Tag Archives: Owen Campbell

Keep On Truckin’

Candy Land

by Hope Madden

Candy Land is a surprise, and it’s not for everyone. This is grim stuff, but writer/director John Swab’s truck stop horror also delivers an unusual story hiding inside some same old, same old.

Remy (Olivia Luccardi) catches the eye of Sadie (Sam Quartin), one of the “lot lizards” selling their carnal wares at a bible belt truck stop. Remy’s part of a religious group here to help Sadie, Riley (Eden Brolin), Liv (Virginia Rand) and Levi (Owen Campbell) find salvation. Instead, Remy – cast out from the cult – finds Sadie, eventually deciding to learn the trade in exchange for a place to live.

Hard-right evangelicals rarely make a positive impression in a horror movie, and sex workers tend to become either heart-tugging martyrs or naked corpses (often both). To his credit, Swab has something else in mind, and while you would not call it pleasant, it’s almost refreshing.

Candy Land avoids preachiness, finding depth and humanity without condescension, both for the evangelicals and the lot lizards. There’s a sense of camaraderie among those on the job, and the naturalistic, terribly human performances sell that.

Campbell (X, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To), in particular, shines with a turn so full of tenderness, playfulness and optimism that you hold your breath every time he’s onscreen- lest something awful happens to him.

It does. In fact, at the risk of spoiling anything but in favor of helping viewers avoid triggers, Campbell’s Levi is subjected to an especially brutal and troubling rape sequence that’s part and parcel of a film loaded with graphic sexuality and violence, often side by side. But never once is the victimization filmed to titillate, if that helps.

For its many successes, the film often feels like a rather superficial exercise in brutality if only because none of the characters have real arcs. Things end for each character essentially where they began. A provocative but undercooked B-story involving a perversely paternal police officer (William Baldwin, with his most interesting performance in years) doesn’t help.

Candy Land is a tough film to recommend for a number of reasons, but it’s worthwhile viewing if only because Swab upends every expectation, instead taking us inside a horror grounded in something surprisingly human.

Blood Relative

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

by Hope Madden

Horror films are often—perhaps even always—metaphorical. Classic monster myths seem to be endlessly malleable in this way, one generation’s personification of xenophobia becomes the next generation’s malevolent elite becomes the following era’s image of addiction.

Making an unnervingly assured feature film debut, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas commingles The Transfiguration’s image of lonely, awkward adolescence with Relic’s horror of familial obligation to create a heartbreaking new vampire tale.

Many things are left unsaid (including the word “vampire’), and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To confines itself to the daily drudgery of three siblings. Dwight (Patrick Fugit) longs to break these family chains, but sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) holds him tight with shame, love, and obligation to little brother, the afflicted Thomas (Owen Campbell).

What could easily have become its own figurative image of the masculine longing for freedom mines far deeper concerns. Cuartas weaves loneliness into that freedom, tainting the concept of independence with a terrifying, even dangerous isolation that leaves you with no one to talk to and no way to get away from yourself.

The film exemplifies this best as Dwight’s repulsion and reluctance to fulfill his task of bringing home the blood his brother needs to survive. Dwight and a homeless man named Eduardo (Moises Tovar) talk to each other, neither understanding the other’s words, both misinterpreting the conversation. And yet both, unbeknownst to the other, bare their own hopelessly lonesome situation in just one of a dozen or more nearly perfect scenes.

Fugit, who always excels as the conflicted good guy, displays a light touch with the leading role. The result is heartbreaking, which wouldn’t be possible without Schram’s delicate and nuanced turn as the authoritative sister. Both siblings show cracks from the strain of this love and obligation, and their lashing out feels deeply realistic regardless of the supernatural dilemma.

Campbell fills Thomas with wide-eyed naivete that, again, deepens the film’s ache. You want better for these characters, however hopeless that desire is.  

As meticulous as Jonathan Cuartas’s direction is brother Michael’s cinematography. They frame the internals in a spooky, claustrophobic beauty and the exteriors with a bleakness that underscores not only this family’s plight, but the toll poverty takes on a community.

Dwight and his family shop at thrift stores, work at diners, and waste nothing. Unlike so many genre filmmakers, Cuartas ensures that their victims — those on the lowest rungs of society, those who no one would miss —are treated with empathy.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is not high on horror, but it succeeds in telling a beautiful, heartbreaking story.

Separation Anxiety

Super Dark Times

by Hope Madden

Super Dark Times opens ominously enough: a broken schoolroom window, a trail of blood running through empty classrooms and into a cafeteria. Though the outcome is not what you may expect, it sets an eerie stage for the 90s-set coming of age thriller.

Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are best friends, not yet driving, not yet dating, not yet determined if they are permanently dorks or just “awkward stage” dorks. They both like Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), both tolerate Daryl (Max Talisman).

Thanks in large part to a weirdly believable cast, writing that dances past clichés and confident direction, Super Dark Times creates the kind of charming but clumsy authenticity rarely seen in a coming-of-age indie.

Eighties high school flicks, mainly of the John Hughes variety, focused on right- versus wrong-side-of-the-tracks, popularity and the pressures parents can put on us. That is to say, they focused in most ways on the same worries that had plagued adolescent-focused films since the Fifties.

Contemporary films dealing with high schoolers require the ubiquitous presence of social media. But there is a particular darkness that entered the global consciousness about adolescents in the 90s, and Super Dark Times tries to tap that, using it to color the tone of its nostalgia and cusp-of-adulthood energy.

Kevin Phillips, making his feature debut, leans on his experience as a cinematographer to ensure the film looks as appealing and authentically nostalgic-90s-coming-of-age as possible. Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski are unafraid to drop contextual clues without burdening characters with too much backstory, just to go on to upend expectations now and again to keep you on your toes.

Super Dark Times develops a thriller atmosphere fueled by the paranoid, confused logic of an adolescent. It’s all a fascinating and realistic journey—until it isn’t.

At a certain point in Super Dark Times, the film settles. It becomes something it didn’t have to become—like the teen who’s cool to hang onto that Subway job when he really needs to ditch town and make something of himself.

It’s an enormous credit to Philips and his young cast that this unnecessary cop-out doesn’t ruin the film. Together they have drawn so much investment in these characters and their futures that you can’t help but stay tuned and attentive.

But they could have done more.