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Surviving Cinema - 'Dig Deeper'

At this moment in time, most FEARnet visitors are singing the praises of Machete, Piranha 3D, and The Last Exorcism, which is entirely appropriate. These low budget ($2 to $24 million) genre pictures are better than the average mainstream filmgoer will undoubtedly give them credit for. 

But how low can we go... and still find something praiseworthy?  Today I'm going to take you on a long, dark, scary journey, far below these low-budget horror films that are currently being marketed to you.  We're venturing deeper into the abyss, going beneath the $2 million budgets, through the $1 million budgets, and even deeper, leaving far above us the half-million dollar budgets. 

It's eerie down here.  No familiar "name" actors.  No multi-million dollar marketing campaigns (hardly any marketing at all, generally).  The look of these films is rougher, but they take greater creative risks.  They aim for a niche audience, which means for each viewer they hook in, another hundred are alienated.  Down here, movies are completed for $200,000 or less.  Usually much, much less.  I'm going to estimate that the average cost of the horror films down here hovers around twenty-five grand.

Today, a horror film can be made very inexpensively, and that is both good news and bad news.  There are those who think pressing the record button on their camcorder automatically makes them a film director - and usually, simply put, they are not.  But let's not automatically trash all movies made for under $200,000.  Yep, most of these micro-budget flicks are gonna be pretty dang shitty, but with patience and some research, you can discover some real gems down here at the bottom of the abyss.  I'm going to recommend some titles - but keep in mind, these movies may not be what you are used to, and they may require an acclimation period - or they may not be your cup of tea at all.  That said, let's light a lantern and look around.

Fred Vogel is a director who swiftly attracted the strong-stomached exploitation fans with his August Underground movies.  Presented entirely snuff style through the p.o.v. of a hand held camcorder, the violence in these movies rings horrifyingly real.  Impressed as I was with these unrestrained, go-for-the-throat films, I had trouble watching them because I get nauseous if I witness more than a few minutes of continuous hand-held, fast-moving camerawork...  which is weird because I never get car sick, I have no problems on planes, and I love roller coasters.  The Blair Witch Project camerawork, however, nearly made me puke in my popcorn.  Okay, back to Fred Vogel, who followed up his first two August Underground movies with the 2006 release of The Redsin Tower, which I strongly recommend.

If you have the nerve, feel free to check out the August Underground collection.  If you're the right kind of film fan, you'll love these unique, filthy little masterpieces of uncensored mayhem.  But The Redsin Tower is where Vogel's skills as a filmmaker really shine.  The story and characters work very well, and Vogel makes great use of the expanded canvas he has to paint on - while still providing enough shock, intensity, and blood to satisfy the deviant horror fans who tend to scurry around at these depths.

Topside, Ryan Nicholson is a professional special effects artist with many studio films on his resume (including Scary Movie (2000), Final Destination (2000), Mission to Mars (2000), Blade: Trinity (2004), Ghost Rider (2007), and episodes of television's The X-Files and Millennium), but down here he is a director of some deliriously sick and entertaining exploitation films. 

I've seen Nicholson's Live Feed (2006) and Gutterballs (2008) and I recommend 'em both.  I think a Ryan Nicholson film may be an acquired taste.  If you don't dig it at first, stick with it and give it a chance.  There is a weird energy in his films that starts pulsing from the screen even before the first moment of violence occurs.  His movies quickly spiral into madness, delivering a thrill ride of violence, gore, and hot 'n' cold running offensive material.  Trust me, if you are sick of run-of-the-mill, watered-down studio horror efforts, Ryan Nicholson is the cure. 

Maybe shocking violence and searing depravity isn't what you're in the mood for today.  If that's the case, I recommend the bizarre chiller House Of Black Wings (2010) directed by David Schmidt.  This indie film has a unique plot, engaging characters, and pretty damn good lighting and camerawork for a production budget likely gathered up from under the couch cushions.  The best thing about House Of Black Wings is that it never settles into a rut.  New surprises await the viewer around every corner in this movie, making it an entertaining piece of inventive indie filmmaking.

Alan Rowe Kelly's I'll Bury You Tomorrow (2002) is a must-see film when navigating your way through this budget level.  This movie has a sort of old-school charm reminiscent of the most entertaining horror flicks of the 80's.  It's dark, weird, fun to watch, and very much recommended.  I am patiently looking forward to Kelly's long-delayed remake of S.F. Brownrigg's 70's grindhouse classic, Don't Look In The Basement.  I've read the script, which promises one incredibly insane movie.

Depending on what kind of horror fan you are, what mood you happen to be in, and how tired of watching studio horror films you've become, you may also want to sink your teeth into Brian Paulin's Bone Sickness (2004), Marcus Koch's 100 Tears (2007), and Andrey Iskanov's whopping 249 minute shock-fest Philosophy Of A Knife (2008). 

Note, most of the films I've mentioned here are only available in one uncut version.  But a couple do have edited "R-Rated" versions available too.  So do your homework.  The uncut versions of these underground oddities are the better choice.

Are the movies I've suggested here rough around the edges?  Absolutely.  Does one frame of a Jerry Bruckheimer film contain more production value than all of the above movies combined?  Yes, it does.  But poverty does not automatically produce mediocrity.  In fact, poverty breeds the creativity needed to stay alive, and that creativity is reflected in the movies I've mentioned here.  Whether they align with your personal tastes or not, each flick comes with its own twisted charms and notable artistic achievements. 

I could discuss more ultra-low-budget flicks of interest, but my time is up.  Gotta resurface now.

Low budget genre films made forty years ago were initially viewed as clunky, unpolished, and therefore worthless.  Today, many of these are considered classics.  In another 40 years (when we're downloading movies directly to our brains, likely) perhaps some of the films I've listed here will have their own long-standing cult followings and will be considered classics of this era.

Thanks for reading.

-Eric Stanze

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