Profound, pompous, and occasionally preposterous, Eric Stanze's Ice from the Sun
is a stunning work of near-auteur level genius. Like a Nine Inch Nails video channeled through the lens of David Lynch, or a music montage as envisioned by the Devil, this delightful, disturbing film is far from perfect. At two hours, it's at least 30 minutes too long, and though the premise promises a trip into the darkest fears of the characters in peril, it fails to successfully explore that narrative element. Instead, we end up with bits of brilliance interspersed among solid performances, unusual visuals and frequent lapses into the illusory. For what this director accomplished on a shoestring budget, a ton of 8mm film and a few enigmatic locations, Stanze should be significantly praised. Homemade movies are never this inventive, challenging or brave. But for all his directorial flourishes and solid symbolism, there are just parts of Stanze's picture that don't quite gel, keeping it from transcending its intellectualized trappings.
Indeed, the fact that our victims really never do face their ultimate fears is part of Ice from the Sun's disappointment. There is a living room scene where our guys and gals give up their inner most secrets, sharing their phobias in an obvious expositional manner. When we hear that one person hates slime, or another is afraid of churches, we are prepared for the karmic consequences of their journey beyond the soul-filled walls of ice that surround the dangerous dimension they are destined for. But instead, the punishments they face on the other side only indirectly address their personal frights. The girl with religious issues is dragged naked by a truck and then covered in rock salt. The guy who's against gunk must do some self-surgery to remove poisonous worms from his stomach. More times than not (a drug dealer faces the ultimate mob goons, a party girl finds her feminine wiles quite useless), there is only a remote association to what scares these people the most. Had there been a closer connection between the punishment and the trepidation, the impact of the scenes inside the sorcerer's realm would have been much more powerful.
In addition, the pacing here is problematic. At the outset of the film, Stanze has a near five minute sequence of exposition in which an ethereal guardian angel-like character basically explains the entire plot of the film in implicit detail. Granted, low budget filmmaking renders it next to impossible to give the scene the kind of visual scope of say, the Morpheus/Neo pill sequence in the Matrix. We are supposed to be in awe and wonder of this alternate world filled with wizards, power struggles and imminent dangers. But instead, we tend to feel like we've sat through a lecture on some kind of crazy cult conspiracy theory. Along with a couple of miscast actors (our heroine is a short-waisted tomboy with more presence in her haircut than her performance) and an abrupt, open-ended finale Ice from the Sun just can't manage to maintain its masterpiece leanings. But when it does get things right - and it does happen often - this is a mesmerizing movie that moves from the visceral to the intellectual with ease.
What's great here - and "great" is the word that needs to be used - is Stanze's inherent cinematic skill. He understands the camera better than any of the other no-budget independent filmmakers in the game. He mixes his methodology (at one moment, everything is handheld and frantic, the next, it's locked down and completely controlled) and he's not afraid to dive into the aging filmic trunk of vintage cinematography chestnuts (double exposure, negative imagery, chaotic color combinations) to deliver a real directorial tour de force. He is not indulgent or obsessed with referencing scenes or sequences from the past. Instead, Stanze sets out to create his own innovative, original visions, and for the most part, he succeeds royally. Sure there are elements here that remind one of John Waters (the otherworld domain is like Desperate Living's Mortville as realized by Andy Warhol) and some style swipes from Fincher, Raimi and other camera-oriented movie men, but Ice from the Sun still feels wholly original and unique. And it's all because of Stanze's skill.
If you go in with the proper attitude, realizing that there will be aspects of this film that will be less than fulfilling or perfect, and if you adjust your expectations down a notch or two, you'll really enjoy Ice from the Sun. It is rare when a novice director can pull off an unearthly fantasy without nary a groaner or gaff, and while he comes close from time to time, Eric Stanze manages to keep everything authentic and true. It may remind some of the Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration The Talisman, and definitely delves into areas of myth, magic, wizards, warlocks and pseudo-religious ramblings, but the overall effect is one of heady horror, where gore (and there are some tasty tainted F/X treats here) mixes with grandiosity to create something interesting and inventive. Add in a little imagination, some outright surrealism, and a healthy dose of cinematic skill and you've got one engaging, if frequently enraging, motion picture. One thing is for certain - Eric Stanze is just a minuscule amount of mainstream exposure away from a career as a fascinating A-list Hollywood director. There is more promise and presence in his work here than in a hundred half-assed Indie excuses currently flooding the market.
Shooting on 8mm, with professional lighting and production value, gives Ice from the Sun a real esoteric texture and visual ambiance. The 1.33:1 full screen image (the original aspect ratio, the DVD informs us) is filled with artistic grain, muted colors and occasionally shrouded contrasts. It is all part of Stanze's anarchic aesthetic. Indeed, Ice from the Sun looks sensational most of the time, far removed from the homemade hokum we usually get with direct to digital fodder.
Stanze is also very careful about the aural elements in his film. The Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack is bursting with eccentric, eerie sonic sequences guaranteed to give your gooseflesh the heebie jeebies. The musical scoring is wonderfully atmospheric, and the overall tone is one of bleak, ethereal wonder.
Naturally, something as significant as this film cannot go without a little added content. Wicked Pixel and Image overload this DVD presentation (spread out over two discs) with enough complimentary features to satisfy even the most cynical DVD fan. Disc 1 contains TWO commentary tracks - one featuring producer Jeremy Wallace and actors Jason Christ and Ramona Midgett, the other offering Stanze and actor DJ Vivona - and both are well worth a listen. Naturally, Stanze's centers on the making of the movie. He provides lots of insight into production pitfalls and the creative process along the way, with Vivona voicing his thoughts on the acting challenges of playing the Presence. Wallace, Christ and Midgett mix it up with a friendly, fact-filled conversation that reveals a few secrets, and some interesting interpretations, of this already mysterious movie.
Disc 2 delivers the 78-minute documentary On Thin Ice: The Making of Ice from the Sun. Created by co-stars Jason Christ and Todd Tevlin, we get a step-by-step overview of the production. Using behind the scenes footage, lots of talking head interviews, and a few bloopers along the way, this is a wonderfully in-depth discussion on how this amazing movie was conceived and created. Stanze's super serious persona is counterbalanced by the rest of his crew's geeky goofiness. The cast always appears prepared and instep with what this director was trying to create, and many of the film's fine special effects are given a backstage glimpse.
Adding even more insight into the process, this DVD offers a commentary track on the documentary. Tevlin, Christ and Stanze step up and add their thoughts to those from seven years past, and the juxtaposition is powerful. Hearing them mention things they would change, and elements they would expand on helps us get a handle on an occasionally difficult film. Along with a Music Score Featurette (shots of the soundtrack being created) some audition clips, a collection of text-based film facts, a stills gallery, a trio of music videos and preview trailers, this is a fabulously fleshed out package. At least Image understands that cult creations like Ice from the Sun need complimenting and supplementing to sell themselves beyond the interested market for such add macabre.
Though it's not faultless and overreaches often, Ice from the Sun is still a Highly Recommended release. Blood lovers will enjoy the film's frequent claret-covered set pieces while the more philosophical in the crowd will enjoy the fact that writer/director Stanze proposes difficult questions with even more complicated answers. Visually, you have rarely seen anything like this extraordinary, dreamlike film. Stanze stands head and shoulders above his fellow low budget moviemakers not only because of his grasp of the medium. He realizes the limitations in homemade movies and plays to those restrictions. The result is something epic in scope and certain in its creative vision. You may not enjoy every aspect of Ice from the Sun, but it is virtually impossible to deny Stanze's skill. He is a master in the making.
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