Marco Polo 2008
Directed by: Alton Glass
Starring: Cristina DeRosa, Eddie Goines, William L. Johnson
Review by Luis Joaquín González
When you look at all the ‘hard to find’ slashers, you’ll notice that the majority of them share familiar characteristics. Whether it be that they were self-funded and lacked solid distribution or were plagued throughout production, which led the crew to abandon circulation, there’s usually a common link to be discovered between them. That’s where Marco Polo stands apart. This one was completed in 2007 on a solid budget and with a talented cast, so it’s strange that it has become so obscure.
In fact, what we have here is a feature that truly frustrates me; and my frustrations stem from the fact that it’s better than a large majority of the slashers that I watch, so why isn’t it available for global consumption? It kicks off with a fast-paced sequence that offers a pre-credits introduction to our boogeyman, Marco Polo. In a periodic scene from 1342, Polo, his wife and daughter are pursued through some forest, where they are eventually cornered and assaulted by their weapon-clenching assailants. Director Alton Glass goes for an incredibly merciless approach by showing us in detail how Polo was made to suffer by being blinded by the thumbs of a hulking barbarian. As he lies screaming on the floor, he can only listen helplessly whilst his spouse is raped and his child slaughtered. It’s an uncommonly harrowing intro, which shows a level of graphic violence that was quite intense. We then fast forward to present day California, where we meet our likely victims.
It’s these parts that most proved to me that Glass has the potential to be a competent filmmaker. We see all of our characters together at a pool party and there’s a blend of African Americans and Whites. What stood out to me was that the dialogue was audacious and intriguing, because it’s not the usual Hollywood sugar coated chit-chat. One girl nags her black boyfriend for leering over a white chick and he responds by saying, “She must have some black in her to be that fine”. Then a bullish Caucasian belittles a guy that looks like a poor man’s Eminem with the line, “Stay White Brother!” We live in a world where touching upon such topics always carries a risk of offence, but in reality, the majority of us aren’t racists and can share good-natured (and even competitive) interracial banter. I admired the director’s ambition to strive for realism and this continues throughout the runtime.
After such a crowded launch, we get a closer look at what will surely be our two central players. Jared is extremely disappointed that his younger brother Kelly wants to play basketball in Italy and not follow his sibling into the business that their entrepreneurial father left them when he passed away. This leads to an interesting ‘head or heart’ conversation that offers enough depth to develop both personalities. They decide to spend a camping trip together before Kelly jets off to Europe and this gives us a logical pathway to alienate our intended victims. There are eight campers that board the Winnebago to the forest, and each of them gets enough screen time to stand out. It would be wrong to say that they broke away from the traditional clichés, but the annoying jock type guy diversified into a real hero that I found myself rooting for. Actually, I wanted most of them to survive and I guess it’s because they were given more than just basic lines to move the plot from A to B.
When the killings start, they’re ferociously gory and Glass unleashes some tremendous visceral FX and a real injection of excitement. One guy gets chopped in half with a machete, there’s a unique decapitation and the brutal masked killer gives a credible Jason Voorhees impersonation. I liked the way that the film gave the players a slice of courage that convinced us that they wanted to survive. It’s tough to convey the true effect that a mass-killer would have on the average everyday Joe, but at least they weren’t just slashed and immediately rushed off screen to be forgotten. Every single box in regards to slasher trademarks is ticked (we even get a scary story around a campfire scene), but this film differentiates itself by including influences from thrillers like Fallen as well as a large dose of Friday the 13th. The biggest chunk of originality came from the conclusion, which I certainly wasn’t expecting.
The real Marco Polo was an ambitious traveller that passed away peacefully, surrounded by his wife and daughters, in bed. There are definite question marks over the logic of using such a renowned historical figure as the film’s antagonist. The fact that the screenwriter has bolted-on a distinct and unflattering streak to his personality makes it all the more peculiar. It would have been easier if they’d just used an imaginary person – a conquistador perhaps – because Polo was everything but a sadistic butcher. Still, I cannot really find any other relevant criticism to aim at this slasher and I’m scratching my head as to why it’s so obscure. When a motion picture that is confidently produced and includes sharp direction, a rapid pace, unpredictability, interesting scenarios, a professional gloss and some gore, you’d think that it had achieved everything that was asked during pre-production. A friend of mine said that he had heard that this was extremely similar to See No Evil, but it’s not at all. Alton Glass’ entry to the sub-genre is much better and deserving of a more prominent status.
So why does the film remain on the missing list? It seems like it all came down to bad timing. Just as shooting was completed in 2008, the lead producer had to deal with some personal matters, which meant that the concept was pushed to one side. When he was finally able to re-focus his efforts on securing circulation, the digital boom had rendered him unable to find the right deal. Now, eight-years later, it can finally be seen on Amazon.com, but only if you reside in the US.
There are around sixty slashers that I know of that will never see light of day on the right format. There’s a strong argument to say that Marco Polo and Legend of Moated Manor are the best of those. I hope you one day get the opportunity to see if you agree.
Directed by: Steve Sessions
Starring: Suzi Lorraine, Tom Stedham, Ted Alderman
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
We have seen the title ‘Torment’ pop up a few times in obscure horror titles over the past thirty years. These include a film from 1985 that is often touted as a slasher, but is more of a serial killer flick and a British entry from 2009 that traipsed the ‘revenge of the bullied herd’ route. This quickie from director Steve Sessions is most definitely the truest stalk and slash flick of them all and it has also become something of a rarity
It was made for $5,000 over five-days in 2007 and was picked up for release the following year. Director Sessions already had a couple of horror movies under his belt and has become fairly popular amongst fans of micro-budget movies. He chose a clown as his antagonist and as I have said previously, motion pictures with killer clowns in them are rarely any good, so he had a real chance to make a statement with this, his sixth picture.
A young women is released from an institution by psychiatrists that believe she can adapt back to society as long as she’s taken care of. Her husband whisks her off to a remote house in the forest where the two of them can be alone and rekindle their romance. As soon as she arrives though, she sees an ominous stranger dressed as s clown from the window and attempts to convince her partner that they are unsafe.
I had promised actor and a SLASH abover Jade LaFont, who plays a small part in this picture, that I would review this film over a year ago. Unfortunately, I never got round to doing so until he reminded me on the site’s Facebook page a few weeks ago. I’m glad that he did, because Torment is an interesting addition to the genre and it is unlike any other that I’ve seen recently, which is meant both as a swipe and a compliment. It seems that the plan here was to roll out a stalk and slasher with a psychological slant and this novel approach is intriguing and unique. Session’s screenplay is all about delivering an atmosphere; and it mixes three styles from popular sub-genres. Whilst the murders are those that you’ll usually see in torture-porn films, the boogeyman is pure stalk and slash and they are both wrapped together in a synopsis that leans toward the Identity/The Ward style of thriller.
I browsed through some other reviews of the picture and found that they all mentioned one specific aspect. You see, Sessions includes early scenes that portray that Suzi, our heroine, is suffering delusional visions because of her illness/medicine. However instead of building the mystery around whether the killer is real or just a figment of her imagination, we are shown him committing external killings that prove that the threat is indeed genuine. Although those critics considered this to close the door on the most obvious slice of ‘is he or isn’t he’ tension, personally, I feel that it opened many others that manifested themselves as the story rolled on to its surreal conclusion. We are offered no backstory or motive for our psychopathic jester, which gives him a Myers-alike chilling aura that makes him all the more terrifying and adds to the ambiguity. We also get some impressive suspense scenarios in the later stages and one jump-scare that is truly outstanding. I especially enjoyed the use of specific sounds – or therefore a smart lack of – to make the deaths all the more authentic and the score is neatly composed.
Despite so much positivity, the film does have a number of flaws. Far too much time is spent within dialogue scenes between the husband and wife that are long-winded and fail to add anything to the plot. There’s a sequence inside a car in the first twenty-minutes that is so badly edited and conveyed that it almost becomes nonsensical and frustrating. Even more so when it’s obvious to viewers that this could have been filmed in a different location and would have worked much more efficiently. Another weak part is that three people are brutally tortured, but don’t let out so much as a loud whimper, let alone a blood curdling scream. I have learned that this is because the director was filming in a upstate neighbourhood and didn’t want to alert the authorities, but if I hadn’t had been told this, it would have left me highly critical of what looks like obvious ineptitude. In reality victims can at times be too scared or stunned by a state of shock to yell when pain is inflicted upon them. Film fans are used to hearing the cries of the prey in horror films though, and so they are unlikely to over analyse and excuse the lack of audible reaction seen herein.
Bluntly, Torment should not be as obscure as it has become. It is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it tries hard to deliver something authentic and that in itself deserves praise. There are not many slasher movies that don’t have some of the elements that were implemented by Halloween, but you could count on one hand the amount that capture Michael Myers’ chilling aura of menace. Tyler Tharpe’s Freak from 1996 was a fine example of an enigmatic antagonist and now we have another. If a movie of this genre manages to build tension and keep you guessing, it’s doing something right.
Killer Guise: √√√
Final Girl √√√
Fright Flick 2011
Directed by: Israel Luna
Starring: Chad Allen, Richard D. Curtin, Todd Jenkins
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
So what did you slasher fans think of 2011? Thirty-three years after the release of Halloween and the genre is again going through something of a lull. The biggest flick of the year was the fourth chapter in the Scream trilogy, which to be fair was a bit of a flop, but most surprising was the amount (or therefore lack) of DTV entries that were financed by up and coming filmmakers. Now since the success of the original Scream, Brain Damage and the like have been rolling out slashers by the bucket load, but this year it all came to a thundering halt with very few hitting the ex-rental DVD sale section of Blockbusters. It’s become so bad that I’m longing for the likes of To Become One, Camp Blood and Paranoid again. Ok, so that’s an exaggeration, but you catch my drift
Fright Flick was one of those that snuck out last year, but even that’s not entirely proof that there’s still a desire to make these films, as it was completed in 2008. Shot in Dallas on a minimal budget by Texan filmmaker Israel Luna, who had received high praise for his camp cult/revenge flick Ticked-off Trannies with Knives, it was one I had been keen to see.
A group of filmmakers are preparing to shoot the third and final sequel to the ‘Fright Flick’ series, but almost as soon as production begins, there’s obvious animosity and jealousy on the set between the cast and crew. The franchise has something of a morbid history as during the development of the first chapter, the lead actress was murdered by an unseen assailant. As soon as shooting begins, it becomes apparent that the maniac has returned and the people involved begin to die at the gloved hand of the killer…
Many slasher movies have chosen film productions as a backdrop for slaughter and it is as good a reason as any to place a group of victims against a maniacal nut job. Although Fright Flick makes good use of its synopsis, it doesn’t try to blur its film within a film fantasy so much with the slashertastic reality of what’s going on. Cinematically, I guess you could say that this was closest in its structure to that forgotten entry, Return to Horror High, but it’s hard to tell if that’s intentional or not. There have been so many parodies by now of the flicks of old that at times it feels like there are no ideas left to mock. Luna’s self-penned script however gets the mix of humour and horror spot on, by keeping the references flowing but restricted to only a couple of major genre pictures. The hints are so subtle that at times I was unaware if they were deliberate or not, but then in the final third, the director reveals that he’s done his homework as we see a neat homage to Halloween II, Friday the 13th (heavy) and believe it or not, Pieces. It was delivered with finesse and without giving too much away, I loved the closing sequence and remember thinking, ‘Are they really going to go there?’ Go there they did and it was a perfect OTT and fitting finale.
Israel Luna is a proud member of his local gay community and if I hadn’t just told you that, you’d easily have guessed it by watching this film (and Ticked-Off Trannies most definitely). Almost every male character here is either homosexual or bi and he camps them up to the max, which leads to a few intentional laughs. There are jokes that are targeted specifically at gay film fans, but as a straight guy, I also enjoyed them. There’s pretty much something here for all genre enthusiasts and if you keep in mind that the first thing(s) on-screen are an enormous pair of silicone lady lumps in the most gratuitous ‘shower scene’ anywhere ever, you will know pretty much what to expect.
There’s quite a bit of gore too and the opening few murders are creative and fast paced. We get a tripod through the skull, a smart decapitation (one of two) and the most ingenious ‘garden shear murder’ that I have seen for a while. I wasn’t amazed by Luna’s direction; I mean, there were no stand-out ‘wow’ sequences, but the odd trick he pulled off just about worked. The ‘turn on the light’ sequence in the bathroom was well handled and there were a couple of decent jumps. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the sound wasn’t completed on the rough print I watched, so it’ll probably look a lot better in the final release that you folks will see. What was weird was that whilst the first four of five murders were rock and roll, they started to become a bit samey as the film wore on. It’s almost as if the director ran out of budget later and had to take us back to basics.
The performances are below average, but passable, it all looks polished enough and it’s a fun popcorn flick that delivers most things you’re looking for from a slasher movie. So is there anything that I hated? Well, to be honest, no not really. The characters are all unlikeable but it seemed like part of the gimmick, so I can’t really complain about that. There were only very few scares, but most modern-day slashers have lost the art of building a foreboding atmosphere, so it’s become par for the course. It’s called Fright Flick, but there’s nothing here very frightening. In fact, there’s nothing at all. It’s not one for people who can’t forgive the odd goof, because it gets very stupid in places, especially in the way that some of the victims are still screaming/moving LONG after they should have been dead.
This is a straight up new age slasher flick that makes the most of a low-budget and aims to give viewers a good time. I would say that it’s better than Gutterballs that was produced around the same time and if you set your expectations low enough, you’ll probably enjoy some of the cool murders and easy-to-recognise references from one of the category faves. Although I would love to see a modern-day entry that captures the chilling environment that we saw in the likes of The Mutilator, House by the Cemetery and The Prowler, until then this is as good as we’ve got – and by now, I am used to it.
Final Girl: √
Directed by: Ryan Nicholson
Starring: Alastair Gamble, Mihola Terzic, Nathan Wittle
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
As fans of horror, maybe you can tell me, when is it safe to say that in attempts to shock, filmmakers have gone too far? Now a big part of my youth was spent hunting out video nasties, but bizarre as it may seem, they look very tame opposed to some of the efforts to be gratuitous that we get now.
I turned thirty this year and maybe it’s just that I’m a bit of an old fashioned kind of guy. I even think that modern music takes the level of profanity far too high. I mean, as adults we all have sex, we all know swear words, we all can drink and if we really, REALLY wanted to, we could probably all get hold of a bag of drugs. Does it excite you to hear songs about this? How does it make you feel? Is it really necessary? Personally I think it’s more creative to be restrained, but as I said, I must be somewhat out of touch.
I know that it is a strange thing to say, but cultural transgression and a much looser level of acceptance, has given old-skool slashers a kind of innocence about them. I guess that you could compare it to the way that the fifties era of rock and roll now looks laughably lame,but at the time was pretty controversial. Despite it’s efforts to reference its retro roots as you can see in most of the artwork, Gutterballs goes all out to take things to a new level of explicitness.
A verbal and physical fight between two gangs results in the sadistic rape of a young girl. The following night at the bowling rink, a masked killer locks everyone inside and begins to slaughter them one by one.
* I tried to edit out the language as much as possible, but I couldn’t post without one ‘F’ so be warned –
Judging by his age, director Ryan Nicholson would have experienced and enjoyed the outstanding achievements of Canada’s entries to the slasher genre under producers such as John Dunning and Peter Simpson and directors including William Fruet and Paul Lynch. He began his career as a make-up artist and special effects technician for TV shows like the X Files and Stargate before he took his talents to the silver screen for major budgeted pictures, which include Final Destination. His success has allowed him to be the major force in Canada based studio, Plotdigger films. His first feature length movie, Live Feed – a torture porn gore fest in the vein of Hostel – gave him the springboard to produce more of his ideas and Gutterballs is the result of years of hard work.
The movie has a nice look and a very retro feel in the way it makes the most of its eighties setting. The bootleg that I watched for this review has a great soundtrack, which was never licensed for the final cut that is widely available, due to the obvious high costs involved. Nicholson makes good use of the location and the methods of murder are themed to involve all that you can imagine from bowling appliances. One girl is killed by having her throat sliced by the laces of a pair of the specialised shoes, whilst another has his entire face ‘burned off’ by a ball waxing machine (see above). There’s also a highly amusing ’69 suffocation’, where a chick is choked by her partner’s (prosthetic) penis and the guy is smothered to death by…well, you get the idea. The director has said that he doesn’t believe in cutting away and his vision of horror is to make it as graphic as possible. In its unrated print, Gutterballs definitely delivers on the gore score and you will never feel cheated by a lack of ambition from the effects.
The killer’s disguise is immense and the mystery aspect is handled with enough suspects to keep you guessing and I liked the choice for the maniac’s identity. The pace stays high from start to finish and there’s even a macabre calling card as the body count is notched up on the computerised score board – a skull and crossbones for each victim.
If this had been released during the period that it references, it would have been banned in most countries and therefore would have become a cult classic. I can imagine it being the kind of film that my buddies and I would have uncovered on a cruddy VHS and bunked off of school to sit down and watch – repeatedly. But while trying its hardest to be the baddest of the bunch, it comes across as too excessive and lacks class and charm. The director has been very vocal in his defence of the extremely graphic rape sequence, which sees a girl violated by a bowling pin after being brutally penetrated by three guys. He has admitted that it was tough to shoot, but he did it to get a reaction from the audience, even if it be one of immense disgust. It’s certainly an uncomfortable scene to watch, but even after the appalling nature of the event, it’s almost impossible to feel sympathy for any of these characters as they are a collection of personalities without one redeeming feature between them.
There’s no excuse for rape and no one deserves it, but after an intro that takes ludicrous sexual profanity to a level perhaps unseen in cinema previously, it’s impossible to pick anyone to care about. The film is heinously scripted to the extent that it looks to have no vocabulary other than swear words and in some scenes we get five or six actors shouting over each other at the same time. Every second word is a vile cuss and by the fifth time of hearing c**t or d**k it had exactly the wrong kind of effect. I may have thought that Gutterballs was cool when I was a rebellious fourteen year-old, but as an adult it just looked ignorant and devoid of intelligence.
It’s not just the language that is taken to the outer limits. When it comes to nudity, we get a close up shot of a shaved vagina and countless prosthetic penises. Most of the murders have a sexual angle, including one guy getting his eyes gauged out and then his corpse discovered with used condoms in his eye sockets. The ‘included just for a reason to be homophobic’ transvestite gets his genitals cut in half in loving close up and one guy is violently sodomised with a sharp instrument.
If any or all of the above takes your fancy then Gutterballs will fulfil your wildest cinematic desires and if that’s the case it has achieved exactly what the director had intended. But me, I definitely prefer the less is more approach and thought this was too distasteful for its own good. It’s sleazy for sure, but in a way that lacks sympathy for the results of its actions and that’s the biggest missing ingredient that it needed to make it effective. I agree with director Ryan Nicholson that gore is in itself a form of art, but to be artistic you need to be aware of parameters and this slasher has none that I noticed.
A tribute to the eighties peak this may be, but even the worst of them had more style than this. I may be harsh as the director seems like an intelligent enough guy to realise that pushing it beyond the limits was always going to upset some and therefore he must have expected this type of reaction. I do however have to call it as I see it and what I saw I didn’t enjoy as much as I should have
Final Girl √