Archive for May 6, 2017

Right off the bat, let me just make clear that writer/director Daniel Ray’s 2014 ultra-low-budget “mockumentary”-style indie horror Heidi isn’t about a little pig-tailed girl living in the Swiss Alps. As a matter of fact, it was filmed (in 2014, although it’s only somewhat recently been added to Amazon Prime’s streaming queue — it’s also apparently available on DVD) in Las Vegas (well away from The Strip or Fremont Street, mind you), and our titular Heidi is a creepy fucking doll.

Hell, I’d even go so far as to say she’s damn creepy, and while Annabelle, Chucky, and others hit the scene years — even decades — before Heidi did, she can proudly take her place in the “haunted doll” pantheon right beside them. In other words, dear reader, this flick is actually surprisingly good.

Here’s the rundown : semi-annoying high school kids Ryan (played by Samuel Brian) and Jack (Joey Bell) are would-be filmmakers who run a typically asinine YouTube prank show called “Booya,” which seems to revolve around catching Ryan’s older sister, Rachel (Eva Falana) unawares with various harmless-but-grating Punk’d-esque set-ups, but when being aspiring Alan Funts doesn’t prove to be too terribly lucrative an enterprise, Ryan takes a gig helping out an elderly neighbor by feeding her pet bird and cleaning up around the house. Teenagers being teenagers and all that, he and Jack take to rummaging around the place when its geriatric owner is away, and it’s in the attic where they first encounter the real star of the show. Jack’s the one who decides to get a scare out of his compatriot by kicking Heidi (“her” name is attached to her via a hand-written note), and it’s at this point that, wouldn’t ya know it, all their troubles begin —

Story-wise, Ray does a lot of things right here : he provides a solid reason for these kids to have cameras of all types everywhere (seriously, these guys make use of standard hand-held “shaky cams,” iPhones, webcams, head-mounted “GoPro” cams — even a teddy bear “nanny cam”), he establishes broad-stroke but effective backstories for everybody, and he writes engaging and realistic dialogue. It’s on the purely technical side of things, though, that Heidi manages to stand head and shoulders above its numerous counterparts in the “homemade horror” game.

The million-and-one different cameras employed allow Ray to keep his film visually interesting, and he’s obviously had plenty of practice using all of them given that he finds ways to compose effective and arresting shots with each. He’s got a really solid handle on lighting for a first-time director, gets admirably competent , at the least, performances out of his entire principle cast (as well as some of the bit players — special “props” go to Joei Fulco, who plays Ryan’s friend/semi-sweetheart Amanda), and has clearly watched enough horror movies to know what sort of scares he can get away with given the money he’s got on hand and finds ways to to execute what by all rights should be pretty typical “gotcha!” tropes in unique, unexpected, and highly interesting ways. In short, this movie both looks and plays out far better than we probably have any right to expect it to considering its numerous — though amazingly well-hidden — limitations.

My one small gripe is that Ray, for reasons I can’t really explain, sets much of his purportedly “found” footage against a standard — and not terribly good — musical score, which seems a curious choice to say the least, but you know what? After awhile you notice it less and less as both the film’s technical acumen and uncharacteristically rich and , dare I say it, “deep” story reel you in with a kind of quietly inexorable force. Sure, the ground that Heidi treads by means of plastic feet is fairly well-worn, but this is a borderline-ridiculously impressive effort for an amateur production, and if, like me, you’re the kind of person who gets shit from your friends for still holding out hope for micro-budget horror, and “found footage” micro-budget horror in particular, this is the kind of flick you can show those squares to shut them up.

Well, that didn’t take long : mere months after the release of the most “solo” film effort you’re ever gonna see in your life, Bad Ben —in which no-budget auteur Nigel Bach served as screenwriter, director, producer, cinematographer, and the flick’s only actor (hell, he even filmed it in his own home!) — we’re back in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, to learn about the unlucky people who owned Bach’s spread before he did. I hope I’m not “spoiling” anything when I reveal that their attempted home-making experience was not a pleasant one.

But what about your viewing experience? Well, Steelmanville Road : A Bad Ben Prequel suffers from the same inherent weakness that all “stories before the stories” do, namely that you you’re already pretty well clued in as to how things are gonna end, but I could probably live with that if it were the only thing wrong with the proceedings here — unfortunately it’s just the tip of the home-made iceberg. Bach may not have upgraded his filming equipment between late 2016 and early 2017, but he has considerably broadened the scope of his ambitions, going from a cast of one to a cast of six (if I remember correctly) and toying around to figure out a few more filtering effects with his trusty iPhone to give things a bit more “found footage” faux-authenticity. This production may even have had an actual — albeit obviously miniscule — budget, since I don’t think these “actors” worked for free, but damn, Nigel, I’m sorry to report that was money very poorly spent.

Our admittedly threadbare plot here revolves around young-ish couple Matt and Rachael Harris (played by Christopher and Jessica Partridge, respectively, who I sincerely hope are a married couple themselves rather than brother and sister, because that would be just plain creepy), who have just “lucked” into a hefty, unexpected windfall : Rachael’s biological mother — who she never met given that she was given up for adoption at birth — has recently died and left the couple her home on, obviously, Steelmanville Road. The pair couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this out-of-the-blue break since it’s a bigger, fancier place than they ever could have hoped to afford themselves, but things go pretty far south pretty quickly when — yawn! — things start going bump in the night more or less the minute they move in and only get worse the longer they refuse to do the smart thing, namely get the hell out and never look back.

Matt explores the “practical explanation” route first, as you’d no doubt expect (which is a pretty fair summation of the entire movie, come to think of it), but when none of that pans out Rachael manages to prevail upon him the need to look into spiritual and/or paranormal avenues, and that starts the ball of dark family secrets rolling, which ultimately leads to — shit, I guess I won’t give it all away, but whatever you’re guessing? It’s probably right.

Both lead actors struggle to varying degrees when it comes to “inhabiting” their roles (Jessica mildly, Christopher mightily), and with a flick this “character-centric” that’s tantamount to digging a hole that’s way too deep to climb out of. Bach has been doing his homework when it comes to producing a more technically proficient product — which, sadly, negates some of the incompetent charm that made its way in front of the camera (sorry, phone) in Bad Ben — but eliciting decent performances from his “stars” is still an aspect of the director’s portfolio that eludes him, even if there’s quite likely only so much you can do with “talent” on hire from local small-town community theater and the like. In other words, it’s not just the Partridges who can’t hack it here — every single one of the supporting players, to a person, is clearly in over their heads, and when you don’t have anything to distract from this by way of cool effects, professional production values, interesting sets, and the like, well, shit — your “horseshit cast” flaw becomes a fatal one indeed.

Anyway, if you absolutely must, Steelmanville Road : A Bad Ben Prequel (“A” prequel? Will there be more, then?) is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime, but this is essentially just a more bloated and unsatisfying re-working of its more amateurish, sure, but no doubt more effective predecessor. I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with some reason — hell, any reason — for you to invest just over an hour and a half of your life in this hackneyed little ghost-story-via-cell phone, but I’m coming up empty. As did Bach with his ill-advised, boring quickie.