Sunday, November 18, 2012

Capsule Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Based on the life of British army officer T. E. Lawrence, David Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia might very well be the most epic of all Hollywood films. Running over three hours, and featuring numerous massive battle scenes, the film remains anchored by its startling lead performances, including an impossibly young Peter O'Toole in the lead, and Omar Sharif's first English language performance as Lawrence's loyal friend Prince Faisal. The film shot for well over a year, with desert scenes filmed in Jordan and Morocco, as well as Almería and Doñana in Spain, and never has the desert seemed both so dangerous and so inviting. To see Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen is to be enveloped by cinema, as it provides a full sensory experience in a way that few films have ever been able to replicate. Beautiful, and timeless, what the film lacks in historical reality it more than makes up for in spectacle.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Capsule Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

One of the earliest - and finest - film noirs, Billy Wilder's shadowy tale of murder and betrayal was co-written by Raymond Chandler, whose hard-boiled prose is evident in Fred MacMurray's narration. MacMurray - as the impossibly confident Walter Neff - is a revelation in the lead; a complete heel, but an attractive one, who somehow makes being an insurance salesman seem like the most glamorous (and sexy) occupation in the world. His life begins to collapse after he randomly meets Phyllis Dietrichson and - remarkably quickly - is convinced to plan the seemingly perfect murder of her husband. The excellent Edward G. Robinson plays Neff's friend and co-worker Barton Keyes, who starts to take apart the story piece by piece, until the only question becomes who will turn on who. Beautifully written, the film was a massive critical and commercial success upon release, and helped popularize the genre which would flourish over the following decade.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Capsule Review: All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve has such wonderful dialogue and performances that it's easy to forget just how bitter and cynical it is. A slick commentary on our culture's obsession with youth, particularly in the entertainment industry, it features a tour-de-force performance by Bette Davis as the aging actress Margo Channing. Davis is in full-on queen bitch mode, while somehow still remaining the heart and soul of the piece, spitting out the exquisitely crafted Joseph L. Mankiewicz dialogue with equal parts enthusiasm and vitriol. But it's not just David in fine form, as the supporting performances are universally excellent - with the ensemble receiving five acting Oscar nominations alone, and the production as a whole getting an (at the time) record 14 noms. The plot; about an obsessed young fan surreptitiously infiltrating - and  imitating - the life of a famous theatrical star, remains ferociously entertaining until the end. A true Hollywood triumph.

Capsule Review: Les Diaboliques (1955)

Like Psycho, a film that might possibly never have existed if it wasn't for Les diaboliques, time and imitation have dulled the edge of Henri-Georges Clouzot's masterpiece of suspense. However, even with an ending that most audiences will see coming at the half-way mark, the film has enough slow building suspense and fascinating psychology to thrill and entertain in equal measure. Wife and mistress working together to plan the perfect murder sounds like something out of Hitchcock's playbook, but the French surroundings and cast - who are pitch perfect - serve a much darker tale than Hitchcock would have attempted. The imagery is unforgettable, and the climactic sequence - with the ill Christina chasing her supposedly dead husband through the hallways of the boarding school - is still absolutely chilling. Re-made in English several times; most notably a poor big-budget Hollywood remake (known as Diabolique) starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Capsule Review: Magnolia (1999)

While Paul Thomas Anderson's debt to Robert Altman - who he later worked with extensively before his death - had been on display in Hard Eight and (particularly) Boogie Nights, it was 1999's Magnolia where Altman's influence really came to the forefront. Telling a sprawling tale of the interweaving connections between a dozen or so characters over a 24 hour period, the film explores themes of chance, fate, love, death, and forgiveness among people of wildly disparate backgrounds. Featuring one of the most impressive ensemble casts in recent memory - including Jason Robards in his emotional final performance - the film occasionally threatens to collapse under its emotional weight ( particularly during two memorably surreal sequences) but Anderson deftly keeps the ship upright over the lengthy three hour running time. It's uneven, and occasionally frustrating, but it's a massive accomplishment, and one with near limitless pleasures to unlock.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Capsule Review: The African Queen (1951)

Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar for this rousing adventure film based on the 1935 novel by C.S. Forester, but his performance is just one of the elements that make the film so unforgettable. Katharine Hepburn's co-lead performance is equally good, and the pair share a rare chemistry that carries almost the entire running time. Bogart's gin-soaked riverboat captain finds himself clashing with Hepburn's buttoned-down missionary as the two float dangerously towards a German gunboat during the beginning of World War I. The photography (by the legendary Jack Cardiff) of the African surroundings is lush and beautiful, while John Huston dominates the landscape - and stages a number of dangerous scenes - with his usual unhinged aplomb. It's frightfully entertaining, even if the rear-projection and model work can be a little rough around the edges. Endlessly entertaining, and thankfully available in a beautiful 2009 restored version.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Capsule Review: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

While Roger Corman's cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations are rightfully lauded, it was the final two films - Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia - where Corman was finally able to match his ambitions with appropriately lush and impressive production values. Filming in England, Corman used sets left over from Becket and surrounded himself with top British talent - including young Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, whose grasp of visuals match perfectly with the colorful, sometimes surreal production design. Vincent Price gives one of his best (and most restrained) performances as the brutal, Satanic Prince Prospero, who throws a massive party for local nobility at his castle while the countryside is ravaged by a plague. The portrayal of Satanism is rather shockingly nuanced, and there are wonderful supporting performances from Patrick Magee as the twisted Alfredo and Horror Hospital's Skip Martin as the diminutive Hop-Frog (a piece adapted from a different Poe short story). It's wonderfully entertaining, with a satisfying climax that appears to have been influenced by The Seventh Seal.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Capsule Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Charles Crichton, an Ealing veteran who helmed The Lavender Hill Mob back in 1951, was nearing 80 when he directed A Fish Called Wanda, but his mastery of tone and pacing is a big part of what makes the film - from a script by star John Cleese - work so beautifully. The international cast includes Cleese as a married, upper-class lawyer who gets increasingly involved with Jamie Lee Curtis' Wanda, after she's part of a diamond heist. The robbery was masterminded by Georges (Tom Georgeson) who only trusts the stuttering, animal loving Ken (Michael Palin), while Wanda and her lover (posing as her brother) Otto (Kevin Kline) continually try to find ways to get the loot for themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, the humor strays far away from the often surreal humour of Python, preferring instead to put the quirky cast in a variety of compromising, farcical situations. It's often hilarious, and played perfectly by the able cast - particularly Kline, who does some of his best work. Much of the cast reunited for 1997's Fierce Creatures, but faltered without Crichton steering the ship.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Capsule Review: Within Our Gates (1920)

The oldest surviving film by an African-American director, Within Our Gates paints a devastating picture of race relations in the United States just a few short years after D.W. Griffth's incendiary The Birth of a Nation. The plot is rather disjointed - perhaps the result of the original inter-titles being lost - but involves a young African-American woman's attempts to raise money for a poor southern school by traveling north. The show-stopper occurs in the film's final twenty minutes, where the woman's past - which involved the lynching of her family after her father is falsely accused of murder - is finally revealed. It's a necessarily angry film, but one that recognizes the capacity for change. Some late melodrama dulls its edge, but director Oscar Micheaux proves himself a capable director in only his second film, and shows Griffith didn't have a patent on making passionate and political films.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Capsule Review: The Terminator (1984)

It's hard to explain just how massive Terminator 2: Judgment Day was when it was released back in 1991. I was 10 years old at the time, and despite being significantly too young to view it - and never having seen the original - seeing it seemed like the most important thing in the world. It was many years later until I finally saw The Terminator, and I could be forgiven for being shocked at just how brutal it was. Compared to the huge action set pieces and "a boy and his cyborg" humor of the sequel, the original film is played dead seriously. In fact, while containing plenty of futuristic action and special effects; at heart it's a high-octane slasher film, even down to the first-person perspective from the unstoppable antagonist. It launched Arnold Schwarzenegger's improbable career, and turned James Cameron into an immediate A-list director; and has fueled multiple sequels, a television series, comics and plenty of assorted merchandise. That this all came from what is ostensibly a low-budget horror film - though one that is incredibly slick and well-made - is something I've always found to be endearing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Capsule Review: The Fly (1986)

The director of Shivers and Rabid might be the last person you would expect to direct a big-budget special-effects filled science fiction remake of 1958's The Fly, but following his success with the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg was put in the unlikely driver's seat of a blockbuster. Not only did he deliver a genuinely chilling piece of science fiction/horror, he did it while maintaining - and evolving - his usual themes of melded flesh and body horror. Perhaps his most brilliant move was casting the otherworldly Jeff Goldblum in the lead, who gives an Oscar caliber performance as scientist Seth Brundle. He finds himself rapidly morphing into a half-man/half-fly after the creature gets mixed up into his teleportation experiments. Chris Walas' make-up effects are incredible, while Howard Shore provides one of his most effective scores. A huge critical and financial success, it was followed by the embarrassing The Fly II, starring Eric Stoltz.

Capsule Review: Aliens (1986)

Despite his reputation for being difficult, James Cameron is a man who has spent nearly his entire career bucking the odds. Following up the massive international success of The Terminator with a sequel to Ridley Scott's beloved science-fiction/horror film was a huge gamble, but somehow Cameron created a film that massively upped the ante; introducing heavy weaponry, a much wider scope and dozens of the titular xenomorphs into a story which brings back Sigourney Weaver as Ripley - woken up after 57 years in stasis. While focusing much more heavily on action, the director manages to create a story that sensibly evolves from the first movie, while introducing plenty of new memorable characters - Michael Biehn as Hicks, Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop, Bill Paxton as the whiny Hudson and - memorably - Paul Reiser as the impossibly scummy Carter Burke. It hasn't all aged well, but the spot-on pacing and high octane action puts the sequels that followed to shame, and the amazing climactic scene is one for the ages. A near-perfect piece of sci-fi action.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Capsule Review: Alien (1979)

It really shouldn't have worked. A big budget riff on 50s monster-movie science fiction, featuring state-of-the-art special effects and production design by H.R. Giger, Alien works because it plays the material entirely straight, with its rare early moments of levity eventually giving way to a completely nightmarish final quarter. While influenced by rubber monster fare like It! The Terror from Beyond Space, director Ridley Scott ramps up the claustrophobia and dread of the deep space setting (where "no one can hear you scream"), while delivering a top-notch ensemble cast whose easy chemistry makes their eventual fates all the more horrific.  The astounding production design is a treat for the eyes, while Sigourney Weaver became an instant star for her tough, independent portrayal of (Warrant Officer) Ripley. Of course there are also moments of surprising violence, and the alien itself - with its retracting "tongue" and acidic blood - makes for an unforgettable foe. Followed by the James Cameron helmed Aliens, as well as a series of sequels with diminishing returns, eventually crossing over with the Predator franchise. In 2012, Ridley Scott returned to the setting of the film with Prometheus.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Capsule Review: Way Down East (1920)

Way Down East ends with Anna, our consistently abused main character played by the luminous Lillian Gish, floating helplessly on a chunk of ice while heading towards a roaring waterfall and her almost certain doom. The sequence ranks among the best D.W. Griffith ever filmed, with the cross-cutting between Anna's chilly fate and the gallant David (played by Broken Blossoms' Richard Barthelmess) desperately searching for her making for an exciting, unforgettable climax. The rest of the film is fairly standard, though well-executed, melodrama featuring Gish's Anna being tricked into a fake marriage by the dastardly Lennox Sanderson (a slimy Lowell Sherman) and being ostracized and shamed for bearing a fatherless child. It's presented as a condemnation of unfaithful men as well as a tribute to the patience of women, and was based on a popular turn of the century play by William A. Brady. The silent film was later re-made in 1935, featuring Henry Fonda as David and Rochelle Hudson in the Anna role.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Capsule Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

As extensively analyzed and beloved as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, it's easy to forget just how overwhelming the jagged, expressionistic visual  must have been to the audiences of the early 1920s. Fueled by two great performances - Conrad Veidt as the somnambulist Cesare and Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari - the film's erratic pace can sometimes make for a frustrating viewing experience, but the twist ending - a controversial decision at the time - still holds some surprises for those used to more tame silent fare. Friedrich Fehér's acting is wildly over the top, but perhaps the gesticulating might have been necessary to be noticed when next to a towering, ghostly sleepwalker or the bug-eyed, troll-like doctor. Notable for introducing flashbacks within flashbacks into the language of cinema, and creating a tale that was endlessly imitated by the monster movies of the  following 30 years. It's also been remade several times, including as recently as 1995 (with Doug Jones as Cesare), but none can equal the impact of the German original.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Capsule Review: The Public Enemy (1931)

The ambitions of the character of Tom Powers in The Public Enemy are not so far off from that of any determined young man, he just happens to have the viciousness (and occasional rage) to pull it all off. His rise through the crime world happens naturally, though starts with a (literal) bang with the murder of a police officer. James Cagney imbues the role with a wiry, searing energy that so dwarfs his co-stars - Edward Woods in particular - that he nearly overwhelms the picture. You can't take your eyes off of him. He's the whole show here, though the pre-code material still feels quite risque if you're only used to the more sedate crime pictures of the 40s. The plot holds few surprises, particularly if you've seen the thematically similar Little Caesar from the same year, but created a frame which almost all future films featuring a character rising through the criminal underworld would follow. Some amazingly memorable moments - Cagney pushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face, Cagney walking towards his possible doom in the pouring rain - are muted by the general predictability. Still, it remains supremely entertaining.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Rick Popko, left and Dan West, right.

Sweetback (SB): I'm embarrassed to admit that I was a bit late to the 4321 Films party. I first heard about RETARDEAD in the pages of Steven Puchalski's SHOCK CINEMA magazine (which gets a nice nod in the film), and even from their brief review I knew it was something I had to track down.

Dan West (DW): Shock Cinema is a great magazine that I have read for years and it was a pretty big thrill to get such a nice nod in that issue.

SB: At the risk of being tiresome, let's go back to the beginning. How did you - Rick and Dan - meet, and what were some of your formative influences growing up? I'm guessing H.G. Lewis and Punk Rock have to fit in there somewhere.

DW: We met in High School back in late 1984 thanks to having the same art class and a mutual love of the make-up work of Tom Savini. Rick had Savini's book on his film make-up, “Grand Illusions,” and was reading it in the class. I LOVED that book. It was love at first sight I suppose. We have been tormenting each other ever since. I'm the guilty party when it comes to the H.G. Lewis stuff. I love all of those cinematic train wrecks that he created with Dave Friedman and his other collaborators. His films are either wonderfully horrible or horribly wonderful, I can't figure out which. As far as punk rock goes, we both love the Sex Pistols and I was a big Dead Kennedy's fan. We like "that punk rock", for sure.

SB: Speaking of punk, there's very much a DIY component to your films - along with a healthy snubbing of "appropriate" subject matter. Was the freedom of low-budget film-making something that always appealed to you?

DW: Not at first. Like anyone young and inexperienced we wanted to try to work within the studio system and really tried to get a foot in the door for a while, primarily as screenwriters. We did end up writing an un-produced screenplay for Francis Coppola's Commercial Pictures way back in the late eighties. He had a sort of Roger Corman-type production company going for a while to produce a few low-budget genre films. That, to this day, is the only time that we have been paid any money as screenwriters. But after a lot of disappointment we got wise and just began to wonder why we were doing all of that work for nothing. It was just frustration after frustration. Finally we wised up. Now I watch these documentaries of screenwriters whining about how difficult it is to work in the studio system, and I just have to laugh and wonder why, if they love film so much and have such great tales to tell, why don't they just put together something low-budget and independent that they could have control over? It's a pain in the ass for sure, but if you love it, then what's the problem? Get off your ass and make something yourself instead of bitching about the goddamn studio system. In this day and age, with the technology available to anyone, you really have no excuse than to, as Lloyd Kaufman puts it, "Make your own damn movie".

SB: Now, you both began making short films and sketches with THE SOMETHING SPECIALS - videos available over at Funny or Die - back in the 90s. Even some of these older shorts show off your comedic sensibilities - as well as a healthy devotion to gore. Did these shorts provide your "film school", or did either of you have specific training?

DW: Those sketches are probably much older than that, actually. We started shooting sketch comedy and shorts almost from the moment we met. We have literally hours of that kind of material that we filmed over the last few decades. We were the types that have both had cameras in our hands since we were kids, so we learned by doing and doing and doing. Although Rick did attend film classes in College and I think he might have a degree in some area of film.

SB: How do you two trade off on directing duties? Is there a lot of arguing, or have you developed a Coen Brothers-style sixth sense after working together for so many years?

DW: We used to fight like cats and dogs, but that was usually over the writing process that we go through. Directing these days has become really laid back and telepathic. There's always the occasional flair up, but over the years they have become more and more rare. We have a telepathy these days that comes through years and years of arguing and collaborating, and sometimes it can be uncanny the way we can read each other and the problems we might have with something.

SB: Was the idea that you were always going to transition from shorts into a feature length project? Where did the idea for MONSTURD come from?

DW: We always wanted to make features. I think we were both born filmmakers, for better or worse, and for whatever reasons that motivated each of us. There was never a set pattern or plan. You film and film and film. If you aren't filming, you are thinking of things to film later and then things to film after that. We're just wired that way. We both grew up wanting to make movies and well, you've seen the results. Thankfully in our case "one man's trash is another man's treasure." I mean, I love Herschell Gordon Lewis' films, as you've mentioned, so I suppose that speaks volumes about what strange things motivate me as a "director".

What really first motivated us to make MONSTURD began with a viewing of the film, JACK FROST, the horror film with the murderous snowman. We were really bemoaning our fate as screenwriters back then, and when we saw that movie something clicked. At first it was out of frustration (now I must mention here that I quite like the movie, JACK FROST and I'm not kidding when I say this. I think it's very funny and very entertaining in a great sarcastic way, but at the time it made us slightly angry) but that frustration later served us very very well as Rick can tell you.

Rick Popko (RP): Dan and I had just spent something like three or four years of our lives writing an epic action/comedy. There were points during that writing process that almost cost us our friendship. We thought it was so good that Hollywood HAD to take notice of us. We thought it was our golden ticket into magic land. Soon, however, the realities of trying to sell a script into Hollywood set in. A studio won’t read a script unless it’s submitted by an agent. And an agent won’t read your script until they’re interested in your 1-page query letter. I sent 40 query letters to different agencies in and around Hollywood (and included a self-addressed stamped envelope so they could send us a rejection back).

After two weeks, we got three rejections back. I then started doing follow-up calls to those agencies we hadn’t heard from. I spoke to agency and asked the receptionist, “How long does it take to hear back from a query letter,” to which she responded, “About two weeks.” When I asked, “What if it’s been longer than that?” She said, “Then we’re not interested.” I then added, “But I sent you a self-addressed stamped envelope.” And she shot back, “Look, if I had to send a self-addressed stamped envelope back to everyone who sends us a query letter, it would be a fulltime job for me, and, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time for that.” And then I snapped back, “Then what does a writer need to do to get their script read in this town?!” And she said, “You can either know someone we’re already representing or have someone attached to your project.”

We didn’t know anyone who was represented by an agent, so we tried to get attachment to the project. Dan and I cast the script and then proceeded to send copies out to those actor’s agents. In a couple of days, those scripts came right back to us with a note inside that said, “Sorry, we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.”

We were broken men at that point. To nurse our wounds we went to a local video store and rented JACK FROST. As I was watching it, I started to fume… “How is it Hollywood has no problem releasing a movie about a killer snowman, but won’t take the opportunity to consider our project?” I was outraged. When I left Dan’s house after the movie, I thought, “You like movies about killer snowmen, Hollywood? How about a move about a killer shit monster? Huh? Would you like that?” When I got home, I immediately penned the first 25 pages of the script, then called IT CAME FROM THE SEWER. I called Dan and pitched him the idea and added that we should write this thing as a joke and then send it to every studio in Hollywood. Dan thought I was crazy and said I needed to take a chill pill.

A few weeks later, when I was at CNET, I got my hands on a Canon GL1 miniDV camcorder for review. During my tests, I took it over to Dan’s house to do some test shots using the camera’s 30p mode. Dan saw the quality that that the camera produced and screamed, “Dude, that looks like film! We could make a movie with that thing!”

A few days later Dan called me and said, “You know that shit monster movie you were telling me about the other day?... I think we can do it.”

Long story short, I purchased the camera, we drafted a script and shot the thing over the course of a year… It took another year to edit the beast.

SB: For a low-budget film, MONSTURD is awfully ambitious. What were some of the ways you stretched the budget, and what sort of shooting schedule was there?

DW: It's wonderful whenever you hear someone call something like MONSTURD "awfully ambitious" because it is both "awful" as well as "ambitious". One of the great ways to stretch a budget is by not paying anyone but a composer and sound editor who wouldn't work for you any other way. The next is to find great locations that require little if any compensation for their production value, and the third way is to be a pair of DIY punk rock assholes and just run around stealing as many shots in as many ways that you can without getting arrested. (And yes, we did film our prison scenes at Alcatraz during a packed tour...a true feat of indie filmmaking). We had no idea how long it would take to shoot a feature film, so we weren't "restrained" by that idea. Shooting took as long as it took, and it took a long fucking time on that budget (but not as long as its sequel!). Looking back on MONSTURD, taking a year to get most of that thing shot seems like a miracle, considering how insane the storyline was, but we were much younger then. You'd hope to get quicker in your older years, but maybe we should just be less ambitious and start filming MY DINNER WITH ANDRE but with some gore, so we can just use two actors and one set and get it done in a week. (And I'm not kidding when I say this. I've certainly thought about that approach).

SB: RETARDEAD has much of the same cast as MONSTURD, and the quality of acting as a whole - including both of yourselves - is well above the usual level you see in films with such limited budgets. Did most of the cast come from the SOMETHING SPECIALS group, or did you have to cast outside of friends and family?

DW: Beth West, who played Agent Hannigan, was my wife at the time, so her casting was based on commitment as well as convenience, but Beth was always extremely punk rock and game for adventure, as was Paul Weiner who played Sheriff Duncan, who we recruited from an internet-based company we both worked at when we started the movie. We really didn't know Paul from Adam, but he ended up doing both films and was great for what we needed in that crazy sheriff role. He just seemed right for that part and so did Beth. Sure the acting is wooden or uneven or whatever you want to call it, but it's sarcastic, and no one was trying to win a fucking Oscar by playing a role in a shit monster movie or a movie about retarded zombies. We were just trying to be funny and tongue-in-cheek in a very sarcastic, dry way, as if these "bad actors" didn't know they were in such a ridiculous movie. Of course they were stiff. The dialogue was ridiculous and they were trying to keep from laughing while saying their intentionally stupid lines.

Many of the other actors, like Ken Dashner who played Professor Downing or Dan Burr who played Dr. Stern, had shot sketch comedy with us for many years prior to making the movies. Dan Ellis was a great discovery who was introduced to us by Dan Burr, and he ended up playing Dr. Waters. Ellis had aspirations to be a working actor and he was really quite good. We ended up fleshing out and expanding his part to give him more screen time. He's gone on to do a few movies in Canada and I hope he'll find his niche' as an actor because he's really quite good.

SB: Part of what makes RETARDEAD such a delightful experience is that it's packaged as a complete drive-in experience, complete with a great Concession Stand ad parody, and two terrific fake trailers for FRANKENSTEIN AND THE BLOODY BEAST OF GHASTLY TERROR and DRACULA VS JACK THE RIPPER. Talk a little about filming these shorts - and was the concept for RETARDEAD always meant to include all of this preamble?

DW: Those were sort of my babies, due to my fondness for art direction and costume design. They were afterthoughts, due to the production of RETARDEAD stretching on into infinity. We shot for years on that project. It just never seemed like it would end. We had endless changes in the script and really flew by the seats of our pants trying to put that thing together. As we were editing RETARDEAD, it became top mind that since I had collected period costumes for an aborted Dracula project that had been in the works years before

SB: I really have to ask. While MONSTURD certainly was willing to cross the line, RETARDEAD gleefully jumps over it. Was there any concern of backlash from the "special ed" content, or did you always figure that genre fans would be able to recognize and accept the humor for what it is?

DW: No, we were certainly apprehensive, if you can believe that, and at one point we did change the title of the movie to INFECDEAD, but really, RETARDEAD was a matter of committing to the bad taste factor from the start. That project became kind of an "all or nothing" commitment, if we were really going to submit ourselves to making that movie. The subject matter was always a factor in us thinking that maybe we were taking things too far and crossing a line that we shouldn't cross, but once you've invested a few years of your life into committing such stupidity and wild ideas into a feature film, then those concerns fall by the wayside. Sometimes in indie filmmaking, things really can become a case of "It's too late to turn back." That is the nature of the beast when you leap into an independent film.

RP: We had a conversation with Elite (our distributor for MONSTURD at the time). They were interested in having the first look at RETARDEAD when it was done. One day I got a call from our rep and he said, “Rick, I have to tell you, I floated your title (RETARDEAD) to a few of my sub distributors and they all told me you’re going to have a hard time moving a title with that name.” He then suggested we change the name of it.

As Dan mentioned, we toyed with the idea of changing the name to INFECDEAD, so that it wouldn’t prevent us from getting into Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other chain stores. But then it occurred to us, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other chain stores weren’t stocking MONSTURD, what makes us think they’d ever stock INFECDED? And so we said, “Screw it,” let the movie stand on its own.

With regards to backlash, we got some blowback on a few horror film site forums (mostly from people who hadn’t even seen the film), and Daily Grindhouse refused to run this interview, but that’s about it. It could be that people offended by the title stayed really quiet for fear that any kind of negative publicity would only fuel awareness of the movie.

SB: One of the things I love about low-budget cinema is the sense of community that surrounds it. For RETARDEAD, you guys had a plethora of second unit footage from around the country - and even had Brett Kelly (who I interviewed a few months back) to contribute some up here in Canada. It sounds like organizing it would be a logistical nightmare. How did you go about getting all of these people involved, and how the heck did you keep track of it all?

RP: When we set out to make RETARDEAD, we knew we had some pretty big shoes to fill, DAWN OF THE DEAD, of course being the biggest one. Dan and I said that if we were going to make a zombie movie we had to go all out for it. No cutting corners with regards to zombies and gore. I was a member of a few indie filmmaking Websites back in the day, and one day, while I was replying to one filmmaker’s thread it struck me. Everyone here wants to make movies. What if we could crowd source all of the zombie kill scenes? If we could get 50 filmmakers contributing a few short gory shots, it could look like an all out splatterfest if they were all edited together right. So I put the word out on those sites and sent them photos of what our zombies looked like so they could make sure theirs matched. In a matter of a couple of days I had 80 people who said they were on board.

“Holy shit,” I thought, “This is going to be crazy!” Out of those 80 people who jumped in, only 8 folks bothered to send something in. When I followed up with folks, I heard every excuse in the book why they haven’t sent anything. My father just died, I just moved, I don’t have any money, my friends flaked on me… Blah, blah, blah. We’re happy to say that all but one of the submissions made it into the final movie.

SB: It's also a film that gleefully revels in violence - particularly in the final twenty minutes. Did working with such a variety of FX - from the countless head shots, to gut-eating to a HELICOPTER EXPLOSION - provide any unique challenges?

DW: The effects were probably the driving force for us to actually make that movie! It's no exaggeration to say that our motivation for making a full-blown zombie movie on that level was to try and capture and emulate some of our love for George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, which was a seminal film for both of us and one of the reasons we chose to tackle a zombie movie in the first place. I certainly attempted to throw my hat into the ring as far as getting a gore effect on screen. Most of the really "eye-popping" effects were done by Ed Martinez, who was our "Tom Savini" on that show. He did the full-body tear in half and all of the other really stunning effects. I designed the ridiculous Monty Python-type Bum head decapitation/rip that showers the other bum in blood, and certain other silly things.

RP: One of the great things about being an independent filmmaker, is you can do anything you want in your movie. One day during production I told Dan that I felt the movie needed a car crash scene.

“Where do you want to put it in the movie,” he asked? I said, “I don’t know yet, but a car crash would add some real production value to the movie.” And Dan said, “I’ll tell you what. You figure out how you’re going to pull it off, and I’ll find a place we can insert it.” And so I set out get it done. I found an auto dismantling place in town and talked to the owner of the place. I asked if he would mind smashing a couple of junked cars together for us. In exchange we’d give his shop a credit in the movie and a copy of it when it was done. He said, “Sure thing. When do you want to do it?” It’s amazing what you can get if you just ask for it.

For the helicopter explosion, I filmed an actual helicopter taking off from a field, and then sent the footage to my friend Mark Pirro (another great, legendary independent filmmaker). Mark happened to be good friends with Glenn Campbell who was currently working at an animation house and sent the footage to him. Glenn, graciously took our footage into his computer and blew the helicopter out of the sky for us.

SB: I think my favorite FX moment is the simultaneous NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD trowel stabbing and DAWN OF THE DEAD machete head-slice, which is about as nerdily gleeful a reference to the Romero zombie films as one could hope for. Realizing that there's been a glut of low-budget zombie films in recent years, how did you hope to separate yours from the pack of Romero devotees?

DW: Goddamn! It's funny that you mention the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD trowel stab, because, until you mentioned that, it was "unintentional." The machete in the nurse’s head was purely intentional, of course, but the trowel reference/killing was not. That was a lucky coincidence. I'm thrilled that you point that out, actually. It's really iconic and was really not intentional.

SB: After the film was completed, what was the process? Did you submit to festivals, and what was the immediate response? Certainly the subject matter was an attention getter.

RP: No, we didn’t intentionally submit to a bunch of festivals. As far as I was concerned, the only reason to submit your film into a festival is to try and get someone interested in distributing it for you. We knew we were pretty much going to sign the movie with Brain Damage Films, so there was no point in submitting to festivals. Plus, we had really terrible luck submitting MONSTURD to festivals. Each festival entry cost around $40. We submitted MONSTURD to eight of them and didn’t get into any. Thanks to RETARDEAD’s word of mouth, however, we were actually approached by a few film festivals who wanted to screen it in their lineup. I told them, no problem as long as we don’t have to pay. We were invited to screen at Texas Frightmare Weekend (in Dallas, TX) and the Dead Channels Film Fest (in San Francisco). We also rented a local movie theater in San Francisco and had a 3-day world premiere there.

SB: And here's my biggest question: What's coming up next for you guys and 4321 Films? Any films or shorts in the pipeline?

RP: We’re currently in production on a new flick called CABERSLAY (pronounced like ”cabernet”). It’s about a winery in the Napa Valley that’s run by Satanists. The tagline is: You’re about to hit the bottom of the barrel. This flick’s going to be a little bit of a departure for us. Rather than doing pure exploitation off a gimmicky premise, we’re actually going to try and make a dark, weird, giallo-type horror flick with black comic undertones.

SB: If fans want to follow your current projects, or get copies of RETARDEAD or MONSTURD, what's the best way to do so?

RP: Our Website is You can also “Like” 4321 Films on Facebook. If you want to Friend either Dan or I on Facebook, please preface the request with an in-mail that mentions MONSTURD or RETARDEAD that way we know you’re not a spambot. Our movies are on Amazon and Netflix as well.

SB: Any other projects to plug?

DW: I am in the process of self-publishing three books: "I Hate You! And None of You Will Be Happy!", "Homemade Embalming Fluid (Expanded Edition), and the tentatively-titled, "And They All Died Screaming": (A horror/comedy novel). The details of which can be kept track of on my blog: Dan West Hates You! And None of You Will Be Happy!!

SB: Honestly, I love the work you guys are doing, and I could easily come up with a few dozen more questions; but for the sake of your sanity, there's just one more. If you each needed to give one piece of advice to young filmmakers looking to make a feature, what would it be?

RP: Always think about your production values. Just because you don’t have a budget doesn’t mean your movie has to look it. If your movie requires a medieval castle, go out and find a real one and then steal a bunch of shots in front of it (that’s what we did for the intro shot for the FRANKENSTEIN AND THE BLOODY BEAST OF GHASTLY TERROR trailer). Don’t just put a bunch of spray-painted cardboard up in your garage and call it done. In fact, the one thing that irks me the most about indie filmmakers today is how utterly cheap their movies look. Don’t rush your project for the sake of getting it done and having “bragging rights” that you’ve “made a movie.” Take your time to really frame your shots and work with your actors to get lines delivered right. And remember that it never hurts to ask for anything. The worst thing anyone can say to you is, “No.”

SB: Oh! And, of course, I have to ask one more question: How the heck did Jello Biafra end up in the film? And talk a little bit about how exciting having both H.G. Lewis and David Friedman be involved was for you both.

DW: We met Jello at a crazy MONSTURD screening in San Francisco. He came of his own free will, as a "fan." It was random and totally odd. I was a big Dead Kennedys Fan and knew who he was, so I was taken off guard at how much he liked the movie. Rick and Jello and I chatted for a few hours after the screening and could have blathered on forever. We got along really well and Jello implied that he'd done some acting and wouldn't be adverse to acting in some of our stuff, if we'd entertain that notion.

Well, fuck me, I was floored by that, being a fan of his, but I'm a decent actor and played it cool, but I was pretty damn thrilled by the idea. It worked out well, as you point out. I like the whole process of working with Jello Biafra because he didn't bat an eye at the crazy low-budget set we threw him in, and gleefully threw himself into saying that ridiculous dialog that we came him for the Mayor's press conference.

My association with Herschell Gordon Lewis dates back to the 1980's when I first started bugging him to collaborate on some kind of film project. Herschell was always accommodating and humored me for years in a gentlemanly manner as I pitched endless projects to him that never came to fruition. The narration he did for RetarDEAD and the David Friedman footage were the result of a project that Rick and I had in mind in which we would play them in an autobiographical comedy about their exploitation movie adventures. This never came to pass, much to my disappointment, but their narration efforts were not to be wasted. We had Herschell's narration recorded on audio tape and Dave Friedman's narration on camera that I had paid for to be used as second unit footage for the proposed project. When we came down to finalizing RETARDEAD we asked both of them for their permission to use those bits for the movie and they agreed.

Monday, March 26, 2012


It should come as little surprise to readers of this column that I love no-budget films. Yeah, I critique 'em. I tear them apart a bit. But in my heart, there's something about the creation of entertainment on limited resources that simply warms my soul. You love movies? You want to make one? Well, write a script, get your friends together, and start filming. It'll likely be terrible, but that experience will make the next one better. Which will make the one after that better. And so on and so on. But perhaps more than this "let's put on a show" attitude, I dig the freedom of self-financed, ultra low-budget film-making. If you want to make something horribly offensive, tasteless, disgusting or unwatchable.. nobody will be looking over your shoulder to try and correct you. It's a beautiful time for creativity. It's the wild west.

In 2003, Dan West and Rick Popko directed a ridiculous monster movie parody called MONSTURD about a serial killer being mutated into a giant creature made of.. shit. It was full of silly humor, off-the-wall performances (including great turns by West and Popko) and an energy rarely seen in shot-on-DV productions. It's a gleefully offensive piece of genre filmmaking, but one that sometimes has trouble sustaining interest throughout its 80 minutes. A full five years passed before we would see their followup film, which would end up being a direct sequel to MONSTURD though significantly more polished (get it?). RETARDEAD plopped in 2008, and we're all still attempting to recover. I remember reading about the film in A D Puchalski's wonderful SHOCK CINEMA magazine and knowing that I simply had to check it out, though it would unfortunately be years until I had the chance.

As you might have already gathered, RETARDEAD is a zombie film - though one with a twist. Dr. Stern (Dan Burr) has vanished after the events of MONSTURD and is presumed dead, though Sheriff Duncan (Paul Weiner) and FBI agent Hannigan (Beth West) are skeptical that he's gone for good. Their suspicions are confirmed when he pops up at a local special education school where he begins experimenting on the unwilling students with his Algernon 9 formula, which is meant to rapidly increase their intelligence. The FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON reference should be a tip-off that there might be some side-effects, and soon the mentally challenged kids turn into flesh hungry ZOMBIES. The zombie plague rapidly gets out of control, with Duncan's deputies Rick and Dan (our two directors) - who had been busy chasing the perverted Weenie Wagger - called into action, and eventually having to enlist the help of Stern to try and track down an antidote. Things just get nuttier from there, and the final gag is a howler.

West and Popko definitely take advantage of the freedoms offered on a low-budget, as they gleefully bathe themselves in bad-taste comedy and gore to the delight of discriminating genre fans. But a film can't live on gore alone, and the directors - who are comedy sketch veterans - have assembled a sharp, funny script that continually both wallows in and subverts the conventions of zombie horror. They've also amassed a cast much higher in quality than normally found in films of this budget - including the actors playing the special ed students who somehow skirt the line between hilarious (think crayons up the nose and random bunny outfits) and sympathetic. Best of all is Dan Burr as Dr. Stern whose solution to the zombie problem ends up being hilariously simple, but who carries a quiet menace - particularly when using a particularly frightening spider analogy.

Technical specs are surprisingly high, with a cavalcade of head shots, organ eating, the requisite machete to the head, and even a helicopter explosion thrown in for good measure. Once things start ramping up at the half way mark, there's a constant stream of gory set pieces, with occasional comic relief from the deputies ("What kind of cop are you?" "I dunno. A crappy one, I guess") to remind us that we're watching a comedy. The make-up effects quite good - and plentiful - and West and Popko get plenty of cooperation from droves of zombie extras, and even filmmakers (second unit footage comes from around the US and Canada). Sound is excellent, too, with a fine score by Marshall Crutcher and an excellent closing theme song that I find myself whistling on a frequent basis.

RETARDEAD is packaged as a full drive-in experience, with not only a comical pre-film concession stand advertisment parody (directed by RETARDEAD editor Ken Dashner), and TWO parody trailers (directed by West and Popko): FRANKENSTEIN AND THE BLOODY BEAST OF GHASTLY TERROR and DRACULA VS JACK THE RIPPER which poke fun at the terrible dubbing and goofy plot devices often present in foreign horror films of the 70s. RETARDEAD also has some wonderful - and surprising - cameos. Horror legend H.G. Lewis does an opening bit of narration, while fellow legend (and partner) David Friedman shows up briefly on a television as "Captain Kooky". Perhaps strangest of all, punk God (and former Dead Kennedys frontman) Jello Biafra shows up as the mayor of Butte county. Amazing!

Of course, RETARDEAD isn't for everyone. Even if you can get past the title and the obviously comical portrayal of people with disabilities, it's still an ultra low-budget film with all of the limitations that would imply. While the acting is good, it's inconsistent - with Beth West as Agent Hannigan giving an unfortunately (but appropriately) stiff performance. But these rough edges are part of the appeal for fans, and horror fans looking for something happily unrestrained will be overjoyed at Popko and West's commitment to crowd-pleasing. It's a whacked-out, unpredictable mess of a film, and when it comes to no-budget film-making, there can be no bigger compliment.

One Nightmare out of Five - No-Budget Perfection

One Nightmare - No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares - Shocking Success, Three Nightmares - Shows Potential, Four Nightmares - Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares - Please Kill Me

Join me this week for an interview with RETARDEAD directors Rick Popko and Dan West.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Capsule Review: The Pianist (2002)

Władysław Szpilman was a Jewish-Polish Pianist who, despite all odds, managed to survive the horrific German occupation of Warsaw, Poland. Perhaps no other director was better prepared to tell his story than Roman Polanski, who escaped from the Krakow Ghetto as a child after the death of his mother. Despite devastatingly emotional material, Polanski doesn't wallow in the sadness, instead embracing moments of quiet beauty amongst one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. He rests the entire film on the pitch perfect performance of Adrien Brody, who goes from naive professional to harrowed, impossibly traumatized survivor in a world so unrecognizable, that it seems nearly post-apocalyptic. When you witness the barbaric behavior of the Nazis in the film, it might be easy to believe the end of the world wasn't far behind. The 2002 winner of the Palme D'or at Cannes, and a truly powerful film.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Capsule Review: A Very Long Engagement (2004)

After Jean-Pierre Jeunet's disastrous Hollywood experience which resulted in Alien Resurrection, he returned to France and made the timeless, internationally beloved Amélie. His followup appeared at first to be a rather dramatic change of pace - a romantic drama focusing on a woman's desperate attempt to discover the fate of her fiancee, who was sent to his death during WW1 due to self-mutilation. However, Jeunet's visual gymnastics and unique storytelling devices are in full force, as the film darts around timeliness, making use of frequent cutaways, and employs a huge number of quirky, fascinating characters. But this is much more than simply Amélie goes to war - despite Audrey Tautou once again being radiant in the lead role. For one, the material is much bleaker, with scenes of intense violence and brutality that might make more sensitive viewers wince. The scope is also much wider, and feels much more grounded in reality despite Jeunet's otherworldly tendencies. Features Jodie Foster in a small role, showing off her impressive french skills.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Capsule Review: Gangs of New York (2002)

One of Martin Scorsese's dream projects, in development for over 30 years, Gangs of New York ended up a glorious mess, stuck somewhere between historical epic and action film. At over two and a half hours, it still feels like a compromised experience, perhaps exemplified by its casting. While Daniel Day Lewis as Bill "the Butcher" Cutting electrifies every moment he's on screen (and ably carries the film's dead spots), both Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are horribly miscast, and even the incredible production design and supporting performances can't hide the weaknesses of those two stars. Thankfully, the supporting performers are universally excellent, and the settings makes for a fresh environment that is beautiful to look at - it's hard to believe that the sets were constructed in Rome, Italy. It's still massively entertaining, but feels unfortunately compromised. One can't help but wonder what a lean, hungry Scorsese might have made of this material in the 1970s. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Capsule Review: The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)

A delightfully overstuffed tribute to Sergio Leone's Spaghetti westerns, director Kim Ji-woon (The Foul King, I Saw The Devil) ramps up the action and comedy with the help of some of South Korea's most recognizable actors. The first half plays like a very loose remake of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with the multiple characters all attempting to track down a treasure map after an incredible train robbery scene. The Good (Jung Woo-sung) is a grizzled rifle-carrying bounty hunter, while the Bad (I Saw The Devil's Lee Byung-hun) is an well-coiffed maniac out for revenge. Best of all is the always wonderful Song Kang-ho as the comically weird Yoon Tae-goo. While the film misses much of the emotional weight of Leone's masterpiece, and the second half rapidly morphs into a Korean take on It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World the results are so deliriously entertaining that the final scenes will leave you breathless. While taking place in 1930s Manchuria, the film still captures the desolate locales the films it's referencing, while bringing heavier WWII style fire-power into the fray. Tons of fun.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Capsule Review: District 9 (2009)

A South African-set science fiction film by a first time director and featuring almost no recognizable actors might be one of the least likely possible blockbusters, but director Neil Blomkamp (who had impressed filmmaker Peter Jackson with his short films) found worldwide acclaim for his mixture of special effects and political statement. Obviously inspired by the segregation within South Africa during the apartheid era, Blomkamp - adapting his own short film Alive in Joburg - posits the alien "prawns" as sadly helpless and despised by the people around them, and horribly mistreated as they are forced into government camps. The special effects - by Jackson's Weta Digital - are astounding, and are expertly incorporated into faux-documentary footage before the film seamlessly transitions into its narrative. While the metaphors tend to get a bit heavy handed, it's still a wonderfully entertaining and original film that promises great things from Blomkamp in the future.

Capsule Review: Fish Tank (2009)

A thoroughly honest, though consistently distressing, character piece, Andrea Arnold's FISH TANK is impeccably acted by newcomer Katie Jarvis and rising superstar Michael Fassbender. Jarvis plays Mia, a 15 year old girl growing up in a council estate in East London. She's angry, violent and headed toward a life likely similar to her own hard partying, alcohol fueled mother who has just started seeing the energetic, charming Connor (Michael Fassbender). While the film refuses to paint the characters in broad strokes, every possible bright spot between Mia and Connor is snuffed out after a drunken incident, but the film refuses to easily label Connor as a villain. The performances are amazing, and the constantly hovering hand-held camera puts the audience in the middle of a life flying rapidly out of control. Some of the symbolism is a bit on the nose, and at over two hours it can feel exhausting, but it remains a remarkable achievement for all involved. Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, and recently released as part of the Criterion Collection.