Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: I Spill Your Guts

Watching James Balsamo’s new flick, I Spill Your Guts, and to an extent his first film Hack Job, is kinda like having my most recent ex-girlfriend tell you a story. It’s a very “stream of consciousness” storytelling style. There is a central through line, and it will end up at the right place, but on the way there it will meander, split off, and follow tangents; weaving in and out of itself so many times that occasionally you forget what the actual story was until you unexpectedly find yourself back in it. The difference is, with I Spill Your Guts, at the end of the approximately hour and a half long experience, you are left entertained and glad that you went for the ride instead of just being glad it’s finally over. Also, I doubt the movie would get all butthurt if you start singing “The Neverending Story” at it. There is one similarity between the flick and one of (name withheld)’s grueling stories though, if you find that the movie isn’t working for you for one reason or another, you always have the option of just zoning out and focusing on the tits.

Synopsis: “Two friends Dennis and Joe join the military together. While on a routine mission, the two are quickly surrounded by enemy fire. When Joe stands up in the line of fire to run, Dennis pushes him out of the way and takes a bullet in the throat. Dennis wakes up in hospital to find Joe rewarded as a hero. Joe told a lie and took all the glory, and Dennis was left as a mute from the accident. Dennis can't talk, but actions speak louder then words. The two return home to N.Y. and now the war rages in the streets. Dennis wants revenge on Joe, so he will kill everyone close to him. One little lie will cost so many innocent lives.”

One of the things I enjoy about finding a director early on in their career is watching the evolution of their work. I really enjoyed Hack Job (REVIEW) as a first feature, and it’s interesting to see Balsamo’s progression as a filmmaker. One of the main differences between the two movies is that this time Balsamo went for a single story instead of an anthology. To be honest, with how “all over the place” Hack Job was, I had my doubts as to whether or not he could pull off a feature length plotline. He does so quite well actually. As I mentioned, it does swerve all over the path, and we see the writer/director’s penchant for asides like showing a music video in the middle of the flick or a scene involving wrestling that has nothing to do with the central plot, but it’s not a problem. He definitely makes it work and the central story stays strong. In I Spill Your Guts, the schizophrenic energy of Hack Job has actually gelled into a legitimate, discernable filmmaking style. Those who subscribe to auteur film theory could make an interesting study out of Balsamo. He even manages to skillfully use social commentary without becoming preachy, a feat that some of the genre’s old masters even have trouble pulling off.

While it does maintain a sense of humor, ISYG is far less silly than HJ. The story of a veteran coming home from war and turning psychotic and homicidal is not exactly new. That motif has been used in films like Forced Entry, Combat Shock, Death Dream, The Ravager, The Exterminator, Targets, Cannibal Apocalypse, Bayou, and others. The “revenge for stolen glory” angle is a new twist, however, which is always appreciated in the often derivative world of low budget filmmaking. Not only is the story fresh, but The American Executioner (who Balsamo also portrays) is a great character. The camo army jacket paired with that genius American flag mask is a look that stands side by side with some of the classic slashers of horror history. I would like to see him return, as I think the character has franchise potential.

Another thing I dug about this flick was the gritty New York City atmosphere. The film manages to capture that seedy, grimy, dangerous, 42nd Street quality of a bygone era of the Big Apple. It’s the same atmosphere that helped make films like Maniac, Basket Case, Frankenhooker, and Driller Killer so good. The sleaze is palpable. It’s something I haven’t seen done right in a horror flick since the ACTUAL grindhouse era, and it’s impressive that this one was able to pull it off.

The sleaze factor is, of course, helped by the fact that there is a copious amount of nudity. We never go more than a few minutes without some eye candy. The movie is bursting with bountiful bare breasts and flush with full frontal fun. James, you’ve definitely got a good handle on the basics buddy.

The soundtrack will be a polarizing feature of the flick. Metalheads will love it. Others, maybe not so much. Some will say that the soundtrack overpowers the movie, but I contend that this soundtrack is so integral to the film that it is a character in and of itself. Featuring metal bands like Cannabis Copse, Suffocation, Ghoul, Mausoleum, Skeletonwitch, and way too many more to list, this is definitely the best movie soundtrack since, well, James’s last movie. For the horror punk lovers like me, there are also contributions from Calabrese, Order of the Fly, Thee Flanders, Nightmare Sonata, and the almighty Bloodsucking Zombies From Outer Space. Trust me, this flick could attain cult classic status based on its music alone.

As is becoming his trademark, Balsamo has jam-packed I Spill Your Guts with cameos. Of course Uncle Lloyd is in there. Dave Brockie (aka Oderus Urungus from GWAR), Debbie Rochon, and Lynn Lowery also make a return. We get cameos by the incomparable John Link (Spiderbabe, The Collective vol. 2) and Tim Dax (Mr. Bricks, CSI). Andrew W.K. drops in to get his head split. The movie features some great independent film directors in acting roles, like Joel Reed (Blood Sucking Freaks, Bloodbath), Tim Ritter (the criminally underrated Truth or Dare series), and Donald Farmer (I Will Dance On Your Grave: Cannibal Hookers, Savage Vengeance). We even get to see ECW legend Balls Mahoney nearly cave someone’s skull in with a steel chair. These cameos run the gamut from a five second long non-sequitur (Brockie) to a major role in the story (Rochon), and playing “spot the cameo” makes for an additional dimension of fun for the viewer.

As far as the gore goes, it was damn good. Really damn good. Some of the kills are downright brutal, and that “getting head” scene was a classic. The final kill in the junkyard was awesome. I love that the effects were all practical, and they look great. There were a couple of kills that occurred mainly off screen though, and a couple that looked clipped for some reason. I understand that it was probably a budget thing. Like I said, there is plenty of gore on display, but with a title like I Spill Your Guts, I kinda expected an over the top, “paint the entire set red,” full on Das Kommabrutale style splatterfest. Then again, I’m horror-jaded as hell, and there’s no such thing as enough gore in my mind (I think Dead Alive still could have used more blood), so take that with a big ‘ol grain of salt. I do tend to ask for far too much as far as the grue goes.

The only thing I can really call this flick out on is the sound. Just like its predecessor, there are issues with the sound mix. The musical interludes are far louder than the dialog scenes, and the transition can be jarring. That needed to me smoothed out some. Seriously, that’s the only thing I didn’t like here. Well, there is the fact that the opening news footage was re-used later in the movie. That was kinda redundant. Other than those two things it was all good. Sure, there is some shaky cam, but the vast majority of it is first person, so it makes sense. That’s more than I can say for a lot of big budget studio releases these days. Sure a few of the performances are amateurish, but that’s to be expected, and the really good performances (especially the one by newcomer Billy Walsh) more than make up for that. Now if they would just fix that damn sound.

Random Thought #1: I absolutely love the Acid Bath Productions title animation. Love it. It cracks me up no matter how many times I see it.

Random Thought #2: All of the grammar in the text was right this time. Excellent.

Random Thought #3: Kelli Lynn Sage, who plays Heather, is insanely hot.

I had a blast watching this film, and I mean every word of praise I’ve given it, but I would be remiss if I didn’t throw out the same warning I did
with Balsamo’s last flick. This is a “Video Fringe” film. Read the Hack Job review if you don’t know that term. It’s not glossy, it’s not “state of the art” from a technical standpoint, and it isn’t mainstream. It doesn’t have big budget gloss. It doesn’t have the current star from that CW teen drama. It doesn’t have contrived, safe scares. You know what else it doesn’t have? CGI. I love that. What it does have is originality, heart, soul, and balls. It also has some awesome death scenes and a killer soundtrack. Oh, and boobs. Can’t forget the boobs. What I’m saying is this, if you can’t get beyond the sanitized, hollow, cookie cutter drivel that studios are trying to pass off as “indie horror flicks” these days, then this probably isn’t for you. If you love a low budget, rough around the edges, fun as hell, truly independent horror flick with a head on its shoulders and another on the sidewalk, you will dig I Spill Your Guts just like I did. I can’t wait to see what Acid Bath serves up next. Both Hack Job and I Spill Your Guts are currently available from Wild Eye Releasing (LINK). One and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review: South of Heaven

This review originally appeared at

Have you ever seen a movie and wondered how it was pitched or what the Initial production meetings looked like? In the case of South of Heaven, I can see it as clear as day. This probably didn’t happen, but it’s my review, so I get to imagine it the way I want to, dammit. Picture, if you will, a bird’s eye view of a table in the middle of a room dimly lit by a single naked light bulb above the table. Half empty whiskey bottles litter the table, and cigarettes smolder in ashtrays. As we pull in to see people sitting around the table, the sounds of arguing grow louder. One man says, “We should make a comic book movie!” Another retorts, “No, we should make a neo-noir crime flick.” Yet another interjects, “I say we make a western!” Someone else pipes up “But I want to make a black comedy.” We cut to a POV shot from the head of the table as everyone continues to argue, talking at once. Over the din of the spirited discussion, someone clears their throat. Everyone falls silent and looks toward the camera. A man sits back in a chair, his features hidden in the shadows. “Gentlemen…” he says as he leans forward, revealing writer/director J.L. Vara, “…why don’t we just make them all?” One of the other men looks panicked and says “But we only have the money to make one movie!” An extreme close up of Vara’s mouth reveals a sly grin crossing his lips as he says “I know.”

Synopsis: When Roy Coop finished his stint in the Navy, he only had two things on his mind: seeing his brother Dale, and writing the great American novel. What he gets, however, is the homecoming from Hell! A pair of violent vaudevillians (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE’s Jon Gries, and Thomas Jay Ryan) mistake Roy for his brother, looking to collect on a debt he didn’t know he owed. Eight fingers later, Roy is burnt to a crisp, forged by fire into a new man. Roy is dead. Nobody is born. Now it’s Nobody’s turn to have his wicked revenge, and to save his brother before it’s too late. Wrapped in bandages and ready for blood, Nobody is determined to kill those that get in his way, even the murdering masochist named Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham, MACHETE and HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE). Dodging bullets and dodging dames, Nobody meets the nasty ne’er-do-wells Lily (Diora Baird, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING) and Veronica (Elina Lowensohn, SCHINDLER’S LIST). In this wonderful neo-film-noir, violence and vengeance are sure to meet in a little town they call… South of Heaven.

There are three things that make South of Heaven something special. The first one, which will reach out and grab you immediately, is the visual style. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like a comic/noir/western/euro/kids book. One of the major factors that played in to the great look of the film is that it was shot on 35mm film. It has a warm, textured, film look that is so much better than digital. The main reason the flick has such a unique look, however, is that everything is manufactured on set and in camera. There is no CGI and no green screen. It’s all painted backdrops and rear projection and practical effects. The colors are vibrant, and the animated sequences are great. The comic book look reminded me a bit of Dick Tracy. The lush palate serves as a nice counter point to the sometimes very dark, violent story.

The set design deserves special mention. The house we spend the first portion of the film in is gorgeous. It has a black and white motif, bringing the noir aspects to mind, but strangely Lina Romay would not look out of place at all lounging around naked on that set in a 70’s Jess Franco Eurosleaze film. There are no actual exteriors in the film, all of the outside shots are shot on a sound stage. The painted desert (pun intended) backdrop to the outdoor shots at Mad Dog’s hideout and the town of South of Heaven smacks of the Loony Tunes desert populated by Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner. The interiors of the cabin where most of the action in the second half takes place would look equally at home in a horror flick as it would a western. These sets never look realistic, lending the movie a dreamlike quality that makes it truly unique. It kinda feels like someone painted bold watercolors in a coloring book and set a demented little movie in it.

The second thing, and the one that absolutely blew me away in this movie is the acting. The casting is perfect, particularly the centerpiece of the movie, Shea Wigham. Holy shit he is amazing in this flick. I mean, this is award worthy acting. I was only previously familiar with him from Boardwalk Empire. No, I haven’t seen Wristcutters, yes I know I should, and no you’re not the first person to tell me that, so give it a rest. Anyway, he positively owns the screen every moment he is on it. Mark my words, once Shea breaks into the upper echelon of the acting business where he belongs, this will be that early indie gem of his that people go back, discover, rave about, and try to claim that they saw it and recognized his talent “before the mainstream did”; so catch this flick now before the hipsters discover it in a couple of years.

The supporting cast is phenomenal too. The brothers Nee are good as the brothers Coop. Jon Gries and Thomas Jay Ryan are hilarious as a pair of Vaudevillian villains. I mean hilarious. I would love to see them as recurring characters in other movies. The beautiful Diora Baird (Night of the Demons remake, Stan Helsing, etc.) gives the best performance of her career, and Elina Lowensohn is pitch perfect as the classic film fatale vamp. I was ecstatic to see Joe Unger, best known as Tinker from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, show up. He’s always a welcome addition. Hell, we even get a cameo from none other than George “The Animal” Steele.

The third thing is the screenplay. As good as J.L. Vara is as a director, I think his true gift is his writing. His script is almost as much of the star of this flick as Whigham is. The dialog is simply genius. It’s on par with any dialog Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith has ever written. I know that’s a heavy statement, but it’s true. At times it almost seems to have been written for the stage. There’s one speech that Mad Dog gives about a dancing chicken that is absolutely one of the best soliloquies I’ve seen in a movie since…well, ever. Like I said, the actors do a bang up job, but a significant amount of the credit for the success of the characters has to go to the masterful writing.

There are a couple of missteps in the flick, though. Some of the makeup, particularly the prosthetics in the early attacks on Nothing, look great. Some of the makeup, however, looks terrible. I can understand that possibly being a budgetary issue, but I’ve seen better burned faces done with stuff from Party City. Near the end of the movie there’s a section where Mad Dog leaves Dale and Lily alone in the cabin for a while, and these scenes drag, causing some real pacing issues. Cutting them by a couple of minutes would have helped immensely. Then again, Mad Dog is such a great character and Whigham is such a great actor that maybe it’s just his abrupt absence that these scenes suffer from. There was also one directorial choice I didn’t dig. There are references to 80’s music spread throughout the movie. Early on in South of Heaven there is a stylized instrumental version of a song by The Cure used. From there on, I was listening to the score and trying to catch other songs. The problem is, there aren’t any as far as the score goes. The characters sing the other songs. I found it distracting to play name that tune with the score without there being a payoff. I would have used the Cure song later in the flick, but maybe that’s just me.

As usual, Synapse gives us a nice DVD package. We’ve got a nice transfer of the movie. I can’t speak for the Blu-ray, but the DVD preserves the great look of the 35mm film. As far as the special features, we’ve got not one, not two, but THREE commentaries; one with the filmmakers, one with the cast, and one with some critics. We also get three of Vara’s short films; Miserable Orphan, Azole Dkmuntch, and A Boy And His Fetus. They’re all entertaining on their own and show the progression towards the skill he would show in the feature.

Random Thought: There’s one scene that, when I saw it, I wondered if it was an homage to a 1978 flick that I love called Blue Sunshine. On the commentary, Vara confirms that it was. I like him even more now.

I go back and forth from wondering what these guys could have done with a budget and being glad they didn’t have one. Half of me would love to see what these filmmakers and their stylistic sensibilities would have done with a couple million dollars. However, I think a lot of the film’s look that I enjoyed so much was a product of the inventiveness and ingenuity that comes with having to stretch $4000 enough to make a whole movie. Yes, I said $4,000. No, I didn’t forget any zeroes.

South of Heaven is exactly what I’m looking for when I pop in a no budget indie flick; something that can’t afford to show me what Hollywood can, so instead they show me something I’ve never seen before, which I would rather see any day. To call South of Heaven quirky would be like calling Gary Busey slightly eccentric, but it doesn’t try to get along on that quality alone. It’s well made and amazingly written. What I wanna know is how something like this takes four years to get distribution (it was made in 2008) but crap like Chernobyl Diaries goes from idea to screen in a year. In other words, this flick is a clear illustration of what’s right with indie filmmaking today and what’s wrong with Hollywood. One and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out. Ok, I was a good boy and resisted all during the review, but I can’t hold it back anymore… Before you see the light, you must diiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeee!
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