A bunch of horror film fans with a proclivity toward South Park style smart-assiness and a genuine love of pop culture references decides to make a kind of retard screwball comedy about a couple of dorks who long to be vampires. Sounds like a formula for another horribly homemade camcorder catastrophe, right? Well, believe it or not, writer/director Justin Channell has managed to make a movie that, while slight on frights, is a real ribtickler in the humor department.
Steve and Bob are a couple of losers who hate the fact that they are unpopular, lame, and constantly being picked on. They decide that vampirism is the road to fame, fortune and - oh yeah - the FEMALES!!! Unfortunately, everyone knows that the kind of bloodsucker they long to be is purely fictional. So the guys dress up like vampires, incredibly fake fangs in tow, and terrorize the people in their neighborhood. Only problem is, they end up getting their asses kicked over and over again. While cruising the local video store, they are approached by a very strange man. He proceeds to tell them that he can make them into the neck biters they long to be. The only catch? They have to feed once every four days, or they will die. Well, our feebs feel the social and psychological need to chow down on clots and claret, and drink the weirdo's peculiar potion. Sure enough, they become disgruntled children of the night. And guess what? They are still getting their asses kicked. As the days tick by our D&D dumbbells have to find a way to change back, or they are destined to be the living dead forever...or at least, for three more days. Talk about Raising the Stakes.
Here is a laurel, and hearty handshake for filmmaker Justin Channell. Certainly he allows his actors to free associate every manner of pop culture reference from Trey Parker and Matt Stone's celebrated Colorado burg to the flashback filled and anarchical aside riddled Family Guy. If it has anything to do with Star Wars, bad 80s pop songs, or any number of crazed and chaotic horror films, this director's cast just can't stop riffing on it. Of course, since this is a no-budget production, the night scenes get lost in grain-induced darkness, and cinematic subtlety is all but lost. From a purely performance level, the thespian friends who frequent his scenes all tend to emote like they're sitting around shooting the breeze with their fellow freaks, and as an example of purely recognized narrative, the plot line has as many holes and pitfalls as a main street in any metropolis.
But here's the VERY good news - none of the amateurishness or complications matter. Applying the sole standard necessary for a comedy - is it funny or not - Channell's Raising the Stakes passes with incredibly pleasing and definitely flying farcical colors. This laugh out loud lunacy drenched in delirious local color is like sitting with your high school pals as they play professional for the sake of a class camcorder project. It is, without a doubt, one of the cleverest and more sincere home made movies this critic has seen in a while. Though he formulates some of the film within the mannerisms of the macabre, Channell is really out to make a madcap tribute to the tenacity of fandom and the angst-ridden ridiculousness of the average nerd. This is a bloodless, brain dead example of the fine art of imbecilic wit, proving that humor can come in any form - intelligent, sophomoric, juvenile or ever toilet - and still deliver a bong hit full of belly laughs.
They say timing is everything in comedy. But on occasion, retardation trumps the careful crafting of jokes, and such is the case here. As our Beavis and Butt-head of the role-playing set, Josh Lively and Zane Crosby are hilarious, like a post-millennial comedy team on crack. They play off each other exceptionally well, and even when their line delivery is sloppy and strange, their jolly, genial personalities come across. They really hold the entire film together, creating characters that we root for and sympathize with. These losers just want a bit of respect, to not feel like fools in a one-horse town filled with such failures. Besides, their constant attacks on each other using various formulations of the word "pussy" will be enough to win over even the most hardened humor fan. Manipulating his actors amateur status to his advantage, Channell plays up the poor dialogue memorization, the deadpan pronunciation and the overwhelming oddness of some of the personas to accent the sense of spoof involved in the production. Of special note are Nino Mancino as the neighborhood sex fiend, and Richard "Nips" Crosby as a dude drunk on Internet titties, generic beer and exposing his ass crack.
Channell also shows off his chops with some inventive and original moments. When Zane Crosby flashes forward to a kind of music video of the mind sequence, the director's referencing to the genre is razor sharp and hilariously accurate. When Ryan Stocking (as the vampire elixir salesman) has his 'imaginary' conversations with Mr. Cornbread (actually a portrait of a Native American chief), he lets the insanity sink in without a great deal of filmic fidgeting. His montages are well crafted and clever, and there is an inherent sense of what works and what doesn't in the way he delivers his story. While some may scoff at this heartfelt labor of lunatic love, unable to forgive its failures and constantly complaining about its scattered, almost non-existent sense of narrative (this is much more a surrealistic character study than an actual three act drama), they should really just cut the filmmaker a big fat break. Comedy is tough enough without all the accompanying technical logistics. That Raising the Stakes is funny should be interest fuel enough.
So don't let the notion of a bunch of Gen-X(YZ) film fans with a jones for jokes reminiscent of Kevin Smith and Jared Hess dissuade you from enjoying Raising the Stakes. It occasionally looks like some of the more smart-alecky neighborhood kids going bonkers for the sake of a self-lensed lesson in potty mouthed mania (these guys and gals sure can curse up a brazen blue streak) and there are times when you wish Channell would do more with his location and his co-stars (a video store just screams for some pop culture comedy). Yet with so many outright failures flooding the marketplace daily, with fright films without fear and so-called dramas without a sense of tragedy (or talent, for that matter) it is as refreshing as an ice cold soda on a blazing hot day to see something as wonderfully wired and honestly hilarious as this amazing motion picture. This is one outsider exercise well worth checking out.
Okay, here's the deal. Raising the Stakes looks bad. Really bad. Made on technology crafted in the former Soviet Union bad. As long as we stay outdoors during the day, or indoors with plenty of lights on, the movie is passable. But the 1.33:1 full screen image is amazingly poor during the night scenes. There is so much grain at times that it's hard to see the actors, and the lack of additional illumination renders several scenes almost indecipherable. None of it is enough to ruin the cinematic experience for you (after all, the vast majority of this movie's wit is in its writing, not its visuals) but there will be those who demand a certain level of proficiency in their DVD picture that Raising the Stakes won't deliver on. Hopefully, it will not hinder people from checking out this film.
What is it with first-time filmmakers and obscure, non-mainstream musical genres. Either it's ersatz death metal, irritating funk punk, or in the case of Raising the Stakes, wall-to-wall nu-skank ska revving up the score. It's really a mystery. Certainly, bands willing to hand over their hard earned songs for less than nothing are not going to be exclusively Billboard material, but it's obvious that Channell and his chums love ranking full stop, especially with the plethora of porkpie hat haughtiness dressing up the soundtrack. While this critic last enjoyed the sonic pleasure of The Specials and The Beat around 1983, there is nothing wrong the manic musical backdrop here. The Dolby Digital Stereo sounds good, and when the actors aren't mumbling their lines, the dialogue is clear and concise.
Freak Productions deserves kudos out the cullo for fleshing out this DVD presentation with an absolute ton of bonus material. As a matter of fact, there is so much added content here that it threatens to overwhelm the feature film itself. First up is one of those typical "party" commentaries which features certain members of the cast and crew, and a revolving door collection of friends, family and well-wishers stopping by to get in on the act. Listed on the disc menu are director Channell, actors Lively and Crosby, TJ Rogers (who played a local bully) and Richard "Nips" Crosby. Lots of others show up and make their often crude and crazy comments, and the discussion quickly deteriorates from a behind the scenes description of the production to a chance to vent some personal agendas. Apparently, the group has an axe to grind with a certain critic (whose name is constantly bleeped) and Robert Downey Jr. Those references come up relentlessly, and keep an otherwise engaging alternate narrative from being a true slice of DVD delight.
We are also treated to a short film made by Channell entitled Killing Gregory. At only five minutes, this goofy ghost story is a lot of fun. The filmmaker even adds to the presentation by providing a series of outtakes, and another solo commentary. Additionally, there are 45 minutes of gaffs, blunders and foul-ups, another collection of deleted scene (including an alternate 'lifetsyle' ending) and footage from various screenings. One of the most memorable extras is called "Dubbing the Stakes". Using scenes from the film (which had to have some ADR for obvious technical reasons) and the multiple recorded takes to get the mouth matching down pat, we are allowed to hear numerous versions of different lines. It is baffling, bizarre and really quite fun. Last but not least, there is a trailer and a teaser for the film, and a concert clip of the band Cryptorchid Chipmunk doing their live act thang. All in all, a very impressive collection of context from a relative newcomer to the world of digital packaging and preparation. Bravo!
So often a critic finds himself locked in a kind of duel to the death. In one corner is his sense of aesthetic pride. His entire hierarchy of Hall of Fame films rides with him into each and every critical battle. On the other side in the moviemaker, hoping his vision coincides, and does not conflict, with said benchmarks and prerequisites. More times than not, the reviewer wins, yet there are those rare times when the scribe senses defeat and gives up on the offering. It usually happens with homemade movies. But Raising the Stakes is several silly, stupid notches above those usually pathetic parameters. It definitely deserves to be Highly Recommended. For anyone who likes their humor broad, dumb and witty as hell, this is one camcorder creation that delivers the guffaw goods.
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