The name Richard Mansfield is not, I would assume, one known to very many, but I’d been hearing a little bit here and there over the past few years about this UK-based “micro-budget” writer/director and his production outfit, Mansfield Dark Productions, from fellow aficionados of cash-strapped filmmaking,  so when I noticed that a number of his flicks were available for streaming on Amazon Prime, I thought I’d give at least one of ’em a go and see what the less-than-buzz was all about. As it turns out, I ended up watching two, but we’ll get to the other one in our next review. First up : 2014’s The Mothman Curse.

Looking every bit like the one-thousand-pound (reportedly) production it is, this “supernatural thriller” certainly bases its entire shtick on the tropes one is used to from the “found footage” sub-genre, but can’t be fairly said to fit into said “family” of films in and of itself — it just looks, feels, sounds, and essentially plays out like one.

Cue lots of hand-held “shaky cam,” wildly varying sound levels, grainy-ass “night vision,” and wooden, amateurish acting. And yet Mansfield, no doubt forced to go with a “low-fi” vibe by dint of sheer necessity, doesn’t for one minute sell this as being a “mockumentary” of any sort. The story of overnight museum workers Rachel (played by Rachel Dale) and Katy (brought to “life” by Katy Vans) even, and obviously, plays the old “give characters the same name as the actors portraying them” card, but at no point are we told that they went missing and these tapes are all that was found to provide clues as to their disappearance, etc. In fact, the plot is pretty straight-line-from-A-to-B stuff. Purportedly living in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, they’ve heard tell of the so-called “Mothman,” of course — as have we all by this point — but when they begin to notice a strange and enigmatic shape out of the corners of their eyes with greater and greater frequency, they decide to to do a good and proper “deep dive” of research into the phenomenon, which apparently raises their would-be antagonist’s hackles, because he starts to make his presence more directly felt (and eventually seen) by means of crawling quickly across the ground, knocking on doors and then promptly running away, all that good stuff. He’s onto them, goddamnit, but he’s going to take his time and drive them crazy with paranoia and fear before moving in for the kill, ‘cuz that’s what spooky creatures like him do.

Shot almost entirely in black and white (with a bit of green here and there to denote when the lights have gone out), Mansfield seems to want to convince you that he’s making some kind of “art-house” flick here rather than just a cheap one, but he doesn’t strike a very convincing stylistic pose as far as that goes — I don’t know if the DVD iteration of this film available from Wild Eye Releasing features a commentary track or not, but if it does, I’d be curious to see how far he goes toward explaining/justifying this aesthetic. To me, it just looks like what we’ve got here is a guy doing some on-the-job-training when it comes to  getting the hang of using decade-old technology — which doesn’t preclude him from accidentally nailing a handful of legitimately effective shots — but who knows? Maybe I’m not giving him enough credit for trying to be a stylish visionary with next to nothing at his disposal.

Or, hell, maybe I’m giving him too much by even entertaining the “hey, this is all one purpose” possibility. After all, Mansfield doesn’t seem all that concerned with eliciting decent performances from his two principal leads — or, for that matter, from his small handful of supporting players. The Mothman him/itself is considerably more effectively realized, and the fuzzy image quality helps to no end in that regard given that seeing him clearly would probably show he’s just some dude in a cheap costume, but seriously — nothing else on offer here in terms of production values/quality gives any sort of hint that our cost-conscious autuer has any ambition to punch above his low weight class. The film seems very much resigned to its fate rather than one that looks for creative ways to seem like more than it is.

Pacing is another big problem here — I’m all for a slow burn, absolutely, but is more like a glacial fizz-out. Tectonic plates move more quickly than The Mothman Curse, and deliver considerably more “bang” when they do, finally, shift after millennia. Shit, the actors even speak slowly much of the time, essentially padding out what by all rights should be about a sixty-minute short (-ish) film to a seemingly-interminable 80 minutes, which is barely above the minimum a production can clock in at and still call itself “feature-length” with a straight face.Sure, it seems a lot longer, but this flick wastes time and stretches shit out to a degree that would make even master hustlers like Nick Millard envious.

So, yeah, getting to the end of this one was a rough slog. Watching the flagpole rust is probably a more involving endeavor. But hey — what the hell do I know? Somebody, somewhere, must have liked this, because Mansfield is still at it, presumably — hell, hopefully — honing his craft as he goes along, building a mini-“empire” that, as we’ve already established, at least enough folks are paying attention to in order to keep it going as a viable concern. Our guy Richard may even be pursuing his movie-making career on something resembling a full-time basis by now, in which case more power to ‘im.

Still, from all evidence on offer in The Mothman Curse, I don’t think a sane individual would invest another hour-plus of their existence in another Mansfield production. But a “sane individual” is something no one’s ever accused me of being —

My latest review for Graphic Policy website —

Graphic Policy

Near as I can tell, Marvel is doing precisely fuck-all to commemorate the 100th birthday of the man who created pretty much their entire corporate universe, but DC , to their credit (not a phrase you’ll hear coming from my mouth very often) seems to think that a century of Jack Kirby is very much worth celebrating indeed : we’re four issues into the year-long Kamandi Challenge as we speak, the superstar creative team of Tom King and Mitch Gerads has just been announced as helming a forthcoming Mister Miracle revival, and Gerard Way‘s still-nascent (and, to date, uniformly interesting) Young Animal line has now gotten in on the act, as well, with the release of the first issue of the six-part Bug!  : The Adventures Of Forager. Chances are there will be even more to come as the year proceeds, but as far as company-wide love letters…

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Odds are pretty good that the 50%- or- so of my regular readers (not that there’s anything “regular” about any of us, of course!) who speak fluent “comic book-ese” are well aware of the industry’s sorry ethical history, but for the other half who are blissfully unaware of how badly outfits like Marvel and DC have put the screws to the creative geniuses who dreamed up their billion-dollar properties, the reality can be shocking : Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster selling away the rights to Superman in perpetuity for the princely sum of $130 just before they were shipped off to war because they wanted to provide a little something for their families in case they didn’t come back home; Jack Kirby’s struggles just to get back the thousands of pages of original art he drew of the hundreds of characters he invented and his family’s subsequent legal battles after his passing; Steve Ditko living in a shabby apartment above a skid-row thrift store while Spider-Man raked in a fortune — these are just a few of the more obvious and egregious economic injustices that are all too common in comics history. But no list of ignominious funnybook rip-offs is complete without mentioning the saga of Bill Finger.

Who was Bill Finger? Well, according to pretty much every first-hand account of the situation, he was co-creator of arguably the most famous (and profitable) super-hero of them all : Batman. Not that you’d know it by reading the credits in every DC comic published over the last 75 years, though, because according to them, Batman was “created by Bob Kane.” And Bob Kane died a very wealthy man thanks to that little credit line, while Bill Finger passed away in 1974, an anonymous jobbing freelancer living in reduced circumstances who took a secret to his grave that almost no one wanted to hear.

Here’s the thing : almost everything you love about Batman was Finger’s idea. Kane’s original Batman sketch was of a dude in a red costume with stiff bird-like wings and a simple domino mask, but when he turned that sketch over to Finger one fateful weekend and asked him to see what he could do with it, the then-youthful pulp and comics writer let his imagination run wild and came up with the look of the Caped Crusader’s iconic costume, his origin story as a wealthy orphaned youth waging a one-man war on crime, his fictitious home of Gotham City, his world-famous “rogues’ gallery” of villains, his secret identity of Bruce Wayne, his butler Alfred, his sidekick Robin — all fingers point to Finger for pretty much all of that.

Kane was his boss, though, and so he was the guy who ultimately took the idea to National Periodical Publications (now DC), and who subsequently arranged the deal to give himself the sole “by-line” on all Batman comics for decades to come, even though all his scripting chores were “farmed out” to Finger, and in later years much of the art was handled by the likes of legendary illustrators such as Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang. No matter. As far as the contracts with the publisher were concerned, Kane was doing it all. Even when he was doing almost none of it.

Hard-core fans knew the score, of course, as Finger’s story had been circling around the much-smaller-at-the-time convention and fanzine circuit for years, but the public at large was generally oblivious as to his silent contributions until quite recently. Author Marc Tyler Nobleman, who penned a children’s book entitled Bill : The Boy Wonder, can take a lot of credit for righting this historical wrong, since his dogged research was the “critical mass” ingredient that finally brought about the official recognition that Finger long deserved, but there were a lot of other folks, including Finger’s surviving family, who played a major part in it, as well, and all of their stories are finally given their due, as well, in the new made-for-Hulu documentary Batman & Bill, an intriguing “real-life detective story” from directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce that’s one of the more fascinating films of 2017 so far.

Nobleman is our suburban, middle-class, would-be Phillip Marlowe in this tale, but valuable context is provided by “expert witnesses” such as cult filmmaker/Bat-fanatic Kevin Smith, Hollywood producer/longtime fan Michael Uslan, Kane biographer Thomas Andrae, and my friend, noted comics historian Arlen Schumer, all of whom assist in laying out the basics of the “case” while our de facto “protagonist” does the legwork that eventually leads to the unearthing of a previously-unknown Bat-heir — Finger’s granddaughter, Athena, whose emergence onto the “scene” opens the legal floodgates that will eventually lead to “Batman created by Bob Kane withe Bill Finger” appearing on all comics, films, TV shows, cartoons, etc. featuring the Dark Knight.

If all of this sounds more than a little bit like a largely academic dispute among a marginal community of people with nothing better to do with their time, rest assured that Batman & Bill is constructed in such an engaging and accessible manner that even somebody who’s never seen a Bat-flick or a read a Bat-comic will find themselves inexorably drawn into the web of intrigue that Argott and Joyce expertly weave, and while Finger is long gone and obviously not able to speak for himself, the sincerity and earnestness with which others are able to speak for him paints a reasonably complete and consistently fascinating picture of the man who made Batman everything he ultimately became. If you like a good mystery, or a classic “underdog” story, or even a human-interest “docudrama,” then trust me when I say that you’ll find plenty to satisfy whet your cinematic whistle here.

Perhaps the best thing Batman & Bill has going for it, though, is that at the end of the day it’s that rarest of beasts : a truly inspirational tale of how one man’s sheer bloody-mindedness can galvanize others around him who have the power to effect change to do precisely that. Bill Finger may have been the unknown hero behind the hero everyone knows, but it took the work of a number of subsequent heroes to let the world know that. We should be thankful for each and every one of them, as well as the remarkable documentarians who recognized in their story so many essential human truths that we can all relate to.

If there’s a tough character to write in comics, it’s Black Bolt. The king — or, at least as of this writing, former king — of the Inhumans is, of course, famously silent, not because he’s mute, but because the mere sound of his voice is powerful enough to level cities. It was a great gimmick when Jack Kirby came up with it way back when, but it’s been a tricky conceit for subsequent creators to build upon. Paul Jenkins gave it a pretty good effort in his fine Marvel Knights Inhumans series done in collaboration with artist Jae Lee, but since then, no one’s really seemed to know what to do with this guy.

Apart from Marvel’s “suits,” of course, who had Black Bolt set off the so-called “Gene Bomb” a few years back that’s been utilized as the company’s preferred method for writing Mutants out of their corporate universe and Inhumans in. The boys in accounting aren’t so hot on Mutants these days, you see, given that Fox holds the cinematic rights to to the lot of ’em, and so the Inhumans have been conscripted as their de facto replacements, a scenario that’s been met with a healthy amount of skepticism, if not outright disdain, from many fans, and doesn’t seem to have set Hollywood ablaze with excitement, either, given that the once-inevitable blockbuster Inhumans movie has recently been “reimagined” on the fly as a low-budget TV series. So, ya know, maybe it’s all been for nothing.

Tell you what, though — don’t tell that to Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward, because they might just have one heck of a story to tell before all is said and done.

Ahmed is Marvel’s latest big “get” from outset the world of comics, with a heavy-duty CV that features everything from fantasy novels to essays to poetry, and Ward is best known these days as the mind-bendingly cosmic artistic visionary on Image’s Matt Fraction-scribed ODY-C, so to call this a true “A-List” team is probably something of an understatement, but hey — we’ve seen fine creators fall short of the mark before, so it’s not like I went into their just-released Black Bolt #1 necessarily expecting greatness, even if most signs seemed to point in that direction. Best to err on the side of caution just as a general rule anyway, am I right? Especially when four bucks are on the line with every installment.

Still, while our sample size so far is an admittedly small one, my guarded optimism looks, at this early juncture, to have been very well-placed indeed. Saladin does most of his storytelling by means of effectively clinical and distant third-person narration (after all, his protagonist is not only stone silent as ever, but muzzled, to boot!), and while on paper one could make a convincing case that not much actually happens in this issue — Black Bolt is imprisoned, presumably by his traitorous brother Maximus, but manages to break free of his bonds only to get in, and subsequently lose, a fight, thus ultimately ending up in chains all over again — it still feels like a more robust and substantive read than most other “decompressed” comics out there these days, especially since there’s a strong sense given that all is most definitely not as it seems here.

By the time we get to the cliffhanger that inference turns out to be exactly right, but even though our narrative journey from Point A back to Point A is a short one — this is about a five-minute read, tops, from cover to cover — it’s a fascinating little loop loaded with beautiful imagery including an M.C. Escher-esque splash page charting Black Bolt’s descent through his cosmic prison, dynamically free-flowing sequences of violent action, and intense non-verbal cues that “say” more than words ever could. Ward’s art is comparatively more restrained here than it is in the pages of the at-this-point-only-occasionally-released (to put it kindly) ODY-C, but the key word there is probably “comparatively” — for a “Big Two” superhero book this is vibrant and wonderfully experimental stuff indeed, and his (self-done) colors positively “pop” off the page and put one hell of an exclamation point on work that is frankly already all kinds of exciting.

Is it fair, then, to say that the art is the star of the show here? Well, okay, yeah, but it’s also indicative of an admirable lack of ego on a writer’s part to be more than willing to deliver a script that plays to your artist’s (numerous) strengths and to then stand back and let him assume the bulk of the narrative duties. In other words, for a couple dudes who only just started working together and have probably never communicated by anything other than electronic means, they sure seem pretty simpatico to this reader.

There’s a long way to go here before any sort of final judgment can be rendered (my best guess? 11 more issues), of course, and if subsequent chapters prove to be as economically-written as this one is then I can’t say I’d necessarily hold it against someone from “trade-waiting” this series, but all in all if we’re looking for one word to best describe Black Bolt #1, the one I’d go for is impressive.

Let me know if this sounds more than just a bit familiar —

On May 24th, 2016, an unsolicited package arrived at the purported “offices” of a purported “production company” in New Delhi, India, called WPoV Films. The package contained a hard disc — as opposed to a flash drive — that featured disjointed and frankly mangled footage shot by an amateur filmmaker named Dhruv Vidur who, along with friends Sagar Joneja and Deepanshu Singh, headed out to a semi-remote wilderness area known variously as Faridabad and/or Bheem Bharsa in order to ascertain the truth behind stories that Dhruv’s father, Bhushan, had related to him since he was a boy about a (probably) mythical beast that haunts and terrorizes the region. The trio promptly disappeared and haven’t been seen, or heard from, since.

Yes, friends, no-budget horror filmmakers the world over are going the “found footage” route in order to sneak the many and obvious deficiencies inherent in their productions in through the back door marked “authenticity,” (it’s not just an “American thing”) and Indian writer/director Anurag Sikder has done his homework and ticked off every box on the stale “mockumentary” checklist. There ain’t a damn thing happening in his 2016 directorial debut, released under the titles The Evidence From Bheem Bharsa and A Witch Hunt In Faridabad, that you haven’t seen more times than you can count, and usually done with considerably more competence, if not outright skill. This time around about half the footage is in Hindi, which at least adds a little bit of variety to the proceedings, but beyond that, damn — been there, done that.

The “actors” are all presumably working under their real names, a shop-worn trope that dates back to The Blair Witch Project, and apparently don’t harbor much concern about bringing shame to their families, because not a one of them seems cut out for this racket. Over-emoting and painfully stunted line delivery are the competing orders of the day here, and when you combine performances of this “caliber” with Sikder’s way-too-shaky grasp on “shaky cam,” the result is a truly excruciating experience. I’ve been doing my very best to plumb the absolute depths of Amazon Prime’s “micro-budget” streaming horror offerings, and I think I may have finally hit rock bottom with this one — if there’s something worse out there (which, hey, there could be) I can honestly say I have no interest in seeing it. Even my masochism has its limits. “Why do you do this to yourself?” is certainly a fair question to ask at this point, but asking the director “why did you make it?” seems even more appropriate.

On the plus side, Sikder at least has the decency to end this never-should-have-been filmed fiasco at a downright merciful 44 minutes, but I should warn you — they may be the most painfully dull and awkward 44 minutes of your life. The Evidence From Bheem Bharsa is so woefully uninspired and derivative in every respect, the case ends up being that its sheer and staggering incompetence is the only thing that sets it apart from literally thousands of versions/variations of a damn-near-identical thing.

I guess it’s true what they say, after all : no matter where you go in the world, the story’s the same.

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.