Monday, March 2, 2009

STASH (2009) d. Jacob Ennis

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Gritty crime dramas have long been a staple of the motion picture landscape. Even before the grisly days of the Black Dahlia case, stories about kidnapping, torture, drugs and larceny have been popular fodder for film makers and movie goers alike. Whether they are Big Time productions like THE CRYING GAME or small, independent efforts like THE CANDY SNATCHERS, spinning a yarn about depraved delinquents, sadistic sickos or villainous varmints has long struck a chord with writers, directors, actors and those who like to see them craft a flick that tackles these subjects. STASH is a modern twist on these age-old plot concepts and is able to mine a narrative that has been done many times before and blend some classic exploitation techniques, while sprinkling in a few updates to the well trodden tale to end up as a mildly entertaining film, not groundbreaking or terrifically impressive, but not a train-wreck either.

STASH is the story of Springhill College student Sarah Conrad, who is traveling the lonely roads of Eastern Kentucky on her way back home to see her parents and enjoy time at a family reunion. Just after a brief phone check in with her folks, Sarah experiences car trouble and finds herself stranded. Before long, two locals, C.J. and Stan, happen by and the seedy pair offer Sarah a ride to a service station. What starts as a kind gesture turns out to be a self-serving act of sinister brutality, as the two low-lifes hand Sarah over to Bud, a marijuana grower/pusher with a taste for kidnapping, torturing and raping young women. Sarah finds herself chained up in Bud’s basement enduring sickening torment deepening to a mindless nightmare. Even as Sarah sinks lower down the well of horror, her car is discovered by her worried father and the search for Sarah cranks up to high gear. Law enforcement races against time to save Sarah and the other girls C.J. and Stan have given as “tribute” to Bud before each wears out her usefulness or succumbs to the abuse the monster heaps on each captive.

STASH is not a great film and evidences many of the weaknesses of the exploitation genre of cinema, but there are also praiseworthy elements too. Like most exploitation movies, when you look at the box cover and see how lurid and licentious it appears to be, you may think you are in for a wild ride, and STASH is certainly a disturbing motion picture. What is surprising is how restrained most of the “violence” in this film is and how that sense of “implied violence” as opposed to grotesquely filmed “realistic violence” keeps STASH out of the “torture porn” category and rescues it from being another CARVER or SAW. What is also somewhat impressive is the sincere effort made at blending character melodrama (parental sequences) with suspense (police scenes) with menace and “action” (Bud’s torture scenes) and several other dramatic sequences involving character interplay and an actual story. What emerges is a movie that has its roots firmly in the rich soil of exploitation ancestry and feels like an updating of the Ginger movies of the 1970s. While those films (GINGER, THE ABDUCTORS and GIRLS ARE FOR LOVING) were about a female Mike Hammer and had a somewhat exotic cast and setting most of the time, STASH borrows the essence of what made the Ginger films enticing; cruelty, bondage, nudity, crime and long stretches where plot construction and character development were attempted. Typical of most exploitation fare, you think you’re going to get one thing, and you do to an extant, but there are other components built into the narrative that can work for or against the end product. In the case of STASH, while the plot wasn’t scintillating, it wasn’t boring either. STASH had a reasonably well-considered cast from a visual standpoint. Set in the hills of Kentucky, most of the characters looked and sounded like locals and were either average in appearance or downright unpleasant and displayed thick southern drawls, with the exception of C.J., whose irritating white-rapper affectation was one of the least pleasant aspects of STASH. The most attractive members of the cast were the female captives, as should be the case as they are the “bump & grind” vectors. It also didn’t hurt that as comely as Karen Boles (Sarah) was, she was also able to give a reasonably good performance, something that was most consistently absent in STASH. STASH was not filmed like Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN, but it was competently shot, had a good collection of simple but effective interior and exterior sets and most of the incidental music was thoughtfully utilized.

At this point, it must sound like STASH was a finely crafted independent movie and that you should rush out and buy. Hold your horses there Partner, you might want to hear the rest before you cause a dvd stampede. Much like exploitation cinema of the past, STASH has its share of weaknesses, most notably its penchant for poor acting. Whether it is overacting, woodenness, a lack of chemistry between the cast members or just foul-mouthed dialogue that was poorly delivered, STASH is not going to win any awards for its performances, but that is typical of the vast majority of its older cousins in this genre. If you go in knowing full well that these people are not gifted or experienced actors, you won’t be overly disappointed. STASH also suffers from a small degree of another exploitation cinema bane, padding. Fortunately there isn’t too much of this filler to make it feel like a Dick Randall movie, but it is apparent none-the-less and when Stan and his mother get into it or you’ve seen a few scenes with Sarah’s parents, you may want to hit the “fast forward” button, for the plot isn’t being advanced with any real momentum at these points. Despite having characters that weren’t terribly well-portrayed, most of the roles were either quietly likable, detestable (for the right reasons) or just neutral, but that wasn’t always the case. Whether it is my advancing age or some inner prejudice, the white-bread, frat boy, bad-goatee wearing turd named C. J. was nearly a deal-breaker for me and when coupled with miserably irritating rap music that accompanied his role, I really wondered if I would be able to make it through STASH in its introductory phase, the longest of which I have ever seen. Fortunately, the rap music dissipated, C. J. was not a regular occurrence and I was able to shrug off his baleful influence as one would hack up phlegm that needs expelling. Like most exploitation flicks, STASH has a fairly heady mix of engaging components and elements that just don’t measure up, but luckily, the good outweighs the bad in a very narrow competition and as such, I felt a degree of respect for what the film makers were able to achieve.

Typical of most EI Cinema releases, STASH has a sizable extras menu and while I can’t always recommend all the movies they foist on the world, one of the reasons I continue to feel good will toward them is their willingness to add tidbits and goodies to their discs. There are two audio commentary tracks, one with director/writer/producer Jacob Ennis and the other with executive producers Billy and Denise Blackwell. Both are worth your time. There is a 15 ½ minute “Making of Stash” that is a mix of cast/crew interviews, “behind the scenes” segments and film clips. It is pretty enjoyable, especially the interview clips. Next is an 8 ½ minute “Bloopers and Outtakes” reel which is fun but fairly standard fare. The 3 ½ minute makeup effects supplement “Creating Bud Jr.” is well worth a look and while not “cine-magic”, it is a thoughtful look at the effects process. For those looking for more iconic “scream queen” fodder, there is a 5 ½ minute interview called “Debbie Rochon on Stash” which should delight her fans and those viewers who like the connection to 80s/90s low budget times past. There is also Pownd’s music video “Still I Bleed” and then two trailer compilations, four trailers from Bloody Earth Films and nine trailers from Camp Motion Pictures. All in all, it may not by Paris, but it still feels like a pleasant little holiday to get extras of any type that lets you look into the minds of the people at the tiller. Kudos should definitely go out to the EI Cinema people for continuing to do things right in the vein of bonus features.

If you like the “gems” of exploitation heritage or don’t mind low budget attempts to tell a tale and be a little shameless at the same time, STASH could very well be for you. It is not nearly as naughty as it might want you to believe, but that was almost always the case once upon a time too. It isn’t a thrill a minute, but I wasn’t expecting it to be either. Like many folks who have watched far too many genre films, I knew what I was getting into and as a result, I was able to appreciate STASH for what it was, a flick designed to tell a very tried and true tale with a little bit of tension and titillation thrown in for good measure so that the people involved could make a paycheck and possibly collect a few royalties. Such was the case in the past and it is still true today. I don’t mind because I feel a lot better about giving my money to folk struggling to make a living like I am and who made a motion picture I kind of liked, rather than pouring cash down the crapper seeing a film where “suits” pulled all the strings, painted by numbers and created mud as a result. I know which one turns my stomach less. Do you?

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