Archive for December 11, 2016

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After the debacle that was The Warning, I was just about ready to throw in the towel on “micro-budget” horror available via Amazon Prime’s streaming service (until the itch demanded to be scratched again a few months down the road, of course) , but as Al Pacino once famously said : “Just when I thought I was out — they pull me back in.” And the flick that pulled me back in? Writer/director Steve Hudgins’ 2012 Madisonville, Kentucky-filmed effort — made for the princely sum of $10,000 — Spirit Stalkers.

On paper, of course, there’s nothing here that sounds like it should be better (or worse, I suppose) than anything else : the cast and crew of our titular ghost-hunting paranormal “reality” show need a big ratings boost to avoid cancellation, and they think they’ve “found a winner,” so to speak, with the story of Gloria Talman (played by Hudgins’ producer partner P.J. Woodside), who’s got an eye toward turning an old home she’s purchased into a bed and breakfast — but first she’s gotta take care of this little ghost problem that’s plaguing the joynt. Nothing we haven’t seen any number of times before, right?

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The smart thing about Spirit Stalkers is that they know their only chance to stand out from the pack is to get the little things right : the crew, led by Hudgins himself as Reuben, is smart and skeptical and won’t jump at every inexplicable noise or flickering light, thus ensuring that when scary shit over and above that does happen it’s worth being scared about; genuine twists and turns are put at the forefront while cheap “gotcha!” moments are kept to a minimum; “found footage” POV camerawork is interspersed (fairly seamlessly, I might add) with standard “point and shoot” scenes so you don’t get bored with hand-held, “shaky cam” nonsense; effectively-staged shots lend the production a genuine sense of ambiance and dread; characters are given a reasonable amount of depth and personality rather than conforming to simple one-note archetypes;  best of all, there’s an actual plot underpinning the events here, and just when you think you know what’s happening, well — rest assured, you don’t.

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Sure, you could argue that “I guess it all comes down to execution,” but there’s definitely more to it than that in this instance — Hudgins has a good eye and more ability than your average “homemade horror” filmmaker, it’s true, but there’s also a fair amount of imagination at work here, and at the end of the day something very akin to a wholly unique take on tried-and-true tropes emerges, the likes of which Hollywood has been trying (and largely failing) to find for some time. I guess if you want to do this kind of thing right, you need to go to Kentucky.

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Do you have to make some of the typical allowances for amateurism with this flick that you do with most “micro-budget” productions? Sure. The acting is competent but hardly Oscar-worthy, certain effects don’t come off as well as the filmmakers would probably like them to, a handful of wayward sounds creep in here and there, and the quality of some of the camerawork can be dodgy on occasion — but elements of obvious “cheapness” are surprisingly few and far between here. This is, by and large, a very well-executed piece of work and everyone involved, whether in front of the camera or behind it, should be — and hopefully is — justifiably proud of their efforts.

So, yeah — I guess I’m not done with “micro-budget” horror quite yet. Spirit Stalkers is far and away the best of these sorts of flicks I’ve caught on Amazon so far, and offers proof positive that some of the best would-be auteurs can be found right in our own neighborhoods. I highly encourage anyone who values imagination over spectacle to give it a shot; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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My recent forays into the depths of Amazon Prime’s streaming horror queue have yielded some interesting results — indeed, on the whole I’m ready to feel reasonably optimistic about so-called “micro-budget” genre filmmaking again — but then along comes something that not only confirms, but unquestionably amplifies, everything that all the nay-sayers who don’t even bother with this sort of thing assume to be true : the acting is laughably bad, the script is loaded with cringe-worthy dialogue, the plot is hopelessly redundant and unoriginal, the low-rent production values are embarrassingly amateurish, yadda yadda etc. etc. It is, therefore, my distinct displeasure to present perhaps the — errrmmm — finest example of all these frequent criticisms writ large that I have yet some across, director Dirk Hagen’s 2015 atrocity The Warning.

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Honestly, the word “bad” seems too simple — and frankly too kind — to describe what’s on offer here : ambitious TV news reporter Taylor Skye (played by Summer Moore, who also wrote the script) is looking to put together a pilot episode for her own urban legends-themed “reality” series, and to that end returns to her hometown of Manitou Springs, Colorado and enlists the aid of a couple of her old high school friends, Brad (Jeff Allen) and Angel (Tiffany Joy Williams) in order to help her debunk the persistent myths about Satanic cult activity that have swirled around the area for years. The problem, though, is that there are rumblings about mysterious happenings in the woods just outside of town that seem to indicate that these stories are more than just local gossip, and so it’s time to go investigate, right? And time to get lost. To get in fights that threaten to divide the group (not that they exactly “got along” in the first place). To hear strange noises and see strange sights off in the distance. And, finally, to learn far too late that there’s no escape and that these devil-worshipers are very real indeed.

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Even by the admittedly lower standards of “found footage” no-budgeters, this is particularly lame stuff. I’m not sure how much was spent on this production, but it couldn’t — or at least shouldn’t — have been more than a couple thousand bucks, and chances are that if you got a few of your friends together in front of your camera phone for a day or two, you’d be able to crank out something at least this good, and quite likely a damn sight better. I honestly wonder  what prompted Hagen and Moore to even make this thing, as they clearly have nothing to say and nothing new to add to the picture, nor is there anything on offer here to make prospective financiers of future projects think to themselves “these are people I’d like to shovel some money at,” so — why? The tone of the proceedings is so over the top, and the characters (particularly Skye) so unlikable that it’s obvious they’re hoping to sort of spoof the “mockumentary” genre even as they slavishly conform to all of its most basic “commandments,” but that’s pretty tough to do none of the performers are talented enough to either “play is straight” or “play it for laughs.” At the end of the day, then, I believe the term we’re looking for is pointless.

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I take no level of joy or satisfaction in thoroughly trashing a film made by folks who have, as the saying goes, “nothing but a dream,” but seriously — fuck dreams. If you don’t have some actual ability to back your big ideas up, just do yourselves — and the rest of us — a favor. If you don’t know how to make a movie, then don’t make one until you do. The Warning is literally a flick that never should have been made, and one you definitely shouldn’t watch under any circumstances.