Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Night of the Vampire Hunter

(This is a repost of a film review from the old Dog Pile site. If you read this review and think you would like to see this film, do two things: 1. Go to and poke around on the official web site for the film; 2. Contact American film distributors of horror films and badger them to pick this film up and release it in the United States. Go on and do it now.)

You know, I really don't care for Superman. He's like this all-powerful character with precious few weaknesses, so they have to keep bringing out more and more powerful enemies and more and more complicated schemes to hurt him. Oh, sure, he has his emotional weaknesses that have been played with in the last few years, but who wants Alan Alda as Superman?

Give me Batman any day. Not because he's dark and hip and got that Gothic thing going (although there is something to be said about Goth girls with their frightfully pale skin). I prefer Batman because he has nothing going for him except himself. Yeah, he's got gadgets, but he doesn't have x-ray vision or high-tech blades that shoot out of his hands when he wants to slice people up. He's human, just human, and a single bullet or miscalculation could end his life. That makes the man himself more interesting; the character IS the focal point, not his mutant/alien powers.

I know, I know, the question here is why am I talking about superheroes when I am supposed to be reviewing a movie? The movie in question here is "Night of the Vampire Hunter," also known as "Night Shade". It's a German film shot over three years as the production company gathered money to continue filming. And as you can tell from the Americanized title, the movie deals with vampires.

You know, I really don't like vampires. Here is where the superhero thing comes in. Vampires are the Superman-type of your basic roster of monster. They can shapeshift, turn into vapor, move with superhuman speed, there's only a precious few ways to kill them, blah blah blah. And they sleep ALL DAY! (Lucky bastards.) They have this supposed sexual attractiveness that wows the opposite sex. (How sexy can someone with rotted, clotted blood breath be?) They just have too much going for them; they are too much like Superman.

But there has been a recent trend to bring the image of the vampire down to earth, to make them more human. In essence, they are turning Superman into Batman. Kevin Lindenmuth has put a few spins on the vampire myth, turning vampires into supernaturally advanced humans in his "Addicted to Murder" series of films. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has paraded so many vampires past our eyes that by sheer volume they have become demystified and have taken on the image of people afflicted with some rampant disease.

"Night of the Vampire Hunter" continues this line of thought, only using traditional vampire myth where it helps to enhance the story. In fact, the story doesn't depend too much on the fact it is about vampires. With just a little tinkering, it could almost become a revenge flick of any genre. So you are really working with normal characters that happen to be vampires and WHO they are becomes more important than WHAT they are.

Jens Feldner(Stefan "Cheesy" Keseberg)writes under the name of Henry Gloom. He churns out a novel a week in an on-going series about vampires. His books have become a big hit. Yet he lives a simple life with his girlfriend Selin(Nicole Müller), who works nights at a photo-processing shop. The city is living in fear of a serial killer who has been racking up a hefty body count. Nothing too unusual. Except that Jens knows his subject matter so well because Selin IS a vampire. And Selin isn't too worried about the serial killer because she IS the killer. But that is just your set-up in this movie. The story itself doesn't really come into its own until Arnold (Alex Kaese) comes to Selin's aid after she is nearly killed during a fight with another vampire. Creepy Arnold wants nothing more than to be turned into a vampire, and he thinks Selin is his gateway to the dark side.

The acting is pretty solid from just about everyone. Only a couple of people ham it up, like Alex Kaese, but it tends to keep things from getting too serious and intense and maintains an air of fun escapism, which, I think, was the aim of the filmmakers. That is not to say that it is a family film. Ample blood splatters the scenery, nudity pops up occasionally, and there are a few truly tense scenes to remind the viewer that this is a horror film.

One minor complaint I have is the film quality. It is kind of muddy and dark. That may have been caused by the fact that the tape I watched may have been a copy of a copy. I tend to think the original film would look better, but then a lot of small budget films seem to look rough, and personally, I feel it adds to their charm as long as it doesn't get in the way of following the film's story and action.

The only other complaint I have is that the characters are interesting enough to support a couple more films, but to get a second film out of this, the filmmakers would have to pull the American bullshit of basically repeating the same story or popping the characters into a ridiculously contrived story.

No matter, though. "Night of the Vampire Hunter" is good bloody vampire fun. Crack open a couple of beers or a bottle of your favorite red wine and enjoy it. Now, where do I sign up for the Nicole Müller fan club?

Friday, August 19, 2005

Triple Threat review


Starring Lorin Becker, Curt Bonnem, Kay West and Stephany Sterans. Produced, Photographhed, Written and Directed by Mark Vasconcellos.

Just to prove that not all micro-budget movies have to be either horror movies or sex movies (preferably both, in the opinions of most of the producers I've worked for), Mark Vasconcellos has made this entertaining little tease of an action picture, sort of a La Femme Nikita meets Bond, played appropriately light and fast.

The plot tells of ex-assassin Dina LoBianca, a motorcycle riding super-spy played appealingly by Lorin Becker, who is brought back for "one last job" by her slick and slimy boss, played by writer/director/DP Mark Vasconcellos. She is partnered with an even more sexy side-kick/protégé (Stephany Stearns), who steals most of her scenes. Through the course of the mission she uncovers plots within plots and thwarts planned violence against innocents. She also gains a boyfriend along the way in a straight-laced-but-not-stuffy character played with good humor by Curt Bonnem.

We've seen this plot before, and this is really low budget stuff, so most of the action is of the one-on-one sort. No big stunts, explosions or car chases. So director/writer Vasconcellos was wise to keep the proceedings frothy, light and fun all the way. It never bogs down with pretenses subplots. It tries only to be popcorn fluff, and succeeds at it's goal admirably.

Also, it has a very slick look that appears more expensive than the picture's budget. And the performances are all of a professional caliber. Another thing not usually seen in a micro-budget movie.

For more information, check out

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

My Favorite Cameos

I have died many times.

That's what most of my cameo appearances in cheap horror movies have consisted of. I have been shredded by a werewolf, beheaded by a clown, shot by cops (twice), vampire bitten, vampire staked and had my head blowed up. But two new movies have just arrived, and I have cameos in both. Even though I only die in one of them, they are easily the two cameos that I have done which have pleased me the most. And they are both movies that are a cut above the usual.

Ted Newsom's THE NAKED MONSTER was released years ago in a less-polished form as ATTACK OF THE B-MOVIE MONSTER. Since then, Ted (who played the serial killer in my movie DEAD SEASON) has shot a multitude of new material, completely re-edited it, and put in entirely new monster shots. And I am so glad he did, becuase what was once a cute but crude experiment is now a gloriously silly and heartfelt valentine to the movies we monster boomers grew up on.

The silly three-eyed monster is a rubber suit, just right for this goofy comedy. The script is a dizzying pastiche of puns and gags, like the AIRPLANE of monster movies. Some are gags funny, some make you groan, but it's all in the spirit of fun. But the real attraction here is the amazing assemblage of B-movie talent, headlined by the late Kenneth Tobey from THE THING (he is just marvelous; when handed a box containing a flight suit just like the one he wore in THE THING, Tobey exclaims with appropriate awe "my old monster-fightin' suit!"). The late John Agar is equally grand as a scientist who first realizes that the creature is pregnant female ("Your monster is a mother -- A big, uuugggglllyyy mother."). A partial list of the cast is as follows: Jeanne Carmen, Les Tremayne, Gloria Talbot, Robert Shayne, Daniel Roebuck, Ann Robinson, Lori Nelson, Paul Marco, John Harmon, Robert Cornthwaite, Robert Clarke, Michelle Bauer, Brinke Stevens, Linea Quigley, Bob Burns, Forry Ackerman, Tim Sullivan... Whew! Is that enough to pique your interest, you monster fans you?

Ted is looking for a distributor, so hopefully THE NAKED MONSTER will soon be available to all.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. My cameo? I am passing out torches to angry villagers singing (or rather, lipsynching) The Festival of the New Wine from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (Fa Ro La Fa Ro Liiii!). Does life get any more fun than that? I don't hink so!

CAMP UTOPIA - I wrote about this movie in my first article for the old Dog Pile site, but I thought it was time to mention it again since it has just seen a DVD release via Texas Trouble Entertainment. It was produced by Duane Whitaker, an artist of great talent and integrity who I am proud to call a freind. He's most known as the guy who played Maynard in PULP FICTION, but his work behind the camera has been just as exciting, though has yet to be noticed and appreciated in a big way. This, his first "dead teenagers movie," (though to be fair the kids/victims in this slasher film are college age, not really teenagers), is his concession to the commercial (after the brilliant but non-commercial EDDIE PRESLEY and TOGEHTER AND ALONE, it seems a wise choice if he wants to continue getting financing to make films), but one done with Duane's usual intelligence and sense of humor. This slasher movie contrasts the young people of the sixties with those of today. Hippies vs. Yuppies, if you will, and it says a lot about the integrity (or lack there of) of the values from both generations. This one tells about a group of yuppie college students camping out in an area notorious for a hippie massacre occuring thirty years earlier. Flashbacks show Timothy Bach, a Manson-like mad-hippie guru (played by former Ratt frontman Stephen Pearcy) going on a rampage and slaughtering dozens of hippies gathered for a Woodstock-like festival of peace, music and love. Not much love was had that day, though.

Now, thirty years later, kids are being slaughtered again. Has Timothy Bach returned from the grave, or is there a new killer at Camp Utopia? I ain't tellin'!

CAMP UTOPIA is one of the smartest and funniest slasher films I have ever seen. Gore hounds stay at home, the blood is pretty minimal. This one is about people and ideas, and with some real smart laughs thrown in for... well, for laughs. But for horror fans looking for a little more than the normal thrills, this may be just the ticket.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. My cameo. I am the farmer who owns the land where the hippies frolic. Sort of the Old Man Metzger of Camp Utopia. I am seen early on with a large pig and two youg topless hippie girls. If that weren't fun enough, later I give Tim (Pearcy) a peace sign and get my had whacked off by his machete for the trouble. The funny thing is, I never got to meet Pearcy. We were shot on different days in entirely different locations. You will never tell when you watch the movie though.

Until next time...

Monday, April 25, 2005


Rating: 7 out of 10

When I was in second grade, I wrote a little skit that we (three friends and myself) performed for the class. A simple scene. Carla and I played the two children, and Gary and Renea played our parents. Scene opens on Carla and I arguing about what we want to watch on the television. We were loud, rude and hyper. In an effort to shut us up, our poor parents asked if we would be quiet if they gave us each a lollipop. Hushed, we nodded. Of course, candy will sooth all ills; this is a universal truth. And so they handed us each a sucker. But hers was bigger than mine. More screaming and wailing from the naughty siblings. End scene.

Simple, but perfect in design. Or so I thought. The teacher, in my first and most stinging bit of critical evaluation (so painful because I had urges for her that I didn't understand at that age -- well, actually unnatural for my tender age, but that is a can of worms we ain't opening in this review), explained that while she understood the humor, she felt that there was entirely too much shouting and arguing. It made for a trying experience.

So why go to great pains to elaborate on a seminal event in my dysfunction as a writer? Well, this IS a review of "Actress Apocalypse". But, you wonder, what the hell does that have to do with anything? I'll explain.

"Actress Apocalypse", written and directed by Richard Anasky, is, if you didn't know better, a behind-the-scenes film of the making of "Clearwater Canyon". Never heard of "Clearwater Canyon"? No one of any note has either. It was a no-budget film about a big, gay killer Indian (Native American, I assume) who slaughters women who all hope the Army men will come save them. Unfortunately, the film never got past the audition stage. In-fighting, inept crew, no-show actresses, disorganization and an accidentally-on-purpose killing or two kinda derails things.

Confused? It's okay if you are. You've been dropped into the mockumentary world of "Actress Apocalypse". All bets are off, as are the clothes of the young actresses who audition for the film within the film. You are in the hands of David Lincoln, the director of "Clearwater Canyon", his psychotic brother Vance, and the two crew memebers, all who operate at about 180 decibels for the bulk of the "documentary". The rest of the time, you are confronted by a brain-bending onslaught of subliminal images that will disturb you more than anything on the market. You will see what the world of truly independent no-budget filmmaking is like (I had a taste of it from playing a detective in a student short film in college). And you will also see a couple of very beautiful young actresses who will never show up at your house if you decide to make your own crap film, so don't even ask.

So why the trip to my second grade class at the beginning of this review? Simple. Most of this film reminds me of the comments handed to me by my teacher. Too loud, too much shouting and arguing, too shrill. I swear, every time an actress insults the on-screen filmmakers, you'll be wanting to back them up. Actually, you'll be wanting to backhand the shit out of both David and Vance Lincoln. The thought of these guys still makes me tense. I finally GOT what my teacher tried to tell me in second grade.

But, that does not make this a bad movie. I found myself, though annoyed, laughing at some of the insane moments of the film. I believe that there is more truth to what you see in this behind-the-scenes film than you can imagine. Oh, I hope every production isn't a screamfest, but the weird power struggles and last-minute reworking of everything is no doubt accurate. So the intention and basic content of the film makes for worthwhile viewing.

Add in the fact that this film is a 90-minute tribute to visual overkill, and you have enough to keep you busy with your "pause" and "slow" buttons on your DVD remote for the next month. Honestly, I was constantly stunned by the bombardment of flashing images, most so fleeting that "pause" buttons have trouble capturing these "blip-vert" (sorry for the Max Headroom reference) moments. I can only assume that the editing of this film must have been fueled by buckets of coffee and crank.

In the end, I have to ask myself if I liked "Actress Apocalypse". Yeah, I did. It wore me out and wore me down. It gave me a mild headache. But it never failed to leave me shaking my head trying to figure out how in hell anyone could cram so much stuff from so many different directions and keep it focused and almost convincing. If you are fine with massive nudity and non-stop visual and audio assaults and want to see something most unlike anything else out there, order yourself a copy of "Actress Apocalypse".

Just don't blame me if you have seizures from the strobe-like editing. Really. Don't blame me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


Rating: 7 out of 10

Oh, my, but I do love a nice taste of Italian giallo film. "Bird With the Crystal Plummage," "What Have They Done to Solange?", "Autopsy" and the like all have a warm place in my heart. The atmosphere of unpredictable violence, the threat that one of the main characters may indeed be the killer and the total aura of a nightmare gone horribly wrong make each of these films thrilling. And, as a testosterone-enabled person, I can never find fault in the many lush women featured in these films.

Sadly, these films have faded from the public eye. Yes, they are still out there on DVD, but you don't hear about these things unless you look for them. It's not as if you'll find J.Lo in a big-budget modern version of this genre (Thank the heavens!). Fans of the genre have to be happy with the efforts from the past, and just try to get through the day.

Here's where Ron Ford enters the picture. I've had the pleasure of reviewing a few of Ron's other films. From these films, I know that he is a lifetime fan of horror cinema. His "Hollywood Mortuary" is a tribute to the classic Universal horrors of the 30's and 40's. "The Crawling Brain" delves into the dopey Fifties monster films while mixing in the early Seventies Al Adamson sleaze factor. Each uses the old styles as a base on which to weave demented films of modern humor and weirdness.

Now, "Dead Season" uses the themes that Mario Bava and Dario Argento built their legends upon and runs in a new direction.

Lucas Swan is a one-hit wonder in the publishing field, having written an account of a series of murders that took place in a seaside town a number of years ago. He has crawled into a hole of his own creation and prays inspiration does not strike again. Into his closed universe drops an adoring fan who feels she will be Swan's personal Muse. Oddly enough, inspiration strikes Swan again, and a whole new series of murders begin.

Ford's style often has an air of camp about it. This time around, he has toned that down. Oh, sure, there is the goofy retarded groundskeeper, played by Mr. Ford himself, and Randal Malone's trademark star performance that weaves from mostly serious to calling down the spirit of Divine (John Waters' favorite cross-dresser, for those who don't know). But the overall tone is darker than his other homages, and the story, though occasionally stretching the limits of credibility, sticks to the mystery.

It may seem as though I am picking at "Dead Season". I'm not. I have never considered Ron Ford's films as intended to run against the slick, over-polished Hollywood product out there. He makes the film happen on the amount of money I probably piss away on Starbuck's drinks each year. And while that is enough money that I'm embarrassed to admit I spend, it seems an insanely small amount to use to make a film, yet that is what Mr. Ford does. He does it well enough that you tend to forget the quibbles you might have with acting in a scene or two or the lucky coincidences in the script. You find yourself wondering how the hell is this whole thing gonna work out, or hoping a certain character gets out of a tight spot. He makes loopy fun out of next to nothing. In the end, even if you didn't really like it much, you have to admit you were entertained. You can't help it. And that is what makes me look forward to the next Ron Ford film.

Put your brain in a comfy chair, count the oddball old-school film riffs and see if you don't find youself smiling at least once during the giallo-tinged insanity of "Dead Season".

Saturday, February 19, 2005

cover art Posted by Hello
Review INEXCHANGE by Ron Ford

INEXCHANGE - Written and directed by Zack Parker. Starring Sean Blodgett, Tiffany Wilson and Todd Richard Lewis.

There is a lot to recommend about this serious and atmospheric horror movie. It is lit professionally, the sound is good, and, amazingly, every performance is as good as those seen in bigger budgeted union pictures. That is saying a lot for a micro budget movie shot on video. Zack Parker is obviously a very serious film maker, and somebody I will be watching.

The story is slim on plot, but rich in subtext and characterization. College freshman Maury (Todd Blodgett) is introverted to the point of being nearly a shut-in. He rarely leaves his dorm room, except for class, and when he is forced to wander the campus at night because his dorm room mate has a girl over. When an attractive girl starts paying attention to him, Maury begins to open up. But when he learns she is just being nice because she feels sorry for him, all hell breaks loose. Add to this a mysterious specter who may or may not exist outside of Maury's head, urging him deeper and deeper into his private inner darkness. The specter is never named, but he is unique-looking. A man, blindfolded (and yet he has no trouble seeing) and dressed in a fur-trimmed, floor-length pimp coat.

This movie tries to emulate the atmosphere of a European horror film. The pace is slow, snail slow, but intentionally so, as it takes its time building characters and atmosphere before turning on the horror. And when it finally does so, the filmmakers do not wallow in the gore. What blood scenes there are are handled with style and taste, milking plenty of raw power out of them.

The major problem, however, is that the payoff of the movie is stale and predictable, story-wise (though visually well-handled). This is a big problem, after having invested so much patience into it by this point. However, that I made it that far without being bored is a worthy feat in itself. The characters are all interesting and well-played, and hold our attention throughout. None of them is a two dimensional cookie-cutter character.

It's nice to see a micro budget film maker who takes the time and care to plan and execute his shoots so well. This is one of the slickest micro-budget movies I have ever seen, and one of the most promising young directors to come out of that arena in a long time.

INEXCHANGE will be released later this summer from Brain Damage Films, and is definitely worth looking for.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Shot Lists

Shot Lists: From Pre-Production through Post Production

By Peter John Ross

Like so many of us with a desire to eventually make movies for a living, I like to view my little DV shorts (aka Microcinema) as a training ground. Even when making a 5 minute camcorder short, the kind where you are the writer/director/producer/cameraman/editor, you can still prep for bigger shoots, and develop good habits. One of these habits is creating and maintaining a shot list.

A shot list is a list of all the camera angles for a shoot, including coverage and cutaways. This can be done from the script, on the fly during a shoot, or even AFTER the shoot, using the footage and just naming the shots that were obtained.

Shot lists in pre-production usually only blueprint a shoot. A basic shot list of MASTER SHOT, CLOSE-UPS (aka CU’s), et al help plan for time & basically outline what the shoot will consist of. Part of directing is deciding what shots best tell your story and elicit the emotional reaction from a viewer. Storyboards are a great second step for a shot list, but not everyone can draw or get storyboards, so a written list of shots can still achieve the real goal (which is organization).

Making a list of those shots from the script usually winds up being different than when you get there on the day and do the shoot. New shots can come up, two shots get fused into one, or you just don’t have time to get them all. During a shoot, LOGGING the shots can be a valuable tool for post-production (thinking ahead).
A “script supervisor”, the person watching the shot list and the script verifying everything from the script got shot, can scratch off each shot as they are completed, and take notes about each take and each shot. Details like which take the director liked, merged or changed shots, audio problems, time code, and as much as possible for notes for post production. Having a person doing this function can greatly increase the speed and organization of post-production.

Now after the shoot, and either the editor or the person who is doing it all need to be able to take all these shots and make editing choices from them. Again, if this is a small, simple shoot with the same person writing/directing/shooting/editing, you may not have made a shot list, but now that you have a tape full of shots that now have to be captured to the hard drive – you have to name the files and the shots in the computer in order to edit them. So, no matter what you still have a “shot list”.

Now, if you had created a shot list from the script, you can carry the same names through pre-production all the way through post-production. It can be any way you feel like organizing. I can’t tell you how to best organize your shoot, but the only thing that matters is that everyone understands it from writer to cameraman to editor. A basic shot list can consist of just saying “scene 04, take 02 Camera A” and abbreviated “S04T02A”, or any variation therein. Make up your own systems, whatever ways seem best to you.
The reason to be so detailed and to make consistent notes is because as your projects get bigger and more people get involved, there is a system in place for everyone to know what everything is in every department. You can find out where you are in the screenplay based on a shot list, or if one shot needs a title, or there was a slightly different angle – all of that information is systematically (and subsequently anally) organized and easily found.

Having worked as a post-production supervisor and lead editor on a feature film, I was dealing with a director who was the only person who had the notes and shot lists, but they existed in his memory. When capturing & trying to synch audio to his 16mm film transfers, I was trying to find shots like “George gets in car” or “Jenny at apartment”. So where in the script does that happen? How many times is George in a car? It became impossible to do anything without the director present at all times. We then devised a system and naming and assigned scene numbers, and shot lists after the fact and we were able to synch audio for the entire movie.

On the big movies & TV shows, the whole production team synchronizes by a shot list and all the way to the end. Even when you’re doing it all yourself, you can prep for eventually delegating to people like a different editor or cameraman by being organized with a shot list, and making it something everyone can understand. It makes it possible for everyone to be on the same page.

Friday, February 11, 2005


Review ATLANTIC CITY EXPRESSWAY - Written, directed by and starring Jeff Profitt.

This 38 minute would-be "inspirational thriller" was sent to me for review, so here goes. That is to say, you asked for it:

In this bore-fest director Profitt plays Andrew, a basically good boy who was raised by his bible readin' granny (Sylvia Hockenberry). Meanwhile, Andrew works for his bad Uncle Ray (Bernard Fiscus), who works in "Organized crime." Granny begs Andrew to stop working for Uncle Ray, but Andrew is too big a chump to tell his uncle he wants to quit. So he is torn morally, and soon is followed by FBI agents. What to do? What to do? Well, we all pretty much know Andrew will do the "right thing," but just to make sure, his Guardian Angel and Satan himself pay Andrew a visit to facilitate things.

I like all kinds of movies and, being a micro-budget movie-maker myself, I am very forgiving of the kinds of compromises we filmmakers sometimes need to make with our limited resources. But this is just numbingly bad. These amateur-hour filmmakers make every mistake that amateur filmmakers make. Eyelines are mismatched throughout. Lighting is mismatched in close-ups. Bad sound. The acting is beyond wooden. The direction is lifeless, devoid of passion or style. The script is sentimental, lumbering and just plain idiotic. It's black and white, old school morality is pedantic and annoyingly naive. This is, in fact, not a movie at all but a sermon disguised as something palatable to the "masses." And badly disguised at that. It is the cinematic equivalent of those repellent little comic books they always handed out at Sunday school. Or of lame-ass Christian rock.

Give me a good religious movie once in a while, but make it one with some passion. Mr. Gibson's PASSION... may be questionable in terms of my own belief system, but I do admire his ability as an artist to put the depth of his passion so agonizingly onto film. This dumbass piece of drivel, ATLANTIC CITY EXPRESSWAY, inspires nothing but yawns.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Not the Same Dog Pile?!

For those of you who have cruised by to look at the site, thank you. For those who remember the old site and still cruise by, we love you.

Yes, the Dog Pile has changed. Time moves forward; change is good; blah blah blah -- you know the routine. Doesn't change the fact that this is a different breed of dog. We've gone from the beautiful lounging canine to something akin to a street mutt, at least in how we look. We are leaner, and, once we get some more people working for table scraps, we'll be more active. Give us some time, and we hope to win over the old friends as well as new ones. Heck, given enough time and support, we'll even try to hop through a few burning hoops.

So click on the comment lines of the front page items. Tell us what you think, what you like or don't like, tell us what you want to see and read. We may not use any of your comments, but at least we'll know that people are out there, and they are reading.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Minds of Terror - mini review

Starring Randy Allen, Mark Adams and Nicole Crawford. With Joe Estevez and Conrad Brooks. Written and directed by Mark Adams.

A little BLAIR WITCH, a little SESSION 9, this meandering, cerebral and budgetless horror movie is smarter than most budgetless horror movies. Great locations enhance the unease and claustrophobia that the film makers are at least trying for. The stuff with Conrad Brooks makes no sense at all, and the gore scenes are clumsy and infrequent. Forget that, though. The focus here is an attempt at building and sustaining atmosphere, and that is laudable, even if it is not quite up to the task. Worth your time.

Ron Ford

Thursday, January 06, 2005

DVD Film School

DVD Film School
By Peter John Ross (

What a world we live in today, originating with the laserdisc, supplemental material with a movie has become a standard as DVD's made their way into virtually every home. Filmmakers have benefited greatly from this, especially for the astute observers. Not a lot of us can afford film school, but I can help you make a curriculum from your own DVD collection and from discs available from the public library for free. A lot can be learned from DVDs in the form of commentary tracks, documentaries, as well as the obvious just viewing the movie for it's own value.

You can create your own "curriculum" from many of your favorite movies on DVD. If there are commentary tracks and extras, they usually contain a lot of valued information on how something was done. Not everything has techie, scary guys on how they did the special FX.

Commentary tracks have some of the best lessons to learn from. For example, Rob Reiner & Cameron Crowe commentaries are almost exclusively on performance and nothing on camera, and others are too much about camera tricks; they neglect to say anything about actors in the movie. And there's an all-new category of commentary tracks for people, like Tim Burton, who don't talk for 20 minutes at a time and teach us nothing.

My Best DVD commentary Tracks (for filmmakers)

ROAD TO PERDITION with director Sam Mendes. This isn't even one of my favorite movies, but it's, by far, my number 1 commentary track. Sam Mendes understands and has the perfect balance between actor's performance & directing the camera. A lot of commentaries are too skewed towards one & not the other.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN with director and uncredited writer Nicholas Meyer. It features the essence of storytelling from a formerly young up & coming director looking back after years of experience.

TRUE ROMANCE with Quentin Tarantino writer's commentary track.
A great story of how the kid from a video store worked several angles to become the "Quentin" that we know as a pop culture icon. More sedate than usual, and at his most endearing, Tarantino's storytelling is at its best with the commentary. Also an explanation of why he does his stories non-linearly is priceless.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS from Bryan Singer director, & writer Christopher McQuarrie discuss the beginnings of the story and again, the balance between story and acting plus the great cinematography of this movie.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Criterion collection edition) from director Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster, and Anthony Hopkins. Not available on the "special edition" disc widely available, the commentary track has many insights into the actor's process and the director anecdotes and trivia make for interesting examination of a landmark film.

SLACKER (Criterion collection DVD) - the "crew" commentary with Rick Linklater & Lee Daniel has many cost-saving tips and other seeds that can grow in the minds of many young filmmakers.

CHASING AMY (Criterion collection DVD/Laserdisc) - Although it's the usual comedy & antics of a large group of buddies, in between the jibes mocking Ben Affleck's movie Phantoms, there are some insights into the creative process of Kevin Smith. A few, and it's selective but the few nuggets of info are worth the banter.

LORD OF THE RINGS (all 3 movies from the 4 disc special edition DVD sets) - all 4 commentaries on all 3 movies can mine many great ideas and information on filmmaking in general. That's over 40 hours of viewing/listening right there.

FIREFLY: THE COMPLETE TV SERIES - disc four, the last episode commentary by Joss Whedon. By his own admission, creator/writer/director/producer Joss Whedon does a somewhat less trivial commentary and tries to describe the origin of the concepts behind the ideas for an episode of phenomenal television. Getting philosophical and still maintaining his wit and humor, Joss' revelations and gratitude to everyone around him make this commentary special.

EL MARIACHI (all DVD versions & originated on Laserdisc) when the opening words of the commentary tell you it's more like "how to make a movie for $7,000 or less", how bad can it be? It has a lot of great information delivered as you watch the inexpensive action movie.

The BMW Films series "THE HIRE" has all 8 films made for the web, plus their commentary tracks. Hearing insights from directors John Frankenheimer, War Kong Wai, Ang Lee, Tony Scott, Joe Carnahan, Guy Ritchie, and more make this a riveting and educational tool on telling stories in the short form. Not many will have $1million per 6 minute short, but the style and motives are priceless if you can learn to adapt the knowledge to match your budget.

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Criterion version DVD and Laserdisc long out of print) - the commentary track by the three lead actors Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest is very very different than the one on the commonly available "Special Edition DVD". On the Special Edition, they do a commentary as the characters. On the hard to find Criterion version, they do a commentary as actors, writers, and filmmakers. Lesson learned? It really boggled my mind to learn they never set foot out of Los Angeles County to make the movie. The power of suggestion of putting a title that says "Atlanta, Georgia" whilst showing a hotel can really effect perception in the viewer's mind.

Honorable mentions -
RUSHMORE (Criterion collection DVD) for Wes Anderson on his second movie features many great cinematic advice.

GOOD WILL HUNTING with Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Gus Van Zandt carry on about the experience working on this Academy Award-winning "indie" film.

GLADIATOR with Ridley Scott lets go a lot of epic filmmaking nuggets

MADE with the "action commentary" by Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley aka Ralphy from "A Christmas Story" where they use the same technology from football games to literally point out things on screen. MADE was an indie film shot in New York and features a lot of Soprano's cameos but also has some indie film techniques.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN/BLAZING SADDLES DVD’s with commentary track from Mel Brooks let loose some comedy genius and methods of old from a guy who's been funnier longer than most indie filmmaker's grandparents have been fornicating.

SEVEN SAMURAI, Criterion Collection DVD, whose commentary has the sole distinction of being done by a film critic as opposed to a filmmaker, one of the cinema’s greatest films ever made teaches a lot about the genius of Kurasawa from a unique, outsiders perspective.


My Favorite DVD EXTRA's
Documentaries & Extras offer up a lot of fluff and sometimes some of the best reality of the film business. Here are the most educational in my humble opinion…

EL MARIACHI DVD (all editions)
TEN-MINUTE FILM SCHOOL from Robert Rodriguez is one of the most common denominators between new filmmakers in this, funnily enough 13 minute DVD extra. It's not as obvious why this is inspirational. After you've made several DV movies, and done 200 hours of editing, you can start to understand how genius Robert's shooting & editorial style was and what he's really demonstrating.

JAWS 25th anniversary DVD (actually the 20th anniversary Laserdisc set transferred to DVD) in the documentary "On Location" features one segment where Steven Spielberg describes how he wanted to do the Kinter boys death scene on the beach, he wanted to do it in one shot, and it wasn't possible with 180 degrees. Spielberg's solution is genius and every filmmaker should see why he is a master filmmaker at age 29.

ENGLISH PATIENT (Miramax Collector's Edition) - MASTER CLASSES EDITING with Anthony Minghella. A lot of DVD’s have deleted scenes, so rarely are they accompanied with such a great explanation as to why & how they get left on the cutting room floor. Sadly, the great Walter Murch, Academy Award-winning editor of English Patient, gets missed in this session.

PULP FICTION (Miramax Collector's Edition & Criterion laserdisc) EXTRA, Quentin Tarantino on the Charlie Rose show. At the zenith of the Quentin era, his history, perspectives, and ideals get put through the passionate mouth of Quentin unfiltered.

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (Miramax Collector's Edition), there are two extra's worthy of note... the entire feature film documentary "FULL TILT BOOGIE" on an extra disc, and one snippet from the "Hollywood Goes to Hell" featurette where Quentin's mom describes his beginnings, and Robert Rodriguez' family recounting his early years.

CLERKS X: TENTH ANNIVERSARY - The "SNOWBALL EFFECT" documentary is a fine example, and an exhilarating story on how a schmoe not unlike us gets catapulted to stardom & a career in film. It's a great manual on the selling of an independent film.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (original DVD release) - On the documentary "Into the Breach", Spielberg's father recounts, with additional stories from the man himself, several stories (including priceless clips) of his first super 8 and 16mm forays into war movies. Lesson Learned? At age 13, Spielberg was a better director & innovative filmmaker than 99% of the DV camcorder jockey's out there. Some people just have filmmaking in their blood and can be Mozart at birth; others have to work at it.

DIE HARD (2 disc edition) - On disc two there is a great supplemental on EDITING 2 scenes from the raw footage and also a cool 3 minute clip on "to letterbox or not to letterbox" which should be required viewing for anyone who needs to convince the idiots who think they get "less" picture with the black bars

AMERICAN MOVIE - The movie itself needs to be viewed by anyone who thinks his or her idea for a movie is so good it needs to be made. Mark Borchardt is a tragic hero. This is the guy we're all terrified to be. Lesson Learned? Whether we want to admit it or not, every filmmaker of any genre could very easily be perceived as wacked as him, but not all of us are as passionate.

THE GODFATHER COLLECTION (disc 4, the BONUS MATERIAL), the HBO documentary "A Look Inside the Godfather Family" is the antithesis of AMERICAN MOVIE. It's the same type of story except of a successful filmmaker with tons o' vision & talent. I don't think too many people can think that Francis Ford Coppola is not passionate. Unlike Mark Borchardt, though it's pretty clear he can get his vision on a movie screen and it exceeds expectations... whenever he doesn't cast Sofia Coppola in a leading role. Also the value of rehearsals and quality of script differ from Mark Borchardt. Lessons learned? Rehearsals and passion and teamwork and emotion and Al Pacino combined can make a good movie or two. Seriously, it's about how someone's passion & vision utilized in a collaborative environment can synergize a masterpiece. Tack on the business end of things & it's too rich to be passed up. For most filmmakers, we want to land somewhere in between Francis Ford Coppola and Mark Borchardt.

Walt Disney's FANTASIA, uncut version from boxed set DVD. The documentary and the commentary track, pieced together from archived radio & television interviews, demonstrate a lot of creativity and the innovative thoughts behind one of the 20th centuries greatest cinematic genius', long before it got raped by Michael Eisner for a few bucks at a theme park. How he conceived and executed so many radical ideas from nothing staggers the mind.

THE SHINING (from Kubrick Collection) - The documentary, on set material from Vivian Kubrick, shows a very real, not pretty at all look at Stanley Kubrick & his really evil directorial style. For all of us who hailed Kubrick as a genius needs to see what he could be like on set. Lesson Learned? I think you can get a good movie without resorting to this kind of anger and violence. In many ways this is great to see because unless your last name is "Kubrick", you will probably never get to treat people like this and ever make a movie again.

STAR WARS EPISODE I THE PHANTOM MENACE - On the topic of deleted scenes, the documentary preceding the deleted scenes section features Walter Murch, Francis Ford Coppola, and Phillip Kaufman explaining how & why scenes get deleted. The priceless story of Walter Murch excising a moment from film "Julia" and the director saying that the scene being cut from the film was the very scene that got him to do the project to begin with. Lesson Learned? Say what you like about the movie, all of the documentaries and behind the scenes on this DVD draw a pretty clear blueprint on how to tackle an epic in the new world of CGI, blue/green screen, and special effects.

THX1138 (2 disc version) - 2nd Disc the "Legacy of Filmmakers" doc on the early foundations of American Zoetrope is relevant to filmmaking not only for it's historical significance as it is the warning of being frivolous with money & opportunities as Francis Ford Coppola was, compared to the frugal nature of George Lucas. Then seeing the original short film "Electric Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB" has many redeeming qualities.

HIDDEN FORTRESS Criterion edition DVD - George Lucas' interview on the disc is indicative of ALL the 1970's filmmaking rebels and the influence Akira Kurasawa had on them.

BRAM STOKER's DRACULA (special edition laserdisc) the Featurette showcases the lengthy rehearsal process. Everyone was there from Anthony Hopkins to Keanu to Gary Oldman and how everyone worked long before cameras rolled. Again, the vision of the cast & crew living at the Coppola house & having dinner together makes me seek that sense of surrogate family (IE teamwork) that at least makes the work feel less like work & more like fun. Lesson learned? Rehearsals are important as is bonding between cast & crew.

LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS Special Edition, on disc four of this impressive set, the recounting of many stories of the fun of shooting the movie made this seem like the ultimate love fest of respect and antics. Lesson learned? Have fun and create an environment where people want to be there by allowing participation in the creative process and also mutual respect for every aspect of making a film.

SUPERMAN (special edition) - One word... "Verisimilitude". Watch the documentary on the disc & you'll understand. I refuse to say more.

ALIEN QUADRILOGY (as well as original Laserdisc sets) - the interview with Ridley Scott on why he deleted the "cocoon" scene in the original Alien, and James Cameron's idea to make an army of Aliens editorial by re-using the same alien suits make this another great catch for people making do with what they got and making the tough choices for reasons of "pacing".

1941 (collector's edition DVD and laserdisc set). The documentary features a very extensive history of the writing of the screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and their involvement with John Milius. Lesson learned? Being a USC film school grad used to be quite an "in" to Hollywood via alumni. Read between the lines - When you get famous, never forget to help someone out who needs it. Francis Ford Coppola took in John Milius who took in Robert Zemeckis who took in Peter Jackson.

Some of the movies listed are big budget Hollywood movies, so learn to adapt some of the information to your own style & even budget. A lot of the information is creative in nature, or even business related and can benefit the savvy filmmaker that can infer relevant info for them.

If your favorite movies have extras or commentary tracks, listen and learn. Take something from the creation of the movies you love. Knowing a bit about how a movie was made possible gets you closer to figuring out how to make your own visions. Deductive reasoning is the key. Adapt & overcome any obstacle.