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.
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