I discovered the films of Donald Farmer a few years ago and life’s never been the same. He’s been directing since the mid 80s (and SRS Cinema are now putting out his super-8 stuff from even earlier), and has made some of my favourite bonkers horror – “Vampire Cop”, “Scream Dream” and “Red Lips”, to name but three, but pick any of them (okay, maybe not “Red Lips: Eat The Living” or “Dorm Of The Dead”, they’re pretty tough to sit through) and you’ll have a good, if occasionally baffled, time.
He’s also one of the nicest guys on social media, and it was thanks to him pointing me in the right direction that I was able to watch this film at all (perhaps it never got a UK release due to the movie sharing its name with a group of Nazi music enthusiasts – ps. go fuck yourselves, Nazis). Anyway, I need to pick a spot to start because this story could get long. Dentistry!
Dr Maurice J Fagan Jr was a dental pioneer, holding a number of patents, writing dozens of articles, helping out the Pope’s dentist, and so on. But as if this wasn’t quite enough for him, he also wrote a novel as a favour to a friend (who left him an outline) called “The Isle Of Hope”. This was printed by one of those self-publishing places in 1992, and here’s where I could just ask Donald Farmer what happened but I much prefer baseless speculation. I think Fagan, or someone close to him, wanted to be in the movies, wanted to create their own “Gone With The Wind”, and had a bunch of cash, so a friend of a friend said “hey, I know this director”.
So the money is rounded up, Civil War enthusiasts are contacted to be extras, an old plantation house is borrowed, the movie is shot…and IMDB lists it as 4 hours 33 minutes! This is what gave me the “Gone With The Wind” thoughts, as that’s only a whisker under 4 hours itself. Anyway, this beast of a movie, completely unlike anything its director has done before, is sold to a distributor, and they go “nope” and cut it into two separate movies, of which this is the first (“Battle For Glory”, the second part, is at my friend’s house in the USA, so a review for that will have to wait a while).
That distributor is one David Heavener. His name looms large over the sort of bargain-basement cinema we like to cover here, and he’s been writing, directing and starring in films that have flown completely under my radar for over 30 years. He also produces and distributes movies, and this is one of his – he left a ton of material on the cutting room floor, as that one 4+ hour movie is now two of around 80 minutes each. For evidence of this, the end credits (which play over “highlights” from the movie) feature people we never see, characters having conversations despite them never having met, and so on.
I suppose I ought to discuss the movie! After some footage of Civil War re-enactors (cheaper than staging a battle yourself, I guess), during which cars are clearly visible in the background, we get a voiceover, which certainly helps the rather chopped up narrative. This is supplied by Farmer collaborator Philip Newman (the writer / producer / star of “Body Shop”, who also shows up in this as the head of one of the families), who has a great voice for it. It centres around two couples deep in Confederate country during the Civil War – the first is Craig and Olivia. She fakes a pregnancy to get him to marry her, then turns into the least competent gold-digger of all time, and all this time anyway he’s been sleeping with the maid Caroline. On top of this, he’s also in love with Olivia’s sister Angela, but she’s married to Henry. Henry has a sister, Maude, who’s not thrilled by his wife.
Andy Hamrick, in his only role, plays Henry, and it’s a really tricky part to pull off – he never really convinced that he was too conflicted or worth caring about, flitting from sex with one woman to another to almost forcing himself on Angela at one point. Ortiz is fantastic as the Cajun (although her accent was rotten) Caroline, with a performance full of seduction and lies, and it’s her that drives most of the plot – murdering Olivia’s father when he threatens to reveal the affair to his daughter, then…well, no sense giving any further spoilers. I mean, with the amount of sass she gives her employers, I’d have kicked her out on the street months ago, but perhaps good help was hard to come by at the time. The rest of the plot is driven by the coming to town of a group of Union soldiers, led by Colonel Evans (Miles O’Keefe, the early 80s “Tarzan”). He’s a decent guy but his soldiers are absolute rapist monsters; they hole up in the house of Olivia and Angela’s family and then sort of do nothing – they don’t appear to be fighting, or on a mission, they’re just hanging out at the house.
First up – this is in the running for the most coherent of Farmer’s movies. I understood who everyone was and roughly why they were doing what they were doing. It looks completely decent, being shot on actual film (I think), and the sets were excellent, being real old houses and proper beautiful Southern forests where the moss hangs from the trees. The haircuts were a little 1990s, perhaps, and I’d be surprised if the women of the time were quite as feisty as they were here, but Farmer is a steady hand, he’s easily able to control all the threads and directs it well.
It’s honestly a surprise that none of my criticisms of a Donald Farmer movie are to do with the direction – he’ll normally do something so completely out of left field that you’re left scratching your head at the end, despite them almost always being enjoyable. Not here, mind you – it just makes me wish he’d been given this level of money for all his other movies. Okay, he does stuff like show the same battle scene twice, and the blood effects are rough, but that’s so minor for the same filmography that gave us “An Erotic Vampire In Paris” that it barely needs mentioning.
Every problem with this movie is the story, although…it’s not terrible, I guess? It’s just completely unremarkable, and feels like exactly what it is – a vanity project from a Civil War enthusiast who knew how to get the beats of story down and in the right order, but not how to make it interesting. In case you were about to say “didn’t Farmer write it?” – well, yes, but given Fagan actually appears in a small part in the movie, I’m guessing he was firmly in control of the script too. The issue of slavery is completely ignored, as it’s fairly clear the author’s sympathies were not on the Union side (or if they were, he had a terrible way of showing it). There are only two black actors in the entire movie, and they’re only in it to have the first murder that Caroline commits pinned on them; I’ll admit to not knowing if families kept their slaves during the war itself, but it does seem odd that the only domestic servant isn’t black.
I should also mention how it just sort of ends in the middle of a scene, but that’s nothing to do with the making of it, it’s the weird edits that were forced on it by the distributors. Perhaps 4 and a half hours of an amateurish Civil War movie would’ve been too much, but how many other low-budget horror directors do you know of who’d have taken on something so massive?
This is another review which isn’t exactly going to drive traffic to our site – it’s out of print, and I’m willing to bet there’s some legal stuff which’ll keep it from ever being re-released. But if you see it in one of those “4 movies for £1” box sets, which is apparently where it has been known to dwell, chances are it’ll be the best movie in that set. Please look out for our review of part 2 when I have a copy, and in the meantime go to SRS Cinema and drop a few £££ on Farmer’s stuff. Without all our support, all we’ll be left with is the worst blandest mainstream product, and I don’t want to live in that world.
Rating: thumbs in the middle
PS – if you get the “David Heavener Presents” version of this DVD, then you’ll also have a memorable special feature, a 6-minute (!) trailer for his movie “Massacre” (aka his first movie, “The Border Of Tong”). Marvel at how you understand less at the end than you do at the beginning! The un-subtitled dialogue! The way the people sort of look like funhouse mirror versions of actors! That might have to be our next review.