Once again, it is time to dig into the screeners that have piled up on my desk, select a few truly indie films worth your attention, and recommend 'em heartily. These are very small films - with tiny budgets, small crews, and likely giant heaps of obstacles to overcome... creatively... because you can't throw money at a problem when you've spent your last twenty bucks buying bread and peanut butter to feed your crew.
These movies won't be everyone's cup o' tea. If you refuse to see a film unless a multi-million dollar ad campaign informs you you'll like it, you should probably stop reading now.
You brave souls still with me may discover here a gem you would have otherwise missed... something unique, with some passion behind it, and with ingenuity and a love for genre film replacing the Hollywood product studio politics, overpaid celebrity actors, and filmmaking by soulless committee.
Now trust me, I understand your hesitation. With today's technology, virtually anyone can "make a movie". Making a good movie is far more difficult and rare. That's why I'm here to help. Join me as I separate the must-see from the pee-yew, and spotlight three outstanding indie flicks released this year.
Directed by Adam Ahlbrandt
This brutal demon-possession film succeeds in delivering the familiar thrills and chills we demand from this kind of movie, while simultaneously presenting imaginative sucker-punch twists and an uncommon level of ferocity.
The story centers on a team of reality TV paranormal investigators who venture out into the wilderness to hunt for a 340 year old cemetery. Allegedly, it was in this graveyard the church buried those who had been demonically possessed.
Don't fret - while video camera shenanigans is indeed part of the plot, this is not a found footage film. More importantly, director Adam Ahlbrandt serves up the horror without winking and nudging about his budgetary limitations. Instead, The Cemetery makes the most of the production's limited resources, deemphasizing low-budget pitfalls, and impressively building upon the talents of the director, cast, and crew. The filmmakers do a great job of not letting a small budget dilute the ultra-brutal onslaught of gory horror this film doles out.
Ahlbrandt's skills as a cinematographer provide shots that are always interesting, and the flick is nicely paced, thanks to sharp editing by Ahlbrandt and producer Anton Sattler. The cast, topped by J.D. Brown, Natalie Jean, Adam Huss, Tim Cronin, and Tabetha Ray, is exceptional. They create attention-grabbing characters who weave together interestingly - and their performances definitely bolster the film's vicious, unrelenting, go-for-the-throat tone.
Ahlbrandt's previous film, Cross Bearer (2012) received a lot of praise from fans of indie genre cinema, and I recommend that movie too, especially if you desire a few extra layers of grime, sleaze, and depravity. While Cross Bearer scores a bit higher visually, I thought The Cemetery was the superior film. (It may just be a matter of personal taste.)
The Cemetery is a sinister, fun, gory horror flick, jam-packed with intensity, brutality, and creative filmmaking. There's much for fright fans to love in this one, so definitely check it out.
Adjust Your Tracking
Directed by Dan M. Kinem and Levi Peretic
This documentary explores the rise and fall of the home video format VHS, and delves deep into the peculiar world of tape collectors who still cherish the relics of the mom and pop home video boom. I'm particularly interested in the technology, business, and cultural impact aspects of the home video boom, so I was pleased to see these subjects touched upon in Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic's doc. They even peppered in some great vintage clips, including old Blockbuster Video ads, used to illustrate how the once-mammoth corporate chain contaminated and befouled the video rental market.
The documentary delivers a well-presented overview of the home video heyday, and includes some fascinating trivia about the 20-year craze of buying and renting movies on VHS. However, the focus of the doc is on today's collector of the dead format. Numerous VHS fanatics are interviewed, exposing the passions and obsessions of the underground VHS culture.
I still proudly own a select few rare and/or personally revered VHS tapes, but I'm not a VHS collector, and I've had very limited interaction with the tape collecting scene. Therefore, Kinem and Peretic's focus on this fringe culture could have stopped the doc in its tracks and caused me to tune out. It didn't happen. This is not just a documentary about the VHS culture, for the VHS culture. While the film was made by VHS fanatics, the appeal of the doc reaches far beyond this sub-culture social circle.
Thanks to an engaging array of colorful interview subjects, nearly perfect pacing, and a wise blend of the educational, humorous, and bizarre, Adjust Your Tracking plays to any viewer who wishes to be transfixed by some damn fine documentary storytelling. Nerdy VHS obsessive compulsive tendencies not required. I bet you'd enjoy this doc even if you've never rented or owned a movie on VHS in your life.
Adjust Your Tracking is currently screening at horror conventions and film festivals all over the world, with a DVD and VHS release planned for early next year. Celebrate the closing of your neighborhood Blockbuster by hunting down the next screening of Adjust Your Tracking and checking it out.
The Ballad Of Skinless Pete
Directed by Dustin Mills
It's tough to describe this movie, but I'll give it a shot. Take the early films of Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, and especially David Cronenberg... and push them down a mountain, so they coalesce into a huge, cartoon-like unstoppable boulder. This thundering mass picks up a bit of Herschell Gordon Lewis theatricality, some stark 70s exploitation grime, and a major dose of classic mad scientist movies. When this runaway boulder reaches the base of the mountain, it explodes in a blood-soaked, gore-splattered, and goo-drenched cinematic blast. This is The Ballad Of Skinless Pete.
It's the tale of lovesick Dr. Peter Peel, his maniacal pursuit of the cure for cancer, and how it leads to his friend and respected research partner Dr. Alice Cross becoming his captive, terrorized and fighting for her life.
Brandon Salkil, as Dr. Peel, delivers a loony performance that could have sent the movie off the rails, had the film not been anchored by Erin R. Ryan's passionate performance as Alice Cross. Ryan creates the multi-textured character who we care about. Salkil creates the lunacy she is engulfed by. The two function as enticing counterpoints, yin and yang characters, working off each other to keep things colorful and compelling.
A lean, essentially two-character film, it's audacious, vigorous, brazen, creative, and enormously entertaining - ranking right up there with the filmmaker's debut feature, The Puppet Monster Massacre (2010), which I loved.
Workaholic director Dustin Mills has a brief but robust and remarkable track record of making demented, enthusiastically goofy micro-budget flicks that attract a substantial and adoring fan following. This latest movie charts somewhat new territory for Mr. Mills, who delivers his usual over-the-top raucousness, but eliminates the blatant silliness, giving The Ballad Of Skinless Pete a unique thrill-ride energy, genuine suspense, and an exceptionally engaging narrative, punctuated by frequent bursts of mayhem, shock, blood, and ooze.
Mills again proves he is among the best at delivering maximum punch with the tiniest of budgets. The Ballad Of Skinless Pete is nicely shot, well edited, delightfully disgusting, weirdly fascinating, and a whole lot of fun.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze