CUCK: Angry White Men with Guns

Cuck doesn’t mince words and doesn’t attempt to camouflage its social and political message – angry white men are dangerous time bombs, ticking quietly until they go off. Zachary Ray Sherman plays Ronnie, an angry, unemployable, racist, misogynistic, homophobic loser who lives at home with his widowed mother (an unrecognizable Sally Kirkland), where he spends most of his free time masturbating with increasing ferocity to online porn. His father was a Gulf War veteran, and Ronnie dreams of joining the Army but they won’t have anything to do with him because he has a criminal record and flunked the psych eval. 

Not surprisingly, he becomes a popular alt-right wing vlogger, sitting shirtless in front of his computer, spewing vitriol about immigrants taking all the jobs – as if that’s why no one will hire him. He calls himself “True Patriot” and ends his cyber-rants with a salute to the camera. Fair warning – his language is vulgar and he has no compunctions about using racist slurs (neither do real world crypto-facists, neo-Nazis and assorted white supremacists). At one point Ronnie denies to his web cam that he’s a racist, adding: “I just know the difference between a black and a n*****.” Anyone who disagrees is labelled as a left wing “cuck” or “libtard.”

Ronnie is desperate to find a woman, though on the rare occasion he actually gets to talk to one, he unfailingly finds a way to offend her. Things take an unexpected turn when he meets Candy (Monique Parent), an older blond who seems to show interest in him. The movie veers unexpectedly into Boogie Nights territory when Candy recruits him to literally play the cuckold, masturbating on-camera while she has sex first with her far more macho husband Bill (Timothy V. Murphy), and then with a string of, ironically, ethnic partners, in their homemade porn videos. 

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Courtesy Gravitas Ventures 2019

That plot development, which initially seems to come out thin air, turns out to be dripping with dramatic irony. That’s as far as the surprise element is going to go. Only viewers who have never seen a movie before won’t suspect that Ronnie is going to get a gun and that this development won’t go well, and they’d be right.

There’s a disquietingly Freudian aspect to the movie, and Ronnie’s relationship to his pawn shop .38 is unapologetically phallic. His relationship with his mother is nearly as healthy as Norman Bates and his mother, and hasn’t helped with his anger issues or general maladjustment. Kirkland finds some depth and nuance in a character that could have been a two-dimensional caricature, and doesn’t shy away from some creepy Oedipus-and-Jocasta overtones. 

Sherman, who has been paying his dues in TV, indies and shorts for years, vanishes completely into the role of Ronnie, the most uncuddly movie protagonist since Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, a movie Cuck seems determined to evoke, particularly in its open disdain for the less intellectual corners of conservatism. He doesn’t try to make Ronnie sympathetic, although he’s enormously convincing in showing the roots of his rage. The thing about the character isn’t that we’re going to empathize with him – we’re going to worry that we’re passing him on every street corner. 

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Courtesy Gravitas Ventures 2019

It’s Monique Parent, however, who ultimately hijacks the movie. She walks a fine tightrope between sex kitten and cynical manipulator with Wallenda-like balance, and her character’s shadow hangs over the second half of the movie like an oversized shroud. In a paradoxical dramatic grand jêté, she both validates Ronnie’s skewed assumptions about women while simultaneously smashing them to smithereens.

Although Cuck’s genetics clearly lie in the DNA of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets progeny, particularly Taxi Driver, it is far less flashy. Helmer Rob Lambert, who co-wrote the screenplay, makes his feature directorial debut here, and admittedly does not have Scorsese’s visual flair. (For budgetary limitations if nothing else, the movie is far less graphically violent than many Scorsese films as well.) He adheres instead to a gritty cinema verité sensibility, resulting in a disquieting, documentary look. What results is not only a startlingly stark and believable depiction of a deteriorating middle America, but a stone cold indictment.

Cuck is distributed by Gravitas Ventures, and opens in theaters and on Video On Demand October 4th, 2019.

DEVIL’S REVENGE Is Watching It

As a card-carrying claustrophobic, I’ve never particularly understood the allure of cave-diving. The new direct-to-video release Devil’s Revenge will do nothing to change the opinion of this claustrophobic, but that’s as scary as it gets. The movie stars “Days of Our Lives” alum Jason Brooks as a distinctly un-Indiana Jones-like archaeologist who returns from a disastrous expedition in a cave in rural Kentucky where he unsuccessfully tried to locate a mysterious relic his family has sought for generations. A curse, you know. Once back from the field, he starts having visions – not to say hallucinations – and comes to the conclusion that the only way to stop them is to go back to the cave with his family, find the relic and destroy it once and for all.
Why in Hell anyone would think dragging his family into the same cave where people on the last expedition there died was a good idea, but that’s exactly what Brooks’ tortured archaeologist does. Needless to say, things don’t go well. It’s supposed to be a horror movie, after all. The screenplay credit, listing Maurice Hurley a former “Star Trek: The Next Generation” scribe, as the sole writer, is buried deeper in the end credits than any movie relic. Why Hurley didn’t just request a pseudonym is the real mystery.
It’s difficult to be scared when you don’t believe a thing that happens on the screen. Horror often relies on primal emotion over logic, but the audience has to have some scrap of verisimilitude to hang their hat on. They don’t get that here. One might wonder why the spirits of pissed-off Aztecs are wandering around rural Kentucky, some 3,000 miles from their usual southwestern stomping grounds, but just go with it. The screenplay verges on incoherence at times anyway – leave logic at the door. The larger problem is that the scary apparitions simply aren’t as scary as those typically seen in PG-13 spook shows like the Ouija and Annabelle movies, and director Jared Cohn can’t seem to figure out how to make them more intimidating.

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Courtesy Cleopatra Entertainment 2019

It can’t be said that the experienced, veteran cast doesn’t try. They do, and Brooks is particularly game as the tormented archaeologist. William Shatner, who also executive produced, plays his hard-nosed, obsessed father, who’s all but literally cracking a whip to get his family to go into a cave which might actually be the gateway to Hell. Shatner chews the scenery energetically, but cannot clear the critical hurdle of getting any credibility into this extremely muddled would-be horror exercise. The “Star Trek” connections abound here. Jeri Ryan, of “Star Trek: Voyager,” in addition to “Boston Public,” “Shark” and “Body of Proof,” and many other TV credits, is along for the ride as Brooks’ oddly cooperative wife, and does a creditable job of at least looking like she’s taking this all seriously, which is more than the audience is likely to do.
The movie’s budgetary limitations become painfully evident in its third act, when Shatner’s Ahab-esque father figure appears nearly out of thin air to take on spectral foes with a cylinder projectile launcher. All explosions have been added in post-production, and conspicuously throw no debris, further adding to the sense that this whole exercise should be filed under “Not Ready for a SyFy Channel Movie of the Week.” No doubt timed for the lead-in to Halloween, Devil’s Revenge is more confusing than frightening, and doesn’t have the saving grace of at least being unintentionally funny. The Devil’s Revenge, sad to say, is in watching it.
Devil’s Revenge is available on Video on Demand on October 1st, 2019.

RLJE Films and Fangoria Team Up to Acquire VFW Ahead of Fantastic Fest Premiere

RLJE Films has acquired North American rights to the action-horror feature VFW ahead of its world premiere at this year’s Fantastic Fest (Sept. 19 to 26, 2019) in Austin, Texas. The movie is scheduled to be released in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD in the first quarter of 2020.

Directed by Joe Begos (Almost Human, Mind’s Eye), from a script by Max Brallier (“The Last Kids on Earth”) & Matthew McArdle, the film stars Stephen Lang (AvatarDon’t Breathe), William Sadler (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Die Hard 2), Fred Williamson (Black Caesar, From Dusk Till Dawn), Martin Kove (The Karate Kid, “Cobra Kai”), George Wendt (“Cheers”), David Patrick Kelly (“Twin Peaks”), Tom Williamson (“The Fosters”), Sierra McCormick (The Vast of Night), Travis Hammer (“Godless”), and Dora Madison (“Friday Night Lights”).

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Courtesy RLJE Films and Fangoria, 2019.

According to the official plot synopsis, “In VFW,  a group of war veterans must defend their local VFW post and an innocent teen against a deranged drug dealer and his relentless army of punk mutants.”

VFW premieres at Fantastic Fest alongside a 35mm print of Begos’s third feature Bliss.

 

 

Filmmakers Zach Lipovsky & Adam Stein Talk FREAKS: High Concept on a Low Budget

Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky make their feature debut writing and directing Freaks. The high concept, supernatural drama stars Bruce Dern and Emile Hirsch centering on a girl (Lexy Kolker) whose paranoid father teaches her to be afraid of leaving their house. When she does finally sneak out of the house, she is encounters a world haunted by fear of people that look normal but may not be. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and Well Go immediately acquired the distribution rights in an all-night auction. Described as Room meets Monsters, the film is a commentary on the socio-political upheaval in the world and was inspired by two main things – the cycle of discrimination and violence against outsiders that has recurred throughout history and Adam becoming a new father and watching his son observe and interpret the world for the first time.

I recently spoke with Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky about Freaks and their unique collaboration.

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Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky, Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

JIM DIXON: I watched Freaks this morning and I’ll tell you honestly, I was very impressed.

ADAM STEIN: Wow, thank you.

ZACK LIPOVSKY: Fresh off of seeing the film.

ADAM STEIN: This might have been awkward if you hated it.

JIM DIXON: Well, you know, that’s when you really have to practice your diplomatic skills. But I actually liked it very much. It was very interesting how it starts off with such a claustrophobic set of interiors and then eventually opens up. But from very early on I wanted to see where this was going.

ADAM STEIN: Cool. Very cool. Thank you.

There are times early on where you’re pretty confused, wondering whether Emile Hersh’s character is crazy—he comes off as pretty unhinged—he’s acting like something post-apocalyptic may have happened, but then you get a glimpse out the window and it looks pretty idyllic.

ZACK LIPOVSKY: Awesome, thanks. I mean we designed the movie in a way so that when it starts you feel like, “Ok I’m worried about this girl, and this is going to be one of those films where you’re stuck in the house for the whole film,” and then very quickly things start happening that are not what you expect. Almost immediately she leaves the house and you’re like, “What?” [laughs] This whole time you’ve been wanting her to leave, and as soon as she does you suddenly want her to go back inside because you don’t want her to go outside anymore. Our ambition all along was to make a film that you can’t predict where it’s going. We feel like films these days have gotten to where they’re so predictable in a lot of genre movies because the genre conventions make you think you know all the different things that are going to happen, and it becomes sort of not as engaging—we wanted to create a film where every scene you didn’t know where it was taking you, but when it took you there it felt like, you know, exactly the right thing for the next part of the story. It starts with a lot of mysteries, but by the end every single mystery is solved to the point where if you watch the movie again it’s with totally different eyes.

“They’d better be able to sew this stuff all up by the end…”

Mission accomplished. That is exactly the way I felt about the movie at the end – I was watching it with my wife—she’s my transcriptionist by the way—and I heard her mutter early on, “They’d better be able to sew this stuff all up by the end.”

ZACH & ADAM: [laughter]

ZACH: What did she think?

She loved it. We both did. In fact, I will go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

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Lexy Kolker and Emile Hirsch in FREAKS. Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

ZACH: Oh my gosh, are you kidding?

ADAM: That’s so nice, thank you.

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of filmmakers who are working in independents, working with low budgets and finding ways to get around the fact that they don’t have two hundred million dollars, and then I go see something that does cost two hundred million dollars and I sometimes actually kind of hate it.

ZACH: Yeah.

“If Stephen King had written The X-Men…

And despite the modest budget, during the movie at some point I scribbled, “If Stephen King had written The X-Men…”

ADAM: I love that.

And I’m not sure I should quote that in the interview, because I am not sure I want to give away too much for audiences because the surprises are a lot of the pleasure here.

ADAM: True, it’s a hard movie to market. It’s a hard movie to tell people about. I agree with you that part of the fun is the being-in-close perspective. That was part of our guiding perspective while we were writing it, and while we shooting it, is how do we handle it—she doesn’t know what’s going on in the world, so neither does the audience. And as she figures it out, the audience starts to figure it out. She feels terrified at the beginning, so it feels more like a horror movie, and by the end she’s feeling bloodlust, lust for revenge, and so hopefully you are rooting for that too. We really wanted to put the audience into her shoes and feel and experience the world as she was experiencing it.

ZACH: We even shot the movie from her height. So the whole film is shot from 2 ½ feet off the ground.

Everything you’re seeing is from her height, you’re seeing into her eyes. When you look at the adults are they’re giants. They’re looming over you. And that kind of gives you the sense of what it’s like to be her.

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Lexy Kolker in FREAKS. Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

And speaking of “her,” you have a secret weapon named Lexy Kolker.

ADAM: Oh, yeah, she’s—

ZACH: —She’s an amazing superstar.

ADAM: And it seems like you know, every year there’s a movie where a kid really gets there, gets noticed, you know, like with The Florida Project or Room or Beasts of the Southern Wild or whatever. And that’s the main thing we hope for—she’s a future superstar. Even when we were on set with her, we were like, “Where did this girl come from?” She’s incredibly emotional, powerful. But in real life, she’s a happy, bubbly seven year old. So, it was kind of shocking to see what a mature actor she is.

“Is that girl in therapy…?”

She’s got an impressive list of credits for a performer this young, but what was it that specifically brought her to your attention?

ZACH: Yeah, I mean, we put out a request and our casting directors looked at over 1200 girls. Eventually we narrowed it down and brought in a bunch of kids and she stood out right away, because what we were looking for was someone that really could show the experience and the passion of what it’s really like to be a kid. I mean, kids are filled with emotion, they will say they hate us, they want you to die just because they don’t get ice cream. And then they’ll suddenly say they love you, and you’re their favorite person in the world. We wanted someone that could do that, that range of emotion, but also do it from a very real place. Most kids when they perform, are very staged and rehearsed kind of fake, and a lot of that comes from the fact that they like really prepare, they like super-memorize their lines, and they kind of forget all the meaning behind it. And with all the kids that came in, we ended up doing a lot of techniques that I’ve learned because we’ve done some other stuff with kids. And we’ve learned that if you can connect it to something real from their life they’ll pretty quickly tap into those real emotions. Lexy was able to do it far better and way more powerfully than anyone else. We would do things like ask her, “What was the last argument you had with your father, from your real life?” And she would say like, “Well, he wouldn’t let me go on sleepovers.” Then we would just we actually improvise that sleepover fight from her real life, to tap into those actual emotion and then start saying “ice cream” instead of “sleepovers.” And very quickly, the scene from the movie would take place, but with the authenticity of what it would really be like.

Not a lot of kids were able to do that. And Lexy was able to do it amazingly. And then even more so than any kid when we said cut, you know she’s breathing hard, her nostrils are flaring, spit’s coming out of her mouth, and we say cut, and she would just flip right back to a happy seven year old that was really excited by the acting she’s just done rather than terrified by it. When we do screenings, and she’s not there for the Q and A, a lot of the time people’s first question is like, “Is that girl okay? Is she in therapy?” She’s actually a really mature actress who just had some amazing moments. And it’s testament [to her talent]—a lot of people go see the film because of Emile Hirsch or Bruce Dern, Grace Park, you know, people that are really famous for doing great performances. And when they come out of the movie, they’re only talking about her, which is pretty amazing for someone who seven years old.

She’s got a couple of scenes late in the movie where she really startled me, because the rage on her face was so genuine-looking.

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Lexy Kolker in FREAKS. Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

ADAM: Do you have kids, Jim?

Well, one’s 28 and one’s 24, but yes, I do.

ADAM: So part of the inspiration for it [for me] was as a new Dad, you know, watching my son. And I don’t know how many other parents have this experience, but I was sometimes startled by the anger would come out of him over small things: “No, you can’t have another ice cream cone.” You know, just “Augghh…!” and you know, that was pretty surprising for me as a new dad. I hadn’t really seen that in anything. You’ll see most stuff with kids is they’re either cutesy or maybe they’re kind of like, wise observers sometimes. But that kind of passion was fascinating. And you know, of course it’s very much pushed in Freaks because it’s a very dangerous, deadly world. But we were really eager to capture that and yes, [Lexy] is so intense and she goes to some really dark places but you know, it was very important for us on set to have a very warm, happy environment. The makeup and costume women would give her piggyback rides around the set because she never wore shoes in the movie, so they would give a piggyback rides everywhere. And we had her eighth birthday on set, and we brought an ice cream truck, and she served ice cream to all the crew and you know, she had the best summer of her life. On camera, she was giving us this, you know, incredible intensity.

Directed by Corman, Hitchock and Tarantino, and Killed John Wayne

You also have Bruce Dern in Freaks, and you had to be aware that when you cast Bruce Dern, you’re making a statement, and an audience has certain expectations. I mean, I literally grew up on Bruce Dern playing psychos. He’s also the only actor I can find who has been directed by Roger Corman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Quentin Tarantino.

ZACH: And he will tell you stories about all of them.

And I would love to hear them. I saw him do an interview once where he talked about being one of the few actors ever actually killed John Wayne, because John Wayne died in very few movies—⁰

ZACH: Which one?

—That was The Cowboys, I believe.

ADAM: A lot of people actually hate him for that, he told us. That they still remember that and hold it against him.

Dern said in an interview years ago that John Wayne predicted to him the night they shot that scene they were going to react that way. After all, he did shoot the Duke in the back in front of a bunch of kids. I mean, it’s pretty low.

ZACH: That’s funny, because like, the first time we, when we showed him the movie, the first time, was in a small screening, and he comes off as very creepy and kind of not a likable character in the film. And most actors, you know, are always worried about making sure they come off as likable. When we showed him the film, every time he came on screen and the creepier he was, he would look around at everyone in the audience with a huge smile to see how much they were being creeped out. So that’s something he absolutely loves. I mean, he is someone who has dedicated his entire life [to acting]—he’s been acting since he was 19, you know, and now he’s in his mid-eighties, and he is all about the authenticity of performance, and wanting to just portray real people as intense as life really is on screen. It was sort of like having a wild tiger on set, you know, he is just that wild in person and that wild on screen. And it was pretty exciting. You know, it’s pretty rare to have an 82-year old and a seven year old co-starring against each other, and going at each other screaming and having a tug-of-war of words on the screen.

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Bruce Dern in FREAKS. Courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment 2019.

ADAM: I’m hard pressed to think of another movie that has a 75 year age gap between its co-stars. They’re fun to watch.

George Burns did one in the seventies with Brooke Shields called Just You and Me, Kid, and that would have been close, but there aren’t many.

I just saw Amanda Crew in Tone-Deaf, and I’m going to sign on to be the president of her fan club. Her role in this is totally different from the role she played so amazingly in Tone-Deaf, and I was very impressed with her versatility. Just tell me she’s really nice, and I’ll be happy.

ADAM: She’s super nice, super smart, and super, like game to do whatever needs to be done. To make things awesome.

ZACH: We were like, you know, this isn’t going to be very big budget, you know, like this is going to be us, because she was actually begging us to be in the film. She doesn’t want to play kind of just the pretty, funny girl—she wants to play really interesting characters. She was begging us and we’re like, “There’s not gonna be a lot of money.” And she’s like, “Guys, on my last film I was getting changed in a gas station bathroom like I’m here to do this.”

ADAM: First day she came to set it was the scene towards the end where she’s writhing, covered in blood, about to be executed—”Nice to meet you, come on in, let’s get strapped to this table, we’re gonna douse you in blood, now she makes you cry, but let’s do this—” And she was totally down and dirty, you know, powerful in that scene

Co-Directing: Are Two Heads Better Than One?

One thing that I’m very curious about, because we’re seeing more directing teams pop up than we used to—and I have a hard time working with anybody else in the kitchen—so I’m trying to imagine how you co-direct a movie.

ADAM: Well, Zach and I have known each other for years. We met actually, on a reality show of all places. Twelve years ago, there was a show called “On the Lot” that Steven Spielberg produced. We were both competitors on that show, trying to make films and get noticed, and we became best friends afterwards. And over the years, we tried to make our way working on separate projects and started collaborating more and more, realizing we are kindred spirits creatively. But also, as we started to collaborate, and co-directed more and more, we realized what a benefit it was for the final product. We often see eye-to-eye, but when one of us see something differently, we can discuss it with each other, and we usually come up with a third way that neither of us would have come up with on our own, it’s way better. It’s almost like a directing super power, where we can solve problems together and find solutions that neither of us could have found on our own. And you know, directing is sometimes a lonely occupation. You’re on set and you say, “Oh, my God, this is not working.” But you can’t share that with anyone because you don’t have confidence. When you can pull your best friend aside and say, “This isn’t working, is it? What can we do to fix it?”, and come up with a solution quickly in the moment? It’s really priceless.

So you both are always on the set together and making decisions jointly?

ADAM: Absolutely.

ZACH: We do a few things to kind of avoid confusion to the crew, like usually one of us per scene is sort of the voice to the crew and the actors, just so that they’re all getting instructions from one person. We do things like that to try not make it as confusing, and it ends up being very, very helpful, because often, you need one of you…right up against the camera, with the actors, crying when they’re crying, trying to make magic in front of the lens, but you also need someone else back at the monitor, making sure it’s in focus and making sure that overall what you’re trying to achieve in the movie is being achieved and remembering, “Oh, yeah, we need to get this thing in this shot.” And, you know, there’s a lot of different things the director has to do. And so being able to kind of be in two places at once, when you’re on set, as long as you can make it not confusing to the crew, it can have a lot of benefits.

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ADAM: There’s a lot of others that are whispering in each other’s ears, that’s kind of how we do it. I don’t know how many onset people have often thought that we’re like, telepathically communicating, because we’ll do a lot of stuff just with looks. But the reason we can do that is we’ve had so many conversations…Even the day of, we get there way before anyone else. And we walk through every single shot, every single movement and every single thing that’s going to happen that day, and discuss it and kind of figure it out. So when we’re on set all we have to do is to give each other a look to each other to communicate, “Did we get that or not? Or do we need to do it again?” And so from the outside, it kind of looks like we’re telepathic, but they’re not seeing the hours and hours and hours of conversation.

There is one question I absolutely have to ask, and I may be kind of reaching a little bit, but it struck me that there might be a political context to this story, and that just possibly the treatment of these children who are being born with these powers might actually be a metaphor for the treatment of say, undocumented immigrants…

ADAM: You know when we were writing it, we were actually inspired by all kinds of things from history. I actually grew up in a Jewish school, and every day was told stories about the Holocaust, and about the way parents tried to hide their kids, and keep them safe. That whole story about Emile Hirsch’s character trying to pass Lexy’s character off as normal with the family across the street was kind of inspired by some of those stories. But at the same time, we were writing Freaks when Trump kicked off his campaign, and some of that rhetoric was kind of filtering into our world. But it wasn’t really about one thing, it was about the way that history repeats itself, targeting people who are different. In our mind, the story is about when you’re different in a way that the world doesn’t like, do you hide and stay safe, or do you stand up for who you are, even though it may cost you? And that’s kind of where we see it. It wasn’t something that we wanted to be a political polemic. It’s more about humanity in dangerous situations like that.

You’ve managed to make a movie that’s both entertaining and relevant and thought-provoking. I’m not going to ask you how much the movie cost, because I know the powers-that-be get really hinky about that, but I’m going to assume that you have a lot less money than say, the average X-Men movie.

ADAM: We had a lot less money. What’s interesting is, you know we’ve done some TV work and stuff, and it probably cost less than an episode of a typical cable TV episode. We just really wanted to tell a story no matter what. We’ve been filmmakers trying to make our way for many years, and we’ve had a lot of frustration, movies not happening, or getting fired, because we weren’t big enough, or whatever. And when we first came up with this story we decided early on, we’re going to make this no matter what, even if we have zero dollars, we’re going to make this movie. We’ll even be in it if we have to, and the project grew from there. And then we got Bruce Dern, an Oscar-nominated actor to be in it. But we never lost sight of the idea of like, no matter how little money we have, we’re going to make this. And now you know, it’s like a dream come true.

You’ve got some very convincing special effects in there, which I think compete very effectively with the high priced spread.

Special Effects on Your Laptop

ZACH: Most of the special effects were done on my laptop on a 15 inch screen, and the first time in an IMAX theater at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was a bit nervous, but they seem to hold up.

The most recent Godzilla movie was some of the phoniest looking crap I’ve seen lately—It looked like a video game. You’ve got some very interesting effects in Freaks, like those time bubbles, you know, that look quite three dimensional.

ZACH: A lot of that was designed, knowing the limitations that we were going to have. We intentionally didn’t put a giant lizard in it, because we knew we weren’t going to be able to do those on a budget that we were going to have. We didn’t have $200 million.

They did have it, but it didn’t look it.

ZACH: Everything that’s in the movie is in visual effects that we knew we could achieve because they look photographic. And a lot of them are photographic. A lot of them rely on very simple photographic techniques in combination with photographic imagery—Even those time bubbles you mentioned, there’s nothing there that’s computer-generated at all. It’s just distorting what’s actually in the frame, and creating a shot that looks like real, but all those reflections come from what we shot. So it looks real, because it was actually photographed. So from the very beginning, even in the script stage, when we were thinking of certain set pieces and stuff, it was lucky because I have a background in visual effects, so we were able to add things that we knew we could achieve, that would be true to the world, but also be hopefully spectacular within the limited scope we had.

ADAM: Yeah, I’d say that’s it’s not even about luck, Zach, because I think it’s sort of the consolation prize of being a struggling filmmaker for 15 years is that you get a lot of experience doing all kinds of stuff. And we had, Zach and I, have both worked every job you can think of on a film set, or in post-production, and had all kinds of learning experiences along the way that all fed into this movie. And, you know, we couldn’t, couldn’t have pulled off this movie if it weren’t for the years and years of service sweat equity, building our skills, and all the favors that built up along the way. The effects that Zach didn’t do on his laptop, were all pretty much done by favors from the effects companies that we’ve worked with over the years on other projects, who really wanted to help us out, make our passion project.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for your time.

ADAM: Well, thank you for your time.

ZACH: We really we rely on people like you to get the word out there. Small film, not a lot of marketing muscle. So we really rely on people like you to help get the word out. So, thank you so much.

My pleasure. Thank you again, Best of luck with Freaks.

Freaks opens in theaters on Friday, September 13, 2019.

IT CHAPTER TWO and the Ongoing Saga of the Unfilmable Stephen King

A friend of mine recently told me that “Childhood lasts our whole lives.” You get to a certain age when you absolutely see the truth of that, and Stephen King’s epic length horror novel It is exhibit A. King clearly knew a thing or two about rough childhood can be, and the former high school English teacher was no stranger to the painful toll bullies exact on their victims.

It, which chronicles the childhood traumas (and a homicidal evil entity that rears its clown-like face every twenty-seven years) that haunt a group of natives of Derry, a fictitious Maine town, blew the doors off bookstores back in the eighties, but was widely considered too long and too complex to make a movie. And in fact a two-part network miniseries which hewed pretty close to King’s general plot failed to do justice to the source material. 

Andy Muschietti tried a new aproach starting in 2017 – adapting It into two feature films, doing one film just based on the novels extensive flashback sequences dealing with the main characters as middle schoolers, and then doing a sequel adapting the parts of the book about the characters as adults returning to their hometown to combat the same shapeshifting entity that frequently manifests as a malevolent clown (admittedly an oxymoron) named Pennywise. Despite an excellent cast of young unknowns (Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard,  Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff), the movie felt incomplete, with forced horror and few real scares. 

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Courtesy Warner Bros. 2019

It Chapter Two is a far more accomplished piece of work than its predecessor. It’s also far longer. At two hours and forty-nine minutes, it’s almost as long by itself as the 1990 miniseries, if you deduct commercials. That’s probably too long for one movie, and the movie frequently lumbers more than barrels towards a climax that’s too much a foregone conclusion to generate much real suspense.  

Despite the movie’s length, far too much is cut from King’s mammoth 1,138 page novel. Much of King’s character development is gone – we never know much about Jessica Chastain’s adult Beverly Marsh character other than she married an abusive neanderthal much like her father. Of King’s novels, only The Stand is longer, and that only by around twenty pages. Muschietti’s rough cut was reportedly around four hours long. Why was releasing it in two installments not considered? An HBO Game of Thrones-style treatment might have been the best option.

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BILL HADER as Richie Tozier, JESSICA CHASTAIN as Beverly Marsh, JAMES MCAVOY as Bill Denbrough, JAMES RANSONE as Eddie Kaspbrak, ISAIAH MUSTAFA as Mike Hanlon, and JAY RYAN as Ben Hascomb in IT CHAPTER TWO © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., Credit: Brooke Palmer

Oddly, Chapter Two  has enough flashbacks and recap to stand on its own without its record-breaking predecessor. James McAvoy, James Ryan, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransome and Andy Bean play the adult versions of the protagonists, joined by their younger counterparts, who were reportedly digitally de-aged in the new footage shot for the sequel. Bill Hader and James Ryan are particularly effective. Jessica Chastain seems slightly out of place, and frankly Amy Adams would have born a closer resemblance to Sophia Lillis, who stole the first movie. Bill Skarsgård reprises his role as the thoroughly dislikable Pennywise (who is a clown, after all).

After reprising the last scene of It, the movie opens with a horrifically violent gay-bashing incident in modern day Derry, an incident exploited, though not perpetrated by Pennywise. Pennywise feeds on fear, hate and prejudice, and it might be to the filmmakers’ credit that there isn’t an obvious attempt to make a political point. (King’s own liberal politics are a matter of record.)

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BILL SKARSGÅRD as Pennywise in IT CHAPTER TWO © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

Gary Dauberman, the writer of the Annabelle movies, and co-writer Muschietti’s It, has sole screenplay credit here, and Muschietti seems to have learned a two or thing. While a movie that features a fanged clown that turns into a giant spider ought to be scarier than this, it is scarier than the first go-around. 

With It, Muschietti seemed unaware of the old Alfred Hitchcock example that suspense can be generated by having two men sitting at a table talking about baseball while the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table, but under such circumstances the bomb must never go off. The corollary is that if the bomb is to go off, the audience must not know it was there. Muschietti frequently had noise emanate from a dark corner and then have a monster or pasty-faced schmoo come out of the dark corner – exactly where the audience expected it to come from – a mistake the filmmakers behind the Conjuring or Ouija movies would never make.

Muschietti’s approach to horror is more varied and more sophisticated here, and there are some moments that are genuinely startling. He also has a much larger budget and indulges in some very involved, and generally convincing, special effects. One sequence, involving a severed head that sprouts crablike legs and runs around chasing people is, depending on your point of view, either a homage to or ripped off from John Carpenters The Thing. The scariest sequence in the movie, where Jessica Chastain’s Beverly visits her childhood home, relies on glimpses of what’s going on in the background before Beverly knows what’s going on.

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BILL HADER as Richie Tozier and JAMES RANSONE as Eddie Kaspbrak in IT CHAPTER TWO © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

Despite the increased emphasis on spectacle, the second movie is clearly headed for a retread of the climax of the first movie, and there are disappointingly few surprises on the way there. The adult characters are little different from their younger counterparts, other than fact that the adult Ben Hanscom character played by matinee idol Jay Ryan somehow managed to lose a lot of weight since we last saw him. (The book in fact goes into some detail on that very point.)

Both It movies shine an uncompromising light on the subject of bullying, an issue which continues to get little more than lip service from educators, who would prefer to pretend that it doesn’t really happen here. It does, though, and always has. 

But even allowing for the two-tiered approach to the feature film treatment(s) of It, King fans would have had reason to hope for better. Substantial liberties have been taken with the novel, and King’s ending has been thrown out the window. A running joke at the expense of the Bill Denbrough character, who is a horror novelist and a clear King stand-in, that his endings suck, cutely tries to pave the way for the change (which is substantial), but feels cheap. Bringing King himself in for a cameo appearance to continue the joke is simply ironic.

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Bill Skarsgård in IT CHAPTER TWO, Courtesy Warner Bros. 2019

It’s a moot point, of course, and the fact of the matter is, King has never adapted particularly well, despite the fact that there over well over forty feature and television adaptations of his novels, novellas and short stories, including some remakes, with more on the way. The best literature is already in the medium that suits it best, and those books don’t usually make the best movies. The Great Gatsby has been filmed four times, none of them especially good. King is a better writer than he’s usually given credit for – literary critics are seldom kind to bestsellers, especially horror bestsellers – and his stories work best on the printed page.

Pennywise is creepy, but so are the clowns in the Farmers Insurance three-ring fender-bender commercial. Creepy is a given with clowns. It Chapter Two does have its moments, but it’s too long, too slow and ought to be far scarier than it is. Stephen King remains an unfilmable enigma, and sending in the clowns doesn’t seem to be the answer.

RLJE Films Nabs COLOR OUT OF SPACE Ahead of TIFF Midnight Madness World Premiere

RLJE Films has acquired the US rights to the highly-anticipated horror/sci-fi thriller Color Out of Space in a low-mid seven figure deal ahead of its World Premiere at Midnight Madness at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film is scheduled to screen on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 at 11:59 p.m. at the Ryerson Theater in Toronto.

Based on the classic short story by horror great HP Lovecraft, the film is directed by Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil), who will make his return to the Midnight Madness lineup after 29 years. Stanley helmed from a screenplay he co-wrote with Scarlett Amaris (The Theatre Bizarre). Color Out of Space stars Nicolas Cage (Mandy, Leaving Las Vegas), Joely Richardson (“The Rook”, “Nip/Tuck”), Madeleine Arthur (“Snowpiercer”), Brendan Meyer (“The OA”), Julian Hilliard (“The Haunting of Hill House”), Elliot Knight (“How to Get Away with Murder”), with Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World) and Tommy Chong.

Color Out of Space was financed by Ace Pictures and produced by SpectreVision.  Producers include Daniel Noah, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood and Josh C. Waller, with  executive producers Johnny Chang, Peter Wong, Timur Bekbosunov, Emma Lee, Stacy Jorgensen, Elisa Lleras and Michael M. McGuire.  XYZ Films is handling international sales on the film. The acquisition was negotiated by Mark Ward and Jess DeLeo from RLJE Films and Nate Bolotin from XYZ Films on behalf of the filmmakers.

According to the official plot synopsis: “After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farmstead, Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism as it infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.”

August 20th of this year marked the 129th birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who died at the age of 46 in 1937. It is not hyperbole to say that Lovecraft, who never saw financial or critical success in his lifetime, absolutely revolutionized horror literature. His influence is evident in almost all modern horror writers, including Stephen King.

“We’re beyond excited to be re-teaming with SpectreVision and XYZ Films for Color Out of Space,” said Mark Ward, Chief Acquisitions Officer for RLJE Films, in a press advisory distributed by RLJE. “Nicolas Cage unleashes another memorable performance – an incredible follow up off the heels of Mandy.”

Further details concerning the film’s release are pending.

 

ALONG CAME THE DEVIL II: Trailer and Poster 1st Look

Gravitas Ventures has released the first trailer and poster for its upcoming release, Along Came the Devil II. The picture stars Academy Award  Nominate Bruce Davison; Laura Slade Wiggins (“Shameless”); Mark Ashworth (The Magnificent Seven) Cassius DeVan; Tiffany Fallon and Heather DeVan as Sarah (Along Came the Devil). Along Came the Devil helmer Jason DeVan returns to direct this sequel.

According to the official plot synopsis:

After receiving an unsettling voicemail, Jordan (Wiggins) returns home, looking for answers, only to find her estranged father and even more questions. A demonic force has attached itself to the town and no one is safe. The only one who seems to know anything is the small town’s Reverend.

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Of the first installment, I said on this site:

That “based on true events” tag has huge caché with fans of demonic possession stories. Even though it was based on a novel, everyone knew The Exorcist was supposed to be based on an actual case, and ever since then, you can’t beat that as a selling point. Besides, people who would discount the existence of vampires, werewolves and the walking/living/cannibalistic dead out of hand are often open-minded on the possibility of demonic possession. If you think it can happen to you, it’s that much scarier.

[Director Jason] DeVan also milks his modest budget for every penny, and his possession makeup and special effects will hold their own against the high-priced spread. Shots of the possessed Ashley up on the ceiling are unnerving to say the least. One of his secret weapons is cinematographer Justin Duval, who’s shot a handsome-looking product.

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Gravitas Pictures will release Along Came the Devil II in theaters, On Demand and Digital HD just time time for Halloween on October 11th, 2019.

MISS VIRGINIA: Trailer and Poster 1st Look

Vertical Entertainment has released the first trailer and poster for Miss Virginia, a drama inspired by a true story of a struggling inner-city mother who sacrifices everything to give her son a good education. Unwilling to allow her son to stay in a dangerous school, she launches a movement that could save his future – and that of thousands like him. Starring Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”), Matthew Modine (“Stranger Things”), Aunjanue Ellis (The Help), and Vanessa Williams (“Ugly Betty”). The film was directed by R. J. Daniel Hanna from a script by Erin O’Connor. 

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According to the official plot synopsis:

Based on a true story MISS VIRGINIA stars Uzo Aduba as an impoverished single mother who is losing her fifteen year-old son to the rough streets of Washington D.C. Unwilling to see him drop out and deal drugs, she places him in a private school. But when she can’t afford tuition, she launches a movement to change the system that is destroying him and thousands like him. Attacked and threatened by those who don’t want change –from corrupt politicians to the local drug lord, Virginia must discover depths of strength she never knew she had.

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Fitch as James and Uzo Aduba as Virginia in the drama, “MISS VIRGINIA,” a Vertical Entertainment release. Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

“The Miss Virginia team is delighted to partner with Vertical in bringing the inspiring true story of Virginia Walden Ford to audiences across the US,” said writer-producer Erin O’Connor, in a statement distributed to the press. “Her story is one of grit, determination, and the transformative power of a mother who refuses to give up on her son.”

Vertical Entertainment will be releasing the film in select theaters and On Demand and Digital HD on October 18th, 2019.

Saban Films Releases ROGUE WARFARE Poster and Trailer

Saban Films has released a new poster as well as a trailer for its upcoming actioner, Rogue Warfare. The trailer is available below.

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Courtesy Saban Films 2019.

The film is written and directed by veteran stuntman Mike Gunther, whose work has been featured in a long line of movies and TV productions, including The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, The Patriot, The Tuxedo, Underworld, Hulk, TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its successful spin-off “Angel,” Van Helsing and Spider-Man 2. Gunther was also acted as fight coordinator on Catwoman, and was both the fight coordinator and stunt coordinator on Elektra and Fighting. He doubled Chris Pine on Star Trek, was a stunt performer on Star Trek: Into Darkness and was the stunt coordinator for Star Trek Beyond. Gunther was the stunt coordinator for Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse and Transformers: The Last Knight and the Transformers spin-off Bumblebee, as well as the award-winning A Quiet Place. He is also the supervising stunt coordinator on the upcoming sequel.

Gunther previously directed the TV movie Ghost Rider: Inside the Action, as well as the features Beatdown and Setup.

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Courtesy Saban Films 2019.

Rogue Warfare stars Will Yun Lee (Die Another Day, Elektra, The Wolverine, “True Blood,” San Andreas, Hawaii Five-0,” Rampage), Jermaine Love, Rory Markham, Bertrand-Xavier Corbi, Katie Keene, Fernando Chien, Gina Decesare, Michael Blalock, Mike McKee, Essam Ferris, with Chris Mulkey and Stephen Lang (Avatar, Conan the Barbarian, The Girl on the Train).

According to the official plot synopsis:

A group of skilled military elite join forces to fight an underground terrorist network.

Saban will release Rogue Warfare in theaters, On Demand and digitally on October 4th, 2019.

BETWEEN THE DARKNESS: Give Me That Old Time Religion

Andres Rovira’s directorial debut, Between the Darkness, is a quirky, unusual fright fest weaves the real and imagined together into a genuinely unusual, if uneven, foray into psychological horror.

Released, intentionally or not, on HP Lovecraft’s birthday, Between the Darkness relies on the perennial horror conceit that off-the-beaten road religions are usually nothing but trouble. That was certainly true in Lovecraft’s classic Cthulhu mythos stories, not to mention every seventies TV movie of the week where a big city family moved to a rural farming community where pagan fertility cults practiced human sacrifice at their church socials. In Between the Darkness, the very busy Lew Temple (“The Walking Dead,” Halloween [2007], Unstoppable, The Lone Ranger, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) plays Roy, a widowed father who has taken his daughter and son to a remote area for a vacation on the anniversary of his eldest daughter’s death. The family retreat soon begins to appear threatening, and clearly disaster is looming.

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Courtesy DarkCoast 2019

The troublemaking off-the-beaten path religion in question here is rooted in classic Greek mythology, which doesn’t sound too bad unless the mythical monsters are as real too.  Which, needless to say, they are. Give me that old time religion, indeed.

Like Lovecraft, Rovira is clearly a believer in the slow burn, and Between the Darkness does not sprint off the starting block. Flashbacks slowly fill the audience in on the relationships between the deceased mother and daughter and the surviving children, Sprout (Nicole Moorea Sherman) and Percy (Tate Birchmore). Roy, at first, appears to be simply an eccentric, aging hippie who prays to pagan gods. His tendency to mix his children’s playtime with religious ritual becomes increasingly ominous, and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic.

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Courtesy DarkCoast 2019

Sprout has visions of a gorgon-like creature which terrify her, and at the same time, is attempting to adjust to her own nascent sexuality, which is perhaps almost as frightening. Certainly her father does not appear emotionally well-equipped to deal with it. The arrival of an attractive park ranger (Danielle Harris), a single mom with a young son (Max Woodhouse) dangles the prospect of romance for Roy, which he doesn’t seem to be at all ready for.

Rovira, who wrote the somewhat rambling screenplay, gets solid performances from his cast, but manages more atmosphere than genuine suspense. The production values do have some rough edges, but Rovira and his director of photography, Madeline Kate Kann, have an undeniable vision of a primordial landscape. Between the Darkness, largely squanders a promising premise, but still manages some mild thrills along the way.

DarkCoast will release Between the Darkness onto digital streaming platforms August 20th (Amazon, iTunes, inDemand, DIRECTV, Vudu, FANDANGO, Vimeo on Demand, AT&T, Google Play, Sling/Dish).