Film Review: The Commune is Well Worth A Visit

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With cold temperatures and winter weather blanketing much of the U.S., a getaway
to the summertime-set satiric thriller The Commune: A New CULT Classic may be just the ticket for horror fans.

Written and directed by Elisabeth Fies in her feature debut, there’s a lot to like about this 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 last 15 to 20 minutes.  The film is further aided with a sleek look, high production value, vivid locations, and a great score and songs.

Many nice character moments in the script, coupled with the compelling performances, help ground the piece in reality.  A sex scene involving Jenny and romantic interest Puck (David Lago) felt particularly honest and non-exploitative.  And their transition from idealized puppy love into awkward distance was well handled.  Fies delivers nice work in her supporting performance as Jenny’s mother Cassie, with the different sides of the mother being revealed.
Refreshing applies both to the film and the creative forces behind it: Elisabeth Fies wearing multiple hats, sister Brenda Fies executive producing, and Lewis’s strong central performance and character.  Female creative energy is on ready display here, with additional contributions from many female crew members (such as producer/actress Heidi Hornbacher) in key production roles.

I have to say that I’m really glad I got to watch and pay a visit to The Commune !

The Commune is available on Amazon and for immediate download on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-commune-a-new-cult-classic/id418838073

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Prescott Place Review

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The engaging short “Prescott Place”  from director/writer Peilin Kuo evokes the feel of a 40’s melodrama as told through the lens of an episode of The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone.  Alexis Iacono, in a dual role as damaged starlet Jane Prescott yearning for a next role and the return of her lover, communicates with and confides in her “Babydoll” (also Iacono) created in her likeness, which may have a life of its own.  Wearing an elegant partial Phantom of the Opera style mask to hide a set injury, the actress pines for lost stardom, holed up in the country manor of the title.

Along with its atmospheric black and white color palette, the look of the cinematography (by Lance Kaplan), production design, costumes, score, dialogue, and acting all contribute to a feel of period authenticity.  As in her strong work in The Black Dahlia Haunting, Iacono once again exhibits the timeless feel of a woman from another era with classic Hollywood glamor.  Sadness and possibly psychosis are on display as the actress Jane and an eerie, entertaining, and creepy deadpan delivery from the Babydoll is memorable as well.  While having shades of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the performances are not over the top.  This is great work from Iacono and it’s difficult to envision another actress in the role(s).
Marc Balfour is compelling and convincing as The Lover in his portrayal of a leading man/matinee idol from the era who has some shocking discoveries to make.
Twists and some dark humor come into play.  In a nice touch, the estate uses a dollhouse for its exterior shots and the house-as-prison metaphor is effective.  A startling injection of color, resembling lustrous Technicolor of the era, marks a transition with The Lover turning on a lamp switch.  Recommended for fans of film noir and anthology shows, “Prescott Place” is viewable for free at:  http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/prescott_place
–Cory Graham@2013

The Black Dahlia Haunting Review

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I had been looking forward to seeing The Black Dahlia Haunting for a while and was fortunate to catch a free screening of the film at this Sunday’s Days of the Dead Los Angeles Convention.

Written and directed by Brandon Slagle (who also appears onscreen as catalyst Malcolm),  the film has much to offer for fans of the paranormal, as well as true crime and horror fans.  Set in the present day, the film features period flashbacks that explore the life and death of Elizabeth Short, who was labeled by the media as The Black Dahlia.

The Black Dahlia Haunting has the look and feel of a considerably more expensive film.  Sporting a sleek, atmospheric look and feel,  seamless stock footage and guerilla-style shooting at famous Hollywood/L.A. locations (such as Griffith Observatory) are employed to great effect in creating a sense of place.   The modern day location where the Dahlia’s body was found is also featured as the site of a ghostly encounter.

Strong performances are delivered across the board in this look at the intersection of the past and present.

The film centers on Holly–played by Devanny Pinn, who delivers a standout performance as a young woman who comes to LA to visit her blind brother Tyler (an effective Noah Dahl) in a mental institution.  I was surprised to learn of Dahl’s young age–born at the end of 1997–as  his performance shows a maturity beyond his years.  Pinn’s transition to being under the influence/possession of Short is intense and well done.  A shower encounter between the ghost and Holly manages to be both creepy and somewhat erotic.

Short is brought to life by Alexis Iacono as a gritty, flawed individual and the character is not placed on a pedestal as seen in many previous incarnations.  Iacono’s Old Hollywood looks and take on Short create a portrait of a woman whose beauty disguises a less refined woman making her way through Tinseltown.

Fans of Ghost Hunters will get to see a decidedly different Britt Griffith deliver a compelling performance as a seemingly sympathetic doctor with a dark side and connection to the original killing.  Griffith capably handles both sides of the character and the sharing of much of the story’s exposition.

Cleve Hall (of Syfy’s Monster Man) exhibits menace and perhaps a somewhat conflicted relationship toward killing (at moments gleeful and yet eyes brimming with tears at others) as the captor and torturer of The Black Dahlia.

Brandon Slagle convincingly portrays a man troubled and haunted by uncovering a desert dagger/murder weapon which retains a powerful supernatural influence that is exerted upon him.

Jessica Cameron has a memorable cameo as a pre-Marilyn Monroe Norma Jeane who advises/consoles Short after Short attempts an improvised abortion.

Theories about the crime are incorporated and subtly interwoven with the larger story arcs.  Twists and turns abound in The Black Dahlia Haunting and the film is worth a second viewing.

–Cory Graham @ 2013

The Gaming Experience–Storytelling in Video Games

Narrative in video games has become a subject of much discussion lately–and rightfully so.  Video games can provide some of the most emotionally intense experiences in media because of their immersion into a world with rich experiences for players to discover.  What makes video games/computer games unique is the sense of “agency” and control that the player is given–the power to shift the direction of the experience through gameplay.

Decisions have consequences.  This is strongly felt in games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Mass Effect (from Bioware). Characters remember your actions and the course of the story shifts based on the choices you make.  It’s not uncommon to experience “regret” upon seeing the unintended consequences and impact your decision has upon a character in the story.  Unlike the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories from childhood, it’s not as simple as flipping back or forward a few pages to choose a different path.  The game moves onward and the player is left to wonder about what might have been done differently.

Emotional resonance comes from characters in which you’ve invested either responding to, benefiting, or suffering from (sometimes dying because of) your actions.  Controlling the protagonist of the story also places the player into the shoes of that central character as they make discoveries–sometimes awe-inspiring, joyous, or heartbreaking.  Deciding which character to save can become an agonizing decision the player is left to face.

Backstory in games can be conveyed in interesting and unique ways.  Discovering letters, audio logs, diary entries, memos, emails, videos, etc.  can provide information about what has happened to the supporting characters in the story and the game world as it existed, prior to the player’s entry.

The player can also choose to linger in a particular environment as long as the game will allow–and sometimes indefinitely–soaking up all the rich sensory details of a unique, fantastic place.  Signage, displays, advertising, graffiti, architecture, ambient noise, overhead conversations, and music (period music or lush game scores) can all help to create an incredibly vivid sense of place for the player.  Game series such as Bioshock and Myst have especially excelled in this regard.  Myst featured the tagline “The Surrealistic Adventure that Will Become Your World.”  And appropriately so.  Bioshock and Bioshock 2 showcased the failed 1950’s Art Deco undersea “Utopia”  of the undersea city of Rapture and the 1912 floating city in the clouds–Columbia–was the setting of Bioshock Infinite.  Worlds of great beauty can be seen in games such as Journey and Flower.

Games such as Dead Space, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill (among others)  immerse players in dread-filled, sinister atmosphere-soaked worlds and environments where they are menaced by creatures in such a viscerally strong way that the experience can sometimes be “too much” for certain players.  It’s too nerve wracking to continue on for some.  Unlike in a traditional horror story, the player is responsible for surviving the onslaught and has to fend off the dark forces–perhaps single-handedly.  Hiding one’s eyes from a jump scare or scary image in a game at the wrong moment can lead to the death of the player, whereas a film continues on without consequence.

Some games feature open worlds for the player to discover–visiting certain locales freely and often in the order the player wishes–versus having a strict, linear narrative, where the player is moved along a clearly defined path predetermined by the game designer.

Video games can also use the storytelling techniques of a Hollywood film by featuring “cutscenes” or cinematics—usually non-interactive scenes that give the sense of scale and scope of a big-budget Hollywood movie.  These epic scripted moments can drive the story forward in a way independent of the gameplay.

And much like in independent cinema, indie games afford players innovative, quirky, and artistic visions (via modestly priced experiences) that are free from much of the tinkering and restrictions that a larger film studio/game publisher might exert.

Strong voice acting can also bring video game characters to life, with many stirring and memorable performances being delivered by talent in this arena.  Mark Hamill’s the Joker is a particular standout, in the Batman Arkham series.   And unique, distinctive visions from game designers/creators  often feature game scripts with sharp dialogue and surprising twists as well.  Both laughter and tears can be evoked when playing because of these two traditions from the theater–acting and storytelling.

Whether every game is capable of being classified as art is debatable.  However, what cannot be denied is some games are capable of providing experiences as rich, resonant, and powerful as creative expressions in other entertainment mediums–whether literary, theatrical, television, music, or film.  Games are interactive multimedia in the best sense of the word–incorporating video, text, and music and drawing from the rich history of multiple media to craft some of the most compelling entertainment available today.

–Cory Graham @2013

Shaping Horror–Women Writers and Filmmakers–Updated and Expanded

Rather than focusing on actresses in horror, or the term “Scream Queens”, I wanted to take a look at the past and present of women in horror–in creator capacities–particularly writers and directors.

The Soska Sisters (Sylvia and Jen) have been the subject of much praise and buzz for the stylish and intriguing “American Mary” (featuring Katharine Isabelle) and previously brought us “Dead Hooker in a Trunk”.  The twins have also achieved a certain iconic status for their enthusiastic, dynamic personalities, touring and promoting “American Mary” abroad.  They’ve completed production on slasher sequel “See No Evil 2.”
The realm of indie horror has proven to be a welcoming landscape for strong, young female filmmakers such as the Soskas, and other exciting new voices including Tammi Sutton, Elisabeth Fies and Brenda Fies (The Commune), Shannon Lark, Tara Alexis, Tonjia Atomic, Jennifer Campbell, Michelle Fatale, Amy Lynn Best, Tara Cardinal, Nicole Kruex, Axelle Carolyn, Devanny Pinn, Ama Lea, Yelena Sabel, Elske McCain, Lia Scott Price (also a novelist), Staci Layne Wilson (of Dread Central), and Jovanka Vuckovic (former editor of Rue Morgue and director of shorts including The Captured Bird).

A new generation of women horror writers and directors are getting widespread geographic representation–from Chicagoans Claire “Fluff” Llewellyn and actress/writers of “What they Say” Heather Dorff and Kelsey Zukowski (also “Words Like Knives” actress/writer);  Canadians Lianne “Spiderbaby” Mac, Karen Lam (Evangeline, Doll Parts), Nadine L’Esperance, Maude Michaud, and the Soskas; southern filmmakers Emily Hagins (My Sucky Teen Romance), Goldie Fatale, Andie Noir, Blair Richardson, and Shauna Tackett; and those covering horror across the pond: Germany’s Cat la Belle (ThrillandKill, Horrorpilot) and Scotland’s Jennifer Cooper (Musings of a Morleysaurus/Jennifer’s Bodies).

Bloggers, journalists, and film site reviewers such as Lianne (Spiderbaby) Mac and Rebekah McKendry (of Fangoria and Fearnet), Heidi Honeycutt (Planetfury.com, PlanetEtheria.com, and Viscera and Etheria Film Fests), Hannah Neurotica (Ax Wound), Molly Celaschi and Kelsey Zukowski (each previously of Horror Yearbook), Dai Green (HorrorNews.net and several podcasts), Jennifer Cooper, Cat la Belle, Stacie Ponder (Final Girl), Erin Lashley (Deep Red Rum), Rebekah Herzberg, Dolls of Despair, and story writer Nicole Sixx each bring great passion, knowledge of horror/suspense, and nostalgia for a life’s memories of growing up on horror and genre fare to their perspectives on the industry and its product.

Podcasts have grown in popularity with Char Hardin (Charred Remains), Francy Weatherman, Rebekah Herzberg, Karen Zombora,  Claire Connolly (Midnight Spookshow), and Rebekah (and Dave) McKendry’s Killer POV among those.  Writers Alexandra West (of blog Scare Tactic)  and Andrea “Hellbat” Subissati (examining horror from a cultural and sociology perspective) have launched The Faculty of Horror podcast.

Video segment webisodes, such as scribe Lianne Spiderbaby’s smart and funny “Fright Bytes” and writer Jill Killington’s charming and clever video review blog “Jill Kill”, have led to a new generation of horror hostesses that are more review and interview focused.  Jill has also launched a new video streaming show on TRadioV called Kill Baby Kill that she co-hosts.  Lianne has written a soon to be published book on Grindhouse Girls.  Actress Bianca Barnett completed a first season of  WTF (Watch These Films) reviews.

Love her or hate her, Stephenie Meyer, along with J.K. Rowling, have been the two most influential females in popular culture in the last decade.  Female fiction writers, especially in the horror and fantasy genres, wield undeniable influence.  From Meyer’s “Twilight” series (with screenplays by Melissa Rosenberg) to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/”True Blood” source material,  Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” epics, L.J. (Lisa Jane) Smith, whose series “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Secret Circle” have both been translated  to TV; Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy novels, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Nancy A. Collins, Poppy Z. Brite, and the grand vampire and witch matriarch,  Anne Rice.  Also of note are Lois Duncan’s suspense tales and S.D. (Stephani Danelle) Perry’s Resident Evil novels, which run more closely to the video game source material.  And much of modern horror fiction is owed to the horror classics of Shirley Jackson and Mary Shelley.

On the film side, the late Debra Hill has to be seen as a pioneer for female producers and writers, scripting and producing with John Carpenter the classic films Halloween (original and II) and The Fog.  Carpenter’s films became a strong source for female talent–Debra Hill, strong heroines onscreen, and utilizing the late, great composer Shirley Walker.  Mary Lambert helmed Pet Sematary (and its sequel) and was the first female director of a Syfy Channel Original Movie.  Rachel Talalay directed Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Ghost in the Machine, Lori Petty in “Tank Girl”, and episodes of tv series “The Dead Zone”.  Kathryn Bigelow directed influential cult fave Near Dark before being honored as the first female Best Director by the Academy for The Hurt Locker.  Diablo Cody, Oscar Original Screenplay winner for Juno, brought us the infamous “Jennifer’s Body” (directed by Karyn Kusama, who also did the strong femme-centric films Girlfight and Aeon Flux).  Kimberly Pierce tackled the 2013 Carrie remake and Katt Shea took on the 1999 original Carrie follow-up, The Rage: Carrie 2.  The late Antonia Bird directed the cannibal horror “Ravenous” and Mary Harron helmed and co-scripted “American Psycho” with Guinevere Turner (writer of Bloodrayne).

Screenwriter Jace Anderson (Mortuary, The Toolbox Murders, Mother of Tears) and producers Marianne Maddalena (frequent collaborator with Wes Craven), Julie Corman, Sandy King Carpenter (producing partner with husband John), and Gale Anne Hurd (from Aliens, The Terminator, to The Walking Dead) also deserve mention.

Julie Plec has become one of the most sought after and powerful writer/producer/creators of supernatural TV– co-creating The Vampire Diaries for the CW, along with its successful spin-off The Originals, and the psychic powered teens drama The Tomorrow People.

And genre fave actresses are moving behind the camera, with Danielle Harris directing horror satire “Among Friends” (scripted by cast member Alyssa Lobit).  Kristina Klebe is enrolled in film school at NYU and directed her first short “As Human as Animal”.  Angela Bettis directed frequent collaborator Lucky McKee in “Roman” and worked on a segment for The ABC’s of Death.  Asia Argento has followed in her father Dario’s footsteps, working extensively as a director, in addition to her acting.  Axelle Carolyn directed the short “The Halloween Kid” and feature mystery “Soulmate.”  Debbie Rochon has helmed the horror allegory “Model Hunger.”  Jennifer Blanc-Biehn has moved into the role of frequent producer.

At least half the directors I have worked with in film and theater have been female. They have come into directing from a variety of creative backgrounds: acting, choreography, cinematography, playwriting, and teaching drama.  As a producer, I will work to champion original, strong, and unique female voices and aid in bringing their visions to the screen.  And I hope to see more female crew entering the industry as editors, DP’s, and composers.  Many female journalists, festival programmers, photographers, painters, illustrators, costume designers, make-up artists, and gore/creature-FX creators, currently express their creativity in the horror industry.  And that’s not to mention the number of women creators in comics/graphic novels and television.  So, while wrongly held preconceived notions like “Women can’t be funny…or women can’t do horror” may linger in some minds, a new generation of rising female talent will hopefully erode the last traces of such incorrectly held views.

–Cory Graham@2011, updated 2014

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“Drool” (2011) from Jeremiah Kipp, in collaboration with Mandragoras Art Space, is an absorbing four minutes that is always evocative and atmospheric–alternating between disturbing moments, tenderness, and eroticism.  Experimental in its storytelling, the short is dialogue free and bathed in mystery–and its leads in the “drool” of the title–a slimy substance of unknown origin.  The audience is left to draw its own conclusions in terms of meaning.  Placental/amniotic fluid at birth (with an actor nude and in the fetal position at start and finish), a body/life consumed by an addictive substance, bodily fluids exchanged during intimacy/disease transmission, and control/possession are all possible interpretations.   Visually compelling, “Drool” is stark, yet stylish; using potent black and white imagery to lend a music video level of stylishness to abstract narrative.  Director of Photography Salinoch and editor Scott W. Perry have created a sleek, flowing look appropriate to the title.  Featuring expressive physical performances…

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What I’d Like to See More Of in Film–and Indie Horror

Written with a focus on independent horror, but these thoughts apply to films in general.

What I’d like to see more focus on:

1.)  Interesting Characters–More parts that are quirky, eccentric, twisted, or with complex personalities.  Colorful characters with memorable character actors stealing scenes make Christopher Guest’s movies so compelling and would definitely add flavor to tried and true genre formulas.  And give actors and actresses juicy and fun roles to play with.   More strong roles for females–younger or older.  Not just the damsel in distress or eye candy.

And on a similar note:

Making Strong Use of “Name” Talent–If you are lucky enough to have the budget to land a marquee name, have a role that has dialogue, scenes, or moments that really make use of his/her talents (comedic or dramatic).  Or in the case of a cameo,  something interesting, fun, and memorable for the actor to do in that brief appearance onscreen.

2.)  Cast Diversity–Not just in terms of ethnic diversity, but most especially in age diversity.  Having a cast featuring older adults beyond just teens and twenty-somethings.  Meaty parts for veteran actors (particularly long-time genre favorites) can reinvigorate a career or bring attention to someone who has spent years in the acting trenches.

3.)  Horror as Satire/Social Commentary–Using the backdrop of horror to comment on society/human nature or the genre itself.   Just as comedy is a great vehicle for satire (South Park, The Simpsons, Stewart/Colbert), horror’s potential can be equally great in this regard–Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, American Psycho, Scream, Behind the Mask.

4.) Risk-Taking–The films that resonate with jaded horror fans, along with those smaller films that achieve mainstream success–spawning imitators, or become cult favorites–are trying something new, unique, or innovative.  Whether in filmmaking technique, presentation, or subject matter/theme.  Connecting with audiences on an intense, primal, and visceral level through suspense and disturbing moments that linger in the mind for a lifetime.

And perhaps most importantly:

5.)  Acting Matters–Flat performances can derail a project with the best of intentions.  Dialogue can fall flat, dramatic or scary scenes can be unconvincing, and unintentional comedy and laughter can be the result.  Casting is key.

More Use of Trained Actors/Actors from the Theater World– Yes, there are many gifted actors who deliver incredible, instinctual work without those backgrounds–or come from other creative disciplines–music performance, writing, comedy, dance, modeling, stunt work, etc.   However, training’s value can be great for an actor–whether hands on experience–or scene work with a coach/in the classroom.  Actors who have honed their craft onstage or in acting classes/training can often bring added emotional life to their characters and can definitely enhance a film.

–Cory Graham@2012