Tag Archives: Independent

QUARRIES (2017) by Billy Crash

You know those pathetic horror films, usually slashers, where the unsuspecting victims get the best of their antagonists only to beat up on them before freaking out and running away so the guy can get up again and hunt them down?

This isn’t one of those.

Directed and co-written by Nils Taylor, Quarries brings together a group of women on a two-week sojourn through New England’s mountainous wooded region. Posed to learn more about themselves, or to divorce themselves from the stress of life, Jean (Sarah Mornell) the experience backpacker and leader of the group, is matched only by Joy (Joy McElveen) and her former military service. The women are the strongest and most capable, while the remaining five are clearly inexperienced and may not realize how hard Mother Nature can be.

Although an ensemble, the narrative focuses on Kat (Nicole Marie Johnson, who co-wrote the script), a woman escaping from an abusive relationship who bears its most recent physical wounds. Unlike the others, she came late to the party and failed to undergo her two-days of mandatory wilderness training.

What the women have to face in Quarries is far worse than what the woods can throw at them because where Mother Nature is indiscriminate, someone sets their sites on targeting the group.

It’s easy to say we’ve seen this movie time and time again. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes to I Spit On Your Grave and the Wrong Turn franchise, as well as last year’s Carnage Park and, most evidently, The Descent, the idea of backwoods mayhem at the hands of man – or even mutants – has provided us with a sub-genre of the slasher realm. Films from Sweden, France, and Spain have also explored this “traveler beware” vein.

One can easily argue the strength of some of these movies, but at times we really don’t get a chance to know the characters, and many are “red shirts,” such as the wayward college students in almost any slasher. Due to the emotional disconnect, many viewers can’t wait to see who gets killed and how creative their deaths are going to be since these stock characters of jock, bully, manipulator, and more, are simply disposable – except for the stock “Final Girl.”

Again, Quarries offers a different take by establishing a heavy dose of realism and character depth that ramps up the suspense and leaves us concerned about those being hunted instead of cheering when they might go down.

Quarries is low budget venture, and we know how those can go. Quite often, someone has an idea that falls under the slasher, supernatural, or ultra-cheap found footage umbrella, and they crank it out. Hell, anyone can these days thanks to easy access to low cost equipment and software. Most so-called filmmakers, however, have no business shooting a birthday party for a little kid. Quarries has made clear that little money doesn’t mean a sacrifice in quality.

Regardless of budget, Nils Taylor and company made certain to do everything right. First and foremost, there are no bad actors. Each person “brings it” and delivers a definitive performance worthy of an audience’s investment as they all undergo a series of emotions in their test of survival. Johnson proves to be a formidable lead actress right away, and Carrie Finklea shines as Wren, the young women who has let her own trials and tribulations seemingly get the best of her in self-destructive fashion. None of the characters are stock, and even if they share some attributes to the tried and true, each women shares a different side of themselves when the environment changes instead of falling back on what seems to be their character’s sole foundation. And like most of us who give up some information about ourselves only to leave a bit of mystery behind in our wake, the characters do so as well in genuine fashion.

John Woodside’s cinematography is often amazing, keeping the action tight with close-ups and medium shots, and only pulling the camera back to establish distance. And the view of the Appalachians is not only stunning, but shows us the dichotomy of how isolated our protagonists are in such a vast region. A solid musical score that enhances the visuals and the action in Quarries instead of distracting us from them comes from more than capable composer Isaias Garcia. David Jacox and David C. Keith deliver the all-important editing, and Cody Davis, the stunt choreographer as well as an actor in the film, keeps the fight scenes hard, bold, and relentless. All of this is thanks to Nils Taylor for directing this cinematic excursion so damn well.

One can allude to this group of seven as the Seven Samurai or the American retelling as The Magnificent Seven, but the former didn’t choose the fight and had no training to combat attackers. They are every day women going through all the emotions and stresses that most of us do, yet they were all put in a position where they had to stand up or perish, which certainly outweighs 9 to 5 drudgery, money trouble, and family issues.

My former Kearny High School psychology teacher in New Jersey once said in class, “Anyone can kill. It’s just that not everyone has been in a situation where they’ve had to kill.” And in Quarries, the women may just have to do that to survive. This doesn’t mean morality is thrust by the wayside, but when “kill or be killed” is the mantra, one had best stand tall and fight with abandon, or it will be the last mistake one ever makes. Even if one does go down, the old saying “better to die on your feet than live on your knees” takes on a whole new meaning.

Keep in mind that Quarries is not a “feminist women getting back at misogynist men” tale, but a group of women simply fighting predators to live another day. To get on with their lives. To know their true strength, and to understand that they can now handle any stressor that comes their way because they’ve faced the ultimate battle. This is a rite of passage few of us get to endure. Whether male or female, we can live vicariously through their venture and experience such a gauntlet. But for most of us, we’ll still wonder if we can pass the test.

Don’t miss the interview with QuarriesNils Taylor, Nicole Marie Johnson, and Laura Small of D!amond Cutter Films, and Melanie Wise of the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival. And visit the Quarries‘ site.

Billy Crash (aka William D. Prystauk) loves great in depth characters and storytelling in horror, and likes to see heads roll, but if you kill a dog on screen he’ll cry like a baby. Billy co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on TwitterLinkedInIMDbAmazon, and his professional website.

(Photo of Dog Soldiers Buffy from Dog Soldiers Wikia.)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: GET OUT (2017)

The Last Knock

Get Out has captured the minds of many, and even non-horror fans are discussing the themes and message of Jordan Peele’s debut as writer/director. We’ll take a look at the entire film, which means one big time spoiler alert looms on the horizon. Has Get Out lived up to the hype? Maybe it has, maybe it’s one of the most socially conscientious films ever in the horror genre – or maybe it’s just another movie. Check in, listen to our break down of themes, imagery, and so much more, and find out for yourself…

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@JordanPeele @LifeofComics @DanielKaluuya_ @RegalMovies @TraCee_tr @LilRel4 @jamiebernadett @FYFCStudios @RonGizmo @DreadCentral @VicsMovieDen @Talk2Cleo @IndieWire @PromoteHorror @GetOutMovie @LoudGreenBird

Let us know what you think of this show, the last show, and the one before that. Hell, we have nearly 250 to choose from…

From SamSam to Dick Pig by Cat LaCohie

SamSam Whirlwind

It’s been such a rush to hit the new year running, shooting the dark comedy/horror feature film, SamSam, in January 2017. LITERALLY starting the New Year the moment I got back to LA – landing in LAX January 10, 11:30am, having just finished a ten-hour flight from London. I left the airport at 12:30pm, squeezed in a modeling job in Downtown LA from 1:30-3:30pm, and then arrived on set to shoot my first scenes of SamSam at 5pm, diving headfirst into a night shoot and also (surprisingly) the best cure for jet-lag! Welcome home Cat!

SamSam, written and directed by Dallas Lee Blanton is a film compiled from the solicitation of real-life Bad Roommate stories. The essence of the worst of the worst stories, boiled down to create: SamSam – The Worst Roommate Ever.

I was so psyched to be working on this project, not only because the sense of humour in the script matches perfectly with my own, but that this character was not the typical sex bomb, mistress, Bond girl, evil villain, which I’ve previously been typecast to play. I got to portray the “sane voice among the crazies,” which is where my sarcastic, sardonic, “tell it how it is” sense of humour lies. Wearing little-to-no make-up, I was dressed down in most of my scenes wearing workout clothes and sweat pants, playing a sleep deprived, touring nurse (I totally nailed the sleep deprived part!). How freeing to no longer have to give a shit about what I looked like and just … do my job … act! I got to be sarcastically mean to the most annoying valley girl (the eponymous SamSam), eat SO much pizza (!) and drag a large, bloodied tree branch through the LA Abandoned Zoo, culminating with a girl-on-girl, blood-splattered showdown battle!

Yes! Life…Is…Good!

A Character’s Born

Taking on characters against my stereotype seems to be the theme this year, as it was during this shoot in the Abandoned Zoo, where I received a text from a dear old friend, Len Smith, who I hadn’t seen in four years. We had been in the theatre show, Clue together, he playing Colonel Mustard and I playing Miss Scarlet (of course – sex bomb, mistress, evil villain … ahem) and we hadn’t seen each other since.

Len, previously a cartoonist for Disney, had been following a character I’d created on Facebook, “Vixen Duckville” and sent me some artwork relating to the character saying, “Do you want to make her into a TV Show?” My response: “Absolutely, I do!”

We didn’t!

But we will… we got sidetracked!

As most people will, during development, Len asked the famous words, “What other ideas do you have?” Now, (in the words of Shakespeare), “by accident most strange, bountiful fortune,” found me shooting the shit a few days previous with the most amazing human being in this world, Keith Thompson, where when discussing an episode of Black Mirror (go watch this series NOW) and the unfortunate University escapades of David Cameron (please educate yourself on who this is), put the words “Dick” and “Pig” in the same sentence … and of course, Keith and I proceeded to joke about the connotations of this combination.

Hence, all in all, Dick Pig was born: “Bitter, cynical, and nonchalantly nihilistic, Dick Pig devotes his life to doing other’s dirty work for them. Should you find your day being disrespectfully disrupted, it may be that someone out there felt the burning desire to send you a Dick Pig!” Totally not a character in my wheelhouse – but someone who’s words I can still write. An actor is a storyteller, but can only go so far in his or her carnal vehicle. Yes, I can dress down and wear less make-up, but I will never be a male, late 40’s, cartoon pig with a chip on his shoulder about how the world around him is changing and won’t let him be. Dick Pig is the vehicle for me to access a whole other world of storytelling, and his Send A Dick Pig website will, in turn, give YOU the freedom and indeed, the permission, to live vicariously through Dick Pig, saying and doing all the mean, socially unacceptable, politically incorrect things, that, honestly … you really wish you could!

Dick Pig Wants You

“We’re allowing people the guilty pleasure of unabashedly behaving badly.”

Send A Dick Pig will allow users to select specific characters, decide their fate from numerous animated “Dick Pig” escapades, and send to friends and foes via text, email, and social media. A tongue-in-cheek and deliciously devilish alternative to the current array of sickly sweet E-Cards and, hopefully, picking up where Bitstrips left off.

Dick Pig: The Retaliative Telegram, delivering justice one DICK MOVE at a time.

We are currently running an Indiegogo Campaign to help us bring Dick Pig’s website to life, and you can check out the link here: https://igg.me/at/DickPig.

Even if you can’t contribute but love this concept, you can do the following things:

1) Start sending a Dick Pig … NOW!!! We have images on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that you are more than welcome to forward to anyone you think would appreciate the concept. (If you tag us and share us of course – don’t be a Dick Pig!).  The more people who know about Dick Pig, the more people will use the website once it’s up and running, and the thing we want most of all is an adoring audience.

 

2) Share the Dick Pig Indiegogo campaign!!!

Tweet us at Twitter

Follow us on Facebook

Gramster-gram us on Instagram

Subscribe to our mailing list for updates and Send a Dick Pig!

 

(Dick Pig art by Len Smith.)

Crash Palace Support Team

 

The multi-talented Cat LaCohie is not only an actress, producer, costume designer, and creative spirit, but a burlesque star known as Vixen DeVille. She also hosts her amazing Burlesque, Body Confidence, and Self-Imagery Discovery Experience and its value cannot be measured. And don’t miss her horror work, and much more, at her IMDb page.

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Extreme Horror – Abuse of Power

The Last Knock

It’s part two of our EXTREME SERIES with the most excellent William Meeker discussing “Abuse of Power”! We’ll look at some of horror cinema’s most disturbing entries where arrogant bastards think they’re better than anybody else – and unleash the trauma. We dissect the stories, break them down into select parts, and throw the rest into the garbage – so you won’t have to. What EXTREME SERIES films made this list? Listen in and find out…

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@MelanieMcCurdie @shilohfernandez @ScreamHorrorMag @kidblue @RealJillyG @FangTheJester @JennySpain @dixiefairy @WoodyAllenDaily @DarkCorners3 @DavidKoechner @Israel_Finn @Sara_Paxton @TheNightGallery @Pat_Healy @RonGizmo @d_m_elms @EmbryEthan @BleedingCritic @Pascal_Laugier @ScarecrowVideo @AFiendOnFilm @Trent_Haaga @RSBrzoska and Paul J. Williams

The EXTREME SERIES always includes special guest, film aficionado, William Meeker! You can find his remarks and reviews on film, from horror to science fiction, at Loud Green Bird, and follow him on Twitter as well.

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Women In Film with Melanie Wise, Nicole Johnson, Laura Small, and Nils Taylor

The Last Knock

Billy Crash, a staunch supporter of women in film, sits down with the incredible Melanie Wise, the woman behind the phenomenal The Artemis Women In Action Film Festival – and surprise guests: Nicole Johnson, Laura Small, and Nils Taylor part of the team for the horror/action/thriller, Quarries.

They discus women in film, the need for an Academy Award for stunt people, what Artemis and the film festival is all about, how the independent film Quarries will rock your world, what filmmakers can do to better represent women besides T&A, femme fatales, and mothers – and if Hollywood’s doing enough for women on the big screen and behind the camera.

(Crash Note: That was not a perfect day for Skype quality regarding tinniness, but it’s all there and all rockin’.)

Learn more about the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival on Twitter, and don’t forget to visit Artemis Motion Pictures.

If you want to learn more about the women in horror film, Quarries, get the latest news on Twitter and at Quarries the Movie. Also visit writer/director, Nils Taylor’s website, and check out what executive producer Laura Small’s doing with Diamond Cutter Films.

THE LAST KNOCK presents: XX (2017)

The Last Knock

The guys sit down with writer and author Thomas S. Flowers to discuss the all-women writers and directors of the horror anthology, XX. The trio looks at story, theme, and element of maternal tales that permeate this foursome of short films. Learn what worked, what didn’t, and why we’re hoping for XX part two.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@DreadCentral @Theaterofscifi @DeniseGossett @Shriekfest @PromoteHorror @badchopsuey2 @Scream_Factory @MFFHorrorCorner @Vinyl_Film @DarkMoonComic @inthenightdoc @DonRiemer @DinoBarlaam @MexBarbaroFilm @Jorgemichelgrau @HorrorGuerrero @EdgarNito @IsaacEzban @LoretinaSoy @JohnKassir @MagnetReleasing @MagnoliaPics @Brownnmiss @JovankaVuckovic @XXtheMovie @roxanne73 @karynkusama @st_vincent @sheilaYvand @breedawool @melanielynskey @TheBabadook @AgirlWalksHome @LisaReneePitts @FriscoKidTX @LoudGreenBird @IamMelanieWise @ArtemisPics @Artemis_FF

You can find Thomas S. Flowers on his website, Machinemean.org, on Twitter, and on Amazon.

THE LAST KNOCK presents: THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)

The Last Knock

John Erick Dowdle’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes is one of horror filmdom’s “Unholy Grails” and a snipe hunt rolled into one. On its ten-year anniversary, we take a look at the film that came with a trailer but an ultra-limited release before being pulled from theaters. The only way to get feature is as a bootleg. So what’s this mockumentary about, and is it worth purchasing illegally until the Dowdle brothers give us a legitimate release? We’ll have some answers – and we invite John and Drew to come on the show and tell us why in Hell The Poughkeepsie Tapes is in distribution purgatory.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@unclerayscrazy @MelanieMcCurdie @dvdinfatuation @SusanontheLedge @HershelGreene1 @GuyRicketts @JessicaCameron_ @AFiendOnFilm @IamMelanieWise ‪@ArtemisPics ‪@Artemis_FF @RealJillyG @RonGizmo @FANGORIA @dixiefairy @ScreamHorrorMag @Israel_Finn @SlaughteredBird @CrypticPictures @dkarner @TheFearMerchant @SpookyMovies @d_m_elms @RSBrzoska @jedowdle @DrewDowdle @Rodney_Ascher @TheNightmareDoc @LanceWeiler @TheTunnelMovie @allorange @TMZ @Scream_Factory @ArrowFilmsVideo @blunderground @JodorowskysDune @CANAL_Factory and Paul J. Williams

Sinners in the Hands of an Indifferent God – CARNAGE PARK (2016) by Jonny Numb

(Author’s Note: this article is not intended as an endorsement or condemnation of Christian belief. Mentions of God and Christ will defer to the pronoun “he.”)

This review contains SPOILERS.

“The coin don’t have no say.” – Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), No Country for Old Men

There’s a scene following a bank heist that’s ripped straight out of Reservoir Dogs.

There’s opening narration by loony loner Wyatt (Pat Healy) that waxes moral and existential, not unlike the opening narration by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in No Country for Old Men.

There’s an attention to production design and gritty staging that winks at the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (the gore also shows a flair for traditional, in-camera FX over CGI).

With Carnage Park, Mickey Keating is going for his Tarantino homage (or, maybe more accurately, the films that Tarantino homages). Granted, the indie-movie landscape never really stopped being littered with posers trying – and almost always failing – to craft their own unique Reservoir Dogs (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, anyone?). So to pay tribute to a film that’s a cornerstone of savvy-cool-ironic-iconic was bound to struggle against a wave of preexisting imitators and the challenge of extracting something unique from a well-worn premise.

For what it’s worth – and to give Carnage’s critics some credit – the film doesn’t touch its influences. It’s also a fair distance from the aesthetic and narrative complexity of Darling, Keating’s previous film.

That being said, it’s still a worthwhile ride…but not for the (visceral) reasons genre fans will expect.

The originality that emerges from all of Carnage’s borrowed parts is curiously existential (in the Cormac McCarthy, No Country vein): if there is an omniscient “God” monitoring creation, where and when is his role in intervention? Does he owe humankind anything? And how can he ignore a world in which awful things happen with disturbing regularity?

Keating is too tasteful a filmmaker to allow his concept to unravel into glorified sadism (see Rob Zombie’s similarly-themed 31), and there is a bizarre innocence at the heart of Carnage: when financially desperate farm girl Vivian (Ashley Bell – The Last Exorcism) is abducted by Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert – Gangster Squad) following a botched bank robbery, we are given the immediate impression that both characters are in over their heads. Vivian is resourceful and assertive, while Joe is all violent swagger; both are oblivious to their roles in the world outside of their immediate circumstances, which is perhaps why, once the violence of the situation relents, they are able to share in an eerily even-toned dialog.

From the initial panoramic montage of open hills and sky, Keating establishes a sense of the existential: yet for all the open space, Carnage Park never seems to wander beyond its tight, character-based intimacy. (Given the grandiose title, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the violence is doled out with erratically-paced deliberation.) Does this require a suspension of disbelief in that Wyatt could preside over miles and miles of desolate terrain? Sure. But it also brings some intriguing observations to the surface.

The skyline – seen mostly from a “puny mortal staring upward” POV – is punctuated by bright light pressing through clusters of clouds. Characters’ pleas for rescue fall on deaf ears, suggesting an omniscient sadism that correlates to the homicidal mischief perpetrated by Wyatt (who intones, right at the beginning: “Out here, God don’t play favorites”). One early scene in particular – of Vivian tumbling out of a car, handcuffed to a very dead Scorpion Joe – glares from an overhead POV as she cries for help (to no avail). Vivian is our conduit for empathy, but her efforts to assist random victims (played by Darby Stanchfield and Larry Fessenden) are either thwarted by an off-screen Wyatt, or left behind and forgotten in the name of her own survival. She can’t save the family farm, or anybody else; she’s in a no-win situation where self-preservation takes precedence over altruism.

Complementing the Alice in Wonderland tone Keating establishes early on, the film’s idiosyncrasies possess a randomness that still feels reflective of the real world. Instead of devolving into a Saw-styled funhouse of torture devices, the landscape of Carnage Park is a string of mournful monuments to death and decay (including a nod to Christ’s crucifixion). This is reflective of Wyatt’s opening narration about the government closing mental institutions and leaving veterans damaged from war (mentally and otherwise) to wither on the vine. As a “fuck you” to the bureaucracy, his dried-up chunk of the American Dream being used as the equivalent of General Zaroff’s playground isn’t off base.

Even the spray-painted “God’s Country” sign on the gate of Wyatt’s property is presented without irony, and establishes him as judge, jury, and executioner of this contained world. The fact that his sheriff brother, John (Alan Ruck – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), is not only complicit in covering up his crimes, but also intimidated and emasculated in his homicidal brother’s presence, is a testament to their shared psychosis.

At the bridge between the second and third act, Vivian finds herself in a shack (adorned with macabre, homemade wind chimes and lawn ornaments – another Texas Chainsaw echo) that, for all intents and purposes, is Wyatt’s command center. She’s taunted via CB radio, and when she asks, “Who are you?” the straightness with which Wyatt answers, “Me? I’m nobody” delivers a chill on par with the everywhere-at-all-times presence he’s exhibited up to that point. Perhaps it’s a reach, but if Christ or Satan visited planet Earth today (in the most literal sense), it makes a certain amount of sense that they would walk among humanity incognito, rather than drawing excessive attention to themselves.

I’m not sure I can rationalize Wyatt as an analogue for Christ or Satan – Keating’s treatment of the character and Healy’s performance renders him almost innocuous –  but he judges his fellow humans based on his own perception (the film is light on explicit psychological insight). Does Scorpion Joe, with all his macho bluster, get a bullet to the head because of his lack of humility in the presence of someone – or something – greater than him? What of Wyatt’s absurd kindness (“HOW YA DOIN’?”) when he first meets Vivian? And what, especially, of Vivian getting the drop on Wyatt midway through, only for him to seemingly rise from the dead? “God’s Country,” indeed…

In an interesting aesthetic choice, Keating chooses to obscure Wyatt with a gasmask during the last half of the film, which raises the question: if John was covering up his actions, then who is to say that Wyatt also didn’t have other men prowling the hills? It seems unlikely that a solo sniper could orchestrate all of the sinister tableaus on display (including a camouflaged vehicle dumping-ground), given the area that would need to be covered. Also noteworthy: outside of the scene at the gate, there’s no definitive indicator as to where Wyatt’s land begins or ends; another subtle allusion to nature’s arbitrary boundaries, as well as the intangible, subjective spiritual boundaries that distance God from humankind.

An explanation that dances around the edges of Carnage Park is the possibility that Vivian, not unlike Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has been so driven to madness that her POV is unreliable by the end. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold much weight, as the film is initiated by Wyatt’s narration (and his murder of an unrelated victim). Nonetheless, I love Keating’s approach to the ending, which excises the deus ex machina of the Black Marina savior from Texas Chainsaw in favor of something as simple as a literal light at the end of a tunnel. While this may fluster some viewers, I found it perfect – in a place where God doesn’t play favorites, it’s up to us to find our way out of dire situations, whether self-imposed or foisted upon us.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com.  He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

(Carnage Park photo from AV Club.)

I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (2016) by Dee Emm Elms

[104 minutes. Not rated. Ireland/UK. Director: Billy O’Brien]

Understanding other people doesn’t just take skill. It takes effort. I should know: as an autistic person, I struggle mightily to understand other people. I can’t tell what someone is feeling from reading facial expressions or body language, the way most people can. But, at the same time, this puts me in a unique position to see what people do from an outsider’s perspective.

And I think that’s a part of why the film I Am Not A Serial Killer had such a profound impact on me.

Of course, we all bring elements from ourselves into the media we consume. But in this case, there’s more going on than that. The comparisons of what we are and what we consume and how the two things are linked together is a central theme in the movie.

I Am Not A Serial Killer centers primarily around telling us the story of a young man named John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records). The surname Cleaver immediately evokes the squeaky-clean white Americana of Beaver Cleaver, the central character of TV’s “Leave it to Beaver.” But it also evokes John Wayne Gacy, a real-life killer notorious for having been a would-be performing clown. But there’s less of a paradox at work than you might think because that contrast is central to who John Wayne Cleaver is: a young man who may be a sociopath – who not only recognizes that he has within him the capacity to be a serial killer, but is actively working not to be one.

That’s not a new premise. We’ve seen it in media for decades, up to and including recent television shows like “Dexter” and “Hannibal.” But these shows tend to treat serial murder like a drug-addiction, where a character’s thoughts tend to dwell on violent fantasies or the act of trying to resist giving in to what these stories present as some intensely-pleasurable urge the hero must keep secret. And it makes an unpleasant kind of sense for the writers to do this; it allows them the chance to engage in all the most lurid elements and excesses while still proclaiming that their heroes have a moral compass.

I Am Not A Serial Killer isn’t like that in a number of ways.

Even though the book (written by Dan Wells) on which the film is based is told in the first-person, film director Billy O’Brien wisely pulls back from hovering over Max’s shoulder in terms of storytelling. He instead gives us the broader perspective of an observer. Yes, we focus mostly on John, but we don’t get to hear what’s going on in John’s head. We don’t get the lurid details of John’s struggle. We must instead rely on the performances, and Max Records fulfills this with a blend of subdued delivery and sometimes-surprising non-verbal choices. There’s a deliberate nature to Max’s work as John that shows us just the faintest glimpses of the fight Max is waging to keep his good-natured heart.

But it isn’t just Max who carries the film. Karl Geary, as John’s therapist, Dr. Neblin, provides a welcome change from the inspirational advisor such a role usually entails. Geary smartly depicts Neblin as a thoughtful man trying to help his young patient figure out a path to success, but also as a man who isn’t afraid to confront the fact they’re learning and guessing and failing as they go along, together. Likewise, Laura Fraser’s portrayal of John’s mother, April, plays perfectly off of Max’s acting choices as we struggle to see into her conflict as her already-fragile faith in John’s willpower is put to the test. And Christopher Lloyd displays an agile balance between a wide variety of deep but subdued emotional states as John’s neighbor Crowley; Christopher and Max don’t actually share a great deal of screen-time together throughout the film’s runtime, but the moments when they are in the same place resonate with the skill of two actors who know how to hold back and still provide information to the audience. It’s these moments, when both of them are together that the film is at it’s most intense and impactful.

And what is that theme, exactly? Well, I contend that what the movie’s story tells us is that we sometimes need someone from the outside to tell us when things aren’t what they appear to be. That we need unusual perspectives to keep the world together. To keep us safe. To keep us alive.

We need someone who can recognize that there can be menace behind a smile. That sometimes love can look ferocious or angry or desperate. That a killer can be the man at the back of the church ceremony. That love can lead us to do terrible things, just as much as the supposed absence of love. That just because our own feelings don’t match what other people tell us those feelings are supposed to be like doesn’t mean that what we’re feeling is wrong or irrelevant. But most of all, sometimes the people who seem to act in strange or peculiar ways are the good guys, and sometimes the most pleasant people are the bad guys … while also simultaneously telling us that it’s not so easy as good guys and bad guys.

The theme of complicated heroism and villainy isn’t new either – but making it sincere and emotional is very uncommon. Usually, stories that depict “shades of grey” come off as cynical or hamfisted. Worse, they often paint the world as a place where caring or decency are “old-fashioned” ideals. That it’s somehow unevolved of us as human beings to believe in idealism.

I Am Not A Serial Killer isn’t like that.

Instead, it takes an oddly old-fashioned approach to its morality. It says that there are good people, and monsters, and that there’s a difference. The victories and defeats it depicts are rooted in the idea of people making moral choices – in a way that earns the last name Cleaver as more than a horror-movie/sitcom mash-up pun. This is a film that isn’t afraid to teach moral lessons in an up-front out-loud way. And I love it for being more than, say, the cynically-hateful moral flatline of works like Mark Millar’s Wanted or Kick-Ass – examples of films that deal with similar issues but come to “whatever, it’s all on you” non-conclusions.

I Am Not A Serial Killer makes statements about looking deeply into other people to find what matters in them.  And no matter who we are or how we think, that’s something we all need to do a lot more of in life.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Dee Emm Elms was born in 1972 in Glens Falls, New York. Dee writes about many subjects ranging from social justice issues to Lost In Space, and often mixes them together. Her favorite topic is horror, and horror movies in particular. Her novel Sidlings may be read at sidlings.com, and she would be pleased for you to check it out.  Dee may be contacted at her email sidlingsnovel@gmail.com, or her Twitter: @d_m_elms.

(Movie still from Uncrate. Dee Emm Elms photo via Dee Emm Elms.)

Before You Buy the DVD: BLAIR WITCH (2016) by Jonny Numb

[89 minutes. R. Director: Adam Wingard]

Summer, 2016. I took my seat in the theater and furrowed my brow at a trailer that seemed familiar. Kids in the woods. Handheld POV. Oops, someone dropped the camera! Blurbs from high-profile horror sites superimposed over panoramic aerial views of dense forests. Ominous, droning music.

The title? The Woods. Hmmm.

The connection to The Blair Witch Project was so transparent that part of me wouldn’t have been surprised had it been the type of De Palma-style homage that’s been all the rage with the horror kids these days. When it turned out to be a “surprise” sequel to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s 1999 original (under the more succinct Blair Witch), it somehow lacked the cleverness of the grassroots campaign those filmmakers committed themselves to in the early days of the Internet, fooling a good chunk of the public in the process.

So, is Blair Witch an actual sequel? As handled by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (whose erratic genre track record consists of A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, and The Guest), the seeds are there, but the setup is merely an excuse to poorly reconstruct the beats of the original.

But hey: at least the technology’s been upgraded (and will look outdated in 5 years)! And there’s plenty of unnatural-seeming shaky-cam! So, yay! By the way…bitchin’ drone, man!

I’ve said it before, but 2016 has been a year of films pushing the horror genre forward. Granted, even the best efforts have borrowed parts, but are smart in how they reconfigure them into fluid fear generators. Go figure that the critically adored Wingard and the reliable Rob Zombie have delivered two of the biggest disappointments of the year, for the express reason that they so cynically fall back on “what worked before” in the very wrongheaded assumption that horror fans won’t care.

Oh, we care. And we also hope your bid for mainstream success has a Plan B, since based on the evidence here, I would say fans of Asian cinema have valid reason to fear for your remakes of I Saw the Devil and Death Note.

So let’s go there: Blair Witch is the most blatantly cynical remake since that retread of The Omen (which seemed to exist solely for its stupid 6-6-06 release date). It truly is one of those films that does nothing but update technology and make explicit things that were scarier when implied, with predictably underwhelming results. There is nothing contained within its 89 taxing, all-too-familiar minutes that justifies its existence in the slightest.

Gone is the naturalistic feel of the 1999 film. Everything in this new version is calculated and staged within an inch of its life, and our unlikable campers – even the trailer-park yokels (one of whom you’ll recognize from TV’s The Following) – look like they’d rather be modeling underwear. Are they worth mentioning by name? As Wingard and Barrett give us no reason to care, the answer is a resounding NO.

The plot is a lot of “just because” nonsense. James (James Allen McCune), little brother to The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue, decides to follow in his sister’s footsteps and make a film documenting his attempt to find her in the woods of Burkittsville. His friends go along because, duh, they’re his friends. As well as Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a cinematographer/producer/I-don’t-know whose primary function seems to be keeping people sane by acting as ineffectual as possible. There is potential here: what if Heather, had she survived, reverted to a feral state in the woods, and established an alternative, primitive existence for herself – or, maybe better, reappeared as a conduit for the witch? Such development would’ve increased the emotional stakes, strengthened the character arcs, and given Blair Witch a desperately needed sense of purpose.

But that would suggest a film interested in matters of innovation and artistic integrity. (Just because it’s a remake or sequel doesn’t mean it has to be shit, but that is of no concern to Wingard and Barrett.)

The duo’s worst film, A Horrible Way to Die, ironically shows the most interest in character and setup, because it’s a perpetual wind-up device in service to a disappointing climactic payoff. In You’re Next and The Guest, the characters are hastily introduced and given flimsy pretexts for their actions, ignoring logic and reason. (We’re expected to follow along for no reason other than the promise of something “badass” occurring later down the line.) Wingard and Barrett are enemies of subtlety, and outside of some throwaway moments, nobody stops to question James’s thinking, or the legitimacy of the yokels who guide them into the woods. Characters wander off alone and are separated and inexplicably reappear and eventually die; there is nothing new here.

But remember to get some footage as you’re walking away from the vehicles, because that might foreshadow something.

On the technical side, Blair Witch is a mess. Cameras shake and fall; cutting is abrupt during action scenes; and sound effects are amplified in the name of desperate jump-scares. In other words, it reverts to the same lame tricks most mainstream horror films utilize to make lots of money these days. What’s it saying that the original still holds up – despite the countless imitators produced in its wake – and Blair Witch feels like the type of processed, shat-out imitation that most will see right through? By the time we reach a familiar (Blum)house at the climax, it’s a CGI affair punctuated by a perfectly-timed rainstorm, complete with lightning flashing through windows.

Seriously?

There were a few things I appreciated in Blair Witch: first is a unique death that, while lacking any sort of narrative logic, provides an unexpected jolt. Second is a sequence wherein a character finds herself in a tunnel beneath the house, pushing her way through an increasingly narrow space; this thrives off a sense of claustrophobia and the terror of something unknown waiting on the other side, and the minimal lighting – reminiscent of The Descent – adds to the dread. And when the aforementioned drone initially takes flight, it’s a genuinely vertiginous, majestic moment; too bad the filmmakers felt the need to repeat it two more times.

But if the worthwhile moments total under 5 minutes, you’ve failed pretty badly. To the horror sites that kept the (rather lame) “secret” of the new Blair Witch while praising all the good it would do for the genre, I hope the bump in traffic helped compensate for that weak sauce you so willingly sucked down.

1 out of 5 stars

(Deaditor’s Note: Blair Witch release date from Lionsgate is January 3, 2017.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) talks about horror movies at New Year’s parties and misses the countdown. His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com, and he judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Blair Witch photo from IndieWire.)