Posts Tagged ‘indie film’

"Quiet Nights Of Blood And Pain" DVD Cover

The “psycho vet” story is an old staple in grindhouse and exploitation filmmaking, and we’ve covered a few of the classics in this genre on this page very blog in the year-and-change we (okay, I)’ve been at it — The Executioner Part II, Combat Shock and Deathdream spring immediately to mind.

Of course, these films and literally dozens of others were about disturbed Viet Nam vets, but given that we’re now involved in not one, but two no-end-in-sight-and-no-way-to-really-win conflicts, and have been mired down in them for a hell of a long time, it’s a wonder that more enterprising young filmmakers haven’t returned to “psycho vet” territory since it seems like it would be pretty fertile ground for them. The “theater” of war may have changed, but the basic premise really hasn’t, sadly, all that much — we’re still fighting for dubious (at best) reasons, our “volunteer” force is composed mostly of people with little or no other economic opportunity, our definition of “victory” seems to be constantly changing, the local populace wants us to get the hell out and had become the primary “enemy” we’re fighting, and the government seems to want to put the whole thing on the backburner and just have all of us out here in medialand forget about it while they keep shoveling more of our tax dollars into the bottomless pit these wars have become.

Oh, and a lot of the men and women who are fortunate enough to get out of the war(s) alive come back severely, and quite understandably, traumatized, if not outright psychologically (and sometimes even physically) broken.

Yes, friends, the United States never fucking learns, and something tells me that in 5 or 10 years’ time we’ll be having this same conversation, only then  the unlucky “winner” of our imperialistic —- uhhmmmm — “attentions” will be Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, or some combination thereof. The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades and all that.

Now, we’ve had our fair share of Afghanistan and Iraq war documentaries, to be sure, and a bunch of dramas, from the exceptional (Brian DePalma’s criminally underrated and nearly-unseen Redacted) to the drearily preachy (In The Valley Of Elah) to the insanely- fetishized -yet-disgustingly-apolitical (The Hurt Locker — wouldn’t you know it won Best Picture). But to date, we haven’t had an Iraq or Afghanistan-themed exploitation picture.

Enter Ohio-based microbudget veteran writer-director Andrew Copp, who’s given us some truly groundbreaking ultra-independent horror flicks like 1998’s The Mutilation Man and 2005’s The Atrocity Circle, to fill this glaring void.

While Copp’s earlier work has been at times almost dizzingly experimental, with Quiet Night of Blood and Pain he (apart from a couple of scenes that diverge into crazed video psychedelia) he pursues a pretty straightforward narrative — William (Loren S. Goins) is a recently-returned Iraq war vet with a severe case of PTSD due to the atrocities he’s committed (while Abu Ghraib isn’t mentioned specifically, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that he was either there or at a similar facility due to his predilection for the kind of zip-tie “handcuffs” we’ve seen in so many of the photos from that testament to the war’s ultimate, and repulsively inhuman, folly), and now that he’s home, he’s continuing his “mission” by taking out the “traitors” and “enemies” in his hometown — anti-war activists, hippies, and other peaceniks of various stripes. He’s egged on in his crusade by his psycho brother (played by Copp himself), a veteran of the first Gulf War (you know, the one we were told “went well”).

Across town, fellow veteran Adrienne (Amanda DeLotelle, the film’s co-producer) is struggling with her own readjustment to civilian life and finds support from Viet Nam vet Ray (played by Ray Freeland) and his Veterans for Peace-type group. One night after a meeting of this support group, Adrienne is set upon by two assailants in an alley, and William, who’s “monitoring” the meeting place of the “subversive” group fends off the attackers before fleeing off into the night himself. He begins to stalk Adrienne and her friends, though, as part of his “bring the war home” pseudo-mission.

William's treatment of John Kerry voters

They’re not the only folks to get his attention, though — one evening he breaks into the home of some people who have a John Kerry bumpersticker on their car and gives ’em the kind of “special treatment” he became so skilled at administering to “enemy combatants” in Iraq, and dispatches a couple of guys selling antiwar titles at their bookstore, as well.   But the more he  keeps tabs on Adrienne and her group, the more he becomes obsessed with wiping out this supposed “fifth column” that’s right in his midst. Needless to say, what follows ain’t gonna be pretty.

If you’re new to microbudget moviemaking, Quiet Nights of Blood and Pain may not, in all honesty, be the best place to begin your education. The acting is a mixed bag — Goins is generally superb as William and elicits a sense of controlled-but-seething menace throughout, while Freeland’s characterization of Ray is pretty much rote script-reading. Somewhere in between the two polarities is  DeLotelle’s portrayal of Amanda — she has such an unaffected and minimalist approach to her “acting” (I’m guessing more due to sheer inexperience than any conscious decision-making on her part, but I suppose I could be wrong) that it’s hard to tell whether to call her performance completely unprofessional or amazingly naturalistic. Whatever the reason and whatever the cause, though, it works, so whether that’s by choice or by dint of sheer accident really doesn’t matter much in the end.

Okay, here's some blood --- but there's quiet nights and pain, too

Copp is a skilled director who’s worked with 8mm, 16mm, and video before (this is SOV using a Panasonic DV-30 with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so it’s presented full-frame), and knows both how to compose shots and stage some pretty sold gore effects. In addition, since he wrote the script himself, he has a keen understanding of its pacing, and he does a pretty damn masterful job of alternating scenes of profoundly alienated evenings at home doing nothing with good old fashioned splatterfest-style ultraviolence — and the makeup and effects work is quite good. Not up to Hollywood standards, of course, but  part of the fun of watching this type of movie comes from seeing what the filmmakers are able to do with severely limited resources.

Needless to say, Quiet Nights of Blood and Pain never played theaters, nor was it ever going to, but it’s available on DVD either directly from or at most major retailers like Amazon. It’s distributed under the auspices the good folks at Tempe Video and picture and sound quality are both pretty much perfect (again, given the inherent limitations of the flick’s production values).  For extras, there’s a look at a gallery showing of some of Copp’s artwork, and a well-made and highly informative “making-of” featurette.

Copp has stated that his goal was to make a film with a grindhouse-style sensibility updated to apply to the modern sociopolitical landscape. In that he’s succeeded quite admirably. Sure, it’s show on video instead of low-grade film stock, but the spirit of the exploitation independents is definitely alive and well here — and while it’s a bit of a tightrope act he’s set for himself in combining a “message movie” with a psycho slasher flick, he pulls it off pretty well. At times it feels a bit preachy, but as it’s antiwar message is one this reviewer agrees with, I never found the political content to be grating, nor to detract from the character-driven story that lies at the movie’s core.

Like its tagline (“He’s Back From The War,  But He Can’t Stop Killing!”), Quiet Nights of Blood and Pain is anything but flashy or terribly original, but certainly direct and earnest enough to be worthy of respect. It’s a labor of love with its birth pains in full view for all to see, and what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in heart and integrity.

"Header" Movie Poster

"Header" Movie Poster

What’s a header?

I’m not going to tell you. Because you don’t want to know. Really. You don’t. But you do want to see this film. If you want to know what a header is. And maybe even if you don’t. And whether you do or don’t, you won’t really like the answer. Or maybe you will. If you’re sick. I mean really sick.

Confused yet? Good. Me too.

But truth be told, first-time director Archibald Flancranstin (with a name like that, it’s got to be real)’s 2006 shot-on-high-def video indie horror  “Header,” based on the story “Redneck Greek Tragedy” by cult horror author Edward Lee later adapted into comics form by Verotik, isn’t a very confusing film at all. It’s pretty straightforward. It’s also almost incomparably OTT, at times pretty amateurish, indisputably gross, and at times it’ll make you laugh in spite of yourself. Right after it makes you puke.

In other words, it’s a perfect addition to our little unofficial “countdown” of good movies to watch in the days leading up to Halloween that you stand a pretty good chance of never even having heard of, much less seen. But bring a strong stomach, because goddamn are you going to need it.

Let’s just say that the movie won’t keep you guessing about what a header is for very long. It’s the ultimate form (in this flick at least, hopefully not in reality) of hillbilly revenge, and you have to wonder if author Lee is right in the head (okay, pun intended) for even thinking of it. But I digress.

The action here takes place somewhere below tobacco road, where ATF agent-on-the-take Stewart Cummings (Jake Suffian) is struggling to move up the federal law enforcement ladder and getting nowhere and so has resorted to a not-lucrative-enough side business of running dope and hooch for local moonshiners so that he can afford the expensive medication needed by his girlfriend, Kathy (Melody Garren), who suffers from some undisclosed illness that prevents her from working or even, apparently, getting out of the house.

Somewhere in the nearby vicinity, meanwhile, small-time white trash car thief Travis Clyde Tuckton (Elliot V. Kotek) has just gotten out of prison and given that his mammy and pappy dies while he was in stir he’s got nowhere to go but to the home of his legless grandpappy, Jake Martin (Dick Mullaney), an old-time shoe- and boot-maker who lives in a crummy lean-to and dreams of the days when he could walk around and give out headers to his heart’s content.Being that he can’t, though, he’s about to pass on this disgusting little secret family tradition to his fresh-out-of-the-joint grandson and get his jollies by watching. And that’s all I’m saying about that.

The divergent paths of these characters are about to collide in ways that give the original story’s handle of “Redneck Greek Tragedy” the “most obvious title of the year” award, and will, as I mentioned before, leave you sickened and chuckling in equal turns, if not both at once on more than one occasion.

Like just about any of the movies we tackle on this blog, “Header” is not without its problems. The acting is uniformly amateurish, with some truly unbelievable quasi-southern accents, but at the same time that can be kind of charming, too, if you don’t mind watching actors you’ve never heard of ham it up (and look for both author Lee and another cult horror literary icon, Jack Ketchum, in brief cameos). And Mullaney is great fun as the twisted old grandpa. In addition, some of the gore effects are pretty cheap, although on the whole they’re not bad considering this whole thing only cost a couple hundred grand. A lot of the pseudo-“edgy” high-def video editing is more annoyingly jarring than it is stylish. And there’s nothing particularly unusual or inventive in Flancranstin’s choice of shots and camera angles.

Still, those are pretty small gripes for a film that sets out to do one thing above all else, that being shock and repulse the hell out of you and make you feel pretty damn guilty for laughing at some of the seriously horrific shit on display, and certainly succeeds in that regard hands-down.

If you like all your horror films to frighten you, then you can safely give “Header” a pass. But if, in lieu of scares, you’ll settle for jaw-dropping “what the fuck did I just see?”-ness, then you’ll no doubt find “Header” to be a pretty engrossing little flick. The story’s pretty solid and it’s pretty damn ballsy to think anyone even committed this thing to celluloi—errr, excuse me, video. And even if you don’t like it, you will remember it. That’s a cinch-lock guarantee. Those memories won’t necessarily be pleasant, but they will be unshakable, and there’s something to be said for that in and of itself.

"Header" DVD Cover From Synapse Films

"Header" DVD Cover From Synapse Films

After languishing in indie non-distribution hell for a few years during which time it got the occasional screening at a handful of horrorand genre film festivals where it usually met with highly-qualified and sometimes even grudging praise, “Header” generated enough of a buzz in the horror underground to warrant being picked up by the always-reliable Synapse Films for DVD distribution. It’s a fairly solid little package that’s generally up to pretty high technical standards (although some of the dialogue is rather tough to pick up on in places since the “southern” accents have the effect of garbling what’s said and burying them behind the music and sound effects in the 5.1 mix doesn’t really help matters much) and  includes a thoroughly comprehensive series of behind-the-scenes interviews with most of the principal cast and crew. A commentary would have been nice, I suppose, but the interview segments cover more or less any “making-of”-type information you’d want to know.  All in all not an exhaustive selection of extras, then, but plenty good enough.

So that’s “Header.” Scary? No. But horrific?  Oh yes. Most definitely.

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Let’s face it, grown men who have unresolved issues with their mothers, particularly those who still live with them, have been a staple among movie bad guys since the days of Norman Bates — and while it may have become something of a cliche, it’s one that works, because to the rest of us, there’s just something creepy about a guy in his 30s or 40s who lives with his mom.

Donnie Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), the central character in writer-director Joseph Ellison’s 1980 grindhouse psychodrama “Don’t Go In The House” has a million and one reasons to move out of his mom’s drafty old Victorian tomb of an abode, but he doesn’t. His mom used to burn him as a kid, you see, holding his hands and arms over an open gas flame on their gigantic old stove when he’d been a bad little boy. As a result, Donnie grew up not only with unresolved mommy-issues, but with a peculiar fascination with fire, as well. He’s both attracted to and frightened of it in equal measure in his adult years, as evidenced by the fact that he works in an incinerator but when a co-worker catches fire, he freezes up and is unable to assist in his rescue, forcing the other guys at the plant to save him even though Donnie is closest to the scene.

Needless to say, this act of cowardice doesn’t go over well with his co-workers, and Donnie leaves the plant humiliated. If he thought he had a bad day at work, though, things only get worse when he gets home — his mother, you see, has finally succumbed to old age and departed this mortal coil, and with her goes Donnie’s last (admittedly tepid) connection to reality. He’s on his own now, and has a lot of shit to work out as he finally “grows up” in his own uniquely twisted way.

His first actions are natural enough—he blasts his stereo at top volume and gets drunk. But this youthful (err—okay, so he’s not youthful) fling with excess quickly loses its appeal and Donnie soon combines his unhealthy fascination with fire and his unresolved issues with an overbearing mother (issues that he has now, in a classic case of psychological transference, grafted onto the entire female gender as a whole) in a decidedly toxic fashion. He starts calling in sick from work every day and nailing sheet metal to the walls, ceiling, and floor of  one of the many large and unused rooms in his house. Then, it’s time for him to get busy and bring home some “dates,” by any means necessary—but his idea of a good time with a member of the opposite sex requires him to wear an asbestos suit. That’s right, our guy Donnie decides to bring women home, chain them up, and take a flamethrower to them.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there’s nothing terribly original about the premise here (apart from Donnie’s preferred method of dispatch for his victims), but Grimaldi really sells you on the character with his performance.  He absolutely seems like the quintessential loser who never left home, has no social skills, is terrified of the opposite sex, and blames them (all of them) for his problems. Ellison’s script is a character piece through and through, and the casting of Grimaldi in the lead was a brilliant stroke on his part. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would be standard—or even substandard—exploitation fare, but Grimaldi’s virtuoso performance alone elevates this movie several notches above where it probably belongs.

The house itself is a brilliant piece of location scouting, and succeeds in first capturing, then magnifying, the twisted mental landscape of  our psycho protagonist. The winter shooting schedule of the film in the New York/New Jersey area adds to the overall intensely moody atmosphere, as well.

All in all, this is a classic case of a film whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The creepily inherent understanding of the lead character’s twisted psychological worldview on the part of both the writer/director and the star, combined with (I hesitate to use the term but it really does apply here) a perfect physical setting takes what is, on paper, nothing too terribly special and transforms it into something very special indeed. Sick, twisted, depraved, abhorrent, offensive, shocking, perverse, and sleazy, to be sure—but very special nonetheless.

Media Blasters released “Don’t Go In The House” on DVD under their “Shriek Show” label a few years back, and it features a fine feature-length commentary with Grimaldi, an on-camera interview with the actor, an alternate take of one of the film’s more brutal scenes, the original theatrical trailer, and more. It’s available alone or as part of the “Grindhouse Psychos Triple Feature” boxset, together with “Cop Killers,” an early Rick Baker special effects effort, and Roberta Findlay’s notorious “Tenement.” Great stuff!