Among the many newly formed independent film companies, entities truly removed from the mainstream workings - and watchful eye - of the industry, Wicked Pixel stands alone. They're dedicated to more than just jerryrigging the old form genre's into occasionally exasperating examples of geek love. They avoid the standard monster movie machinations to explore more ethereal, evocative terrors. And with production chief Eric Stanze in charge, there's an artistic aesthetic that carries across as well. As part of their ongoing exploration of the eerie, the morbid, and the shocking, Elite offers up the company's latest DVD release - in this case, a compilation of two previous short film collections. Granted, as with any omnibus production, there's an uneven amount of individual returns, but since that's to be expected, it also makes such a disc an artistic adventure. It also argues for Wicked Pixel's continuing dominance of the outsider auteur domain.
The eight efforts offered here - covering several years of output from both Wicked Pixel as a company, and as a group of talented artists - all use the term 'macabre' rather loosely. Sure, there is bloodshed, and lots of carefully controlled nightmare fodder. But there is also beauty, sadness, sexuality, humor, and experimentalism, elements not necessarily associated with the fear format. Discussing each effort individually will help illustrate this point, as well as evaluate the overall effectiveness of the specific title. After an odd menu which has a naked woman descending a set of stairs over and over, we are given the following choices:
Vomire (Score: ** out of *****)
Director: Chad Eivens
Plot: Disconnected images, including some rather gruesome and gratuitous slaughterhouse material, illustrates the tenets of terror.
Review: If there is one thing guaranteed to turn this critic's stomach, it's actual animal slaughter. Not the faked kind where F/X gurus give us the gore, but the real life explosive bolt to the cow brain brutality. So guess what this seven minute short is overflowing with. Entrails steam and slime away as Eivens cuts to images of what looks like the Great Pumpkin having sex with a cross. It's all very obvious and up front, wanting to scandalize and blaspheme everything that's conservative and decent. It does, but in a very nauseating manner.
Faith in Nothing (Score: ** out of *****)
Director: Eric Stanze
Plot: Remembering a lover from her past, a young woman does a slow, sensual dance.
Review: For those unfamiliar with his work, Eric Stanze is first and foremost a visual artist. He loves to use the camera as a canvas, and takes actors, sets, locations, lighting, props, performance, and atmosphere as his oils. The results are usually compelling, and at first, this piece genuinely grabs us. We see the sad set-up, the lady's lament of love, and then she begins the interpretive dancing...which goes on, and on, and on for what seems like hours. Granted, Stanze shakes this up by adding weird effects, compelling compositions, and a scant glimpse of nudity, but it's not enough to completely win us over.
Satisfaction (Score: ** out of *****)
Director: Tommy Biondo
Plot: A young woman takes out a past sexual assault on her new boyfriend.
Review: Since you're not supposed to speak ill of the dead, let's begin with a critical caveat - this critic is never impressed by high minded, semi-hardcore sex scenes. A filmmaker's undeniable amateurishness is destined to show through, and the actors are often arch and uncomfortable with the fictional intimacy. That's exactly what happens here. Biondo (who died tragically in a film-related accident back in 1999 at age 26) gets a girlfriend, they get naked (lots of pickle and beaver presented) and they go through the almost XXX motions. There are lots of suggestive shots and fake fornicating, and just when we start to wonder what the point is, a black and white rape reenactment is inserted into the mix. It creates a queasy dichotomy, one that this director is not capable of successfully resolving.
Unwatched (Score: *** out of *****)
Director: Todd Tevlin
Plot: A young man, tormented by haunting visions, heads down a dangerous path toward self-destruction.
Review: Though it's a bit gimmicky, Todd Tevlin takes the title song and really runs with it. The cinematic stunt of having objects turn into fatalistic fantasy hallucinations, driving the narrative along toward its potent and powerful climax, is excellent. This director doesn't dilly dally around, trying to get us to sympathize or even recognize this guy's plight. Instead, it's all suggestion and perspective, and it works surprisingly well.
Victim (Score: *** out of *****)
Director: Jason Christ
Plot: A young man stumbles upon a scene of slaughter, a desperate young lady, and a situation that may not be what it seems.
Review: Christ has a long history of Wicked Pixel work. He's been a part of such company classics as Ice from the Sun and Savage Harvest 2: October Blood. Here, he takes a standard slasher set-up and tweaks it just enough to make it original and fun. The twist seems rather obvious at first, but Christ controls the reveal, letting us relish in the idea just long enough to appreciate the denouement. The use of grainy monochrome is also effective, rendering everything we see like some gritty true crime recreation.
Sedgewick (Score: ***1/2 out of *****)
Director: Stephen M. Lashly and Quinn M. Butthof
Plot: An old man has a dangerous difficulty in determining what is fantasy, and what is fact.
Review: Here's an odd little installment, a short that stands out for many engaging reasons. First off, it features two elderly actors, which is not something you see in the independent horror genre. Secondly, it focuses on fantasy and other ethereal elements, infusing some slightly darkish humor into the overall mix. Finally, it leaves you guessing, failing to really address the dilemma our title character faces. Is he imagining everything that "happens" to him? If there's truth in what happens, then what does this say about our seemingly hapless hero? Whatever the answer, the lack of closure doesn't damage this otherwise effective little film. In fact, it adds to its allure.
Liontown (Score: *** out of *****)
Director: Aaron Crozier
Plot: The title city calls other animal citizens to its suspect pleasures.
Review: As a filmmaker, one walks a very fine line between kitsch and crap when using a cartoonish, kid vid ideal to realize their goals. In this case, Crozier has his cast dress up in different animal headgear, and uses the title locale as a come on for some very twisted, occasionally hilarious, jungle juice. The premise appears pretty obvious at first (why would lions want other species to play 'tourist' in their town, huh?) but the way we get there - including the hilarious musical number - makes everything worthwhile. This is some fun, fresh material.
Curveball: Pile of Junk (Score: ** out of *****)
Director: Jason Christ
Plot: An alienated young man goes on a metaphysical rampage.
Review: Another music video, and this time, Stanze is in front of the camera. He's the anonymous angry young man, raging against the machine - or whatever else is handy - as the dire headbanging metal lite lumbers on in the background. Curveball appears talented, if slightly too tame to be producing such sturm and drang, but the reason we end up unimpressed resides squarely on Christ's shoulders. He gets some very evocative shots (Stanze running against a deserted highway), but they don't add up to much. Even the performance footage fails to give us a good enough glimpse of our band in action.
As with any omnibus presentation, the whole is only as good as the many parts provided. Overall, The Severed Head Network is intriguing, if not completely ingratiating. For every work of inspired artistry, we get slaughterhouse suffering and naked numbness. Everyone here is talented, but some stand out more than others. Indeed, it's hard to argue for Mr. Biondo's installment, which seems more like an experiment in inverse erotica than an ersatz thriller. The high minded posh poetic narrative doesn't help matters much. Similarly, Stanze's surreal fan dance strains as anything other than a way of explaining how framing and composition affects a shot. Sadly, there's very little invention in his repetitive piece. No, the real finds revolve around the fractured senior citizen, a slasher scene gone goofy, and a commercial for a real wildlife con job. Had this collection been more about the story and less about style, had there been an emphasis on exposition instead of excess, we'd have a real Small Gauge Trauma type treat. Instead, this well meaning Wicked Pixel release is only semi-successful. It will definitely satisfy its target audience, but anyone who doesn't appreciate outsider ambitions will be left feeling depressed and disgusted.
Since they use varying levels of technology - film to video and everything in between - the visual elements of The Severed Head Network can be a tad tentative. Elite makes sure we understand that the original aspect ratio of the release stands at 4x3 - read: 1.33:1 - so any letterboxing or widescreening is actually on purpose. In general, there is little grain, lots of depth, some intriguing detail, and a regular rainbow of colors. The transfer in total is top notch, and really helps sell the passion and professionalism Wicked Pixel wants to be known for.
Offered in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix, the multifaceted films presented here each have their own aural issues. The music videos treat the metal tracks just fine, but a 5.1 revamp would have really brought them to life. Similarly, more dialogue driven efforts like Victim and Sedgewick actually benefit from the limited range. In general, the disc sounds excellent. Individuals concerned with the tech specs provided by Elite can rest easy.
While not necessarily overloaded with added content, the DVD of The Severed Head Network really does shine with supplemental substance. It begins with a look at the original opening sequences from the separate volume independent releases of these films. In either case, the montage work is disturbing, evocative, and suggestively surreal. Next up is a collection of Behind the Scenes segments. We get a backstage peek at the production on the aforementioned openings, as well as sequences from Faith in Nothing and Satisfaction. In the "Gallery of Abstraction", we get a series of six very short 'tone poems' - pieces combining sound and image to make unusual, disconcerting cinematic statements. Finally, there's a collection of trailers for those interested in other Wicked Pixel titles. Missing are the multiple commentaries the WP gang usually excels in. Otherwise, this is a fine selection of digital depth.
It's clear that something like The Severed Head Network is not for everyone. Audiences unaccustomed to being challenged will take one look at the unique and frequently oblique attempts at mood and menace and immediately reject the results. Others will muddle through for a while, but give up, citing a lack of legitimate fear factors. Granted, this is some outlandish stuff, but taken in small doses - as in short films - it is easily appreciated. Easily earning a Recommended rating, fans of the unusual and the bizarre should definitely seek this out. As an example of how far Wicked Pixel and its participants will go for something that stands out amongst all the sloppy slasher, vile vampire, and zany zombie stomping, this title is intriguing endemic of the company's concerns. It's probably the best truly independent motion picture production primer out there.
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