i71 Films is a small collective of filmmakers that came out of nowhere in 2016 for the Columbus, Ohio 48 Hour Film Festival, a yearly timed filmmaking competition, and won several awards. They’ve been flying ever since, and the fact that within two years of essentially being a collective they had a full movie out and available on services like Amazon Prime is ridiculously impressive and inspiring. This is a company that can hustle like few others. They have several other projects in development and I doubt we’ll see them fade from the film community any time soon with the momentum they’re building. With that said, I peeked into their first feature, 2018’s Dark Iris, whose cover looks like something out from the Underworld universe. The description made me think I was in for a Matrix-like sci-fi action thriller of meta-human combat. It’s a genre thriller that doesn’t fully seem comfortable with being a genre thriller, downplaying the elements that would separate it from the pack, and falling back on rote characters, rote action, and rote twists. It’s proof that i71 can make a disposable action movie, but disposable is not necessarily the same as good.
Iris Black (KateLynn Newberry) is a waitress with a bad boyfriend, a creepy boss, and a mysterious woman (Rebekah Hart Franklin) stalking her who may or may not be her long-lost sister. People around her keep winding up dead in ritualistic murders that she seems to know nothing about. The FBI (Marylee Osbourne, Jose W. Byers) begins looking into the unassuming barista that might be more than she seems. Little do any of them know that a secret government program named the Hyde Project gifted 13 individuals with advanced DNA and embedded technology that made them superior hunters. It also made them killers with killer urges. A pair of MI6 agents (Kyle Hotz, Jesi Jensen) is tracking down the living super soldiers and killing them one-by-one, and they believe Iris is their last target.
Dark Iris could instantly improve by pruning its overpopulated cast and narrowing its focus. There are far too many characters to keep track of without being given better identifying characteristics. We have Agent Fry, Agent Roman, Agent Dillion, Agent Mooney, Agent Lee, Agent Lance, Agent Adams, two MI6 agents, their boss, his underlings including Simone who has more pictures on the IMDB page than either lead actress, Iris’ friend and fellow put-upon waitress, Iris’ friend’s mom, Iris’s bad boyfriend and bad boss, a coroner, and a team of masked mercenaries, and all of these people are introduced within twenty minutes. That’s before a hilariously gun-toting reverend shows up too. I challenge anyone who watches Dark Iris to tell me what characters were named what and what they can recall about identifying characteristics for those characters beyond physical distinctions (this guy had glasses). Yes you can argue that these characters are not the main characters, with the exception of the MI6 agents figuring prominently, and therefore not necessary for character development or personalities to stand out, but if that was the case then why do we have so many of them eating away at the time that could be spent on the characters that actually do matter? There is a glut of unimportant characters jostling for positioning in this movie. It feels like something I’ve seen in some other local films and that’s the excuse to squeeze in friends and family into a project. The characters aren’t as important as simply cramming your pals into your movie. When you have masked mercenaries or characters intending to do little else but feature as extras, this can work. Every movie needs its background players. But when these needless side characters begin to overcrowd the movie, and literally overcrowding tightly shot location scenes at that, then you have a story problem.
The question begins to arise whose movie this actually is with the split attention, and I fully believe Dark Iris would have worked better if it was almost completely from Ms. Black’s perspective. A bunch of FBI agents picking up clues aren’t as interesting as a woman who is under investigation and begins to doubt her own sanity. By re-framing the entire film perspective to its heroine, Dark Iris would instantly have more mystery and shave away plenty of unnecessary information and characters. Her point of the story is the emotional core but also the most interesting perspective, because without extraneous side characters filling in exposition at every turn, the audience would be learning just as its heroine does, trying to piece together the clues or what is happening and who they could trust. It would also be a better move because Newberry and Franklin (Code 207, A Wicked Breed) are two of the best actors in the film. From a storytelling standpoint, refocusing to have Iris as the driving perspective better personalizes the film and gives it more emotional punch via a distressed woman whose life is falling apart. You’re not going to feel an emotional connection or loss for the dozen FBI characters and vague villains meeting in the shadows. You will feel for an ordinary woman who is going through hell.
Simply put, if you don’t have a lead character that you care about in a world of crazy killers, then it feels like the impetus was to make your own version of Wanted or any late-night action clone that confused style for substance, preening for perception. And if that’s the way you want to go, with a collection of killers, then we need people who have personalities that pop. I’m not saying they need to be broad Batman villains but it would help if more attention was made to consider how to make them full characters rather than Human Holders of Guns. Just because you slap a Russian accent onto one character doesn’t mean she now has a distinctive personality. The better way of doing this is to link characters to theme when possible. If this character represents a specific point of view, then you can better tailor them to that perspective, so that each character can represent something different. Dark Iris suffers because it’s not devoting enough time to the character with the most dramatic potential and it’s not devoting time to making its other supporting characters stand out or connect more meaningfully.
Much of the world-building of this story in the opening text amounts to nothing. We have super assassins with super biology mixed with super computers who then have super urges to kill because they feel like gods. The most we get from this is a lackluster fight scene and some easily duped people who are decidedly less than super. If you’re providing this sort of starting point, there should be some appeal to the dark side, the idea that embracing what makes you special is to fully live, coaxing our nervous heroine who doesn’t feel like she can become who she was born to be if it means succumbing to her baser impulses. There should be characters who present different points of view, who demonstrate the highs of their powers, and act as a temptation for Iris, but Dark Iris has none of this. The entire opening could be rewritten as, “A group of genetic experiments were created, then released, and now the government is looking to clean up its mistakes by eliminating the last living evidence of the project.” Boom, I just saved you multiple screens of text. One would think they would bring back the doctor who created the 13 super killers who then disappeared, but nope. There’s no reason for the science fiction elements to even be here if they are just going to be so readily forgotten and inconsequential.
The action, when it does happen, can be pretty underwhelming. I was willing to forgive the low budget if the filmmakers utilized ingenuity to their advantage. There’s a cat-and-mouse moment in a church, where one character is hiding behind pews, and I was thinking the movie would make use of drawing out the suspense, making smart choices with its shot selections to play with the distance, using sound as a useful tool to maximize suspense. None of this happens. Instead the character pops up and starts firing. Much of the action consists of two people at opposite ends firing guns at one another. The action isn’t tailored to locations or character skills and lacks organic complications to change things up. When the movie does focus on its fight choreography, the camera is so close to the action and the editing is jumbled that it’s hard to even understand what is going on. There was one moment where two people were fighting in the background and somebody got stabbed to death, but I only knew this because of an additional “stab/dying” sound effect that communicated what the scene by itself left vague. If you have the time to showcase a fight, wouldn’t you want to devote a shot for the audience to savor one character triumphing over another, especially if it’s good guy versus bad guy?
I have a theory to possibly explain the slapdash nature of the action and I think it amounts to simply running out of time. The production for Dark Iris has professional lighting (occasionally overdone with certain looks, like a set of window blinds that must be behind the brightest Bat signal) and cinematography. However, I started noticing that many of the scenes consisted of a lot of only two angles alternating, like the filmmakers only had enough time for two shot setups and had to forgo more coverage. There are dramatic reveals that made me wish I had a closer shot on a person’s face to watch their response, or some awkwardly framed angles that made me wish the characters moved to different blocking or there were more options how to visually compose this specific scene. It feels like they only had so many selections to use because they ran out of time. There are more shots and coverage of people arming themselves for battle than typically the battle itself; that equation should be reversed. If the production knew it was limited with its time and locations, I feel like there are clever workarounds, namely thinking through the stakes of each action scene, what its goal is, how to throw in new challenges, and how it can relate to the personal journey of the good guys and reveal the skills of the bad guys. Action doesn’t have to be just a bunch of people repeatedly firing guns and moving to a new spot to repeat the process.
The biggest asset Dark Iris has is its cast and there are three standouts. Newberry (Widow’s Point, Notes from Melanie) is a tremendous talent who provides a great emotional anchor for the story. She’s nervous and alarmed and confused by much of the movie and Newberry sells every scene in a manner that feels appropriate and even natural despite the unnatural circumstances. She draws your attention immediately and creates a connection even when her character’s purposely left in the dark. Another reason I wanted Dark Iris to re-calibrate is because I can see that Newberry has so much more she can offer as an actress, so it would behoove the movie to give her even more challenges. Newberry has risen to prominence in such a short amount of time in the Ohio indie film scene and with good cause. Look out for her name, folks, because she’s going to be famous and deservedly so. A real surprise was Hotz (The Penitent Thief, Operation Dunkirk) who, while not given material to separate himself from the pack, does so thanks to the innate charisma and presence of the actor. He has a weariness to him that tempers his scenes of violence and contemplation. He’s deserving of his own starring action vehicle. And finally, we have Dan Nye (Harvest Lake, Bong of the Living Dead) who wins the award for doing the most with the least. He’s just another one of those many FBI agents, but he becomes the much-needed comic relief. He has a few offhand lines that made me chuckle, but he also gets a big hero’s sendoff, which is strangely played as a dramatic high-point for a character that doesn’t really earn that emotional curtain call. Nye has a fun nonplussed nature to him and little asides that can elevate more mundane moments.
Dark Iris is the first film from i71 Films, and it’s impressively assembled with professional-looking technical aspects and some damn good actors, as well as a story that has plenty of exciting elements, from super spies to special powers to serial killers to psychological disassociation. It’s got the potential to be a fun action thriller to showcase the skills of this up-and-coming production team, but unfortunately Dark Iris cannot fully tap that larger potential. It’s too cluttered with interchangeable characters, the focus needed to be tighter, the action needed to be more distinguishable and given more consideration, the mystery is a bit predictable (the movie is called “Dark Iris” after all and the tagline says she has a “dark secret”), and the story of who is doing what is kept rather vague or undeveloped, as if the filmmakers themselves are silently acknowledging that the story is in service of just making a slick product. The pieces were there; a woman who can’t trust her own senses and memory, a group of elite killers who could tempt her into their amoral lifestyle, a chance at cool and memorable anti-heroes and rogues. The production doesn’t have the desire to embrace exploitation film elements, so we’re left with cool parts of a story that never quite assemble together into a satisfying and engaging whole. Dark Iris serves as proof that i71 Films has unbelievable hustle and determination. I hope their future endeavors also employ more attention to storytelling and making the best use of their available resources.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Ideally, every scene in a feature film should have a purpose, whether it’s pushing the overall story forward, informing us about characters and their interior lives, setting up plot points or jokes, or establishing the atmosphere and way of life examined on screen. This is even more necessary with shorts simply from the truncated run time. I was asked to review the short film Pure O, produced by several hard-working, creative types in the Ohio film community. Confession: I know several of the people in front of and behind the camera with this project. I will hold as much of my personal bias back and judge the film on its artistic merits but I thought that should be mentioned upfront.
Pure O follows Purity Oglander (Stella Singer), the lead singer and guitarist for a grunge band on the verge. She also suffers from a mental condition called Pure OCD (sounds almost like a misguided Calvin Klein cologne), which is an intrusion of harmful thoughts and visions. These thoughts don’t necessarily translate into action but the worry for the recipient is that they might. Purity must navigate her mental illness, the stigma attached to mental illness circa the 90s, and work up the courage to get the help she needs.
It feels like the narrative terrain Pure O mines is our protagonist’s question over who she really is and if she’s ready to embrace change. She’s a local musician who we’re told, via long successions of handy answering machine voice over exposition, has a band “O” on the cusp of its big break. Even titles appear onscreen to tell us this is her “last day of obscurity.” This is a prime conflict as it can push a character outside of their comfort zone and transition from an old life into an uncertain new one. The problem is that this is kept much more as a backdrop of potential conflict; it’s background seasoning. I’m also curious how different her band’s big break is going to be if they’re playing on low-rent, Wayne’s World-style public access television talk shows (“The Mr. Dick Show”). The fact that she blows off this rinky-dink performance and her label is ready to drop the band makes me think that they might not have been so close to that last day of obscurity after all. It’s also not like Purity is returning to her old stomping grounds and reflecting on its influence before she’s whisked to a new level of fame and fortune. She’s still home and presumably with the same people as before.
The larger intended focus of acceptance is with her mental illness. That’s an interesting starting point for conflict and an opportunity to visualize some pretty alarming imagery. I was confused whether Purity was just now getting these intruding thoughts. It felt like she had to have had these thoughts before, but her reactions to them seemed so sudden and new, the question over what is going on rather than the recognition that these dark impulses have returned. I think the stronger narrative would have been the acknowledgement that she’s already been struggling to live with these thoughts. That doesn’t mean they are normalized but that it’s not some sudden mental break. I don’t know if there’s any rhyme or reason for what triggers these outbreaks, but we’re treated to two instances or her envisioning brutal assaults and murdering innocents. It’s intended to be a shock to the system, and it delivers mostly, but the overall film tone hampers that.
If I had to single out one element that holds Pure O back from its stated intentions of writer/director W.M. Weikart (Insidious Whispers), that would be its mishmash of tones. There are some pretty significant tonal divergences here with the incursion of psychological horror, but really it’s more the depiction of its everyday world as something akin to a wacky network sitcom. The supporting characters add little to the larger story. They seem to be serving as auditions for a crazy roommate sitcom. There’s the Dickish Dude (Dan Nye), the Soft-Spoken Brainiac (Ann Trinh), Oblivious Girl (Lauren Paulis), Annoying Self-Involved Sister (Sara Morse), Concerned But Out-of-Touch Dad (Carl G. Herrick), and then there’s the even smaller supporting characters of Sardonic Goth Waitress (Kira L. Wilson), Pathetic Local Host (Joe Kidd), and Lisa (Iabou Windimere), a roommate who paints varying degrees of the same circle. Does that sound like the kind of cast of characters for an examination on the crippling effects of mental illness? It feels like an overdose of quirk that doesn’t materialize into something greater or related to Purity. The visit with Purity’s friends amounts to reminding her of the stigma of mental illness, but this same point is served in the next scene with the family lunch when her sister makes the same points. If these characters are meant to reflect our heroine’s journey to some road of acceptance, it’s hard to take that evolution seriously because it’s hard to take them seriously. The sentimental conclusion with Purity getting the help she needs, with the support of her immediate family, feels like another example of a clashing tone keeping the film from gelling properly.
The problem for me is that Pure O didn’t quite earn that hopeful, well-traveled ending. The characters were amusing in their brief encounters but didn’t feel like they contributed to the overall larger story. They felt like holdovers from a larger universe of stories making a “special guest appearance.” They felt less like people. That would be fine except I believe we’re meant to feel that sting of hope by the end, that Purity’s family is supporting her accessing therapy. It works, but the ensuing 18 minutes feels cluttered as far as the path taken to get to this conclusion. I think the friends could have been cut entirely especially if the aim is to make Purity feel more like an outcast floating by. It doesn’t feel like all the stops along the way accomplished the goal of moving toward self-acceptance. I’m hard-pressed to really think why she gets the help she needs except for an outpouring of support via answering machine exposition dump. But even those are in response to her near catatonic walk-off from the TV gig, a response that doesn’t seem to earn the outpouring of concern. She does get a phone call from Betty Bosey (Danielle Vettraino), the girl everyone else mocks for being crazy, so perhaps that’s intended as a reminder of self-care.
There are many merits to Pure O. The acting is fairly good throughout and Stella Singer (Choices) is an excellent choice as a lead. She has great moments. Her character is very passive for the majority of the short film, either being talked to or keeping the intruding voices/thoughts at bay, which causes her to feel like a passenger too often. Singer has such a striking, expressive face (seriously, she looks so different with her hair up versus down) that I wanted her to have more opportunities to stretch her acting muscles. It may be fresh in my mind, but she reminded me of Lola Kirke (Gemini). This is a professional looking and edited short film. Even the opening concert scene impressed me with how it was able to tie together an effective looking stage experience. The 90s aesthetic feels very gamely committed, none more so than in wardrobe where each character almost feels entirely defined by a color or extreme look. The strict adherence to stylized costuming does a smart job of telling you about the characters in visual ways, already cuing you without wasting precious time. The sound design is excellent, with the collage of negative voices crashing against her brain like the oncoming surf. The line, “It all went to hell after Karen Carpenter pierced her clit,” is a wonderful non-sequitur that took my breath away. The strange humor of a low-budget public access TV talk show was amusingly absurdist, complete with talking pine tree sidekick and break dancing robot. It’s the kind of show that seems destined for a dedicated YouTube life. My favorite genuine moment is the small conversation Purity has with Betty Bossy before she checks into her therapist’s office. It’s slow and develops Betty’s character effectively in small strokes, discussing her life decisions and corrections. It was the moment in Pure O where the characters onscreen felt like living, breathing people and done with a degree of subtlety. The fact that everyone else mocks Betty is just another indication of their general flippancy.
Pure O is a well-intentioned short film with fine attributes, both in technical matters and with its troupe of actors, notably the compelling lead heroine, Stella Singer. The variety of supporting characters will keep you watching since it’s something new every few minutes; however, the glut of characters also detracts from the drive of the story and its aim toward Purity learning to accept her mental illness. The inconsistent tone also poses as a distraction from the narrative goals, making the serious stuff feel less serious and the comic asides feel like they’ve been retrofitted from another project. This marriage of tone could have worked, but this calibration doesn’t quite get there. I do think people can get entertainment from Pure O (after all, the time investment is pretty accessible). It feels like a glimpse of a larger story, one worth developing into a tighter, character-driven plot with less wacky side diversions. Still, congratulations to the many talented people who pooled their efforts and brought a short film into life. Pure O is an intriguing yet flawed start to a character and a world worth further exploration. But if this is all we get, at least there was a break dancing robot to go with my Karen Carpenter pierced clitoris aside.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Filmed throughout central and southern Ohio, After is the passion project of special effects wizard Ben Brown who wrote and directed it (and, yes, did the special effects). Many brilliant people lent their time and talents behind and in front of the camera, and I once again must confess to personally knowing several of them. I’m trying to keep my biases at bay through this review but acknowledge that may be impossible. Still, After is a pretty, heartfelt movie about Big Things that has some structural miscues and plot padding that left me from fully dubbing this an unqualified indie success.
Charles Galloway (Lee Slewman) lies dying in an alley having being fatally stabbed by a mugger. He reflects back on his life as a younger man (Dan Nye) and the people who shaped his experiences, notably Marie Granger (Tifani Ahren Davis), a free-spirited artist who captured his heart and then left it in tatters. Also, Clare (Carolyn Schultz) is an EMT worker who is having a hard time living with the rigors of her job. She’s haunted by the people she could not save and turned to drinking to self-medicate. She tries to get her life back on track by putting herself out there and discovering more of who she is.
After is a movie I would not be primed to enjoy that much based upon my own artistic tastes, namely a very earnest ode to the deeply felt, prosaic works of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life). With that in mind, if you are a lover of Malick’s divisive films (I’m not a fan) then I think you’ll find a recognizable artistic ambition worth celebrating in After. Being loosely plotted means much is meant to be felt through the experience, the combination of the images building off the next, a tone poem of contemplation. It follows a dream logic and either you can immerse yourself in the overall experience or you’ll be left waiting. The very Malick-styled cinematography by Gil Whitney (The Street Where We Live) makes the colors look lush, the outdoors inviting, and the spaces around characters cavernous to communicate distances and isolation. The special effect sequences present arresting visuals exploring Charles’ mind fraying. There was one shot where Clare woke up from post-sex activities and her hair is magnificently arranged. It’s a little detail but it did not go unnoticed, and that kind of doting care is evident in many of the shot compositions and dreamy visual aesthetics. There’s a gorgeous shot over a cityscape of Cincinnati that evokes a romantic mood worthy of cinema. This is a nice looking movie and the actors are putting in strong uniform efforts. It’s a man’s life uncovered as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, and putting the pieces together is part of the fun. Adult Charles has to learn about responsibilities, what it means to be a man, and the consequences of letting others in, of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and having your heart broken. If I had to surmise a theme I would say it’s about the unexpected detours and unintended consequences of life, the longer effects of our choices bringing opportunity even in our many failures on this Earth.
After is so sincere and radiating with big emotions that I felt rotten for not being moved more. It’s a pleasant film that wears its mighty heart on its sleeve, has strong visuals and technical attributes, and skilled actors, so why was I thwarted from being more engaged? After some time and searching, I think it has to do with the underdeveloped plot structure and with a character that is given undue attention.
I started questioning whose movie this was with the divided focus, and Clare was not justifying her presence and the time spent with her. It’s almost like they’re co-leads that the film keeps cutting back and forth with; however, you keep waiting for her larger relevance to make itself known. Because why would the life of the EMT on the scene after the death of the supposed protagonist be worth this much attention? So we keep waiting for something more to be revealed but the character is unfortunately too underdeveloped, formed from customary cues of people suffering from Heavy Life Things (alcoholism, depression, poor social interaction, haunted by the ones she cannot save). She’s established early as being something of a zombie sleepwalking through life but this characterization is more stopping point than starting point. Even when she starts an awkward romance with a police officer we’re waiting for movement, change, some new insight into the character, and when that doesn’t arrive the question becomes even more pertinent over why exactly this character is absorbing so much precious screen time.
The non-linear narrative structure has some elegant visual symbolism but also feels somewhat underutilized. The framing device is Charles lying mortally wounded in a dirty alley, his life flashing before his eyes, reviewing the Big Moments. This is also mixed in with Clare, who conflicts with the framing device until the very end of the film reveals how these specific pieces snap together. I think if this story had been told chronologically it would be more obvious how the eventual purpose of our depressed and haunted EMT was mostly for the impact of the eventual reveal. It’s masking the reality that she’s more a plot device than a person, a lesson to be learned. If a character is given the second most screen time and is mostly here as a reflection or foil to the lead then it’s hard for them to stand on their own. Because of all of this, whenever the film kept coming back to Clare and her life I felt like it was intruding on more interesting plotlines.
I was hoping the film would take the bones of its story and put them to more use. A dash of something a little high-concept could have juiced the appeal and mystery, like a simple time travel element that provides even more stakes for an out-of-time man looking back over his confusing life. That opens more narrative possibilities for the ages of the Charles character at various points in his life, plus it would also naturally start to bleed memories into one another, allowing the repetition to provide more intriguing insight. Speaking of bleeding memories, I thought what if the framing device remains and it’s almost an Eternal Sunshine-style internal recount of one man’s life. Charles could literally be retreating into the safe confines of his old memories, chased by the hooded mugger who represents Death. Finally, rather than running away, he confronts the mugger and accepts his fate, accepts passing away, and cherishes the life he’s had. Or if you wanted something more conventional, then explore the unexpected relationship with the young fan (Tisha Michele Hanley) who is the only person to appear at Charles’ latest book signing, an unexpected older/younger friendship that could inform both of them. After is a concept with possibility but it feels more a corralling of various story elements than a fully formed story.
The acting is relatively strong throughout the production, able to sell those big feelings pulsating out like ripples. The three Charles Jr.’s all perform ably. The youngest, Trevor Bush, only has one scene but makes his character felt. It’s inaccurate to say all Sleeman (Those Who Kill) does is spend half the movie lying on his back. Much of his performance is inherently nonverbal through alternating awed and fearful expressions, and Sleeman communicates the years of regret and joy with aplomb. He has a wry sense of hard-won wisdom to him. Nye (Harvest Lake) shows quite a bit of range as the adult version of Charles, going big during key dramatic moments and very insular during the fallout. Nye’s at his best when he’s with his best scene partner, Bridgette Kreuz (Perennial) as his “little sister” Colleen. The two have a very easy chemistry to them that sells their sibling bond. Kreuz reminded me of Portia Doubleday from Mr. Robot, a strong woman peeking out behind a deceptively gentle exterior. Kreuz can communicate so much through her tremulous eyes. The older “little sister” (big little sister? Old little sister?) played by Heather Caldwell (The Turn Out) is given much of the exposition being a therapist tying together the two main characters. She covers the exposition hurdles with grace. The two biggest female roles are enhanced from the talents of the actresses imbuing what is absent from the page. Schultz (Prism) is suitably harried and unsure of herself as Clare, and Davis (Clever Girl) is suitably charming without slipping into full Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode as Marie Granger. The movie rightfully treats Davis as an ethereal spirit worth remembering for the rest of one’s life on this Earth.
I want to single out a few supporting actors who do incredible feats with less. Ralph Scott (Stitches) is a blessing. The man is capable of communicating such emotion with subtlety, which is why his few scenes registered so much for me. He’s coaching his son, Charles Jr., on a very mournful day. His son asks why his father isn’t sad, and in the subtleties of facial glimpses, Scott shows you the sadness he’s keeping at bay, the pained recognition, and then the character must move onward, for his sake and his son’s. It’s the performance that does the most with the smallest amount in the movie. Also of striking note is Hanley (Bong of the Living Dead) as the awkward and adoring fan at the bookshop. Her performance is so natural, stripped of any overt actorly artifices, and the character seems pleasant and hopeful, that I wanted more scenes with her and her character. Hanley left such an impression that I was rewriting the story in my head to get her more involved.
After is a movie that wants to make people think and feel, and for many it will have this desired effect. It’s powerfully earnest and well-intended, a loving recreation of the Terrence Malick spiritual aesthetic of art and reality, and a movie with important things to say. The underdeveloped story occasionally gets sucked up into the power of the visuals, though I believe much is meant to be communicated from the poetic imagery. It’s a conscious choice that I don’t think helps the greater story and characters but that’s also because Terrence Malick’s ponderous poetic interludes are not my kind of movies. While I don’t feel like the finished film is the best version of its own story, the completed movie showcases the hard work and sincerity of many artists. After is an tribute to the burgeoning film scene in Columbus, Ohio and its many talents. Look for it with festivals in the future.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I’m in a movie. That’s a pretty vain opening sentence but I wanted to get it out of the way. I was one of the very fortunate horror fans to attend the Nightmares Film Festival, which in two short years has already vaulted to being one of the top film festivals in the nation. I came to see the premiere of Bong of the Living Dead, a stoner zombie comedy that filmed in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio back in 2013 (oh what a simpler time). I had the good fortune to be a zombie extra, and wouldn’t you know, my shambling, bloody, stupid self made the final cut. I mention this not out of braggadocio but out of a desire for transparency. I am friends with many of the people in front of and behind the camera on this movie. I have personal connections to the production, Backwards Slate, and I’ve worked with several of the actors on other projects and plan to work with them again. I am going to write the most objective review I can for the film, as you would expect of me dear reader, but you should know of my potential personal biases. I was really dreading writing a review if the movie sucked. Happily, Bong of the Living Dead is still an enjoyably fun comedy even if you regrettably don’t happen to know anyone involved.
The zombie apocalypse is coming to Clintonville, Ohio, and our group of stoner friends has been waiting their entire lives for this moment. Childhood friends Hal Rockwood (Dan Alan Kiely), Christ Moser (Eric Boso), Tara Callahan (Laura E. Mock), and Jon Lance (Dan Nye) spend most of their time smoking pot and pontificating on the minutia of zombie pop culture. Christ is trying to hook up with a spacey new girl, Danielle DeWitt (Cat Taylor), and Tara and Jon seem to have something unspoken between them. Dr. Kate Mitchell (Tiffany Arnold) has been hearing strange cases of an infection passed through biting. Sure enough, the dead rise up and feast on the flesh of the living, and our stoners barricade themselves inside their house and gear up for the onslaught to come.
This feels like it was plucked out of the 90s, and I do not mean that as a criticism at all. It feels like the kind of movie Kevin Smith would have made in his geeky prime (a mischievous recitation of randy porn titles seems wholly inspired from Smith). The core idea allows genre satire as well as genre self-indulgence: what if a group of pop-culture savvy potheads became embroiled in the zombie apocalypse? They speak in rapid-fire, hyper-verbal references because that’s how they process the world, as one long catalogue of pop-culture footnotes and influences. These characters are downright giddy with the prospect of finally getting to live within the realm of some of their favorite horror cinema, plus the added bonus of violence without a wider set of consequences. They get to be the stars of their own movie now. Except, to the credit of writers Tim Mayo and Max Groah, they don’t even know that they’re still the bit players. They oversleep a zombie cleanup mission and wake up late into the morning to discover much of their neighbors having already taken care of the task (one of them makes the entrepreneurial step of starting a zombie-aided car wash). Hal can’t hide his disappointment: “The whole point of the zombie apocalypse is that there’s not supposed to be any people around.” The apocalypse isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and so the characters retreat and sulk, their knowledge of pop-culture raising their expectations to a level that could not be fulfilled.
It’s this clever undercutting of genre expectations where Bong of the Living Dead breaks from the mold of other zombie comedies. These characters are obsessively aware of zombie lore, and it’s a safe bet that a majority of the audience will have a loving knowledge base as well. They quickly accept their world-ending situation and it barely fazes them, perhaps still too inured by the inoculating effect of comparing it to the movies. It keeps the reality of the horror at a safe distance. Even while boarding up windows they can’t help but argue the merits of fast zombies versus slow zombies. A character makes a meta reference to breaking out a weapon that has never before been mentioned, and it was a big gut-busting laugh. Another clever undercutting is when the film transforms into more of a drama in the last act. I don’t know if enough has been established to make the leap from the Act One cartoon versions of the characters to the Act Three dramatic versions, but it was an interesting and unexpected development.
There’s one scene in particular that really exemplifies this dramatic pivot best while still undercutting the genre expectations (some spoilers). After all the close calls and zombie bashing, a character collapses and convulses not from having been bitten but simply from an ordinary and common medical emergency. The other characters are helpless and we watch the fear permeate the scene as everyone comes to the awful realization that this person is going to die from and there’s nothing that can be done. The panic in people’s eyes is genuine. This moment is without setup but I think it works better that way, placing the audience in the same confused and helpless position as the other characters. Groah, as director, gives the scene its necessary breathing room. In this world people can still die in ordinary, everyday ways, and death is not something that’s cool and distant. It’s terrifyingly real.
The loose, genial vibe of the overall production seeps into the script as well, especially during the lackadaisical second act that involves a lot of our characters just sitting around. Bong is a movie that finds time for little comic arias that other movies would blithely skip over. The loose feel allows the movie to find extra weirdness. There’s an ongoing run of silly media satire that reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s social commentary. There’s a glib news anchor (Ralph Scott) trying to make the most of the dour news cycles, an opportunistic politician (Vidas Bardzukas) already promising to protect his constituency, a spookily spastic exercise host, a Spanish shopping channel host making love to the camera with his eyes, and a series of cheesy barbarian movies called Swords and Bitches with an evil whip-wielding arachnid queen (Brianne Jeanette). Bong of the Living Dead is chock full of little comical asides that you wouldn’t expect to be so good.
Though it’s also during the second act that I wish more had been going on. I wanted more examination on the difference between their perception of a zombie apocalypse and the reality they’re stuck with. I wanted a bit more setup for the payoffs, like maybe revealing that smoking pot slows down the zombie virus, etc. I wanted more of the VHS-quality flashbacks with the perfectly cast younger versions of the main gang. There aren’t as many central plot elements to make the bridge from start to finish. For much of the middle period, our characters kind of just sit around. They hang out, debate cereal superiority, and even go to the last remaining video store on Earth. It feels a bit like the movie is stuck in neutral, which might have also been the point to communicate the characters’ general malaise. I understand the absurdity of asking for more plot in a stoner comedy but this isn’t any ordinary stoner comedy, as its dovetail into heavy drama indicates. The first act is a lot of fun, the third act is effectively dramatic, but I wanted a bit more connective tissue. The characters could have been better developed (what exactly do they do when not smoking?) but I still cared when things got serious.
The performances across the board are good to great, with every actor, no matter how small the part, finding their specific comedic lane to work within. The biggest breakout performer is definitely Kiely (Axe Giant, Horrors of War) who is, to put it in a topical and never-to-be-dated analogy, the Tiffany Haddish of this particular Girls Trip. He goes above and beyond the call of duty to keep you entertained. Hal is the character that gets the most excited about the zombie apocalypse. The other characters are interesting but fairly subdued for the most part, as one would expect prolific stoners to behave. When Hal first sees a confirmed zombie, his wide-eyed expression is like a child on Christmas morning, and it’s the biggest applause moment for the film. Kiely is a live wire of energy that jolts every scene he’s in. His eyes speak a devilish madness. He reminded me of Jason Lee’s raucous debut in Mallrats, a full force that sweeps you away. After watching Bong of the Living Dead, you’ll wish every movie had a Dan Kiely in it.
The rest of the ensemble find their moments, giving all the other moments to Kiely and his glorious beard. Arnold (Born Again, Seven Hells) is playing the most straight-laced of all the characters, a doctor trying to make sense of the irrational. Arnold has an instant screen presence and poise that causes you to sit up and pay attention. Her softer moments shared with Hal also help provide a nice antidote for the no-nonsense doctor. As much as Kiely is the draw of our attention, it’s Arnold that is often the one who grounds the picture. Boso (Underground 35) relentlessly pushes his character outside the box of socially awkward outcast. There’s a heaviness he feels from the consequences of getting close to others, and he doesn’t know fully how to deal with his frustrations with himself and the apocalypse, so he embraces his darker, nihilistic impulses. Boso is such a memorable film presence that it feels like he stepped off the set of a Richard Linklater film. Cat Taylor has a charming sense of daffy innocence to her. You can’t tell whether she’s dazed, cheerful, or not altogether there, and it fits very well for her character joining the group. She reminded me of Hannah Murray from the BBC’s Skins series. Nye (Harvest Lake, Dark Iris) is movie star handsome and has some sharp moments of comic aloofness. The romantic undercurrent he shares with Mock (The Tribunal) allows both of them something at stake that the audience can invest in. Nye and Mock have good heated exchanges that wake up the audience and allow each actor to effectively broaden their character range.
And then there are the little performances that make the most of their abbreviated screen time, like Ralph Scott’s (Stitches) wonderful clench-jawed bravado, Bardukas’ (The New Mr. Phillips) hilarious loose-elbow springiness in front of a green screen, Bill Koruna’s (The Shoes) crotchety neighbor, Ben Brown (After) as a powerfully self-loathing jock jerk who is wonderful fun to hate, Sarah Starr as a ditzy and easily bored sex object prone to gratuitous nudity, and the entire team inside the Conan-esque barbarian videos are a hoot for how committed they are to being silly. Just thinking about the Spanish home shopping host and his faces makes me smile and giggle to myself.
Bong of the Living Dead is a shaggy, scrappy, loose and lively zombie comedy with a charm all its own. It’s reliably fun and finds hidden gems of comedy from its deep supporting cast of oddballs. The main characters do fine work pushing at the boundaries of their stock archetypes, with Kiely as the wild man standout. There’s a definite love for the material here, over zombies and dumb comedies and the bonds of friendship. It’s evident in the care taken to creating a movie that doesn’t seem like it was churned out of a Hollywood assembly line, or something calculatingly checking the genre boxes (though the nudity does seem to linger a bit long…). Not everything always works but it’s a movie that tries a multitude of options. Bong of the Living Dead zigs instead of zags, undercutting the characters and our own expectations, finding ways to surprise as well as elate, and that includes going all-in on drama toward the end. It’s a silly movie that just might make you feel something by the time the credits roll. I don’t know what the release plans are for this homegrown horror flick, so stay alert for it on the horizon. Toke up, Backwards Slate Productions. You’ve earned it.
Nate’s Grade: B