Film Review: Years of the Beast (dir by D. Paul Thomas)

This low-budget 1981 film opens with a professor, Stephen Miles (Gary Bayer), giving his last lecture at Seattle’s University of Washington.  He’s been laid off from his job.  He’s depressed.  The students around him don’t seem to be interested in anything that he has to say.  The world seems to be plunging deeper and deeper into chaos.  Society seems to be collapsing.  Stephen just can’t understand why everything just seems to be getting so bad.

Having taught his last class, Stephen walks across campus and drops in on his friend, Dr. Carl Kilneman (Malcolm McCaimen).  Dr. Kilneman says that things may look bad now but they’re only going to get worse.  He then talks about how his research has led to him discovering that every bad thing in the world was previously predicted by the Bible.  Stephen starts to laugh him off but he’s interrupted by what sounds like an overhead explosion.  Suddenly, Dr. Kilneman has vanished.

Dr. Kilneman is not the only person who has vanished.  In fact, every believer in the world has vanished.  Without any Christians around telling people how to behave, it doesn’t take long for Seattle to descend into chaos.  (Seattle in chaos?  Well, it was bound to happen someday….)  Soon, people are raiding the grocery stores and roving bands of frat boys are flooding the streets, openly drinking beer and smoking weed….

Yes, I know that actually kind of sounds like the sort of stuff that happens everyday and not just in Seattle but you have to remember that this film is from 1981 and, from what I can tell, it was apparently mostly shown to church groups.  So, for the time, maybe it was shocking….

Anyway, Stephen and his wife, June (Alana Rader), decide to go out to June’s father’s farm.  They manage to get out of Seattle and probably not a minute to soon as Seattle itself is soon wiped off the face of the planet by a storm of biblical proportions.  When Stephen and June reach the farm, they discover that her father has vanished.  They also meet up with one of the farmhands, Gary (Jerry Houser) and a young woman named Cindy (Sarah Reed), who needs a place to stay.

Meanwhile, with the world in chaos, an enigmatic man known as the Prime Minister (Michael Amber) takes control and promises to bring peace to the planet but only if people agree to follow him and be branded with a special mark.  At one point, the Prime Minister gets shot in the head and then comes back to life a few days later so …. well, we all know what that means.

Stephen, June, Gary, and Cindy do not want to take the mark so they go running into the wilderness.  Pursuing them is the local sheriff (James Blendick), who is determined to make sure that the law is followed even if the law is being written by Satan.

Years of the Beast is a bit of an oddity.  On the one hand, it’s an extremely low-budget film and the pace is often painfully slow.  One of the reasons why the film’s destruction of Seattle is so much fun to watch is because the special effects are so extremely cheap that they’re almost charming but, at the same time, the film’s narrative momentum dies right after the city.  Unlike a lot of faith-based film, the cast was made up of character actors who actually had a career in mainstream cinema so, on the whole, the performances are better than you might expect to find in a film like this but, at the same time, none of the characters have much depth.  They start out as nonbelievers and then they become believers and that’s pretty much it as far as their characterization tends to go.  I liked the fact that the outwardly friendly Sheriff was actually a fascist but that has more to do with my own natural distrust of authority than anything else.

At the same time, if you’re looking for a time capsule of tacky 80s fashion and interior design, Years of the Beast will deliver.  I especially liked the interior of Stephen and June’s home in Seattle, which was basically so bland that it become oddly fascinating.  Actually, oddly fascinating is a good way to describe the entire film.  It’s hard not to enjoy epic film making at discount prices.  It’s almost like a bit of outsider art.  For all of its flaws, it did get made and it apparently did play in theaters and now, nearly 40 years later, it can still be found on YouTube.  Such is the power of cinema.


Film Review: The Watchers — Revelation (dir by Tom Dallis)

As I watched the 2013 film, The Watchers: Revelation, three words kept going through my head:

Threat Level Midnight

Yes, I was thinking about Michael Scott’s infamous amateur film from The Office, in which the fact that Michael obviously knew how to move a camera and compose a shot could not cover up a ton of awkward dialogue and a plot that appeared to have been made up on the spot.  Like Threat Level Midnight, The Watchers: Revelation is very ambitious and even features not one but two presidential meetings.  (The film opens in the 50s with someone who I guess is meant to be Dwight Eisenhower and it ends in the near future, with a President named Connolly.)  Like Threat Level Midnight, the film features some rudimentary special effects that are actually kind of impressive when you consider the fact that the film was obviously made for very little money.  And, like Threat Level Midnight, the story is next to impossible to follow.

The film makes the familiar case that, since at least the 1950s, otherworldly beings have been meeting with world leaders and supplying them with weaponry and technological advances.  In this case, there’s two sets of beings.  One group is evil and one group is good and the challenge of the film is to keep track of which is which.  The film also suggests that these beings are not, as many assume, aliens but are actually the Watchers, the angels who were assigned to watch over Earth and who betrayed God’s trust by sleeping with human women and creating the Nephilim.  (It’s in the Books of Enoch, people!  Not to mention Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.)

Anyway, in this one, Ambassador Addon (Eugene Pridgett) leaves Earth in 1955 after warning President Eisenhower that his people are not happy about mankind’s warlike nature and or their ambitions to leave the planet and explore the universe.  Much as in The Day The Earth Stood Still, Addon warns about spreading Earth culture to other planets.  We then jump forward several decades, to the discovery of an ancient tablet that appears to prove that aliens did visit Earth and did share technology with early humans.

Dr. Peter Kenner (Titus Young Wolverton) is a scientist who has no faith in God but does believe in ancient alien visitation.  His uncle, Joshua Sanders (David Gaylor), is a scientist who retains his faith in God and, as a result, he and Peter don’t really have much to do with each other.  However, they are brought together by nine year-old Kara Pennington (Carissa Dallis), who can read ancient Hebrew and who, for some reason, the aliens want to abduct.  Seeking to protect Kara is her mother (Katlin Lory) and a mysterious man named Ethan (Tyler Trent).  It all eventually leads to a battle in a warehouse because these things always do….

To be honest, the plot is pretty much impossible to follow.  There’s a lot of scenes of people chasing each other but you’re never quite sure why.  There’s also some political conspiracy intrigue that never really seems to come together.  At the same time, the film is made with such enthusiasm and is so earnest in its attempts to be a sci-fi epic despite not having an epic budget that, much like Threat Level Midnight, it’s hard not to like it.  Sometimes, you really do have to appreciate the effort.

Film Review: Denounced: Rise of the Horsemen (dir by Stephen C. Bortsalas)

The 2017 film, Denounced, opens with a man named Paul (Sean Hart) in the wilderness.

Just one look at Paul is all you need to know that he’s seen some stuff.  He’s tall and physically imposing with a haunted stare and a scarred face.  He’s wearing a dark uniform, one that identifies him as being a member of some sort of paramilitary force.  Because Paul is now alone, it’s easy to guess that he must be a deserter of some sort.  But what did he desert and why?

Paul eventually meets two other people in the wilderness, a man and a woman.  They’re all trying to escape from something.  The man talks about how, on the night of an event that’s referred to as being “the vanishing,” he was on the verge of committing suicide.  The woman talks about how she was a drug addict. And finally, Paul starts to open up about his past life….

And, at this point, you’ve probably already guesses what this movie is about, haven’t you?  Yes, “the vanishing” was the Rapture and yes, Paul was a part of a paramilitary force that was working for the Antichrist.  Motivated by the anger of losing his entire family (they all vanished while he didn’t), Paul joined the Horsemen and spent months killing believers and other dissidents.  After finally coming to realize that he had surrendered himself to his hate, Paul refused to continue killing.  Now, Paul is hiding in the wilderness and obsessing on whether or not someone who has done the evil things that he’s done can ever truly be redeemed.

I know that at least a few of our readers are probably rolling their eyes already but Denounced is actually a surprisingly well-made film.  While the low-budget is evident in nearly every frame, director Stephen C. Bortsalas is still able to create a properly ominous and paranoid atmosphere throughout the film.  He gets a lot of help from Sean Hart, who comes across as being genuinely haunted in the lead role.  Including this film, Hart only has two credits on the imdb so I don’t know if he’s a trained actor or if he’s just a talented amateur but, in the role of Paul, he has the haunted eyes of someone who has lost everything that he once cared about.  He’s sympathetic in the present-day scenes and intimidating in the past scenes and you do hope for the best for his character.

Denounced is also a surprisingly brutal film, though every act of violence is justified by the film’s storyline.  One lengthy scene features more dismemberment than you would probably ever expect to see in a low-budget, faith-based film.  Heads and hands are graphically chopped off and it’s far more effective than I would have expected it to be.  So many films would have just had Paul say that he had done some terrible things and left it that.  This film shows you in details just what exactly those things were but it’s not gratuitous violence.  Instead, it’s very necessary to our understanding of who Paul is and why he’s now so haunted by his actions.

Though I imagine it will be best appreciated by people who already share its world-view, Denounced is a surprisingly effective apocalyptic film.

Film Review: The Freedom of Silence (dir by Richard Robertson)

If there’s anything that I’ve learned from watching several politically-themed films over the past few weeks, it’s the easiest way to win an argument is to have the screenwriter on your side.  Seriously, as long as you can control what the opposition says, it’s very easy to stump them with your arguments.

The other thing that I’ve learned is that apparently no one ever disagrees solely because they have a different opinion or way of looking at the world.  Instead, there’s an ulterior motive to every disagreement.  If a businessperson says that we need to keep taxes low, it’s never because they sincerely believes that lower taxes will encourage economic growth.  No, in the movies, it’s always because they’re just greedy and not willing to pay their fair share.  Of course, it’s never really explored as to what exactly “paying your fair share” means but that’s not important.  Not when there’s someone who would rather see people die than pay their taxes.

By that same token, any military leader who argues for more defense spending isn’t doing so because they sincerely believe that a strong defense will keep America safe from its enemies.  Instead, it’s always a case where they just want a war because ….. well, why not?

If the film is religious in nature, you can rest assured that no skeptic will be a skeptic just because they happen to have a different set of beliefs or because they were maybe just raised in a nonreligous environment.  Instead, in the movies, every skeptic is a skeptic because something traumatic happened to them in the past and it led to them getting so angry with God that they renounced their faith.  This, of course, always leads to the question of, “How can you be angry at a God that you don’t believe in?” and a moment of awkward silence as the skeptic realizes that he doesn’t have an answer.

The 2011 film, The Freedom of Silence, is built around scenes of a man named Zack Thompson (Tyler Messner) being tortured by one such skeptic.  The skeptic is Captain Johansen (Jeffrey Staab) and it’s not enough that he’s a fascistic authoritarian who uses his position to legally indulge in his own sadistic impulses.  He also has to be a Hollywood atheist, a man whose disdain of religion is all linked back to a past tragedy in his own life.  To a certain extent, I think he would have been a more believable character if he had just been motivated by his own need to create pain.  There’s been enough real-life examples of sadists-in-power that I think that no one would have doubted that a character like Captain Johansen could exist in the real world.  After all, a world that gave us Klaus Barbie, Lavrentiy Beria, Joseph Mengele, and Pol Pot could certainly give us as a Captain Johansen.  By making him a Hollywood atheist, the film reminds us that Captain Johansen is just a fictional strawman, a character created specifically to be outargued by the story’s hero.  It makes him less effective as a character, despite the fact that Staab does a good job playing the role.

The Freedom of Silence takes place in 2030 and imagines an America where the first amendment has, for all intents and purposes, been outlawed.  Since this is a faith-based film, the film focuses on the idea of Christianity being banned (or, as the government argues, replaced by a new unified, national religion) and bibles being forbidden.  Have other religions also have banned?  Can having a copy of the Koran get you thrown in prison?  The Freedom of Silence doesn’t say but I think it might have been a stronger film if it had.

Anyway, Zack has a plan to broadcast the word of God despite the government’s rules.  He’s going to need the help of Aaron (Chris Bylsma) but Aaron has a new girlfriend named Trisha (Lauren Alfano) and Trisha is secretly working for the government and you can tell where this is going already, can’t you?

And the thing is — I’m a bit of a free speech absolutist and I’m certainly no fan of government regulation and I do believe that free speech is under attack, by both the Left and the Right, in this country.  And yes, I did enjoy the scenes of brainwashed American citizens blandly talking about how they had to follow the law no matter what.  Unfortunately, the film itself has some serious pacing issues and, with the exceptions of Staab and Lauren Alfano, the acting is a bit inconsistent.  I think we’re supposed to excuse the filmmaking deficiencies because of the self-declared righteousness of the film’s message but the film is so disjointed that, at times, it’s nearly impossible to follow the plot.  That’s not something you can just ignore.

This is one of those films where, if you’re on the film’s side, you’ll enjoy it because you know it’s the type of thing that would annoy people who disagree with you.  But if you’re not already predisposed to agree with the film’s point, The Freedom of Silence is not going to convince you to change your mind.  This is a film that solely exists to own the other side.  And sometimes, that’s enough.  Audiences do tend to like films and books and songs and shows that confirm their already held beliefs.  But I don’t know.  Sometimes, when it comes to important issues like free speech, you want and the issue demands something more than jut a heavy hand and strawman arguments.

Anyway, if you just want to own the other side, you might get a kick out of certain parts of The Freedom of Silence.  If you’re looking for more, look elsewhere.

Film Review: The Prophet’s Son (dir by Paul Anthony McClean, Maurice Sparks, and Josiah David Warren)

As I’ve mentioned on this site in the past, I’ve always been fascinated by amateur feature films.  These are films that were made totally outside of the Hollywood system.  For the most part, they’re made by filmmakers with little to no formal training and they feature a cast of nonprofessionals.  Many of these films are passion projects for the people involved.  It’s not uncommon to hear about them being made by an all-volunteer cast and crew.  Sometimes, these films are surprisingly effective and sometimes — well, most times — they’re just really bad.

The 2012 film, The Prophet’s Son, is one of those largely amateur films and sad to say, it’s not a particularly good film.  If Tommy Wiseau decided to follow up The Room with an evangelical film that attempted to deal with almost every single issue facing the world today, the end result might be something like The Prophet’s Son.

It’s an odd film.  I have to admit that one of the main reasons that I watched it was because I had seen the film described as being about the end of the world and I have a weakness for cheaply made apocalypse films.  While The Prophet’s Son does feature a very brief nuclear attack on the city of Denver, it’s not really an apocalypse film because 1) the world doesn’t end, 2) the rapture doesn’t occur, and 3) the Antichrist never makes an appearance.  Instead, the nuclear attack just kind of comes out of nowhere and I will admit that it’s impossible for me not to have just a little admiration for a film that would toss a random nuclear war into an already cluttered storyline.  One minute, writer Juliet Oscar (played by Alexandra Harris) is sitting outside and the next minute, there’s missiles raining down on Denver.  Juliet and her boyfriend, musician and movie star Abel Benjamin (Josiah David Warren), get to safety and pray and the newly elected President of the United States appears on television and announces that America has survived.

Abel, incidentally, is the prophet’s son of the title.  Or, at least, I think he is.  He also has brother named Obadiah (Taurean Cavins-Flores), who I guess could just as easily be the prophet’s son.  Their father is the pastor of a church and he keeps saying that dark times are ahead, which I guess makes him a prophet, though he could just be one of those people who spends too much time on social media.  The film is a bit difficult to follow, to be honest.  At one point, Obadiah foils a robbery at a coffeeshop by telling the thief that he needs to get right with God.  The thief responds by shooting Obadiah in the leg.  Obadiah survives and Abel later learns that the thief loved Abel’s last movie so Abel visits him in jail, forgives him, and then performs an impromptu exorcism on him.  (It’s a super quick exorcism, too.  I’m used to longer exorcisms.)

Meanwhile, Juliet’s brother, Jason (Peter Lugo), says that he’s not going to waste his time with church until he turns 18.  Unfortunately, he then gets caught up in the middle of a surprisingly graphic school shooting rampage.  This leads to Jason’s twin brother, Isaac (Brad Spiotta), running away and getting lost in Denver.  Juliet and Abel search for him with the help of a some gang members.  When Juliet spots Isaac, she runs to him.  Abel, meanwhile, stays behind to give some money to a homeless woman.

Eventually, Abel ends up in Manila, where he witnesses people being kidnapped off the streets.  He tells the maid at his hotel that she needs to pay more.  While this is going on, Juliet is being pursued by Caleb (Jared Haley), who is a loud and proud atheist.  “Get me a beer and hamburger!” he shouts at one point.

What does all of this have to with the nuclear attack on Denver?  It’s hard to say.  The Prophet’s Son covers a lot of ground but the script and the direction are so disjointed that it’s basically impossible to follow the film’s story.  In fact, the film is such a disorganized mess that it becomes oddly fascinating to try to keep track of what’s actually happening.  For whatever reason, it took me forever to figure out that Abel and Obadiah were supposed to be brothers.  When Isaac mentioned that he and Jason were twins, I literally shouted at the TV, “No, you’re not!” because, seriously, there’s nothing about them that would lead you to suspect that they were even related, not to mention twins.  Characters come and go throughout the film.  The school shooters appear out of nowhere.  The coffeeshop bandit disappears after the jailhouse exorcism.  Abel has a manager who appears to be in love with him but who he treat rather coldly.  Despite being the biggest superstar in the world, Abel can wander around Denver without anyone recognizing him.  Denver, itself, is remarkably undamaged after being nuked.  It’s a strange, strange film, even if the world doesn’t actually end.

And you can watch it on Prime if you want!

The Walrus Was Pepe : Matt Furie’s “Mindviscosity” (Advance Review)

Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

I’m not sure that the name of Matt Furie is separable from that of his most (in?)famous creation, Pepe the Frog, at this point, but there’s no harm in attempting to declare your independence, right? To that end, we have something of a Furie “rehab tour” going on, not that he’s responsible for the alt-right/MAGA crowd’s usurpation of his character for their usual diabolical purposes. Step one is separating oneself as clearly as possible from the fracas, which is being achieved by means of the new documentary film Feels Good Man, and step two is to just, ya know, create some new work  and if there’s one thing Fantagraphics’ forthcoming hardback collection of Furie’s (mainly) painted art, Mindviscosity, proves, it’s that he’s been working his ass off.

Having publicly “killed” Pepe off in a comic strip, he’s turned his attention to painting more fully, and while…

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Flesh and the Spur (1956, directed by Edward L. Cahn)

When farmer Matt Ransom (John Agar) is murdered for his horse and his gun, his twin brother Luke (also John Agar) sets out to get revenge.  He knows that his brother’s murderer was a member of the infamous Checkers Gang.  Because the gun that the killer stole was one of two identical pairs specially made for the twins by their father, Luke knows that all he has to do is find the outlaw who is carrying a gun that looks just like his.  During Luke’s search, he meets several others who have their own reasons for wanting to destroy the Checkers Gang.  Luke teams up with a beautiful Native American woman named Willow (Marla English), a snake oil salesman named Windy (Raymond Hatton), and a mysterious but deadly gunman named Stacy Doggett (Mike “Touch” Connors).

This B-level Western is best known for a scene where a group of rogue Indians tie Willow to an anthill in order to punish her for “traveling” with the white man.  The scene was not originally in the script.  It was added after a poster was designed that featured Willow bound to a stake.  While the scene was undoubtedly enjoyed by the teenage boys who the film was marketed towards, it feels out-of-place in the movie.  Some of the problem is that, while shooting the scene, the ants refused to go anywhere near Marla English and would instead run away whenever they were dropped on English’s feet.  After spending several minutes tied to a stake and having ants poured on her, English said, “Look, you’ve got six ants there.  Isn’t that enough?”  Marla English retired from acting shortly after appearing in this film.

Flesh and the Spur is a B-western through and through but it has a few good moments, like the scene where Luke and Stacy check out a saloon’s gun rack to see if anyone has hung up Matt’s gun.  Touch Connors is convincingly deadly as Stacy and there’s a good twist with his character at the end of the film. Marla English gives such a good performance as Willow that it’s too bad that the ants may have played a part in her early retirement from acting.  Unfortunately, John Agar is just as dull and colourless as always and he was obviously too old to be playing someone like Luke, who is meant to be a naive neophyte.

Flesh and the Spur may not be a classic but there’s enough there to keep western fans entertained.