When I watch a movie, it’s like there are two of me in the same seat. There’s that regular movie-going guy who likes blood and boobs and things that explode, the kind of movies we call POPCORN MOVIES. But there’s another fellow who accompanies him. This guy likes some of the same things as his friend, but he is a seeker and connoisseur of SERIOUS CINEMA. This guy doesn’t just want to see a movie, he wants it to change his life. It goes without saying that these guys don’t always see eye to eye. POPCORN: Dude, what’s up with the penis hat? CINEMA: It’s not a penis. It’s supposed to be a Corinthian Helm, the battle helmet worn by ancient Greek warriors . . . but apparently it still needs some work. POPCORN: Yeah it does. Maybe you should just go as a dick. Unless you’re worried everybody will recognize you. CINEMA: Your consummate wit never fails to astound me. Maybe I won’t go at all. Halloween parties always end up disappointing me, as I feel like they could always be so much better. POPCORN: Could be worse too. CINEMA: I suppose. Meanwhile, in that same spirit, this week we’ve got a trio of films that were promising attempts but ultimately fell a bit short . . . POPCORN: Like your penis hat. CINEMA: The first one is an indie horror film from 2012 called TOAD ROAD, written and directed by Jason Banker. It concerns a bunch of drunk and drugged-out kids who waste their days away dropping acid, lighting their farts, and setting each other’s pubes on fire when they’re passed out. There’s not much going on for the first half – POPCORN: Thought I was watching Jack Ass. CINEMA: The beginning of the film sets up the terminal lifestyle of slacker culture, coming across like a slightly less anarchic version of a Harmony Korine movie. There’s pill-popping, Adderall-snorting, bong hits, and twenty-something’s blowing Vicks into each other’s eyeballs. POPCORN: And tripped-out dudes playing gay chicken. CINEMA: Leaning toward each other, tongues out, waiting to see who will flinch first . . . yeah, that’s the kind of crowd I’m talking about. It’s like the Blair Witch meets Gummo. You’re not sure this film is going anywhere, other than a few flashes of something darker in the opening scenes. We first see James face-down in the snowy woods, then watch as a passing motorist stops to pick him up. He doesn’t say a word, but just stares blankly out of the car window – POPCORN: Lookin’ into the woods. CINEMA: It flashes back to the beginning of the story – POPCORN: He meets that Sara chick, who could totally do better. CINEMA: She’s college-bound, and a bit baffled by his lack of direction. But she wants to really experience something, so she starts hanging out with James and his friends. It’s not long before she’s taking mushrooms in ancient caves with the rest of them – POPCORN: – and talkin’ about Toad Road – CINEMA: She does more than just talk about it. In her apparent search for something deeper, she becomes obsessed with this local urban legend. It’s a rumored path through the forest, consisting of several gates – POPCORN: The Seven Doors of Hell, dude. CINEMA: – which are not seen as much as sensed, basically through hallucinations and escalating disorientation. Passage through the first gate brings the sensation of being high, the second brings, maybe, voices and strange things lurking at the furthest edges of the mind. According to legend, no one has made it past the fifth gate, at which point times ceases to have any meaning. Past and present get all jumbled together – POPCORN: A totally bad trip. CINEMA: The seventh gate supposedly leads right to hell. POPCORN: Just gotta ask, dude . . . why? CINEMA: Maybe the thrill of going as far as you could possibly go. You know, gazing into the abyss and feeling it look back at you. As an agnostic, it might change my perspective to experience something like that. Or maybe just because the movie doesn’t happen without it. POPCORN: It’s like folks in horror movies live in a world where there aren’t any horror movies. CINEMA: Well, if they had seen any, they would have known better than James and Sara when they wander into the woods and start dropping acid. No good could possibly come from that, and it doesn’t. POPCORN: I’m not really sure what came from that, dude. What’s-his-face wanders home from the woods and everybody’s just kinda scattered. They were lookin’ for him, but now they’re not. Then he’s out there askin’ people to hit him hard as they can. I got to the end of this movie and was like, what the hell did I just watch? CINEMA: Honestly, I think that’s the point. The film doesn’t offer any easy answers to the questions it barely asks, much like the twentysomething lifestyle it’s depicting. For me, it functions better as a bleak slice-of-life piece set amidst the slacker drug culture, with little more than hints of a true horror film. Had the distributors been more wise, they might have marketed it like that instead. But even the opening voiceover, which promises the glimpse of those seven doorways to hell, kind of sets horror fans up for disappointment. POPCORN: Well, I didn’t get it. CINEMA: I’m not surprised. But I think it rewards on repeat viewings, where things start to feel more sinister. If nothing else, it announced the arrival of a talented new filmmaker in Jason Banker. Shot in documentary style, he used non-professional actors found when he searched his own zip code on MySpace. POPCORN: What, seriously? When was this flick made? CINEMA: It was filmed in 2008, but not released until four years later. Banker shot a ridiculous amount of footage in an attempt to capture something authentic. All of the partying, and the tensions between the characters, is all mostly real. He then assembled the narrative in the editing process, piecing together what we see on the screen. POPCORN: Yeah, I’ll give it that. Shit feels real. CINEMA: There is a side note of tragedy, however. The lead actress, Sara Anne Jones, died of a heroin overdose almost immediately after the film premiered. POPCORN: Damn, dude. CINEMA: I know, it’s very sad. She seemed to have some potential. It adds an element of further sadness to the film, maybe even spookiness, once you start to figure out what happened. POPCORN: Well, enough of that. I got one I’ll bet you just loved, dude. This indie flick from 2008 is about zombies and, like, falling in love and shit. It’s called MAKE-OUT WITH VIOLENCE and – CINEMA: Nope. POPCORN: – there’s a bunch of wussy indie music and – CINEMA: Hated it. POPCORN: – it’s all mopey and . . . wait, you really didn’t like it? Cuz this movie was just made for snobby sad bastards like you. These two dudes, they’re brothers, and struggling to, like, accept that their friend disappeared. But then she just kinda shows up out in the countryside one day, all reanimated and zombified, and . . . CINEMA: It was Gossip Girl with the undead. POPCORN: The brothers are twins. One of ’em’s named Patrick and the other one is Carol, because his parents only had one name picked out for a boy or a girl. I dunno if that means anything, cuz the movie doesn’t really go anywhere with it, but – CINEMA: It doesn’t really go anywhere with anything, that’s the problem. POPCORN: – there’s this little brother too, named Beetle, and he’s kinda tellin’ the story. You know, all STAND BY ME style – CINEMA: But for what reason? POPCORN: What do you mean, for what reason? Because they wanted to when they made the movie. Like how the one brother, Patrick, he’s not quite right. Like, he just seems a little off, something about the umbilical cord before he was born. Then the little Beetle dude finds the girl – Wendy, that was her name – he finds her in the woods, tied up to a tree and lookin’ all Romero. CINEMA: But why? For all of it, I ask why. Why was the kid named Carol, and why is he portrayed the way he is if nothing is even going to be implied by that portrayal? Why was she tied to the tree, and how did she end up dead to begin with? POPCORN: I dunno, dude. It was one-a them kinda movies where it doesn’t matter. Aren’t you always tellin’ me about ambiguity and shit? Like, I don’t really need to know why everybody in that last Fast & Furious doesn’t wanna beat Jason Statham’s ass even though he killed their friend a couple movies ago. CINEMA: That’s not ambiguity. That’s just shitty screenwriting – but, since all you want to do is sit there making engine sounds anyway, you might as well ignore it. But it’s also not ambiguity in this film. As a matter of fact, there are many ways that your Fast & Furious movies are written better than this film. POPCORN: Really? Cuz I will bring that shit up next time you start raggin’ on Vin. CINEMA: Whatever. See, here’s the problem with this movie, and it’s much deeper than just keeping the characters’ motivations in the dark. Beetle and Carol find their friend in the woods, reanimated and strung up between a couple trees. Do either of them wonder how she got there? Did someone kill her, and then tie to the tree once she reanimated . . . if so, then who? Does anyone ever consider calling an ambulance? No, instead they throw a tarp over her and drag her back to a friend’s house – the friend being yet another extraneous character who’s just there and then gone, with no real purpose in the film – POPCORN: Dude, the chick is obviously undead. What good’s the ambulance gonna do? Besides, aren’t you always going all emo and whining about there ain’t no purpose to nothing? CINEMA: There isn’t, and there isn’t any purpose to watching this movie either. POPCORN: Damn, harsh. And I figured the other brother killed the chick. I mean, you saw how weird he got when they brought her back home. Dude was all cuttin’ her fingernails and feeding her rats, like he’d been crushing on her for years. CINEMA: Everyone is crushing on everyone else in this film – POPCORN: For real, dude. Patrick’s all about Wendy. Carol is diggin’ on Wendy’s best friend, Addy, but Addy is up on Wendy’s old boyfriend Brian. Then there’s Addy’s friend Anne, who wants Carol like Wendy wants that rat. CINEMA: It’s what night have happened if John Hughes suffered a head injury and then got into Lucio Fulci movies, and it just didn’t work for me. POPCORN: What about the chick that played Wendy, though? Dude, those moves. CINEMA: Shellie Marie Shartzer. Yes, I would admit that she was amazing. The way her body jerks and twists around, like some kind of possessed marionette, was really impressive. Had the film been better overall, her rendition of a zombie might have caught on and changed the way they move in future zombie films. If you’re going to see this film for anything, see it for her. POPCORN: You hear how it got made, with the guys who played the brothers forming a band to raise money? CINEMA: Yes, I read all about it. Under the moniker of the Deagol Brothers, Jordan and Eric Lehning actually began writing the soundtrack even before the movie started filming. Mostly Brian Eno-inspired indie songs. They felt that the musical themes would help them to sculpt the story, but they ended up with more music than plot. They appear on the soundtrack as Non-Commissioned Officers, which is the same name under which they performed numerous benefit shows to get the funds they needed. POPCORN: Yeah, dude. They spent, like, three summer vacations doing this. That’s pretty cool, thinking you could just make a movie instead-a gettin’ drunk or hangin’ out at the beach. CINEMA: It’s very cool, and I’ve got nothing but the greatest respect for their ingenuity and for many different elements of the film they ultimately created. It’s beautiful to look at. Even when they used a different director of photography for each of those summers, there’s still a visual consistency throughout the film. The wussy indie music, as you put it, works for me in context with what’s happening on the screen. POPCORN: But you still hate it. CINEMA: Absolutely. POPCORN: You are one miserable bastard. CINEMA: Maybe, but I did appreciate the final film in this week’s trick-or-treat trio. POPCORN: KATIEBIRD*certifiable crazy person. CINEMA: That’s the one. Another little-seen independent, this time from 2005, it has moments that feel more like an endurance test than a film. However, if you stay with it, there are glimpses of a frightening talent in writer-director Justin Paul Ritter. POPCORN: Huh. I’m kinda surprised. CINEMA: Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a perfect film. There are numerous things that could have been done to make it even better, but, as what is essentially Ritter’s debut film, it shows amazing potential . . . POPCORN: I was diggin’ the female serial killer. They don’t do too many of those, and we all know chicks can be just as crazy as dudes. It’s about, like, equality and shit. CINEMA: There are three incarnations of that serial killer here too, portrayed at different ages by different actresses. All three of them were convincing to me. Basically, it’s the story of KatieBird Wilkins, a woman in her early 20s who was raised in a single-parent home. Nothing terribly extraordinary about that, except – POPCORN: Dad liked to saw people’s faces off. CINEMA: – and perform amateur dentistry. Like any struggling parent, he only wants what’s best for his little girl. The only problem, in this case, is that Pops might have a different idea of what’s best than most of us do. His own father was a serial killer – POPCORN: – and Gramps too – CINEMA: – and he’s not initially sure if he should pass this tradition down. He never expected to have a daughter, after all. But he starts her out gradually, going for long drives where they ultimately just park and watch people for hours. POPCORN: Look at those things, sweetie. How much blood you think is in them? CINEMA: Some of these scenes might be the best ones for me, with a genuine and convincing interaction between father and daughter. Merl Wilkins is played by accomplished character actor Lee Perkins, while the teenaged KatieBird is portrayed by newcomer Taylor M. Dooley, and both of them are excellent. You don’t always find decent actors in a film with this kind of limited budget. POPCORN: Older Katie is pretty badass too. CINEMA: Helene Udy. Yeah, she’s been around longer than you might think, appearing in the cult film PIN in 1988 and then the remake of MY BLOODY VALENTINE. She’s got great facial expressions and really pulls off the whole certifiable thing. POPCORN: Like when she ties up her psychiatrist – CINEMA: – who’s obviously not doing a very good job – POPCORN: – obviously – CINEMA: – and turns the tables on what initially seems like him taking advantage of her – POPCORN: – ridin’ him like a rodeo horse – CINEMA: – then again after he realizes she might be crazier than he thought – POPCORN: – and another again after bustin’ out the tool box – CINEMA: – raping and torturing the guy, though it’s rather hard to feel bad for him. Through it all, she is telling the story of how she came to be what she is – POPCORN: – a total bloodthirsty freak – CINEMA: – and that story is told in a way that will challenge most viewers. I’ve got to be honest, the techniques Ritter employed on the screen were really distracting for me at first. It annoyed me so much that I wasn’t sure that I could make it through the movie – POPCORN: You mean all that crazy-ass split-screen shit? CINEMA: Split-screen was what DePalma used at the end of CARRIE, when you’ve got Sissy Spacek’s face on one side of the screen and, say, screaming kids running for the exit on the other. What Ritter used in KATIEBIRD was more like paneling, with one frame snapping off to become two, three, four, and even more. POPCORN: Was like I was having a seizure. CINEMA: The thing was . . . split-screen was only used for the prom scene in CARRIE, more or less, and it worked. But almost every scene of this film is paneled. At any moment, it might be like the open pages of a comic book on the screen in front of you, with movement in each frame. For someone with ADHD, this is either a dream come true or a total nightmare – POPCORN: Nightmare, dude. CINEMA: – which was very effective in ratcheting up the nerves, in case the torture and tooth-removal wasn’t already doing that. POPCORN: Naw, man. Some of that stuff was cool, but I couldn’t keep up with it. CINEMA: Nor could I, at first. My initial reaction was that Ritter was trying to make a film that was mediocre at best into something it wasn’t. But then I gave it another shot, already knowing what I was in for – POPCORN: No way, dude. CINEMA: – and those frames, the very thing that ruined it for me the first time, were the element that made this film genius now. What you’re seeing is the fractured mind of a certifiably insane murderer. It’s not perfect, but it is brilliant. POPCORN: And bloody. CINEMA: Bloody as hell. POPCORN: Alright, dude, I’m ready for the Halloween party now. CINEMA: A Chewbacca mask, really? POPCORN: Huuguughghgh raaaaahhgh uughghhhgh. CINEMA: Maybe I need a date with KatieBird. (Cinema puts on the Corinthian Helm, which does indeed look like a penis, and sighs.) POPCORN and CINEMA: Happy Halloween everyone. – j. meredith POPCORN CINEMA will return with more unforgettable adventures in the movies. Meanwhile, feel free to drop a comment or click a ‘Like’ . . . it makes the guys feel good. 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