At this point, do homemade horror filmmakers still expect to be "discovered?" Do they take the story of someone like Oren Peli, provocateur of the otherwise paltry Paranormal Activity, and imagine that their own $50k flight of fear will end up a passable pop culture phenom? Realistically, one envisions a private kind of cult where likeminded macabre lovers get together, spin their screenplays, and simply decide to make their own damned entertainment. Something like Melvin isn't going to make its participants part of the TMZ crowd. Writer/director Henry Weintraub won't be pimping James Wan's latest release or arguing over creative credits with Paramount. Instead, he will be seen like several others in the world of amateur auteurism - a guy with a great idea who rendered it with style and subtance. His movie, Melvin, is an interesting revision of the whole slasher/possession dynamic, with enough humor and gore to earn more than a few Facebook "likes." It may not lead to lunch at Delmonicos, but it has a certain charm that's hard to resist.
Melvin is your typical high school dork, tormented and teased by the cool kids and the greaser jocks. One day, his primary bullies decide to play a little joke. They duct tape him up, throw a burlap sack over his head, and dump him in the trunk of a car. When they come back to check on him a while later, Melvin is no more. Three years pass, and the BGOC are now slaggy strippers and the jerks responsible for the previous R.I.P. are bothering college physics student Norton. One night, while pissing in the cemetery, our new nerd meets a zombified Melvin face to face. Soon, Norton is imbued with the spirit of the dead dweeb and is taking revenge on all who bothered our bookworm, painting many parts of his small town blood red. Oh, and there's a cute girl who thinks that our secondary schlub is pretty cute. Of course, neither Norton nor Melvin have time for such sentimental stuff when there's so many payback murders to commit.
If it wasn't for the unique narrative approach, engaging performances, and spoofy, satiric tone, Melvin would be nothing special. It's The Toxic Avenger without the tutu, the nuclear waste, or Lloyd Kaufman's in-your-face directing style (though, oddly enough, Mr. Troma does appear as the movie within the movie's demented driller killer). Weintraub takes the stereotypical stuff of high school and (community) college and simply twists things around a bit. Thankfully, the results work quite well. From the constant flashing foward and back, the desire to make both Melvin and Norton a tad more creepy than cuddly, and a significant amount of splatter, we get everything we expect from outsider cinema - that is, non-mainstream moviemaking at its most approachable and appealing. This isn't to say that Melvin is some masterpiece. Instead, it's a workable romp that relies a great deal on audience goodwill to get by. Thankfully, most fear fans will happily acquiesce.
Where Weintraub really succeeds is in his visualization of the already established. We know how bullies of all type typically react, and yet Melvin gives these idiots the kind of comical comeuppance necessary to keep them from overwhelming the entire narrative. Indeed, we can see through their false bravado to understand why they are so awful. Similarly, Melvin and Norton are nebbish extremes due to circumstances within their own making, not because of some predetermined plot pointing. Both Leif Fuller and Patrick O'Driscoll do a good job of playing dweeb without going completely overboard. Similarly, they embody a certain kind of kid that, today, earns as much respect as ridicule, making the tormenting even more laughable. On the other hand, the baddies bumble a bit, stumble into their own stupidity more often than not, and tend to trip over the needs of their motivation. One minute they're cracking wise and acting tough. They next, they are running scared from their own spoilt shadow.
In the end, it is Weintraub that finally wins us over. He keeps Melvin moving, introduces novel twists that take time to full form, and then layers everything in the kind of crazy freedom that only a film made out of passion can contain. Sure, the end result is supposed to scare you as well as make you smile, but modern horror is always more interested in the wink and nod than the shiver down your spine. Here, at least, the jokes have wit and the overall approach confuses as well as satisfies your expectations. Could the film itself use a bit more "satisfaction" in Melvin/Norton's actions? Sure. Could the love story play out less predictably - that is, until the very end? Absolutely. Does Weintraub have the chops to challenge the rest of the homemade horror brigade with his combination of craziness and craft? Ummm...that's the big question. Like the opening of this review, it's hard to fathom what such blatant fanboy love is supposed to generate. Audiences will definitely be amused by Melvin. Anything else would be a bit of a moviemaking miracle.
Though it came without cover art or a DVD case, this appears to be the final product for Melvin's release to home video. The image is excellent, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer taking into account Weintraub's desire to desaturate the flashback footage while keeping the present day material fresh and bright. Sure, the visuals are only as good as the budget and the movie does have that crafted on a camcorder appeal. Still, for something made on the cheap, it looks pretty good.
On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix offers limited use of the channels. The most we get is thrash rock pounding from the soundtrack. Still, the dialogue is easy to hear (probably because it appears to have all been replaced, ADR style, after the shoot) and the various sound effects are fun. There is also a stereo version as well. While not as 'open', it's still acceptable.
Though not a Troma release, the indie icon Lloyd Kaufman offers an introduction for the film. If you've seen these preambles before, you know what you are in for. Then we are treated to an intriguing commentary track from Weintraub and star O'Driscoll. While filled with a bit too much insider material, it still offers from fresh insights. So does a Making of featurette. We are also treated to more Kaufman craziness with some additional Night of the Driller material, and there is a slideshow and trailer to finish off the bonuses. While not the most compelling added content ever, it does do a good job of supplementing the source.
As a long time champion of the homemade horror dynamic, Melvin was meant for yours truly. It's just inventive enough, irreverent enough, and irritating enough to make this critic grin from ear to guiltily pleasured ear. While not a classic, it's a wonderful example of eerie escapism. Earning a Highly Recommended rating, there are a couple of caveats. Don't go in expecting Shakespeare and you won't get your Bard in a bunch. Don't go in expecting Romero or Raimi or your Evil Undead will suffer. Instead, think of this as yet another example of how those outside the mainstream of macabre envision entertaining each other. Melvin is made for an exclusive kind of cinematic club. If you're out, you'll hate it. If not, your membership will guarantee a good time.
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