Monday, July 30, 2012
Thursday, July 26, 2012
Thursday, July 12, 2012
I love Nazis. There, I said it. I love Nazis. Now before you either go all torch wielding mob on my ass or start Seig Heil-ing me and invite me to your next skinhead party, let me explain. I love Nazis in movies. Has there ever been a better villain? The connotations they carry, the pure evil they represent, the legends you can play on, and the potential for sheer weirdness make them almost can’t fail exploitation and horror fodder. Nazi zombies? I’m in. Nazi-sploitation sleaze? Sign me up. Nazis keeping Hitler’s brain alive in a jar? I’m there. Nazi human experiments? Lets do it.. Nazis running afoul of ghosts? Oh hell yeah. People hunting down Nazis? Count me in. Hell, you can have Nazi teddy bears sniffing flowers for an hour, and I’ll watch it. You start mixing in the whole Nazi Occult thing and you’ve got me hook, line, and sinker. In other words, there’s no way I couldn’t watch Wicked Pixel’s Ratline, and I’m glad that I did.
Synopsis: In a flash of blood-drenched violence, Crystal Brewer’s life has taken an unexpected turn. On the run from the law for her part in a gruesome drug-money heist gone wrong, she has become seduced into a seedy underworld of death and betrayal. Escaping into the night with her half-sister Kim, Crystal seeks refuge in a small Midwestern town to make sense of her life-threatening ordeal. However, any plans for solace are soon derailed when she crosses paths with Frank Logan, a mysterious stranger with a bloody history of his own. Crystal’s initial intrigue with Logan’s sinister allure soon gives way to sheer terror as his vile intentions for her are revealed. As a new wave of violence threatens to destroy those close to her, Crystal is forced to make a terrifying decision. Will she stop Logan before more innocent blood is spilled? Or will she join him in resurrecting an evil that could consume the world?
Before Ratline I had only seen two flicks directed by Eric Stanze; Scrapbook, which I was very impressed with, and I Spit On Your Corpse, I Piss On Your Grave, which I was, um, less impressed with. Both of these were quite extreme in both the sex and violence departments, so I was expecting more of the same. Ratline actually ended up being more restrained. There is some pretty hardcore violence mind you, including a lot of beheadings and copious amounts of the red stuff, but the violence wasn’t of as much of a depraved nature as in the other flicks I’d seen. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it was missing a lot of the sexual aspects of the violence. Dammit, now I have that old Bush song stuck in my head.
The movie was actually extremely restrained in the sexual department compared to the two afore mentioned flicks. Yes, there’s both female and male full frontal nudity, which seems to be a prerequisite in a Stanze film, but there isn’t much sexual content. In fact, there was one moment where I was sure we were going to go full on lezbo-palooza, but instead we pulled back and had an awkward, yet tender, almost cute moment. As disappointed as I was at the lack of girl on girl lovin’, I think it’s a good direction for Stanze. I’ve seen him decried by some critics as just a “shock value” director. With Ratline, he proves that he’s much more than that. From his work that I’ve seen, and what I understand of his work that I haven’t, this is his most …I hesitate to use this term because of its negative connotations…mainstream work to date. It’s dark, gritty, violent, and intense enough for extreme horror fans, but it’s also accessible and engaging enough to draw in some of the more casual fans. That’s a very difficult line to walk, and Ratline does it quite deftly.
This flick crams a lot of stuff into the story. That’s one of the things I love about independent horror, these kind of convoluted stories make for some truly unique plots. We’ve got two women on the lam from criminals they screwed over and the conflict between them, we’ve got a quasi-immortal Nazi hunting for a mystical artifact, we’ve got a satanic cult, and we’ve even got a love story. I know, I know. When a horror flick has a subplot involving a love story, 137 times out of 138 it’s some clichéd, shoehorned in crap that ends up being the weak link of the movie. This time, it actually worked for me. One of the main reasons it works is because the two ladies involved are both studies in how to successfully pull off their character archetypes. I warn you guys, I’m about to go off on one of those “over-analytical tangents” I’m prone to. It can be really tricky to use vulnerability and sensitivity to elicit sympathy for a character and get the audience behind them and not overdo it to the point that the audience turns on them. The characters of Crystal and Penny, however, are perfect examples of how to do it right with two often poorly used character archetypes.
On one end you have Crystal. Crystal is a bad ass, but has the air of someone whose toughness is born out of being broken. How many times have we seen that done badly? How many “I’m tough because I’m too tortured to let people in” ridiculous characters have you seen? Right, millions. Well, Crystal here is the perfect mixture. She seems like the kind of gal who will absolutely f**k you up if she has to. We have some quiet moments with her, however, where her more sensitive side comes out. We don’t need one of those overwrought moments where the tortured tough gal breaks down, it’s all done more subtly. Part of that is due to Crystal being a well written character, but a lot of it has to do with the great performance of Stanze’s frequent collaborator, the immensely talented Emily Haack. I was absolutely blown away by her starring turn in Scrapbook, and here she is no less effective. One thing that has always impressed me is her fearlessness as an actress and her willingness to seemingly do ANYTHING for the good of a film. That’s the mark of a true artist right there folks. While she apparently wasn’t asked to go to the extremes she did in Scrapbook or Corpse, she maintains an impressive amount of intensity and nuance. Her face (her eyes in particular) has an amazing haunted look, and she can portray multiple conflicting emotions simultaneously without saying a word. Why major studios aren’t fighting over her is a mystery to me.
The other half of our romance is Penny, played by Sarah Swofford. Penny is one of those naïve, doe-eyed, babe in the woods type of characters. We’ve all known that person who has never experienced the darker side of humanity, so when they finally encounter it, they’re not prepared to deal with it. That’s Penny. The problem that often arises with this kind of character is that when they’re handled incorrectly, they either come across as wimps or idiots, and I have trouble mustering up much sympathy for either. Penny is neither. She shows that she’s willing to fight; she just doesn’t know what to do. When she makes some dumb choices, it doesn’t feel like she’s stupid; it feels like she’s a sheltered girl who doesn’t know any better. The role is also perfectly played by Swofford. She is the perfect counterpart to Crystal, and Swofford and Haack have great onscreen chemistry. This was the first time I’ve seen Sarah, and I hope to see much more of her. Hey now, I didn’t mean it that way pervert. Actually, maybe I did, she is pretty damn hot. Multiple meanings? Anyway, moving on…
Jason Christ co wrote the screenplay with Stanze as well as portraying our villain Frank. While I think the screenplay is great and I don’t have a single bad thing to say in that department, unfortunately I think he missed the mark with his performance, but only by this much. I know you can’t see me, but I’m doing that “fingers about an inch apart to indicate a very narrow margin” thing. Don’t get me wrong; he’s not bad by any means. I can see what he was going for. He wanted Frank to have that low-key, quiet, cold evil. I’m cool with that. In some parts it’s spot on. At times though, I think he under-acted the part a little, making it occasionally seem kinda flat and wooden. I’m not saying that he should have gone all out crazy Nazi like most people do when portraying them. That’s exactly what he seemed to be trying to avoid, and I like that approach. I just think tweaking the character a bit to make him a little more animated and show hints of that underlying psycho would have made it a little more compelling.
I thought it was an interesting choice to give the Nazi backstory via an “old” educational film instead of expositional dialog or a flashback. I can see where some people would argue that it stops the momentum of the movie, but I don’t think so. It’s cool to almost leave the main plot for a second and have a cool little vignette play out. It’s both outside of the narrative but still in the story. Really innovative idea. I like that we didn’t keep cutting back and forth to reaction shots from the characters throughout this sequence either; we just watched the old footage straight through. That footage looked very convincing. A whole movie in that mockumentary style might be too much, but here it added a lot to the flick. Bravo.
For the most part, the camera work in Ratline is excellent. There is a lot of really cool, unique cinematography going on here. There is one thing I do have to call the Wicked Pixel guys out on however. It’s one of my two major pet peeves in modern horror filmmaking. I’ll give you a hint; it’s not CGI. Actually, there really isn’t much of that as far as I can tell. The gore is done with practical effects and it looks fantastic. That means my issue with the flick is…lets all say it together…shaky cam! It doesn’t rear its ugly head until the action sequences, and then all of a sudden the camera has a seizure for no good reason. In the rest of the flick, Stanze proves to be a skilled cinematographer, that he has the ability to set up some gorgeous shots, and that he understands the concept of interesting, motivated camera movement. Why adopt a technique normally used to hide the fact that the filmmakers don’t know what the hell they’re doing when filming action sequences? Come on man, you’re better than that.
Random Thought: Hey Wicked Pixel, you really should sell those little wind up Grim Reapers from your logo. I want one dammit!Probably the number one thing I can say in favor of this flick is that it’s truly original, and that’s not something I can say about most horror flicks I see. Yeah, certain plot elements are real head scratchers, but it’s a flick about occult Nazis man, just go with it. Trust me, you’ll enjoy the ride. The story draws you in, the effects look fantastic, and the acting is well above the usual low budget horror level. After watching this, I now definitely need to go back and fill in the gaps I haven’t seen in Stanze’s filmography like Savage Harvest, Ice From the Sun, and Deadwood Park. I dug Ratline a lot. This is indie horror done Reich…I mean right. One and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
I wanted to love this movie, but I only kinda liked it. If you’re a diehard horror and wrestling fan like me, there’s fun to be had, but it drags at times. An actual backstory and better fight choreography would have helped. Some of the monsters look great, especially Frankenstein. Best part of the flick is Lance Henriksen’s Shao Kahn impression. The way he says “Witch Bitch” is priceless. 1 severed thumb up.
This is everything I hate about current visual trends in horror cinema. If it isn’t a found footage flick, don’t shoot it like one dammit! There are only 2 likable characters in the whole thing. As far as scares, Leah didn’t even jump once, and that’s saying something. It had one inspired moment that I dug. Chernobyl is a FANTASTIC setting. I hope someone makes a good movie there someday. 1 severed thumb down.
Decent mystery flick with a Poe motif that should satisfy fans playing “spot the reference.” Cusack chews scenery with gusto, & Luke Evans is great. It needed more gore, but it also had some of the worst CGI blood I’ve EVER seen, so maybe restraint was a blessing after all. It’s ironic that a film about the master of suspense has none, but it doesn’t drag. Not great, but a fun little ride. 1 ½ severed thumbs up.
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Starting Friday, July 13, it's time for a Spaghetti Splatter Spectacular as my horror homie Dr. Jimmy Terror hosts Italian Horror Week. It's a whole week dedicated to the best of Italian horror cinema featuring an insane lineup of giveaways, 3D, and guest articles from the best writers the online horror scene has to offer...and me. If you miss it, you will be impaled, plagued with maggot storms, and made to vomit up your entire intestinal tract. Well, maybe not, but you'll miss out on all of the fun, and that's just as bad. The Doc is hard at work preparing a sumptuous feast of gory goodness, so click on that picture up there to be magically transported to DR. TERROR'S BLOG OF HORRORS, where you can peruse a great site and get good and psyched up for Italian Horror Week!
Monday, July 2, 2012
To be honest folks, this is about the fifth time I’ve written this review, and it took me a while to decide if I was going to review Hellucination at all. As much as it may not seem so due to some of the things I say and some of the stuff I review, I try to maintain a moderate to low controversy level ‘round here. For that reason there are two things I don’t bring up on SOC. They’re the same 2 that everyone says you don’t discuss if you want to maintain the peace…religion and politics. The thing is, it’s gonna be really tough to review Stephen Biro’s memoir Hellucination without discussing religion. For the most part I’m just going to talk about it as a book, but the religious side of things can’t help coming out from time to time in this review. Therefore, after much deliberation, I will be waiving the “no religion talk” just this one time. Now that we’ve got that little disclaimer out of the way…
Synopsis: A drug-fueled trip through the gruesome levels of Hell may sound like a fictional horror story to some, and since the traveler in question was movie distributor Stephen Biro, it could just as easily have been one of his film projects. But Stephen's experiences were the real, life-changing sort. They're also proof that the Lord does work in mysterious ways -- extending all the way to squares of LSD and nitrous oxide cartridges.
Armed with psychedelics, hallucinogenics and a brave desire to meet God no matter the personal cost, Stephen pushed beyond the boundaries of safe drug use. He took the most nightmarish of trips from a cramped one-bedroom apartment that he used for running his underground video business. With initial difficulty finding God in his altered state, Stephen instead encountered depravity and grotesquery enough to make his soul weep, but he pushed on. And if that wasn't bad enough, his Hellish experiences bled over into his waking days, and his friends and acquaintances began identifying themselves to him as Antichrists, deities and other assorted beings from "the other side." Reality was blurring and shifting, and Stephen was run utterly ragged. Could he fulfill his quest to learn universal truths before his extreme drug use took its toll?
Hellucination: A Memoir spares no disturbing detail of the unusual route that one man took to find Christ and the God of the Bible. The memoir also follows younger Stephen through his 1970s childhood and his bizarre early encounters with religion that drove him to Atheism.
For those not familiar with Stephen Biro, who wrote this book, he runs Unearthed Films. If you don’t know about Unearthed Films, well, you’re probably not into extreme horror cinema. They’re known for putting out such cinematic atrocities as the Guinea Pig movies, the Vomit Gore trilogy, Cannibal, and Aftermath/Genesis. I met Stephen at Days of the Dead Atlanta. I was drunk as hell, standing outside smoking when someone behind me said “Hey you with the press pass!” You know, one of those classic horror convention greetings. Anyway, turns out it was Mr. Biro. We talked for a while, and he turned out to be a really cool guy. He even hooked me up with a killer assortment of flicks including the amazing Where The Dead Go To Die, Das Komabrutale Duell, Header (all of which I’ve reviewed on SOC), and the flick that will be the next EC3 review. When he found out that I was also a former psychonaut, he gave me a copy of Hellucination. He told me “It’s about me doing a bunch of hallucinogens, going to heaven and hell, and meeting the devil and god.” Now that’s a sales pitch. The book is about that and much more…and if you’re thinking that a purveyor of some of the most sublimely vile movies imaginable is a rather unlikely source for a testimony of how he came to god, you’d be absolutely right.
First off, the 800 lb gorilla in the room must be addressed. There is a problem inherent in spiritual memoirs. Conventional wisdom would suggest that to experience the story as a true one, the reader must first share the spiritual beliefs of the author. Basically, if you were going to read the autobiography of a ghost hunter, you kinda have to believe in ghosts or, in your mind, it isn’t a true story. This could be a stumbling block to some. I’ve told people about this book, and they’re on board until they find out it’s a Christian book. Yes, I had to put aside my distaste for religious dogma in one or two places (particularly the end), but it never really gets preachy. In fact, this book would appall a lot of the more judgmental Christians. In my mind, that’s a very good thing. Here’s how I went into it. I don’t necessarily believe in everything Biro discusses in this book, but it’s obvious from the honesty and conviction of his writing that he does. Since he wholeheartedly believes that what he wrote is the truth, I can accept that this was written as a true story in the author’s eyes and experience it that way. It really doesn’t matter if I believe in possession or anti-Christs or anything else, because this is his perception of what he’s experienced, and I can accept it on that level. After all, Aristotle said "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it,” and he was friends with that So Crates guy from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, so he must be smart, right?
So, putting aside the book’s spiritual platform for a moment, let’s look at the most important question; is it a good book? The answer is an emphatic yes. Biro writes in a very conversational style, which is quite engaging. The subject matter may make this a heavy read at times, but the prose keeps you moving along. A lot of it is told in traditional first person narrative style as Stephen recounts his experiences, but he frequently employs second person, directly addressing the reader. He also goes one step further, actually making you, the reader, a character in the story. He physically places the reader in the framing devices of his story in a unique and extremely effective literary device that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before.
His writing also has a very cinematic quality, both in that Biro has a gift for the verbal dynamic of describing the physicality and mood of a scene and that much of the action seems to be directly or indirectly inspired by movies. When he is describing the things he experienced during his time using LSD and nitrous oxide (aka whip-its…dun dun dun dun dun…whip it good!) to push the boundaries of reality, sometimes characters from movies and television, such as Morpheus from The Matrix or Rob Zombie, actually cross over into his world. Other times, when he’s describing his experiences that don’t directly involve specific films, they still seem to color his exploits. One can pick up elements of flicks like Clockwork Orange and Tetsuo: The Iron Man in certain passages for example. The middle portion of the book where we are back in “every day reality” but nothing and no one is quite what they seem is very reminiscent of the movie Jacob’s Ladder. That’s not saying that these parts of the book are actually based on these flicks however. As anyone with experience with hallucinogens can tell you, anything you’ve ever seen or heard can come back to influence your perception of reality when you’re tripping.
Which leads me to another thing that impressed me about this book. It also brings up a subject I don’t discuss on SOC a lot, drugs. As some of you know, in my late teens and early twenties I did a lot of drugs, and hallucinogens (LSD & Psilocybin mostly) were always my favorite. Therefore, when Biro talks about the combination of acid and whip-its, I can relate to the mental state he was in when this stuff went down. I have always said that experiencing a psychedelic episode is something that cannot be adequately described to someone who has never done it. It’s like sex, it doesn’t matter how well you try to describe it to a virgin, it’s just something that can’t be comprehended unless you experience it. Biro, however, does the best job I have ever heard of verbally explaining what tripping feels like. I honestly don’t know if someone who has never done any hallucinogenic drugs will fully understand where the character is, but Biro will definitely get you close enough.
The most striking portion of the book is Biro’s decent into Hell itself. His vision of hell is absolutely inspired, with each of the seven deadly sins having its own infernal realm and fitting punishments. Depending on whether you believe that this is the actual, God-created hell of the Bible, some great storytelling on Biro’s part, or a drug induced nightmare vision, either Stephen, God, or Acid deserves a lot of credit for their flair for grotesque imagery and symbolism that borders on the profound. Seriously, the punishments conceived of here fit the sins in ways I had never even thought of before. Amazing. In certain areas it has the same type of atmosphere as the hell sequences in some of Edward Lee’s books like Flesh Gothic or The Chosen. Being the huge Lee fan that I am, that’s definitely a compliment. The whole book is outstanding, but this section grabs you by the throat, mainlines straight into your brain, and leaves you woozy and wondering what the hell just happened. Yes, pun intended.
As a pro-spirituality/anti-religion former believer who was raised strict Southern Baptist, one thing that I find very interesting is unconventional Christianity. That’s why I got so into Christian metal in my early teens, because it was diametrically opposed to the Christianity I had been raised on. I would most definitely call a journey to accepting Christ through heavy drug use and graphic bootleg movies unconventional. While it ends up with an evangelistic passage, it never takes on the pretense of a sermon. It’s just a guy presenting his experience and what he feels to be the truth for your consideration. That’s actually really refreshing in a Christian book. I almost hesitate to call it a religious book because of the negative connotations that label has. Hellucination incorporates all kinds of ideas about philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, spirituality, religion, and the human condition; presenting them in such an intriguing and entertaining way that the sheer entertainment value makes it palatable even to the most anti-religious reader.
Random Thought: At one point Biro references the Stroh’s Wet T-Shirt Contest. I have never heard anyone else reference that particular video, and thought I might be the only one who remembered it. THAT caught me by surprise.
Stephen Biro’s Hellucination is a fascinating read. The book’s strength is that it works on whatever level you want to experience it on. If you’re just looking for a good story, it works. If you want to dig deeper into Biro laying his soul bare before you, he does. If you want to go even deeper and use it as a gateway to address questions about reality, both earthly and supernatural, you can. No matter what you’re into, there’s something here for you. If you’re a horror fan, read it for the possession, violence, gore, madness, bizarre and grotesque imagery, and references to great obscure flicks. If you’re into spirituality and metaphysics, read it for its exploration of themes regarding the afterlife, preternatural beings, and the fate of the human soul. If you’re into psychedelia, you will definitely find it here if the book will just stop melting long enough for you to read it (yeah, you know what I’m talking about.) If you’re into religion, read it for a chronicle of a route to God that I guarantee you’ve never heard before. If you’re not into any of those things, just read it because it’s a damn good book. Two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out. Hellucination is available on amazon or directly from Unearthed (LINK).