Archive for September, 2015

I take a look at “George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead : Act Three” #5 for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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So, this is it : no more set-up, build-up, dust-up, or even cover-up : with George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead : Act Three #5, the father of the modern (and, heck, post-modern) zombie genre brings his fifteen-issue four-color epic to a close.  Goodbye, Paul Barnum. Goodbye, Dr. Penny Jones. Goodbye, Mayor Chandrake. Goodbye, Jo. And, most especially, goodbye, Xavier.

Does everyone get a happy ending? I suppose that would be telling, and since dishing out overly-specific “spoilers” isn’t my stock in trade, I’ll just say this much — the story reaches what I’m sure most folks (myself included) would call a decent conclusion, but there’s a lot left hanging, which is especially strange considering that this final installment almost feels more like an epilogue than anything else.

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Please allow me to explain since you, dear reader, deserve at least that much : a good number of plotlines actually…

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Once upon a time — when comics copied movies rather than vice-versa — there was a little bit of a “Vietnam boom” in the funnybook pages. Hot on the heels of the success of flicks like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket at the box office, Marvel and DC looked to America’s (then, at any rate) most divisive military entanglement as the source of inspiration for a handful of well-regarded late ’80s series, and while it’s certainly been a healthy spell since I dug out my old back issues of The ‘Nam or Cinder And Ashe, I remember being as thoroughly impressed with them as anyone and everyone else was back when they were a going concern.

Then, of course, the ’90s hit, and when the Image books of that woe-begotten decade’s early years ushered in the era of the genuinely brain-dead superhero story packaged inside a foil-wrapped holographic cover, most books that had anything to do with reality quickly and quietly disappeared. As a result,  it’s been quite awhile since we had a good Vietnam comic. The astute among you may take exception to this truncated timeline I’ve provided and say “hey, wait a minute, a pretty good chunk of Before Watchmen : Comedian took place ‘in country,'” but that just serves to reinforce my point — it’s been quite awhile since we had a good Vietnam comic.

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All that changed last Wednesday, though, when writer/letterer Paul Allor and artist/colorist Paul Tucker’s Tet #1 hit the stands courtesy of Comics Experience’s semi-new joint distribution venture with IDW Publishing. How much did I enjoy this first issue? Let me just put it this way — in a week crowded with good comics, including new issues of Deadly ClassThe Wicked + The Divine, Phonogram : The Immaterial GirlStarveHarrow CountyRebelsCrossed + One Hundred, and Bitch Planet (to name just a handful of standout titles that hit the shelves in one of the most awesome — and expensive — Wednesdays in recent memory), this was undoubtedly my pick of the week. So, yeah, I liked it a lot.

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I couldn’t say for certain whether or not Allor and/or Tucker served in Vietnam themselves, mind you (they were probably both too young), but Tet certainly feels authentic, and who can ask for more than that? Right off the bat we get a pretty good picture of the sort of man that our protagonist, one Lt. Eugene Smith, both was in 1968 (specifically around the time — as if you hadn’t already pieced it together — of the Tet Offensive) and is in the present day. Back then he was fresh off barely making it out of a My Lai-style massacre in the jungle and newly assigned to working a desk as translator/liaison in Hue City, where he’s met a young lady named Ha that he plans to marry and bring back with him to the US. Nowadays, though — well, let’s just say it’s pretty obvious none of that worked out.

What exactly happened? I guess that’s what this four-issue mini-series is going to tell us, but so far it seems a pretty safe bet that the murder of Lt. Smith’s buddy, Chip, and his subsequent assignment to help “crack” the case with a local detective named Bao, probably had something to do with how and why his life went irrevocably off the rails. Oh, and the less-than-subtle hint that Ha herself may have been a spy for the other side most likely didn’t help matters much, either.

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Suffice to say, there’s a lot of set-up in this opening installment, but Allor’s naturalistic scripting style and engaging dialogue makes a dense-with-information read flow very gracefully, and the nuanced, multi-layered nature of the story certainly rewards careful re-reading, as a number of seemingly “throwaway” lines are actually, of course, dripping with import. The author has referred to this book as being a “war/crime/romance” story, and all three of those seemingly incongruous factors actually play off and complement each other in a very deft manner here, with each being given enough “breathing room” to establish itself as a driving force within the overall narrative without overpowering the other aspects of the trifecta. It’s a definite tight-rope walk to balance them all, but somehow Tet #1 makes it all look pretty easy (even though I’m sure it was anything but).

As for the artistic side of the ledger, well, what more needs to be said ? As the pages reproduced above ably demonstrate, Tucker takes to the period and setting of this tale like a fish to water, and his gritty-yet-cinematic style is flat-out perfect for the book. In some ways this is “throwback” art that conveys a lot of the same mood and energy of late-’80s comics, but there’s nothing wrong with that in my book since those years were, as we’ve already discussed, home to the “mini-golden-age” of Vietnam comics . It’s not entirely fair to say the book has a completely “retro” look to it, though, as the covers and many of the interior panels certainly betray a thoroughly modern design sensibility. Let’s call the art in this series a pleasing blend of old and new alike, then, since that seems a pretty fair summation of things to this point.

My only concern with Tet going forward — and it’s a small once — is a nagging back-of-the-mind fear that four issues just won’t be enough to tell a story this complex, yet unmistakably human, and do everyone involved justice. If the first chapter is any indication, though, that’s a baseless worry, since Allor and Tucker have managed to do more in one issue so far than any number of comics can pull off in five or six. I think we’re in very good hands, then, and while the ride ahead will almost certainly be fraught with a heck of a lot of  drama, peril, betrayal, and heartbreak, it also promises to be an instantly memorable one. Jump on Tet now  — it may not be the most-talked-about comic on the racks, but it will be among the small-yet-discerning audience that’s reading it.

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Silly me. I thought that, when it came to “found-footage” UFO-themed horror flicks,  Oren Peli’s Area 51 just had to be the bottom of the barrel. The nadir. The armpit. The asshole.  Then I came across a low-budget 2014 effort from the UK called Hangar 10 and realized how staggeringly wrong I was.

The marketing behind director Daniel Simpson’s half-assed opus is certainly interesting — it was quietly dumped out onto various VOD “home-viewing platforms” (it’s since been released on DVD, but being that I watched it on Netflix I can’t really comment on any technical specs or extras-that-probably-aren’t-included-anyway) with little by way of explanation, I’m assuming in order to lure in unsuspecting folks who were stupid enough to believe it might be “real.” The credits are curiously incomplete, as well, and as a result it took some little amount of legwork on the part of horror buffs to even suss out who played some of the roles here. So who knows — maybe a few people really did think this was an honest-to-goodness documentary. But man, once that low-rent CGI kicks in, there’s just no doubt whatsoever.

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Viewers of at least average intelligence will have pieced it together a lot sooner than that, though, given how sub-standard the acting here is, but  hey —before bitching any further I suppose I should at least divulge the basic plot details : three metal detector hobbyists (I know, I know — try to contain your excitement) are on the hunt for ancient Saxon gold in Rendlesham Forest, site of Britain’s most famous UFO “flap” some 33 years ago. They decide to film their “adventure” on their HD camcorder. They don’t find any gold. They do find an evil alien presence that is returning to the same spot it visited before. I guess maybe the universe isn’t as big as I thought, or maybe the quaint English countryside is just so awe-inspiring that invaders from Zeta Reticuli simply have to see it again. Who really knows, and who really cares.

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As far as IMDB has been able to confirm, the three principal players here are Robert Curtis as Gus, Abbie Salt as Sally, and Danny Shayler as Jake, who are all thoroughly unconvincing ( which is a pretty remarkable feat when you consider how one-dimensional and boring the characters they’re tasked with playing are), while the script was co-authored by Simpson and one Adam Preston. So there’s that “mystery” solved, I guess, but the more pressing question is — now that people know who was responsible for this debacle, do these poor souls really want their names attached to it?

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I know that I sure as hell wouldn’t. Hangar 10 is about the most wholly unremarkable film one that could possibly imagine, and an actual documentary on metal-detector enthusiasts would probably be more interesting to sit through than this is — even if all they found were a few discarded beer can tabs scattered here and there. Huh. This one looks like it might be from a mid-70s Pabst can.

I will give Simpson and his cast and crew credit for one thing, though — this little number they’ve cooked up makes even Area 51 seem like Oscar-caliber material. That’s a genuinely amazing achievement to be sure — but it’s hardly a good one.

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In recent years, Oren Peli has gone from the promising young director of the original Paranormal Activity to a veritable “horror mogul,” with his name attached (albeit as a producer) to projects as varied as Rob Zombie’s Lords Of Salem, Barry Levinson’s The Bay,  and the blockbuster Insidious series. And yet, for all his newfound clout, his sophomore directorial effort, Area 51, has been sitting around, unreleased, since filming on it wrapped in 2009.

You’d figure there must be a good reason for that, of course (and there is), but the funny thing is that, just when everybody finally forgot about this thing, it quietly (hell, silently, even) made its way onto various “home viewing platforms” (including Netflix, which is how I caught it — perhaps worth noting is the fact that it’s not, to the best of my knowledge, available on either Blu-ray or DVD yet) just a few months ago. So now, for better or for worse, we can all finally see this flick for ourselves and theorize as to why it was allowed to get dusty in the corner for all these years. Ironically, though,  for a movie based around the conceit of four conspiracy-obsessed twenty-somethings discovering the “truth” about one of the government’s best-kept secrets, the  simple fact is that no mysterious cabal was preventing the public from seeing this  — it just isn’t very good, and the studio obviously knew they had a lemon on their hands.

Come to think of it, the whole of Area 51 is so listless, dull, and tread-worn that I wouldn’t be too surprised if it was none other than Peli himself who fought hardest to ensure that it never saw the light of day. But who knows? Maybe that’s just a crazy conspiracy theory.

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Here’s our set-up : three dudes with a camcorder (Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, and Ben Rovner — all of whom are (yawn!) supposedly “playing themselves”) are filming an on-the-fly documentary centered around them boozing, carousing, and generally acting like the assholes they so clearly and obviously are. Then they get bored with that, add a token female to their posse (Jelena Nik), and decide they’re going to bust into Area 51 to find out what the government’s been keeping under lock and key at the supposed site of history’s most famous supposed flying saucer crash once and for all. They do this by busting into the home of a guy who works at the base and procuring an “all-access” card key, and once inside, despite not being in military uniform or anything of the sort, they seem free to go about their business more or less unmolested.

In fairness to Peli and his largely talent-free cast, there are a small handful of “oh, shit, I think I hear footsteps!” moments, but on the whole the ease with which this parade of douchebags is able to navigate around the building without getting caught is pretty remarkable — unless, of course, there really is nothing of interest to find there. Which is certainly the case for the first 45-odd-minutes of their exploration/B-and-E job.

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Okay, yeah, sooner or later they really do find some shit they’re not supposed to, but I’m sorry — a few floating rocks are in no way gonna save this flick by that point. Seriously, Area 51 almost dares you to remain interested in it, and while we do — eventually — get to some “good stuff,” it’s way too little way too late, the movie’s already lost that just-mentioned dare,  and no way are you going to get suckered back in for about 15-20 minutes of semi-involving stuff before the credits roll. Unless, I suppose, you’re a real glutton for punishment, a real imbecile, or both.

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On the positive front, Peli and co-screenwriter Christopher Denham do work in some appearances by real-life people who purportedly claim to have some sort of involvement with the “actual” Area 51 “phenomenon,” and when you combine that fact with the genuinely shaky use of “shaky-cam” here, it gives the project a reasonably authentic “documentary” feel — but so what? Even if this somehow was  the “real deal,” it would still be slow-paced, boring, and flatter than Keira Knightley’s chest.

What’s hiding at Area 51? Nothing interesting.

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Hey, how about that poster?

And now that you’ve seen the best thing about director Joel Soisson’s 2014 indie horror Cam2Cam, we can probably just move on.

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Okay, tell you what, I may be feeling lazy, but I’m not quite feeling that lazy. After all, I watched this thing on Netflix the other night (it’s also available on DVD — though not on Blu-ray — from IFC), and I started to write a review of it, so I may as well finish the job. And while it may not be a job that I’m actually getting paid for, warning well-intentioned horror fans away from this pile of shit will hopefully count as my good deed for the day and I can rack up a few cheap points on the ol’ karmic wheel.

So, to make a long story short, here’s why you don’t need to bother with this one :  I figured a flick set in Bangkok about an American back-packer named Allie Westbrook (Tammin Sursok) looking to explore the city’s more salacious side by using the internet to get in with a kinky group of ex-pats would at least provide a few quick and sleazy thrills, but the simple fact of the matter is that Cam2Cam is waaaaaaayyy more tame than its subject matter — not to mention its poster — would suggest.

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The deal here is that Allie meets a semi-charismatic stranger named Michael (Ben Wiggins), a seemingly “vanilla” individual who introduces her to his more — uhhhmmm — “adventurous” friend, Lucy (Jade Tailor), who in turn introduces her to the unofficial leader of their kinky little posse, Marit (Sarah Bonrepaux), and then it turns out that this whole little online fetish club has a lot more than sex on its collective mind and that their video-recorded wares are being marketed to the biggest sickos you can possibly imagine.

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Obviously, none of this is terribly original. Nor is it terribly good. The key elements are all here for a memorably cheap-n’-seedy time, to be sure, but Soisson gives it all the Lifetime-movie-of-the-week treatment —and it really doesn’t help that only Bonrepaux seems to be approaching her task with any sort of relish. Everyone else just seems embarrassed to be here and planning ahead for how they’re going to save up enough money to hire a good lawyer who can scrub this thing off their IMDB CVs.

And you know what? I can’t say I blame them. Soisson could — and should — have gone the Vice Squad route here and played up the prurient elements in his film to the hilt, but instead he seems to be more concerned with making a  Bangkok-sex-and-murder- flick that won’t offend delicate Midwestern sensibilities. Any filmmaker tackling material this potentially combustible should probably ask him or herself plenty of questions going in, but “how will it play in Peoria?” isn’t one of them. Leave that shit for the Hallmark Channel.

But hey — do go ahead and look at that poster one more time before you’re done here. Then remind yourself that you’ve seen all you need to of Cam2Cam and hey, you didn’t even need to waste any of your time actually watching  it.

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If there’s one thing we’re all about around these parts, it’s shining a light on low-budget independent horror that deserves a wider audience, and as far as low budgets go, well — they don’t get much lower than the $150,000 that director/co-writer (along with Bernard Dolan) Tom DeNucci shelled out for his 2015 mini-masterpiece Almost Mercy. The flick certainly looks like it cost a good deal more than that, though, so credit to our favorite new genre wunderkind for knowing how to make a little go a long way.

You know what’s doubly impressive, though? The fact that it’s a fairly safe wager that a good chunk of that $150,000 went to fan-favorite actors Bill Moseley and Kane Hodder (who play a pair of adult “authority figures” — Moseley being a preacher and Hodder a coach), both of whom probably showed up for no more than a day or two each to get their scenes “in the can.” So the actual working budget DeNucci had to play with after paying those stars is probably somewhere closer to $75,000-$100,000.

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Still, like I said, he does wonders with it. Our two principal characters here are a pair of burgeoning young sociopaths named Emily (played by Danielle Guldin) and Jackson (Jesse Dufault), who have both endured horrific abuse of the physical and psychological variety over the course of their short lives and have every reason to be the ticking time-bombs they so obviously are. You’re going to be scared shitless by what these kids are capable of, yet completely sympathetic to their plight, as well, thanks to a very smart script and two absolutely “spot-on” performances. The eye of the needle that DeNucci has to thread here is very tiny indeed, given that material this challenging could easily go off the rails, but damn if he and his cast don’t pull it off.

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One word of warning — the shocking subject matter that forms the beating heart of this story is pretty much front-and-center from word “go,” so if you’re uncomfortable with horror that is all too immediate, you might want to give Almost Mercy a pass. Yes, there is plenty of over-the-top blood, gore, and assorted viscera to be had here, but by and large the most stomach-churning stuff on display comes in the form of situations that we know to be way too real, and way too tragic. You’ve been warned.

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That’s probably about as specific as I should get here, given that I don’t want to dull the impact of the body-blows that DeNucci delivers, so at this point I’ll zero in — briefly — on my only real beef with the flick, which is that it really does lay it on pretty thick at times. I’m not sure what other way there would be to play it, mind you, but there probably are methods by which to communicate the excruciating evil our protagonists have been subjected to without, I dunno, “piling on.” In a weird way it reminds me of the main gripe that I had with Precious, which is that pretty much every single goddamn bad thing in the world happens to that film’s central character with no real let-up whatsoever. I get that there are way too many people for whom that sort of life is a sad reality, and at least DeNucci lets his characters get some payback, but when you lay it on a little too thick it can start to feel less like a story and more like a laundry-list of atrocities being dumped on some hapless individuals. I’m not saying that Almost Mercy veers completely into that territory, but it does come awfully close on a few occasions.

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Still, even that minor quibble doesn’t detract from the sock-loaded-with-ball-bearings beating this movie dishes out time and again. Almost Mercy is a brutally honest and even more brutally powerful slice of celluloid horror, and I would urge you to either catch it n Netflix, or pick it up on DVD from Screen Media, ASAP. If you’re in the mood for something as altogether unforgettable as it is altogether unpleasant, you really can’t do much better than this.

 

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I had at least modest hopes for director Conor McMahon’s 2014 effort From The Dark given that I was reasonably impressed a few months back with fellow recent-vintage Irish indie horror  The Canal, but when you think about it, that makes about as much sense as figuring We Are Your Friends might be good just because, I dunno, Straight Outta Compton was. After all, they both come from the same country, and they’re both about music, right?

Which is not to say that McMahon’s modestly-budgeted little supernatural wannabe spine-tingler doesn’t have its moments (hell, for all I know, maybe We Are Your Friends does, too) — it’s just that they’re very few and far between, and come way too late to save the day.

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The good news is that if you’re a fan of simple set-ups, they don’t come much simpler than this : young(-ish) lovebirds Mark (Stephen Cromwell) and Sarah (Niamh Algar) are on trip through the Irish countryside when they’re set upon by a creature from local legend who only hunts (and attacks) at night. They’re not very good at fighting back — witness the numerous times they could jab or stab at their pursuer with a number of sharp implements lying around but fail to do so, or the number of occasions when they could shine a light on the thing and send it scurrying but somehow have that “easy out” slip their mind (hell, for that matter they could just pull up stakes and go home at pretty much any time, as well) — but somehow they manage to stay alive long enough to make it to a semi-big confrontation at the end. Which actually isn’t a bad semi-big confrontation. Unfortunately, too much of what leads up to it is not just bad but downright dreary, so you probably won’t care all that much by then.

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I give McMahon credit for not wasting a lot of time here — you barely get to know these characters before the trouble starts in, and frankly you barely get to know any more about them afterwards — but for a movie that completely hinges on throwing you in at the deep end and not letting up, he sure does take his foot off the gas a lot. And that’s when you realize that there’s just not much interesting happening here.

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The actors by and large do okay with the slim material they’re given, so props to them for that, and the creature itself is reasonably well-realized, but the premise here is just too flimsy and nonsensical, and the pacing too awkward, for this to be considered anything like even a low-key “success.” You get the distinct feeling that everyone involved is giving their all, but “all” is a fairly relative term, and the problem with From The Dark is that it ain’t “all” that much.

Still,  I suppose that there are worse ways to spend about 90 minutes of your life, so if it sounds like this one might be up your alley, it’s streaming on Netflix right now (which is how I caught it) as well as being available on Blu-ray and DVD from Dark Sky Films. I wouldn’t say it’s worth a rental, much less a purchase, but on a slow holiday weekend when you’ve got nothing else going on, pressing the red “play” arrow on your computer isn’t the dumbest thing you could possibly do. The sad fact of the matter is, though, that you’ll be sorely (if understandably) tempted to hit “stop” at about the halfway point, and if you do that, you’ll miss out on the only parts of the film that are really worth seeing.