Showing posts with label artsploitation films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label artsploitation films. Show all posts

Sep 22, 2020

DEAD DICKS (2019)


If David Cronenberg had a sense of humor, he would’ve made something like Dead Dicks. Pushing aside, of course, the obvious connection that Dead Dicks is a Canadian genre production, I’m actually focusing more on the large, otherworldly, interdimensional vagina that’s growing out of the apartment wall modeled after the opening that protrudes from James Woods in Cronenberg’s Videodrome, but which acts like Phantasm’s space gate. In the same way that the Tall Man sees his comeuppance throughout the Phantasm series and a fresh copy of the Tall Man re-enters the world through said space gate, removes his corpse, and takes over for him from there, Richard (Heston Horwin) is caught in a never-ending cycle where he’s desperate to end his own life inside his cramped apartment, but each time he does, a fresh copy of him is borne from this giant vaginal opening in his bedroom.

Written and directed by first-time feature directors Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, Dead Dicks is a wild way to break onto the scene, and that it’s being distributed by Philadelphia label Artsploitation Films is both a minor victory for the filmmakers and a way of labeling Dead Dicks as certainly outside the norm. In case you’re unfamiliar with the label (and you should really dive deep into their catalog if you are), Artsploitation Films releases uncompromising international titles that defy genre conventions and will never be caught dead screening at your local multiplex. While some of their titles veer way outside normality at the expense of the story being told, their most successful titles are those that play with strange and wild ideas while infusing their stories with real, relatable, emotional backbones that make such wild ideas wholly approachable. Germany’s Der Samurai, a previous acquisition from the label, is a perfect example of this balance (and, honestly, is a favorite of my own), and Dead Dicks eagerly follows in its footsteps. A little bit horror, science fiction, comedy, and drama, Dead Dicks is obviously hard to categorize. What it very much is, however, is about something – in this case, mental illness, depression, suicide, and how those things can affect a family that’s not prepared to deal with it. Bearing the brunt of Richie’s burden is his sister, Becca (Jillian Harris), who has spent her adult life trying to offer support to her sullen brother but feels her patience running out and wanting nothing more than to, for the first time, focus on her own life. The giant vagina and an apartment filled with copies of Richie’s dead body certainly puts the kibosh on that.

Based on the collection of genres that it bandies about, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dead Dicks’ tone gets a little schizophrenic at times, exacerbated by inconsistencies with how “serious” the characters are taking the very surreal events of the story during certain times. Through a weakness in the writing or a strange choice to convey Becca’s initial ambivalence over Richie’s shocking reveal, it’s hard to tell, and harder still, whether or not to determine if this was intentional to maintain the film’s point about a family’s failure to notice the warning signs about suicidal behavior, but once we move beyond this initial point, the amount of seriousness over the siblings’ surreal new reality begin to take centerstage, which allows for moments of perfect humor to balance out the story’s darker themes. Indeed, unlike most genre films, Dead Dicks’ second act is the most effective in the film, allowing the audience to settle into the film’s surreal concept and also allowing them to find humor in the situation. (There’s a pretty great moment when Richie looks down at one of his own dead bodies and laughs immaturely at how it looks – you’ll have to see the film to understand why.)

Horwin and Harris are capable leads, with Horwin having to do much of the emotional work. He proves himself highly capable of carrying such heaviness in his performance even in the midst of the R-rated cartoon his life has become, while Harris struggles at times to offer a consistent performance. I wouldn’t ever describe her role as being poorly presented, but she seems more comfortable with the smaller moments than the ones dependent on dramatic bravado. (Her comedic timing, however, is perfect.) Still, being that we’re dealing with low budget filmmaking, the ensemble is up to the task in ways you might not expect from reading the plot synopsis, and that goes for every performer. In keeping with the wackiness, the last few moments of Dead Dicks are, to be honest, befuddling, and I’m not sure how the ending will land with most viewers (I’m still working it around in my head), but one thing is for sure: if the out-there breakdown of Dead Dicks’ plot appeals to the part of you that’s become bored with mainstream genre filmmaking, then you’re already the intended audience and likely more willing to put the extra work into determining what it all means. If you can and do, be sure to drop me a line and tell me because I’m still in the dark.

Dead Dicks is now on Blu-ray and DVD from Artsploitation Films.

Dec 21, 2019

RED CHRISTMAS (2016)


Red Christmas, right off the bat, is intent on establishing that it’s not going to be like other holiday-themed slashers that have come before. It’s not the fun, spook show experience that Halloween perfected, and it’s certainly not the no-brained, silly affair like Silent Night, Deadly Night. More closely aligned with Black Christmas in terms of mood and bleakness, but absolutely still inspired by the ‘80s slasher movement based on the graphic and icky murder sequences, Red Christmas cannot be easily categorized. Any horror film that opens within an abortion clinic in the midst of an attack from Christian fundamentalists in which a fetus thought aborted is tossed in a bucket and kicked in a corner, only to reach up a tiny bloody hand to signify that it still lives, isn’t looking to entertain its audience with LOLs.

Despite setting what is essentially slasher film on a holiday and giving it a typically ironic title, Red Christmas is actually based on a pretty original premise, and stocked with characters you wouldn’t necessarily see in a film like this: one of the siblings is pregnant, another is adopted, another is very buttoned-up and married to a priest, and one has down syndrome. And what a fine dysfunctional family they make. But holding it together is America’s favorite genre mother, Dee Wallace, most famous for Momming it in E.T., Cujo, Critters, The Hills Have Eyes, and… Rob Zombie’s Halloween (boo-hiss). Enjoying the rare leading role, Wallace embraces the lunatic concept of Red Christmas to maximum effect, earning the audience’s sympathy not just because of her awful, squabbling family, but because of the past that comes back to haunt her.


Red Christmas can be fun at times, but deeply upsetting at others, and so many taboos are broken that it’s easy to wonder how anyone with a conscious could enjoy the film at all. And while Red Christmas is hard to watch, it oddly satisfies in that way only an ‘80s slasher could, while also going for the jugular a bit more feverishly.

Writer/director Craig Anderson’s Suspiria-inspired lighting scheme dazzles and adds to the uniqueness of Red Christmas, bathing several environments in red and green, giving it both your typical holiday look but also making everything feel off and unsettling.

Red Christmas has flaws, to be sure, but its daringness to break taboos and to be utterly bleak by its end make up for them. It has brains (for once), heart (though it wants to break yours), and it certainly has spirit. It’s one of the most unique horror films of the year, but one that’s also a tough watch. Be sure that you’re ready.

Know before going in that Red Christmas might show a familiar face and a well-worn concept, but it’s not your typical slasher flick. Much more intent on upsetting rather than amusing, Red Christmas is definitely what a horror film should be: unique, uncomfortable, and at times difficult to watch. 

Jun 26, 2019

DER SAMURAI (2015)


On the audio commentary included on its Blu-ray release by Artsploitation Films, producer Linus de Paoli paraphrases a former film teacher when he says that every film has to leave at least some questions unanswered, for if every possible curiosity the audience held for a certain film were satisfied, it would make that film forgettable. Nothing about that film would linger in the audience's mind. Such a philosophy has fully informed the construct of Der Samurai, which presents a lot of questions and provides very little answers. And boy, audiences do not like this -- especially the mainstream -- and Der Samurai is as far away as one can get from mainstream before traditional narrative is left behind entirely.

Der Samurai has been described as a black comedy, or a Lynchian mind-twister replete with bouts of dark humor. The first is fully incorrect, and the second is pushing it, but closer to the truth. For once you get over the fact that, yeah, you're watching what's clearly a man (or a man-shaped being) walk around in a formal dress and kill random people with a samurai sword, all while not-so-subtly trying to convince poor Jakob (Michel Diercks) to desire him, there's not that much humor to be found. A moment or two allows some levity - the scene in which Jakob violently assaults a lawn ornament flamingo is beyond surreal and kind of comes out of nowhere - but Der Samurai appears to be playing its outlandish concept very straight. And a certain understated beauty comes out of that. Or it could very well be what was intended as humor gets lost in the utter madness unfolding before you, leaving you ready to accept that this slice of oddness over here isn't meant to be more or less funny than all the other oddness surrounding it.


Jakob, awkward in his own skin, is an outcast. He doesn't maintain any groups of friends and lives with his grandmother (his parents are deceased). And the fact that he's a police officer doesn't earn him even a modicum of respect from his community or superiors. He's lonely, and likely wrestling with the fact that he is homosexual (though this is never flat-out admitted). His comfort in the presence of girls, in any way other than his role as server/protector of the people, is lacking. He sadly dreams of making a cavalier move on a pretty girl nice enough to give him a ride...but it's all in his head - a quick and stolen daydream; in actuality, he's staring out her car window, unaware of what to say or how to act.

In the same way that Tom Hanks made audiences cry over a volley ball, or Bruce Campbell wrangled tears by playing an elderly dying Elvis mortally wounded by a mummy, Der Samurai is adept at triggering a surprising melancholy reaction despite all its surrounding insanity. The Samurai, who is never named anything beyond that (and who is never actually called that during the film), makes his appearance in an ominous fashion, immediately gaining the distrust of the audience. But throughout the one long dark night over which Der Samurai's events unfold, the dynamic between our two lead characters begins to slowly change. The Samurai begins to embody many different things to the tortured Jakob: first, an antagonist; then, a leery friend; finally, a subject of sexual desire -- all before turning back around to becoming his antagonist again, only it's of a different sort: not of the sword-wielding psychopath, but of Jakob's refusal to admit who he is.


What may come off sounding like pretension is actually quite the opposite. Heavy themes aside, Der Samurai is wicked fun, strikingly directed, boasts an extremely brave performance from Pit Bukowski as The Samurai (see the film and you'll know why), and yeah, it does manage some mileage from some pretty dark gags. Seeing a man in a woman's dress taking off heads with a samurai sword is something that would likely never get old -- but lucky us, we get that along with an engaging story, likable characters, and even a tug at the 'ol heartstrings. It just may be the most unorthodox romance in the history of cinema.

Please see Der Samurai. There's no promise that you'll love it, or like it, or even understand it, but films that possess such an individuality and which circumvent typical cinematic machinations need to be supported to encourage other filmmakers to make more of them. Der Samurai offers something that films very rarely offer: the chance to experience something as graphic, thrilling, and mystifying as it is touching -- all while chopping off heads.


Der Samurai us available on Blu-ray from Artsploitation Films.