Pamela & Ivy is a Compellingly Rooted Exploration of an Iconic Character

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Poison Ivy/Pamela Isley is one of my favorite characters in comics–in Batman, or otherwise.  The new short film “Pamela & Ivy” takes a very grounded approach to exploring the dual personas of a rich female character in both childhood and adulthood. Clearly made with dedication, creativity, and passion, this project is female led. Writer, director, and adult Ivy/Pamela actress Leah McKendrick and producer Mariah Owen (who also appears as a diner waitress)–both of the creative team on the breakout revenge thriller MFA–have brought something really special and remarkable here.  Like the namesakes of the title, the short is smart, beautiful, powerful, and bold.  The persona of Ivy radiates strength and is an empowered survivor.  She also takes on elements of the vigilante role (a la Catwoman in the solo comics series).

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Eric Roberts (who recently had a standout role as a slick attorney in CBS All Access’s Interrogation) effectively plays the cruel, cold, and mysterious captor “The Man.” Imprisoned by him in a barren room, young Pamela (the evocative, emotive, and expressive Aria Lyric Leabu) finds solace nurturing and talking to a plant sprouting from a crack in the floor. Unlike her kidnapper, the plant does not judge and has no ill will/intent.

Ivy Plant

Roberts’ Man could also be seen as emblematic of the patriarchy’s problems and forced conforming to stifling gender roles, with pronouncements like “Good girls don’t…get…dirty” and “Good girls do as they’re told.”  Pamela manifests her alter ego Ivy as a survival mechanism and manages to overpower her oppressor and abuser.

Creative force McKendrick is memorable as both the adult counterparts of shy scientist Pamela and the emboldened Ivy.  She embraces the physicality of both sides/personas and creates distinct and convincing contrasts as she inhabits each.  Adult Ivy is a charismatic, clever, and commanding presence.

After dispatching a robber, Adult Ivy later appears to inspire a young girl at the scene, much like McKendrick, Owen, and countless other readers have been so inspired by the character.

Adult Ivy

Poison Ivy is a favorite of cosplayers and at Halloween. Here, Ivy’s suit has been reimagined by designer Howie B (a frequent Lizzo collaborator) as a functional, sleek, stylish bodysuit that is less overtly sensualized than many previous incarnations. Her trademark tendrils do make an appearance courtesy of some skillful CGI.  She is also given a badass lime green Dodge Challenger.

The short works wonderfully well as a self-contained origin story, but it also serves as an incredibly compelling possible pilot episode for a web series. There is a richness in potential which makes me want to see this incarnation and her journey continue. Ideally, this would find a natural home and fit on DC Universe, the DC streaming service (which features companion pieces like the animated Harley Quinn and the ambitious Swamp Thing).

With authenticity and truthfulness, this film is also a calling card on multiple levels (writing, acting, producing) and demonstrates McKendrick should be given feature directing opportunities.

The 16 minute short may be viewed here.

–Cory Graham         Twitter: @coryfilm

Perfect (2020) Short Film Review

In “Perfect”, Ashley Tyler delivers a chilling performance as a sociopathic femme fatale serial killer who seduces and dispatches dates in pursuit of the “Perfect Man”.  In addition to this striking, committed, and fearless acting turn, she also served as producer and contributed to the sinister story (with script by Anthony Guilianti).

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Director Jeremiah Kipp excels in every genre he tackles–guiding stylish, atmospheric, thought-provoking pieces that focus on character interaction and will have you thinking about them for quite a while after viewing.  These are the reasons why I’ve reviewed many of his works over the years and those hallmarks hold true here.

There are a number of interesting ideas that are raised in the film:

  • Literal objectification of a partner being taken to its most extreme, with the plucking of elements to create a whole that doesn’t add up to the sum of its “perfect” parts.
  • Frustration when what we project onto an idealized image on a screen isn’t realized how we envisioned when encountering them in “reality”/in person.
  • No matter how much we long for the realization of our ideal mate, with a laundry list of carefully pre-selected attributes or features, we can’t will them to “life.”

The film’s gaze is female and one through objectification of men, which runs counter to the traditionally male-dominated serial killer genre.  Tyler’s Audrey creates a cut-and-paste collage man on the sacred page and a literal one lying in state in her bedroom.

Convincing makeup FX and prosthetics work come courtesy of one of the most talented and promising indie FX artists and creature creators around, Beatrice Sniper–a frequent Kipp collaborator.

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Cinematography by Christopher Bye and editing by Kate Dillon result in both a sleek look and pace that propel the piece along and this short doesn’t shy away from the gory details.

A taut 10 minute thriller, there is room for expanding this short film into a larger piece–whether as a feature, or a larger segment in an anthology.  Character backstory remains mysterious and could either be explored and given motivation, or left unexplained in a feature version. “Perfect” isn’t an easy film–it may leave the viewer uneasy, but one worth delving into.

–Cory Graham    Published: 1/15/2020.

Self Sabotage (Short Film Review)

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Self Sabotage, the new short film from Brialynn Massie, features a cathartic exploration of monsters and demons, both metaphorical and literal.

Stakes and tension are raised as the short begins in a bathtub, a large knife resting on the tub’s edge, and the contemplating and physical signs of past attempts/cutting.

A raw, vulnerable, fearless, strong performance is given by Massie.

She has wonderfully expressive, emotive eyes that convey pain, sorrow, and fear in very compelling ways.

The piece is stylishly shot and atmospheric, with an evocative musical score and in its lighting and use of shadows.

As the Mother, Jenn Nangle (Malvolia writer and actress) is effective in both lighter and grim scenes.

The dark Monster (Ashley Fain) with the sick toothed grin can represent many things–internalized self doubt, self criticism/external criticism, the fear of harming one’s self or others. The “monster” we don’t want to become. It also embodies the internal haunting struggle that self-harm and/or suicidal ideation represents with so many individuals.

Even the support of a loving, caring mother and a mewling, adorable kitten cannot ward off the appearance of the Monster.

Exploring the deeply personal through psychological horror can be especially resonant, for both filmmakers and for audiences, themselves. I feel that horror is the ultimate form of drama–dealing literally with life and death and our most primal fears.  Intimate psychological drama that is horrific, especially as it relates to struggles with reality and mental states, is rich territory for exploration in the genre.

Massie shows she is adept as both an actress and a filmmaker and has skillfully juggled multiple duties (as director, writer, editor, and lead) in what is clearly a project infused with a great deal of passion.

I’m definitely looking forward to her next directorial effort–Vengeance Girl.

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–Cory Graham 2019

An Interview with Doctor Sleep and The Haunting of Hill House’s Catherine Parker

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I was really impressed with Catherine Parker’s work inhabiting Poppy Hill. We discussed The Haunting of Hill House–currently streaming on Netflix, working with director Mike Flanagan, as well as her past and future projects, including Doctor Sleep. –Cory Graham

How did the role of Poppy Hill come to you? Were you approached to audition?
I actually never auditioned to play Poppy. I did however, audition to play Nell and Joey. I’m very lucky and Mike went to bat for me, as he’s done many times before. When he told me about Poppy and handed me the script for Episode 9, “Screaming Meemies,” I felt like I had struck gold. I knew any part on that show would be a gift, but Poppy?!?  Poppy is like lightening in a bottle. The character flies off the page.

I feel that Mike Flanagan’s great strength (and what makes him one of the most interesting filmmakers working today) is how skillfully he’s able to interweave and balance human drama and psychological horror.
Yes. The real horrors of the world exist in our minds, don’t you think? Everything starts in the mind. I agree with you, but I’m most intrigued by Mike’s empathy. The well of that man’s heart is deep and I find THAT the most beautiful element of his filmmaking. Maybe it’s because I know him personally, but when I watch his films, it’s like watching his heart beat. There’s a very specific vibration going with a Flanagan film. He’s sentimental and loving and I think you feel that through his characters and even his camera angles. That’s why it’s so devastating when something awful happens to them!

Poppy has a distinct way of speaking. How was her voice developed?
The way she speaks is a play off of a mid-Atlantic accent. I watched a lot of old films with Clara Bow and Marion Davies. Those ladies were my inspiration.

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Makeup, wardrobe, and hair were instrumental with her as well.
YES! Honestly, I didn’t really find Poppy until hair and make-up were done and I had that gorgeous dress on. I had lots of ideas about how I wanted to play her, but it all came together when the ensemble came together. Shout out to costume designer Lynn Falconer, head of make-up Staci Witt, make-up artist Erica Kyker, special effects make-up artist head Bob Kurtzman, and John Tarro who designed and styled my hair.

How long did it take to shoot your scenes for Hill House/how long did you work on the shoot?
I started working on Hill House in February of 2018, but didn’t do any scene work until the end of April 2018. It took about a day to shoot the scene in the Red Room and another few days to shoot the rest.

For me, the intersection of history and horror contributes a great deal to a ghost story. Was Poppy’s backstory something that was further discussed or that you developed yourself in working on the character?
Yeah! Mike and I talked a lot about her backstory and for a while there was a whole history segment on the Hills, but they ended up scrapping that part of the story line. I had a lot of freedom to come up with whatever fueled my performance. I like keeping that actor process stuff to myself 🙂

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I had originally predicted that Carla Gugino would be nominated for Gerald’s Game and I am hopeful she may be for Hill House. You two share some very pivotal and powerful scenes. How would you describe working with her?
That woman deserves every actor honor given. She’s just a pro. It was like going to grad school working with Carla Gugino. She is so prepared, so kind, so smart, and strikingly beautiful. The woman is a class act and I am so grateful I got to work with her. I want to work with her again and again.

Flanagan Parker

Having worked on four of his projects, other than the scale of the productions, has the dynamic of working with Mike Flanagan evolved/changed over time?
The only thing that has really changed is the amount of money behind the projects we have worked on together. Mike really trusts his actors to bring the characters to life. I’m always impressed by Mike’s warmth and patience with actors. He’s always been that way, since the beginning.

I was very excited to hear that you were already in production on a certain much anticipated project with iconic characters and an impressive cast. What can you say about Doctor Sleep?
Not very much! I CAN say that I’m playing Silent Sarey, a member of The True Knot.  Fantastic cast and crew!

Knot

I’ve always found Christmas-set horror to be compelling. How was it working with the McKendrys and on All the Creatures Were Stirring?
The McKendrys are FANTASTIC. They work fast and efficiently. I haven’t seen the film yet and I’m really looking forward to it. Producer/Actor Morgan Peter Brown and Producer Joe Wicker both worked on Absentia, so I go way back with those guys.

Parker Jones

At the time, Absentia was from a group of very talented and promising newcomers–and Doug Jones. It’s a remarkable little indie gem.
Haha! “And Doug Jones.” YES! We all couldn’t believe he said yes when we asked if he would come out and do a part in the film. That film was a Kickstarter campaign that snowballed into a proper movie! We shot Absentia in Mike’s apartment and his old neighborhood in Los Angeles almost 9 years ago. It’s been incredible to witness his rise to where he’s at now.

Halt and Catch Fire was an underrated favorite series of mine. What memories do you have of your experience on it?
Me too. I was really excited to get to speak Japanese in my scenes. I grew up going to a Japanese immersion program as a kid and it was exciting to interweave acting with that language. I’d like to do that more.

Parker Halt

Are there particular types of projects or roles that you haven’t explored that intrigue you?
I love working on period pieces and I’d love to work on a comedy and I want to get back on stage as well!

I’m definitely looking forward to your new projects. Thanks so much for your time!
Thank you, Cory!

–Cory Graham, 2018

FANG Keeps Incisor Planted Firmly in Cheek

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Adam R Steigert’s Fang is the latest fun flick from the director of STAR, A Grim Becoming, and Ombis: Alien Invasion.  It’s his first above-the-title credit and fits comfortably among his other ambitious, playful genre works. In previous decades, you could easily imagine this as half of a drive-in double bill.

Fang has the feel of an extended Tales from the Crypt episode, with plenty of humor, gore, and tongue-in-cheek camp. And speaking of makeup FX and gore, those on display here are the most effective and convincing of his films to date. And like the Crypt feature Demon Knight, Fang is grounded by the performance of a strong female lead–here in Chloe, played by promising newcomer Melodie Roehrig.

The narrative serves mainly to bring a very large cast of eccentric, quirky characters together, their paths intersecting at an estate rumored to house a small fortune in silver coins.

Gregory Blair chews the scenery with relish as Harold, the estate’s creepy caretaker who is much more formidable than he initially appears.  In fact, the potential saviors– including a seventies style sheriff (Steve Losey) and an armed-to-the-teeth posse of mercenaries–are readily overmatched.

As with Steigert’s other films, it’s always interesting to see what characters the familiar faces will inhabit, especially in Fang with the Crowleys.  Patrick Mallette who voiced and puppeteered the title character STAR shows a strong commitment to his role as the menacing, mysterious owner of the mansion.  Melantha Blackthorne brings a feral feline intensity to the role of the mysterious “Aunt” Doris.  Both possess a great physicality and excel in colorful character roles.

Jennie Russo handles well one of the film’s most difficult and demanding parts, that of the stranded Shelly, partner to Chris (Jason John Beebe of Ombis).

Despite some dark themes and story elements, rather than frights, humor and a campy good time are the coin of the realm.  And as such, Fang is tonally closer to Bordello of Blood than Demon Knight.  Entertaining montage sequences harken back to the eighties comedy mainstay.

Steigert is joined by collaborator and new wife Kristin, who co-scripted and appears as a doctor.  Cast and crew are obviously hard at work and some pull double/triple duty in multiple capacities, such as Kristin and Mallette.

The most disturbing gross-out moments ironically involve scenes of eating.  And it’s always nice to have a practical (as opposed to CGI) werewolf.

The film is a brisk hour and fifteen minutes (including credits) and inhabits the common universe that Steigert has created.  There are visual in-joke references to his other films and the end of Fang serves to set up the upcoming THEM (The Horrific Evil Monsters).

@Cory Graham, 9/13/2018.

Slapface (Short Film) Review

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I always enjoy seeing something new from Jeremiah Kipp because regardless of the genre, I can be assured of some basic tenets.  It’s going to have great performances, look great, and be richly atmospheric.  His collaborators are always wisely assembled, often from prior projects.

Written and directed by Kipp, Slapface is a compelling monster fantasy that surprises and features a refreshing subtlety that is also quite powerful.

Dominick Sivilli’s cinematography is characteristically sleek, artful, and raises the production value of anything he shoots.  Not overtly flashy, but along with his editing, nicely serving and complementing the story.

Strikingly scenic and varied outdoor locations lend a great sense of place and make for memorable explorations and encounters in the woods and at home.

Like in Kipp’s Pickup, another strong, naturalistic performance is evoked from a young actor, here with Joshua Kaufman as the convincing lead Boy.

He calls out a creature who can alternate between menacing and protective.  The “monster” is inhabited by an unrecognizable Lukas Hassel (so good in Kipp’s modern witch tale The Minions).  Courtesy of effective and unique makeup FX work from Beatrice Sniper, he is still able to emote and be expressive in his physicality.

Nick Gregory as the father gives a dynamic turn that sheds light on the film’s title. The father-son and monster-boy dynamics skillfully subvert expectations.

Slapface is a brisk eight minutes that left me wanting to learn more about these characters and their relationships. Still very effective in its current incarnation,  it does serve as a great teaser for a possible feature.  It would definitely support it.

–Cory Graham

Film Review: The Commune is Well Worth A Visit

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With recent shows like Waco, Cults and Extreme Belief, and Wild Wild Country captivating viewers, an especially timely viewing of the summertime-set satiric thriller The Commune: A New CULT Classic may be just the ticket for horror fans.

Written and directed by the gifted Elisabeth Fies in her feature debut, there’s a lot to like about this intriguing film.  I enjoyed the satire, humor, and characters, in particular.
Actress Chauntal Lewis ably carries the film as the memorable and empathetic lead Jenny Cross.
Jenny is sent to the well-realized, isolated woodland retreat locale of the title, where her estranged father (Stuart G. Bennett) presides as the leader of a cult-like group of colorful/creepy New Age-y, hippie types whose free ideals prove to be imprisoning, rather than liberating.
Laughs give way to darker moments, with narrative twists and shades of menace culminating in the disturbing, final 15 to 20 minutes.  The film is further aided with a sleek look, high production value, striking locations, and a solid score and songs.

Many effective character moments throughout the script, coupled with the perceptive performances, help ground the piece in reality.  An intimate scene involving Jenny and romantic interest Puck (David Lago) felt especially honest and non-exploitative.  Their transition from idealized puppy love into awkward distance was well handled.  Fies also delivers nice work in her supporting performance as Jenny’s mother Cassie, with the different dimensions of the parent being revealed.
Refreshing applies both to the film and the collaborators behind it: Elisabeth Fies wearing multiple hats, sister Brenda Fies executive producing, and Lewis’s strong central performance and character.  Female creative energy is readily on display here, aided by additional contributions from many women crew members (such as producer/actress Heidi Hornbacher) in key production roles.

A rewarding, unsettling getaway, I’m glad I was fortunate to watch and pay a visit to The Commune.

The Commune is available on Netflix DVD and for purchase on Amazon.

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