Monthly Archives: January 2013

Crash Analysis: THE HAUNTING OF WHALEY HOUSE (2012)

A fairly decent independent effort 

A guide at a haunted house gives her friends a private tour 

Actor Graham Denman (Craig Gavin in the movie), told viewers during the behind-the-scenes footage to look for THE HAUNTING OF WHALEY HOUSE’s release in theatres during July 2012, but writer/director’s Jose Prendes’s $115,000 film, shot in twelve arduous days, went direct to video.

The movie delivers the story of the renowned Whaley House, and its celebrated haunting. New tour guide, Penny Abbott (Stephanie Greco) at the egging on of friends, brings them after hours to the former homestead for a midnight scare. Unbeknownst to Penny, Craig also invites fledgling ghost hunter Ray Roundtree (Jason Owlsley), and psychic Keith Drummond (Howard McNair) to tag along. The duo’s presence alone seems to unleash the spirits, and the tale turns into a free-for-all of survival.

There are two main problems with the movie: A convoluted narrative, and far too many characters. The tale’s confusion rests in how many ghosts are about, what they want, and why they’re so pissed off – at film’s end, I’m still uncertain. The clunky story, however, does move along at a steady pace, save the drawn out “séance” scene. Although there are far too many characters, Prendes does bring in additional characters as some die off, like a tag-team horror death match, to bring more “redshirts” into the fray as fodder for the ghosts. This too has problems. After the inciting incident outside the home, two other instances of minor, and fringe characters take place outdoors. The victims get caught in the ghosts’ evil doings at a distance, adding a needless element of hokiness that detracts from what could be a strong and inviting story, and will have many audience members rolling their eyes.

As you’ll find in many reviews, most dislike the acting. Overall, the acting isn’t bad, but the thesbians are certainly inconsistent. At times, one will find it hard to buy into Greco’s character, but when she allows herself to give way to emotion, her performance is quite powerful. The same goes for Denman (who also provided the original music), and Arleo. Arielle Brachfield remained true to form, though Owlsley appeared to be the weakest acting link, and phoned it all in. McNair, however, stood out in grand fashion, and I certainly hope to see more from him.

Two elements contribute to the inconsistency of THE HAUNTING OF WHALEY HOUSE: The long work days, and Prendes’s directing. The helmsman brought in his acting friends to get the job done. At times, I wonder if he didn’t direct his friends as he should have simply because he knew them too well, and didn’t want to cause a ruckus when they may have only been working for a screen credit.

Besides McNair’s excellent work, the makeup department delivered some quality effects, and Douglas S. Johnson’s cinematography did not leave us squinting in the dark.

The sad part is that THE HAUNTING OF WHALEY HOUSE could have been a wonderful, low budget ghost story, but the tale’s premise and subsequent development, or lack thereof, and the acting will hold it back. Regardless, it’s still worthy of a watch, and is quite entertaining.

It was also wonderful to see veteran actress Lynn Lowry again. I had hoped to ask her about her death scene in Romero’s THE CRAZIES (1973) when I saw her at Chiller Theatre several years ago, but she was stuck on the phone with an airline for what seemed like hours.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Recommended ghost stories that will rock your world:

THE HAUNTING (1963)

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (UK, 1973)

THE CHANGELING (Canada, 1980)

THE SHINING (1980)

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

THE RING (Japan/USA, 2002)

A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Korea, 2003)

SHUTTER (Thailand, 2004)

THE ORPHANAGE (Spain, 2007)

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011)

 

 

Crash Reports: RED AGENDA

Sorry, no movie review tonight. Normally, I have them prepared many weeks in advance. However, two things happened: I have watched too many shitty movies to even warrant a review, and that includes FRANKENSTEIN (USA/Japan, 1994), and V/H/S (2012), which is B/A/D – plus, I’ve been writing a horror novel.

The novel’s based on my script RED AGENDA. In 2008, the screenplay earned these honors:

First Place Winner – International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival

Top-Five Finalist – Screamfest

Top-Ten Finalist – StoryPros Screenplay Contest

Finalist – Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest

Initially, I saw the results from the StoryPros and Beverly Hills contests, and I was thrilled. After all, they were open genre contests, and normally, horror does poorly. Most often, the top scripts are dramas, and anything genre related is thrust to the wayside. Since RED AGENDA also mixes crime and action, I’m sure that had something to do with it.

Thanks to the strong finish in the renowned Screamfest competition, and the win at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, some great things happened. First, I got an agent. This was my second agent, and I only hoped she wouldn’t end up in prison like the first one. Second, Hollywood actually came calling. Yes, producers contacted me. Thirteen in fact. One even found me at my place of business after hearing about the script at Sundance. How the hell did that happen? I was hopeful, but cautious, and relied on my agent to navigate a deal.

She didn’t.

Again, two things happened: My agent got pregnant and got out of the industry, which included abandoning all of her writers – then the economy collapsed. That meant Hollywood stopped buying scripts.

Here’s the synopsis of the tale:

Detective Bobby Keagan of Philadelphia’s Paranormal Crimes Unit quickly learns that the vampire terrorist group “Red Agenda” is out for blood. Pissed and hellbent on taking them out for good, Keagan rounds up bloodwhores, stakes their long-toothed johns and raids goth clubs to drive them into the open. Coming up empty, Keagan reluctantly teams up with his most hated enemy – a vampire. But Alden Rinc is no ordinary blood-drinker; he stopped Red Agenda moments before assassinating the president two years before. Even though Rinc is out to fight the vicious vamp stereotype, Keagan is far from convinced when he discovers someone is feeding info to the terrorists with deadly consequences: cops are ripped to shreds, vamp snitches are brutalized and civilians don’t stand a chance. Now, a steadfast Keagan, a driven Rinc and a trigger happy vampire tactical unit, have only three days to sort through Philly’s undead underground before the president visits the “city of bloody love” – and ends up on Red Agenda’s menu.

When I wrote the script, I simply thought of story, character and theme – and never considered budget. You can imagine this wasn’t designed to be some low budget feature. And with the economy still in the toilet, well, no one has picked it up.

But I loved the characters and decided to turn the script into a novel. Unlike the watered down, anemic fair associated with the much maligned “Twilight” series, the vamps in RED AGENDA don’t sparkle or whine over women. Instead, they’re hungry and pissed off. I’m simply hoping to do my part to put a little bite back into the genre.

The novel currently hovers at 76,000 words, and I’ll try once again to land an agent. I hope the “third time’s the charm” cliché holds true. We’ll see.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you crave a great vamp flick or more, here’s a dirty dozen of the best for you to check out:

Vampyr (Not Against the Flesh) (Germany/France, 1932)

One of the last silent films, this feature has one hell of a creep factor, and some innovative shooting for its time. Although some footage has been lost, the story is strong and worth a look.

 

Lifeforce (UK/USA, 1985)

This B-movie, directed by Tobe Hooper, includes some wild effects from John Dykstra. And you certainly don’t want to miss Mathilda May – or Patrick Stewart’s first on-screen kiss at the lips of Steve Railsback.

 

Vamp (1986)

Grace Jones dances wild in this horror/comedy, when she runs a club to feed on the poor and unfortunate. It’s a great romp and a fun ride. The movie may keep college boys from rushing with a fraternity.

                                                           

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

This falls under the “Is he or is he not a vampire?” heading, and Nicholas Cage does not disappoint as the tortured protagonist. He ate a live cockroach in the movie – actually, two because director Robert Bierman wanted another take.

                       

Dracula (1992)

Coppola’s feature has many problems that just make this one hell of a fun ride. Oldman shines as the tortured count, and Tom Waits may be the best Renfield of all time. And don’t miss Anthony Hopkins as Dutch lunatic, Van Helsing.

 

Interview with the Vampire            (1994)

If you loved Anne Rice’s novel, you should enjoy this. Originally, Brandon Lee was supposed to play Louis, but he died on the set of THE CROW (1994), and River Phoenix was cast as the reporter, but he over-dosed.

 

Habit (1996)

Larry Fessenden brings us a dramatic tale about a man who might have met the wrong girl. Unlike many fantastical vamp features, this one relies on intelligence and a strong narrative to deliver the fear.

 

Blood: The Last Vampire (Japan, 2000)

This animated feature is mind-blowing in its artistic execution. Although short time-wise, the tale is solid, riveting and the creep factor runs high. This is a thousand miles better than the hokey, live-action remake, which should be avoided at all costs.

 

30 Days of Night (2007)

Though a disturbing ride, with a pertinent theme, divorce yourself from the fact that the Alaskan pipeline is nowhere near Barrow, and that the sun doesn’t set completely for thirty days. Otherwise, the story is striking.

 

Let the Right One In            (Sweden, 2008)

Don’t watch this one dubbed in English. Indulge in the Swedish and enjoy this vibrant coming of age tale that may just be the greatest vampire film ever made.

 

Suck (Canada, 2009)

As far as comedy/horrors go, this one is a fun ride that adds music to the mix. Jessica Pare’s drop dead gorgeous, and Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, and Alex Liefson keep the story rockin’.

 

Midnight Son (2011)

A heady horror with a devotion to wit and theme, this story doesn’t miss. Though not perfect, it’s a great relief to enjoy an intelligent vamp feature to keep one engrossed.

Crash Analysis: MIDNIGHT SON (2011)

If you liked MARTIN and VAMPIRE’S KISS…

A young man comes of age – and he’s out for blood

Scott Leberecht cut his teeth on movies as a visual effects specialist for such films as ERASER (1996), SPAWN (1997), and SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999), and as a screenwriter and director, MIDNIGHT SON is his first full-length feature film – and it’s a hit.

Jacob (Zak Kilberg) is stuck in a dead end job as a third shift security guard, though it seems new life will be breathed into his faltering existence after he runs into Mary (Maya Parish). Yet, he’s also changing into a new and re-defined young man when he discovers that human blood is the only thing that seems to sustain him. Though he tries to purchase old bags of blood from orderly Marcus (Jo D. Jonz), he’s afraid that he may have killed someone for their own vital fluid one night. Is he really a vampire?

Stop rolling your eyes. Diehard horror fans know we’ve seen this before in George Romero’s often under-rated MARTIN (1976) and VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988). Thankfully, although both movies engaged the same premise: The lead character thinks he’s a vampire; the two tales are completely different on every other level. MIDNIGHT SUN is also a unique addition to this vampiric subgenre.

There is intelligence and maturity to Leberecht’s low budget dramatic horror, as he focuses on the concept of self as well as relationships in a world where most seem to be self-indulgent. Above all, he has created well-rounded characters that are as likable as they are disdainful. He’s not afraid to show a hero’s dark side or the good side to someone with a less than welcoming agenda. As far as horrors and movies in general go, Leberecht presents real, human personas who are far more gray than black-and-white. I have not seen such vibrant, multi-faceted characters since Paul Solet’s GRACE (USA/Canada, 2009).

Though Kilberg does a wonderful job as the lead, Jonz owns every scene he’s in, and Parish is amazing. Jonz brings an unyielding presence to the screen one would be warned not to ignore. As for Parish, her emotional state can shift on a dime, which delivers a sincere performance. Collectively, the talent, which included veteran character actors Tracey Walter and Larry Cedar, kept the story moving in excellent, emotional and purposeful ways.

So why isn’t this a five star horror? Just a couple of little things. Arlen Escarpeta could have brought a bit more to his role, though he blew me away in FINAL DESTINATION 5, which came out that same year. Due to the low budget, Leberecht and company had to work with existing lighting. On occasion, Lyn Moncrief’s cinematography seemed a bit static and sterile, though his use of that “existing lighting” is often fantastic.

***** SPOILER ALERT *****

Storywise, Leberecht mimicked something Nicholas St. John (and others) did for his script THE ADDICTION (1996), which Abel Ferrara directed: A bite from a vampire can turn another person into a vampire. This means the “affection” is in the saliva. As a vampire fan, I prefer the bloodborne element, and the exchange between host and the-soon-to-be-turned through a more erotic blood exchange. After all, “blood is the life”, and contamination through saliva is far too droll.

***** END SPOILER *****

Regardless, this is a winner for Leberecht, cast and crew, and MIDNIGHT SON should grow to become the next cult favorite. At least I hope so. In the meantime, I’ll watch the film again, and if you see this crawl up to a 4.5 star rating, that will be no accident.

4 out of 5 stars

Cottle and Kirby saved what CTHULHU they could

You can’t go home again – unless you want to lead the masses

Apparently, screenwriter/executive producer Grant Cogswell sold all of his worldly possessions to make the movie happen, and that includes his homestead. In August 2008, the movie was released to but a few theatres, and only earned $15,500 – the budget was $750,000.

The story revolves around Russell Marsh (Jason Cottle), who comes back home to a sleepy sea community when his mother dies. He hates his bizarro, homophobic reverend father (Dennis Kleinsmith), but copes as long as he can. Russell wants to get back to the university where he chairs an apartment, though he can’t break away from the goings-on, which includes freaky dreams, sluglike puppy babies, a strange rune of sorts, and a crazy lady who wants to make a baby with him. But will he breakaway or give into “destiny”?

That summary seems to follow a steady plotline, though the movie is offbeat in its execution of the narrative, which is one of the main reasons Cogswell may be in the poorhouse. The editing seemed rough at times, and with no editor listed in the credits, it’s hard to point the finger at anyone, save director Dan Gildark and screenwriter Cogswell. The pace was start-and-stop, and oftentimes suspense would be waylaid by mediocre and cryptic scenes loaded with bad acting.

With a combination like that, the movie should be a complete bomb. However, Sean Kirby’s wonderful cinematography helped save the film. His work in the dark added that extra-special touch, as well as his use of blues to help shape the tone of the feature. Though not as crisp as Bojan Bazelli’s work in THE RING (USA/Japan, 2002), there is a striking similarity. Most important, lead actor Jason Cottle shined as the angry young man torn by love and family. He brought grit and energy to movie plagued by robotic actors, (save Tory Spelling, believe it or not, Ian Geoghagen and Scott Patrick Green.) Whether calm or enraged, Cottle delivered, and his scenes with Green were extremely touching. He brought a sense of humanity to the movie, and allowed the audience to engage the story in an emotional sense when the rest of the cast pushed viewers away. The strength of his performance reminded me of Michael Moriarty in the quite inauspicious IT’S ALIVE franchise – a professional and dedicated actor doing his damnedest to save a bad picture.

The problem with a dramatic horror like CTHULHU is navigating the hearty HP Lovecraft fan base. If you were to go to IMDB.com and other sites, you’ll see the film trashed by many or heralded as a decent attempt by a handful of others. To date, however, it seems no one has successfully brought one of Lovecraft’s works to the big screen that will please all comers.

Do you have a favorite Lovecraft adaptation you’d like to share?

2.5 stars out of 5

Crash Reports: Home Is Where the Horror Is

My critical essay, “Home Is Where the Horror Is” has just been published by the academic journal, Studies in Gothic Fiction. I wrote the piece while at Wilkes University for my final MFA project. The article concerns the role of visiting a house of horror, and focuses on the cinematic likes of PSYCHO (1960), THE LEGACY (UK/USA, 1978), DOG SOLDIERS (UK, 2002), and many more.

Thanks to my mentor, Ross Klavan, the man who wrote TIGERLAND (2000), starring Colin Farrell, for his wise counsel in navigating me through the project, my colleague, Dr. Curt Herr for recommending the publication, and for Franz J. Potter and the editorial board for choosing my work. Of course nothing would be accomplished without the constant love and encouragement from Ally Bishop, as well as friends and family.

Here’s the link: http://www.zittaw.com/studiesV2%20Issue%202.htm

Enjoy!

Crash Analysis: CHERNOBYL DIARIES (2012)

Ninety minutes for that?

 Extreme tourists wish they’d gone elsewhere

When a movie isn’t screened for critics before general release, there’s something suspicious in the air. And no, it’s not the unseen radiation from Chernobyl, Ukraine. After watching this no-nothing of a horror, it was clear the producers wanted to make a killing on opening weekend, at least, before word got out.

The hoopla before the release was simple: Oren Peli. After all, he earned his Hollywood office for his PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) becoming such a word-of-mouth hit when it was finally distributed nationwide, and beyond, in 2009. The budget to return on investment ratio rivaled that of previous “found footage” winner THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). Granted, Peli didn’t direct CHERNOBYL DIARIES, but he did come up with the story and helped craft the screenplay with writing team Carey and Shane Van Dyke.

A group of six tourists take an illegal visit to the town of Pripyat, which once housed workers for the ill-fated Chernobyl plant. Of course, this is a big mistake – because it’s a horror movie and people get killed.

That isn’t much of an explanation, but this movie is awful on many levels and the crux of the narrative doesn’t necessarily count. The story is completely weak because *** spoiler alert *** there is no way people can be exposed to that much radiation near the plant and survive for long periods of time, let alone have enough energy to go bonkers and kill people like crazed, feral cannibals. *** spoiler over *** Once the foundation for the story is deemed ridiculous and devoid of logic, it becomes far too fantastical to take seriously. Think of Eli Roth’s ludicrous HOSTEL series and you’ll get the idea. Additionally, though the daytime cinematography is fine, in the evening, the scenes are so dark it is extremely difficult to follow the action. However, I do not blame the great Morten Søborg for this, especially since his work in VALHALLA RISING (2009), as well as other features, is striking and brilliant. The editor, Stan Salfas, probably at the behest of Peli as well as other producers, played with lighting in post-production, which was a major error. It’s fine to provide a hint of what’s stalking after the characters, but to hide them completely from beginning to end is simply awful – at some point, we must see the beast(s).

Most important, the movie provided no scares. Not one. Does this mean we’re getting used to what horror has been delivering the past few years? I guess so. One could see a jolt coming at every turn, whether telegraphed or not. We’re simply getting used to the scares, and Hollywood, as well as independent filmmakers, had better come up with more creative ways to rock our world. I got more of a jump from watching Spielberg’s POLTERGEIST (1982) – and we knew that damn puppet was going to spring to life.

The big losers in this film are the actors. Granted, not everyone is perfect, but they all worked hard. The two standouts are Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (Zoe) from COLD PREY (Norway, 2006) and Nathan Phillips of Australia’s WOLF CREEK (2005) fame. Both delivered quality performances, followed by the rest of the multi-national cast.

The story is weak and surprises are sorely lacking. There is nothing new or intelligent here, and the cool idea of a horror at Chernobyl is wasted (though the film was shot on locations in Serbia and Hungary).

The one star goes to the actors, as well as Aleksandar Denic and Matthew Sullivan for production design – and for Marilyn Manson’s “No Reflection” at the credits. Otherwise, you’re better off going back to the old THE HILLS HAVE EYES series than wasting money on such a low brow and disappointing feature.

1 out of 5 stars

Crash Reports: TOO MANY PREDATORS Contest Victory

While many celebrated the coming of the New Year, I had a date with MoviePoet.com.

Shannon Kelly and Ella West with Director Bill Shimp.

Shannon Kelly and Ella West with Director Bill Shimp.

The site offers a free screenwriting contest each month, and registered participants get to read and vote on the scripts – except last month. Each December, the site hosts a short film contest. The scripts must have been in a MoviePoet screenplay contest at one point, and are limited to a fifteen-minute time limit.

After giving my girlfriend a Happy New Year kiss, I made my way to the computer to check on the results. With eighty to one-hundred hours of work to bring the short horror TOO MANY PREDATORS to fruition, we took Third Place.

That’s a wonderful place to be for many reasons. First, my script did poorly in the initial competition and failed to earn even an Honorable Mention, but Chris Messineo at the New Jersey Film School thought it would make a worthy project for his Advanced Film Workshop. Second, to see what is officially a student film rise to the top is quite impressive, and those fledgling professionals should feel proud of their accomplishment. Finally, when it comes to open genre contests, horrors traditionally have a poor showing, while dramas, mysteries and even thrillers, out-perform horrors at a steady rate. At times, the quality and story of the horror may be poor, but there’s a stigma associated with the genre, much like romance novels in the book industry – they’re considered trash devoid of bringing any viable merit to the craft of writing. When composing TOO MANY PREDATORS, I had hoped to put a new spin on a subgenre, and I’m thankful it worked out for everyone involved.

In the MoviePoet Short Film Contest, the First Place winner is screenwriter Travis DeStein’s IZGUBIJEN (drama), followed by screenwriter’s David M. Troop’s INSOMNIAC (mystery/thriller). Both short films enjoyed some solid acting, though no film in the competition could touch DeStein’s production value. (The first Honorable Mention went to Kirk White’s comedy, LOUNGE ACT.) To see a horror do so well is wonderful – especially when it was only one of two to represent the genre out of sixteen entries (NIGHT 6, a horror/thriller by writer JeanPierre Chapoteau, also earned Honorable Mention).

With this success, I will enter TOO MANY PREDATORS in some film festivals, and I’m currently narrowing down choices. After all, as screenwriter/producer, I have an obligation to do what’s best for cast and crew, which means I have to get the short out into the world. I hope viewers will be impressed with what a group of dedicated students can achieve, as well as the wonderful acting of Ella West and Shannon Kelly, the special effects makeup talent of Paul J. Mason, and the power of Justin R. Durban’s music.

I’d love to hear what you think of TOO MANY PREDATORS, especially since I want to expand the idea into a feature. Follow the Vimeo link it you have three-and-a-half minutes of time to spare, and I’d very much appreciate your comments: http://vimeo.com/54583103

Feel free to indulge in filmographer Mark Menditto’s wonderful behind-the-scenes coverage: http://vimeo.com/56179741

Many thanks to Chris Messineo, the New Jersey Film School Advanced Film Workshop, and everyone else, for bringing the small miracle that is TOO MANY PREDATORS to life.