Tag Archives: independent movies

The Texas Chainsaw Leftovers Have Eyes

What the Waters Left Behind: Scars

by Daniel Baldwin

In 1974, master of horror Tobe Hooper unleashed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre upon the world, giving it one of the most influential films in the annals of cinema history. It wasn’t the first rural terror flick centered around folks poking their heads where they shouldn’t, but it set into place a permanent subgenre mold that much of what has come since has been cast from. This includes the Nicolas & Luciano Onetti’s 2017 slash and torture film, What the Waters Left Behind.

Five years later, Nicolas Onetti returns to the world of that film with a sequel, Scars. The first film followed a small documentary crew as they ventured into a remote, abandoned town in Argentina called Epecuen. This is a real town that was destroyed in a flash flood during 1985 and remained under water for decades, before the flood finally receded and left ruins in its wake. Both films were shot on location in Epecuen, with the resulting production value being their most striking aspect.

Scars trades in a film crew for a metal band, with our doomed musicians merely passing through their area as they finish their bar gig tour. Once they find themselves in Epecuen, they are quickly set upon by the same cannibal family that dispatched the documentarians in the previous entry. A couple cast members carry over on the villain front, with some fresh faces mixed in as well.

The Onettis’ initial claim to fame came in the form of a trio of neo-giallo films (Deep SleepFrancesca, and Abrakadabra) that have delighted many fans of that subgenre. Unfortunately, their grasp on rural slashers isn’t as strong. The good news is that if you were a fan of the first film, you’re likely to find a lot to enjoy within Scars, as it is a step up in almost every way. The bad news is that it’s effectively the exact same movie over again, so if you weren’t buying what the first was selling, you’re unlikely to want to partake in seconds.

Their stalking setpieces, torture sequences, and excessive rape scenes repeat over and over with little variation or visual ingenuity, leaving us with an 85-minute film that still feels like it is a solid 15 minutes too long. Scars is for the curious only. All others should stick with the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre or either version of The Hills Have Eyes.



by Tori Hanes

The financial-turned-emotional bond of two people joined by the matrimony of a shared lease – who couldn’t relate? Following the individual yet interlacing lives of food critic Sasha (Hugo Andre, who also directs) and trans woman at the start of her transition Dan (Will Masheter), Makeup attempts to connect the struggles and secrets under the shared roof.

Makeup is ambitious in its interest. The arguable protagonist, Dan, is a closeted trans woman moving through a world laden with toxic masculinity, which she outwardly embraced and embodied. Dan’s identity is found out, but neither explored nor accepted, leading to prickling social pain points. However, Makeup fails to fully dig into the meaning of these moments.

After being outed and then fired, for example, Dan’s grieving is stripped to a few moments of heavy breathing accompanied by a shaky camera. This seems to be the pattern: the ball is tossed and volleyed, waiting to be spiked into true emotion, but we never quite see that deeper understanding. While Masheter delivers a multifaceted performance, he never gets the opportunity to show us Dan’s longing. 

The film is, for all intents and purposes, Dan’s. Sasha often seems to be a secondary thought, necessary for moving Dan’s larger beats. But as we steer into the meat, it becomes obvious Sasha and Dan’s relationship is supposed to be the major thread; the veins leading to the film’s heart.

But the unevenness makes itself apparent: one character struggles in a world created by bigotry while the other has an unnamed ailment affecting his hand. Andre’s performance implies something more interesting and important lies just out of view. Unfortunately, it stays out of sight indefinitely, leading to an unbalanced chemistry and soul.

Representation is an ever-important conversation spanning media, and films highlighting trans women aid in this continued journey. However, while its heart is in the right place, Makeup’s story winds up short despite its best effort.

Must Be Adjacent to the Hotel California

The Nowhere Inn

by Christie Robb

Ever wondered what a mock music documentary directed by David Lynch would feel like?

Bill Benz’s The Nowhere Inn is a hybrid of St. Vincent tour footage and a deconstruction of the concept of identity, written by real-life friends Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia, Sleater-Kinney).

Ostensibly a music documentary of a St. Vincent tour put together by Annie and her best friend/director Carrie, the goal of the project is to show fans who Annie Clark really is and give Carrie a chance to dig herself out of a career rut.

Quickly, Carrie tires of Annie’s life off stage, which consists of Pilates, playing scrabble with bandmates on the bus, and searching around tour locations for farmers’ markets to purchase healthy road snacks. Carrie asks Annie to zhuzh it up a bit to make the film more interesting.

And the offended Annie delivers.

As Annie’s behind-the-scenes self merges with that of her stage persona, the film takes on a more ominous tone. It combines elements of a music video with comedy and thriller/horror. (And even amateur pornography in a fun little scene with Dakota Johnson playing an expensive lingerie-wearing fictional Dakota Johnson.) Ultimately, the movie becomes surrealist as it grapples with the nature of identity, friendship and authenticity.

The cinematography is often painterly with vibrant colors contrasted against velvety blacks. This is mixed with somewhat grainy “archival” footage, filmed St. Vincent performances, and reality TV-style confessional interview footage. The fact that we don’t get lost in all this is a win for the editing department.

Annie Clark shows an impressive acting range, from nerdy awkwardness to lonely vulnerability, aloof artist to menacing narcissist. She’s also got a sense of comedic timing that can keep up with the bone-dry Brownstein.

Although the thesis is somewhat belabored and some of the subplots don’t particularly go anywhere, The Nowhere Inn is an interesting place to find yourself.

Western Guilt

No Man’s Land

by Cat McAlpine

The liminal space between Mexico and Texas is home to fear, anxiety, and confusion. It is in this taut, emotional maelstrom that two families tragically collide.

The Greers have a struggling cattle ranch directly on the border. Young Fernando and his family are making their way into Texas illegally, led by their father, Gustavo.

“Texas looks like Mexico,” Young Fernando observes.

“Yes, it does,” his father agrees.

No Man’s Land hinges on the relationship between sons and fathers and their shared legacies. The film is a family affair in its own right, co-written by Jake Allyn (who also stars as Jackson Greer) and directed by his brother Conor Allyn. Also written by David Barraza, No Man’s Land attempts to tackle national tensions along the border.

This is a new and old western. It prods at current events but follows the familiar beat of a man on the run seeking redemption. Forced to flee, Jackson makes his way deeper and deeper into Mexico, paralleling an immigrant’s journey northward. He doesn’t speak the language but he’s willing to work, and work hard.

No Man’s Land subconsciously uses the same “he had his whole life ahead of him” argument we often see used for violent, young white men. Jackson is at the mercy of a culture, and in particular a grieving father, who owe him nothing. And yet it is their kindness, compassion, and forgiveness that truly save Jackson from the mistakes he’s made. He becomes more compassionate and understanding after experiencing Mexican culture, instead of simply recognizing the intrinsic value of other humans from the start.

Visually, the film is breathtaking. Technology is largely eliminated from the screen, horses are used as often as cars, and there’s a timeless western quality to the story. Jackson’s journey into Mexico is not made hazy with yellow filters, but instead shows a place more vibrant and green than his home.

The cast is another shining element in No Man’s Land. Allyn delivers an agonized but mostly understated performance as Jake. He’s matched by a wonderful Jorge A. Jimenez as Gustavo, a man constantly battling with himself. And George Lopez – as a Texas ranger who can’t speak Spanish – adds great dimension to the stories as they intertwine.

No Man’s Land is beautifully shot, emotional, and an honest extension of the western genre, but ultimately its call to unity could use some work.

Fe Fi Fo Fum

The Giant

by Hope Madden

Been a while since I’ve been swimming in the dark. Who knows what nasty things are in there?

It may be a line delivered by high school senior Olivia (Madelyn Cline), but it’s a theme writer/director David Raboy knows how to work.

Somewhere in that steamy summer between youth and adulthood, between the loose ends of rural Southern life and the tidiness of college, an ugliness lurks like a trap to keep you. On the same night as that dark swim, when Olivia and Charlotte (Odessa Young, Shirley) jump in alongside a couple of menacingly boyish buddies, a girl is murdered.

Olivia’s feeling nostalgic, maybe panicked that this next chapter will mean a separation from her closest friend. Charlotte’s preoccupation is hazier and more menacing.

The truth is, the time of year and Charlotte’s impending move have her thinking about—dreaming? remembering?—her mother’s suicide. But then, when the girl is murdered, Charlotte’s ex shows up like he’s back from the dead, himself.

And then another girl dies.

Raboy’s indie drama The Giant plays like the fever dream of someone so wedded to a certain kind of pain that they may submit to it rather than move on. The murders on the periphery, the Malick-esque use of voiceover, the hazy close ups and distorted light combine to create a groggy nightmare, both beautiful and frustrating.

The Giant’s beauty lies not only in Raboy’s intriguing framing and pacing—so thick you feel as if you’re hallucinating—but in the lead performances. Young cuts an enigmatic central figure, a tragedy waiting and possibly willing to happen. Meanwhile, Cline’s innocent and earnest turn is like its own light source in the murky Gothic.

But The Giant is frustrating in its vagueness. The dreamlike dread Raboy creates sometimes takes the place of narrative structure, the elements within his script—the serial killings, the suicide, the partying—create creepiness but they don’t serve a concrete narrative purpose. The film serves any number of potential allegorical objectives, but it never actually tells a story.

As weird as it seems, that isn’t enough to sink the film. The nastiness in those murky waters keeps your interest even without it.


Smells Like Teen Spirit

Dating Amber

by Hope Madden

Awkward teens pretend to date each other to sidestep the school bullies, only to find a deep and genuine bond. That sounds pat enough, but writer/director David Freyne (The Cured) and a stunning cast have something far messier and human in mind.

Welcome to County Kildare in the mid Nineties. Divorce is still illegal, homosexuality a curse, the Irish army or the hair salon are the likeliest post-graduation vocations. As Amber (Lola Petticrew) says frequently, “This place will kill you.”

Amber should know. She found her father hanging in the forest near the trailer court where she rents out spots to horny teens, which she does to accrue enough dough to head to London the minute she graduates.

But to survive between now and then, she proposes the “let’s pretend we’re dating” con to Eddie (a remarkable Fionn O’Shea). Because Amber is gay. Gay gay gay. And so is Eddie.

No. No, he definitely is not gay. Not at all. But still…it isn’t a terrible idea.

So begins Freyne’s semi-satirical look at the perils of high school generally and sexual conformity specifically. There are delightful, early, broad-stroke comic moments that simply feel like a cheeky Irish upending of John Hughes tropes.

But that’s not Dating Amber. Not at all. The brightly familiar comedy trappings serve to lull you into a comfortable space so the film can unveil something beautifully untidy and really heartbreaking, something simultaneously devastating and resilient.

Freyne mixes darkness and forgiveness in equal measure. Everyone has their own shit to deal with, and an depressed small town full of frightened people lacking in any real opportunity or choice is bound to take its toll—on the gay kids, on the parents who probably don’t want to be married anymore, on the younger brother who just wants to feel like his family is normal, and on everyone facing graduation and whatever likely dismal future lies ahead.

But mainly, Freyne is interested in how Amber and Eddie contend with things. Luckily, Petticrew and O’Shea share a truly lovely chemistry, creating the kind of bond you long to see for every desperate and lonely teenager.

Their honesty gives every scene an extra punch—of laughter or heartbreak. Coming of age still looks like it seriously sucks, but Dating Amber is a keeper.

Let the Altars Shine

Extra Ordinary

by Hope Madden

It’s a classic hero’s journey, isn’t it? Our protagonist, damaged from a past misadventure, shuns a true talent. Years into a contented but shallow existence free from that talent, reality comes to call. The hero must rediscover that talent to find love, save a town and fulfill a destiny.

It’s every Western, most action films, a lot of vampire flicks, and the supernatural driving instructor love story Extra Ordinary.

Mike Ahern and Edna Loughman’s latest—a film that follows this groove beat by beat—charms you into accepting that familiarity. Then it rewards you with the most delightfully motley group of characters. And, thanks to those quirky characters, nothing ever goes exactly as you expected.

Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins) is our reluctant hero. A driving instructor in rural Ireland, Rose has stopped chatting with the ghosts that seek her attention as she drives through town, and she is only returning phone calls about driving school. None of that other stuff. She’s done with that.

Which is why Martin Martin (Barry Ward) has to pretend he needs a lesson. Martin Martin doesn’t really want help ridding himself of his wife’s fairly abusive ghost, he just wants his teenage daughter Sarah (Emma Coleman) to think he’s looking into it so she doesn’t leave home.

But Martin Martin’s ghost is the least of his worries, what with that Satan worshipping one-hit-wonder Christian Winter (Will Forte) over in that castle conjuring up virgin-hungry demons to help him relaunch his musical career.

That’s a lot to pack into 94 minutes, although the plot is hardly the point. Higgins is the point. This no fuss comedy remains adorably indifferent to the supernatural, every new development just an opportunity for Higgins, in particular, to charm with her sharp comic timing and infectious good nature.

The film’s affable absurdity suits Forte and Ward makes a sweetly ideal foil for Higgins. Extra Ordinary casts a silly spell that leaves you smiling.


Good Intentions

Blood on Her Name

by Hope Madden

Good intentions are very mortal and perishable things.

So are people.

Leigh Tiller lets good intentions muck up what should have been an easy crime to get away with. No one would have known. No one would have suspected. Not that there wouldn’t be complications, but she’d deal with those later.

While co-writer/director Matthew Pope doesn’t reinvent the wheel with his Rust Belt noir Blood on Her Name, it is actually the refreshing simplicity of the storytelling that compels you to pay attention. That and Bethany Anne Lind’s performance.

As Tiller, Lind weaves a dotted line between upstanding and sketchy. Her compass doesn’t always point due North, or maybe it does, or at least maybe it could. Right? It could. It’s this struggle, most of it internal, that Lind characterizes with subtle anguish to give the film an aching, remorseful tenderness, a longing for what should be but what is always just out of reach.

Pope populates his low rent neighborhoods with an intriguing mix of characters, none of whom are rendered with broad strokes. Dani Wilson is especially strong as a fading white trash hottie, while Will Patton finds dimension as an old man who believes he deserves a second chance but probably does not.

Blood on Her Name is a film that should feel bleak but it rebels against its own grim fate. This is a film that knows Leigh Tiller deserved better choices, stronger options. It’s a film that doesn’t want to give up on small town, low rent, hard work. But it’s also a film that’s bracingly clear-eyed about the reality that balances that optimism.

The result is a memorably quiet eulogy.

Tell Me a Story

Ghost Stories

by Hope Madden

Billed as a return to the old-school British horror anthology, Ghost Stories takes us through three paranormal cases passed from the chief investigator to a colleague he’s hoping can prove them false.

Ghost Stories is based on a popular stage play written by the film’s own co-writers and co-directors, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson. Nyman also stars as Professor Goodman, the paranormalist who agrees to look into the trio of cases that muddled his hero and mentor.

The movie invests far more in this set up than expected, developing a fascinating connecting tale rather than a simple framing device that holds together a handful of otherwise disconnected shorts. Instead, we get a deeper story, one that influences and is influenced by the shorts in ways more organic than the run-of-the-mill anthology.

And though the three individual shorts contain nothing extraordinary in the way of scares, each offers a richly developed world full of detail and shadow. Every short has its own personality and style, although they all contain puzzle pieces that provide a coherence to the overall story, little items that range from the peculiar to the outright spooky.

A great deal of the success lies in the wonderfully human portrayal delivered by Nyman, who conveys humility, pomposity, self-righteousness, pity and terror in turns without ever hitting a false note. Other solid performances pepper the film. Martin Freeman is particularly engaging. Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther also bring uniquely high-strung characters to life.

As scares go, the first short packs the biggest wallop. A night guard at a dilapidated old asylum for women sees and hears strange things, leading to horror.

If that sounds like well-worn territory, that’s because it is. In fact, the three short films themselves don’t deliver much in the way of new scares, but that isn’t Nyman and Dyson’s intention. The terror here is far less paranormal than existential, and clever clues combine with crisp writing to create a full picture that’s more satisfying than it should probably be.

Timing is Everything


by Hope Madden

Who was not delighted and surprised by David Bautista’s runaway comedic performance in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy?

And truth be told, his turn in the sequel was funnier still. Dave Bautista is comic gold!

Drama, on the other hand, is still just a tad outside his grasp.

Bautista stars with Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect) in Bushwick, a real-time(ish) survival adventure.

Lucy (Snow) brings a new beau home to her Brooklyn neighborhood Bushwick to meet the fam. Weirdly, there is not a soul in their subway station – aside from that screaming man who’s on fire. That’s extreme, even for New York.

Bombs, snipers and general mayhem greet the two as they try to leave the underground and head to Lucy’s grandma’s place. What is happening?

Directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott want to take a minute before laying it all out for you. It’s not a bad narrative decision – having the audience share in Lucy’s confusion. The directors make a handful of worthy choices, the most provocative and obvious of which is the sleight of hand used to make the film look and feel like one long take.

Beyond the visual trickery employed to minimize the noticeability of cuts, most scenes are delivered as if caught in one take. Actors stumble over lines, for instance, in much the same way humans might when conversing.

There’s even a chance it could have even worked to generate urgency and underscore the raw, wild ride of the adventure if the writing weren’t so bad and the actors had talent.

Snow could not be more irritating or less believable and Bautista, God help us, is asked to deliver an earnest, emotionally devastated monolog.

He’s awful, but he’s not alone. Everyone is. In fact, the most common comment in my notes from the film: This is so bad.

The one reason the film may stick out this weekend is its utterly amazing timing.

Bushwick has been invaded by a well-armed, organized militia of entitled racists.

Shut the F up.

The film won’t satisfy your blood lust, your peaceful dreams or your hope for a decent movie. But damn, its timing is eerie.