Archive for October 21, 2011

This one looked promising.

Okay, sure, it was gonna be a torture-porn-style Saw ripoff with a flimsy premise — teenagers (played by actors and actresses in their late 20s, if not early 30s in some cases), get a chain letter in their email inboxes. If they pass it along, they live. If they don’t, they get killed. Gruesomely. Plus, it’s got Brad Dourif, Keith David, and sorta-“it”-girl Nikki Reed. What’s not to like, right?

Unfortunately, that bare-bones plot outline I just threw out there is every bit as flimsy as the actual story (if you can call anything this skeletal an actual story at all) holding co-writer/director Deon Taylor’s 2010 release Chain Letter together.

If you’re in this whole thing for the gore and nothing else, then hey, I have to say this flick delivers. But while some (okay, plenty) of horror films are rightly accused of having one-dimensional characterization, that would actually be a big improvement over what’s on display here. The characters in this film aren’t even fleshed out enough for us to decide whether we like them, hate them, or just plain don’t give a fuck about them, and how often can you say a film is so poorly written that you don’t even know enough about the people in it to decide whether or not they bore you?

Taylor and his crew focus the entirety of their energy on coming up with graphic, sadistic kill scenes, and while they succeed in creating plenty of those, there’s just nothing else going on here to even maintain any audience interest, and honestly, if you don’t care if the characters get killed or not, what’s the point in seeing them die?

A decent cast is laid to waste here both figuratively and literally. David and Dourif, for their parts, seem to know they’re in a grad-A clunker and mail in their seriously underwritten performances. David doesn’t get to be a bad-ass, Dourif doesn’t get to be much of a weirdo, and even Nikki reed doesn’t get to do what she does best, that being take her clothes off. You honestly have to wonder how badly they all needed the money.

I’m all for mean-spirited, nasty, brutish grotesquerie (or however you spell that word), honestly I am, but not when it falls this far short of its potential. Chain Letter sure sounds like it’s got pretty much everything you’d want in this sort of a movie, but there has to be something holding all the morbidity together, or at least trying to give the impression that the filmmakers give a damn about,, you know, telling a story, but Taylor’s clearly got a one-track mind — kill the guy or gal on the screen and move on to the next one. Take a fucking number, folks.

Chain Letter was rolled out in limited release on about 400 screens nationwide and survived exactly one week. It was released on DVD and (I think, at least) Blu-ray shortly thereafter from New Films Cinema in a package that contains no extras whatsoever apart from the theatrical trailer. Not that it deserves any kind of deluxe treatment or anything.  You can safely hit delete on this Chain Letter and move on.

Is it possible to recommenda ny film, particularly a low-budget “true-crime” biopic, on the strength of one performance alone? In the case if 1993’s The Secret Life : Jeffrey Dahmer, I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “YES!”

But first off, you might be wondering what this movie is doing in our annual horror round-up in the first place, a query to which all I can answer is “if the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer dont’ constitute a horror story, then honestly, what does????”

Plus, this shoestring production has the aesthetic vibe, not to mention the overall production values, of many of the lowest-budget examples of guerrilla filmmaking that we’ve examined on this blog numerous times in the past. The whole thing has the distinct air of moviemaking on the fly, and that’s something we here at TFG always have respect for.

First off, though, just a little bit of history : while the crimes of Milwaukee’s most infamous cannibal killer have been the fodder for many a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week and too many of those “true crime case files to mention,” as well as a (surprisingly) small handful of straight-to-video releases, this was the first to go into production, and actually began filming pretty much right after the judge’s gavel came down  with its verdict of “guilty as sin” on ol’ Jeff. As such, director David R. Bowen did his best to keep most of the actual filming (in and around the immediate Hollywood vicinity) as hush-hush as possible so as not to enrage local “concerned citizens” groups.

Once the film was in the can, Bowen and writer/star/all-around actual driving force behind the project Carl Crew (more on him in a minute) went around and pitched it to every major, and minor, studio and distribution house in LA, only to find no takers since the material was still considered to be just a little too “hot,” if you will, at the time.

At the end of the day, then, this thing landed on home video, and wasn’t even the first Dahmer biopic to do so, since so much time and effort had been put into trying to get some kind, any kind, of theatrical release for it. And so a project that actually jumped the gun on its competitors (and how twisted is it to even be talking about the idea of “competition” when it comes to getting a movie about Jeffrey fucking Dahmer released first? Such is the world we live in) ended up being a little bit late to the party, so to speak, in terms of scoring an actual release. So it goes, my friends, so it goes.

And now, as promised, back to Carl Crew. A struggling actor who actually came up with this idea on his own in order to showcase his talents, Crew was the guy who actually wrote the screenplay for this flick and even secured much of the financing and hired much of the cast and crew (he was apparently the one who made the decision to bring Bowen on board as director, for instance). And while that might make this whole thing sound like some kind of cheap vanity project, let’s be honest here — you don’t put a vanity project together for yourself based on the life of America’s most notorious cannibal, do you?

Rather, I think Crew’s aim here was a lot more modest — to simply show that he could play any type of character, do a serviceable job, and use it as a springboard to land some more work. Call it a vanity project with middling aims, if you will.

Of course, choosing to do a Dahmer biopic carries some serious risk, in that you might find yourself being perceived as perpetrating a ghoulish cash-in on human tragedy, but I think Crew was smart enough to know that there’s no such thing as bad publicity and that this flick would at the very least get noticed and create some controversy, thus ensuring that at least a handful of  curious souls would seek it out.

Mission accomplished on that front, at least partially. For a few days there The Secret Life : Jeffrey Dahmer was the subject of a mini-shitstorm of controversy, with the likes of Mary and Geraldo raking Crew and Bowen over the coals on their talk shows. But it was a controversy quickly forgotten, and so was the movie itself, which pretty much just languished on VHS rental shelves. And that’s a bit of a shame, really, because not only does this movie have a pleasingly low-rent vibe (that is, admittedly, not for all tastes), but it features a damn fine central performance from Mr. Crew that is unsettling, realistic, multi-faceted, and at the end of the day maybe even a little bit sympathetic.

None of which is to say that you feel sorry for Dahmer or anything by the time this thing is over — anything but, the guy’s a first-class whackjob and a desperate psychopath. But Crew does enough to make you understand the mindset that this guy was coming from, without in any way condoning his actions, that you walk away, dare I say it, knowing more about what must have been going on in Dahmer’s mind than you did before the film started playing.

That sort of delicate razor’s edge between giving you insight into a warped mind and making you feel pity for said warped mind is one that more seasoned and experienced actors sometimes have a tough time with. Just ask Steve Railsback, a terrific actor with a very bright future ahead of him who found his career forever derailed when he delivered what was judged to be “too sympathetic” a performance as Charles Manson in the Helter Skelter TV miniseries.

Crew manages to thread the needle pretty carefully, yet apparently effortlessly, here, and turns in a performance that neither condemns nor condones Dahmer’s actions, but humanizes the character while still making the things he did seem every bit as inhuman as they were. It’s pretty astonishing, really, and it’s definitely a shame that Crew’s career never picked up much (okay, never picked up at all) after this, because he really pulls off a tricky job splendidly here.

The Secret Life : Jeffrey Dahmer has just been released on DVD from the relaunched InterVision Pictures label, an offshoot of Severin Films that they’re using to distribute some of their more ultra-low-budget, unconventional, VHS-throwback-type fare. The full-frame transfer looks pretty good, the stereo soundtrack is perfectly serviceable, and extra include the trailer for the film and an informative, if somewhat dry, commentary from Bowen and Crew that sheds some pretty decent insight onto the project (like about the filming problems they ran into because the LA riots were going on!), but neither guy seems particularly comfortable talking to the faceless, formless public out there in DVD-land. But that’s not really a big deal. On the whole they both have plenty to be proud of here, especially Crew, who more than proved he deserved a shot at the big-time with this film.

It’s a shot he’s still waiting for, I’m sorry to report — in fact, I’m sure he’s given up any such aspirations. But like I said, he deserved it, which is more than you can say for, I dunno, Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Adam Sandler, Justin Timberlake, Tyler Lautner —  the list of no-talent Hollywood A-listers is absolutely endless. But once in awhile an enterprising young actor or actress with some real talent does their best to get their foot in the door by having the guts to do something that gets they hope will get noticed.

It’s just a shame that in this case no one in the Hollywood hierarchy was paying attention.