Posts Tagged ‘Ryan Callaway’

Hey, it wouldn’t be a Halloween on Amazon Prime without a new film from our guy Ryan Callaway to check out, would it?

Of course not, and just the other day his latest popped up on there — Messenger Of Wrath, which “wrapped” production just a few short weeks ago and marks something of a departure in the veteran micro-budget auteur‘s output in that it’s the first time, at least to my knowledge, that he’s delved into the burgeoning “home invasion” sub-genre, but fear not : as with all things Callaway (or maybe that should be Callaways, given that his wife, Amy, produces all these flicks — this being no exception), there’s a twist here to set it apart from its competitors/contemporaries. But it’s not one that I’m going to give away in case you decide to watch this movie, so rest easy on that score — we’re keeping things (relatively) “spoiler-free” for purposes of this review.

Genre branch-out aside, however, this is still, in many ways, a “typical” Callaway film in that it was produced on a shoestring budget, filmed in New Jersey, has a lengthy (some would argue padded) runtime, is populated by a cast of regulars (specifically Madeline Lupi, Melissa Malone, Hiram Ortiz, Brittini Schreiber, Hayley Wayne, and Isabella Mays — to name only those I recognized off the top of my head), and features strong and independent women or girls in most of the lead roles. It’s also essentially bereft of gore, nudity, and even (for the most part) cursing, so it’s not one you’re probably gonna want to watch over a few beers with your friends.

If you’re still willing to give it a whirl even bearing in mind all those caveats, however, what you’ll find is a relatively tense and well-executed psychological thriller with reasonably compelling characterization, smart (if plentiful) dialogue — and, in this case, some pretty good acting, as well. Surely we can forgive its lack of entrails and viscera, then, can’t we?

The set-up here is deceptively simple : precocious 12-year-old girl Three Ballentine (played by Lupi, who really shines in this featured turn) is left home alone one evening when her usually-quiet exurban residence is set upon by a gang of masked intruders.  Her internal “survival mode” switch kicks in pretty quickly and she proves to be rather ingenious at evading and/or thwarting her would-be kidnappers/assailants, but here’s where the twist comes in, and it’s one that dovetails with prior Callaway efforts, so I’ll keep things suitably oblique : when the chase moves outdoors, both Three and her pursuers discover that they have a much bigger problem to worry about, and it’s one that potentially threatens all of them and doesn’t really discriminate between “good guys”and “bad” —

My one semi-major gripe here is that this film probably would have benefited from having 20-30 minutes excised from it, which would have resulted in a more brisk and terse affair fraught with a bit more tension, but Callaway has always been one to give his stories (and his characters) plenty of “breathing room,” and I don’t foresee that changing anytime in the near future. Aside from that, though, problems are really quite few and far between, and Messenger Of Wrath may indeed be the most well-executed example of the whole “Callaway Ethos” to date. A very well-done flick from one of the micro-budget scene’s most prolific — and interesting — filmmakers.

 

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If it seems like we’re turning into an unofficial PR arm for Ryan Callaway and his “micro-budget” film production outfit, Shady Dawn Pictures, around this place, rest assured that we’re (or, rather, I’m) not, but when Callaway took notice of my reviews of a couple of his previous efforts and found them to be fair-minded appraisals of his work, he hooked my up with a digital “screener” for his latest (the first film with a 2017 release date reviewed for this site), Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2, which will be available via any number of so-called “home viewing platforms” later this month (hopefully he’ll drop by the comments section here with more specific details when he knows them). Now, I get folks sending me their “homemade horrors” all the time, and I generally do watch them — or start to, at any rate, as in all honesty they’re not always worth finishing — but I always feel a bit nervous about reviewing them. By and large these truly independent efforts represent someone sinking their life savings (however meager it may be) into a project, and are therefore genuine “labors of love,” so I play it a bit differently than I do with a Hollywood flick : if I like it, I’ll review it, but if I don’t  like it, or have a mixed opinion on it, I’ll refrain from trashing the film in public and simply pass on my thoughts privately to the director. Sometimes I make an exception if the flick in question is so bad that I think its would-be auteur needs to be told in no uncertain terms to give it up and find something else to do with his or her life, but that’s only happened a few times over the years, as it’s truly rare to find something with absolutely nothing going for it on any level. All of which is my way of saying, if you get ahold of me on twitter or via email to set me up with a “screener,” know that these are my “house rules” going in. Callaway, however, made it clear that he welcomed my review of his new project, regardless of whether the final verdict was good, bad, or somewhere in-between, so hey — credit where it’s due, the guy is willing to let his work stand or fall on its own merits.

And, truth be told, Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2 actually does have plenty of merit in its favor. The film is well-shot, generally well-acted, and has a more polished and professional look than many flicks with a similar budget (which I believe in this case was around $40,000, if I remember correctly). It also has some “knocks”going against it, as well, but we’ll get to all that in short order. If you’re even passingly familiar with the world of “micro-budget” horror filmmaking you know that none of these things are anything like a “perfect” movie simply because — well, shit, they can’t afford to be. The key, then, is to judge ’em all on, frankly, a fair generous curve that acknowledges their potential and balances that reasonably equally with their execution. Flaws are to be expected, but if they’re too glaring — or, worse yet, if they actively hinder your ability to suspend your disbelief and literally “take you out of the movie” — well, then you’ve gotta call ’em out on it. My time may be for sale — on the cheap, some would argue — but my conscience? I like to think there’s no price tag attached to that. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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Our story this time out is largely focused on the “sole survivor” of the previously-reviewed-around-these-parts (and available for free on Amazon Prime) first film, Tiffany (played by Madeline Lupi), who lost her older sister after a particularly harrowing series of encounters with the titular girl in the cornfield herself (Mollie Sperduto), and is looking to place her loss into some sort of context by tracking down anyone else who may have crossed paths with this reasonably ethereal presence. Enter — after a bit — one Adelaide Russo (Michelle Lulic) and her sister, Abigail (Alex Santoleri), whose family is apparently being “spirit-stalked” in a similar manner, and who could use a little help from the closest thing to an “expert” on these matters there is before they all end up meeting an untimely fate themselves. Again, as you’ve no doubt been able to discern, we’ve got a largely-female cast here, with the patriarch of the Russo clan, Jack (Hiram Ortiz), being the most notable male figure among the principles involved — but even he plays a very secondary fiddle to the ladies here. And, it must be said, most of ’em show a reasonable-enough handle on “Acting 101” basics despite more than likely having no formal training in the field. There are some rough patches, sure, but nothing anyone needs to be overly-embarrassed about, and a few of these folks — particularly Lupi — might have a chance at that ever-elusive “future in the business” if they really dig in and learn to both expand and apply their craft.

That statement is also true of our writer/director and his production partner/wife, Amy. They seem to be making a decent enough go of it with their New Jersey-based efforts, and are having better luck than many when it comes to hustling up financing, but you’ve gotta think that they’re chasing for a bigger break somewhere down the line. I don’t know how many people watch your average Shady Dawn production, but I’m thinking that it probably numbers in the low-thousands, and no matter how much you might love making art for its own sake, the simple truth is that you’re not gonna keep doing that forever when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. I don’t know if the Callaways entertain dreams of taking their act to Tinseltown or if they harbor more modest aims such as making a go of it doing local commercials or corporate promotional and/or training films or whatever in Jersey, but they’re clearly trying to show that they can “do more” with films such as this one, which tells a rather sprawling and expansive story (with an equally large cast) and clocks in at damn near two and a half hours in length. That’s definitely ambitious — but in this case it’s also slightly problematic.

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We all love character development and the like, but if there’s one thing Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2 suffers from, it’s putting us a bit too deeply inside the day-today lives of any number of its characters and taking some of the focus away from the central threat as it fleshes out almost everything else it can about almost everybody concerned. I respect the fact that our “other Ryan C.” has some serious themes and issues he wants to try to tackle here and that he’s doing his level best to show that you don’t need a ton of money to tell a “big” story. He’s living proof that imagination trumps resources and that character-driven horror trumps cheaper and more plentiful scares. The “slow burn” is great — and I welcome more of it in genre cinema — but you have to be careful lest it fizzles out entirely. I’m pleased to say it doesn’t here, but that’s largely due to a generally-satisfying and smartly-structured “third act” that pulls you back into the proceedings after the lengthy “middle act” nearly loses you. A tighter, “leaner and meaner” script, then, might be something worth striving for next time around.

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On a purely technical level, there’s plenty to admire here, as Callaway serves up some impressively-staged shots and continues to develop his visual storytelling skills, showing a far greater command this time out as far as lighting, blocking, and other vital aspects of the director’s “toolkit” are concerned. But if there’s going to be a Girl In The Cornfield 3 — a possibility that’s definitely left open by the “resolution” to this one — paring down the scope of the production may not be such a bad idea. I realize that sounds kinda strange when you’re talking about a super-low-budget flick, but there’s something to be said for doing less and doing it all well rather than doing too much for too long. Ryan Callaway has shown here that he’s not afraid to extend his reach beyond what circumstances dictate he “should” be able to do, and for that he deserves much credit — but now that we know how many things he can do reasonably well, I’d like to see him “zero in” on what he thinks he could be well and truly great at and craft a script that plays to his genuine strengths, rather than one that simply showcases his many abilities.

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From what I can tell, “micro-budget” writer/director/producer Ryan Callaway is a pretty cool cat. Sure, you could argue that I’m biased toward any and all “Ryan C.”s in the world, but seriously — when I wrote a middling review of his film The Girl In The Cornfield a couple weeks back, he was not only gracious about it, he actually went so far as to engage in that rarest of internet rarities with me afterwards : a respectful and productive conversation that acknowledged his flick’s strengths and weaknesses in a manner that showed he harbored no ill will towards me for not showering his efforts with unmitigated praise. Granted, my appraisal was hardly negative on the whole, but ya know what? I get the distinct impression that even if it had been, he would’ve been okay with that, too — and in a world where far too many backyard Burtons and dime-store DePalmas take it as a personal attack when you don’t immediately acknowledge them as the next Hollywood superstar in the making, that counts for a lot with me. For that reason alone, then, I decided to give his latest, 2016’s The Watchers : The Beginning Of Sorrows, a shot when I noticed it available for streaming on Amazon Prime the other day.

In fairness, this 50-minute production is hardly what you’d call a “feature-length” film, and it’s also, apparently, the third entry in a series (titled The Watchers, as if you didn’t already know) produced by Callaway and his wife, Amy — but even for all that, I didn’t feel terribly confused or anything going in, as the story stands fairly well on its own. The title’s a bit on the long side, sure, but when you consider that it’s basically an “episode” in a longer narrative, even that makes sense in context. So, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, we just have to answer one question — is it any good?

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As with almost all movies of this nature, the answer is “yes and no.” The story’s certainly interesting enough on its merits : Madeline Tanner (played by Haley Chapel) had been searching for her missing kid sister, Briana (Rachelle Bieber) for about six months, and appeared to be making something vaguely resembling progress, when the truly inexplicable happened and she ended up disappearing herself! Madeline was convinced that the answer to her sibling’s whereabouts was to be found in the realm of the supernatural, and her own spiriting away (lame pun pretty much intended) has certainly confirmed that suspicion in the mind of her best friend, Laura Leeds (Elizabeth Wellman), who is now taking up the reins of the investigation herself despite the “double danger” it represents. Will she find one or both of the subjects of her search — or just end up yet another “missing persons” statistic?

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The acting is up-and-down in this one, it’s true, but “up” gets the slight edge in the final tally as Wellman in particular cuts a pretty fine performance despite obviously lacking anything like formal training. As for everyone else, what the heck — most of the rest of the performers acquit themselves reasonably well, at least the majority of the time, and again the Callaways are to be commended for assembling an almost- entirely-female cast and giving them reasonably-fleshed-out roles that don’t simply call for them to either scream, strip naked, or both. Not that I necessarily mind either of those things, of course, but it’s well past time that horror, in particular, gets its head out of its ass and acknowledges that women are people, not props or plot devices. It seems downright bizarre to me that a maker of “homemade” films in New Jersey is doing a better job of that than purportedly “progressive” Hollywood, but such is the way of the world, I guess.

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On the directorial front, Callaway shows a bit less style here than was on display in The Girl In The Cornfield, which featured some genuinely breathtaking shots on occasion, while this flick, by contrast, is more of a “point-and-shoot” affair — and while that certainly doesn’t mean that it looks actively bad in any way (especially by “micro-budget” standards), it’s definitely not what you’d call visually ambitious, either. There could be a million and one perfectly reasonable explanations for this — most (if not all) having to do with time and money, of course — but I guess I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit disappointed by the overall “look” of The Watchers : The Beginning Of Sorrows.

On the whole, though, fans of “this sort of thing” should find a fair amount to like here, provided they make the usual allowances one must for production values and the like. For my own part, whatever that’s worth, I found myself reasonably intrigued by, and involved with, the proceedings throughout, and chances are that if there’s a fourth Watchers film, I’ll give it a go — and hey, I expect that I’ll probably end up enjoying that one (assuming it happens), as well.

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The siren call of micro-budget horror cinema has been lodging itself deep into my brain with something akin to relentlessness lately, and for those who like their fright flicks done on the cheap, Amazon Prime’s streaming service is definitely the place to be these days. Films that will quite clearly never go any further — and often ones that you’d be amazed even made it this far — are as plentiful as seagulls at a landfill there, and often the garbage metaphor turns out to be a pretty good one. Still, once you’re hooked, you’re hooked, and you eventually find yourself speaking almost an entirely different cinematic language, of sorts : production values are gauged on a scale of relative plausibility in accordance with the budget at hand, you make a lot more allowances for obviously substandard acting, you learn to find needles in haystacks in the form of unexpectedly effective shots that belie some usually-accidental sense of genuine artistry, and you gain a newfound appreciation for things like lighting, shot composition, story pacing, etc. that don’t necessarily require a tremendous amount of money to pull off well.

And yet, even for all of that, there’s no denying that most of these flicks are just plain bad — the question is, would they be any good with some actual resources behind them? To be honest, the vast majority of micro-budget efforts don’t provide enough evidence either way to answer that question definitively. Most offer flashes of something potentially greater here and there, but they come and go pretty quickly and are usually buried under waves of sheer incompetence that no amount of money could fix — after all, the backyard autuers who make up the micro-budget rank and file are usually undiscovered and/or ignored by Hollywood for good reason, in the same way that most film bloggers such as myself probably don’t have “what it takes” to be the next in-house movie critic for Rolling Stone or somesuch. Still, these amateur directors, actors, screenwriters, producers, etc. are probably in it for much the same reason myself and my fellow armchair critics do what we do — because it’s fun, and we can.

Ryan Callaway is one such “in it for the love of it” dime-store Spielberg, and he seems to be making a go of it — earlier in 2016 he wrapped his latest feature, The Girl In The Cornfield, and he’s got a solid backlog of flicks you’ve no doubt never even heard of, much less seen, behind him, as well as a couple others in the works that will probably make it onto Amazon just as this one has. So, hey, more power to him and his wife, Amy, who serves as his frequent co-writer and co-producer. He’s obviously got some ability, as this is a reasonably good-looking flick, and he should be given “props” for concocting a film with a more-or-less entirely female cast that doesn’t require any of them to lose their tops or giggle like silly schoolchildren and instead presents women as the real, actual people we know they are — but when he tries to move from the real to the surreal, well, that’s where he kind of loses his own plot.

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Speaking of which — BFFs Heather (played by Briana Aceti) and Corrine (Tina Duong) are driving home late one night with Heather’s little sister, Tiffany (Madeline Lupi) in the back seat. It’s been a long day, and when Heather starts to nod off at the wheel, she ends up hitting a woman in a white dress (Mollie Sperduto) who stumbles out of the cornfield at the side of the road and right into the path of her vehicle. The supposed “crash” isn’t particularly well-executed, but with a budget of $20,000 (according to IMDB, at any rate) there’s only so much you can do. And what our titular girl from the cornfield has apparently done is fucked off back to wherever it was that she came from. Our ostensible heroines follow a trail of blood left behind in her wake, but of the mystery woman herself, there’s no sign. They report the incident to the cops — hey, you’ve gotta venture off the Children Of The Corn script at some point — and then return home, only to discover that whoever (or maybe that should be whatever) they made violent contact with has come with them, and is determined to ramp up her campaign of terror from nightly apparition-style visits to flat-out destruction of their very lives in due course. Next time, I guess, make sure whoever you hit is good and dead.

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I’m not sure where this was filmed, but things get a lot more authentic-looking once they get out of the cornfield, which looks like it was slapped up in a low-rent soundstage to me (even if it wasn’t). Authenticity is the order of the day for the principal cast members, as well, none of whom are especially great, by any means, but who are all generally believable in their various roles and could probably make a go of it as TV guest stars or something with a few more acting lessons under their belts. So it’s not like we’re dealing with a completely hopeless production here by any means.

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That being said, this is a darn fine example of a micro-budget director trying to bite off more than he can probably chew. Callaway delivers a handful of quite gorgeous shots (such as the one pictured directly above), but his script loses focus precisely when it should be ramping up, and he simply doesn’t have the cash on hand to effectively traverse the more “trippy” supernatural road that things go down and would probably (okay, certainly) have been better served tethering his ambitions to a more earthly — and therefore achievable — realm. He’s got a sequel in the works, and maybe that will address some of these problems, but given that it’s got a working title of Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2, it sounds like he’s determined to double down on the ethereal and supernatural. He’d better hustle up at least 40 grand if he wants to do it right.