Living Hell (2008)

While we’re waiting for the next instalment of the “Made In STL” series, and summoning up the mental fortitude to watch another David A Prior jungle-set war epic, we always have our long-running mission to review every SyFy Channel movie ever made, and that brings us to the nicely bleak “Living Hell” (aka “Organizm”, a rather peculiar title).

A military base is being closed down so the land can be given back to the Native American people who originally lived there. No, this isn’t a comedy! This is totally a thing that the US military might do! Anyway, a team of army scientists is gradually clearing out all the old experiments and thoroughly disinfecting everything when a strange guy turns up at the front gate, asking to see the Colonel in charge. When he was a kid, his mother (who apparently worked there, although no record of her employment can be found) lost her mind, carving a message into the palms of his hands before killing her husband and then turning the gun on herself.

Having just read 80s speculative fiction classic “Blood Music” by Greg Bear, I had high hopes for this movie, but it takes a similar idea and spins it in a more traditional SyFy Channel way. Buried inside the wall of a remote sub-basement is a tank, and inside the tank is a corpse. One touch of the corpse is all we need for a super-virulent…plague?…organism?…to break out, and for all hell to break loose. It almost immediately takes over the entire base, then starts spreading out to the nearby town, where the native peoples are waiting patiently to take back their land.

It’s down to the strange guy, who it turns out is a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher called Frank (Jonathan Schaech), and one of the army’s top decontamination people, Carrie Freeborn (Erica Leehrsen), to save the world. And it’s the world, too, because this stuff spreads quickly and feeds off energy, so bombs are no good, and when dawn hits and the sun starts shining down, it’s all over for humanity. Luckily, there’s a bizarre bit of good fortune that allows them to fight back, a friendly Army guy, and so on.

There’s two ways these movies can go, as I’ve hinted at. First is, the world ends, but a few lucky survivors make it through to start the world afresh. This is about 20% of potential apocalypse movies; the other 80% is either a last-minute scientific breakthrough, or some chosen-one style nonsense (this is the latter, I guess). I like the bleak nature of it, though, as one character is prepared to sacrifice himself and even, based on his rather sad upbringing, seems okay with doing it; there’s an “Aliens” style ending as he walks back through the origin of the mega-organism to find its source and end both their existences. It aims a little higher than your average SyFy movie, is what I’m badly getting at.

It’s fairly “blah”, in all other respects, though. Effects are really cheap, and although the main two characters are strong actors, everyone else seems a little embarrassed to be there, or a little too pleased. There’s no romance element, as Carrie’s husband is one of the other army guys, and he dies quite quickly into proceedings, so there’s a slight hollowness at the centre of things too. They have a curious moment where she gets entirely naked to “protect” herself against the encroaching organism, like it was a scene left over from a previous version of the script (put the protective substance in a jar and let her apply it herself, maybe?)

Anyway, I complain when the nudity is gratuitous and when it isn’t, so perhaps I’m just bored of nudity (even in SyFy Channel movies, which leads me to believe this is a special DVD edit). But if I ever get bored of cheap special effects, bizarre plots and interesting denouements, then I’ll stop writing for the ISCFC, and I hope that day never comes. “Living Hell” is definitely in the top half of all SyFy movies, and should be enjoyed if you ever happen upon it one evening.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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The Skid Kid (1991)

“The Skid Kid” is a masterpiece. Although I don’t often do this, here’s a trailer for it, produced for a 2015 showing at Cinefamily in LA (undoubtedly, the original release never had a trailer), and if you don’t immediately fall in love with it, I’m not sure we can be friends any more.

https://vimeo.com/119506070

This is part of our “Made In STL” season, which is really the “Made In STL” season of the St Louis Video Society, the fortnightly event where cult movie connoisseurs get together and watch some locally-produced gem. We’ve had “Justice: Ninja Style”, two early movies from Eric Stanze, and “Fatal Exam” (well, they can’t all be winners). There’s plenty more to come, so if you’re reading this and want to come along, get in touch with the Society on Facebook.

This movie features two actors who’d go on to real, serious careers. One much more than the other, I’ll admit, but impressive nontheless. Starring as the Skid Kid himself is one Gary Wolf, who’s been in “The Nice Guys” and has lots of bit-part work; and as his romantic rival for the beautiful Stephanie, Scott Wolf. Yes, the Scott Wolf from “Party of Five”, “Perception” and “The Night Shift”, one of the more dependable TV actors of the last 20 years, right at the very beginning of his career. They’re brothers, and in case you were wondering why Stephanie had zero chemistry with either of them, she’s played by their sister Jessica.

One might also wonder why the Wolf kids found themselves in Union, Missouri. Trying to think of something polite to say about it, it looks quite clean, but it’s a small town in the middle of nowhere and given the Wolf kids appear to have grown up in Boston, with Scott going to high school in New Jersey and college in Washington DC, it’s a puzzler. We do know a little about the origin of the movie, though, thanks to an interview with director Glen Gruner done by the great people at www.trashnite.com – he shot a short film on super-8 film as a college project in the early 80s, and in 1989 someone suggested he turn it into a feature, so he took his super-8 camera and did it (the reason there are no interior shots is because super-8 works much better in natural light, take it inside and it gets really grainy). Every frame of the original student film is in the finished product, too, which I like.

So, one day high school everyman Scooter (who’s apparently a distant relative of the famous director, having the surname Spielberg) is walking home from school when he finds a pair of black boots in the middle of a country road – we saw the original owner of them die after being hit by a car – and realises they’re effectively magic boots. So he puts them on and becomes the Skid Kid! This mostly involves sitting down and, via the magic of stop-motion, speeding along the ground. That his boots get worn out but the ass of his jeans doesn’t is one of the many magical things about this wonderful movie. Oh yes, and they’re powered with RC Cola!

Union is a crime-ridden hell-hole so the Skid Kid wants to clean it up, and the cops want to stop him. He doesn’t tell his girlfriend about his alter ego, but the cops figure it out remarkably quickly and are just waiting to catch him wearing his outfit before they pounce.

Apart from the clearly bonkers premise, this could be any one of a hundred ultra-low-budget, vaguely genre related movies produced in the early days of home video. But what sets it apart is its sense of humour (and, you know, having a couple of decent actors in main roles certainly helped too). Because continuity was almost impossible in a movie made over the course of two years with zero budget, and because he knew the kids who were its main audience wouldn’t care, Gruner had a laugh with it, as Skid Kid’s outfit changes, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, in the middle of scenes. Ten different Skid Kids were hired (hence the rather odd credit list for the character) but Gary Wolf was the only one who stuck with it – plus, if your main actor isn’t around but you get the chance to shoot some footage, just put the outfit on anyone who’s roughly the same size!

There’s some classic “Shoot the Parade”, the low budget film trick where they film some small town’s big event and subtly insert themselves into it. Here, it’s a biking carnival, featuring kids on Big Wheels and then teenagers on mountain bikes – the number of limbs that get run over in the free-for-all is horrifying to my 2017 eyes, though. Health and safety, people! Talking of bicycles, while at the carnival, Gruner decided he wanted a scene of a kid doing a really long wheelie to insert in a few scenes. One local volunteered, they went on a back road, shot a really long wheelie, and while Gruner got his name at the time, he’s no idea who the kid was (a kid who almost certainly never watched, or perhaps even knew about, the finished movie).

It’s just delightfully home made, though, with Gruner doing almost all the work (about three-quarters of the credits are fake, to make it look higher-budget than it was – Gruner contacted his friends and asked them if they’d mind their names being used as make-up supervisor, or whatever) and his family acting in a bunch of scenes. His mother is the TV news reporter, for instance. Gary Wolf brought Scott to the set, and got him his one scene, so it might even be “The Skid Kid” that persuaded Scott to give the whole acting thing a try – Gruner says that while the Wolf kids were great to work with, he’d no idea the stars they’d become. There’s a guy in a Halloween mask as an apparently real character, a local fraternity appearing as thugs who just happened to be the nearest frat to where they were filming…there are dozens of little stories like this that contribute to making it the gem it is.

I normally finish these segments off with “good luck with finding a copy, though”, but I don’t have to in this instance, as it’s available on Youtube. The sole distribution it ever got was through Gruner himself, who’d mail out VHS tapes to anyone who asked for $20 a pop, and made a nice profit from it; no special edition blu-ray yet, sadly. But now we can all see it and revel in what is a hidden classic of the video-shop era, made with love and dedication.

Rating: thumbs up

Fatal Exam (1990)

No matter where you live you’ll have some filmmakers who live and toil in relative obscurity, and St Louis is no different (in fact, almost all our filmmakers do so). Thanks to the St Louis Video Society, we local fans of genre cinema have been treated to some gems in recent months, and their first showing was this – which I had to track down later as I missed it.

Jack Snyder is living the dream in LA, making actual movies with real money and real actors in them – okay, none of them sound like my cup of tea, and he’s fallen into a partnership of sorts with Asylum mainstay Griff Furst, but he’s giving it his best shot. “Fatal Exam” was his first movie, made in 1985 but with post-production not actually finished due to budgetary constraints until 1990 – he didn’t make another full-length til 2007’s “Ghost Image”.

One thing you’ll notice, should you ever choose to watch it, is how long it is. Your average B-movie should, I feel, not go much longer than 75 minutes, because you don’t need to spend quite as much, don’t have to have too much of an act 2, can get straight to the good stuff, but “Fatal Exam” clocks in at a numbing 112 minutes. 112! And it feels it, too.

There’s actually a pretty cool cold open, with an interesting dream sequence and a story about a bad local who’s conspiring to run for President (with Governor Eric Greitens attempting to out-Trump the current President, this feels eerily prescient to our 2017 eyes); but, the vast majority of the movie isn’t anything to do with that, it’s that old standard, the scientific trip to a haunted house. A group of students, who all look at least 30 years old, are tasked by their parapsychology professor to go to a famous mansion and do experiments on the things there.

Back to that 112 minutes, you might think they’d at least fill that time with plot, but they just prove that they ought to have hired an editor. We see the “star” of the movie make breakfast in excruciating detail, and there are multiple scenes which just go on…and on. If there was a reason for it, any reason at all, I’d have given them some leeway, but he waited 5 years to finish off this stuff! Did he think “well, I need every minute of the breakfast scene, screw the length”?

Sorry. It’s just…nothing happens til about 1:15 of this 1:52 movie! There’s one fun guy, the guy who loses his cool really quickly and just starts angrily swearing, but there’s so little else. Watching bad actors who are pretty difficult to look at, wander round a poorly lit, ugly house is really really boring after a while, but there’s really nothing else to do here. There’s a demon in it, and some sacrifice subplot, but it’s way too little, way too late. The “final girl” is a guy here, and he’s as doughy and plain a leading man as we’ve seen in a long time – but as the entire cast have this as their sole credit of any kind in the biz, he’s hard to tell apart from the other doughy and plain cast.4

I’m sorry, dear reader, for having so little to entertain you with in this review. I can only work with the material I’ve been given, and there’s really not much here. Let’s cut our losses and move on to the next one – this weekend’s “Skid Kid” sounds absolutely amazing.

Rating: thumbs down

Demon Lover Diary (1980)

A few months ago, we reviewed “Demon Lover”, the first work in the “career” of Donald Jackson, a man who went on to make “Roller Blade Seven” and then managed, if such a thing is even possible, to get even worse. But those gems are far in our future, if we can find copies of them, as we’re right back at the beginning.

We’re not just at the beginning of Jackson’s career, but that of Joel DeMott, who went on to make a documentary (“Seventeen”) that won the Grand Prize at the Sundance Festival in 1985 – a few articles claim multiple documentaries were made by DeMott and her partner Joel Kreines, but information on her is pretty thin on the ground.

So, it goes that Donald Jackson and his friend Jerry Younkins worked in a factory, and due to an industrial accident where Younkins lost several fingers, received enough money to fund their dream, making a movie. Jackson saw some of Kreines’ work in a film festival, befriended him and asked him to come to Adrian, Michigan to help him realise his vision. Kreines agreed, on the proviso DeMott could accompany him to shoot a documentary, and that their friend could come and do the sound.

But that’s a dry description of what happens. Kreines and DeMott are a week late getting from New York to Michigan, and blow this off as…well, they’re doing it for free? Jackson almost immediately reveals he’s not got much of a clue what he’s doing, including a sort of vague division of labour between himself and Younkins (one directs the actors, the other the crew), hiring their girlfriends in fairly major roles, putting up Kreines and DeMott at his mother’s house but telling them to not mention the subject matter or title of the movie he was making to her, and so on. It’s chaos from beginning to end, and the fact they managed to make a movie at all is sort of impressive.

It’s shot handheld on not-great equipment, and quite a few of the scenes are just underlit masses of hippie hair with voices coming from all corners. But what’s most interesting about it are the stories that are told – Jackson basically admits at one moment that the industrial accident was no accident; and one of the women hired to act delights the crew with a jaw-droppingly racist series of jokes. Jackson begs to use Kreines’ equipment to shoot the movie himself, even agreeing to pay him $1,000 (from his initial budget of $8,000) for the privilege. There’s the way both “directors” talk about how this is just their initial commercial movie, and they’ll go on to more interesting projects when this makes its money back. Oh, and I guess there’s a culmination of sorts of Ted Nugent’s house, I’m still not sure how they got to know him but they do, and they hang at his place and borrow some guns and explosives.

A crew member is shot, and taken away in an ambulance; the crew demand that Jackson sign a contract to stop with the chaos, or they all walk immediately. There’s a genuinely crazy ending where the documentarians worry that Jackson wants to kill them and believe him entirely capable of it, so run away, and the movie ends with them sat at a gas station, nervously checking each car that pulls up isn’t Jackson with some of Nugent’s guns.

What’s most interesting about this isn’t “Demon Lover” itself, as that’s terrible. It’s watching Donald Jackson, and knowing the future he’d have in movies that avoided having scripts because he didn’t like explaining himself to his cast and crew; it’s the documentarians themselves, DeMott with her voiceover and Kreines suffering from a lack of sleep and a lack of any sort of direction from any of the people around him. It’s the ridiculous boastfulness of Younkins, who’d never do anything else in the movie business. It’s the time when Jackson, who’d taken off work sick to make “Demon Lover”, does an interview with a local newspaper and then acts surprised that his work wants to fire him for obviously not being sick.

While it’s not all that great a documentary – it’s almost impossible to watch in places due to the terrible lighting and fuzzy picture – if you’re one of the foolish few who watched “Demon Lover”, then it’s a lot of fun to see the circumstances it was made in. It’s also good to know that, to the end of his life, Jackson hated “Demon Lover Diary”, seemingly unaware that his hatred spoke volumes.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

The Fine Art & The Scare Game (1992?)

Thanks to the St Louis Video Society and their tireless efforts to unearth the finest independent cinema from our region, we have another couple of gems for you. Eric Stanze is, as far as I can tell, still living in the St Louis area and is still very much involved in the business – he edits documentaries for blu-rays, and also does 2nd unit directing for some fairly mainstream movies. But neither of those things are interesting to a site like the ISCFC, and it’s his 25 years of making low-budget horror that we’re delighted by.

He’s achieved some notoriety in his career for stuff like “Scrapbook” and “Ice From The Sun”, chock full of unusual imagery and ultra-violence, movies that even have the luxury of their own IMDB pages. But where we’re going we don’t need IMDB or, indeed, any other record of their existence (they’re not listed on Stanze’s own site anymore, not for sale anywhere), which is (are?) his earliest forays into long-form filmmaking, “The Fine Art” and “The Scare Game”. Both clock in at a little under an hour, are extremely low-budget and surprisingly good fun.

“The Fine Art” starts off as a romance movie, of sorts, as we meet Valerie, just a girl in an office-drone job looking for love. Her friend suggests Bill, who works as a camera-guy for a local TV show (maybe she works there too, because dialogue seems to indicate they’re in the same building at least, although I’m not sure and it’s not important). Anyway, they meet up and it’s love at first sight – as far as you can tell from the two performances, which are fine but a little on the amateur side from Lisa Morrison and Jeremy Wallace. But at the same time as their relationship is blossoming, the Cedar Hill Slayer is doing his thing and a discovery at Bill’s house leaves Valerie unsure of just what he might be, and what sort of person she is herself…

It’s got some odd twists down the road, for sure, but from the very beginning you can tell that Stanze isn’t just interested in telling a flat story or putting as much gore as possible on screen. While “visual flair” might be overstating it a little, he tries to do as much with his extremely limited resources as possible, and gives us some cool camera and sound work. I mean, yes, it does look like it was filmed on a cheap VHS camcorder, but it shows promise.

The version we saw was from a VHS, presumably from its initial local release, but it was remastered and re-released on DVD by Sub Rosa Films some years ago, although that release has disappeared as completely as “After Last Season”. If you’re reading this and have that disc at the back of a cupboard somewhere, please get in touch.

s2.jpg

Second on the tape was “The Scare Game”, which manages to be even cheaper-looking and more washed out than its predecessor (I’m guessing that the order indicates release date, but the information is extremely hard to come by). Now, this one has a tale to it. A few years later, the director would make “Ice From The Sun”, and in terms of plot it’s extremely similar to this – indeed, in an interview many years ago he said that was this’s sequel (best guess – Stanze decided to wipe as much evidence of the existence of these early works as he could when his budgets and ambition started increasing).

Sporting a mullet so unbelievably hideous I thought he’d tied some cotton candy to the back of his head, and braces (okay, everyone was young when they made this), DJ Vivona is “The Presence”, an imposing figure who just strolls into the house of a random guy one day, pops a black wooden box down in the middle of his coffee table, and walks off.

Rather than freaking the hell out, the two friends seem pretty cool with this development (perhaps I missed a line of dialogue that said “can’t wait for that mystery present I ordered to be delivered”), and read the incantation inside the box, which causes words to appear in the hitherto empty notebook that was also contained. Six people are needed for the game, and luckily the two men know four other people who are similarly cool with really strange things happening.

It’s a little “Nightmare On Elm Street” esque, although the reason for what happens when they’re inside the game is more reminiscent of “Manos: The Hands Of Fate”. Vivona, although he’s a little mannered in his movements, is really quite imposing and does a great job as the villain / games-master; and there are some other totally okay performances from the rest of the amateur cast (including Stanze himself, who has small parts in both).

What I was most impressed by is how Stanze, who was director, writer, producer, actor, editor and a few other jobs besides, played to his strengths and tried to minimise his weaknesses. Rather than just make an extremely cheap version of a mainstream horror movie, he used interesting editing techniques and camera angles to suggest some of the more gory effects than show them (although there’s still plenty of gore).

Without wanting to appear too over-the-top about a pair of super-cheap shot-on-video movies that have been apparently disowned by their director, they show an interest in doing more than just being traditional horror movies, and because they’re not terribly long, they miss that boring act 2 that B-movies often struggle with. I’m happy to say, if you ever happen to discover one of the rather rare releases of these two movies, then you could do a heck of a lot worse.

Rating: thumbs up