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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Whispers from a Shallow Grave
Whispers from a Shallow Grave
Tempe Entertainment // Unrated // February 13, 2007
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted February 7, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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The Product:
Ambition has been known to undermine even the most well-intentioned filmmaker. Whether it's grappling with a subject substantially out of your creative league, or casting a far too broad narrative net and incorporating too many unnecessary elements, the results are usually the same. Buried beneath the artistic stumbles, incoherent plotting, and misguided character dynamics is a wonderful idea dying a slow, painful death. When filmmaker Ted Newsom decided to take on the story of slain model Linda Sobek and her murder at the hands of photographer Charles Rathbun, he could have simply stuck to the facts and fashioned a straightforward drama with a controlled, concise three act arc. Instead, the writer/director went for a far more intricate conceit. He would let Sobek tell the story 'from the great beyond', using an In Cold Blood approach that offered truth mixed with psychological subtexts to show what drives a person to kill. Unfortunately, his Whispers from a Shallow Grave is so convoluted, it fails to make its point with any kind of dramatic intensity or logic.

The Plot:
When she failed to turn up at her mother's home as promised, friends feared the worst for model Linda Sobek. While not exactly struggling, the ex-Raiders cheerleader and cheesecake pin-up was known to take risks unwarranted within the profession. Sadly, one of those hazards was hanging around Charles Rathbun. While noted for his expertise with a camera, Rathbun was also an accused rapist and alleged sex offender who always seemed to leave a trail of damaged women in his wake. So when Sobek's day planner was discovered along with a receipt with Rathbun's name on it, a connection was made, and the police soon had their man – or did they? Rathbun claimed he accidentally ran into Sobek during a shoot while attempting a dangerous stunt with an oversized sports vehicle. Panicking, he took the body into the local woods and buried it. But with no evidence of a collision, and indications that the woman had been violated and strangled, Rathbun was put on trial for Sobek's murder. While it was up to the jury to decide whether he was guilty, it was the facts, the Whispers from a Shallow Grave, that helped seal the fact of this destructive deviant.

The DVD:
It's always sad when you see a filmmaker striving to do something unusual and inventive – and failing every miserable step along the way. That's the exact emotion one will feel watching Whispers from a Shallow Grave, an attempted docu-drama by longtime grade Z schlockmeister Ted Newsom. This infamous fixture of the hack horror genre, responsible for such notable nonsense as Evil Spawn and the uncharacteristically good Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora, has a two decade old career behind the camera. But when faced with the compelling, complex story he wants to tell here, a meshing of reality with fantasy, news footage with a self-penned storyline, he creates a massive motion picture mountain that he himself can't possibly climb. Even the most skilled auteur would have a hard time selling a narrative which has a dishy dead girl victim walking in and among the investigation of her crime, interacting with the killer and testifying to facts both in and out of the public record. In addition, Newsom makes photographer turned murderer Charles Rathbun into the kind of despicable villain who demands painful, persistent vivisection as a means of satisfying our need for cinematic justice. The things he does, and the cavalier manner in which he acts has us hissing at the screen more than paying attention to the case's long-winded facets.

Indeed, the believability of actor Gerald Brodin's turn as Rathbun completely pulls us out of the movie. It's like watching a sickening snuff film the way he "enjoys" his acts of sexual violation, and the similarly unsettling undercurrent of perversity and hatred he shows make us dread every moment he's onscreen. Now, some may view these criticisms as compliments, reasons why a film should work as a shocking, true crime thriller. But without balance, Brodin is an exaggeration flailing about freely as the rest of the film falters and flops around. Most of this is actress Trudi Jo Marie Keck's fault. We are supposed to sympathize with Sobek, realize that as an attractive blond with surgically enhanced features and a bubbly, buoyant personality, she is in truth, a statistic waiting to happen. Even more so, since her character is dead at the beginning of the film, we are supposed to feel the whole "wasted life/pointless loss" dynamic as the film goes on. But thanks to Newsom's scripting, and Keck's lack of real acting chops, what we end up with is a beautiful bubblehead who never once gives off a vibe of caution or awareness. We hear about random sex partners, loose on-set ethics, and a lack of individual safeguards, all of which indicate that, in some ways, Sobek was the perfect victim. Unaware of the danger around her, and willing to test the limits of such peril, what happens to her is not only an abomination – it's more or less a causational afterthought.

Naturally, Newsom can't find a happy medium between the two characters. Keck is either pouring on the pouting sex kitten routine, or trying to act defiant but coming across as slightly ditzy. Brodin, on the other hand, has only one nauseating note – outright callous creepiness. As a matter of fact, he's so good at playing reprehensible that we can't see beyond such awfulness. The actor could be trying for some level of psychological complexity, or inferred mental issue, but all we know is that Rathbun is a serial killing sleaze. But there's more to Whispers from a Shallow Grave's issues than a couple of conflicting performances. Newsom bites off a lot more than he can chew – cinematically speaking – and this results in a great many storyline stifling sequences. It would take a real directorial veteran to make this kind of convoluted structure work. Between the flashbacks, the fantasy sequences, the shifting between black and white and color to distinguish between the truth and Rathbun's fictional version of events, as well as the jumbled tone that goes from hokey to horrible (including the last act violation of Sobek that is simply repugnant) we end up with an unsettled work of frustrating flimsiness. Fundamentally, there's not much to the sad story of this model's needless death that we haven't witnessed a hundred times before. Newsom gets points for trying to dress it up in a manner that makes it more compelling, but Whispers from a Shallow Grave can't make its many mangled pieces gel together. Instead, it feels both over-complicated and incomplete, a great idea handled in a rather shoddy manner.

The Video:
In an interesting turn for Tempe Entertainment, known mostly for putting out a sublime schlock catalog, Whispers from a Shallow Grave's straight dramatics looks rather subpar. There is tons of grain and a few moments of minor pixelation in what is a generally washed out and uninspired 1.33:1 full screen image. As a matter of fact, the actual news footage used, and what appears to be newly created material incorporated to flesh out the film's running time, looks much better than the main movie proper. There is a distinct Super-VHS quality to this production that shows up significantly on the DVD format.

The Audio:
There are also a couple of issues with the sound, problems that come mostly from the production itself. Ms. Keck is a very soft-spoken young woman, at least when she's in narrator mode. During her dialogue scenes with Brodin and others, she is easily understandable. But the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix can't seem to decipher her breathy, 'whispered' delivery. We loose lots of lines to this process, and then the overmodulated mood music arrives and wipes out the rest.

The Extras:
Aside from some Tempe trailers, the only real added content here is a decent audio commentary featuring Newsom, Keck and Brodin. There is a lot of detail delivered during their conversation, as well as the occasional self-congratulation that really does nothing for our appreciation of the project. If you like the film, you'll really enjoy this discussion, since it does provide context and background on the performers, the storyline, and the production schedule. Others, however, will definitely find it to be much ado about something nominal.

Final Thoughts:
Though it really deserves to be avoided at all costs, there is still something incredibly unhinged about the way Gerald Brodin plays the role of Charles Rathbun. It's either the most over the top, one-note bit of evil histrionics ever captured on a camcorder, or a powerful performance that more or less capsizes the other cinematic elements around it. As a result, Whispers from a Shallow Grave earns an easy Rent It, since such a score allows audiences interested in the story and/or the subject matter the ability to make up their own mind concerning any future fiscal assessment. In the realm of true crime filmmaking, it's hard to avoid turning any potential project into a Lifetime Network level narrative, focusing solely on the scandalous while avoiding the deeper, more disturbing elements of the usually terrible transgression. But with his overly complicated approach to the death of model Linda Sobek, filmmaker Ted Newsom sets himself for failure. What could have been a compelling case study in one perverted photographer's tendency toward raping and killing his models is marred by obtuse directorial choices and acting that's at cross-purposes to the overall tone of the tale. While not completely awful, Whispers from a Shallow Grave is nothing more than a below-average exercise in incomplete insight.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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