It's the twilight zone like vortex where ambition meets (and clashes with) ability. It's the homemade cinema Scylla and Charybdis: on the one side, desire, design, and dedication. On the other - talent and technological limits, along with anything and everything else that can go wrong on an indie outsider film shoot. Successfully maneuver between them and you end up with that true contemporary rarity - a camcorder entertainment that manages to fulfill its potential and promise. On the other hand, it's hard to know how to judge such efforts when they come up short. How do you balance excellence in inception with flaws in execution? Better still - can you support something that's sloppy and unsure of itself when you can see the sound possibilities lagging under the surface. Such is the case with the creative team of Jimmy George (co-writer) and Chris LaMartina (co-writer/director). Camp Motion Pictures is releasing two of their efforts - Book of Lore and Grave Mistakes as part of a schlock-tastic double feature. Oddly enough, between them both, there is one solid scary film - and about 90 minutes of misguided motion picture padding.
With nearly four hours of horror between them, here's the individual plotlines offered in each film:
Book of Lore
Rick is in really bad shape. His girlfriend has been murdered, his parents are in jail, and local law enforcement is just looking for an excuse to arrest him as well. When one of his best friends tells him that her death resembles a series of crimes committed years ago, our hero is even more upset. When he gets his hands on the homemade Book of Lore - an encyclopedia of the various vile acts that have occurred in his small town - he starts to make some connections. Apparently, a killer known as "The Devil's Left Hand" (or "DLH", for short) may still be lurking the shadows of this scared burg, and no one is interested in finding out the truth. As more of his friends die off, Rick is forced to confront the truth about the tome - and the God fearing family who may have something to do with its craven content.
A graverobber stops by his favorite fence hoping to interest him in a ring with a rare magical stone at the center. Recognizing it as the gem he gave his late mother, the proprietor offers the thief a proposal - he can have anything in the store he desires in place of the stone. Initially, all he wants is cash, but after looking around, he discovers some unusual items. One leads to the story of an author with writer's block who uses the words on a tombstone as inspiration. They end up resurrecting the body of a famed serial killer. Next, a pair of patients in a sleep disorder experiment run into the ultimate nightmare fodder - a vampire. Then, spirit photography takes center stage as a group of paranormal researchers learn that it's not nice to mess around with framed portraits. Finally, a family must deal with the death of a loved one - and the demon coming to take his soul.
Oh my. Where to begin. There is another review of this site which sings the praises of both George and LaMartina, dropping names like Ebert and King into the appreciation mix. For them - and they are more than entitled to their opinion - there was more great than groan-inducing here. For them, our duo becomes the next untapped source of future genre goodness. This critique won't go so far. As a matter of fact, for this fan of all things macabre, Book of Lore and Grave Mistakes represent everything that's right - and very wrong - with the current state of student film shivers. Take the former first. It offers nearly two hours of intricate plotting, so much narrative in fact that characters have to constantly run (or drive, or bike) between locations just to keep the storyline straight. At first, we think this will be the terrifying tale of The Devil's Left Hand. Then it turns into a somber exploration of one guy's grief over the death of his girlfriend. Then we get the crazy family with the missing son and the Jesus complex, the oddball Aunt (necessitated by the hero's parents being jailed for cooking Meth?!?), the Shaggy/Scooby lite best buddy who is scared/shocked by ever revelation - there's even a little bullying and funeral home corruption thrown in for epic measure.
But Book of Lore doesn't quite know what to do with so much exposition. There are moments of attempted suspense, but they are frequently undermined by the necessity of explanation and further red herring development. It's also a relatively bloodless affair, the few moments of gore reserved for brief shots before going back to more banter. Now, it's not like Book of Lore needs mountains of grue to win one over. The premise - a composition book filled with local legends from a town's terrifying past - has its own authority, and George and LaMartina do a lot with it. But instead of narrowing their focus, keeping us glued to what the next turn of the page will bring, they overdo it. Like novice writers who take on the Great American Novel instead of a short story about something smaller and more personal, Book of Lore is out to conquer Clive Barker in the narrative scope subdivision. It's not just trying to terrify - it wants to turn each and every one of its volume inspired flashbacks into its own Dementia 13. By the time we've piled through the dead kid in the locker, the woman hacked in two, the various items shoved into eyeballs, and the folklore behind each, we've gotten more than our Bloody Mary's worth.
At least Grave Mistakes ladles out its limited delights in easier to digest doses. As an anthology type experiment, LaMartina sticks with five relatively simply stories. Minus the wraparound, we are dealing with four short films, each one offering its own pros and cons. The writer's tale is more satiric than scary, while the neckbiter bit really careens over into outright comedy. The last two sagas are probably the best, the whole infighting over the will and ghost image idea played out almost perfectly. Within Grave Mistakes - and for the most part, the premise of Book of Lore - are enough reasons to champion LaMartina and his fright fan filmmaking. There's invention and ideas, originality and a strong desire to make story - and not splatter - the main reason for being. While other outsiders pride themselves of going gore overboard, neither Book of Lore or Grave Mistakes are autopsy-like in approach. Of course, for every "yeah" there is a considered "nay", and going all in with such limited attributes will almost always result in uneven results. For this old school fear fan, Book of Lore and Grave Mistakes do not represent the future of fright. They belong among the many admirable wannabes, however.
Both of these movies look surprisingly good considering their camcorder origins. Camp Motion Pictures provides clear and colorful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentations, and for the most part, they look polished and professional. Of course, there are times during the night scenes where grain overwhelms everything and even with some clever post-production tweaks, not all signs of amateurishness can be banished. Still, for what they had to work with and the pitfalls that plague any production, the transfers here are terrific.
On the sound side of things, we get mediocre sonic set-ups, occasional alt and indie rock tracks overwhelming the otherwise atmospheric and ambient mix. The dialogue is easily discernible and the recording controlled and precise. While the Dolby Digital Stereo set up belies a basic two channel sameness, the aural elements here are fine.
It's commentary time for both films, and LaMartina and George do their best to balance a step by step instructional approach with some anecdotal earnestness. They can be dry at times, but both alternate narratives deliver the kind of insight and information that illuminates the struggles of all self-supporting moviemakers. Lore ups the ante by offering a Radio Interview (along with a gallery of stills) that's even more entertaining, as well as a puff piece from a local cable station about the then college students and their genre aims. Grave gives us a mildly amusing Making-of, and both entries are complemented by a bunch of trailers. Taken together, they paint an interesting portrait of how LaMartina and George come to their creepshows, and their goals for the future.
Having sat through more awful scary movies than any critic has a right to, yours truly cannot call Book of Lore/Grave Mistakes a Skip It mistake. On the other hand, having also witnessed several sensational outsider fright films, LaMartina and George can't quite compete. Splitting the difference and adding in some appreciation for the obvious attempt, a rating of Recommended will be offered. On the side of caution, however, a rental may be the better way to go. Lovers of terror just aren't used to 110 minutes of macabre. It's 89 or less for even the most majestic examples of dread. Still, since they have so much to offer and so little support outside of their own familiar footholds, it's easy to carve off a little cinematic slack. While neither is a masterpiece, Book of Lore/Grave Mistakes illustrates how far talent, tenacity, and a tome of tall tales will take you. It also argues for pulling back instead of putting it all out there. In this case, less would definitely have been more.