Wednesday, May 27, 2015
The story of Axe to Grind is a bit meta in it's approach. The movie is about an aging B-movie scream queen named Debbie (played by low budget horror legend Debbie Rochon) who has found out that she has been cut out of her latest horror movie to make room for a trio of new, young, fresh faces. To make matters worse, the producer of the movie is Debbie's former husband and he is now sleeping with a much younger new scream queen. Debbie doesn't take all of this very well and like the film title states, she has an axe to grind.
The movie within the movie that is being filmed is called Bayou Butcher yet it is being filmed in a hospital. When one of the actresses asks, "won't the audience wonder where the bayou is?" the director tells her that, "if the audience is wondering that, then you're not doing your job working those ta ta's." The cocky director is also very proud of the minor recognition he has received, proudly announcing at one point his "Best Director, Scream Fest 2012" award. This is the world the film creates for itself, an extremely self aware and mocking view of the low budget horror movie business. The film knows the stereotypical production aesthetics behind the genre and plays them up. For example, one scene is a pre-filming party full of drinking and a lack of respect for the material whereas another scene is used to introduce the three new young stars of the film in a playful and fan friendly way. This scene shows each actress individually and it freeze frames on them and displays the films they are known for thus far with such fun titles as "Blood Orgy", "Exorcist Nymphs", and my personal favorite, "I Deficate on Your Grave". It's a fun moment for sure, and a moment that all horror fans will enjoy and relate to.
The production value of Axe to Grind is a bit of a mixed bag. While this is to be expected with low budget horror, it didn't always feel consistent here. The film has a nice glossy, sharp look to it but the lighting seemed to wash out some of the scenes and color the actors with a harsh appearance. This lighting happens more so in the beginning third of the movie. Also, there is some CGI blood splatter used whereas other scenes use practical effects and real blood. The practical effects here are very well done, (lots of axe killings going on) and that just serves to make the CGI splatter more noticeable. But this is more of an observation than a complaint.
But I want to get to the real reason why this movie works: Debbie Rochon. This is her show and her performance is full of vengeful energy and crazy fun. She is horror legend for a reason and this movie demonstrates why. Rochon always has a bit of crazy in her eyes, a mad spark that can spread to flames in the time it takes for her to lower a knowing smile. This role is close to Debbie Rochon herself, a low budget horror icon who has been around for decades at this point and has earned respect through the work she has done and career she has built. With horror being filled with one twenty-something after another, the faces begin to blur together. Not many females age with the genre and stay relevant, they fall victim to the exact thing that Axe to Grind presents: fresh young faces. The character Debbie may have to resort to the bloody violence she has only portrayed on screen in order to get a sense of redemption and hold onto the spotlight. But Debbie Rochon need only continue to be who she is to stay relevant: a serious actress giving fearless performances.
After all, when her character is introduced in the movie, the freeze frame flashes "The Meryl Streep of Horror". That's not for her character, that's for Debbie Rochon.
Check out Axe to Grind for a meta, bloody good time.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Late Phases tells the story of Ambrose McKinley, a blind, aging Vietnam War vet (superbly played by Nick Damici) who moves into a retirement community only to find out that it is preyed upon every full moon by a blood thirsty werewolf who lives in the neighboring woods. In fact, the very first night Ambrose moves in happens to be the full moon and he hears his neighbor get brutally killed as well as his seeing eye dog, Shadow. And just like that the story is off and running.
The opening shows little of the werewolf and focuses more on it's silhouette and blood curdling scream. There are just enough quick cuts to show the creature's teeth but the rest is left to the imagination. The scream and growling here are very effective and downright terrifying, they go right to the center of your bones and stay there.
From here the movie slows down and starts unfolding it's story, which plays out like a whodunnit with Ambrose meeting some of the townspeople and sizing them up like a detective. He even reminded me of an aged Humphrey Bogart trying to crack the case of who or what is the werewolf. One of these townspeople and suspects is Father Roger, portrayed expertly by the cool Tom Noonan. The relationship between these two is one of mutual respect, mutual curiosity, and mutual suspicion. It's great fun to watch Damici and Noonan converse with each other with some strong dialogue to really showcase their talent. Another relationship the movie offers is between Ambrose and his son, Will (Ethan Embry). There's more great character development on display here as we learn about the troubled and strained but quietly loving father son relationship that really raises the stakes of the movie. A very cool original score and some all around solid acting top off the unraveling of Late Phases as it heads into it's final act.
There's some interesting atmosphere and themes playing out here as well. The lighting in the film during the day always seems to be at the time of sunset, that early sunset when the lighting is very yellow. I couldn't help but see the yellow from a full moon, that rich color of a full Harvest Moon. I found this to be a nice touch, whether it was purposefully done or just a creation in my mind.
A theme in the movie might be a play on the title itself, Late Phases. Ambrose is a broken man from Vietnam, saying in one scene that he, "went there to save people," but he lost himself instead. This final act in his life is a chance at redemption, a chance to save the town from the werewolf. Not only does this climax during the late phases of the moon, but also the late phases of Ambrose's life.
The werewolf returns in the end for the big finale and there is a transformation scene where we see the creature turn and it is some wonderful camera movement used to heighten the effect as it glides around the room and to the creature showing it as it pans by and glides back across the room and to the onlooking character and back to the creature. It's a dizzying sense that matches what is happening as the werewolf comes out and it is a joy to watch.
The only two minor problems I had with the film happen at this point. I felt the finale was a bit rushed, I wanted more of the werewolf and it's nightmare inducing scream and startling quick movements and it seemed over quickly. The other issue is the look of the werewolf itself. The camera settles more on the beast in these scenes and we get to see it's face longer. While I won't complain too much about a low budget, independent horror films special effects because I know they use every dollar they can, I was hoping for more of a make-up created werewolf as opposed to a mask looking werewolf. Let me stress that this was a minor issue for me, I just felt it was set up so well and mysteriously in the beginning that I guess it couldn't live up to that standard.
Overall I really enjoyed watching Late Phases and dug the whole whodunnit angle mixed with a werewolf story. I applaud the filmmakers for taking their time to tell a character driven story with strong performances, something horror needs more of. Go watch Late Phases and try not to hear that werewolf scream while you try to sleep at night.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
There are some stories that seem tailor made to be adapted to the big screen. And there are some movies that create instant interest as soon as they are announced. The Island of Dr. Moreau seems like one of those stories. And it seems like one of those movies. Of course, for anyone who saw The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), and not many did ($27 million total domestic gross), they quickly discovered it was NOT one of those movies.
While the movie itself turned out to be a complete mess and a destined box office bomb released in the no mans land of late August in the summer of 1996, the struggle behind the making of The Island of Dr. Moreau is where the true story of this film lies. And it's a doozy.
Richard Stanley was a visionary filmmaker on the rise in the early 1990's making the cult classics Hardware and Dust Devil. Dr. Moreau was supposed to be his big step into the limelight, a studio backed big release where the filmmaker could showcase his visionary talent. Lost Soul shows us early set designs and storyboards from Stanley himself and they seem to differ greatly from Dr. Moreau's final product, with the directing duties taken over by John Frankenheimer after Stanley was kicked out. Stanley's version seemed to want to focus more on the animals of the story instead of the humans, and it looked to be much darker and bizarrely fascinating.
Lost Soul brings in actors from the film who share their stories and versions of what happened on the set of Dr. Moreau. Most notably Fairuza Balk and Fiona Mahl, who provided Lost Soul with home movie footage of the cast and crew sitting around in hotel rooms drinking and smoking pot, almost all of the time in costume and makeup because just maybe they would film some scenes that day. It is frightening and hilarious to see these actors made up in their creature costumes just hanging around with other people doing very human things. Perhaps these home movies is where the true Dr. Moreau lies.
Lost Soul also gets to the true heart of the problems for The Island of Dr. Moreau: the casting of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, two Hollywood actors with egos larger than the island itself. Plenty of time is spent on the shenanigans of these two, from Brando not memorizing his lines (at all) and demanding an ice bucket be placed on his head while in character as Dr. Moreau, to Kilmer refusing to come out of his trailer for filming until Brando did first. And vice versa.
The original pick for director of Dr. Moreau, Richard Stanley, the centerpiece of Lost Soul, is quite an odd character himself. From stories of him refusing to leave a tree house on set to stories of witchcraft, he seems to fit right in with the behind the scenes circus that was the filming of The Island of Dr. Moreau. He does come across as the victim of all of this however, and the viewer does feel for him and is left wondering what could have been.
The audience responded greatly to the film, laughing at the crazy stories being told, the home movies being shown, and the childish, bratty behavior of Marlon Brando and more so Val Kilmer. It was funny though that when Lost Soul focused for a moment on Brando and his insistence to wear white makeup all over his face during Moreau's big entrance scene that it was played for laughs, just another strange request from Brando, and the audience laughed at it's absurdity. However, after the screening, director David Gregory said that Stanley and Brando discussed wearing the white makeup as part of the Moreau character and I heard some audience members ooh and ahh as if to say, "how cool". And yet without that knowledge they laughed at Brando. That's when I thought Lost Soul perhaps did TOO good a job of getting the audience firmly behind Stanley and Stanley only. But that was a minor observation on my part from the audience.
Lost Soul is definitely worth checking out. It is a very well made and very entertaining documentary about just how wrong making a film can go. It's also great to go behind the scenes with former studio heads and actors and filmmakers and see what goes into making movies. I had a wonderful time watching Lost Soul and it really left me wanting to see Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau. Bravo to Severin Films for such a well put together and interesting film.
On a side note, seek out and watch the 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau. It is a mess of a movie, but a fascinating mess at that. Watching Brando and Kilmer is like seeing the patients run the asylum. It would be a great double feature with Lost Soul.
And Kilmer impersonates Brando. That's worth watching right there.