And so, we’ve come to the end of the line for what I assume to be the first iPhone-shot trilogy in movie history. Goodbye, Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. Goodbye, house on Steelmanville Road. Goodbye, Nigel Bach.

Although probably not for long on that last one : Bach’s clearly caught the filmmaking bug, and given that he got all three of his zero-budgeters onto Amazon Prime’s streaming service, there’s literally no reason for him not to keep on keeping on. What he’ll do next is anyone’s guess, but I feel safe in making at least one educated guess — it won’t have much (if any) budget.

Which is no bad thing, mind you, as long as the end result is worth watching. The original Bad Ben certainly was. Steelmanville Road : A Bad Ben Prequel just as certainly wasn’t. And Badder Ben : The Final Chapter ends things on a pretty high note and is well worth your time once again. Two out of three? That’s not bad for a trio of homemade flicks cranked out in a space of under two years. So that’s the short version. You want more? Okay, we’ll keep going —

Badder Ben : The Final Chapter, which literally just came out, succeeds where the second installment failed by injecting a significant amount of humor into the proceedings, a move that is probably well overdue, and the results, while not exactly astounding or anything, are nevertheless positive — a film of this nature and with this few resources at its disposal probably has no business taking itself too seriously, and while Bach himself clearly has an earnest attitude toward his job as writer/director/producer/star (as evidenced by the bizarrely passive-aggressive comment he left in response to my negative review of Steelmanville Road), here he manages to keep his more sober-minded (not to mention overly-defensive) impulses well in check in service of simply having — and giving audiences — a good time. It proves to be a very smart decision.

We’re back in the present day this time out, as a paranormal investigation team sets up shop in the Steelmanville Road house in order to suss out just what the fuck has been going on there. Problem is, they find more than they were bargaining for when original series protagonist Tom Riley (played by Bach himself) turns out to be very much alive and perhaps on something of a mission himself. But is he on their side, in their way, or a little bit of both?

The cast is the single-greatest positive difference here, with the ghost-hunters themselves coming off best : Jacquie Baker (as Jacquie, go figure) and Matthew Schmid (as Schmiddy) have a fun and engaging “double-act” chemistry going between them, each being something of a counterpoint or “foil” to the other, and David Greenberg’s “third wheel” character not only doesn’t manage to trip his counterparts up, he often accentuates their snappy interaction. Bach, for his part, is obviously enjoying being back in front of his own camera, and it shows — he’s not actively out to “upstage” his more talented performers, but he’s nevertheless happy to get in on the act and relishes his screen time with something approaching understated joy. Everyone, to a person, is fun to watch here.

Scares aren’t terribly plentiful in this film, it has to be said — nor are the few that are on offer terribly effective — but that’s not too terribly upsetting, since in this self-declared “final chapter” they’re more employed as a means to propel the narrative forward rather than uncomfortably forced into a “centerpiece” role. As “sizzle,” then, they work just fine — as “steak,” they’d probably leave you feeling hungry. Bach wisely opts to have his characters be the main course instead. Which, I guess, sounds vaguely cannibalistic, but whatever. It’s late, I’m tired, so I’m going with it.

And you should go with Badder Ben : The Final Chapter. To the extent that this makeshift “franchise” can be said to have “fans,” chances are that the vastly different tone of this concluding segment may not please all of them, but for my part I can’t think of a better way to put the series to bed than by finally allowing it to be what it probably should have been all along.

To quote this film’s own tagline : “What Happens When Four Crazy Men Kidnap One Crazy Girl?” And to take it one step further : “What Happens When You Only Have $10,000 To Tell The Story?”

You know we love ’em cheap and homemade around these parts, and it doesn’t come much cheaper or much more homemade than director/co-producer/co-writer James D. Froio’s early- 2017 effort, The Girl With No Name, a quickie out of Syracuse, New York, that has a pretty cool premise and has fun turning the tables on various “redneck horror” tropes. We’re all used to inbred country bumpkins kidnapping and torturing nubile young damsels in “Z-Grade” productions, sure, but this time out when Papa Lester (played with sneering OTT relish by G. Van Mills) and his boys Lloyd (Brandon Ferraro), Troy (Brandin Fennessy), and Markus (Issaiah Vergara) set their moonshine-blurred sights on an unnamed (but I guess you already knew that much) girl (Ashley Williams), they find they got more than they bargained for since it turns out she’s even crazier than they are. The hunters have become the hunted, indeed.

Williams scripted the film along with director Froio and co-producer Fatih Salim, so it’s no surprise that she’s given herself a fairly juicy and substantial role, and for an amateur actress she acquits herself pretty nicely, especially when it’s time to dial up the psychosis. You’ve probably gathered already that this flick’s tone is clearly tongue-in-cheek, and it’s just as well that it is given that when you’ve got low-grade production values and inexperienced performers, taking yourself too damn seriously is often a fatal flaw. Williams and her quartet of would-be pursuers certainly couldn’t be counted on to carry a heavy and somber narrative, but something like this? Well, shit — this they can, and do, sink their teeth into with obvious glee.

Which isn’t to say that the whole thing looks like shit, or anything of the sort — Froio has a pretty decent eye for composition and there are some shots that borderline on the artistic, with the overall look being, at the very least, competent. There are some minor sound quality problems, but nothing seasoned micro-budget viewers can’t overlook, and the score by one Sergio Valente is reasonably effective, as well, helping to mark and accentuate the story’s tonal shifts while only occasionally making a spectacle of itself and overpowering the proceedings. Again, if you’re the kind of person that’s a fan of the bottom of the movie barrel, trust me when I say you’ve endured far worse, and may even find yourself more than pleasantly surprised.

When it’s time for the red stuff to start gushing, this film’s practical FX work gets the job done, as well. Granted, it’s best viewed at a distance although not always shot at same, but shit — even up close, it doesn’t look too terribly unrealistic. Froio and co. have clearly been doing their homework and are probably old-school gorehounds, so what they lack in funds they make up for in sheer love of craft. That enthusiasm translates into all aspects of their budget-minded backwoods opus, and it’s more than a bit infectious. Of course this isn’t a great movie — but it’s damn sure a fun one, and what more can you really ask for from something like this than that?

So, yeah — next time you’re browsing through Amazon Prime’s streaming horror offerings, you could do a hell of a lot worse than The Girl With No Name. Its flaws are numerous but far from fatal, and pretty much everyone gets a well-deserved “A for effort.” It would be a big stretch to say that this flick blew me away, but it impressed me enough to give it a qualified (after all, it is what it is — and it can only be so much) recommendation.

Well, shit — if the title of writer/director Faisal Saif’s early-2017 Indian horror Islamic Exorcist isn’t enough to grab you, then I don’t know what more it takes. But is there anything more to this film beyond an arresting name? Thanks to Amazon Prime’s streaming service, I’m pleased to report that I’m able to answer that question —

Before we get to all that, though, the basics : intrepid journalist Natasha Choudhary (played by an actress who goes only by the name of Meera) has taken a keen interest in a local family tragedy, that of Ayesha Khan (Kavita Radheshyam) and her husband, Sameer (Nirab Hossain), who adopted an infant child named Anna after Ayesha’s sole pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The couple had plenty of love to give, and seemed to be getting ahead financially, so it looked like many fulfilling years were in store for one and all — and who knows? Maybe there were some good times — but lo and behold,  Sameer ended up claiming that Anna was possessed by a demon and shooting her through the head.

There’s at least some money behind this production, and it shows : a nicely creepy incidental music score, appropriately gloomy and  borderline-unearthly lighting,  artistically-composed shots, and fairly competent practical and CGI effects that enhance the film rather than serving as its backbone are all welcome and appreciated feathers in Saif’s cap, but it’s his strong script and uniformly good cast that really make the difference here.

Admittedly, this is a slow-moving story, but it’s quite expertly constructed, with Saif alternating between his present-day investigation and flashbacks that “fill in” the many intriguing “blanks” that worm their way into the backs of our minds from the outset. Characters are fully fleshed-out and all evince a reasonable amount of complexity (with one major exception, which I’ll get to momentarily), the progression of events unfolds with an admirable amount of tension, and everything holds together on both logical and emotional levels as things more lurch than careen toward inevitable disaster. Incredibly solid performances, especially from Radheshyam, anchor the whole tragic affair, and for a movie that telegraphs its ending more or less right out of the gate, there are even a number of genuine — and genuinely shocking — surprises to be found along the way.

One rather large flaw, though, is the two-dimensional nature of Anna’s characterization. The little girl who plays her is, as near as I can determine, uncredited, and she’s really not given much to sink her teeth into, even for a child actor : she’s essentially relegated to the job of going from damn bad to even worse, with not much by way of a “normal” existence prior to her possession being shown. Making her somebody we can relate to on at least some level would have made for a much stronger overall story, but unfortunately, she’s not afforded anything like the nicely-realized treatment that anyone else is. A curious decision on Saif’s part, to say the least.

Obviously, I can’t even pretend to be able to speak to the film’s authenticity as far as how the Islamic faith deals with suspected cases of possession, but given that it only took about a minute and a half on Google to learn that Saif is himself a practicing Muslim, I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s done his homework on the subject. Even if he’s faking it all, though, it honestly doesn’t matter : Islamic Exorcist is constructed well enough, on levels both artistic and purely technical, that you’ll find yourself more than willing to go with its flow — heck, I daresay you may even find yourself more than a little bit haunted by it afterwards.

Here’s one I’m predisposed to like right off the bat : writer/director Paul Foster’s 2017 indie horror Unwanted, a well and truly “homemade” effort shot in Pittsbug (no “h”), Texas, earlier this very year for a whopping $8,900. My love for “micro-budget” filmmaking is well known around these parts, of course, but East Texas has held a special fascination for me for the past couple of decades ever since reading cartoonist Michael Dougan’s outstanding books I Can’t Tell You Anything and East Texas : Tales From Behind The Pine Curtain, both of which made this uniquely off-beat part of the country seem something of a world all its own. Surely, then, this one must have at least  something to recommend in its favor almost by default, right?

Still — there’s no point getting ahead of ourselves, is there? I mean, plenty of films with more going for them “on paper” have failed to live up to expectations, and given that the cast of this one was made up entirely of inexperienced actors, and that Foster himself had never made a movie before, well — there’s really no reason to bank on anything special going on here, am I right? So let’s just say I went into this hoping for the best, but not especially expecting anything.

Given all that, then, the fact that Unwanted is a decidedly mixed bag should not only come as no surprise, but might even be considered something of a “win” for Foster, his cast, and his crew. The premise is about as basic as it gets — young couple Ryan (played by Ryan Miller) and Shannon (Christa Watson), who are searching for their dream house, stumble upon one that’s available for a song and has been on the market for a looonnng time. Too good to be true, right? Well, when a deal this good lands in your lap you generally don’t question it, and so our lovebirds scrape together everything they’ve got and take the plunge.

Big mistake — of course.

Look, Foster does what he can with what he’s got, and it’s not his fault that “what he’s got” isn’t very much. I guess he hustled up what little financing he could by means of Indiegogo, and it’s a good bet that most of it went to securing rights to shoot in the Holman House, a local historical landmark. Certainly not much was spent on the cast, as both leads clearly have a lot of learning about their craft yet to do (in fact, some of the supporting players, particularly Deborah Johnston who plays a character called Carolyn, seem to have a bit more in terms of natural acting ability), but I give them credit for coming up trumps during the film’s more tense scenes — when said “tense scenes” actually happen, mind you.

Which brings us to the biggest “knock” that Unwanted has going against it, namely : this isn’t a “slow burn,” its pacing is downright glacial. When you’ve got no money for effects and are basically entirely dependent on things going bump in the night, you’d damn well better have some tricks up your sleeve to keep audiences interested, and Foster can’t compensate for his financially-dictated “minuses” with any particular “pluses.” Sure, he stumbles his way into some genuinely effective shots and generally speaking his camerawork is never what you’d call incompetent by any stretch, but when you’re doing a “creaky old haunted house” flick, you’d best make certain that every creak comes across loud and clear, and this film’s sound quality is so uneven and haphazard that it really undercuts everything our nine-thousand-dollar auteur is trying to achieve. His heart’s in the right place, to be sure, and I’ll give him an “A” for effort, but in terms of execution, shit — I hate to say it, but he’s firmly in, oh, I dunno, let’s call it “C-minus” territory.

Still, far be it from me to say that his film was a complete waste of everyone’s time to make — although it may be a waste of your time to watch. Foster at least seems to have a grasp on what he wants to do, and given the resources to do it, he may just come up with something reasonably good. Ditto for the most of the actors, who could rise to the level of “passable” with some more lessons under their belts. This isn’t an especially good flick by any stretch, but it doesn’t scream “seriously, people, don’t quit your day jobs,” either — which is just as well, I suppose, because I can’t imagine that any of them actually have.

I’ve certainly seen people with less do more than Foster is able to achieve with Unwanted, it’s true, but what the hell — I’ve seen people with more do a lot less, too. No one involved with this production should feel either ashamed or embarrassed, but the flick is nothing to necessarily be proud of, either. It just kinda — is. And what it “is” happens to be slow, plodding, and generally uninspired — but not without its moments. I just wish there were a lot more of ’em, and that they started in a lot sooner.

 

 

Due to recent tragic — and still-unfolding — events in Puerto Rico, exacerbated to no end by our shithead of a president’s racism and unconcern, I have to admit that I was rooting for Dominium, a “found footage” indie horror filmed on the island in 2013 for the princely sum of $30,000 that’s now available for streaming on Amazon Prime. DIY flicks hold a special place in my heart even under normal circumstances, obviously, but I went into this one hoping to find a real “hidden gem” that I could enthusiastically recommend to all of you, my dear readers. PR could use some good publicity these days, I think we’d all agree, even from a low-rent movie blog like this one, but — and you knew that “but” was coming — I still gotta call ’em like I see ’em —

And the most I can say for Dominium, it pains me to report, is that I wish I hadn’t seen it.

Purportedly “based on true events,” this flick follows a film crew of five (Emanuel Freire as Enrique, Yomar Davila as Alexis, Nicole Ramos as Michelle, Lycan Maldoando, who pulls “double duty” with a second role later in the film, as Renato, and Juan Boria as Arturo) as they follow up on various urban and rural legends peppered about the island for their supposedly “ambitious” documentary project, only to discover a number of potential links between them (some rather oblique, others decidedly less so) that eventually lead them smack-dab into the middle of a dark occult ritual that they may not make it out of alive.

Yes, you’ve heard this all before — but also yes, if executed well, I for one am still more than willing to allow myself to be entertained by a film of this nature. I stubbornly refuse to believe that the “mockumentary” is completely played-out, but geez — if you’re gonna make one, you’d better have your shit together. It would be unfair, bordering on insane, for anyone to expect something “new” from this sub-genre, sure, but anyone who’s watched a few (and most of us have probably seen more than a few) knows what it takes to make one of these flicks work, and co-directors/screenwriters  Ricardo Cayuela and Eladio Feliciano-Matos don’t really seem to have absorbed any lessons as “found footage” viewers before they jumped in and decided  to make one of their own.

All of which is really too bad, because there are some genuinely well-composed shots on offer here — but the acting is so poor, the story so contrived, the dialogue so unrealistic, and the gaps in logic so wide and glaring that the production simply can’t be saved. The whole “found footage” game all boils down to execution at this point, I think it’s safe to say, and apart from some moody and borderline-artistic images, Dominium simply doesn’t get the job done on that score.

Still, in its (admittedly small) favor, there’s just enough on offer here, I suppose, to make you think “aw, man, what could’a been, ya know?” — and that alone puts it at least  a notch or two above many of its contemporaries/competitors, but it’s nowhere near enough to make this flick worth your time. I take no pleasure in pissing all over the efforts of any amateur filmmakers who are basically doing what they do simply for the love of doing it, but Dominium is rote, formulaic, and desperately unimaginative. I hope everyone involved in its production is safe and sound in the wake of Hurricane Maria, absolutely, but damn — I also hope they’ve all found something else to do with their lives other than make movies.

Okay, let’s state right off the bat that another “found footage” alien abduction film is probably the last thing the world needs — but that’s hardly the fault of filmmakers Sean Bardin (co-director/screenwriter) and Robert Cooley (co-director), not least because their entry in this crowded field, Unaware, was lensed “way back” in 2010,  well before these things became ubiquitous. Admittedly, though, it sat around gathering dust until flicks of this nature were everywhere (2013, to be specific, when it was released on DVD), and like a lot of you, I’m sure, I gave it a pass at that point. Still, now that’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime, I figured, what the hell? It surely can’t be worse than The Phoenix Tapes ’97, can it?

As it turns out, though, it’s not only better than bottom-barrel dwellers than that, it can hold its own with Alien ValleyAlien Abduction, and any of the better residents of this heavily-populated cinematic suburb. In fact, it might even be the best of the bunch — that I’ve seen, at any rate.

Here’s the interesting wrinkle, though : it probably shouldn’t be. I mean, this flick looks really bad, even by “shaky-cam” standards. And the two lead (hell, for the most part only) actors can be a real chore to watch at times — in fact, I can sorta see why they chose to forego being credited and why you can’t even find any info about them anywhere on the internet. But you know what? If you’re gonna go for a “homemade” vibe, this is probably the way to do it, because the end result of all this intentional (to the point of sometimes feeling forced) amateurism is a film that really does come across as an assemblage of camcorder footage shot by “real” people. In short, it truly doesn’t get much more authentic than this.

Here, then, is the run-down : young(-ish) lovers Joe and Lisa decide to pay an impromptu (and unannounced) visit to the rural Texas home of Joe’s grandfather, and as it turns out they’re going to have some big news to announce because Joe pops the question — and Lisa accepts — on the way. But when they arrive, it seems that grandpa Roy and his wife, Betty, are gone for the weekend. Guess that’ll teach ’em to call ahead, right?

Well — maybe not, because they’re probably not going to live long enough to change their ways. First they hear weird noises coming from ol’ pappy’s work shed. Then they find some weird evidence out there that suggests that he was “on-site” at the infamous Roswell, New Mexico UFO crash in 1947. Then they find an even weirder crate. And then the shit hits the fan.

The alien starts out as a pretty creepy figure, I must admit, and when it’s suitably obscured, it gets the job done. When it’s revealed more fully, though, this film’s ultra-low budget immediately goes from being its greatest asset to a being a hell of a hindrance — but apart from that and some seriously dodgy acting (as in, reading straight from a cue-card) from a purported (and similarly uncredited) FBI agent who makes a brief appearance, I really can’t find a whole heck of a lot to complain about here. This film is tense, atmospheric, and smartly-constructed. Events occur in a natural and logical progression, lousy camera angles and characters falling out of frame at key points add to the sense of “reality,” dialogue and characterization both strike me as reasonable approximations of how actual people talk and act (Joe in particular is more than a bit of an asshole, but he’s the kind of asshole you meet a dozen times a day), and much of the lighting and sound design, especially, is surprisingly effective (and may even hint that Bardin and Cooley had a little bit more money to play with than the folks behind these sorts of productions usually do). It’s far from perfect, sure, but apart from those aforementioned gripes, its imperfections are all feathers in its cap. Bardin and Cooley get it more or less exactly right here, and if there are better examples of the “found footage” alien abduction sub-genre to be found, I must confess that I’m Unaware of them.

 

 

Sometimes, hey, it’s all about the tone.

Take, for example, Shallow Creek Cult, yet another micro-budget offering in the “found footage” sub-genre released in 2013 (although I’ve seen its actual production date listed as being 2012 and even 2009, so don’t ask me what’s up with that) that was filmed in BF Louisiana by a would-be writer/director/star who bills himself as “King Jeff.” Our guy Jeff — or our guy King, take your pick — is in good company in the pseudonym department given that the dude who plays his brother goes by the handle of “Gorio,” but beyond that, anything resembling actual originality is pretty hard to come by here : we’re told that the footage we’re about to see is property of the “Shallow Creek Police Department,” we open with snippet-length interviews of local residents talking about the supposed “cult” that operates in the area, and then we get into the “narrative” proper, which sees siblings Getty (Gorio) and Jessie (King Jeff — and from what I’m given to understand the two of them are brothers in real life) heading out to a rural campground where they spent many a happy weekend growing up in order to disperse the ashes of their recently-deceased grandfather in our titular Shallow Creek as per his final wishes. And, of course, they’re going to film the whole thing with their camcorder for posterity.

Things go wrong right off the bat — the urn slips out of their hands and sinks to the bottom of the creek  — but when Jessie steps away for a minute to answer nature’s call he comes across something that makes his funereal faux pas look like less than no big deal: a group of robed-and-masked cannibals devouring a young lady. From that point on, we’re in full-on “fight for survival mode.”

There are several glaring logical gaps along the way here — why does every local know about the cult while the brothers, who spent a good chunk of their youth in the area, have seemingly never heard of it until now? Why do the brothers head for a nearby apparently-abandoned building first thing after witnessing the bloody carnage rather than getting back in their car and going straight to the police? Why does Jessie say this one day’s misadventure (which they never even appear to take all that seriously) is a rougher slog than his entire tour of duty in Desert Storm? The mind kinda reels, to be honest.

Unless — and here’s where that “it’s all about the tone” thing comes into play — you’re prepared to just kick back and have as much fun with this thing as King Jeff and Gorio so obviously are.  Plot- wise, everything that happens in this flick is just way too convenient — the brothers conveniently find a couple of guns in the building (which actually appears to be someone’s home); they conveniently find a newspaper clipping about the cannibal cult; they conveninently find a backup camcorder battery and an extra tape, both of which are conveniently compatible with their own; the building is conveninelty outfitted with plenty of indoor and outdoor security cameras that conveninetly allow King Jeff to switch perspectives and keep his film going when the camcorder’s low on juice and/or getting kinda played-out as our sole “eye” on the proceedings; etc. In short, absurdity is built right into this film’s metaphorical DNA pretty much from word “go,” and never lets up. Your choices are pretty simple : go with the flow or throw in the towel.

For my part, what the fuck, I went with the flow, simply because it seemed like that’s all King Jeff and Gorio were doing, anyway. They knew what they were making here, knew what they had to work with, knew you’re only gonna get so far with a few friends in robes and Halloween masks — and just decided to do it regardless. It’s that fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants attitude, and its utter refusal to take itself seriously mainly because it can’t afford to, that make Shallow Creek Cult a reasonably entertaining, if ultimately forgettable, way for a micro-budget horror fan to spend just over 70 minutes of their time. I’m not above a little bit of dumb, utterly disposable fun — and if you’re not either, you may want to give this a look sometime.