still, Travis Fimmel, who played Ben’s older brother, came off as being a creepy asshole in one scene, and a determined guy out to solve the mystery in another. Now, this did not leave the audience with an enigmatic character (such as Stellan Skarsgård in INSOMNIA or Ji-tae Yu in NATURAL CITY) but a confusing one. However, seeing how the story imploded into mediocrity, I have little doubt the director had told me to act in this manner. Think of George Lucas directing kids (unless they’re stuffed into ewok costumes) and you’ll get the idea.

Revenge horrors have become a “give me a break” kind of subgenre, that is a simple and clichéd plot device for writers and directors to use as an excuse to slaughter. NEEDLE reminds us filmmakers need to deliver so much more. And this movie is only worth watching to see how a couple of writers came up with a great idea and didn’t know how to make it work.

2 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: VAMPIRE PARTY (Luxembourg/Belgium/France 2008)

Once in a lifetime party turns out to be just that

Three friends get invites to a wild party where they end up on the menu 

This is one of those movies where you know exactly what you’re getting: Three friends, one exclusive party in the middle of nowhere, and you know the hosts are vampires ready to feed. Even so, the audience expects some great scares along with great laughs, and a decent story to pull us along. However, the four screenwriters – which is far too many – leave us feeling cheated as if we didn’t get a party favor for showing.

VP starts off strong and funny as it focuses on our lead, Sam Polisatokoniminsky (Patrick Mille), the guy who wants to get paid for partying every night if possible. Then we meet his two friends, as well as the bad guys, and we’re off. The problem is that the filmmakers focused on laughs instead of character development. Most characters are stock and lack a ton of depth – and shallowness leads to an audience not giving much of a damn. And when I say filmmakers, this means the directing duo of Stephen Cafiero and Vincent Lobelle.

Four writers and two directors do not make for a vibrant film. In fact, the movie sort of dies, for lack of better terms, and for the first time in a long while, this was a movie without a climax. Sam did not take on Le Duc de Journiac (Tchéky Karyo), the vampire king and the party host who gained his power from the Medici’s centuries before. Instead, Sam escapes and Journiac and company are confounded by the sun to survive for another sequel. In the end – nothing happens.

Though some of the laughs are decent, Zucker and Zucker type humor served as the foundation for the laughs, and stereotypes as well as culture were exploited. Sam Karmann as orthodontist extraordinaire, Serge Krinine stood out – then again, he seemed to have one of the only clearly defined roles.

I wanted to love this vampire/comedy, but it was more of a love bite than anything else. Therefore, as far as this subgenre goes, Canada’s SUCK (2009) still reigns. However, there are many other vamp-comedies to indulge, including ONCE BITTEN (1985), VAMP (1986), VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988), and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (France/USA, 1995).

2.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: OFFSPRING

Tarzan’s family meets the New England coast

Two mothers fight to save their children from feral clan 

Based on Jack Ketchum’s novel (he even wrote the screenplay), this horror follows police as they try to stop a nomadic family along the New England coast as they kill and devour parents, and steal their babies.

Sounds interesting – at first – but I couldn’t get by Michael Bevin’s costume design. Granted, I’m not certain if he was following Ketchum’s vision or that of director Andrew van den Houten’s, but this nomadic tribe came straight out of a 1930’s Tarzan flick – with a little Pebbles and Bam Bam thrown in for good measure. Deerskin clothes, beads, skanky hair and moss covered teeth enveloped the feral family – and the women even wore deerskin bikinis! Their look was such a ludicrous distration, I couldn’t wipe away my smirk – even though Barbara Bach might have been proud.

What was beyond comprehension was that this clan had existed for decades, even to the point of developing their own language with better grammar than most English speakers. Furthermore, if they were cannibals on the hunt, why capture adults and keep them alive? This would obviously put the small clan at risk.

Regardless, we watch mothers make a stand to defend themselves and their children. Due to the improbabilities and silly costuming, the suspense was sorely lacking. There were definitely no scares and any thematic elements were lost in laughter. The idea may have worked, but the filmmakers failed to capture tension. Whether you love or hate THE HILLS HAVE EYES, there was something there: A group of people to follow as they struggled to survive against crazed cannibals. At one point in OFFSPRING the camera followed a group of policemen, a family, and a boy. Three different scenes that never allowed the audience to cling onto one desperate character long enough to feel for them. A poor execution of story ruined the day.

Once again, however, Pollyanna McIntosh, rocked her role. We can only hope her playing feral woman days are now behind her (see THE WOMEN). Veteran Art Hindle, as the retired cop with all the knowledge, did a wonderful tongue-in-cheek job. The one star goes to them.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: STIR OF ECHOES (1999)

A lot of echo but not enough stir

A young couple and son can see dead people in their new rental

Stir of Shadows

Kevin Bacon shines as blue collar Tom Witzky. He and his wife (Kathryn Erbe) have just rented a home from a friend in residential Chicago. Right from the start, their son (Zachary David Cope) begins talking to something unseen, and once Lisa Weil, played by the always capable Illeana Douglas, hypnotizes Tom to “open his mind”, he suddenly knows what his kid’s talking about.

And that’s it.

Sure, there’s a mystery and such, but we’ve seen and heard it all before. A

nd the only new ground broke is in the Witzky’s back yard.

Thankfully, the performances were solid and the movie had a great feel thanks to set decorator, Susie Goulder and director of photography Fred Murphy. David Koepp, the movie’s helmsman, also deserves applause for bringing cast and crew together in a well-constructed feature. However, as he did with SECRET WINDOW, Koepp may be adept at capturing look and feel, but he has trouble with story. Responsible for adapting Richard Matheson’s novel, Koepp once again did not capture the scares and themes as well as he should. In fact, theme always seems to be lacking, even in its subtlety. If he had focused more on theme and character instead of plot, this movie may hav


e been one to remember.

2.5 out of stars

Crash Report: Movie Making Motivation

On Friday night, March 30, I entered the New Jersey Film School in Martinsville, New Jersey and met with my dear friend, Chris Messineo. An award winning screenwriter and filmmaker, he established this school but a few years before (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1980129/). His body of shorts include the endearing BRANCHES, the intriguing ONE SAVED MESSAGE and the though-provoking FAÇADE. Recently, New Jersey Film School won First Place in the DVXuser Film Festival with the well-crafted THE WATER’S EDGE.

I had the pleasure of taking a screenwriting course with Chris over ten years ago. Afterwards, he invited me to take part in the New Jersey Screenwriter’s Group. Thankfully, I was accepted by the other writers and have been with them ever since.

Now, I was his student again for his two-day “Crash Course in Filmmaking.” As a screenwriter, I only want to write and work behind the scenes. Yet, due to the near impossibility of ever seeing a feature made, I decided to make my own short to get started. As the producer of the project, I want to know more about the process so I wouldn’t look like a complete idiot on set, hence the class.

At 7 PM, five other adult movie-making hopefuls and I  listened to Chris layout the two-day plan, which included the five stages of filmmaking, how a story goes from script to film, what positions an independent movie crew may require, necessary release forms, how to set up and compose a shot, and finally, the shooting of a short film with two professional actresses. Crash course, indeed.

By the time 10 PM rolled around, we had pages of notes and the script in hand for the morning’s shoot.

Right before I left, I came to an important realization: shooting a film was no different that running a tradeshow.

What made me come to such a conclusion? Chris showed us his production book for his previous film. He filed everything from shooting schedules to signed releases, as well as location notes and the actual script. That automatically brought me back to the giant show books I had carried with my own paperwork.

As a marketer, I was the tradeshow coordinator for a major manufacturer in the folding-carton industry. Okay, that may not sound exciting, but since I handled all aspects of a $2.5 million show with tens of millions of dollars in equipment, it was exhilarating. I managed union workers, hostesses, hotels, deliveries and every miniscule aspect of pulling off a successful show to sell equipment. Everything had to be perfect, even when it wasn’t. I prepared for each show a year in advance, and during the event worked fourteen hour days for over a week.

Making a film is about management.

It’s like running a tradeshow.

I can do this.

In the morning, armed with a new comfort level about what lay before me, I headed back to the school for our 9 AM start. Chris was there with his producer, Chris Furlong from Off Stage Films (http://www.offstagefilms.com/). Besides helping with the shoot, Furlong, in his They Might Be Giants t-shirt, had scrambled to find a new actress after one had bailed in an extremely unprofessional manner. She’d left us in a lurch as we were depending on her for the shoot. Thankfully, Amy Metroka agreed to join us and was on her way from Brooklyn to join Meissa Hampton for Chris’ vignette, THE CLOSET.

The actresses were fabulous, and we learned much about directing, sound, digital filming, lighting, editing and a hell of a lot more. We each had a chance to work the camera and monitor sound. Otherwise, we shut up and listened. Although Chris was the director, the production was pure collaboration. Oftentimes, Chris approached the actresses much as I approach my students: “You’re wonderful. That was great – but we have to work on…”

Due to time constraints, we only took two takes of each angle, and you can see all of them in the video: two-shots, close ups, over-the-shoulder, and the macro lens zeroing in on Meissa’s bright blue eye. Afterwards, we broke for lunch before indulging in editing. The final two-minute result of our class project can be found here: http://vimeo.com/39564391.

The best part was learning what actors expect from directors as well as writers. They confirmed what I had discovered long ago: stage direction is insulting. Other than that, a table read usually reveals what’s what so cast and crew know how everything is going to come together – hopefully.

This is when my second revelation knocked me out: I can direct. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not full of myself. I don’t think I know everything about making a movie — not even close — but I’m confident I can manage a set. Therefore, I’ll watch the director during my TOO MANY PREDATORS shoot and take notes. If I have a another short in the future, I’ll see about filming it myself. After all, why the hell not?

Now, I have to nail down that location for my film – so I can breathe…

PS: Whether you’re an adult with a desire to make a movie or a child who wants something cooler than day camp, the school is ready for you year round: http://www.njfilmschool.com/.