Friday, July 18, 2008

BRUTAL MASSACRE (2007) d. Stevan Mena

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The horror movie business is a strange place. People make films about death, violence, monsters and the macabre while actors and actresses portray villains, madmen, victims and maniacs. The imagery is unsettling, unnerving and downright uncomfortable, but for those who follow the genre (me included), it can be incredibly rewarding. That probably says a great deal about horror fans, but the films themselves don’t always say as much as we’d like about the film makers. Sometimes we need another type of look at the industry to make us consider how truly ludicrous making any movie can be, especially something as “serious” as a horror film. It has been done before. Roger Corman made a classic trilogy of mock-horror films: A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959), THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) and THE CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (1961), all designed to scoff at specific types of horror cinema, while Del Tenney made the supremely ridiculous and wonderful THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964). BRUTAL MASSACRE is that kind of mockumentary that is “a film about making a film”, which is very popular right now and will soon be an overly mined idea. However, BRUTAL MASSACRE does have a little sincerity in the right places, a few laughs here and there and some sharp satire rearing its ironic head every now and then, and thus is able to claim it is not as bad as the movies and people it derides.

BRUTAL MASSACRE is the story of horror-exploitation film maker Harry Penderecki, a shlock-meister who hit it big with one film early in his career, but whose succeeding films have flopped, and as a result he has fallen on hard times. Forced to go the “independent film” route, Harry has to scrape the bottom of the financial and talent barrels to get his newest project, “Brutal Massacre” off the ground. All along the way, problems haunt Harry’s each and every step from low morale, to incompetence, accidents, venality and mental illness. All through the quagmire, Harry persists though not always due to his doggedness. Harry’s inability to see himself as a miserable film maker is just as much the reason for his perseverance. By the end of the filming and production process, Harry has a new hit on his hands, mostly due to luck and the equal amounts of stupidity of the viewing public and the movie moguls.

BRUTAL MASSACRE is much like the low-budget sleaze that it lampoons in that it is inconsistent. When we see old “one-sheets” of Harry’s past film efforts displayed on his office walls or in clips of the same movies, that is when BRUTAL MASSACRE is at its best. My God, who wouldn’t want to see a film titled Sasquatch at the Mall? Me!!! Besides being quite funny, there is an earnestness and accuracy to those moments that rings very true. All of the characters are overdone caricatures, but they work most often due to the performances of the real actors. The oft made criticism of “convention ensemble” casts is that it feels like they were “cast at a convention”, but this group of veterans pulls it off. From David Naughton as Harry Penderecki, to Ellen Sandweiss as Natalie the Production Manager, and Brian O’Halloran as Jay the Assistant Director, as well as Ken Foree as Carl the Gaffer/Grip, each of these performances is farcical and yet right on target, which keeps you from constantly being ripped out of the “reality” of the film by the presence of “recognizable” faces. Emily Brownell as Amy the crazy and affected actress and Michelle DiBenedetti as Tanya the slutty actress add even more authenticity to a film that when it hits its notes right, evokes some very sharp satire or mocks with a slapstick style that is almost as stark as a pie in the face. Along with the “shot on video” feel and the moments when the camera “loses focus” or zooms too tightly, the Z-Grade documentary feel is quite silly in the best sense of the word.

For every successful element of BRUTAL MASSACRE, there are stumbles, cringes and groans. Some were likely to be quite intentional, but if they fall flat, they fail none-the-less. Just as a film crew can number dozens or hundreds of people, there is an immense cast of “characters” in BRUTAL MASSACRE, many of whom are too static, too poorly acted or just too unsuccessfully scripted to work. Just as there are a million incidents occurring on any movie set, there are sometimes too many things happening in BRUTAL MASSACRE to make the story really coherent. Just as there are some altruistic and some appalling people working on a film crew, we are treated to some first-rate sleaze in BRUTAL MASSACRE, not all of which makes it a better film. Since it is meant to show us the underbelly of the exploitation film business, a little skin, depravity and crude language is naturally part of the process, but “potty humor” only works in small, thoughtful doses. When we see one of Harry’s old flicks’ one sheets called Bowel Movement with the tag line “Whatever you do, don’t look in the bowl”, that is fun, sick, juvenile humor done with a smile. When Natalie has to empty the overflowing RV toilet at a camp ground, and even though some restraint was exercised in shooting the scene, it is still a miserably obvious joke and the resultant frames were horrifically predictable. Making Harry’s Indian director of photography a sycophantic “yes man” worked for a couple of laughs, but the joke fell flat after repeated use. Finally, making a film about “making a film” is a risky prospect at any time and keeping the tone of the narrative stable is essential. At times, BRUTAL MASSACRE felt like a mockumentary, while at other times it felt more like a straight comedy without any documentary overtones. Most of the film was either humorous or it attempted humor, but at other times there were stretches of seriousness that didn’t hit the mark at all. It just felt awkward. While Stevan Mena did an admirable job of directing BRUTAL MASSACRE and some of his writing reached the bull’s eye, it might have worked better to co-write the script with another person, for having another voice in the writing process can help locate weaknesses you might have missed. Remember the old saying, “Two heads are better than one”?

BRUTAL MASSACRE has a small but very worthwhile extras menu. In addition to the theatrical trailer and a sizable “deleted/extended scenes” section of sixteen segments, there is a jewel in the crown. Billed as “Behind the Scenes of Brutal Massacre”, it is really another mockery of the film business that employs all the characters of the movie in a perfectly scripted look at the cast, crew and “behind the scenes” as if Harry Penderecki really made BRUTAL MASSACRE. It is possible that this 16+ minute featurette is as entertaining, certainly more focused and definitely better acted than the feature film. I would recommend seeing this extra after you’ve watched the feature since much of the point of what is coming will be given away. It was nice to see the real makers of BRUTAL MASSACRE take their sense of humor into the Bonus Features section of the dvd, and sharpen their satire knife a little before doing so. It left me with a very pleasant cinematic taste in my mouth after the somewhat confused and bland bouquet of the feature film.

I am not sure how much longer the “mockumentary” express can maintain its momentum. I have seen a lot of these flicks over the past ten years and an accelerating volume just over the last three years, and while they can be a lot of fun and worth a few laughs, the well may be running dry. What might be a good idea is for these film makers to turn to straight comedy with plenty of ludicrous but blade sharp humor like HOTROD or a documentary that makes you smile but cuts to the quick like KING OF KONG. Better yet, find inspiration out there in something that looks deeply at some humorous quality in life that people haven’t made a film about before or if they have, it is a nearly untapped gusher just waiting to inundate us in stories and themes wholly new and fresh. While BRUTAL MASSACRE had its moments and made me chuckle, I just couldn’t help but feel like this was an alley I turned down once before, maybe even twice, three several dozen times before. I like familiar things, but I don’t want anything I enjoy to wear out its welcome.

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