April 2008

Livelihood

In 1988, things werent going too well for glam-rocker Billy Jump (Steve Thomas). After falling out with his bandmates he locked himself in his dressing room and embarked on a drink and drug fuelled night of excess, ultimately electrocuting himself with his own guitar.

Jumping forward to the present, corporate zombie, Alexander (Scott Graham) dreams of the perfect life, so much so that he is unable to recognise just how far his reality is from the ideal. His wife hates him, his boss despises him and – while stuck in the office late one night – he finds himself making a sharp exit from the land of the living.

And finally we meet Vida (Michelle Trout), the mother-in-law from hell who manages not only to make life miserable for her daughter in law, Jean (Amy Smith) but also to keep Roger (Lewis Smith) - her son - from achieving anything. Eventually Jean takes matters into her own hands and Vidas days, too, are numbered.

Then the dead start rising from their graves. But these arent your usual zombies and they arent hungry for either human flesh or brains. For the most part, these bewildered individuals attempt to return to their homes and their former lives. With Billy, Alexander and Vida we have three stories to carry us through to the end of the film. And what a film it is.

Although listed as a horror/comedy, this film is very much a comedy which happens to have zombies in it. Its peppered with jokes – both visual and verbal – many of which are laugh out loud funny. But the film is much more than just a collection of jokes. Not only is both the plotting and characterisation is very strong indeed but the acting is also very solid throughout and really does bring these characters to life – or unlife, as the case may be.

Billy, the deadest of our dead heroes – and the most obviously decomposed – sees his unlife as an opportunity to resurrect his career and achieve the musical credibility that previously eluded him. However, in setting out to reform his band he discovers that not only has the world changed, but so have the people he once knew.

Forced to speak in the glammiest of glam falsettos just to make himself understood, Billy is a great character. Hes not always the most sympathetic character as he rediscovers both the world and starts trying to track down his his former bandmates, but you do get a very real sense of who he is and where he is coming from. There is a rich seam of comedy gold in these parts of the film that is thoroughly mined and growing likeability of the characters is such that when they do finally get on stage, you find yourself both cheering for them and laughing at the sheer absurdity of a zombie rock band.

Meanwhile Alexander, thoroughly rejected by his wife, tries to return to his old job only to discover that he has been replaced by a computer program.

Alexanders story is probably the strongest of the three as he struggles to cope with a menial job, no home and starts to face up to just how awful his former life was. He becomes a genuinely sympathetic character and, as the film progresses, I really did find myself rooting for him.

Vidas story is probably the weakest of the three. This is not to say that it doesnt have its moments, and there are some very funny scenes here – especially when Roger leaves for a business trip. The problem is that the other two thirds of the film set the bar so high that this tale of warring women feels a little too reliant on caricature and gross-out humour.

Livelihood is the most original zombie film Ive seen in a long time. Acknowledging, but then ignoring, pretty much all of the stereotypes that have come to define this genre, this film delivers a set of very funny stories about some very well rounded and genuinely interesting characters.

The fact that the film also manages to incorporate several very funny digs at consumerism, commercialism, exploitation and racism is a very definite bonus.

The Horror Vault

Anthologies can be strange beasts. By bringing together a variety of short films, this format can often provide an opportunity for audiences, without much risk, to see films from writers and directors they may otherwise be unaware of. Anthologies also provide an opportunity for filmmakers to experiment with styles and themes and to show off what theyre capable of.

Inevitably a film such as this one, which brings together nine films around a common theme of madness and cruelty, is going to be a mixed bag. But its a mixed bag thats well worth looking into and one which manages to maintain a consistently high standard throughout.

After a nicely retro nod to the grindhouse/midnight movie concept with a couple of fake trailers (the first of which Id quite like to see as a full film) were into the feature presentation with When John Met Julia, a short and strikingly effective story of murder and revenge starring Kim Sønderholm and Claire Ross-Brown.

Delusion is a much larger film and one that successfully evokes the gothic dramas of the 1950s and early 60s. Set in a society ball, the film centres on Flynn Bentwood (Jonathon Trent), a young man with a secret to protect. Paranoia descends into madness in this superbly realised piece of double period fiction – it really does feel like youre watching a 1950s film set in the 1920s – and the ending is both shocking and inevitable.

Alone has a much more 1980s feel and centres on Ellen (Mandy Amano) a young woman alone in her sorority house when she discovers theres a killer on campus. The film is certainly well made – if a little heavy on the voice-over – and writer/director Kenny Selko has a real feel for atmosphere. Unfortunately the film also has an air of predictability to it and really needed more of a twist ending to keep it from becoming too clichéd.

Dead to the World brings us back to the present day with an experimental take on the Ted Bundy story. This was possibly the most frustrating films in the collection because, although some potentially interesting themes are hinted at, the length of the film didnt really allow them to be developed. Consequently the short felt like the opening scenes of a longer – and better – feature.

Mental Distortion, on the other hand, is exactly the right length and tells the story of Pete (Kim Sønderholm) who wakes up to discover his wife, dead in the bath. This is a genuinely creepy film and one that really did give me the shivers.

Disconnected is painful, very painful. Not only is the film is very violent, its also both graphic and explicit to the point that it becomes difficult – if not impossible – to watch at times. However all of this is more than redeemed by a brilliantly absurdist punchline that is impossible not to appreciate.

Things take a turn for the surreal with the Demon, a dialogue-free tale that centres on a man haunted by his own ghosts. This is a stylish, striking and unnerving film that manages to keep you completely off-balance as to what is real and what isnt, right up to the genuinely powerful conclusion.

Things stay surreal with Echoes in which a man wakes up, handcuffed to a bed, in what appears to be a dilapidated nursing home. This film is drenched in atmosphere and really does draw you into the events on screen. The film is sweaty, scary and genuinely unnerving.

And finally there is Retina which is both surreal and nihilistic but shot through with a dark streak of absurdist humour. The film is unique, gripping and impossible to do justice to.

Overall, The Horror Vault manages to be funny, frightening, scary and surreal. If this film is indicative of the state of independent horror then the genre is in very good shape indeed.

Circulation

Circulation is certainly a strange film, so much so that I had to watch it twice to fully appreciate what was going on. However, since this is also a very well made film, the second viewing was very far from being a chore.

Set in Californian desert, the film centres on two main characters; Gene (Sherman Koltz) and Ana (Yvonne Delarosa). Ana is a Mexican woman on her way to visit her new boyfriend when her car breaks down. Unfortunately for Ana the first person to find her stranded is her ex-husband.

One attempted kidnapping later, Ana pulls herself from the wreckage of a car crash and meets Gene, a retired trucker who is heading south for a vacation. He agrees to give her a lift and they encounter the first of their problems – Ana speaks no English and Gene speaks no Spanish.

However, she manages to make herself understood and Gene agrees to take her to the hotel where she has arranged to meet her boyfriend. But when she arrives it is very far from what she expected. The hotel is not only deserted but derelict as well. When she encounters a man hiding in the abandoned building, and when the man growls at her, she flees the building with Gene.

What emerges as the film progresses, and as Ana and Gene try to understand what is happening to them, is that none of these characters is alive. They are trapped in Purgatory, but this is a strange, animal purgatory in which the dead are learning the instincts that they will need when they are reborn. Genes behaviour is becoming increasingly spider-like while Ana finds herself taking on the behaviour of caterpillar

Although Circulation is listed as a horror/fantasy film it really is a unique piece of cinema that defies any sort of easy genre classification.

The film progresses at a very steady pace and, instead of falling back on familiar genre tropes, relies on the performances from both the lead characters to draw you into their world and to keep you hooked. And they are very strong performances indeed.

Both Koltz and Delarosa do a great job of really bringing their characters to life as they navigate their way through the genuinely dreamlike world that writer/director Ryan Harper has created. And its these performances that really hold the film together.

Harper trusts the audience to not need spoon-feeding and this is an approach that I thoroughly appreciate. However, the surrealism of the film does mean that you are sometimes unsure of what is going on. When this happens, it is the depth of the characters that keeps you engaged, wanting to know how things will develop and willing to stay with the film as its events unfold.

This is probably the most idiosyncratic vision of an afterlife I have seen filmed, which is very much to the films credit. Circulation is a genuinely original film and one that really does reward repeated viewings.

The Deed to Hell

The Deed to Hell certainly starts strongly with a man – riddled with bullet holes – staggering into a tattoo parlour. We soon learn that the man (Frank Franconeri) is called Andy and that this unlucky would-be robber has been the victim of the double-crossing Sal (Glenn Andreiev).

Andy isnt the only person who has been double-crossed by Sal and, recognising that its time to get out, he leaves the country, heading for Europe. On the plane he meets Lynell (Shawna Bermender) who is heading to Paris in the hope of meeting touring rocker Zad Zolock (James Ian Rankin).

Lynell, we later learn, is having an affair with Vince (Roy Frumkes), the hen-pecked husband of harridan Anna (Wendy Marquez), a woman for whom keeping up with the Joneses is less of an obsession than it is a religion.

Rather than being a single linear narrative, The Deed to Hell gives us three interlinked stories all of which revolve around the same characters and themes. This approach is remarkably effective, primarily because of the script.

This is a very well plotted film in which the various narrative strands hold up very well, both as individual stories and as part of the overarching plot. Although there are a few jarring moments, these stories do fit together in a nicely consistent manner and connect to each other in a way that feels reasonably unforced.

It also helps, of course, that where it matters the acting is consistently reliable. Shawna Bermender puts in a very strong lead performance and Wendy Marquez does a great turn as the materialistic mother who cant see how destructive her Behaviour is.

Also worth a mention is Frank Franconeri who, although he spends much of the film in a hospital bed, manages to bring real depth to his character – the first to have seen a glimpse of what lies beyond. And it isnt pretty. Unfortunately, this brings me to the one real weakness of the film.

Although pitched as a horror film, The Deed to Hell is more a cross between a crime film and a dysfunctional family drama with some horror/fantasy elements thrown in. The problem here is that the horror elements jar a bit with the rest of the film and feel more like a religiously inspired addendum than an integral part of the plot.

That said, Glenn Andreiev has made a very ambitious film and one that does intelligently address some genuinely interesting themes of revenge, redemption, pride, avarice and the way in which our actions can cave unintended consequences for those around us.

This is the second of Andreievs films that I have seen and he is clearly improving as a filmmaker. The Deed to Hell is worth checking out if you get the chance, but I think his next film could be well worth looking forward to.

Jesus Versus The Messiah

When Sally (Gemma Deerfield) has a run-in with a local pub bully she is helped out by Jay (Simon Phillips), a slightly wet character who means well. Then it becomes Sallys turn to help Jay, whose full name turns out to be Jesus.

When Sally returns to the pub the following day to retrieve Jays wallet, she runs into a large and dangerous cowboy dude (Danny Idollor) who is looking for Jay. And if Jay is Jesus, then the Messiah is here to make sure that he finally goes through with his crucifixion.

Of course, none of this is immediately apparent to Sally – who also has her own reasons for not wanting to be found – and she and Jay head north.

Although Sally is a very well grounded character, there is a deliberate element of uncertainty about both Jay and the Messiah. Writer/director, Alan Ronald has been very careful to avoid giving any clear indication as to whether the two men really are who they think they are or whether Sally has managed to get herself caught up in someone elses delusion. That said, I found it very easy to buy into Jay as Jesus on the run and I had no problem accepting The Messiah as, well, The Messiah.

This probably says something about me, but it also says a lot about how well written the main characters are. All three of these individuals are very well drawn, completely rounded, and thoroughly believable. All of this makes for some very engaging characters who very quickly draw you in to their world and keep you wanting to know how things are going to pan out.

It helps, of course, that the acting is so strong throughout. All three of the main cast – and the more minor characters, for that matter – put in excellent performances and really do bring their characters consistently to life.

Jesus Versus the Messiah is a very character centred film, and this approach allows the plot to flow in a very natural manner. Nothing is forced and, by allowing the story to emerge from the developing relationships between the characters, Alan Ronald manages to maintain a narrative that remains consistent, believable and utterly enthralling.

When all of this is combined with a collection of great one-liners, and a genuinely moving ending you have a film that is well worth tracking down.