Friday, September 30, 2016

#241: Beyond Dream's Door (Jay Woelfel, 1989)

Jay Woelfel's feature film debut, Beyond Dream's Door, is a fascinating regional indie with some serious flaws, an intriguingly unconventional narrative, and a few genuine scares. It's easier to admire than enjoy, and I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, but Woelfel is really going for something unusual here, and he intermittently succeeds. This is a real A for effort, C for delivery kind of movie, kept afloat by its weirdness.
Beyond Dream's Door is about psychology student Ben Dobbs (Nick Baldasare). He's been having dark and disturbing dreams that seem to spill into his waking life, which is unusual since Ben hasn't been able to remember any of his dreams since the death of his parents several years earlier. Ben writes these new dreams down in detail and asks his highly unorthodox psych professor Noxx (Norm Singer) to read them over and see what he thinks. (An aside -- Norm Singer as Prof. Noxx is a hilariously weird over-actor, and I especially enjoyed his delivery of this line spoken to the prof's class of psych students: "Yesterday I promised to tell you about a case of major league insanity.") Prof. Noxx gets very excited about this dream diary, which bears striking similarities to a case from 20 years ago, and begins to work with Ben into the wee hours in a basement of the college's library. Ben also involves two grad student TAs, Eric Baxter (Rick Kesler) and Julie Oxel (Susan Pinsky) into his dream life, but things very quickly go awry when Ben's dreams invade the waking lives of everyone he talks to about them. Soon, the line between dreams and reality erodes, and the rest of the film takes place in that weird purgatory between the two consciousnesses.
Woelfel is really good at capturing a waking dream state, avoiding most movie cliches about dreams, and creating a weird, unsettling atmosphere with some nice shots and tricky camera movements that rise above his budgetary restrictions. Woelfel is not so good at finding actors who can deliver his material or special effects artists who can suspend disbelief, and the narrative occasionally drags.
Shot in Columbus, Ohio with assistance from Ohio State film students, Beyond Dream's Door's cast is made up of Woelfel's friends, most of whom have no acting experience, which makes for some rough viewing. If you read this site with any regularity, you know that I often champion nonprofessional acting, criticize the slick professionalism of a lot of Hollywood acting, and have real issues with what is characterized as "good" and "bad" acting in mainstream culture. Sometimes, though, people with no acting chops are just stiff, awkward, and hard to watch. That's the case with most of the people in Beyond Dream's Door.
Baldasare, in the lead role, is understated and not that bad but lacks charisma, Singer is terrible but compellingly strange, and Kesler, Pinsky, and most of the extras and bit players are pretty, pretty, pretty stiff (Larry David typed the end of this sentence). The special effects, too, are cheap and silly and look like some teens made them for a home movie, which means they're still about 89% more effective than CGI. These are genuine criticisms, but you know I always have a tender place in my heart for the cheap, awkward, homemade, and regional, no matter how good or bad. I salute anyone getting out there and making stuff outside of the Hollywood machine. This movie has plenty of problems, but it's unusual and personal and looks like it was made by real humans.
I haven't seen any of Woelfel's other films, but he's still at it, cranking out low-budget horror movies, sometimes straight to video, as director, writer, editor, and soundtrack composer. He even made an interactive, educational documentary about the Titanic for schools that was narrated by Patrick Stewart. Most of the actors never appeared in another film, but Susan Pinsky (not the wife of Dr. Drew, who is also named Susan Pinsky) went on to become a doctor and has a practice in Florida and one of the extras went on to write for Dora the Explorer.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

#240: Berserker (Jef Richard, 1987)

A mega-low-budget indie filmed in rural Utah, Jef "With One F" Richard's Berserker is a surprisingly enjoyable, well-paced, ragin'-full-on '80s entertainment with a refreshingly unusual spin on the basic slasher film template. Unfortunately, it's only available in hard copy as a massively overpriced used VHS, so YouTube is your best bet if you need a little Berserker in your life.
I don't want to oversell it. Berserker is ridiculously goofy, a few scenes try too hard for pathos and land face-first in sentimental cliche, and the second half is mostly young people wandering in the woods, getting chased by a berserker, but these flaws are also values, "if you know what I mean and I think you do" (Joe Bob Briggs). This movie is a party. A party where you wake up with marker all over your face and vague memories of drunkenly playing a trombone badly in a cornfield after a heated intergender wrestling match with a former high school classmate has been called a draw by the exasperated owner of the house who would really like his trombone back, damn it (maybe this was just me in 1997), but a party nonetheless. I unashamedly love this kind of thing.
Berserker begins with a group of young city folk preparing to go to the country for a week of camping, swimming, pot-smoking, sex-having, boozing, and cabin-snoozing. (It really begins with something much crazier, but I'll save that for anyone who plans to watch it.) For a minute there, I thought I was watching a biopic of my life. The hotheaded, impulsive, asshole-with-a-heart-of-gold ringleader of the group, Josh (which is my first name), cranks up some hard rock on his pickup's stereo and the woman sitting next to him, Kristi (which is my wife's first name, though she spells it with a Y), exasperatedly tells him to turn it down. Hey, man, am I looking in a mirror? Josh and Kristi have a volatile chemistry that was sadly unexplored because a damn berserker showed up, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Besides hotheaded party animal Josh (Greg Dawson) and the more reasonable Kristi (Shannon Engemann), the gang includes book-loving nerd Larry (Rodney Montague, who went on to become a successful Hollywood special effects artist) (can you believe this nerd loves books?), Larry's girlfriend Kathy (Valerie Sheldon), who the filmmakers forgot to provide with a personality, and pot-smoking, perpetually joking couple Shelly and Mike (Beth Toussaint and Joseph Alan Johnson). Larry keeps everyone waiting while he finds his book about the history of the campsite they're about to visit, but, finally, book in tow, Larry jumps in the pickup, and the gang heads to the country. Josh cranks the party tunes back up and crushes a couple beers, belching and tossing the cans out the window. Classic Josh. Josh's uncool litter move attracts the attention of Officer Hill (b-movie legend John Goff), a kindly yet slightly strange patrolman who gets really intense when he sees Larry's book of local history. He lets the kids off with a warning and a complaint about city folks using the country for their own personal garbage dump and then tells them to watch out for wild animals.
Our young heroes roll into the campsite, owned and operated by Officer Hill's cousin from "the old country," Pappy Nyquist (George "Buck" Flower), who is a little pissed they didn't call ahead for a reservation and is more than a little pissed at Josh's pushy city ways. (The late George "Buck" Flower has one of the most eclectic CVs in the history of film, acting in Hollywood movies, indies, B-movies, softcore porn, network TV, and family movies, and working as a writer, producer, assistant director, production manager, pre-production coordinator, production advisor, cameraman, electrician, set decorator, and soundtrack performer in addition to his acting work.) Larry and Mike step in with politeness and charm, and Pappy rents them a cabin before warning the city folk not to litter and to watch out for wild animals. Classic Pappy.
Campsite acquired, time for a classic '80s musical montage! To the tune of Chuck Francour's lost masterpiece "Cool Dude," we get serious '80s male bonding in the form of shirtless pals in jean shorts opening beers in each other's faces before wrestling each other to the ground, Josh hot-dogging it on a three-wheeler (classic Josh), the whole gang swimming in the creek, Shelly teasing everyone by pretending to take off her top before shaking her head and jumping in the water, and finally, some classic water hijinks in the form of dunking and splashing.
The good times turn bad when a reincarnated Viking shows up and starts kicking some serious ass. And also a bear. Either way, you're gonna get mauled. I'll refrain from spoiling any Viking-related business in case you're going to watch this one, but Larry's book of area lore plays a big part, and so do Pappy and Officer Hill. 
This movie is a blast. There are not enough movies about berserkers, in my humble opinion. In conclusion, don't litter, the country is not your damn private garbage dump, you damn city folk, and watch out for wild animals in the woods. Also, have your outdoor sex as close to the cabin or a working vehicle as possible. Oh, and if you're a descendant of Vikings or in the vicinity of a descendant of Vikings, watch your ass.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

#239: The Student of Prague (Henrik Galeen, 1926)

Hanns Heinz Ewers' novel The Student of Prague has been adapted for film and television many times (and so has its forebear, the Faust legend), but Henrik Galeen's 1926 film of the classic moral tale is hard to beat. Galeen was primarily a screenwriter but was no slouch behind the camera, either, and he brings a sharp eye and a visual poetry to the old story of exchanging one's conscience for material gain.
The film is about Balduin (Conrad Veidt), a poor university student in Prague who, despite being the best fencer in the city, is in deep distress at his lack of funds. His swordsmanship isn't helping his bank account. He initially has our sympathy, even though we know things aren't going to go well for him (the film opens on his gravestone before flashing back). Balduin can't get out of his own way. As a university student and gifted athlete, his poverty years are most likely temporary, but he dreams of a wealthy fiancee and the high society life and ignores the advances of a kindly, loving flowergirl named Lyduschka (Elizza La Porta).
On a class trip to a country inn, Balduin meets the devilish Scapinelli (Werner Krauss), who offers him money in exchange for ... something. Initially mistaking Scapinelli for a loan shark, Balduin ignores him and decides to kick some ass at fencing instead. Victory clinched, he resumes moping and pines for a wealthy girlfriend. Scapinelli overhears and decides to use some occult powers to get his soul-stealing plan in motion.
Long story short, Balduin meets an engaged countess, Margit (Agnes Esterhazy), falls hard, and sells his soul to Scapinelli in exchange for wealth. As the old soul-for-cash trade generally pans out, things go well for a while and then go horribly, terribly awry. Galeen does a lot of beautiful, expressionist stuff with mirrors, and Veidt gets to play both his character and his character's shadow self, and Veidt is most definitely the silent film actor you want playing a shadow self. (I've talked about Veidt several times on this site, so I'll just quickly reiterate here that he is awesome and one of my favorite silent film actors.) The story goes expected places, but the visual expression of the familiar tale always surprises.
The Student of Prague is a pretty top-notch silent horror film but is currently only available in mediocre public domain DVDs transferred from VHS. Even with the less than stellar picture quality, the movie impresses. Galeen has an innate understanding of how to frame a shot for maximum visual impact, but he's also subtle, avoiding the overkill of extreme stylization, and I love how he manifests losing the soul as having Balduin's reflection come out of the mirror and retreat into darkness.
Henrik Galeen directed 12 films in his career but was most often employed as a screenwriter. He had a hand in writing the scripts for several silent horror classics, including The Golem, Nosferatu, and Waxworks. An Austro-Hungarian, Galeen was a journalist in his native country before moving to Germany and working as a director's assistant. Graduating to screenwriter and director, he worked in the German film industry until 1933, the year he fled the country for the United States. He lived a quiet life in the U.S. and died of cancer in Vermont in 1949.