You've heard of e.i. Independent Cinema, you're probably just not aware of it. Along with Ron Bonk's Sub Rosa group, these guys are the biggest name in micro-budget filmmaking. Which is not to say they have truckloads of cash being dumped into a large pit in their back yard, but they can typically go through a month without having the power shut off. These guys have their hands in everything. They are the folks behind Alternative Cinema, both the quarterly magazine and the website. Their films have been released under the banner of their many subsidiary companies - Factory 2000, After Hours Video, Video Outlaw and Shock-O-Rama. The biggest boon to their success has been the Seduction Cinema label. With that, they hit upon a very simple premise that works. Shoot a bunch of movies on digital video, balance it between serious films and spoofs of popular culture, and then throw in a bunch of girl-girl nastiness on behalf of Seduction's line of contract players. And believe me, some of it is steamy enough that you sometimes wonder how they can be sold on the regular release shelf at Movie Gallery. It's so natural, I don't know why no one thought of specializing in it before. Some people have grown to appreciate the films, myself included. I find that even beyond the erotic nature of the productions, they try for something with a signature spin - the dramas and paranormal thrillers are typically engrossing and the spoofs are hilarious. They have a lot of charm and some of the actresses have developed strong cult followings.
Shock-O-Rama is the horror arm of e.i. They've released a few winners and imported some cult faves like PREMUTOS. But frankly, they needed a boost. This is a label that until recently was actually proud to have John Russo on board, and that's just sad. That e.i. would choose to bring some of their Seduction Cinema talent to breathe life into the struggling Shock-O-Rama label is no surprise. What is surprising is that the results are so successful.
Coming with a generic title with no bearing on the film itself, SCREAMING DEAD is not a classic by any stretch. But it is a very watchable film that takes some turns you wouldn't expect from a film like this. The direction by Brett Piper (ARACHNIA, A NYMPHOID BARBARIAN IN DINOSAUR HELL) is ambitious and manages to squeak some style out of the meager surroundings.
The film begins in a manner that recalls the strange fetish videos of Bill Hellfire's Factory 2000 outlet. A model (A.J. Kahn - LORD OF THE G-STRINGS, BOOK OF SEDUCTION) is being strapped down as a seemingly perverse photographer takes pictures of her terrified expression. Ahh, pretty sure we know where this one is going. But you'd be wrong.
The film proper has the celebrated fetish photographer Roger Neale (Joseph Farrell) renting an old abandoned house. Neale is a bit of a weirdo. Anyone can plainly see that he is an egomaniacal control freak. He tells the women when they start out that he will own them twenty-four hours a day for the duration of the photo shoot. He also likes to put people in some pretty provocative situations. Still, he claims it is all part of his method, that he is working 24-7 in order to achieve the correct emotional response. "I know what I'm doing," he says. "I'm not some monster who enjoys dominating little girls."
Sam Rogan (Rob Monkiewicz - ARACHNIA) is not so sure. Not only does he find Neale's personality detestable, he is horrified by the treatment of the young girls in Neale's employ. You wouldn't expect it coming from him. In fact, the first time we meet him, he isn't the most likeable guy on the planet. Neale calls him a "mindless, arrogant thug" and it's hard to argue. He's a big guy with tons of attitude. At the drop of a hat, he will threaten a guy he doesn't like and then ask his secretary for her phone number.
But he is offended both by Neale's treatment of the women and the women's willingness to sit back and take it. As Neale's assistant, Maura (Rachael Robbins - DR. HORROR'S EROTIC HOUSE OF IDIOTS) says, "Some people would be willing to eat a little shit to get ahead." Rogan dismisses this immediately but then Maura says something interesting. She asks him if he would be so upset if it were men being exploited instead of women. He says that any man should stand up for himself, and thus reveals some of his nobility lies within a traditional chauvinism. Call me easy, but I honestly did not expect such a challenge from a film such as this. I did not expect that even the protagonists would have such subtle flaws in their own characters.
So, everyone settles into the abandoned house, although not too comfortably. Rogan represents the real estate company and is forced to supervise Neale at the property. The abandoned house used to be a mental institution before it was turned into a house where a noted sadist was said to have murdered a number of young men. Since then, the rumor has been that the property is haunted. Personally, I think it's a miracle that anyone was willing to rent the place.
Neale has hired three young women, played by Misty Mundae, Heidi Kristoffer and C.J. DiMarsico (EROTIC SURVIVOR 2, SEXY AMERICAN IDLE). Neale peeps on them, orders them around, has them locked up, and basically makes their lives miserable. Also, some of the women have noticed some strange apparitions here and there. Finally, just when everything looks like it's under control, things reach a psychic boiling point and - with the risk of sounding like an overused pun - all hell breaks loose. Nope, sorry, can't be more specific than that.
On the surface, SCREAMING DEAD offers nothing that straight to video horror films haven't been offering for the last decade or so. In fact, I was reminded of films by such overlooked folks as Kevin S. Tenney (WITCHBOARD, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS). Which is fine. It's been a while since we had a creaky haunted house movie with frequent nudity. Video-to-film transfer? Check. Young girls in frequent peril? Check. Cheesy digital effects? Gotcha. But then, doing a little bit of digging, there are a few things SCREAMING DEAD manages to handle a bit better than it's counterparts.
For one thing, the acting is quite good. Monkiewicz is very hard to adjust to and I'd be lying if I said his performance came off great. But in the end, it's a convincing balance between the noble and the pig-headed, two attributes the character struggles with. As Neale, Farrell does a great job. For most of the film, the viewer is on the ropes as to whether the guy really is an eccentric artist or a dominating slimeball. Rachael Robbins does fine work here, bringing a down to earth charm to her character.
Of course, the person who is getting all of the press is Seduction Cinema's number one box office draw - Misty Mundae. She's money in the bank for Seduction, with a following that makes her one of the leading B-movie queens of the 21st century. I have already stated my admiration for Mundae in the EROTIC SURVIVOR review. Of course, she's very attractive. But more than just a pretty face, she's shown herself capable of dealing with all facets of the entertainment world, right down to directing her own films such as last year's acclaimed remake of ROXANNA. Despite being featured prominently on all materials related to the film, she is part of an ensemble here and not the star. Still, she's in the film plenty. Without the Seduction name attached to it and no overtly sexual themes on the cover art, this marks her most "legitimate" role to date, whatever that means. In it, she proves why she has the fans. Mundae continues to exude insane amounts of charisma and charm, becoming instantly likeable from the moment she is on screen. She is given plenty of tragic drama to play with - surprisingly as one of the young women victimized by Neale instead of a virtuous starlet who just smacks him back down. A surprisingly vulnerable part for Ms. Mundae. She even does a little improv which allows her to have fun in a couple of the only comedic moments in the film.
Things are kept at a deliberately slow pace, no for a lack of interesting things to look at. The film is almost an hour done before you notice that nothing much has happened. This is all intentional, as it gives a slow build-up to a bigger finish.
Another surprising move is the self-aware knowledge the film possesses. A recurring theme is whether there is any difference between art and exploitation and even moreso, the fine line between voyeurism and sadism.
Just look at this one amazing moment of the film: The villain stands in the middle of a torture chamber. It is filled with devices from all around the world and throughout history - past and present, east and west. Every method of humiliation and pain is laid out in this room (or it would be if the budget allowed for it). But the villain is diverted from all these devices. He is holding a newer, potentially more heinous invention. As he caresses a simple Mini-DV camera, he grins in awe, calling the device "a sadist's delight."
But the biggest shocker is that while the film admits there is some fun to be had in all forms of exploitation, there is a line to be drawn. Yes, from the people who brought you such films as LORD OF THE G-STRINGS, SPIDERBABE and SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR LUST comes a film that is wholly against the subjugation and objectification of women. It's a film that despite the frequent nudity, knows who the villains, heroes and victims are - even if it does it's damnedest to confuse the issue for the viewer. There are some startlingly mature themes on display here, such as "Are there levels to sadism,," "Is there really such a thing as an acceptable form of exploitation," and "How is our integrity tied into our mortality?"
Sadly, there are some major failings which make this film only a little above average. For the most part, the special effects are kept at a minimum. That is because, for special effects, they aren't that special. It's simple digital tweaking that most people could do with homegrown computer software. In some cases, it actually doesn't look nearly as fake as it should. In others, the results are very cheesy indeed. There are a pair of disembodied eyes that make sporadic appearances. It's a nice touch, representing either the eye of the camera or the "phantom eye" that is the audience looking at the suffering on display. Whatever the case, it looks like crap. It looks like the type of cost-cutting creature you'd find in an old DOCTOR WHO episode.
Another major bone of contention is the ending. After everything that builds up beforehand, the ending is the apotheosis of lame. It makes no sense, seems way too easy and despite all of that, is just completely unsatisfying. It was a huge letdown considering how much I was liking the rest of the film, and I can't think anyone is going to be too happy with the Deux Ex Machina that presents itself in this film.
Still, we've got a voyeuristic horror film that warns of the dangers of voyeurism. We've also got a film that displays women in various stages of bondage and degradation yet comes out as a shockingly pro-feminist film that almost makes it inappropriate to call the film "exploitation." Without these ingredients, SCREAMING DEAD would still make for an entertaining way to kill ninety minutes on a rainy day. With them, it adds a depth you don't see in most of the straight to video horror flicks today.