Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hell Town

Hell Town

Hell Town is a fascinating, if flawed, horror/soap opera satire. The plot alone is brilliant: The film centers on three episodes from a fictitious prime time soap opera series called Hell Town. These episodes are the remastered episodes 7, 8,and 9 of season two. Seasons 1 and 3 are said to have been completely destroyed in a studio fire. And to top off the smart presentation of the film, Debbie Rochon plays herself as a host who introduces and concludes each of the 3 episodes.
Debbie Rochon playing host and introducing the film got me thinking how awesome she would be as a legit horror host a la Elvira or the Crypt Keeper. The best part is she is so good that she could just be herself! Just a side thought as well as a credit to the film on a fantastic casting choice.
The filmmakers were smart to break up Hell Town into 3 different episodes in a TV show style complete with opening and closing credits after each installment. The opening credits introducing the cast are very funny and properly lampoon the credits seen in so many soap operas and sitcoms over the years. Each episode is even separated by commercial breaks featuring projects that involve Debbie Rochon! It's indulgent, self aware, and very funny.
Hell Town is a soap opera satire with a horror film story line that makes no excuses for what it is. Every cast member was efficient in their role and, surprisingly, even in ability to portray the satirical tone and the film wasted no time getting to the killings and mystery of the story. With such a fun and glorious start I must admit that I was wondering if this fun energy and fresh feel could be successfully sustained throughout the entire film.
Unfortunately the smart set up of Hell Town couldn't make up for and mask the sluggish pace that seemed to take over as the film progressed. Even with the broken up segments I found the film seemingly start to meander within it's own story line and I was trying to figure out why. My conclusion was that the script and satire are so spot on and accurate that it started to feel like almost a normal world with relatively thin characters. I viewed Hell Town as more of a sarcastic satire than an all out comedy spoof with the humor being pushed to the limits of subtlety at best. I guess I'm saying that the script was almost too good at what it set out to do and the comedy or characters never seemed to break the mold of one note humor that is better suited for a short film or sketch. For me, the comedic elements in Hell Town just didn't have the legs or staying power to sustain it's run time, even at 90 minutes.
There are a lot of great little moments in Hell Town. I loved that the Prom Queen has pictures of herself on her mirror and that one character was changed to a different actress with the “the role of Laura will now be played by” announcement that is so common in the revolving door of actors on soap operas. Despite several moments like this, they couldn't save the overly long feel of the film and the fact that most of the comedy was in the set up and not necessarily apparent throughout. I also was left wanting some more horror from Hell Town as most of the story seems to lean on more dramatic elements.
Although a fine effort with notable moments and a great set up and smart presentation, I was left feeling a bit indifferent. I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend Hell Town, but I also wouldn't put effort into talking anyone out of seeing it either.

Monday, August 15, 2016

INTERVIEW: Troy Escamilla, writer & director of Party Night

Interview with Troy Escamilla, writer & director of Party Night

If you've ever wondered just how exactly you go about making a film or where to even begin, this interview with Troy Escamilla provides a lot of insight. Troy is the writer, director, and producer of the upcoming slasher film Party Night and the film is his first venture into feature filmmaking. Party Night is about six friends who become prey for a sadistic psychopath when they decide to ditch their high school's after prom party for their own celebration at a secluded house. I was happy to be able to connect with Troy as he took the time to share his experience of making Party Night with us.
Party Night was the first film you wrote and directed. What was the experience like bringing your story and characters to life?
Troy: Thanks so much for the opportunity to discuss Party Night! I honestly did not know what to expect at all when we began shooting Party Night. Believe it or not, it was the first film set that I have ever stepped foot on. Though I have always been a huge fan of film, I just never dabbled in the technical aspect of filmmaking. My passion has always been writing. Those who know me, know that it has always been a goal of mine to produce one of my screenplays. Though I have written four slasher screenplays, Party Night seemed just to be "the one" from the moment I finished it. With its dark and brutal tone, likable characters, and winks at several other slasher films, I knew I wanted to share it with other fans.
The first day on set was surreal, and I honestly do not think it has totally hit me that Party Night has actually been filmed. I have to give such major kudos to our cast. I am still amazed that I was able to assemble such a talented, passionate, and dedicated cast for my first feature. Seriously, the level of talent this cast possesses is mind boggling and to a level very rarely seen in low budget slasher films. They put so much trust in me and my vision, and I'll forever be grateful to them for that.
But back to that first day of true filming; the very first scene we filmed was a tuxedo shop scene with our three young male actors. Though short, it is one of my favorite scenes in the script and hearing the actors give life to the dialogue that I wrote was, to sound corny, magical. And then, the very next day, we did a bedroom scene with the three girls and they were equally brilliant in bringing these characters to life. The performances were extremely important to me because, and this is where the film does stray a little away from the 80's slasher formula, I wanted the audience to really care about these kids. To get to know them. To root for them, so that when what happens to them--and it is very brutal--finally does, it has that much more of an impact.
A few days into filming, the directorship fell into my lap. Along with Renee K. Smith, who co-directed with me, I forged forward with very little knowledge of how to actually direct a film. I just knew the vision I had for the film and how I ultimately wanted certain scenes to play out; I quickly found that I enjoyed having the input to shape the scenes how I saw them in my mind, and it helped drastically that Renee knew and shared my vision for the film. This would be a good point to give a major shout out to our talented Director of Photography, Derek Huey, who can only be described as a true artist. I have to mention as well that some of the best moments on set were the filming of the death scenes. Our special effects make up artist Heather Benson is amazing and also went above and beyond to pitch in other areas when needed. Her effects are gruesomely brilliant--I did not want any cop out off screen deaths, and Heather ensured that we are able to show every death in its bloody glory. It was a blast to see how these effects are put together or pulled off from behind the scenes.
The production of the film would not have gone nearly as smooth without the commitment and dedication of everyone involved. We truly did have a very small crew and cast and everyone eagerly wore multiple hats. We all stayed in the house that we filmed at for the sixteen days of shooting, and while this could have led to conflicts, instead it led to bonding and friendships. We all still chat on a regular basis and are all equally excited to share this film with audiences. I believe we all learned a great deal on set, and I know I am certainly more prepared for next time. In the end, I do not think I could be happier at how the production went and with the footage.

You raised money on Kickstarter to fund Party Night. What is it like running a crowd sourcing campaign and what challenges were there?

Troy: Running a crowdfunding campaign, as I quickly learned, is no easy task. Statistics show the majority of them do not achieve their goal which concerned me greatly before launching the campaign. Moreover, after tons of consideration, I decided to use Kickstarter, which is all or nothing and added to the stress of the whole experience. I did some preparation before launching the campaign, including getting a teaser trailer shot, researching similar campaigns to determine desired perks, and discovering how others promoted their campaign. Once I launched the campaign and the initial "excited for you" pledges wore off, I did get rather panicked. I was sharing the Kickstarter campaign several times a day and messaging and emailing all of my contracts, certainly exhausted them. Still, there were literally stretches of days when no pledges came it.
Halfway through the campaign, I gave the Kickstarter page a face lift. I added a video of myself and another producer, Renee K. Smith, discussing the film and our passion for the genre. I asked our cast to submit introduction videos that could be posted on the page as well. Additionally, I reached out to various blogs, etc.. to see if they'd be interested in interviewing me regarding the film; these actions did ignite interest and pledges increased. The cast and crew were also instrumental in obtaining pledges because they also shared the campaign extensively. Luckily, with two days of the campaign left, we reached out goal. I was ecstatic and vastly relieved and thankful.
I have been asked a few times if I would ever do another crowdfunding campaign. My answer is yes. I'd like to do at least one more so that I can put everything I learned from the Party Night campaign to use. For example, I'd definitely spend a lot more time planning and making contacts well before I launch the campaign. Most of my contacts didn't even know I was launching one until it was live.
But my big lesson, and one that I want to stress to those who are thinking of launching a crowdfunding campaign is this hard truth: your friends and family are not going to be enough for you to reach your goal (unless you have rich friends and/or family members). In order to be successful, you have to reach beyond your personal contacts and get fans of whatever genre or product you are trying to fund to WANT to support it. Though I tried not to take it too personal, many close friends and relatives who I thought would pledge something ended up not doing so. On the other hand, a vast amount of people I had no connection to did, which was an honor because it meant they were taking a chance on my dream.
Lastly, crowdfunding campaigns are very time consuming. I spent hours a day for 45 days doing something related to the campaign. And keep in mind, if your campaign is successful, the work doesn't end; you still have to remain in contact with your supporters and provide them with the perks that they earned for pledging (please follow through with this--if you don't, it makes people who have been burned not want to pledge to any other campaigns!). In the end, I can say the experience was very stressful, but I learned a great deal. I am so, so grateful to everyone who pledged to make Party Night a reality.

Party Night is a throwback to the Slashers of the 80's. What films influenced you most when writing the script and is there a specific movie in particular that made you think you wanted to make movies?

Troy: I grew up on 80's slasher films. Films like Sleepaway Camp, The Burning, Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me, and Hide and Go Shriek are directly responsible for me being the huge horror fan that I am. Party Night, though, arose from my fondness for the film The Mutilator. There is something about the disturbing tone and atmosphere of that film that I have always found unique. Sure, it may not be the best film in terms of acting and production values, but I still find it to be one of the most effective slasher films to come out of the 80's. And let's not forget the gore; it is replete with gory and what many would consider mean-spirited death scenes. With Party Night, I wanted to create the same foreboding tone and impactful death scenes, but with a tad more character development. I would really call Party Night a cross between The Mutilator and Prom Night.
As far as films that inspired me to write screenplays, and now actually direct, I'd say Halloween, Black Christmas and Psycho are the three genre films I admire most from a filmmaking perspective. This is kind of ironic since each of these films thrives on the "less is more" concept and Party Night is pretty graphic and in your face.
Why do you think the 1980's is such a revisited decade for horror these days and what's the big difference, in your opinion, between the presentation of horror then and the presentation of horror in the films of today?
Troy: Undoubtedly, the 80's are the golden era for slasher films. I feel like what makes many fans long for the era and constantly revisit it is that slasher films released during that time period simply made no apologies for what they were. Fans knew what to expect: a group of young adults in an isolated setting being picked off one by one by a deranged killer. Though I love the film, since the release of Wes Craven's Scream back in 1996, it seems slasher films since then have felt the need to be self-aware, tongue-in-check, and somewhat apologetic for being slasher films. Though there are a few, it is really hard to think of a slasher film in the vein of Sleepaway Camp, Intruder, Slaughter High or The Prowler that has been released in the past few years. Sadly, the few that have been released have been widely ignored or criticized by a new legion of horror fans who may not be all that familiar with the 80's slasher formula.
Certainly I will be the first to admit that the slasher genre suffers from a lack of originality, but the fact is these films still possess a great deal of charm for many people. Honestly, how many different ways can you have a masked killer stalk a group of unsuspecting kids? But because it has been done before does not mean there is no place for true slasher films anymore or that filmmakers who like the genre should feel like they somehow water their film down or give it self-aware comedic undertones. Party Night is a true slasher film. I don't apologize for it. Of course, my hope is that fans will enjoy it and it will bring them a feeling of nostalgia.

You're also the president of the Fright Meter Awards, tell us about that and what the goal of that committee is.

Troy: In addition to being a horror fan, I am also a huge film awards buff. I am an Oscar trivia machine and diligently follow awards season. It has always bothered me massively that the horror genre is virtually ignored by mainstream awards. There have been some truly great performances in horror films—performances that rival, or are often time better than those that won Oscars their perspective years. Several years ago, I started a personal blog called Fright Meter, where I posted reviews of horror films, etc. I decided to combine my love of horror and awards by giving out my personal awards on an annual basis. After getting to know some other horror bloggers, I got the idea to put a committee of horror lovers together to help with the awards. The result is what you see currently; we have a committee of over fifty members involved in various aspects of the industry and are gaining notice and attention within the horror community. The goal is to become the premiere award given to the genre.

What's the plan for Party Night regarding a timeline for finishing post production? Are there any dream festivals you'd like it to play at?

Troy: The goal is to have the film ready to premiere in October. Editing is in the early stages, and we are also working on assembling a suitable and impressive soundtrack and score for the film. As far as festivals go, I definitely need to begin doing research on ones that could potentially screen the film, but I would absolutey love for Party Night to screen at Texas Frightmare Weekend next year! Honestly, I would be excited for any festival that screens Party Night because I just want to share it with fans.

Thank you so much to Troy Escamilla for taking the time to answer our questions in such an honest and detailed manner! We'll follow the progress of Party Night and encourage readers to connect with the film on social media and keep an eye out for this throwback slasher to screen at a festival near you in the future.

Watch the teaser for Party Night here!

Find Party Night on Facebook and Twitter as @PartyNightMovie and the Fright Meter Awards as @FrightMeter on Twitter and @FrightMeterAwards on Facebook. Also, visit the Fright Meter Awards website at www.frightmeterawards.com

Friday, August 12, 2016

Hills and Hollers

Hills and Hollers

Hills and Hollers tells the story of an expecting couple living in the Midwestern Rust Belt who are attacked and stalked in the woods by a group of masked men determined to kill them.
The film opens with several picturesque shots of woodlands in the Fall and presents a nice country setting followed by some humorous conversation between two city folk, fish out of water characters driving on a country road. When the two stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and are creeped out by the attendant, one character assures the other that "not everyone is a serial killer." These prove to be famous last words as the two are killed and the story for Hills and Hollers is set up.
It's a bit unfortunate that this fun opening sequence was followed by an introduction to the main characters that is less than compelling and spends a bit too much time showing them playing cards while visiting their mother/mother-in-law. It's a good set up to introduce who these people are, but the problem lies in the lack of interesting dialogue as they spend the time discussing how to play Go Fish. There's humor to be found in the fact that they make it so difficult to explain how to play a simple game, but the presentation is not executed in an impactful way as the scene plays a bit dull and doesn't offer the viewer much to take away from it.
The following scene in the truck after the two characters leave is a better introduction to who these people are as we hear some natural sounding dialogue that fills us in about their life and situation. The two actors have a good chemistry together as the married couple and that helps us sympathize with them when things go wrong.
Things get a bit interesting when one of the killers captures the main character after they stop to visit the grave site of their father/father-in-law. There's a nice dream like montage that brings together things that happened moments before in the truck and shots of the killer sharpening an ax. The montage just seems to go on for a bit too long.
This seems to be a running issue the film suffers from. The camera lingers on trees too long, the dream like montage takes too long, a character explaining a story takes too long, the card game scene takes too long. At 56 minutes the film is short, but it should move faster instead of having it feel as though the already short run time is being inflated.
The simplistic story that was created suits the film well and the filmmakers made good use of the natural environment and by the end it felt like a horror infused game of hide and seek as the characters try to escape the killers and are chased through the woods. Hills and Hollers is a real throwback to those killer on the loose slashers from the 1980s and hillbillies in the country films of the 70's. The killers have a Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets My Bloody Valentine appearance at times and that was a pretty cool combination to see. I also dug that the one killer had a little blowtorch and the rest had some nasty looking tools that made me uncomfortable just to look at.
Hills and Hollers is a solid no budget effort from Ben Arvin that only suffers from some editing issues that takes the viewer out of the film at times. It's got some interesting killers with rusty tools as weapons, some clever scene transitions, and some nice cinematography that conflicts with the horror playing out on screen. I'd be interested to see what Ben Arvin does next and if he can tighten up his next film a bit, because Hills and Hollers shows promise.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Mind's Eye

The Mind's Eye

The Mind's Eye is about Zack Connors and Rachel Meadows, two people born with psychokinetic abilities who are patients at an institution headed by Michael Slovak, a doctor determined to harvest their powers. When Zack and Rachel escape the institution, the deranged doctor is obsessed with tracking them down to continue his research and gain control of their abilities for himself.
Graham Skipper and Lauren Ashley Carter are perfect for the roles of Zack and Rachel. The two convey a tortured demeanor that shows their psychokinetic powers as more of a curse than a gift, this is demonstrated nicely in the opening of the film in a scene involving Graham Skipper. Skipper has very expressive eyes which highlight many moments in the film and he gives a solid performance as Zack.
But I really want to focus on Lauren Ashley Carter who has a screen presence that is undeniable. She elevates every scene she is in and has an intensity within her that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her. After seeing her in Pod, Darling, and now The Mind's Eye, it is clear to me that she's a star, plain and simple. I can't praise her enough and she should be on everyone's radar.
The Winter landscape in the film is a nice symbolism for the studies being done at the Slovak Institute where the psychokinetic abilities of the patients lay dormant due to a created serum that is injected into them. But just like the snow will eventually melt, the serum too has a time limit and will eventually wear off. After Zack and Rachel escape the institute, it's only a matter of time until their powers are available to them again.
The lighting creates a contrast between subdued and vibrant colors, a mix of whites and beige's with well placed neon sprays that highlight faces or backdrops. It speaks to the two abilities of the mind in the film: the normality of everyday use and average thoughts and the heightened use of psychokinetic ability. It's a language that runs through the entire film and becomes more apparent as the story progresses.
Tying everything together is a soundtrack that is an energetic symphony of synth, science fiction sound brimming with action. It's powerful and big and plays well over the heart pounding emotions and action we see on the screen.
The Mind's Eye does not shy away from blood and gore and it doesn't disappoint with it's effects. There's a few moments in particular that will have gore hounds cheering and losing their heads.
The Mind's Eye is loaded with action, drips with blood, boasts awesome practical effects, has a killer soundtrack, and a mad scientist angle fused with a body horror aspect that is tons of fun to watch. Writer and director Joe Begos has created a classic in the vein of Cronenberg and Carpenter and there is something for everyone to enjoy in this movie.
You know that kind of movie you wish they still made? The Mind's Eye is it and it needs to be seen.