The word 'auteur' gets tossed around a great deal, and for many, the title fits fine. No one would argue with Hitchcock or Welles being mentioned as possible personifications of the word, and even more modern filmmakers like Tim Burton and The Coen Brothers realize the various aspects of the tag. Unfortunately, the label seems to loose its way once you get down to the world of b-moviemaking. While some might point to George Romero, John Carpenter or Kevin Smith as genre or independent examples of the title, few other outsider artists earn such a directorial demarcation. Frankly, someone like Warren F. Disbrow Jr. deserves the brand, and not just for the freakishly original films he makes. No, Disbrow exists in his own unique realm of reality mixed with the irrational. He's a creative force attempting miracles on a minor league budget. When he succeeds, his film's fly directly in the face of reason to stand out as stunning cinematic efforts. Yet even when he stumbles a little, as he does with his latest release Scarlet Moon, the results offer up hope for anyone with dreams of committing their own oddball individuality in the realm of cinema.
Even though he is immortal, Andreas is not happy. He hates being an errand boy for local Satanist Edward Crowley, and despises the fact that his boss gets to bed the entrancing Muldavia. He's also sick and tired of looking after Crowley's pet "project" a junkie vampire named Smoke. What he wants is power, and not the kind derived from his status as a bloodsucker. No, Andreas wants the secrets to the Devil's domain, and there is just one thing stopping him from obtaining that desire – the red diamond known as the Scarlet Moon. A one time possession of a powerful Egyptian sorceress named Tara, whoever has the gem owns the key to unimaginable power. But if improperly used, the jewel can bring about the end of the world. When corpses start showing up, drained of all their blood, the government calls on their top paranormal scientist, Professor Hertz, to get to the bottom of the killings. In the meantime, Andreas plans his coup, and discovers that local vampire artist and forever flower child Satanya has the stone. But before he can get it, our paranormal peacenik heads off on a trip around with world. With Hertz hot on their trail, it's not long before the forces of good and evil clash. And if everyone's not careful, it could mean an Earth-exploding Armageddon.
If Warren F. Disbrow Jr. is comparable to a genre David Lynch, then Scarlet Moon is his Dune. Dripping with ambition, dense with ideas and attempting the epic while maintaining the idiosyncratic, this determined effort at a new modern mythology works, most of the time. Sure, it trips over itself once in a while, and makes narrative leaps of world record like distance, but when all is said and done, we have another amazingly inventive effort from a true fan of the medium of film. Disbrow is like a directorial encyclopedia of horror. Watching Scarlet Moon, we see the sci-fi and fantasy elements merging with macabre to become a definitive statement of one man's love for the scary, as well as the speculative. There are obvious nods to '60s drive in classics, '70s shockers, the '80s teen slasher romps, the '90s kind of ironic eeriness – even a couple of non-horror classics get passed through the Disbrow dissecting device. The final product is a mishmash of comedy and corpses, devil worship and dumbness. There are hints at other, more mysterious goals that this film strove to achieve. But somewhere behind the dream and distribution, this director's lofty aims were squashed and stunted…and that's a shame.
Using a Clockwork Orange like narrative to start the film (our lead demon vampire hitman Andreas is a perverse Alex de Large) and throwing a whole lot of stock and travelogue footage into the mix, Disbrow is determined to make an apocalyptic comedy, simultaneously dark and daffy. In a montage filled with missing scenes (including a lot of splatter effects and the killing of kids) Andreas tells us the tale of Tara, an Egyptian witch who used her knowledge of the black arts to obtain Satan's favor. After a backwards Bible full of goofy Gospel – and some outright naughty nakedness – we end up in a kind of paranormal Pulp Fiction, with Andreas and Smoke as Jules and Vincent, and Edward Crowley as a Marcellus Wallace of the REAL underworld. There's lots of loopy dialogue, scads of references to pop culture, and a note for note replay of the classic "needle to the chest" scene from the Tarantino masterwork. But just as soon as we get comfortable with the QT take, the movie shifts seismically and we're suddenly inside Disbrow's own X-Files. Featuring his father, Warren F. Disbrow, Sr. as a Mulder like meddler in all areas of the supernatural, we get a clever cameo from Famous Monster of Movieland's Forrest Ackerman as a government bureaucrat putting Papa Disbrow's Professor Hertz back on the trail of terror.
All along the way, loose ends fly free, never even trying to connect to the reality of the plot. Michael Bruce ("of the Alice Cooper Group fame" or so the dialogue constantly reminds us) is also part of this story, since he seems to want the gemstone as well. Yet we never get closure on why this aging member of a shock rocker's backup band would even want the jewel, let alone why he's important to the film. Instead, it feels like a failed idea, or one that got sidetracked by either story, or outside issues (the bonus features sort of fill us in on the truth). Similarly, the Satanya character seems scattered and unfocused. One day she's a dithering mess, lost in her locked-in living dead dimension of the '60s. The next, she is whizzing around the world, acting like a typical gold digging tart. One scene has her serving mushroom enhanced urine to Smoke. The next has her acting like an asshole over the painting of Crowley's altar. Maybe it was Disbrow's intent to have her bouncing off the plotpoints like the portly pinball she resembles, but it's really not his fault. AnnMarie Donato makes her character a confusing chatterbox, never really delivering the performance the script mandates. She's just reading lines. She doesn't commit to her character the way Dominic Gregoria does as Andreas or Colin Reynolds does as Smoke.
When we later learn that Disbrow's original cut was nearly four hours in length, we suddenly start to see why Scarlet Moon is a lesser effort in the filmmaker's canon. When looking at something like the sensational Flesh Eaters from Outer Space or Invasion for Flesh and Blood, we can see the seat of the pants invention right up on the screen. No no-budget filmmaker gets a free financial pass when making their film, and logistics often arrive from outside the project to really louse things up. But here, we don't see the same delirious dives into surreality. Certainly, if he had simply stayed with his story of supernaturals battling it out for dark dominion over evil on Earth, he might have had a better handle on his overall production. But there are times – as when Jesus makes an appearance during a dapper vampire's story of salvation – when Disbrow could have upped the anarchic ante and really let loose with his manic inner muse. Instead of making a cameo, Christ could have become a pseudo action hero, entering into the storyline just as all 'Hell" is about to break loose to kick some Antichrist ass. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen here.
Though it's better than most of the mindless trash using the technological breakthroughs of DAT and DVD to sell their substandard wares, Scarlet Moon feels like discount Disbrow. Maybe the proposed sequel/prequel will shed some light on a few of the failings found in this film. Whatever it does, it stands a good chance of being another original offering of film fandom from someone who typically knows his way around a movie camera. Love him or loathe him, Warren F. Disbrow, Jr. represents the reason independent film continues to thrive. Outside the mindless mainstream of demographically determined moviemaking, here is a man who plays by his own arcane rules and puts his own unique stamp on even the most tired of terror tenets. And if that's not the definition of 'auteur', it's hard to imagine what is.
When it comes to technical competence, Troma is not known for being at the head of the class. Since this is a Super VHS production, with occasional tape errors and analog issues along the way, the Indie entity will get a pass this time around. The 1.33:1 full screen image is colorful, if occasionally on the dark side (visually, not spiritually) with a nice bit of detail definition. Disbrow does a decent job of meshing some obvious vacation footage of far away places (Hong Kong, Venice, Morocco) with studio setups, and for a limited affair financially, the film does have a high standard of production value. While it's far from perfect, this is a decent DVD transfer.
One of the biggest complaints that this cult company fields from this critic is the lack of aural acceptability. Some films, like Dumpster Baby, were ruined outright by a lack of sonic detail. Thankfully, the Dolby Digital Stereo is excellent – not atmospheric or moody, but definitely delivering clear dialogue and solid sound. The musical scoring is a fun combination of death metal and alternative rock, while the use of convincing foley makes up for the occasional cardboard backdrop.
A true believer in DVD content, Disbrow and Troma offer up a literal treasure trove of bonus features. There is a commentary featuring the director and several of his cast, including Daddy Disbrow (Warren Sr.) AnnMarie Donato and Dominic Gregoria. It's a genial, detailed discussion, though whenever Disbrow is about to explain why a character or sequence seems out of whack, someone jumps in to offer their own personal anecdote and we never get back to the explanation. We do learn that it was Disbrow's sister who shot all the foreign footage (she was "commissioned" to do so by the family while on vacation) and that Forrest Ackerman couldn't wait to be in the film. The Alice Cooper angle is briefly touched on (we hear something about rights and major distribution) but it is never really clarified. Generally, this is a good overview of the independent filmmaking process, loaded with horror stories and cautionary examples to teach the newcomer about the problems that could potentially disarm your designs.
Perhaps the best bit of added content, though, is the nearly two hour making-of documentary that highlights all the issues Disbrow had with this production. Amounting to a major mea culpa, the director discusses, and then shows us, all the locations and all the actors that ended up on the cutting room floor (or, supposedly, saved for the sequel). There is an occult shop sequence, a few concert scenes at CBGB's, lots of the missing Alice Cooper footage and an added bit with Professor Hertz. In between, Andreas himself, Dominic Gregoria conducts on-set interviews, and aside from a running joke about sleeping with Disbrow to get their jobs, the cast are all very forthcoming about their participation. Amazingly insightful and loaded with real moviemaking life lessons, this Behind the Scene showcase is excellent, and definitely increases the contextual value of the DVD. Along with Troma trailers, a music video and various other merchandising elements, this is a fairly complete digital package.
Truth be told, Warren F. Disbrow Jr. would have a hard time living up to the legend that is The Flesh and Blood movies. Those filmic fever dreams, with their larger-than-life ideas and balls-to-the-wall execution stand as testaments to the power inside outsider cinema. They remind us that imagination can often overcome even the most middling of production paradigms. Scarlet Moon comes close. It may be a tad disjointed at times, and fail to fulfill the perplexing promise of its mind-blowing opening, but it still exceeds the efforts of others in the homemade movie business. Thanks to the bevy of bonus features, most of which give us greater insight into the renegade realm of independent moviemaking, this DVD deserves a Highly Recommended rating. The film itself is an easily recommended romp, but it's the added content that provides the step up in evaluation. It's a shame that directors like Disbrow have to work without the luminescence of the limelight leading their way. Imagine what he could do with an actual mainstream budget. Of course, the fear would be that a large outlay of cash would require an equally huge amount of corporate interference. Such a situation would only strip this filmmaker of the facets that make him special. Warren F. Disbrow is indeed an auteur. Among the talent pool of pretenders to the Tinsel Town throne, he is definitely one of the most original.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here