Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Manson, My Name Is Evil (2010) review


Kristen Hager (Leslie), Gregory Smith (Perry), Ryan Robbins (Charlie Manson), Kristin Adams (Dorothy)

Directed by Reginald Harkema

The Short Version: This mesmerizingly ambitious independent effort showcases a great deal of attention to detail including a satirically witty script that crams so much civic, political, religious and psychological banter in its engrossing 80 minute running time it would require a small book to contain it all. It's not perfect, but this Canadian production aims high and rarely misses its mark. A surprisingly accomplished, farcical horror based on one of the most notorious crimes in American history.

Perry, a man who has yet to find his identity among a time rife with war, assassinations and riots, ultimately falls for Leslie, a former cheerleader and homecoming princess who, after a few life altering experiences, finds herself one of the key members of the Manson clan of killers. Now a member of the jury trial against Leslie and her cohorts for the Manson murders, Perry battles with his carnal attraction to the lustful wiles emanating from Leslie's aura while the murderess herself struggles with how and why she has come to this point in life.

This Manson movie is as disturbingly American as apple pie. I say that because this simple low budget effort, burgeoning with creativity and ingenuity, erupts with style at regular intervals. It succeeds in detailing the savage cruelty of Manson and the followers he commanded to kill as well as capturing the decline of American society, eroded from its classic 50s/60s caricature painted by so many television programs and commercials of that time period.

In Harkema's apocalyptic vision of a crumbling and decadent America, there are a number of wars being waged--God and the Devil; the hypocrisy of the perceived white-bread family and the chaotic violence taking place at home and abroad; supporting one form of violence and decrying another; and also the psychological ramifications of ones dedication to religion whether to a "god", or to a devilishly messianic figure who takes on god-like proportions. There's also a heavy sexual subtext here between the character of Perry, his holy roller bride-to-be, Dorothy (she loves the lord more) and the lost soul that is Leslie.

Perry can barely contain his carnal desires and this is brought to the surface when he becomes a member of the jury against Leslie, but has a difficult time finding her guilty of her actions once he begins obsessing over her body. Earlier in the movie, while attempting to lure Perry into buying into her religious beliefs, Dorothy shows him a comic book detailing a young girl named Leslie bewitched by Satan disguised as a beatnik who gives her LSD sending her down a path to destruction.

Not only does Dorothy's preachy approach mirror events at the beginning and later in the movie, but it acts as a fascinating counterpoint between the propaganda spread through Christianity and the mock religious pandering of Charles Manson. Dorothy demands Perry "Make them pay", when referencing the upcoming jury trial of the devil's disciples. In the same breath, Charlie beckons his followers to do the same thing, to "Make the pigs pay". There are a number of other instances that are the same, but diametrically opposed to one another (especially the ending) that paint a devastating portrait of the fractured vision of society as we know it; the popular perception of "Good" in America and the "Evil" both within and outside it. If the visuals don't hammer home the films blazing, red hot message of a world gone wild, the soundtrack audibly conveys the manic horror around us.

The director tackles all these themes and ideas surprisingly well creating a mise en scene akin to NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994). It falters a bit in the acting department. Some of the performers seem robotic in their delivery, but that may have been intentional. Ryan Robbins becomes noticeably more intense as the movie wears on, but then, this isn't really about Manson than it is about one of his followers. The film mainly centers around Leslie (based on the real life Manson murderess, Leslie Van Houten) and her fall from grace and her inner struggle to cope with all the chaos and confusion around her prior to her fateful day of bloody butchery. In a twisted bit of artistic license, Robbins also plays Leslie's father during the opening sequence. Later in the film after she has become a member of Manson's clan, he refers to himself as "her father" and even utters some of the same dialog her dad had spoken at the films beginning.

This Canadian horror-satire stirred the ire of infamous filth filmmaker, John Waters who publicly condemned the film. The real Leslie Van Houten being a friend of his, he apparently feels the film paints her in a bad light. It doesn't, however, but shows her to be a fragile woman who succumbed to "Satan" when "God" had seemingly abandoned her. Considering the real Van Houten took part in some of history's most notoriously sadistic murders (not to mention continuously stabbing the victims even after they were dead), I don't see how anyone could feel any pity for this person. Shockingly, a petition was started in the early 80s for Van Houten's parole, but this was later denied. Her subsequent attempts at gaining her freedom have also been denied. Van Houten is 61 years of age at this time.

Regarding this film, there's such an abundance of artistic flourishes, a little unknown picture like this is a breath of fresh air when compared with the languid, inexorably mundane movies that pass for horror these days. The film has an amazing visual style about it that belies what must have been a modest budget. The acting, as already mentioned, isn't the best you're likely to see, but some performances rotate between static, to engaging. Still, ones not entirely sure if this is down to the blackly satirical nature of the movie and its bizarrely humorous slant which will likely offend some viewers. Clearly Harkema is a talented filmmaker and this production is frequently a thought provoking affair constantly batting two opposing sides back and forth from one another like a cinematic tennis match.

Both sides are presented as one and the same. Normality isn't too far removed from insanity and both sides share equal screen time. On more than one occasion, dialog is spoken with the same amount of reverence whether being spouted by Perry's war mongering, racist father, or his bible thumping, "Jesus Loves Me" fiance, or the sinister allure of the maniac Charles Manson. It seems Harkema is trying to say society is mad; it doesn't matter which side of the fence you're on. Both society and the government approves of "Controlled Killing", but denounces and punishes killing detrimental to the betterment of the human race. Civilization is a mere facade of its true self, covered in a mire hiding the savage within all of us. Whether you've found God, or not, we're all animals inside; we all kill.

The original title of this picture was LESLIE, MY NAME IS EVIL, but was apparently changed to draw more attention to the more widely recognized name of the controversial Charles Manson. This production stands up well with the classic 1976 mini series, HELTER SKELTER (with a frightening portrayal of Manson by Steve Railsback) and the thoroughly brutal, nearly two decade long in the making THE MANSON FAMILY (began in 1988; released in 2004) from Jim Van Bebber. Reginald Harkema's movie avoids becoming too graphic and remains predominantly a character study cum cinematic political treatise. It's well worth checking out. It's a low budget surprise filled with socio-political allegory (Stick around for the end credits to hear Nixon's speech regarding the war in Vietnam), racism, views on capital punishment and other controversial subject matter that will likely stir any number of feelings in viewers in reference to the sheer volume of topics that populate this evocative, uncompromising and satirical horror film.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate DVD

Altitude (2010) review


Jessica Lowndes (Sara), Landon Liboiron (Bruce), Julianna Guill (Mel), Ryan Donowho (Cory), Jake Weary (Sal)

Directed by Kaare Andrews

The Short Version: A group of overbearingly obnoxious teens fly the unfriendly skies to see a concert, but end up trapped in some sort of fifth dimension a la THE TWILIGHT ZONE where a gigantic tentacled beastie awaits them. Where have all the good movies gone? It's all confusing, uninvolving and centered around an embittered teen whose horror comic comes to life manifested through his fear. Viewers should try Priceline to get a better flight.

Sara, eager to fly solo after getting her aviation license, opts to fly her friends to a Coldplay rock concert, but runs into a nasty storm that seems to be pulling them ever skyward deeper into the encroaching black clouds. It soon becomes apparent that something not of this Earth is lurking above the clouds and drawing the plane closer to it.

Veering dangerously close to 'The Dis List', it's movies like this that reaffirm my lack of faith in modern horror. Either an over-reliance on fast cutting, a lack of a story, or absolutely no one among the cast to feel any kind of connection to. ALTITUDE falls into a couple of those categories. For whatever reason, horror movies today seem content on making EVERYONE in the cast among the most unlikable scum on the planet. The ones written to be even remotely pitiable, or worthy of sympathy are overpowered by the cartoonishly grim antagonists; their characters are lazily built out of the torment perpetrated on them as opposed to building them naturally. ALTITUDE is one such production.

The movie is an overlong 90 minutes bearing a script that would be far better suited to an anthology format than full length feature; It's AMAZING STORIES without one likable individual. The characters are so hateful and annoying, you're likely to either hit the fast forward button, or shut off the movie altogether. Towards the end, those who manage to maintain their concentration will find that the EC comics styled 'Weird Stories' one of the characters carries with him has manifested itself into reality and this dwindling group of young people assimilates what's on the four panel pages found in the comic book.

The ending is definitely of the TWILIGHT ZONE/AMAZING STORIES school of paying penance and being granted a second chance at life. It probably leans more towards the latter than the former as Serling's series was more often preoccupied with poetic justice (but not always). If you're familiar with TZ, portions of the film may recall the episodes 'Nightmare At 20,000 Feet' and 'Odyssey of Flight 33'. With the feel good ending, the late blooming monster angle and the overall gloomy atmosphere of the middle portion, it's an odd mixture that doesn't really gel well together. The score is quite good, though.

Some of the effects are nice to look at such as the black coal colored sky during the storm when the plane has been caught in some kind of supernatural grip by an otherworldy force. The bulk of the movie takes place in the single location, so that in itself will likely put some viewers off. The story is interesting, if only it had been populated by individuals the audience could get behind. Instead, we get arrogant and belligerent teen models for Abercrombie and Fitch shouting and intimidating one another. With so little to recommend it, you're likely to run into severe turbulence when gaining ALTITUDE.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD

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