Short Cuts has returned with its long-delayed third installment focusing on a trio of little-known horror films that may be of interest to you if you're dead tired (pun intended) of the same ol' sequels, reboots, and other agonizing extensions of moldy fright franchises.
Director-Jen & Sylvia Soska
Cast-Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk
Country of Origin-Canada
With its mind-screwing cocktail of disturbing imagery, unsettling gore, and vicious black comedy, American Mary - the latest directorial effort from Jen and Sylvia Soskia, the Twisted Twins responsible for Dead Hooker in a Trunk - is that rarest breed of modern horror, the type that sticks in your head and gives your soul a rabbit punch. The Vancouver-lensed flick has been making mad waves since first hitting the film festival circuit several years ago. Now it's ready to pay us home viewers a personal visit we shall not soon be forgetting.
Katherine Isabelle, the doe-eyed and irrepressible Canadian actress who has become a icon of indie horror thanks to her performances in films such as Ginger Snaps and Freddy Vs. Jason, is front and center here as struggling medical student Mary Mason. Despite having a desire to be a surgeon she just can't get interested in the dour lectures of her self-important professor Dr. Grant (David Lovgren) or muster up enough money to pay her bills and make student loan payments. Opportunity knocks one evening when she goes to a strip club owned by underworld sleazebag Billy (Antonio Cupo) for an interview and is promptly tapped to put her surgical skills to work in order to save the life of one of his seedy associates in exchange for a quick $5,000. The next day Mary is contacted by Beatress (Tristan Risk), a woman who has had multiple procedures so she could closely resemble Betty Boop and who now wants the cash-strapped student to surgically alter her friend Ruby (Paula Lindberg) so that she can realize her dream of being an anatomically-correct human doll. After getting over the initial queasiness of the unorthodox requests with the help of the big money they bring her, Mary soon immerses herself in the world of the body modification community and becomes the premiere surgeon to suit the flesh-mutilating needs of its members. When she taps into her criminal contacts to help her take some gruesome payback on a sexual assailant Mary begins a rapid descent into madness and murder.
American Mary is as beautifully-crafted and insidiously horrific as the finest horror films of the past. The Soska Sisters have hit their sophomore feature as directors right out of the proverbial park by succeeding in making Mary an incisive character study about the great lengths certain people will go to in the name of achieving their idea of physical perfection. Filming practically in David Cronenberg's backyard, American Mary shares with the veteran filmmaker's earlier works an uncomfortably sterile texture and a preference for bizarre touches of humor that would send the average viewer running for the door or the remote. The Soskas' direction is confident and ripe with haunting visuals destined to permanently get under your skin (even without the assistance of sharp surgical tools). They use a serious of increasingly grotesque surgery scenes as distinctive story beats to mark the character of Mary Mason's submersion in a world she never thought existed but turned out to be perfect for her. The gory visual effects created by the top-notch MastersFX is used sparingly but in the right spots so that the film is never in danger of becoming the feature-length portfolio of an effects artist. The cinematography by Brian Pearson (Drive Angry, Final Destination 5) captures the film's multiple Vancouver locations and the creepy production design with remarkable flair and highly saturated color.
The cast is mostly fantastic, with special mention going out to Cupo as the oily criminal cretin who sets Mary on the path that will eventually consume her soul and Risk as the sweet-natured Beatress whose surgical addiction may have altered her appearance but could never conceal her sympathetic qualities. But really, American Mary's real star is the gifted Isabelle. From the beginning she makes Mary a difficult person to like since we're only seeing her as others in her life do, but once the story gets going Isabelle digs deeper into the character's complex personality and allows us the space and reason to become fully invested in her plight to find the right vocation that makes her happy and financially stable. Just as we begin to finally like Mary she takes a turn into the darkest recesses of humanity and Isabelle never fails to make the character seem like a real person instead of a screenwriter's invention. Her performance is one of the best the genre has seen in ages.
XLRator Media's Region 1 DVD includes a terrific widescreen transfer framed in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with low grain and strong details and colors and two English Dolby Digital audio options in 5.1 and 2.0. On regular televisions there won't be much difference in the dual soundtracks, but they are both clear and feature zero distortion and robust volume levels for the dialogue, music, and ambient effects. Extras are limited to a chatty commentary track with the Soskas and stars Isabelle (literally phoning it in) and Risk that is all over the place in terms of tone but makes for an amusing and occasionally informative listen, a fine behind-the-scenes featurette (17 minutes), and a trailer for American Mary. Previews for Saturday Morning Mystery and Inbred play upfront before the main feature.
The Film: 4/5
Cast-Jesse James, Magda Apanowicz, Bill Moseley
Country of Origin-U.S.
The Film: 3/5
On his 18th birthday Johnny Petrie (Jesse James, Jumper) leaves the side of his hospitalized religious nut mother (Geraldine Hughes, Gran Torino) and journeys to a small town in Maine where a farm he has inherited resides. Upon his arrival Johnny is informed by the realtor (Jaiden Kaine, Hellbenders) that the farm belonged to his real family and that the women who has raised him since birth is in fact his aunt. His actual father had murdered his wife and two children 18 years ago as part of a mysterious ritual but baby Johnny was spirited away and hidden just before he could become the final sacrifice. Johnny decides to stay at the house while the realtor makes arrangements for the property to be sold to a developer and investigate the circumstances behind the death of his entire birth family. He makes a new friend and potential romantic interest in gorgeous squatter Emma (Magda Apanowicz, Caprica) and inflames the rage of a group of hostile locals lead by the bullying Mack (Noah Fleiss, Brick) who know all too well the horrors once brought into their quiet town by Johnny's crazed preacher father. Things get even stranger when the town's obsessed former sheriff (Bill Moseley) starts lurking around the place, and scarier when the dark forces that haunt the deserted family home resurface to finish the work they began almost twenty years ago.
Filmed in multiple Connecticut locations and first aired on Chiller two years ago, Dead Souls is adapted from a novel by Michael Laimo and plays exactly like the sort of page-turning horror that tends to fly off the racks in paperback form. It has just about everything you could expect from a scary story that was clearly written by a fan of the genre rather than someone committed to telling an original tale. But despite its highly derivative nature, Souls is a fun bit of low-budget fright made directly for cable, commercial break fade-outs and everything.
Director Colin Theys and screenwriter John Doolan, whose last teamed up for the goofy sci-fi flick Alien Opponent, adapted the Laimo novel into a perfectly adequate time-passer and a full-motion checklist of every tired horror cliche and visual gag. Between the opening sequence that does an excellent job of getting things off to an intense start and the requisite violent finale we get creepy characters, warnings of doom, baby dolls used to terrifying effect, a vicious dog barking at anything close to evil, bloody apparitions, and phantom hands doing things to unsuspecting people that would get the living thrown in the pokey. Dark religious rituals, demonic possession, biblical codes that unleash the Egyptian gods, death by shovel, the dead returning to life, and blood and gore content acceptable by the standards of cable television help to create a movie that's entertaining to a fault but also boilerplate and almost never scary.
Regardless, Theys keeps the pace moving and trims every bit of fat from the story to create a lean and efficient flick that knows when to take the time to allow our characters to explore their haunted surroundings and the unoriginal narrative to unfold with respect to the viewer's attention and intelligence. James makes for a sympathetic hero, albeit one who never does anything heroic and comes off as a simpering goof in the closing scenes. Apanowicz is lovely and not without talent, Moseley's glorified cameo at least has him playing more of a sympathetic figure for once, Fleiss is a perfect pain in the ass, and as the solitary non-white actor in the cast Kaine's character is destined to die horribly and so he does. There's nothing in Dead Souls that you haven't seen before and done much better, but as a horror fan's love letter to the genre you could do an awful lot worse.
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray release of Dead Souls presents the film in a clean and unexceptional 1080p high-definition presentation in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio backed up by English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks that don't differ much but both offer strong and vibrant sound mixes with solid volume levels and absolutely no distortion. English subtitles are also provided. The scant extras include a blooper reel (8 minutes), tour of the set (6 minutes), television spots (4 minutes), and an informative and conversational commentary track with director Theys, screenwriter Doolan, and producer Andrew Gernhard.
Director-Michael Masters, David J. Francis
Cast-Michael Masters, David J. Francis, Stephen Papadimitriou
Country of Origin-Canada
Great, you might be thinking, another zombie movie? The Canadian-lensed Reel Zombies is the latest low-budget attempt to capitalize on the resurgence of the walking dead in pop culture that appears to show no signs of slowing down. But this flick has an interesting hook: directors Masters and Francis play themselves as the enterprising indie filmmakers behind the horror hit Zombie Night and its sequel Zombie Night 2. Obviously they feel the need to make Zombie Night 3 and their trusted collaborators are on board for another strenuous shoot. The only thing standing in their way is the world slowly being taken over by the living dead, for real. Rather than let that deter them, Masters and Francis assemble their cast and crew and decide to take advantage of the outbreak of flesh-eating ghouls by employing the actual zombies on the film in order to save money on make-up and special effects. This cost-cutting blessing in disguise turns out to bite everyone on the ass...and the arm....and the neck....and anywhere else the zombies can gnaw off a hunk of bloody flesh.
Reel Zombies has an ambitious concept and its filmmakers are not without their talents both behind and in front of the camera. The acting has a loose, improvisational feel to it that works terrifically for the "mockumentary" look of the film. Unfortunately Masters and Francis' feature isn't particularly scary or amusing, and that's hardly a sign of confidence for a wannabe horror-comedy. Reel Zombies works in short spurts when it focuses on the harsh realities of independent filmmaking, but that only proves the story would have worked better as a short subject rather than be expanded to feature length. The gore effects left a lot to be desired and I could have done without the streak of misogyny running throughout the film (do these guys honestly believe women aren't going to be good for much else besides stripping nude and dying in an actual zombie apocalypse?). Troma Films lord and master Lloyd Kaufman has a brief cameo playing himself auditioning for a speaking role in the movie-within-the-movie. The DVD credits place his name before actors with way more screen time than he gets even though he's gone if you take your eyes off the screen to scratch your ass without hitting the pause button. The directors have the gumption to make a great genre film. Reel Zombies isn't it.
Synapse Films' DVD presentation makes Reel Zombies worth a cheap buy at least. The film looks to have been filmed on digital video to further achieve an authentic documentary feel and the 1.78:1 widescreen picture is quite sharp and clean for the most part. Accompanying the video is a solid English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track that's well-balanced when it comes to the dialogue and music mixes and lacks in audible distortion. No subtitles have been provided. Extra features include a commentary with directors Masters and Francis and producer/actor Stephen Papadimitriou that is often more entertaining than the film itself, a 42-minute reel of deleted scenes and outtakes which we can't access individually, and the original trailer.
The Film: 2/5
That's all for this edition. Come back next time when I will review twelve, count 'em twelve, movies spread across four DVDs.