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.

So here’s an interesting one : more or less a one-man production helmed by writer/director/cinematographer/editor/star Josh Criss, 2012’s Leaving D.C. is the working definition of a “bare-bones” production. Lower than low-budget, lower than micro-budget, we’ve straight-up landed in “no-budget” territory here, a truly homemade effort shot on a now-outdated camcorder by a guy with only a rudimentary working knowledge of what he was doing — but bound and determined, for whatever reason, to make himself a movie anyway. And he took it all the way to Amazon Prime. Not bad for what probably was a few days’ work, am I right?

Here’s the most impressive part about the entire enterprise, though : it’s actually pretty good. And not just by “vanity project” standards, but by any standards.

Criss plays Mark Klein, a guy who’s gotten fed up with the big-city rat race in our nation’s capitol (hence the title) and purchased himself a home in rural West Virginia. His friends from his OCD support group (my wife would probably point out at this juncture that I should look into signing up for such a thing myself) are curious, perhaps even concerned, about how he’s settling into life in the sticks, though, and it seems like he might actually miss the old gang himself (they sound like such a fun bunch, after all), and so he sends them regular video updates. Regular video updates that grow progressively disconcerting as the things going bump in the night in and around his “dream house” become more and more bold and aggressive. Could the answer to this mystery lie in the nearby woods? We all know, after all, that West Virginia is haunted as shit from top to bottom and always has been —

I’ll state the obvious here : Criss isn’t any better an actor than you’re probably guessing, but to his credit he has something of a likable “everyman” persona that is easy to relate to and just as easy to spend 77 minutes watching — which is a good thing, because aside from a character named Claire (played by Karin Crighton), who appears for all of about five minutes, he’s literally the only person we see. He’s nowhere near charismatic or engaging enough to carry a bona fide “production” on his own, by any means, but that’s where this flick’s bargain-basement aesthetic works in its favor : ya see, it all feels reasonably authentic, like here’s just some regular dude with a regular life dealing with some highly irregular problems. As a result, you find yourself rooting for Mark/Josh — you want him to successfully navigate his way through these ghostly goings-on and come out the other side with his fragile grip on reality/sanity reasonably intact.

These days, of course — all of five years down the road — odds are that Criss would be shooting this thing on an iPhone (and who knows, maybe he’ll do just that if he ever feels the need to crank out a sequel), but the “instantly-dated” feel of this film adds a layer of charm to it as well when seen in 2017. We’re at the point where nostalgia kicks in pretty quick as technology evolves on a near-daily basis, and while this certainly doesn’t evoke the “retro” sentiments of watching, say, a 1980s SOV movie or anything, it’s “lo-fi” enough by current standards to make you yearn for simpler (relatively speaking, mind you) times. If I’d watched it when it came out, of course, this wouldn’t factor in as either a “plus” or a a”minus” in the film’s favor, but I didn’t, and so there you have it.

Add in some genuinely well-executed tension, a methodically-paced plot that ramps up the “fear factor” both gradually and deliberately, and some surprisingly inventive camcorder work from time to time, and what you have is a very pleasant surprise indeed. I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending Leaving D.C. to just about anybody — those already on the “zero-budget wavelength” are going to be much more forgiving of its flaws, both because we’re used to this sort of thing and, hey, we’ve seen worse, but for those who are wondering what the whole “homemade horror movie thing” is all about, this is as good an introduction to the sub-genre as I can think of. Maybe even good enough to turn some of the curious into converts.

First up out of the gate in our October-long look at some of the more — and I say this with all due respect — obscure horror offerings available for streaming on Amazon Prime we have Chameleon Shadow, a micro-budget affair from writer/director/star Sam Mills, who apparently spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 (probably of his own money) to shoot this thing in his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, earlier this very year. This is one of those flicks that barely has an IMDB presence and has attracted very few reviews to date, so let’s see if I can get the intrepid Mr. Mills on the “scoreboard” with his first official “external reviews” link, shall we?

Right off the bat we’re greeted with some far more well-composed and “artsy”-looking shots than we’re accustomed to from essentially “homemade” efforts such as this, and while I can’t say for certain, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that Mills, like his character of Cameron in the film, was a photographer by trade. The moody B&W opening sequence is actually quite effective and atmospheric, and if the whole thing played out like this it would probably, yeah, alienate some viewers, but I wouldn’t be one of them. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t — and that’s where we get into some “problem territory.”

Obviously no one in their right minds expects much in terms of production values with a flick of this nature, but seriously — even by amateur standards, this is some sub-amateur stuff. The premise here is actually kinda intriguing — Cameron, plagued by troubling dreams, acquires a vaguely Mothman-esque companion in the form of our titular Chameleon Shadow, a supernatural (perhaps even psycho-kinetic or straight-up psychosomatic) “being” (after a fashion) that can ease his restless nights, but at a terrible cost : his dark nightmares becoming a reality in the waking world — but a lot of the execution really does let the side down. Mills himself isn’t much of an actor and can’t be relied upon to carry a production (even one that he’s helming); key supporting performers such as Kirsten Caron, who plays his friend Patty, and Louis Burkhardt, who plays one Dr. Finch, fare no better and are in need of some community theater training, at the least; sound quality is obviously something Mills is still in the process of figuring out; uneven pacing grinds the story to a halt at times when it should be ramping up; somewhat competent visual effects work is hampered by lack of creativity moreseo than lack of funds — you get the idea. Lots of scenes really do look good, but when Mills ventures out of the art-house and into straight, “point-and-shoot” filmmaking, the whole thing becomes both dull to look at and, I’m sorry to say, a bit of a chore to endure.

I’ll say this much, though : I certainly don’t believe it’s for lack of trying. Mills seems to have invested a lot of heart and soul (as well as probably his entire savings) into this project, and I’ll always respect that. And he gets bonus points for not taking the easy, cop-out route of trying to write his film’s technical shortcomings into the script itself by presenting it as yet another “found footage” horror flick (we’ll be getting into a few of those as the month goes along, no doubt), but I’m just not a generous enough critic to equate a “try” with a “win.” I appreciate the fact that Mills is, in fact, doing his best to make a movie on what he’s got — but that doesn’t mean that what he ended up making is worth your time to watch.

Which, I suppose, comes off as at least a trifle harsh. And when it comes to labors of love like this one, I always feel vaguely like an asshole for pissing on something that so much blood, sweat, and tears went into. But if I don’t call it like I see, then shit — what’s the whole point of this “armchair critic” gig in the first place? As long as all proper allowances are made for the inherent “shortcomings” (although the truly inventive find ways to make those strengths) of micro-budget flicks, a person should always feel free to judge ’em on their merits, am I right?

And hey, it’s not like I think Mills should give this whole “moviemaker dream” of his up and see if Costco is hiring. He shows a fine eye for composition and there’s a kernel of a good story hiding under all the half-assed dialogue and dodgy plotting in Chameleon Shadow. He, like any number of other backyard Spielbergs, just needs a lot more practice —and, yeah, okay, maybe some more money. But get the practice in first, please.