Monday, July 17, 2017

George A Romero: My Tribute

I can say, without the slightest shred of hyperbole, that I would not be the man I am today had it not been for George Romero.  It would be the farthest thing possible from an exaggeration to say that, despite the fact that I never met the man, or was ever even in the same room as him, his impact on my life is equal to, if not greater than, anyone who has ever walked the planet.  The death of an artist can be a very bizarre and complex phenomenon.  Those who mourn are often looked upon with scorn for placing so much emphasis on the passing of a public figure that, in the strictest terms, wasn’t a physical part of their world.  But for those whose lives were deeply touched by that person’s art, it can feel like the loss of a family member.  A beloved friend.  A mentor.  A hero.  Even a sort of spiritual figure.  That is the power that lies in the essence of art.  Art changes lives.  And I can honestly say that I have never felt an artist’s passing as intensely as I feel this one because George Romero’s art, in a very real and literal sense, profoundly altered the course of my life.  There would never have been a Son of Celluloid without him.  More importantly however, had it not been for one fateful viewing of Night of the Living Dead, I’m not even sure who Nathan Hamilton would be today.

In 1992, I was a very mixed up kid.  As the son of a Southern Baptist minister and a member of a traveling evangelistic family unit as a child, I had been fully indoctrinated.  Some would call it brainwashing.  From birth I was being groomed to carry on the family business.  But there was a side of me that I didn’t understand.  I had always found myself attracted to the darkness.  While others were preaching about Jesus healing lepers, I was enamored with the seven headed apocalyptic beasts in Revelations.  While my father talked about the resurrection from the pulpit, I was rendering the best gory-as-hell depictions of crucifixions my five year old art skills would allow on the back of church bulletins.  More than one concerned Sunday School teacher called my folks in for a conference when, upon being tasked with drawing a picture from a bible story, I turned in an image of David holding Goliath’s dripping, severed head aloft.

I was just doing what came natural to me, but it was always treated as some sort of derangement that needed to be fixed.  I was sick.  These urges were of the devil.  Why are you like this?  Why can’t you be normal?  Do you think this glorifies the Lord?  What’s the matter with you?  When your entire world view is based on sin and salvation, if you are told enough times by those you believe to be spiritual leaders that there is something deeply wrong with you, you start to believe it yourself.  If an impressionable child is prayed over to “take this wickedness from him” enough times, it will inevitably get inside their head.  And this is where I found myself in early October of 1992; with a deep seeded inner turmoil.  I was torn between my honest proclivity towards the macabre and the fear that these urges very well may be the work of infernal powers after all.  I didn’t know what to think.

Then came a night that, 25 years later, I still remember as vividly as a snapshot.  On my little black and white TV in my room, I discovered that some now long defunct and forgotten UHF station was about to show a movie called Night of the Living Dead.  I had heard the name somewhere before, and I knew I had to see it.  That night, basking in the glorious monochrome glow, I saw my first horror movie.  I wasn’t afraid.  I was mesmerized.  As the movie progressed, I slowly came to the realization that if this kind of entertainment existed, then there were more people out there like me.  Lots more.  Enough that they made movies just for them.  I was reveling in the things that fed my soul, the very things I had been taught to hate and fear, and nothing bad was happening.  I felt no satanic command to kill people.  My soul wasn’t being dragged to the abyss.  In fact, I was the happiest I had ever been.  Watching that movie felt… it felt like home.

When it  ended, I laid down in bed and thought long and hard.  Everything I had ever been taught said that what I had just done was wrong.  But everything within me had never felt so right.  It was in that moment that I decided that I no longer wanted to be what I was being made into.  I wanted to be who I actually was.  As I drifted off to sleep, that inner turmoil was gone.  In its place, I felt truly at peace for the first time I could remember.  The person that I would eventually grow into was born in that moment.  That’s why I call myself the Son of Celluloid.  Because I feel like that singular movie experience gave birth to the real me.  And although I now know that it takes a small army to make a film happen, in my 12 year old mind that realization, that conversion, was thanks to one man; the director.  George A Romero.  I guess, in a way, you could call him the Father of Celluloid.

About a year later, the first horror movie I ever purchased was, of course, Night of the Living Dead.   That beat to hell VHS still sits in my collection as the cornerstone of the horror obsession at the core of my being.  I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve watched it.  For years, I watched it as I went to sleep nearly every night.  The first thing I’ve done on my last 20 or so Halloweens is put that movie on.  When I went to film school, about 75% of my projects and essays were about his body of work (the other quarter were about Argento).  I always hoped, one day, that I would get to meet the man who changed my life and thank him.  When I started getting involved with the Days of the Dead conventions, I always hoped he would be there one year.  Sadly, our paths never crossed.  He was supposed to be the keynote guest in Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago.  I had that old VHS tape ready for him to sign.  I was finally going to meet the man who had meant more to me than he possibly could have ever known.  Truth be told, I probably would have blathered like an idiot or just frozen in the face of a man who, in my mind, had been built up to damn near Godlike status.  It was not to be, however.  He cancelled due to health reasons.  I was crushed, but held the hope that he would be healthy again when the next con came around.  Sadly, there will never be a next time.

This may have all sounded very maudlin and melodramatic to some of you, but my words are the only tribute I have for a man who, in a way that cannot be overstated, set me free.  It’s strange knowing that I now live in a world where the godfather of independent horror no longer walks among us.  I’m sure he knew his stature in the horror world.  I’m sure he’s been told countless times by countless filmmakers that he was their inspiration.  I’m sure he knew that, by creating the modern zombie, he changed the landscape of the genre forever.  I’m sure untold numbers of fans have made him uncomfortable professing their admiration for him just like I probably would have.  But I wonder if he knew just how far his influence transcended horror entertainment and touched the very hearts, minds, and lives of his fans and, in cases like mine, was a guiding force in who they would come to be.  My fondest hope is that he somehow did.

So now here I sit, watching Night of the Living Dead for the only god knows how many hundredth time.  In the past, I have watched this movie and thrilled.  I have watched this movie and marveled.  I have watched this movie and laughed.  I have watched this movie and been comforted.  I have watched this movie and learned.  I have watched this movie and adored every second of entertainment it has given me.  But tonight, for the very first time, I watch this movie and weep.  Thank you, George.  Not just for what you did, but for what you meant.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: Death-Scort Service

You may find this hard to believe, but the Son of Celluloid has, once or twice, been accused of being a movie snob.  I know, right?  Usually it’s when I’m proclaiming my love for something artsy-fartsy and high-concept.  Now don’t get me wrong.  While I have always loved the grindhouse, somewhere in the process of getting a film studies degree I developed an appreciation for the arthouse.  Sure, I love Jason and Freddy.  I love Kwaidan too, though.  Maybe a little Santa Sangre.  Even pretentious as hell stuff like Hour of the Wolf.  But sometimes, you want to dispense with all of the fancy bullshit and bask in as much gratuitous nudity and violence as possible.  We all love a good steak, but dammit, you’re craving a Whopper.  In other words, you want the simple pleasures.  And that’s where Death-Scort Service comes in.
Synopsis: Someone is killing hookers.

Yep.  That’s all the synopsis I’m giving you.  Why?  Because you’ll know from that if this is your type of flick.  Death-Scort Service isn’t particularly long on plot.  It doesn’t need to be.  It delivers exactly what you want from a flick like this, naked chicks getting dead.  And let me tell you, it offers up just that in abundance and to excess.
Let’s start with the nudity, shall we?  I would say that there is an at least semi-naked woman on screen for about 87% of the movie.  Yeah, I just pulled that number out of thin air, but it’s a pretty good estimate.  It’s definitely the “beyond R-rated” variety of nudity.  Not XXX, but pretty graphic.  Most of the actresses playing the non-clad ladies of ill repute are of the “Suicide Girl” variety, which is right up my alley.  Hell, this was a collaborative effort between Gatorblade Films and Sleaze Box.  With the SB boys involved, you know what you’re in for.  Naughty bits on display.  What’s not to love about that?
As for the gore, it’s exactly the kind of stuff that fans of low budget splatter (like me) eat up.  Low-fi and practical, just the way we like it.  A copious amount of the red stuff goes flying, dripping, and running.  Skin and entrails too.  This is the gore you loved in all of your favorite video store nasties.  Besides, Marcus Koch is involved, so you know it’s gotta be good.  I don’t want to get into details so as not to give any of the kills away, but suffice it to say they’re quite satisfying.  Well, except for one.  SLIGHT SPOILER:  There is one scene involving barbed wire.  Unfortunately, they used the same bad $5.99 fake barbed wire that you can get at any Party City.  It’s a shame, too.  Otherwise it’s a really cool, depraved scene that could have been legendary.  It might not bother some, but as a bit of an authority on barbed wire from my deathmatch work, that stood out like a sore thumb to me.  There is better prop barbed wire out there, guys.
Having discussed the gory and sexy stuff, the other aspects of the film are better than your average underground filth fest.  The acting is about what you’d expect from a flick like this.  Performances from the ladies range from “Damn, she’s pretty good” to “Damn, it’s a good thing she’s pretty.”  There are also appearances by two guys that are always welcome additions to any flick, Sleaze Box stalwart Bob Glazier and indie legend Joel Wynkoop.  The final twist/reveal of the killer’s identity works well.  I actually didn’t see it coming, which is saying something.  79 minutes is an optimum length, and the pace is pretty much perfect.

This movie manages to do exactly what a lot of the films of its ilk attempt but fail at; go to extremes with the graphic nudity and violence while capturing the feeling of a late 80’s/early 90’s shot on video gem.  As we saw with Die Die Delta Pi, director Sean Donohue has a firm grasp on what it takes to make an enjoyable slasher flick.  We’ve all been burned by films with great names that don’t live up to the promise of their titular glory.  I know exactly what you’re looking for from a flick called Death-Scort Service, and you need not worry.  It delivers the goods.  Death-Scort Service is sleazy, dirty, bloody, mean, nasty fun.  Nathan says check it out.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Review: Harvest Lake

Ever since the first scary stories were told around campfires, the genre has always been fueled by the intrinsic connection between fear and titillation. This libido-baiting is perhaps at its most effective and fascinating when dealing with the idea that true sexual ecstasy can only be found in the otherworldly, monstrous, and grotesque.  The ultimate kink.  It’s the reason many early boogie-persons (how’s that for PC?) took the form of Incubi and Succubi creeping into your bedroom at night for illicit, nightmarish encounters.  It’s the orgasm metaphor of Mina’s enthrallment to Dracula after that first bite.  It’s the heart of the Hellraiser franchise.  One of my favorite treatments is an old comic story called Jennifer, which was the inspiration for Dario Argento’s only moment of greatness since the 90’s.  Hell, it’s why there’s tentacle porn.  It’s also the central thrust (uh huh huh huh) of Harvest Lake.
Synopsis: Five friends fall under the seductive influence of a libidinous, otherworldly presence that threatens to change their lives forever.  
Harvest Lake comes to us from the formidable combination of Forbidden Films and Mostly Harmless Pictures.  Considering the track record of this creative collective (Found, Headless, Time To Kill, etc.), expectations are understandably high.  Harvest Lake does not disappoint.  It also isn’t at all what I was expecting. When Scott Schirmer (director) and Brian Williams (Director of Photography) came on the Picking Brains podcast and told Brad and I that they were making a “psychosexual erotic horror movie,” my mind went in sleazier directions.  If I hear “erotic horror,” I think Jess Franco.  I think Misty Mundae.  I think about that white-eyed, leather-clad demon chick that did the old Redemption Cinema DVD intros.  Don’t act like you don’t remember.  Those were awesome. 
Anyway, unless you’re new around here, you know that I have no problem whatsoever with sleaze. I’m a fan, in fact.   However, this isn’t that kind of movie.  Yes, the plot of the film is VERY sexual and there is a LOT of sexual activity in the film.  It does not, however, use its sex as a gimmick or simply for the sake of gratuitous T&A.  No, Harvest Lake wields its sex like a weapon.  It is the stream that the story itself rides along on.  Harvest Lake reminded me of Cronenberg’s Shivers in the way it uses sexuality to intensify the threat, making it more intimate and disturbing.
Also like that film, Harvest Lake is, deep down, a creature feature.  But the way it manifests said creature is varied and inspired.  Very rarely do we get a good look at the actual creature(s?).  Instead, most of the time we see the threat either through the lake itself, which functions as a proxy for whatever the hell it is, or the people under the monster’s influence.  It’s all very Lovecraftian, with the tentacled creature of unknown origin driving people to madness and mania through its hijacking of their primal urges.  That’s right, our unfortunate campers are getting it on with tentacle monsters.  Answering the Booty Call of Cthulhu, if you will.  It all culminates in the most bizarrely beautiful scene that you’re likely to behold for a good, long while.  
On the technical end, Brian Williams deserves a tremendous amount of credit.  Harvest Lake is an absolutely gorgeous film.  Not only did they choose a beautiful location to shoot in, but it’s perfectly photographed.  One of the things I’ve chided movies for in the last 15 years or so is the franticness of the visuals.  With average shot lengths of 3 seconds and cameras that never stop moving just for the sake of moving, it’s nice to see a director and cinematographer set up outstanding shots and then just let them speak for themselves.  Brian and Scott had the good sense to trust in their images enough to not resort to the cheap “shaky cam and overkill editing” tricks that plague the current movie landscape.  Between the cinematography and the editing, it’s a refreshing throwback to a style that many of today’s filmmakers sadly couldn’t pull off.
The acting also deserves special discussion.  There are a total of 7 people in Harvest Lake, with only 5 having dialogue and significant screen time.  With such a small cast, a weak link would have been immediately apparent and a huge detriment to the flick.  Luckily, there isn’t one.  I knew what to expect from Ellie Church and Tristan Risk; the cream of the current horror actress crop.  I’ve never seen a bad performance from either, and they both just keep getting better.  I was less familiar with the guys, who pleasantly surprised me.  I had only seen Kevin Roach in a couple of shorts before (The Confession of Fred Krueger, Bloody Hooker Bang Bang), and he turned in a hell of a performance.  Dan Nye and Jason Crowe were new to me, but both were excellent.  Not only was everyone effective in their individual roles, but they had the kind of on-screen chemistry that makes an ensemble cast like this more than the sum of its parts.
Issues with the flick?  Yeah, I’ve got one or two.  A couple scenes could have used a little tightening up.  There was a momentary sound-sync issue that will only bother eagle-eyed, over-analytical pricks like me. But those are small quibbles and pretty insignificant when talking about a flick this damn good.
Sex and horror have always been two great tastes that taste great together.  I mean, is there any more potent combination than tits and blood?  The “carnally debauched by the beast” trope has always been one of the most intriguing, but I’ve never seen it handled quite this way before.  In a genre where it seems there is truly nothing new under the sun, Harvest Lake took a classic idea, spun it in an original direction, and showed me things I have never seen before.  That is the highest praise I can possibly give a film.  It is exceptionally well executed; from the effects to the acting to the impressive visuals.  I think you’ll dig it as much as I did.  I’m not saying you’re gonna be running to bang the lake monster necessarily, but for the discerning independent horror fan, I highly recommend letting Harvest Lake seduce you too.  Nathan says check it out.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Son Of Celluloid Show Returns With Season 2

It's baaaaaaaaaaack. After a long hiatus, the Son of Celluloid returns with jokes from your favorite horror stars, reviews of Bobby Easley's films (River Runs Black, X, Boogeyman, and All Sinner's Night), Great Horror Quotes With Joe's Mom, the music of Calabrese, werewolf on alien violence, and titties!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore

I can’t decide if I was in no position or the perfect position to experience American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore the first time I saw it.  Let me explain.

The setting was Days of the Dead: Atlanta.  I was drunk to say the least.  That evening, I procured six edibles.  Yes, that kind of edibles.  Three pot brownies and three pot caramels.  My intent was to space them out and eat them over the course of the weekend.  I ate one immediately, then proceeded to continue drinking.  About 15 minutes before the screening, I decided to eat another as I found a seat.  As I sat down, I noticed a popular independent horror director sitting in front of me and handed him the other half of my brownie.  I’m not naming names.  I don’t wanna get anyone in trouble.  We’ll just say that his name rhymes with Madam Ballrant.  Anyway, I reached into my pocket to get another, and all I felt was empty wrappers.  It was then that the realization set in.  Throughout the course of a couple of hours of not paying attention and the drunken horror con social butterflying that my position as the horror scribe of Atlanta affords me, I had eaten all of them.  Jason Hoover later referred to it as “hero dosing.”  In other words, I was about to be FUCKED UP.  

As the movie began to run and it all kicked in at once, the thought “I really hope this is a long flick, ‘cause I’m not gonna be able to stand up for a while” crossed my mind.  Then, as I saw two women being abducted, I found myself incapable of doing anything but staring, slack jawed, at the screen.  For the next seventy-something minutes, I couldn’t look away.  I don’t think I even blinked.  It was like some Cenobite in the employ of Unearthed Films had affixed hooked chains to my eyelids, Clockwork Orange style, and was refusing to allow me even a momentary respite from the most intense gore I had ever seen being mainlined into my brain.    

I am happy to report that after a second viewing in a less drunk and far less stoned mindset, the movie retains its power.

For those unfamiliar with the Guinea Pig films, it was a series of seven (well, six and a “worst of”) Japanese ultra-gore films produced in the 80’s.  They became infamous after being found in a serial killer’s collection.  The apocryphal story of Charlie Sheen seeing Flower of Flesh and Blood (the second in the series and BOG&G’s spiritual father) and reporting to the FBI that he’d just seen a real snuff film is one of extreme cinema’s most beloved tales.  Now Stephen Biro, owner of Unearthed Films and the  American distributor of the Guinea Pig flicks, has undertaken the creation of another cycle, this one made in the good ol’ US of A.

Simply put, this is probably the most effective gore flick ever released.  What Marcus Koch has achieved here is a legitimate game changer.  This is a bold statement considering all of the flicks I’ve seen, but I have never seen gore effects this good before.  The way the skin moves when it’s cut.  The way the instruments catch on the bones.  The meticulous cross sections of severed limb stumps.  This is truly the masterwork of a man at the top of his game.  This is Marcus’ Day of the Dead, if you know what I mean. 

One complaint that you’re likely to hear about this film is that it has no story.  Well, yes and no.  There is no story in a traditional sense.  It’s the same as Flower of Flesh and blood in that the mutilation is the sum of the experience.  There is a higher concept and some intriguing symbolism (I’m still not sure what to make of some of it) if you’re inclined to look deep between the lines for it, but it’s definitely not out in the open.  The film is primarily concerned with being a real time chronicle of two women being dissected.  That’s it.  It’s an exercise in grueling atmosphere and visuals.  It’s an endurance test.  Speaking of which, people will say it moves slowly.  Those people missed the damn point.  There’s something either deliciously transgressive or sadistically nerve-wracking (depending on your perspective) about watching the clothes being slowly cut off of the ladies for a few minutes before the blood starts to flow.  It’s torturous foreplay.  It’s those agonizing minutes after being sent to your room but before a parent arrives for that whoopin’.  It’s those terrifying three seconds between stubbing your toe and the pain impulse reaching your brain.  The fact that it lingers on every minute detail forces you to feel rather than watch.

An aspect of filmmaking that is often unjustly overlooked is sound design.  To be honest, there’s not a hell of a lot of indie flicks whose sound you can say much nice about.  The sound design in this one, however, is superb.  As good as both the gore itself and the grim ambiance are, those aspects on their own wouldn’t shine nearly as much had the audio been entrusted to lesser hands.  Jimmy Screamerclaus takes an already potent brew and sends it over the top.

Caution: The next paragraph contains a slight spoiler.

One particular aspect of the film’s setup struck me as an absolute stroke of perverse genius.  Before their ordeal, the women are shot up with a nerve agent and given several drops from a medicine dropper.  When it is revealed that these drops were LSD, you immediately knew where the psychonauts in the crowd were by either a gasp or an “OH HELL NO!”  In addition to just being a unique and sick little addition to the proceedings, the real genius of that bit of business is that it adds a whole new level of identification for anyone in the audience who has done acid.  The camera may, literally and figuratively, be making the viewer share the gaze of the killers, but anyone who has ever dosed can’t help but imagine what it would be like to be tripping on the table.  You become trapped in the headspace of the victims, and it’s a truly harrowing idea.

Something happens at the end of this flick that caused a tremor in even some of the most hardcore members of the audience that night.  Hell, Madam Ballrant got up and walked the fuck out.  As the audio residue of that final image continued over the credits, we were left with the question, “Um, is it ok to applaud?  Can we do that while this is going on?”  It was a sublimely awkward moment.  As I filed out of the room with about two thirds of the people who were there at its start, I was pretty much silent until after a few shots and a couple of smokes.  AGP:BOG&G is the kind of flick you have to recover from.  Whether you’re looking for a breath of fresh air in the tired “faux-snuff” sub-genre, want to test your mettle (or that of your unsuspecting friends) with some depravity, or just want to marvel at an impressive practical effects achievement in the age of CGI, American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore is for you.  Those weak of stomach or constitution need not apply.  Nathan says check it out.
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