Friday, June 10, 2016

Messiah of Evil (1973) - Film Review - V/M Productions

Arletty (Marianna Hill) arrives in a small, odd, creepy coastal town in California looking for her father and she quickly learns little is as it seems. 

 Before Romero's Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies, there was Dead People a.k.a Messiah of evil. Shot in 1971 the film was not released until 1973. Like H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon and The Wicker Man (1973), weird locals are hiding a horrific secret... In Messiah, the people of Point Dune worship the rise of a red moon as they become zombies. The storyline is disjointed, but this adds to the mystic, surreal and dreamlike quality of the film. Admittedly, it feels art house, there is some irregular editing and the score is very much of its time, but there's plenty to like about it. 

Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Dead & Buried (1981) and the aforementioned Dawn of the Dead clearly have taken a cue from Willard Huyck's jumbled but effective film. Especially the scene where slinky brunette Anitra Ford is pursued through a supermarket. There is also truly creepy scene again with Ford and an albino trucker, played by Bennie Robinson, who you'd think would have been in a lot more horror movies. If you liked Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)  and Night of the Living Dead there's some horror delight to be found here from the shocking first kill to the insane asylum ending.

Messiah of Evil oozes dread and suspense, it's a chilling 70's horror flick that despite its faults is a lot better than some of today's so called horrors.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Interview with Filmmaker, Harris Demel

I saw a film that moved me. It pressed buttons and made me look at my past relationships and marriages, and ask myself how I always picked a certain type of guy, allowed it to get so bad or go so far. It's ugly to put up a mirror to yourself to see you're partially to blame. It's empowering though to know with change I do have the self-worth to say "Stop." It may be a difficult choice, but it's a choice and that means there are options. I was surprised to find that the director and co-writer of "Blood Rush" was a newcomer, as the film was brilliantly executed. Certainly Harris Demel is a force to be reckoned with and a director to watch. His voice is loud and he has so much to say.    

Body Count Rising: You acted in a romantic comedy called “Saturday Morning” with Joe Piscopo’s son, Joey back in 2007. From there you went on to direct a riveting film, “Blood Rush” also titled as “Flipped” released in 2015. How did you move from acting and editing to writing, producing and directing?

Harris Demel: So, what happened was… My friend, Rob Greenberg, was making his debut feature film – a comedy entitled “Saturday Morning” (available on Netflix) and I had a specific idea for one of the roles in his movie. Despite me having pretty much no acting experience or skills, he let me make a fool of myself on the big screen. That about sums up my acting career and its immediate demise.

When Rob’s production wrapped, a producer who claimed he was going handle post-production stiffed Rob, so, drawing on my knowledge from ancient college courses and skills I’d acquired in producing cheesy corporate videos, I helped Rob finish his film. Years later, after the corporate world had become stale to me, I decided to make my own movie.

Body Count Rising: You also co-wrote “Blood Rush” with Rob. How did this project come about?

Harris Demel: Rob and I actually go way back. We met in baby carriages, and by that, I’m not referring to some kind of zany college hazing ritual, which I’m sure is what you were thinking, there, Suzie. I mean we grew up in the same neighborhood.(laughing)

Body Count Rising: Yes, of course. (laughing)

Harris Demel: After quitting the corporate world, I locked myself in a room for nine months to write my first script. When I was ready to put that script to screen, I took a two-day course that was designed to demystify the filmmaking process. The message of the course was to simplify, which meant write a new script with a minimal number of characters, one location, no kids, no animals, and no special effects. I didn’t want to lock myself in a room for another nine months, so I recruited Rob, who, by the way, is quite the prolific screenwriter, as a co-writer.

Body Count Rising: That’s always an amazing feeling when you can collaborate with close, talented friends you can trust. Did you go to a formal film school, or were you mostly self-taught?

Harris Demel: Aside from the aforementioned college courses, corporate video production and the two-day film course, I’d read a ton of books on the craft (covering all aspects), and I also watched a slew of director commentaries on DVDs, which are often full of gems for filmmakers. My greatest learning was achieved, of course, on the set of “Blood Rush”.

Body Count Rising: “Blood Rush” was a REALLY good film. Has it received any festival awards?

Harris Demel: You’re too kind, Suzie! We dipped our toe in the film festival circuit, but we only went for the most prestigious ones (Sundance, Toronto, and one or two others). “Blood Rush” is basically a psychological thriller with aspects of horror, so it’s difficult to put in a box. Perhaps due to its quasi-experimental nature, or the advent of technology making movie production less expensive nowadays, coupled with lots of talent out there, i.e. competition, it wasn’t accepted.

Body Count Rising: I really am floored by that. I’m hearing stories of more independent filmmakers with really novel concepts and original, exceptional films being shunned by festivals. That’s such a shame, and seems almost political to me.

Harris Demel: But the goal of doing the film festival circuit is usually to land a distribution deal, so I thought why not simply approach distributors directly? After doing so, we received several offers and went with the one we felt best served this movie.

Body Count Rising: You had a pretty big crew for your first film. How did you fund the movie?

Harris Demel: It definitely was a large crew, but that’s because I had to reshoot the ending. When you complete production on a movie, you typically throw together a rough cut and have people, friends, family and (preferably) strangers, watch it and provide feedback. Unfortunately, the original ending didn’t work. Something simply didn’t translate from script to screen, and people found it to be confusing. The ending is arguably the most important part of a movie, so I felt the need to rewrite and reshoot it. We were able to bring back some of the original crew members as well as some new blood. I know you’re a fan of blood, Creepie Suzie, so I thought I’d throw that last bit in about “new blood” and I hope it was good for you. (laughing)

Body Count Rising: Um… thank you? (laughing) Very satisfying.

Harris Demel: In terms of funding, as a first-time director, a.k.a. an unknown quantity, I knew I wouldn’t be able to secure financing. So, Google financed the movie, meaning I made a very fortunate trade when I bought Google stock shortly after their IPO. The downside of funding your own movie is that you have to cover all the costs, but the upside is that doing so buys you full creative license.

Body Count Rising: Now that’s a great story! Speaking of stories, the movie centers around two celebrities trapped in a wrecked car. Aside from brief flashbacks, scenes were mostly centered on the car. I loved the momentum behind the urgency of the car accident. Although the setting was minimalistic, never once did it feel stagnant or lagging. I think that in itself is a feat.

Harris Demel: Well, thank you. When I mentioned the restrictions from the two-day course I’d taken to Rob, (one location, minimal number of characters, etc.), his response was, “That’s impossible.” To me, “impossible” is merely the start of a juicy challenge, and I love a juicy challenge.

I proposed the following premise to Rob: “A girl finds herself trapped in an upside-down car. Her cell phone’s damaged and she can’t call emergency numbers, so she’s forced to dial strangers. She finally reaches someone who sounds like he’s going to help, until he turns out to be psychotic.” So many people refer to their cell phones as their lifeline, and I liked the idea of making that literal. So, that became the spine of our script.

Body Count Rising: Was this level of suspense difficult to achieve?

Harris Demel: Various devices can help create suspense. The first step is getting the audience to want to go on a journey with the lead character, whether that character is a good or bad person. In this case, Nicole Diamond, a young, na├»ve, somewhat immature woman, finds herself in a foreign situation alongside her unconscious boyfriend. She’s concerned for him, she’s alone and scared, and she’s forced to confront circumstances she’s never encountered. Such a situation could easily evoke a sense of empathy, sympathy, or both from an audience as they root for her to escape, and that’s where the journey begins.

Ticking clocks add tension, such as the growing fire under the car, and the unknown physiological effects of a human hanging upside down indefinitely. I did a bunch of research on that last part and was surprised to find that very little is known about how long a person could hang upside-down before it becomes life threatening. I searched the ‘net and spoke with doctors – All I could come up with was, “If you feel dizzy, you should stop.” And then there are the unknown threats, such as the weather and the surrounding wilderness.

The director is armed with a story, actors to direct, and a pace to control. It’s like being an orchestra conductor, creating tension that rises and falls, all driving toward the finale. It’s difficult for me to say whether it’s tough to keep suspense and momentum going for an audience, because all I could do was stubbornly stick to my vision for the movie while hoping people would connect with it. When they do, it’s tremendously rewarding.

Body Count Rising: The premise of “Blood Rush” lies with a woman who comes to terms with her own self worth, enabling a domestic abuser. Is this a story burning inside of you that had to be told?

Harris Demel: At the time when we were writing, the Chris Brown/Rihanna domestic abuse incident resurfaced. It was incredibly ironic: On one hand, you had Rihanna, who seemed to have it all – looks, fame, riches, talent – entering into a relationship with an abuser. On the other, Chris Brown also seemed to have it all, yet he possessed a rage he was clearly incapable of controlling. People on message boards were excusing Brown's behavior, claiming, “Everyone makes mistakes.” and “He was younger then.” as if beating a woman senseless could be put under the category of “Oops!” or as if such behavior is in ANY way related to maturity. There's always the question of whether a person should be forgiven, but that usually follows the accused showing even an ounce of remorse, which with Brown, at least publicly, was nonexistent.

Seeing Rihanna's brutally-battered face infuriated me and Rob, and so we wanted to understand as objectively as possible how victims are sucked into and kept in abusive relationships. I also spoke with several of my friends who were victims of abusive relationships, for whom I have enormous empathy. So, yes, a story was sort of ‘burning’ inside of me, and those headlines rekindled some pent up fury. And the topic, which is an important one, hasn’t been covered very much in movies of late, and so it became our story to tell.

Body Count Rising: What sort of social implications do you think this film will achieve?

Harris Demel: I feel it’s a pretty introspective movie, and for people who find themselves slipping into abusive relationships, whether emotional, physical, or both. I hope it helps them become more cognizant of any possible patterns, and I hope it leads them to question the value of such relationships… before it’s too late.

When people resort to abuse, it’s a direct reflection of their weakness. It is not a reflection of the victim’s weakness, though the victim is sadly burdened with having to take action to free themselves from such dangerous situations. If the movie accomplishes anything, I hope it creates more awareness on the topic.

Body Count Rising: Have you had offers of support from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or other similar organizations?

Harris Demel: We’re actually in the midst of discussions with a couple different groups, and I’m hoping to know more soon.

Body Count Rising: Was the message of your film part of the reason Michael Madson got onboard?

Harris Demel: It’s very possible. Usually, someone of Mike’s caliber would want to read a script before signing onto a project, and this movie was no exception. He really liked the concept, and during his interview for the behind-the-scenes video, he commented that he felt more movies should be made covering the topic of domestic abuse. So, yeah, that may very well have contributed to his decision to sign on.

Body Count Rising: Besides the crazy weather, what other challenges did you encounter while filming?

Harris Demel: Where to begin!? Well, for one thing, we were not well prepared for strapping the actors into the car. That cost us a few days… We also had an on-set reader who told me he was going to convince me that he was the right person for the role of Casey. Madsen was dubbed in later. I tried to explain to him as tactfully as I could that I had someone else in mind for the role, and shortly after that, he started not showing up on set. So, the person reading for Casey changed hands a few times, but Stella was great in staying in character, regardless. And though you said, “Besides the weather…” it was literally freezing on set most days! Then there were issues with getting permits to film at the restaurant, and one day one of the cameras wasn’t secured and crashed to the ground, etc., etc., etc. I could (and maybe should) write a ‘War and Peace’-size book on the experience. In a nutshell, it wasn’t easy.

Body Count Rising: How did you overcome these?

Harris Demel: We had to reset the car, giving it a slight angle so that the actors had a tiny bit of back support. The varied speeds of the on-set reader created a challenge in the editing room, but it was overcome through lots of creativity with both the picture and sound. The film permit for the restaurant required me to make a tough call: Secure a ‘plan B’ location (which would’ve cost a small fortune) while at the same time, hiring up a company that specializes in acquiring permit signatures. We ultimately acquired the signatures we needed in time. And the camera that hit the ground took a little chunk of my life savings through the insurance deductible. And on and on and on…

Body Count Rising: Which crew member really blew you away by going well above and beyond?

Harris Demel: During pre-production, I met a producer named Jason Mandl, who did me a favor in getting me a bargain on equipment I needed. He made a strong impression as someone who was really on his game. When it was time to do the reshoot, Stella and Evan were booked up on other gigs and scheduling proved to be an absolute nightmare. After months of waiting for calendars to align, a tiny window opened up and I had to move at light speed. It was a complex project with tons of moving parts, and there was no space for error. I remembered Jason and my gut told me he was the right fit as producer for the reshoot, so I brought him on.

As a first-time director, you’re constantly questioning your every decision while learning how to tune into your gut. You’re vulnerable, to say the least. I suppose in every industry there are people who want to see their leaders fail, but in filmmaking, the production team is so tight knit that it really stings when anyone questions your competence. We were filming a series of shots at ‘Casey’s house’ and I was barking out various camera moves and angles I wanted. I wasn’t referring to a piece of paper and I might’ve thrown in some, “Hmm”s and “Uhh”s along the way. Almost immediately, there were grumblings that I hadn’t planned my shots properly, (which was nonsense), and the grumblings found their way back to me, which really bummed me out. Jason sensed it, and told me, “Don’t worry – You’re doing a great job.” Fans of “The Matrix” will recall how the Oracle insinuated to Neo that he wasn’t ‘the one.’ Maybe she lied, but she told Neo exactly what he needed to hear at that moment. Jason was my oracle.

It’s ridiculous. When you’re a Spielberg or a Fincher and you do some off-the-cuff work, or if you’re Kubrick and you shoot the same shot for three weeks with mini variations, everything you do is perfect. When you’re a first-timer, you’re an easy target, and easy targets are for those with the worst aim.

But back to Jason. Bringing him on was a great decision. Though his task was far from easy, he created a smooth operating machine, and we got through everything on time, below budget, and the experience for me was a breeze as compared to the chaos of the principal shoot. If anyone out there is considering making a movie, and if you want a rock-solid, rock star producer (and all around really swell guy), I implore you dear reader – IMPLORE YOU, I SAY – to hire Jason!

Body Count Rising: The fire you used in the film was pretty realistic looking. Was it CG or practical?

Harris Demel: It was both. I had a pyro guy who was all for lighting my actors on fire, (he had some gel he claimed would protect them, which he used on our stuntwoman, so I guess he was telling the truth), but I felt Stella had been through enough, hanging upside down for over two weeks, among other forms of torture. So for the scenes where burning leaves fell onto her, or when flames were near her, we added CG fire and glow, along with practical lighting. For some of the inserts, we used practical fire with our stuntwoman, and propane flame bars were placed around the car for the shots where it was engulfed.

Body Count Rising: Well, that explains the realism. Now who is the real you? There is very little personal information about you online. I know you’re from New York. Did you grow up there?

Harris Demel: That’s me – a walking, breathing 404 error: “Page not found”. I was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey. When I entered the corporate world I bounced around a bit, living in Canada for seven and a half years (Toronto and Montreal – both beautiful places with great people). But in terms of my online presence, I suppose what was posted from my corporate days (bios, corporate announcements, speeches from public forums, etc.) have faded into oblivion, which is just fine by me. With this new chapter in filmmaking, I’m hoping some positive stuff will propagate out there into the ether.

Body Count Rising: Please tell me more about yourself, like what kind of music you listen to or movies you love…

Harris Demel: My musical taste is highly eclectic. I come from a family of musicians and I play the drums. I was in an alternative rock band and we played around New York City, and after the band imploded, I began working in a 24-track analog recording studio. I love classic alternative, like The Pixies, The Smiths, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, (and The Cars before they went all commercial, though I guess they’re considered New Wave), as well as modern alternative, (whatever the hell that means), like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Purity Ring, Metric, Tegan & Sara, but also contemporary jazz fusion (John Scofield, Mike Stern, etc.), electronica (Breakbeat Era, The Prodigy, etc.), some pop, some classical, and the list goes on. What can I say? I’m a musical mess.

Note: I’m listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as I’m editing this interview to post. Karen O is a dynamo!

Harris Demel: Some of my favorite movies are: “American Beauty”, “Fight Club”, “Goodfellas”, “Amelie”, “The Matrix”, “Being John Malkovich”, and “The Godfather” (1 and 2). I’m grateful Breaking Bad raised the bar for TV, and David Fincher’s probably my favorite director.

Body Count Rising: What’s your passion?

Harris Demel: After so many years of building technology solutions, nowadays, I’m all about using it. I still like learning new software, whether it’s After Effects, 3D modeling, or anything else. It’s like gym equipment for the brain.

Body Count Rising: What are your immediate goals?

Harris Demel: I’d really love to make another movie. I’d also like to improve at investing in the stock market (I’ve been trading derivatives lately, utilizing advanced option strategies, which I find fascinating). And I recently invested in a couple startups, which I’d like to see or help succeed.

Body Count Rising: What other stories do you want to share with the world?

Harris Demel: I’ve got one about a filmmaker who gets interviewed by a world-famous blogger, and they fall madly and passionately in love, spending the rest of their days together. It’s in the horror genre.

I’m also working on two different scripts right now – One’s a heist story and the other’s mafia-based. I’m hoping either script reaches the point where they’re ready for the next step, where the mayhem of movie making can start all over again.

When “Blood Rush” wrapped, I was on the phone with my mom and she asked how things went. I said it was the worst experience in my life, and I couldn’t wait to do it again. So, if either of the scripts I’m working on (or a new one) feels done, I’ll go through the process again, but this time, hopefully with external financing, and hopefully without any actors hanging upside down. Though there is a scene in the mafia-based one where… Hmm. Well, next time, hopefully I’ll get external financing.

Body Count Rising: What advice would you give to someone wanting to burst on the scene and be a huge success like you have been?

Harris Demel: Oh, golly, Suzie… I’m really not sure about that “huge success” thing, but many people are enamored with filmmaking, and as soon as they scrape together a quasi-cohesive script, they believe they’re off to the races, flying out to the department store to try on various shapes of director hats. My advice for first-time filmmakers is to only make a movie if you have something to say, whether subtle or heavy.

Bounce your premise off of friends, family, and most importantly, strangers, and see how they react. If they light up with interest in seeing what you’re describing on the big screen, you at least have something with potential. Then write, and rewrite, and rewrite again. Use a professional script consultant or consultants and continue to rewrite until you shape your story into a GREAT script. Not a good or mediocre script, but a GREAT script. That gives you a chance to make an okay or a great movie, because with a bad script, you can only make a bad movie. Then run the script by friends, family and strangers until you confirm you’ve got a solid blueprint. And then, and only then, are you ready for the real mayhem to begin.

What could really help is speaking with someone who’s gone through the experience and survived, and I welcome any readers to contact me through the Facebook fan page with any questions. 

Keep up with Harris' next projects on his IMDb and follow "Blood Rush" on Twitter
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