It's about time that the mainstream recognizes the efforts of Luke and Andy Campbell. Since the late '90s, these Ohio adolescents, working with a gang of pals under the Splatter Rampage Productions moniker (now Compound Films), have created some of the cleverest, most endearing homemade horror/comedy mash-ups in all of the outsider oeuvre. Beginning with their pro wrestling homage (the truly insane Splatter Rampage Wrestling) and working through a hilarious serial killer spoof (Midnight Skater) and a slightly more serious teen melodrama monster movie (Demon Summer), the boys have benefited from smart scripting, appealing amateur performances, and a real feel for how movies are made. Now comes their most ambitious project yet, the gang vs. zombie spectacle called The Red Skulls. Representing a real growth in the guy's cinematic language, there is still enough of the old SRW magic to make longtime fans happy.
After the death of their leader, the gang known as The Red Skulls is facing a crisis of confidence. Desperate to get a little revenge on rival group The Rats, there's a problematic power struggle occurring within. On the one side is Yuri, a sensitive sort looking for a way out of this life of mindless crime, violence and loss. Unfortunately, Lester, a real loose cannon and new self-appointed head of the mob, wants to continue on the beer and bloodshed path. Yuri eventually leaves, only to discover that the brother of his best friend and recently deceased leader has now joined the Skulls as part of Lester's plan for all out war with The Rats. Hoping to save the boy, our hero braves the obvious loyalties that divide the membership, risking his own life in the process. What Yuri doesn't know, however, is that a disgruntled Skull has spiked the pre-rumble punch with an unknown pharmaceutical he stole from a warehouse. Unfortunately the drug turns most of the Skulls into mindless, bloodlusting zombies. Now Yuri must face threats both human and inhuman to save the youth. In the meantime, The Red Skulls become a murderous cannibalistic clan.
You see it from the first few frames something has definitely changed about the way Luke and Andy Campbell make movies. It used to be that they gathered up a group of their friends, fashioned a storyline out of horror movie odds and ends, amplified the goofy, gratuitous nature of their narrative, and tossed in as many types of humor (toilet, pop culture riffs, satire, slapstick) as they could. Then they would festoon it all with a gallon or ten of grue, pop on the ska-punk soundtrack, and Viola! you've got a homemade movie classic on your hands. That the result was usually something quite special, an intriguing glimpse into what engages the mind of some Ohio cinematic wannabes, was the icing on the camcorder cake. But now now things feel different. There is a concentration on the fringe elements of filmmaking, items like set design, costuming, character clarity and actual performances. Sure, the amateur acting is still there, and when you're dealing with your friends and family, it's hard to guarantee that everyone will take your project seriously. But with The Red Skulls, Luke and Andy have fashioned their first real attempt at a conventional motion picture. Even with all its ingratiating genre elements, and its last act lurch into some over the top fight clubbing, this film represents real, measurable growth from the duo.
But it's more than just the use of crane shots, or the odd little touches on the Red Skulls gang gear (everyone wears industrial relics obviously snatched from a local junkyard). No, what the Campbells have crafted here is a linear story, avoiding the vignette like approach of Skater or Summer. While both of those pictures did try to follow a three act arc, giving us a set-up/crisis/conclusion, they also went overboard in their desire to show off a certain film geek self-congratulation. It was never malicious; it was meant to show that they were more than just kids with a stack of Super VHS cassettes. But with The Red Skulls, one never gets the impression of sitting in on a series of favorite film homages. Instead, the plot draws directly from recognizable entities (The Warriors, any number of '50s JD epics) while never fully incorporating their more creaky, clichιd components. The Campbells create their own world here, a place loaded with recognizable types and easily identifiable moments. Even when the storyline takes its sharp left and heads over into zombie stomp gore goodness, we buy the shift especially since the Brothers have prepared us for such a situation early on. It's a key to why The Red Skulls plays like a fully realized film, instead of just another lo-fi effort.
As with the script for Summer, the Campbells (along with co-writer Corey Maidens) truly understand the necessities of dialogue. They take situations that could be purely comical and add just enough insight to give us a three dimensional approach to personality. In addition, they realize that excessive exposition can be deadly to an independent film. Without the budget to bulk up the visuals, outsider movies can appear overwhelmed by plot proposing conversations. Instead, The Red Skulls successfully uses flashbacks, innuendo, subtlety and inference to make its many points. But before we anoint this movie with some sort of minor masterpiece tag, reality needs to revisit the scene. This is not a perfect project, something that seems obvious once the final credits start to roll. We appreciate everything the Campbells have done here, and recognize their talents finally rising to the surface. But there are still some problematic performances, awkward tonal turns, and an ending that's not so much satisfying as sufficient. In some ways, this is a full blown action spectacle hemmed in by the Brothers' lack of financial or foundational support. Still, for a movie hindered by very few failed ideas, The Red Skulls is an engaging example of independent cinema done right. It's about time the Campbells were accepted as the creative force this film makes them out to be.
Tempe treats all its titles with professionalism and careful technical consideration, and The Red Skulls is no different. Granted, the 1.33:1 full screen image, sporting a non-anamorphic letterboxed look (more than likely a mere 4x3 crop job), is not the best way to endear yourself to cinephiles, but the transfer definitely sells the Campbell Brothers' creative designs.
Not much to celebrate, except to point out how odd it is that rockabilly has replaced ska as the music of choice for the soundtrack. It used to be that any Splatter Rampage production boasted more two-tone treats than an early '80s rude boy dance party. But it appears that, either be design or discovery, the early '50s form of hillbilly music has taken over the boys' background preferences. With both dialogue and atmosphere delivered in a Dolby Digital 2.0 parameter, the sonic situation here is very good.
Perhaps the most interesting added feature included on this DVD is a sneak peek of the Brothers' latest effort, a straight sort of After Hours riff about one day in the life of a pizza delivery boy called Cordoba Nights. Featuring actual name actors well, Duane "Eddie Presley" Whitaker and Joe Estevez and eschewing almost all macabre elements to tell a straightforward crime thriller storyline, the promise shown in this trailer is obvious. As for the rest of the contextual elements, we get a fun, if frequently flaccid audio commentary, featuring Andy Campbell, Luke Campbell and several of their less than enthusiastic friends. What starts out slow picks up after a while, but this is not one of the best alternative tracks the gang has ever committed to the digital domain. There is a 30 minute Behind the Scenes featurette (the highlight no one will go into the gloomy, gross basement location out of actual fear) a nine minute make-up effects reel, a collection of outtakes and a music video by the Lords of the Highway. All in all, it's a decent selection of bonus features, even if a few of the items offered are slightly subpar.
To be in the front row as a group of gifted filmmakers learn and grow can be a wonderful thing for a critic. More times than not, reviewers are forced into the position of defending people whose previous work they have not seen, or do not have access to. But over the last six years, the Campbells have placed each and every one of their efforts on celluloid for all the world to witness and, so far, the view has been incredibly appealing. As the latest example of their unquestioned abilities, The Red Skulls easily deserves a Highly Recommended rating. Some may not find it as fulfilling and fun as Midnight Skater, and there will be those who miss the wistful, lost on a mid-August evening vibe of Demon Summer. But for a group of guys who began making wrestling parodies and who now seem ready to parlay their cinematic skills into a whole new realm of artistic realization, something like Skulls is hard to dismiss. With 2007 having barely begun, Tempe and these Ohio auteurs have provided us with one of the first candidates for year end consideration. Outsider cinema doesn't get any more fulfilling than the Campbell Brothers...or The Red Skulls.