OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen.
So Cold the River
Horror likes to look backward, the ills of the past manifesting as the menace of the present. The supernatural, with a proclivity for possession, spectral tokens, and the like, initially has to be excavated from an insidious history — in this regard, Paul Shoulberg’s So Cold the River, an adaptation of Michael Koryta’s novel of the same name, is a reliable entry in its wedding of haunted antiquity to contemporaneous gloss.
A documentarian, Erica Shaw (Bethany Joy Lenz), is approached by Alyssa Bradford-Cohen (Alysia Reiner) to make a film about her husband’s father, Campbell Bradford (David Myers Gregory), a dying billionaire responsible for his resort town’s tourist industry that has sustained them for decades now. Whatever the Bradford patriarch did, however, to come into control of a rejuvenating hot springs that’s the local business’s lifeforce, is still mostly a mystery, save for a time capsule water bottle that figures as a visual motif throughout the entirety of So Cold the River. In its heyday, the resort housed a murderer’s row of celebrities, criminals, and politicians, and as Erica arrives, it’s in the early stages of returning to its former notoriety.
Shoulberg is architecturally minded, and the sprawl of the palatial hotel at the town’s center, with its humongous domed skylight and panopticon-esque lobby, is suffused with enough dread that violence has no need to rear its head. But when Erica, and a younger Bradford she’s come into contact with, Josiah (Andrew J. West), start experiencing malevolent, sentient hallucinations that draw upon the past, it’s more of a deflation than an augmentation. It’s as if Shoulberg is repudiating the rigorousness of the more prosaic passages, effectively disjointing his film from itself. The frequent employment of shallow focus implies something lurking in the blurred background, the undulating shadows of the pervasive bodies of water a subtle step into the oneiric, the touting of the town’s natural water supply in all its iterations vaguely dystopian. But ultimately, the film’s setup supersedes its climax; its smooth surfaces are more unnerving when they’re not streaked with blood.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi
Measure of Revenge
The Bella Thorne paycheck train chugs along with Measure of Revenge, a low-budget tale of maternal vengeance that unfortunately sidelines the eminently watchable Thorne for most of its runtime. Instead, audiences are treated to the sight of 61-year-old Oscar winner Melissa Leo doing her best Liam Neeson impression as a world-famous theater actress named Lillian Cooper who sets her sights on taking down the men responsible for the death of her son, Curtis (Jake Weary), a popular musician and recovering drug addict. Unfortunately, director Peyfa, making her feature film debut, opts for a solemnity that smothers any potential fun, resulting in a final product that plays a little like Death Wish by way of Ingmar Bergman — but, well, not good.
Lillian becomes convinced that a narcotic known as PMA — “Like ecstasy, but more toxic” — was forcibly administered to her son and his fiancée, killing them in the process. She teams up with Curtis’s former drug dealer, a successful photographer by the name of Tas (Thorne), to eliminate not only the men who run the city’s PMA drug-trafficking circuit, but also those individuals at her son’s record label who are profiting off his demise. But Lillian is one of those actresses who is more than a little full of herself, and she is soon aided in her murder spree by the numerous stage characters she has played over the years, including Ophelia from Hamlet and Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. You see, Leo embodies each of these roles, often appearing in what basically amounts to a hologram but is better described as laughable CGI. But unfortunately, that this woman is so self-obsessed does nothing to deliver any meta moments of levity; instead, audience members are invited to sit in awe at this incredible thespian, who is truly giving that performance of a lifetime. Such a description sadly does not extend to Leo herself, who has always opted for showy melodrama as a habit, and here is allowed to give in to her worst instincts and tendencies. It is a truly awful performance, one so howlingly nuts that the film threatens to teeter into satire at any given moment.
Of course, that would imply there is some fun to be had here, of which there is none. It’s quite obvious that something happened to this film in post-production, as events are rushed through to such a dizzying degree that there are times where all logic is simply obliterated, a fade-to-black or dissolve desperately trying to disguise the teeth marks from the chainsaw used to edit this thing. Measure of Revenge also has no writing credit beyond a few story consultants, which, if it accomplishes nothing else, is a true first for this writer. (How embarrassed do you need to be to take your name off a film starring an Oscar winner and getting a theatrical release?) Thorne gives the most subdued performance of the film and is certainly its strongest element, but her character is also involved in a last-minute plot twist that cruelly insults the intelligence of every viewer who has managed to stick it out to the end. Director Peyfa shows technical know-how but brings little in the way of style to the proceedings, unfortunately continuing the tradition of mononymous filmmakers being uniformly terrible (Kaos, Pitof, McG). The real revenge here is the one Peyfa and [redacted writer] inflicts upon viewers, though it’s unclear what anyone could have done to deserve this.
Writer: Steven Warner
There’s a recent episode of the PVD Horror Podcast that features the cast and crew of the new micro-budget horror movie Sin Eater. There’s writer/director Carmelo Chimera, male leads Danny & Scotty Bohnen, and the star of the movie, Jessie Nerud. It’s an absolute pleasure listening to these fledgling filmmakers discuss the ins and outs of indie filmmaking; the Bohnens detail their long friendship with Nerud, how they first met Chimera, and the casting of their stepdad in an important supporting role. There’s anecdotes about location shooting, set decorating, the perils of working with child actors, and even the intricacies of a fairly large-scale car stunt. Everyone lights up as they discuss genre legend Bill Moseley, who appears in a small cameo role, and is apparently an absolute dream to work with. Indeed, everyone involved seems incredibly passionate about the project, pulling together to realize their vision with such meager financial means. A quick perusal of the film’s credits reveal people pulling double- and triple-duties, roping in their wives and other family members to help out. It’s genuinely inspirational and a must-listen for any aspiring filmmakers out there.
Unfortunately, the film itself is more a cautionary tale about the limits of enthusiasm when it comes crashing into the brick wall of cold, hard reality. Sin Eater is patently awful, the kind of thing that might sell out a single screening at a small, regional film fest with cast and crew and family in attendance, all excited to see themselves and their loved ones up on a big screen before retiring to someone’s house for a delightful afterparty. This is a student short (at best) expanded to feature-length, one that should never have seen the light of day. It’s basically the opposite of a calling card film. Most viewers with even a vague awareness of film production know that movies are shot non-sequentially, making use of actors and locations when they are available to maximize shooting schedules. Sin Eater frequently gives the impression that the filmmakers were literally learning as they went, scene by scene, except instead of shooting rehearsals or test footage, it all just wound up jumbled together in the final film. The acting, blocking, cinematography, and special effects all vary wildly throughout the film, relatively coherent in one moment but suddenly disorienting and amateurish in the next.
The screenplay itself isn’t bad, exactly; it certainly doesn’t lack for ambition. It begins with Isaac (Danny Bohnen), sheriff of some nondescript small town, stumbling upon the aftermath of a car crash. One woman lays dead, while the other is badly wounded. A quick cut takes us to the interior of a well-appointed but old fashioned home; Christine (Nerud) awakens to find her face badly swollen and her mouth wired shut. A nurse, Elijah (Scotty Bohnen), stops by to check on his patient, bickering with Isaac as he enters the home. It becomes clear that there’s bad blood between the men, and that both have designs on the injured young woman. As she recuperates, Christine meets more locals, including pastor Abraham (Scott Moore). She also has nightmarish dreams that eventually reveal themselves to be flashbacks, with a violent priest (Moseley, in his brief cameo role) performing some kind of exorcism. Eventually, Christine realizes that the local religion is more like a cult, and that she is a prisoner set to be sacrificed to appease their particular god.
This is all well and good, a perfectly reasonable foundation to build a horror movie onto. Any genre fan can tell you that plenty of movies have started off with less. But Sin Eater never rises above dreadful, the act of watching the film bordering on painful. The acting is awkward and stilted, and done absolutely no favors by the disinterested camerawork. Virtually every composition is off-center or lopsided, with dead space all around the edges. Characters are placed willy-nilly in the frame, with no real consideration for how the body interacts with space. Sometimes the camera just sits there while characters recite their dialogue, and even the familiar shot/counter-shot technique, the most rudimentary way to film back-and forth-dialogue scenes, is hampered by poor editing. There are several nighttime sequences that actually accomplish a certain moody atmosphere, and these are the most successful bits in the film. But even here, there’s no real consistency. Some scenes are lit by a single light source, creating a kind of cheap-o chiaroscuro, while others are just generic blue gels slathered over the image. It’s all a mess, an 85-minute rough draft that should have been considered a basic starting point, not a finished film to unleash upon an unsuspecting audience. Just listen to the podcast episode instead; it’s shorter and far more edifying.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Adventures in Success
Adventures in Success follows a would-be cult, led by their charismatic messiah, Peggy (Lexie Mountain), as they try to find new members and keep the lights on in their crumbling home in the Catskills. The cause that unites Peggy’s band of misfits is a controversial one, but unconventional in cult terms — a sincere belief in the world-healing power of the female orgasm. Their quest puts them at odds with the local community, some of whom adopt a “live and let live” philosophy, though many do indeed decry the commune as a cult of hippie perverts. Hope seems to be just over the horizon when a chance invitation to exhibit their beliefs at a health expo presents itself, an opportunity that might solve their financial problems for good and finally convince the world of the power of female pleasure — as noble a goal as they come.
But while this certainly offers a provocative enough setup, virtually the only strength to be found in Adventures in Success is its easy, lightly ribald sense of humor. The cast fully commit to a unanimously earnest tone that buys some genuine laughs throughout, and director Jay Buim develops and enunciates the mundanity of this group’s existence, destroying anything erotic about their mission and replacing it with the everyday squabbles of communal living. The film ambles through the group’s day-to-day lives, mining the inherent ridiculousness of the premise and its cast’s comedic talents for what are ultimately forgettable laughs. But despite the cast’s best efforts to sell the material, Adventures in Success never quite commits to its mockumentary shape one way or the other, with the format only ever making an appearance when the film’s plot needs to be dragged back onto a recognizable path. Buim meanders, perhaps for the sake of naturalism, giving the whole film an aimlessness that quickly becomes tedious and which feels more amateurish than confident, never really allowing any of the cast or various plotlines a chance to flourish. Instead, Buim builds a comedy that, despite its firmness of tone, doesn’t seem to know what to do or say beyond the superficialities of its premise. Adventures in Success merely flounders, even given its brief 90-minute runtime, and is ultimately about as successful as its own unfortunate characters.
Writer: Molly Adams
Miles from civilization, a monster stalks woods that are inhabited by a mother and her blind son in Tethered, a horror flick that desperately wants to be the next Quiet Place but whose biggest issue is that it doesn’t know how to stay quiet, period. The feature directorial debut from Daniel Robinette is a case study in how an omnipresent score can sap a film of the tension it so desperately craves. The fact that its main protagonist is without sight should have been an obvious motivation and inspiration for the film’s sound design, an emphasis on the various creaks, wails, and howls that make up the soundtrack of the forest itself. One need look no further than something as well-known as The Blair Witch Project for proof, which conjured discomfort and unease with the simple snapping of a twig off-screen. But without fail, Robinette opts for musical bombast — courtesy of Matt Vucic — that is nothing more than generic dissonant strings accompanying ominous shots of the woods, because these woods are scary, okay!
Of course, an argument could be made that all of this sonic bravado exists simply to hide the fact that nothing much of interest is ever happening in Tethered, an 87-minute feature that contains barely enough story to fill a 15-minute short. As the movie opens, a sickly mother (Alexandra Paul) and her young son, Solomon (Brody Bett), are seen inhabiting a small hovel on the edge of a sprawling forest, living off the land in a way that recalls any number of futuristic dystopian tales but which here seems like simply a choice. The visually-impaired Solomon is forced to tie a rope around his waist that will forever — wait for it — tether him to the homestead; every once in a while, mom and son will venture into the woods and the mom will randomly look startled. That could have something to do with the peculiar howls occasionally filling the air, although they are usually obfuscated by the unrelenting score, so it’s tough to really be certain. One night, mom walks out the door of her own freewill and never returns, leaving the viewer with a lot of questions, like why would she drag her blind son out to the middle of nowhere and abandon him if she knew there was a monster stalking the premises? Is the housing market in this area that bad? Cut ahead ten years, and the young Solomon (Jared Laufree) is now a teenager living a life of routine, literally — still waiting? — tethered to this place he calls home, an obvious metaphor with which this film does absolutely nothing. Before long, a stranger appears in the woods, a former soldier named Hank (Kareem Ferguson), who takes it upon himself to stay with Solomon for a few days and provide him with food and companionship. But our friendly neighborhood monster doesn’t take too kindly to the presence of new blood, and soon the lives of Solomon and Hank are placed in jeopardy.
That synopsis unfortunately casts the proceedings as far more exciting than how they play out, an exercise in half-assed cinematic edging where the climax hinges on a plot twist so inane that it raises far more questions than it actually answers, leaving the viewer both unsatisfied and borderline angry. Robinette is by no means a terrible filmmaker, but there is nothing of interest visually here, no moments of tension or dread, simply repetitive shots of swaying trees and Laufree looking off into the distance, his eyes adorned with milky-colored contacts that look more painful than anything else. Ferguson delivers a performance that’s roughly fifty shades of awful, although the overly stiff and mannered dialogue, courtesy of Aaron Sorgius, certainly doesn’t do him any favors. Much like its protagonist, Tethered is simply stuck, roped to an idea that makes its success nearly impossible, and its crushing solemnity a weight its genre shape is unable to shoulder. Even a blind man can see that.
Writer: Steven Warner