Cheap Scares: Low Budget Horror Filmmakers Share Their Secrets (2008)

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I always wanted to make a film. Being a film obsessed youth I would daydream about it all the time. I went to film school, graduated and went to work for small companies doing video production work. As of yet I still haven’t made a feature. I still want to, not to make money, but to rid myself of this creative urge. Author Gregory Lamberson has made films, and written novels. He’s climbed that mountain and Cheap Scares is his manual on how to do the deed.

Cheap Scares: Low Budget Horror Filmmakers Share Their Secrets is a how-to guide on low budget film making. It covers pretty much every aspect of the film making process, from script writing to pre-production, production to post production, to distribution. It’s all here. He has also grabbed folks from varying areas of the process from screenwriters, directors, post production, distribution and even a lawyer. The book is filled with first hand advice and stories from people that have actually done it. It is not a deep guide however. Each area is touched on well, but let’s face it: you can buy dozens of books dedicated to script writing alone, two dozen more on directing and so on. The book isn’t really a step by step guide as much as it is a great overview with nuggets of advice from people who have been successful. The book feels like being a fly on the wall in a room of professionals talking. He reveals real numbers on how much each of his films costs and how much he made. He talks about issues that arose and what he did to fix them and so on.

Cheap Scares is not an exhaustively researched massive tome on making a movie. It’s a book written by a guy that’s done it that wants to offer you sound advice on how to make decisions in your film making efforts. He’s not going to tell you what camera to use or how to use it. He’s not going to tell you what to write about or how to write it. He’s going to give you advice on the theory behind it and how to try to turn a buck. The book lets you pick his brain along with other film makers including Brett Piper, J.R. Bookwater, Larry Fessenden, Roy Frumkes and others. Buy the book because you like the film makers and want to hear what they have to say. Don’t by the book if you need the author to dish out the nuts and bolts on the subject.

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Cub (2015)

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Deformed Killer in the Woods. It’s a genre that has endured for decades within the horror world and has never fully gone away. There’s something primal about something or someone hunting you in the wilderness. It’s a good trope that has more often than not been treated terribly. We’ve all watched far too many films of this ilk, and many of them fail for a variety of reasons though usually it boils down to totally unlikable characters. Normally I steer clear of killer in the woods flicks, especially those made outside of the 80s, because it’s difficult to do it right. Or at least it’s easy to do them wrong. Being released by Artsploitation however I figured this one would be solid if it was good enough for them to release. It is.

Cub is a Belgian film about a group of boy scouts out for a weekend of roughing it in the woods. The leaders of the cub group are far younger than their American counter parts, the three “adults” look like they had just passed their teenage years by maybe one or two times around the sun. Sam, the lead character among the children, is an outcast. He’s always late, and always in trouble. The other kids don’t like him much but he’s the only who has seen Kai, a killer child in the woods. No one believes him of course and the hunt begins.

There are so many ways this movie could have stunk. The lead adults could have been totally unrelateable and unwatchable. They aren’t. I’m not going to say they’re fully fleshed out and 3 dimensional, none of the characters are, but they are believable and understandable. They don’t bicker constantly, but to argue in moments that call for it. They really seem like young people with too much responsibility, over their heads taking care of a large group of adolescent boys. The children themselves could have been unbearable but again, they act like kids act. Sure they have squabbles but they aren’t needlessly cruel. I’m not particularly scared by children so the idea of a killer kid doesn’t scare me but the kid does a good job of being creepy and dangerous. The killers are nothing out of the ordinary for films like this, but that also is what makes the move entertaining. I was expecting the film to be really extreme, and in places it delivers the grisly grue, but it isn’t “beat you over the head with savagery” extreme. This isn’t a torture porn flick.

The soundtrack, provided by Steve Moore (1/2 of the duo that forms the instrumental goblin-esque band Zombi), is really killer and synthy. It really sets the mood and adds a lot to the film. The cinematography is lush and moodily lit. Visually the film looks much better than most killer in the woods flicks. The film also has a short run time, about 85 minutes, so it doesn’t waste time either.

Cub gave me what I was looking for. A 100% pure horror film, that makes no missteps, and delivers the goods exactly as they should be. Another solid release by Artsploitation.

Reckless (2014)

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I’ve said it before, Scandinavia and the Germanic countries are doing fantastic work in the dark thriller sub genre. Whether it’s a crime film or a detective movie, they’ve got the gritty, grim, and satisfying vibe down to a science. Reckless is no different.

Reckless is about two guys who kidnap the daughter of a very rich man. They hold her for ransom. They’ve got the perfect plan and they’re going to get the money. The only problem is, there’s no such thing as the perfect plan and things spiral out of control. To reveal anymore would be criminal.

Reckless, from the Netherlands, is a remake of British film The Disappearance of Alice Creed. I remember that one getting some good reviews when it came out but for whatever reason, I never checked it out. I can’t compare the two obviously but I can say that I really liked Reckless. The acting is top notch throughout the film and the movie is very well directed. For the first 10 minutes of the film, at least, there is no dialogue. There doesn’t need to be. We understand what’s going on and are caught up in the proceedings right away. The film begins with the preparation for the kidnapping and doesn’t waste a second throughout the film. Most of the film takes place in the location where the girl is being held and the film only features three actors.  The suspense is huge here and the film kept my eyes glued to the screen throughout the entire run time. Given my ability to be easily distracted this is no mean feat. This type film lives and dies by it’s script and this one is fantastic.  I can’t go much into detail about the film because I’m afraid of spoiling it so I’ll leave this review short.

Artsploitation films yet again knock it out of the park with this fantastic thriller. If you like your thrillers gritty and very well plotted, check out Reckless. It felt like a really great tight crime novel from the 60s, very reminiscent of the gritty and tough books by Richard Stark.

Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

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Arrow Video have made a name for themselves for releasing fantastic films with great restoration and special features. They aren’t bound by genre and have released a little bit of everything as long as it’s a bit under the radar. I love the company and look forward to each release. Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is a film I hadn’t ever heard of though the director, Walerian Borowczyk, I was familiar with. Several years ago I watched his version of Beauty and the Beast, called The Beast (1975). The film has very graphic sex and rape committed by The Beast and honestly it scared me off of his work. I figured if Arrow released this, it was worth seeing.

As you might guess Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this version a dinner party has gathered at Dr. Jekyll’s estate. The dinner party is ruined once a madman attempts to rape one of the guests. The hunt is on for him and it soon becomes clear that the madman is none other than Mr. Hyde! More rape and murder ensue as the guests are locked in the house.

In the film, Dr. Jekyll is played by Eurosleaze regular Udo Kier, though he’s dubbed unfortunately. The film has a hazy dreamlike quality to it, a quality I remember being present in The Beast as well. The movie is pretty sleazy though it reaches for art. And just like in The Beast, Mr. Hyde’s phallus is on display in the film and of course it’s giant. We see some graphic sex, the aftermath of a rape/murder and lots of topless scenes from the film’s bevy of attractive women. The substance used by Dr. Jekyll is show to be like a drug that he gets high on and loves being evil. Dr. Jekyll is already evil, he set up the dinner in order to have victims to stalk and intentionally deceives the party by pretending he knows nothing about Mr. Hyde and setting up the house to keep them prisoner. Mr. Hyde is just an uninhibited version of himself. I suppose that’s the point though.

The film begins with some information about the restoration of the film and it sounds like Arrow went to great lengths to present the film in the format we see on the blu. There was extensive work to clean up the image and sound, supervised by the film’s cinematographer. The audio can be played in either French or English, though most of the actors are clearly speaking English in the film. We also get short films, several interviews, essays and documentaries. There’s a lot stuffed into this Blu for fans of the film.

Arrow has once again done a fantastic job. The image is perfect as well as the audio and the special features are truly special. It’s up to you if the film itself is worth your time/money. If you love Eurohorror and Eurosleaze, you should snap this up right away.

Infidus (2015)

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Necrostorm films, based in Italy, have one mission: to make innovative ultra gory flicks. Up until now, their films were heavily influenced by films made in the 80s and tried to capture the fun gooey vibe of said decade. So far they have achieved their goal. The films I’ve seen that they have produced have indeed been ultra gory with tons of gags I’ve never seen before. They expertly blend practical effects with some computer magic to make eye popping special effects sequences that couldn’t be achieved any other way. Infidus is different however.

Infidus is about a guy who gets out of prison. He was involved with illegal fighting and possibly murder. The footage was filmed and sold and he got a nice pay day. His last fight he kills his opponent and the cops get called and he’s left there by his comrade to get nabbed. After seven years in prison (which seems like a light sentence here in the states), he’s out for revenge. He wants to kill the man that left him to get caught but then he discovers that he’s not the only one behind a murder for profit ring and decides to take them all out.

Infidus, filmed in black & white (and red & black), is a different beast. It isn’t a fun gooey flick. It’s dark, and it’s nasty. The gore that put Necrostorm on the map is in full force here as well. Each murder is grim and nasty. It’s a tough watch to be honest. There isn’t anyone to root for. Our hero is a nasty piece of work himself and everyone he interacts with is worse than him. The film is also the first (that I’ve seen) that they haven’t dubbed in English. They maintain the Italian dialogue and subtitle the film. The film is short (about 80 minutes), though a bit longer than their other productions, and gets to the point fast. Almost no time is wasted in the film.

If you like your films bleak, graphic, and nasty, Infidus is the film for you. For me, it was too nauseating and not much fun, but that’s what they were going for so it’s certainly a success. Check out Taeter City or Hotel Inferno from Nectrostorm for films that are more on the fun and gory side of things.

Patch Town (2015)

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In the world of cinema there are certain sub-genres of films that are very small country. Amid the giant continents of Horror, Action, Comedy, and Drama there live countries big and small. Zombie movies and Slashers would be like Russia and China on the continent known as Horrorlandia. Smaller countries would be Cannibal films and smaller yet would be Indonesian horror films. You get the idea. Fantasy is a genre that inofitself is on the smaller side of things. One could argue that it would be part of a Supercontinent called speculative fiction in which the sub continents of Sci-Fi, and Horror also reside. For whatever reason Fantasy is not a genre with a deep catalog of films, comparatively speaking of course. Even smaller would be the teeny tiny country of Dark Fantasy where films like The Dark Crystal and Pan’s Labyrinth live. Even smaller, perhaps a mid sized town where everyone sorta knows each other, is where Dark Fantasy that is also humorous lives, alongside films like Rare Exports. Further still, in a small apartment complex lives the Dark Fantasy film that is also humorous and a bit of a musical is where Patch Town lives. I wish we were neighbors.

Canadian film Patch Town is about a town in which people are grown from cabbage patches and turned into dolls via a fantastic machine. The dolls are then sold to little girls in normal towns. Once the dolls have been discarded, agents retrieve the dolls, bring them back to Patch Town where they are transformed back into people. The people are then used to work in the Patch factory and the cycle continues. Our hero of the story, who has stolen a Patch baby (which is a big No-No) must go on the run with his wife to hide from the authorities. If caught his mind will be wiped as it was when he was first transformed. He however has some of his memories left. He remembers his “mother,” the little girl that owned him, and he wants to find her in the real world. Bundling up his wife and patch baby he sets out to find her and find a real home away from the prison-like existence he currently lives.

Patch Town is a fantastic film. Brimming with fun, interesting characters, new ideas, and a completely realized world, it is a home run. I loved it. The songs (of which there aren’t many) don’t get in the way of the film and are beautifully sung. They do not dominate the film at all, in fact, I could have used more. It’s a very ambitious film and manages to be fun, engaging, and dare I say it, cute. Obviously the director was influenced by the films from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, City of Lost Children, etc), and in my book that is not a bad thing at all. My only complaint is that I wanted more by the end. I didn’t want the film to be over and I really need more from the director. I hope he finds a vehicle for the actors in Patch Town because I’d love to see more of them too. Look at me, gushing, but I can’t help it. I really loved Patch Town.

She Killed in Ecstasy (1970)

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As I’ve said before, I’m not really the right guy to be reviewing Jess Franco films. Over the course of my many years of a cult film fan I’ve watched about 10 of his 180 films.  That’s a drop in his massive cinematic bucket but then again watching 10 films from a director that I don’t have any real love for is quite a few. If you’re a Franco-phile you don’t really care what I have to say anyway and you can skip to the end where I’ll talk about the presentation. For you others, keep reading.

She Killed in Ecstasy is about woman out for revenge. Her husband was a scientist and was experimenting on fetuses to try to cure diseases that plague mankind. He was kicked out of sciencing by a board of scientists for aborting babies and experimenting on them. Crestfallen he goes home and realizes his professional life is over and his goal of helping humanity by killing babies will never be realized he kills himself. His wife then exacts revenge by seducing the board of scientists and killing them one by one.

The film was shot and completed hastily after Franco filmed his superior Vampyros Lesbos. Also starring Soledad Miranda (and a small part played by Franco himself), this one feels very rushed compared to Vampyros Lesbos. It’s a very straightforward film. Seduce, kill, seduce, kill. You get the idea. Franco was known for always wanting to shoot so he would complete several films every year of varying quality. This one feels like he had a simple idea and got it out there as fast as he could without really thinking about the script too much. Sure it has a few of his trademark neat-o locations and has plenty of nudity in it but there really wasn’t much for me to grab onto with it. Then again, I’m not a fan of his work so what the hell do I know?

The presentation is fantastic though. The blu looks really really good. Severin knocked it out of the park with this one. The print is super clean and clear, the image sharp (except when the camera operator didn’t actually get the shot in focus, d’oh!), the soundtrack is warm and rich. Oddly the film is dubbed in German, though it looks like it was shot in English. My guess is that was the most complete version of the film and the best looking print. Who knows? Maybe it was the only print. The blu also comes with some great special features including an interview with Franco expert and all around cult film encyclopedia Stephen Thrower, an interview with Soledad Miranda historian Amy Brown, an interview with Paul Muller, and en extra cd with the soundtrack to the film, Vampyros Lesbos, and The Devil Came from Akasava, which is very cool.

If you dig Franco’s films, you will love this Blu. Severin releases high quality stuff and this is no different. It’s well worth your cash. If you don’t like Franco or if you’re not familiar with his work, you’re probably better off grabbing Vampyros Lesbos first.

Horsehead (2015)

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Artsploitation have made a name for themselves in the world of dvd distribution. They always release films that hover between art and exploitation (hence the name!). Films that don’t readily fit in either category. Horsehead is a perfect example of that goal.

Horsehead is about a young girl who is summoned back to the family home. Her grandmother has died and she is asked to attend the wake which will be held in the home. She has a difficult relationship with her icy mother but loves her step father dearly. She suffers from severe nightmares and was instructed to try to have a lucid dream, a dream where she is in control. Upon entering the home she begins to have even worse dreams, this time with a mysterious horseheaded man pursuing her. The dreams take control of her and her health declines precipitously as she delves deeper into the mysterious world. Her grandmother was a kind of witch and she begins to unravel deep family secrets. Or does she?

Horsehead is a fantastic film. Visually stunning and well acted/directed the film reminds me a lot of the fever dream quality that lives in Susperia, except Horsehead makes more sense. Because the film is about dreams, the sky is the limit as far as symbolism and free reign for the director to be as arty as he wants to be without the viewer giving up due to it’s lack of reality. Horsehead is a horror film but it isn’t a blood n guts type flick though there is a fair amount of the red stuff spilled. It’s a film for adventurous film watchers and horror fans that don’t need cookie cutter cliches. Fans of Eurohorror from the 70s will especially dig the overall vibe of this film. It feels like a direct descendent of the delirious cinema from that era but with it’s feet a bit more firmly placed on the ground.

By now I’m sure if you’re reading this you’ve probably already read a some other reviews of the film, believe them. It’s a solid flick. I’m looking forward to what the director does next and if we’re lucky, Artsploitation will release it.

The Treatment (2014)

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Recently there’s been a growing number of grim, very well made, neo noir/thriller/crime films coming out of Scandinavia and Dutch/German regions. The films are often extreme but not in a exploitative way. They’re just harder edged and more fearless than their American counterparts. Take the Treatment for instance. In tone and in style it’s very similar to the very dark Prisoners, which I had trouble watching due to the child-in-peril plot. The Treatment goes much farther in that regard and honestly I almost didn’t finish it because of how nasty it is.

The Treatment is a Belgian film about a detective who is investigating a serial child rapist/murderer. The detective’s younger brother was abducted by a pedophile and was never found and this is also integral to the plot. He’s a driven man, trying to stop another child from being harmed and at the same time goes down a rabbit hole trying to find out what happened to his brother.

I almost didn’t finish the film because of the subject matter. I don’t like children in peril and children at the mercy of a sexual predator is just too much for me. The film is very well made, the pacing great, the acting great, it’s well written and shot. It’s a great film on a technical level but it goes too far for me. I won’t spoil it for anyone who wants to take the dive but it’s just too graphic for me. A quote on the back of the box uses the word repellant and it’s an apt description of the film, and yet the film is so well made and got me so involved I finished it despite it’s repellant plot. I know things like this are real and they actually exist and that’s what makes the film so tough. Other over the top extreme films can be easily dismissed as disgusting exploitative garbage but since this film doesn’t feature cannibals, zombies, nazis or any other cartoonish device often implemented to grab a buck but instead presents the details in a totally realistic way it becomes much more difficult to sit through. It reveals a terrible world that we all know exists on the underbelly of our society but choose to ignore because looking right at it is truly soul crushing. Which is preciously what this film is.

I can’t in good conscience recommend The Treatment to everyone. If you like your thrillers grim and the subject matter doesn’t push your buttons, you’ll probably like the film though I still hesitate to say you’ll enjoy watching it. The film tries to ride the edge of what the viewer will sit through and for me it went over the cliff. It’s a nasty piece of work but it was supposed to be.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau

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I was a kid when the ’96 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau came out. I was excited. Here was a creepy looking flick with awesome monsters in it and Val Kilmer. It looked scary but not too scary so I would be able to go see it. My mom was excited too. We both thought it would be great. I remember going to a comic book shop and finding an Island of Dr. Moreau comic book from the 70’s in their back issue box and snatching it up because I was so excited about the movie. Boy were we disappointed. As anyone who has seen it can attest, the movie is a mess. I haven’t seen it since it’s theatrical run, nearly 20 years ago, but I still remember the ending was a mess and being very bummed about the film. Now I know why it was such a colossal let down.

Richard Stanley, South African director of Hardware and Dust Devil, wanted the film to be truly unique and had grand visions for the film that could have been accomplished for a modest budget. Instead he got a bloated budget and miserable actors and awful weather. He didn’t stand a chance.

Lost Soul is an interesting and engaging documentary about how the film completely fell apart. We get candid interviews with Stanley as well as various crew members and actors from the film (sorry no Val Kilmer). The documentary presents them to us warts and all. How the film got off the ground and into Stanley’s hands is a bizarre story in itself and the rest of the film just gets more strange once Brando arrives on set.

It’s hard to review the film without spoiling the events that took place and frankly that’s the whole point of the film: to expose the crazy stuff that happened. Let’s just say the story is entertaining and reminded me of Lost in La Mancha. I enjoyed watching the film though it also made me cringe. I felt sorry for Stanley and can understand why he hasn’t made much of a comeback yet. He has made more films but many of them are shorts or segments in anthologies. I can’t imagine wanting to pick up a camera again or at the very least wanting to be involved with the Hollywood machine again.

The Blu looks great and has tons of archival footage and is stuffed with extra interviews and left over footage that didn’t make it into the film. If you dig documentaries about films, this would be a great flick to pick up.